Time really flew since I returned from my semester abroad, and I admit that I’m feeling a bit Rome-sick! Maybe it’s the chilly Boston weather and lack of Italian on the streets that make me miss the Eternal City.
Besides unpacking (and taking a lot of naps because of my jetlag), I spent my winter break re-acquainting myself with my home city. I went to see a special exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, a place I’ve loved since I was a child. I’m glad I made it to the museum before the exhibition closes on the 20th – it was a wonderful experience!
The exhibition was called “Ancient Nubia Now” and features artifacts uncovered during joint excavations between the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University in the 1910s and ’20s. Ancient Nubia was a civilization in Africa that covered what is now south Egypt and most of Sudan.
According to the information in the exhibit, several scholars have overlooked or even completely dismissed the artifacts, focusing instead on ancient Egypt. Several panels in the exhibit address the historical biases against the civilization and state how the museum strives to move ancient Nubia into the spotlight it was denied decades before.
I was blown away by the first room of the exhibit – so many objects that, despite being created millenia ago, are so well-preserved that they look like they were made recently! I loved the turquoise-blue pigments on the stone.
The main site of the early-20th century excavations in Sudan was Kerma, an ancient Nubian city founded in 2400 B.C.E. It was the center of the civilization for centuries and holds a plethora of artifacts and cultural remnants still being studied today.
The ancient Nubians rivaled the ancient Egyptians and fought with them in the mid-16th century B.C.E., after which the Egyptians conquered Kerma. Since then, the ancient Nubians were incorporated into ancient Egypt and adopted cultural influences from their neighbors to the north. The center of Nubian civilization was no longer at Kerma and was instead situated in a city called Meroe after Egypt occupied Nubia until the first millenium B.C.E.
Further in the exhibit, I read about how this assimilation may have contributed to negative opinions of the ancient Nubians in the past. The scholars who dismissed the findings at Kerma were more focused on ancient Egypt, the civilization which they saw as the more powerful body in Africa. Some did not even consider the ancient Nubians as a separate people from the ancient Egyptians because of the cultural incorporation. Furthermore, the Nubians were seen as enemies of the ancient Egyptians and were portrayed negatively in their records.
The Museum of Fine Arts seeks to rectify these past biases. There were videos of archaeologists speaking about present work on ancient Nubia and of people who were moved by this new perspective of an ancient civilization. There were photographs and excerpts telling the story of the excavations as well. I found these helpful in keeping these artifacts in the context of the interpretations of the findings.
One of the last things I saw in the exhibit made me smile. It was a display about the influence of Greco-Roman art on ancient Nubia. It was fascinating to see artifacts that looked similar to the things I saw while I was in Rome.
My experience in “Ancient Nubia Now” made appreciate the education I got in Rome last semester even more. In particular, I am grateful for the opportunities I had to explore so much of the ancient world in my Race in the Ancient Mediterranean class.
The ancient Etruscans formed a civilization in the Italian peninsula before ancient Romans did. They were eventually incorporated into ancient Rome, which became the civilization that is more commonly studied today. The ancient Nubians created an early civilization that was incorporated into ancient Egypt, which was seen as the major power in the academic spotlight. Both the Etruscans and the Nubians were overshadowed by the ancient Romans and ancient Egyptians, respectively.
The exhibit also reminded me of the temporary “Carthago” exhibit at the Colosseum. I think the ancient Nubians are similar to the ancient Carthaginians in that they were perceived as the “enemy” in another power’s eyes. Kerma was destroyed after the ancient Egyptians conquered Nubia, and Carthage was destroyed after the Romans won the Third Punic War. Both “Ancient Nubia Now” and “Carthago” display the remnants of the two obscured cultures from a lesser-known perspective.
Had I not gone to Rome, and had I not taken Race in the Ancient Mediterranean, I would not have been able to enjoy learning about ancient Nubia to this degree. I’ve gained not only more knowledge from a different point of view, but also more advanced critical thinking skills. I’m proud of how much I got out of my museum visit back home. I know someone who will be amused by adventures here as well.
This semester, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to learn about the ancient world through not only lectures in my Race in the Ancient Mediterranean class, but also through many class trips. The last trip of the semester was a visit to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, a museum a short minutes away from Termini station in the center of Rome.
Palazzo Massimo is a fairly recent branch of the Museo Nazionale Romano, the National Roman Museum. It was built in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. It was interesting to see ancient artifacts on display in such a new museum!
Our first stop in the museum was at the Rabirii relief. This 1st-century grave monument was found along the Via Appia, a road south of the ancient city. We can tell a lot about the lives of the people on the stone just by looking at their names. It looks like the two people on the left side of the relief had a special status in ancient Roman society as freedpeople, former slaves who had earned their freedom and lead their own, independent lives. There are Greek names written underneath the Latin on the stone, an indicator of the Rabirii’s origins in Greece.
We also a similar mix of Greek and Roman culture through a sculpture called the General of Tivoli. The General has the idealized physique of a Greek hero but the realistic head of a middle-aged man. Fascinating to see the two artistic tropes combine into one piece!
In the next room, we saw a familiar figure in a different role. I learned about Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome, in high school, but I had only read about him in the context of his military and political leadership. I got to see a different statue of him in his religious role as Pontifex Maximus, the highest priest of Rome.
One of the more famous pieces in the Palazzo Massimo is the bronze Boxer. Bronze statues are rare because historically, many of them have been melted down and so that the raw material could be repurposed. The Boxer has realistic wounds on his face that make him look like he was in a fight today.
Many of the artifacts in the Palazzo Massimo come from the estates of wealthy Romans, who displayed elaborate art in their gardens. The museum houses one of the only true Greek originals, found in the gardens of the Roman writer Sallust.
In the basement of the museum is an important find in the city: the Grottarossa Mummy, unearthed in Rome in 1964. The mummy is of an 8-year old girl from the 2nd century C.E. While my classmates and I initally thought she might have been Egyptian because the practice of mummification came from Egypt, the girl is a fully Roman mummy. DNA analyses conclude that she was likely native to the area.
The girl was found in an intricately-carved marble sarcophagus, currently displayed in the same exhibit. The coffin depicts scenes from the Aeneid, a famous epic poem written under Augustus. The main character on the sarcophagus is not Aeneas, the hero the poem is named after. Instead, the carvings show his son, the boy Iulus, participating in a hunt.
Near the mummy and the sarcophagus are also the objects found in the girl’s tomb. She was from a wealthy family that could afford not only to mummify her, but to do so with elegant jewelry. Right next to the necklace and amulets was the girl’s childhood doll, which would have been left at a special temple when she reached puberty.
We went back upstairs to look at some earthenware and glassware from around the Roman Empire. Professor Bessi told us about how many of the objects we saw in front of us in the room were Gallic versions based on ancient Roman designs. This imitation craftsmanship was widespread throughout the empire, even reaching parts of Africa as well. Glass was also a commonly-reproduced material throughout the empire.
The Gauls were not the only ones to make imitations of classical crafts – the Romans also made copies of Greek art. The Discus Thrower is a famous example in the museum. It is a copy-of-a-copy of an ancient Greek bronze statue that is thought to be lost.
We also saw some artifacts recovered from the sunken Nemi ships. Unlike statues like the Boxer on land, bronze pieces submerged in shipwrecks were not prone to getting melted down and thus were preserved underwater. It was interesting seeing so many bronze animals holding rings in their mouths while similar statues on land might have had their material repurposed above sea level!
In class, we learned about ancient Roman interactions with the people of Africa. What I found fascinating and noteworthy in studying these relations is the fact that from the late 2nd century to the early 3rd century C.E., Rome was ruled by an emperor from a region called Leptis Magna, which is in modern-day Libya. His name was Septimius Severus, and he was the founder of the Severan dynasty in ancient Roman history. Professor Bessi said that he spoke Punic, the language of the ancient Carthaginians in north Africa, as his first language and spoke Latin with a Punic accent in Rome.
Further along in our tour of the museum, we saw another remnant of ancient Roman interaction with Africa. There was a sculpture of a woman in Egyptian garments and headdress. She represents Egypt, which became a province of Rome in the beginning of the empire. I’m thankful for her choice of attire, because I can figure out who she is!
We saw a reprise of the Greek hero physique in a statue of Antoninius Pius, who ruled the empire in the mid-1st century C.E. He is depicted with an ideal body and a proportional face. It seems that he is immortalized in the prime of his life in this grand likeness of him.
In the last room we saw on our trip, there were intricately-carved sarcophagi. I was blown away by the detail on the so-called Muses Sarcophagus. It must have taken ages to carve!
Professor Bessi stopped at a very important artifact for our class: the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus. We learned about the ancient Christians and how they interacted with the Romans in class, and I was surprised to see Christian iconography on the coffin. One of the main challenges in reconstructing ancient Christian history is the lack of iconographic evidence due to the people’s aversion to depicting themselves and their faith at the time.
The carvings on this sarcophagus are invaluable to tracing the Christian presence in Rome before Christianity became widespread in the empire in the 3rd century onward. Not to far away from the massive piece was a smaller work of art depicting Jesus as Orpheus, a character from classical myth known for his ability to move anyone with his music. He is known as “Iesus Docente,” which roughly translates as “Jesus as Teacher.” Interesting to see Roman myth and Christian beliefs overlap!
I was sad to leave the museum after this visit. This was my last class trip for Race in the Ancient Mediterranean, and my last class trip at Temple Rome. I enjoyed learning through a very active, in-person perspective during my time abroad, and I will look fondly on my photos and written reflections in the future to relive these experiences.
I love visiting the ancient sites of Rome. There is something special about seeing such famous places up close, and I am very lucky to learn so much about them through my classes at Temple Rome.
One of my favorite class trips this semester was a visit to a classic sight in the city: the Colosseum! I’ve been to the Colosseum before, but I had never been inside the site before for the trip. The Colosseum houses plenty of ancient Roman artifacts in its internal displays, but for our visit, we got to see a special exhibit on a different people: the Carthaginians!
In the ancient world, the Carthaginians were from their home city of Carthage in north Africa, where Tunisia is today. Carthage was originally settled by the ancient Phoenicians, who were from the Fertile Cresent area in the middle east. The city developed into the center of a major power starting from the 7th century B.C.E.
From late September this fall to the end of March next year, the Colosseum is housing a temporary exhibit on ancient Carthage. What perfect timing for our Race in the Ancient Mediterranean class! We learned about the Carthaginians in October and went to see the exhibit in early November.
Before this visit, I thought I had already gotten a close look at the Colosseum from the outside. Once I had stepped inside, I was amazed by how big the place really is!
We learned from Professor Bessi that this place was not always called the Colosseum. It was known as the Flavian Amphitheater in antiquity. The part of the word “amphitheater” comes from the ancient Greek word amphi, which means “on both sides.” This is different from an ordinary theater in the ancient world, which was had all the seats arranged in hemisphere around the stage. The Colosseum is an amphitheater because of it had seats all around (i.e., on both sides of) the center, where the spectacles took place.
The “Flavian” part of the place comes from the imperial dynasty that constructed the amphitheater. The Colosseum was constructed after 70 C.E. and took ten years to build under the emperor Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty. It was not the first amphitheater in the Roman world: the earliest one is in Pompeii, which had an amphitheater from 80 B.C.E.! The place was the center for all sorts of visual entertainment, including parades, animal fights, and the famed gladiator games. The Romans added underground structures to the center later on and could flood the space for recreations of naval battles.
The spectators of these events sat in different places depending on their social class. The high-ranking senators got the best spots in the front with reserved seats (complete with specific names carved into them) while average Romans had to find their own seats. The Colosseum could hold 600,000 to 800,000 people for a single event! The games stopped after the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century C.E., and after that, the massive amphitheater was used for defense in the Middle Ages and for its building material to construct the nearby Piazza Venezia during the Renaissance.
What a view of the theater!
We began our tour of the exhibit with a discussion on the Phoenicians, whose name derives from an ancient term meaning “red people,” based on the myth of the sun getting too close of the people of the region and giving them quite the tan (and, I can imagine, quite a red sunburn). They were an active seafaring people who settled across the ancient Mediterranean. Sicily and north Africa were major sites in their travels.
Looking around the exhibit.
The Phoenicians were highly sophisiticated craftspeople. They were especially famous for glass and were one of the first civilizations to mass produce goods for trade. Purple dye was another famous Phoenician export. The color, called Tyrian purple after the settlement of Tyre, was made from crushing snail shells and was very expensive to produce. Because of this, only the wealthiest people in the ancient would could to wear purple clothing, and the color purple became associated with power and royalty.
We saw collections of artifacts excavated from sites associtated with ancient Carthage on display through the entire exhibit. What fascinated me the most is the number of museums involved in creating this exhibition. There were so much intricate art, pottery, and jewelry on display! And all of these were on loan from different museums across Europe and Africa!
The exhibit also included a lot of digital content as well. We saw the structure of Carthage change through time on a screen in the hallway. We also saw a video about both land-based and underwater excavations at major sites. It’s interesting to see how people have interacted with Carthage in the past and the present.
Part of the special exhibition featured interpretations of Carthage in more recent media. One of the famous impacts of the ancient Carthaginians was the story of Dido, the queen of Carthage in the ancient Roman epic, the Aeneid. I read parts the Aeneid for AP Latin class, and one of the sections was about Dido. There was a painting inspired by her story on display in the hallway.
Unfortunately, the Carthaginian queen’s story does not have a happy ending. She is distraught after Aeneas, the main character of the epic, leaves Carthage to found Rome. Dido curses Aeneas and his descendants, saying that in the future, the Romans and Carthaginians will never be friends. Publius Vergilius Maro, the author of the Aeneid, shifted the blame to this episode to explain the real-life tensions between Rome and Carthage.
Taking the blame for tensions is not the only blow to the Carthaginians’ reputation among their neighbors in the ancient Mediterranean. The Romans also supported the Greek claim that the Carthaginians sacrificed their own children. This was a negative stereotype attached to the Carthaginians through their existence. From evidence found at tophets, open-air spaces dedicated to holding grave monuments for children, it is probable that the Carthaginians practiced substitution sacrifices, in which they sacrificed animals instead of children to their gods.
The Carthaginians were polytheistic civilization with deities analogous to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. A major god in their religion was Baal Hammon, who was like Zeus or Jupiter in Classical mythology. Many inscriptions on the monuments in Carthaginian tophets are dedicated to Baal.
Another interesting figure in Carthaginian culture was the god Asclepius, who was the god of healing. There is a stone with a trilingual inscription to the deity. There are dedications to the god in ancient Greek, Latin, and Punic (the language of the Carthaginians). The god is referred to as “Asklepius” in ancient Greek, as “Aescepius” in Latin, and “Eshmun” in Punic on the tablet.
The Carthaginians believed in an afterlife, as seen from their funerary art. Professor Bessi pointed out a special image in the exhibit. The rooster in the art represents the human soul travelling to the fortified city of the deceased, where the spirits of the ancestors are waiting. The picture was displayed above a collection of grave goods. Like the Greeks and Romans, the Carthaginians buried their deceased with pottery and other objects.
We looked at the depiction of the Phoenician afterlife through the picture of the rooster (symbol of the soul), the fortified city (land of the deceased), and the spirits of the ancestors (on the left).
It was interesting to see the cultural aspect of the ancient Carthaginians up close. In my Roman history classes in high school and at Holy Cross, I had only learned about the Carthaginians through readings about the Punic Wars, where were a series of three conflicts between Rome and Carthage that lasted for over 100 years. What I didn’t learn was the fact that there were trade agreements between the two civilizations before the conflict over Sicily that started the wars.
A key Carthaginian whose name has been remembered in history is Hannibal Barca, who was a formidable general during the Second Punic War. He is famous for his cunning military strategies and for leading an army of elephants against the alps. We saw a bust of Hannibal in the Colosseum. Fitting, considering what a spectacle that event must have been!
Carthage fell at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E. The major Roman rhetoric against Carthage at the time was from the end of Cato the Elder’s speeches, which is often abbreviated to the famous “Carthago delenda est.” (Latin for “Carthage must be destroyed.”) The city was razed to the ground and salt sprinkled on the land to prevent rebuilding. Carthage became a province of Rome later on.
However, the Carthaginians lived on in various forms of media. We saw clips from movies and excerpts of songs based on the Carthaginians on our way out of the exhibit.
I caught a beautiful glimpse of the Roman Forum from the balcony just outside the bookstore. (You bet I bought some souvenirs from the exhibit! Limited time merchandise.) What a beautiful day to take in the sights of Rome!
I took one last glimpse at the “Carthago” sign outside of the entrance before leaving to catch the Metro back to campus. I am grateful for Professor Bessi for giving us this special opportunity to see a temporary exhibit. Cato the Elder may have constantly declared that Carthage must be destroyed, but here it has been remembered and its culture and people better understood thanks to the exhibit.
As I settle into the second half of the semester (how time flies!), I would say that my favorite part of studying abroad is getting to learn through direct experience. I love learning new things both in and outside of the classroom.
For my Race in the Ancient Mediterranean course this semester, I am learning about the ancient world through not only examining the histories of understudied people in the ancient Roman Empire, but also through seeing artifacts with my own eyes in Rome.
On our second trip of the semester, we went to the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini in Italian) on top of the Capitoline Hill. The museums are the oldest in Rome, built in the 15th century during the Renaissance, when ancient Greek and Rome were the main themes of European culture and art. The first exhibits were made of bronze statues that the Pope offered to the city of Rome, and from here came the museums as they stand today.
I was in awe even before I got to the museum. Instead of heading to the classroom that Thursday morning, I took the Metro to the Colosseo stop and admired the huge monuments all around me. In addition to seeing the Colosseum outside the Metro stop, I caught a few glimpses of the Roman forum on my walk to the Capitoline Hill.
I found Professor Bessi and my classmates on top of the hill (which was not too taxing for my legs; all the stairs at Holy Cross have prepared me well for my semester abroad). After getting into the museum for free thanks to the Musei in Comune (MIC) cards we got at the beginning of the semester, we walked into the courtyard.
We looked at a collection of stone slabs with images of women carved into them. Professor Bessi said that these were originally from a temple in the Campus Martis that was erected in the memory of the emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire in the 2nd century C.E. The carvings came from the base of the temple and represent the different provinciae (plural of the Latin word provincia, from which he get our word “province”) around the empire.
Hadrian was known for being a Roman emperor who spent little time in Rome. He was fascinated by other cultures, especially Greek culture, and strove to integrate even the most remote provinces in the empire and instill a sense of common Roman identity among all the people. The temple honor him captures this aspect of his personality by featuring each of the provinces, represented by women (nouns have genders in Latin, and provincia is feminine) depicted in the Greek style.
We headed indoors and stopped at the massive Palazzo di Conservatori. I was awestruck by the gorgeous paintings that lined the entire room from wall to wall. There was not a single part of the room that was not decorated with art.
The room, whose name means “the Conservator’s Palace” in Italian, was built in the 16th century. All the artwork in the room was inspired by the ancient Romans and features scenes from Roman history as told by the ancient historian Livy, who wrote about the origins and history of Rome in his Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Founding of the City) in the 1st century B.C.E.
All around the room, I saw painting of the foundation stories of Rome. I felt like I was going back in time, back to the first time I saw Latin in middle school. One of the first stories I read in class was the myth of the twins Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by a she-wolf. Romulus, after whom Rome is named, is said to have founded the city in 753 B.C.E.
I learned more about the earliest days of Rome as I continued into more advanced levels of Latin in high school. Now, as a college student, I got to see all of what I learned in front of me!
The art depicting the story of Rome continued into the next room, where we stopped to look at one of the bronze pieces gifted by the pope in the earliest days of the museum. The bust of Lucius Junius Brutus, the leader of an aristocratic revolt that drove out the last king of Rome, represents a major shift in Roman history: the shift from monarchy to republic in 509 B.C.E. The bronze portrait of him, however, is certainly not from the 6th century B.C.E. It was much more likely made centuries after in a retelling of the tale.
Another wave of nostalgia hit me as we walked into the next room and stopped at a piece that my teenage self would have recognized from her books. I got to see the famous Lupa Capitolina (Capitoline Wolf) with my own eyes! The detail on the piece is remarkable: such a sharp contrast between the roughness of the she-wolf’s fur and Romulus’ and Remus’ skin!
These were things I didn’t notice when I first saw a picture of the Capitoline Wolf in my seventh-grade Latin textbook. Eight years later, I am going on a field trip to the Capitoline Museums, where I can see the sculpture in person!
It is amazing to see that story of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf has lingered for so long after 753 B.C.E. What amazed me more was the story about this piece that Professor Bessi told us at the museum. It turns out that the Lupa Captiolina did not always look the way it does today. In fact, it was really only the wolf! The twins were not added until the 16th century C.E.!
It was thought that the wolf was an ancient piece while the smaller sculptures of Romulus and Remus were Renaissance additions. There was a conference years ago at which chemical analyses on the base of the piece revealed that the she-wolf was sculpted in the middle ages!
In the next room, we saw a piece that was actually ancient: a Greek krater (a vessel for mixing wine) dating back to the 7th century B.C.E. The Aristonothos krater, as it is called because of the potter’s signature visible in the ancient Greek inscription, depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic about Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. I had read about Odysseus outwitting a giant one-eyed cyclops when I read the Odyssey in class, but seeing the scene on a vase in front of me was a different experience in itself!
The vase was uncovered at a site where the ancient Etruscans used to live. The Etruscans were a dominant force in central and northern Italy before 753 B.C.E., and they engaged in a lot of trade with the ancient Greeks. Greek pottery was in high demand for the ancient Etruscans, and through the acquirement of physical goods came the spread of Greek language, culture, and religion.
The inscription and imagery on the Aristonothos krater captures this perfectly. And it shows that ancient people had a wicked sense of humor – the cyclops met his downfall because he drank his wine unmixed, and now he is on a vessel designed for mixing wine!
We headed toward the recently-renovated part of the museum, where the original bronze statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius is on display. There is a replica of this piece at the top of the Capitoline Hill, just outside the museum.
Professor Bessi mentioned that when the statue was uncovered in the Middle Ages, people thought it was a sculpture of the emperor Constantine, who ruled the Roman Empire over a century after Marcus Aurelius did. The funniest part about this room is the fact there is actually a statue of the real Constantine across from the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius and the marble sculpture of the lion and the horse!
The newly-renovated part of the museum also houses some ancient ruins found in the area. There are pieces of an ancient temple dedicated to the Capitoline Triad – the gods and goddesses Jupiter (or Jove), Juno, and Minerva. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of the excavation process in the middle of a modern renovation of the Capitoline Museums. There is even a wall of the Capitolium Jovis (a temple for Jupiter; there was one of these at every Roman colony) standing inside with a smaller-scale replica beside it!
After our walk through the remnants of the temple, we visited the Horti Maecenatiani, or the Maecenean Gardens. Maeceneas was a friend of the emperor Augustus in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. and was known for his wealth and love of art. He was also involved with the ministry of culture and displayed lots of Greek sculptures in his gardens on the Esquiline Hill. A lot of the statues are Roman copies of Greek originals, but some of the pieces are made of real Pentelic marble, which comes from an area north of Athens.
One of the most memorable statues for me was a sculpture of the mythological satyr Marsyas, who made the grave mistake of boasting that his music was greater than that of Apollo, the god of music. As his punishment, he was skinned alive. I found the contrast between the pale marble of his skin and the sheer redness of his raw flesh very striking. It really gets the message across: don’t be a braggart!
In addition to the wealth of statues in Maecenas’ gardens, there is also a large collection of jewelry in the museum. The golden pieces and their sparkling gemstones were in such good condition that I thought they were modern accessories in the fashion district of modern Rome! You can hardly tell that they’re from the first century C.E. And it wasn’t only people who wore these: the ancient Romans used jewelry to decorate pillars as well!
We walked through the basement of the museum and looked at some gravestones. The inscriptions were still legible on most of them, and I had a lot of fun practicing my ancient Greek and Latin! According to Professor Bessi, Greek was the universal written language of all the ethicities in ancient Rome. We spent a longer time looking at the gravestone of a Jewish woman who had the majority of her funerary inscriptions in Greek but the last part of it in Hebrew. Amazing to see cultures overlap!
We were in for quite a treat when we got to see the Roman Forum from a good vantage point in the museum! I loved seeing all of the space outside the museum from one spot! It was my first time seeing the Forum, and it was a wonderful experience to process the breathtaking view!
Our last stop was at another famous piece in the Capitoline Museums: the Dying Gaul. The ancient Gauls were a Celtic people who lived north of Italy in the alps and to the west where France is today. Julius Caesar waged war against several Gallic tribes and recorded his battles in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries Regarding the Gallic Wars) in the 1st century B.C.E. I read part of Caesar’s work in high school. I was excited to see the artwork in person!
For a decade, the Gauls were his enemies, yet he chose to respect them by featuring a piece depicting them gracefully in defeat. The Dying Gaul is a Roman copy of a Greek original thought to have been commissioned by the King of Pergamum, an area to the east, centuries before Caesar was born. The man in the sculpture is identifiable as a Gaul by his hairstyle and jewelry around his neck. He is about to collapse, but keeps most of his composure despite the pain of defeat.
It fascinates me how of all the ways Caesar could have represented his fallen enemies, he chose to display this piece in his private estate. No caricature of the Gauls or humiliating trophies in this statue! Talk about sportmanship!
I left the museum very pleased with what I saw. For years, I have been studying the historic and cultural contexts of the ancient world, but have very rarely seen them outside of paragraphs of text. Seeing all the artwork in three dimensions and with my own eyes – now, that’s what I call an enriching experience! I cannot imagine another place that can offer such a fulfilling expansion of my knowledge in this way as the Capitoline Museums.
Ever since I was in elementary school, I loved going on field trips. Museums are some of my favorite destinations in any place, and I was excited to explore one on my first class trip of the semester!
I usually have three-hour lectures on Thursday mornings, but this Thursday, I went to the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (National Etruscan Museum of Villia Giulia) with my classmates. I am taking a class called “Race in the Ancient Mediterranean” this semester. I am excited to be studying the Classics in Rome, and I have been looking forward to this course since I first learned about it while applying to study abroad.
My classmates and I met our professor at the start of class and walked ten minutes to the museum. Temple Rome’s campus is in a very convenient spot – not too far from cultural gems such as the Villa Giulia!
The Villa Giulia was built as a suburban residence for Pope Julius III in the 16th century. The Via Flaminia (which is the long road behind Temple Rome and very close to the museum) was an ancient street that lead into the city, but had some parts of it built in rural areas. The Villa was meant to be a comfortable, colorful dwelling away from the chaos of downtown Rome for the Pope.
However, the pope’s palace on the Via Flaminia was reclaimed by the state and repurposed into a museum for artifacts attributed to the Etruscans, an ancient people who lived in central and northern Italy before Rome was founded. The land they cultivated was called “Etruria” and spanned from the Arno River in the north (around where Florence is today) to the Tiber River in modern Rome.
Their civilization was a major independent power from the 8th to the 6th centuries B.C.E., but the cities were scattered and never unified into what we might consider a “nation” today. They were eventually “Romanized” and fully absorbed into the Roman civlization by the 2nd century B.C.E.
Many major geographic features of Italy are named after significant aspects of the ancient Etruscan civlization. The body of water to the east is the Adriatic Sea, named after the ancient port of Adria in the northeast, and the western sea is the Tyrrhean Sea, which comes from Thyrrenoi, an ancient Greek word used to describe the Etruscans in the context of piracy (a negative stereotype the ancient Greeks and Romans held about the people). The Romans called the Etruscans the Tusci, which is where the modern region of Tuscany gets its name. The Etruscans themselves, however, called themselves the Rasenna.
After looking at the map and discussing the possible oriental (i.e., from Asia Minor, where modern-day Turkey is today) origins of the Etruscan people and their culture, we looked at ancient Etruscan artifacts. Many of the objects on display come from tombs, which were sealed after funerals and kept away from corrosive elements outside of the sites.
Wealthier Etruscans could afford more lavish grave goods such as chariots and intricate bronzework for their tombs. Some rich families even buried their dead with ancient Greek pottery, which was highly-prized by the Etruscans. There was a lot of interaction with the ancient Greeks through trade. Ancient Athens in particular benefitted exchanging pottery for goods from the mineral-rich Etruria.
The Etruscans had their own special type of pottery called “bucchero” (a Portuguese term that does not have origins in the ancient world, interestingly enough!) that saw vases turn black in the kiln, but the reddish-orange vases from Greece were especially valuable. Along with pottery, the ancient Greeks also had an influence on Etruscan religion, which involves the worship of deities similar to those from ancient Greece. The imagery decorating the traded goods is a sign of cultural exchange in the ancient world.
In the basement of the museum are more reconstructed tombs, this time from specific burial mounds called tumuli. I’m fascinated by how the archaeologists and curators managed to recreate the atmosphere and setup of a tomb outside of Rome in a modern museum setting. Walking into these reconstructions is like walking into the past. Only the past is ageless, with how the recreations are displayed today.
Through a brief lecture on artwork in tombs, I learned that death was not necessarily a dismal time of grief. Some tombs had lively patterns and colors painted in them, with scenes of pleasure such as feasting and other cheerful social events meant to celebrate the life of the deceased. What an interesting combination of contrasting concepts!
At the end of the hallway on the first floor is a famous artifact in Rome: the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. The terracotta piece is modeled after a sculpture and portrays two figures, one male and one female, reclining. They are dressed in traditional clothing and wear the enigmatic “Archaic smile” that was common in art from the 6th-century B.C.E. The stylized features and outfits imply that there was artistic influence from Asia Minor.
The Etruscans were very different from the early Romans in the region in not only the places they drew inspiration from, but also in their social structures and cultural norms. The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is significant in that it exemplifies the trope of representing male and female figures together: Etruscan women joined men in pleasurable social events such as symposia (similar to the ancient Greek symposium, except in Greece, only men took part in the activity).
Early Greeks and Romans had a negative view of the Etruscans because they saw their women as “too free.” Ancient Greek and Roman women were excluded from social events; a woman who was present at a symposium was never a wife of one of the men at the event. Women at such events were dancers or learned conversationalists who entertained guests. None of them were related to the men at the symposium.
The Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Villa Giulia is one of two of its kind: the other existing piece is in the Louvre in Paris. I think I might go see its counterpart in France one day. I’m curious to compare and contrast the two myself.
I went outside of the exhibit halls during a short break and looked at the nymphaeum, an open area resembling a grotto, where nymphs would be found in ancient mythology. I was stunned by the beautiful mosaic on the ground surrounded by shrubbery and complex columns and arches. What a sight!
The final parts of our museum visit took place in the halls of Greek vases behind the Sarcophagus of the Spouses before we headed upstairs. On the second floor is a wide exhibit about the ancient Etruscan language. Our professor told us that Etruscan was not like ancient Greek or Latin, which are categorized as Indo-European languages in the linguistics family tree.
However, the ancient Etruscans modeled their alphabet from the ancient Greek one, which in turn was adapted from the ancient Phoenician alphabet. The Latin alphabet, which many western European cultures use today, also comes from the Etruscan alphabet. The challenge lies in not transliterating ancient Etruscan, but instead in identifying the grammar and syntax from the very little the Etruscans left behind in writing. I asked my professor why this is the case, and I learned that because the Etruscans were “Romanized” later on, they adopted and wrote in Latin instead of their former main language.
We finished our visit with a discussion about the “contrast” and “otherness” with which the ancient Romans perceived the Etruscans and people who were “not Roman.” The ancient Etruscans were technologically advanced with their craftsmanship compared to other people in Italy in the 8th century B.C.E. and had complex religious rituals. The Romans took their ritual of using animals to fortell omens, whether through searching the intestines and livers of sacrificial animals or watching the flight patterns of birds, from the Etruscans.
Yet the Romans did not want to be as “primative” as the Etruscans, whose art and culture were different from those of other tribes in the area. Etruscan women were seen as “too strong” and “loose” compared to the “proper” Roman ladies who stayed out of social events, and Etruscan men were considered too lavish and “soft” because of a stereotypical tendency toward luxuries like jewerly (a large collection of which was on display in the museum) compared to the “harder” and “proper” Roman men.
This broader contrast in itself was good food for thought as I headed back to campus for my next class. It is fascinating how someone can want to be both like and unlike another who is perceived as “other” or even as a complete opposite. My first instinct was to react with confusion because I initially perceived the concept as a paradox, but after I took my professor’s advice about thinking more deeply about the visit for the next class, I think I’ve learned how to start processing seemingly-contradictory information. I am looking forward to writing my reflection paper about this visit and sharing my ideas in class next time.