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Maxentius – the face of the damned

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It is an inescapable fact that history is written by the victors, and this is rarely as clear as it is in the case of the conflict between Maxentius and Constantine at the turn of the 4th century (click the link just there for a post by Gordon Doherty on that character). Because of the clean sweep Constantine makes of the world he claims, from the reuniting of a divided empire, through the legitimization of Christianity, to the very creation of a New Rome that bore his own name, Constantine’s legacy is hard to ignore. It is all around us in the Church that owes its existence to him, and even in his images. Rome abounds with statues of the man, and his likenesses can be found from Africa to Britain, from Spain to Syria.

But what of his opponent, Maxentius? The simple fact is that during his reign, between 306 and 312 AD, there will have been many statues, busts and images of the emperor who ruled from Rome, yet in the way of things, the majority of those images will have been destroyed following his defeat and his damnation at the hands of the victor. So while we have a very good image of Constantine, derived from numerous surviving busts, we have to search a little harder for Maxentius.

I will not here dive into the unfortunate emperor’s legacy in terms of architecture, though that remains perhaps his greatest gift to us. The Temple of Venus and Rome in its final form, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Romulus, the great villa and circus on the Via Appia, the baths that were the last structure added to the complex of the Palatine, even much of what we can see of Rome’s walls… all the work of Maxentius.

But what of the man’s image? Few statues have survived. One intriguing possibility is the so called ‘Colossus’ of Constantine, which survives as impressive fragments in the Capitoline museum in Rome. The statue shows signs of having been reworked from a previous incarnation, and therefore it is highly likely to have previously been a likeness of Maxentius, or possibly the statue of his son Romulus that we are told was erected by the governor of Sardinia.

Other busts have survived the destruction of images, though they are few and sparsely spread. Only one full statue of the man has been found in the imperial sanctuary at Ostia Antica, and which is now in the museum there. Appropriately, given history’s viewpoint of the two men who contested the throne, and Constantine’s subsequent sainthood, Maxentius in this statue is portrayed in the very traditional Roman pose of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the Gods of Rome. Fascinatingly, despite the many changes in general attire over the three centuries preceding this date, the garb Maxentius wears, and the way he wears it, over his head, has not changed since the days of the republic, and Augustus, the very first emperor, is shown in exactly the same form three hundred years previously.

Other busts of Maxentius survive, including examples from the Dresden museum, the Louvre, Museo Torlonia, Stockholm museum, and a relief from the Arch of Constantine. The overall impression they create, for me at least, is of a pensive, intelligent and soft man, compared with the powerful, imperious and forthright image in statues of Constantine.

Our only remaining evidence comes from coins, a surprising number of which have survived intact, given the Roman habit of defacing coins of damned emperors. Once again, the image they portray seems austere and thoughtful, packed with Romanitas and tradition.

Maxentius, then, is represented in just six confirmed statues and friezes worldwide, and on a number of coins. By comparison, Constantine is represented in more than six busts and statues in the Capitoline Museum of Rome alone, let alone worldwide. Yet despite the paucity of images of the man who lost to Constantine, it is surprisingly easy to build a mental image and to endow it with qualities. This, then, is the man we should remember, the last pagan emperor to rule from the city of Rome, and the last man to expand its palaces. Hail and farewell, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. But his story is just beginning in a new saga from the pens of myself and Gordon Doherty, and the hardback of book 1: Sons of Rome, is out today and you can buy it here.

Written by SJAT

December 10, 2020 at 1:55 pm