Petronia Justa and Slavery in Herculaneum
In the excavation of the House of Bicentenary along the Decumanus Maximus in Herculaneum carried out in the 1930s, a collection of eighteen documents was found which gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of slaves in the Roman period. The eighteen wax tablets were part of a lawsuit and comprise the testimonies and names of people who gave witness as to whether a woman called Petronia Justa was an ingenua, a freeborn woman, or not. From two of the tablets, we can date the lawsuit to the AD 70s, though we don’t know when it began and, frustratingly, we don’t how it ended. The fragmentary evidence that we do have, however, provides us with precious insights into the lives of a group of individuals who lived just before the eruption and who may well have been lost their lives in it.
From the tablets we can piece together the lives of Petronia Vitalis, the slave of Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his aristocratic wife Calatoria Themis. The tablets indicate that Petronia Vitalis was manumitted and moved away from the Petronius household, though she left her daughter, Petronia Justa behind. It seems that Petronia Justa remained with Calatoria and Petronius for a while, until Teleforus, a freedman who had been Calatoria’s childhood tutor, negotiated Justa’s return to Vitalis. After the death of Vitalis and Petronius had died, it seems that Calatoria had brought a lawsuit against Justa, claiming that she was born before her mother, Vitalis, was freed, making her a slave. Five of the testimonia recorded on the wax tablets swore that Justa was born after her mother’s manumission, making her an ingenua, and two claimed the contrary. Having brought their testimony to a Herculaneum magistrate, who deemed he didn’t have the authority to decide whether Justa were free or not, the case was sent to Rome to be heard, presumably in the Basilica Julia. As is so often the case with antiquity, our evidence is limited and we can’t know if the trial took place in Rome, as we can’t know if Justa and Calatoria survived the eruption.
The case, however, is central to understanding slavery in a small city like Herculaneum. One of the things we can gather from the case is that freedwomen could become successful. Slaves normally paid for their own manumission and, while it wouldn’t be surprising that freedmen involved in commerce made enough money to pay for their freedom, it is interesting that the same applies to women. Indeed, I would postulate that Calatoria may have brought the case not just to regain Justa as her slave but to claim the wealth which Vitalis had passed on to her daughter.
The Justa case also demonstrates that it was hard to determine a person’s status because there was clearly not an established way of declaring someone’s manumission. We know that slaves who paid for their manumission had to pay a five percent tax, which suggests that there were bureaucratic processes in place. We also know, in the Republican period, that masters declared the manumission of their slaves in front of a magistrate. Clearly, with the passage of time, these procedures subsided, at least in small cities, such that it required the testimony of witnesses to establish Justa’s status. This seems incredible given the importance of the difference between the freed and the enslaved under Roman law.
Another interesting insight to be gained from the case is that manumission didn’t end the relationship between slaves and their erstwhile owners. It seems extraordinary to me that Petronia Vitalis left her daughter, Justa, behind to live with Stephanus and Calatoria and that Justa was said to be loved by them like a daughter. Indeed, it took negotiations to remove Justa from the Petronius household, presumably because of their affection for her. This close relationship between masters with, at least, their household slaves, is partly the reason for which we have a problem in determining the status of Justa.
Walking through the newly opened, extraordinary House of the Bicentenary, it is hard not to think of Petronia and her fate. The scale of the house and its expensive décor emphasises the wealth of the owner, who may well have been Justa. It’s not hard to see how Calatoris, however much affection she had for her, would want to reclaim Justa.
The Ubiquity and Power of the Phallus
In 1819 Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, visited Pompeii with his wife and son and remained so scandalised by the number of phalluses and frescoes depicting sexual acts that he decreed they be removed to a room accessible only to scholars. This gave rise to the collection of seemingly obscene artefacts in the ‘Secret Cabinet’ which swiftly became so popular that the entrance to it was blocked off in 1849 and it remained closed until 2000 (in the 1960s those seen to be mature and respectable were allowed to visit the room for a fee).
Among the most striking and common objects in the Secret Cabinet are artefacts which depict phalluses, reflecting their ubiquity in the Roman world. They were found on street and shop signs, on candelabra and oil lamps, everywhere in the private and public spheres. In order to get a sense of why this is we can turn to the word fascinare which means to bewitch or cast spells; it is where we get the word fascination from and, in turn, it derives from the word fascinum or phallus.
The phallus, through its ability to beget, was deemed so powerful that it could protect vulnerable places and people. Children in the Roman world wore phallus rings and wore necklaces, bullae, which enclosed phallic amulets. Likewise, homes were protected by assortments of phallic tintinnabula, as well as statues of Priapus, the god of the membrum virile, which stood guard in their gardens. The proliferation of graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum depicting fascina and obscenities can also, to an extent, be explained by the need for ordinary people facing difficult lives to try to ward off bad luck.
Phalluses were also used to protect people whose success would induce the envy of others and, through this, ill will. This politics of envy can be seen in Catullus Carmen V when he exhorts Lesbia to:
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred,
then another thousand, then a second hundred,
then yet another thousand more, then another hundred.
Then, when we have made many thousands,
we will mix them all up so that we don't know,
and so that no one (malus – evil person) be jealous (invidere) of us when he finds out
how many kisses we have shared.
Catullus wants to share thousands of kisses with his beloved Lesbia but is conscious that, if the exact number were made to known to others, they would wish them harm out of envy. The fascinum protected people against this envy because its singularity attracted attention away from envious glances. For this reason, the triumphant general driving through the streets of Rome as the embodiment of success added fascina to his chariot to ward off the evil intent of those in the crowd who typically shouted obscenities at him.
Not surprisingly the phallus was associated with sexual acts. In some Pompeiian graffiti, the fascinum becomes the agent or symbol of the sex a man would have. One graffito says ‘I am drawing the phallus that will have Clymenene’ (describe phallum habebit Clymenene). This connection with sex can have more pernicious connotations as the fascinum, with its power, can be a weapon that its wielder can use to attack others. Priapus is able to protect houses because of his power to assault those who might threaten them.
A more humorous example of the phallus being used as an instrument of attack can be seen in a well-known fresco in the Secret Cabinet which depicts Victoria being driven in a chariot by a donkey who is assaulting a lion. This has sometimes been depicted as an imaginative representation of Octiavius’ victory over Antony at the Battle of Actium, as the former reportedly saw a donkey called Nikon (victory) being driven by a man called Euthychus (prosper) just before that battle. Antony, in turn, was associated with Hercules, who was associated with lions. In this formulation, victory is represented as assault and the phallus is the power that enabled this domination to occur.
With its power to ward off evil, it is obvious why the fascinum was seen to bring good luck. A well known phallus inscribed with the words Hic Habitat Felicitas (Properity/Happiness lives here) adorned the walls of a bakery for the same reasons that another baker put a fascinum on his oven – in the hopes that the phallus would bring them good fortune and wealth.
In the same vein, the entrances to the House of the Vetii and the newly discovered House of Leda, were decorated with showy frescoes of Priapus weighing his membrum virile. The owners of these houses both wanted to ensure that good fortune would reign in their houses and show off how much wealth they had accrued through their good luck, hence Priapus weighing his phallus to see how much money had been earned.
The sensibilities of Francis I, who deemed these fascina obscene, and the giggling tourists visiting the Secret Cabinet, all miss the point. The phallus was ubiquitous in the Roman world not because it was rude but because it helped people navigate their lives, giving them hope that they can be protected from bad things, that their houses and children can be safe and just maybe that they can earn a lot of money.
Byron and Shelley in Italy
“Italia! oh, Italia! thou who hast
The fatal gift of Beauty …”
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, XLII)
It is a curious fact that the three greatest poets of the second phase of the Romantic movement in England were all in Italy at the same time. Lord Byron spent the years from 1816 to 1823 in Italy, before sailing from Genoa to add his support to the Greek War of Independence, dying in Missolonghi in April 1824. Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Italy from March 1818 until his death in a boating accident in the bay of La Spezia in July 1822. John Keats spent the last four and a half months of his short life in Naples and Rome, dying in an apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps in March 1821 (the apartment is now the Keats-Shelley Museum).
Keats came to Italy as the last hope of a cure for his tuberculosis and was too sick to write any important poetry during these last few months. He is now buried in the same cemetery as Shelley in Rome but had no direct contact with the other two poets during these last few months, even though Shelley, having heard of his illness, had invited him to come and stay with his family in Pisa. After his death Shelley wrote by way of tribute one of the greatest elegies in the English language, Adonais. (Fans of the Rolling Stones may remember that Mick Jagger read stanzas from this poem in the 1969 concert in Hyde Park dedicated to Brian Jones.) When Shelley’s drowned body was washed up on the shore near Viareggio it was identified among other things by the discovery of an edition of Keats’s poetry in his jacket pocket. But the last time the two poets had actually met in person was in London in February 1818.
The lives of Byron and Shelley, by contrast, are closely intertwined and their friendship is one of the most important literary relationships of all time. What makes this relationship so fascinating is the fact that they were such very different characters. The difference is not just in obvious matters like the idealistic optimism of the one (Shelley) versus the fatalistic pessimism of the other (Byron), one’s love of digression and the other’s instinct for single-minded focus; there are also questions of daily habit, like Byron’s nocturnal tendencies and Shelley’s early rising, or such facts as Byron’s love of swimming and Shelley’s inability to do so. The surprise really is that the relationship was so long-lasting and so fruitful.
The fruits are clear enough. There are the themes that they explored together, such as the myth of Prometheus (also, of course, taken up by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein) and the imprisonment of the poet Tasso. There are their explorations of certain poetic forms, some of them taken from Italian literature, such as terza rima and ottava rima. There is the shared interest in such authors as Aeschylus, Dante, Ariosto, Milton and Rousseau. And it is clear from their correspondence and from the works themselves that their encounters directly stimulated some of their greatest poetry, such as Byron’s Don Juan and Shelley’s conversation poem, Julian and Maddalo, both begun immediately after their second important encounter in Venice in 1818 and both drawing inspiration from their conversations.
The connections between the two poets were not only literary. There were complicated family ties between them both as well. Shelley’s wife, Mary, had a step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who, in the spring of 1816, had a brief affair with Byron, shortly before his departure for mainland Europe, which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Allegra. It was Claire’s agonised decision that her illegitimate daughter had a better chance of a happy future if brought up by her aristocratic father that led the Shelley family in 1818 to set out for Italy. The child was handed over to Byron that same year in Venice, where he had been living since 1816. As it turned out, the decision was to prove a fatal one for the poor child, who would die in a convent outside Ravenna (the city Byron moved to from Venice in 1819) at the age of five. Claire would never forgive Byron for this.
The vicissitudes of their intense and sometimes stormy relationship make a fascinating story for many reasons, but the most important is the fact that it led to so much great poetry. For a full understanding of this relationship – and of the poetry that it led to – we have to see it within its Italian context, for the country profoundly influenced both writers in numerous ways. The climate, the landscape, the great art, the complicated and intriguing political situation, and – most important of all – the literature of their newly adopted country, all these factors had a huge impact on the new kind of poetry they began to write here. In some ways they could even be said to have become Italian poets.
The Famous Inhabitants of the House of Julius Polybius
Pompeii and Herculaneum offer such exceptionally well-preserved ruins that we have a burning desire to know more about the individuals who met their ends here in such a visible and dramatic fashion. We know so much that we want to know more. This has led archaeologists to name houses after supposed owners, to identify and name individuals who have been found, as well as piecing together the gruesome last moments of those who died in the eruption of AD 79.
Walking down the Via dell’Abbondanza towards the Sarno gate, for instance, we find the Praedia of Julia Felix and the House of Octavius Quartio, establishments named after their presumed owners. It’s part of an instinct to ‘people’ the site of Pompeii and bring it back to life, even at the expense of accuracy.
Perhaps the most notable example of this practice of piecing together the lives of a family can be found in the House of Julius Polybius, located again on the Via dell’Abbondanza, the decumanus maximus of Pompeii. The house is so named because electioneering slogans naming C. Julius Polybius were found on the façade of the house and nearby. While electioneering adverts wouldn’t themselves be very good evidence of the ownership of the house, a graffito next to the lararium near the kitchen giving greetings to one C. Julius Philippus seems to cement the suggestion that the house was owned by a Julius, though the connection between Philippus and Polybius can’t be known.
Scholars excavating the house went further in their identification of this house, linking this Julius Polybius, who is known from about fifty electioneering programmata, to the famous Julius Polybius who was the Emperor Claudius’ powerful freedman, though the links are somewhat tenuous. It gives us a frisson of excitement to think that the son of the powerful imperial freedman, Polybius, would be known to us from his house. It would mean we can be in the same space as someone we only know about from literary sources.
The house, which dates to the second century BC, was first excavated in 1913 and then between 1966 and 1978. From the work carried out, it appears that the house was badly damaged in the AD 62 earthquake which ravaged the area. This is suggested by amphorae and piles of lime found in the tablinum, as well as the stacking of furniture and an assortment of bronze goods, including a statue of Apollo, in the triclinium. It is a grand house which is divided into two sections, including two separate entrances, emphasising the wealth of its occupants.
The most significant finds are the 13 bodies found in two rooms excavated in the 1970s which have been studied at length, for the clues they give us about the health and lifestyles of ancient Pompeiians. This treatment of the skeletons is a departure from the practice of making plaster casts of bodies initiated by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1860s. By filling the voids left behind by decayed bodies with plaster, the Fiorelli method recreates the bodies of the victims, bringing them back to life so to speak.
Archaeologists who have researched the skeletons, using techniques which are developing all the time, have found another way of bringing Pompeiians back to life, giving greater understanding of what they ate, what diseases they suffered from and how healthy they were. What is interesting is that, even in this scientific age, scholars haven’t been able to resist the desire to identify the victims, the relationships between them and the story of their last hours.
In the case of the House of Julius Polybius, there seems to be a very compelling story to tell. One of the victims, a teen aged between 16-18, was very heavily pregnant, leading to the reasonable supposition that she, and those around her, had barricaded herself in the house because she wasn’t able to move far or fast.
Near her, excavators found the body of a woman wearing lots of gold jewellery and carrying a bag filled with coins, as well as a man slumped over, clutching his chest with his right hand. Scholars have variously identified the young slumped man as the pregnant women’s husband and the woman as her mother. In addition, two sixty-year-old men were found, whom excavators were quick to identify as Julius Polybius and Julius Philippus.
While it is hard to know how much credence to give to these theories, more recently, the mitochondrial DNA of some of the victims was extracted, suggesting that six of them, at least, were related. Although the most interesting work done on these skeletons remains the study of the diseases they had, which suggests their diets were good, I don’t think anyone can really stop being intrigued about the story of these people found huddled together. Whether they were Julii or not, they were certainly faced with a catastrophe which we can very palpably feel. Knowing more about them allows us to further ‘people’ Pompeii.
Terraferma: The Transformation of the Veneto under Venice
Venice had a long, deep and complex relationship with its neighbouring city states. The great cities of northern Italy, including Milan and Verona, had been important centres for Venice’s mainland trade, providing La Serenissima with important trading bases from which they could access Northern Europe. With the late 14th century, however, these trading relations within Northern Italy deteriorated as powerful lords, such as the Carraresi in Padova, Scaligeri in Verona and the Sforza in Milano, started to carve out land for themselves in territories close to Venice.
Whilst these powerful families didn’t immediately threaten Venice’s sovereignty, they complicated and even consciously deteriorated Venetian trade routes, thereby diminishing its commerce. At the same time, the Ottoman empire, by the late 14th century, had begun to chisel away at Venetian colonies in the lower Balkans and eastern Greece. For these reasons, Venice, which was at its height and was an undoubted global super power, embarked on a campaign to conquer Northern Italy, which, when conquered, was known as the Terraferma.
At its greatest extent, the Terraferma went as far as Brescia and Bergamo to the West, Fruili to the North and parts of the Papal states south of the Po. The acquisition of land gave Venice access to land which patrician Venetian families could develop into plantations, giving them another source of income and increasing the food supply to Venice. Above all the Terraferma allowed Venice to secure its trade routes to the north and to hugely increase its land army, as it conscribed the adult males of the conquered Italian cities. In addition, Venice was able to increase its revenue through taxation.
While the push to acquire the Terraferma began under the Doge Michele Steno in 1400 and was continued by his successor Tommaso Mocenigo, it is perhaps the Doge Francesco Foscari who is most associated with Venetian territorial expansion in Italy. After all, it was under Foscari that the Lombard cities of Bergamo and Brescia were gained, earning the ire of the powerful Milanese and the Visconti family which ruled over them. Foscari, the longest serving doge in Venetian history, was a divisive figure who at once brought the Renaissance to Venice and, along with, architectural grandeur, yet weakened the Venetian economy with the expensive wars he waged.
Not unlike Caesar who was loved by the Roman plebs and feared by the elite, Foscari’s extravagance and ambition earned him the admiration of ordinary people and the envy of the prosperous. His predecessor Tommaso Mocenigo famously warned his peers against giving Foscari the dogate, earning Mocenigo the soubriquet of the Prophetic Doge, a nickname which was apposite as Foscari’s expansion led to economic problems and ultimately, some decades later, to the War of the League of Cambrai. Today Foscari is immortalised in the Porta della Carta, the monumental entrance to the Doge’s Palace which he commissioned and which bears his portrait.
The effect of the acquisition of the Terraferma in the Veneto is clearly visible still today, where lions of Saint Mark proliferate in its grand city centres. Venetian expansion into the Veneto brought wealth to its cities whose elites, such as the Vicentine Valmarana, were able to take advantage of the opportunities Venice offered, including being added to the Golden Book of Venetian elite families.
No city was more altered than Vicenza whose urban fabric was entirely transformed by the wealth flowing into it and by the architect who made his home there, Andrea Palladio, whose Classical erudition and reawakening took Europe by storm.
The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza
The remarkable Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, started by Palladio and finished by his able Vicentine pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1585, is not only one of the great architect’s masterpieces but also shows his deep understanding of Roman architecture. Commissioned and paid for by the members of the Olympic Academy, a group of Vicentine academics which included Palladio himself, the Teatro Olimpico is the oldest surviving Renaissance theatre. Built in a disused fortress, the Teatro was constructed at a time which saw an increased interest in Classical antiquity, including Classical theatre.
The Teatro is a fruit of Palladio’s painstaking researches into Roman architecture, which include his studies of Vitruvius, the Augustan architect whose work was illustrated by Palladio for Daniele Barbaro’s translation. It is on the basis of Vitruvius more than through extant Roman theatres that Palladio based his designs for the theatre, including the cavea and the stage building. Like his Roman counterparts, Palladio conceived of a theatre whose stage building and auditorium were united and whose architectural order was Corinthian. Unlike them, Palladio was forced by the constrained space to have an elliptical cavea than a semi-circular one.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of the Teatro is the stage building which was designed by Scamozzi on the basis of Palladio and his son Silla’s drawings. The scaena, like Roman examples, was pierced by three front doors and two lateral ones and was adorned by statues of the men who paid for the erection of the theatre (in the case of the Teatro the sculptures depict the members of the Olympic Academy who paid for the theatre).
Similarly, the scaena was conceived as a cityscape, although Scamozzi takes this reconstruction of a city to new levels by using newly developed ideas about linear perspective to make the recreated city three-dimensional. Whereas the space behind Roman scaena was blank, Scamozzi’s stage opens off into seven hallways which are made to look like different streets. While the area behind the stage front is only a few metres, Scamozzi, using false perspective, creates, with great effect, the illusion of long street views. The incredible realism of these street scenes is augmented by the lighting which Scamozzi added within individual houses in these faux streets.
With skilful use of geometry, the architect was able to ensure that everyone sitting in the auditorium had a view of at least one of the streets behind the scaenae frons. What is perhaps all the more remarkable is that Palladio and Scamozzi constructed the whole of the theatre out of wood, plaster and stucco, in an effort to reduce the costs. It is no wonder that modern productions staged in the Teatro are accompanied by ever present fire fighters stationed outside.
The stage building was fashioned for the opening night production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a production which was painstakingly authentic. As such, the street scene we are presented with on stage is an imagined version of Thebes, the city of Oedipus. The decision to debut the Teatro, heavily Classicising as it is, with a Greek tragedy is hardly surprising given the humanistic and antiquarian interests of the members of the Accademia Olimpica. Interest in Classical theatre had, after all, increased in the 16th century, with the advent of the Reformation and the concomitant decline of religious plays. While the Accademia stipulated that actors not wear masks, as they had done when Sophocles wrote the play, they remained faithful to the musical nature of Greek drama. Actors declaimed musically and the chorus sang to music composed specially for the night by Andrea Gabriele, the maestro del coro of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.
Sadly, while the opening night was critically acclaimed, it was equally monumentally expensive, which inhibited the further production of other plays. Their loss is our gain as the originally scaenae frons produced by Scamozzi for Oedipus Rex has survived, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
Lesbia, you ask how many kisses of yours
would be enough and more to satisfy me.
As many as the grains of Libyan sand
that lie between hot Jupiter’s oracle,
at Ammon, in resin-producing Cyrene,
and old Battiades sacred tomb:
or as many as the stars, when night is still,
gazing down on secret human desires:
as many of your kisses kissed
are enough, and more, for mad Catullus,
as can’t be counted by spies
nor an evil tongue bewitch us.
Catullus 7 (Poetry in Translation)
While Venice was only very scantily inhabited in the Roman period, other cities in the Veneto prospered to the extent that they produced two of the most famous Roman writers, the history Livy and the poet Catullus.
It was a region which was deemed as conservative as it is today as can be seen by the way in which C. Asinius Pollio accused the Paduan Livy of Patavinitas (Padovan-ness), which has been taken by some as meaning that he is too traditional. This is not something, however, which the Neoteric poet Catullus, famed for his Lesbia poems addressed to his love interest Clodia, can be accused of.
Catullus came from the most populous Veneto city in the Roman period, namely Verona, which may originally have been founded by Euganei, a proto Italian group, or by the Cenomani, a Celtic tribe which Livy describes as having crossed the Alps and settled here, driving out Etruscans. Along with the rest of Cisalpline Gaul (Gaul south of the Alps), Verona was conquered by Rome in the 220s BC and quickly became subsumed into Roman culture.
The city was made important by the fact that it was on the junction between north and south, as well as that connecting east and west. Thus, the city was on the Via Postumia which connected Aquilieia to Genova, as it was on the Via Claudia-Augusta which linked the Po Valley to Rhaetia, in modern southern Germany, via the Brenner pass. Strabo in his Geography refers to Verona as a big city (Book 5.1.6) as does Martial who mentions Verona in conjunction with Catullus on Book 1. 61 of his Epigrams:
Verona loves the verses of her learned Poet [Catullus]; Mantua is blest in her Maro [Virgil]; the territory of Apona [Padova] is renowned for its Livy, its Stella, and not less for its Flaccus. The Nile, whose waters are instead of rain, applauds its Apollodorus; the Pelignians vaunt their Ovid. Eloquent Cordova speaks of its two Senecas and its single and preeminent Lucan.
(Bohn’s Classical Library)
Its continued importance through late antiquity (the Ostrogothic King Theoderic is said to have had a palace in Verona), may have contributed to the city’s name never being corrupted – it has always been called Verona.
The Roman remains in the city are the most important north of Po and are dotted all along the city, including a bath complex which is on the bottom floor of the Benetton store on plush Via Mazzini. There are two 1st century AD Roman gates which survive, including the well preserved Porta Borsari which marks the entrance of the Via Postumia into the city, from whence the road becomes the decumanus maximus leading to the forum, today the Piazza delle Erbe. Across the river via the Roman bridge, Ponte di Pietra, there is also a Roman theatre, built in the 1st century BC, and still in use today. The most notable Roman monument is the Arena, an enormous 1st century AD amphitheatre seating originally 30,000 which is today famous for its staging of operas. One of the largest Roman amphitheatres in existence, the Arena testifies to the wealth of Roman Veneto which was able to produce a monument which will be used in the closing ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Altinum: The Origins of Venice
A short drive from the Marco Polo airport, the little known archaeological site of Altinum provides the key for understanding the origins of Venice. Today you would be forgiven for driving past it as only a small portion of the ancient city has been excavated and it is normally closed to the public. What is visible gives us an idea of how wealthy the city was and how closely Altinum resembles Venice, the ‘Floating City’, which it would give rise to.
Altinum was founded by Veneti, an Italic people who spoke an Indo European language which survives in some inscriptions (notably those found in the Museum of the Eremitani in Padova). From a sanctuary pit found outside the city which included the remains of a number of horses, we know that these animals played an important role in the religious life of Altinum. This is mirrored in a passage from the geographer Strabo who mentions the importance of horses to the Veneti, both ritualistically and in breeding (the fame of the horse breeding of the Veneti in the Greek world is underlined by the fact that they provided horses to Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse).
Located on the edge of the Venetian lagoon, Altinum thrived in the Roman period, becoming a substantial port whose importance was increased by the development of the nearby ports of Ravenna and Aquileia as centres of trade and the home of the Adriatic fleet. The prominence of the city is evident by the fact that it was on several Roman roads, including the Via Popilia, which connect Altinum to Ravenna, and the Via Annia, which linked the city to Aquileia and Adria. The wealth of the city is testified by the many rich remains found on site, as well as from Martial who compares Altinum to the upmarket city of Baiae. What makes the city interesting for understanding the origins of Venice is that the city was traversed by a network of canals, the outlines of some can still be seen, including one which marked the northern boundary of the city, where the remains of a sizeable gate survives to this day. This system of canals is mentioned by both the architect Vitruvius and Strabo who mentions that the city was built on piles and that the canals were negotiated by bridges and ferries. Recent archaeological work on Altinum’s canals suggests a considerable amount of work was needed to keep them flowing and connected to the lagoon.
The city’s importance continued into the late antique period, as is testified by the presence of the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III in the city in the first part of the 5th century AD. Altinum is also noted as an important town in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a 13th century map of the Roman road system which may derive from a late antique map. The city’s fortune went into decline when it was sacked during Hunnic invasion of AD 452 and later because of the Lombard incursion of AD 568. While Altinum continued to be inhabited for some time, these episodes of violence spelled the eventual end of the city and the beginning of life in the Venetian lagoon – a transition marked in AD 638 by the translation of the relics of Heliodorus, the Bishop of Altinum, to the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, an act which signalled the ascendancy of the island in the Northern Venetian Lagoon. This historical narrative of Venice originating from refugees of the late antique invasions has been central to Venetian identity from the time of John the Deacon writing towards the end of the 10th century.
What the scant remains in Altinum show today is that Venice was born from an ancient city much like it, built on piles and traversed by a network of canals.
The Confused History of the Title Pontifex Maximus
When Lepidus, the triumvir died in 12 BC, Augustus assumed the title Pontifex Maximus, which would become part of imperial titulature from then on. It was an old priestly office, whose title meaning ‘bridge maker’ remained shadowed in mystery for ancient Romans themselves. Taking on the title of the most important religious office in Rome confirmed to Romans that emperors were traditional and that they were intermediaries between gods and men. In the image below, the young Nero, recognisable by his facial hair and distinctive Julio-Claudian ears, is depicted as a pontifex maximus, whose toga, pulled as it is over his head, emphasises his piety and therefore his justification for rule.
While the title Pontifex Maximus is not officially part of the Pope’s titulature, as it isn’t included in the Annuario Pontificio, it has been used in inscriptions since the renaissance. The adoption of the title Pontifex Maximus by popes, with all of its pagan connotations, emphasises just how long and confusing the history of Rome is. While the 5th century writer Zosimus relates that emperors relinquished the title after the pious Christian emperor Gratian transferred it to the Pope Damasus I, it is now clear that Roman emperors continued to include Pontifex in their imperial titulature after that, though it was altered to Pontifex Inclitus (honourable), to distance the title from paganism. At the same time, bishops in general, not just the Bishop of Rome, used the title Pontifex and even Summus Pontifex, to emphasise their positions as the leaders of the official religion, i.e. Christianity.
Although it has been claimed that Leo the Great and Gregory the Great took the title Pontifex Maximus, there is little evidence for this. It is really only in the 15th century that popes assumed the title, starting with the innovative Pope Nicholas V who popularised it. For Nicholas, the choice to do so was wrapped up in his humanism, or his love of the ancient world, as it was to give the papacy greater prestige at a time when temporal leaders were trying to erode its power. Immersed in a city which had only recently seen the return of popes (with the return of Martin V in 1417) and which was littered with ancient inscriptions which recorded the titles of ancient emperors, Nicholas assumed the title Pontifex Maximus in order to associate popes with antiquity, emphasising the age and legitimacy of the office. By this time, the priestly title no longer had connotations of paganism and there were no emperors vying for the use of the titulature.
Nicholas V, whose coin here bears the title Pont Max, not only took on ancient Roman nomenclature but also behaved like an emperor, rebuilding Rome in order to make it a worthy capital. He restored the fortifications and streets of the city, as well as the ancient aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo which brought water to a Rome, which had, for a millennium, drawn water only from wells and cisterns.
Engraving of the previous Fontana di Trevi as restored by Leon Battista Alberti and commissioned by Pope Nicholas V
Mirroring Augustus before him, Nicholas restored a number of religious buildings (in his case churches), including Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santo Stefano Rotondo and Santa Prassede, and like emperors, such as Domitian and Nero, he spent a fortune building his residence, replacing the Lateran Palace with the Vatican. What is ironic is that this emperor, who modelled himself along ancient lines, plundered that most famous ancient monument, the Colosseum, carrying away 2,522 cart loads full of stone in order to complete his building projects. In doing so, he unwittingly proclaimed a new Rome both based on its ancient roots and avowedly Christian.
Rome Transformed: from Paganism to Christianity
Rome has undergone more transformations in its long history than most cities. One of the most interesting is its transformation from a pagan to a Christian city. With the long passage of time separating us from late antiquity it is all too easy to compress history and we might be forgiven, as such, for thinking that the Edict of Milan of 313, which legalised Christianity, issued in the Christian era which quickly wiped away paganism.
The metamorphosis, however, was far from straightforward as can be seen by the third and fourth century hypogea found outside of Rome. One of the most intriguing is the Hypogeum of the Aurelii, found in 1919 during the construction of a garage. The hypogeum, an underground tomb, clearly predates the Aurelian walls erected in AD 273 as can be seen by the fact that it is located within the city walls. Indeed it dates to the Severan period and an inscription states that it was built by Aurelius Felicissimus to house the remains of his siblings and fellow freedmen, Aurelius Onesimus, Papirius and Aurelia Prima. What makes this a fascinating tomb is the combination of Pagan and Christian frescoes, which include the depiction of Odysseus and Circe, as well as the representation of Adam and Eve.
This mixture of pagan and Christian has led some to argue that the Aurelii were gnostics or philosophers, in the belief that Christians wouldn’t want to include scenes from Greek mythology on their tombs. I think, rather, that these freedmen, eager to show off their wealth, included mythological scenes because it was a sign of erudition. They wouldn’t have seen the combination of Biblical and mythological scenes as paradoxical all.
The same combination of Pagan and Christian scenes can be seen in the Via Livenza Hypogeum. Dating to the second half of the 4th century, the hypogeum has a fresco of Diana, as well as one that has been interpreted as representing Saint Peter striking a rock from which water issues, slaking the thirst of the centurion.
Roman Hypogea not only show that Christians were happy to have tombs decorated with mythological scenes but that it took some time for pagan rituals to die out. The late fourth century Hypogeum of Vibia is notable for its depictions of the deceased being taken to the underworld in the guise of Proserpina being abducted by Pluto. In another scene which names the characters, Vibia is seen being led by Mercury, the psychopomp.
It is hardly surprising the Vibia not only draws from mythology but depicts death and afterlife in pagan terms, given that her husband Vincentius was the priest of the Phrygian god Sabazios. So while the Aurelii, whose tomb belongs to the early third century, were Christian even before the religion was made legal, Vibia more than a century later was avowedly pagan. It took time for Rome to be transformed from the Caput Mundi to the Holy See.