Another imperial statue of colossal dimensions discovered at Sagalassos (SW Turkey)

Printervriendelijke versieSend to friend

Towards the end of July 2007, archaeologists of the KULeuven (Belgium) directed by Prof. Marc Waelkens discovered in the largest room of the Roman Baths under excavation since twelve years the remains of a colossal, ca 5m tall statue of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) composed of a 0.70 m tall head, the lower part of the right leg and the joining 0.80 m long foot. These fragments are currently at display in the rotunda of the British Museum where they form the center pieces of the prestigious exhibition ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’ running until the end of October. These fragments were discovered halfway the rubble gradually filling up a 1250 sq. metres large cross-shaped and mosaic covered room, most likely a frigidarium. Carbon 14 dating of the pellets of a couple of uhu owls living in the ruins suggested a date between AD 540 and 620, most likely around AD 590? for the buildings partial collapse by a massive earthquake. The finding spot in the southern extremity of the large room, on top of a thick mortar layer fallen from the vaulted ceilings clearly indicated that the fragments had been brought here either to remove the probably gilded bronze armour of the emperor or even to burn these huge marble pieces to cement in a nearby lime kiln. Yet, some other statues of colossal remains, once occupied this room, possibly as the result of recycling, as shown by the front part of two female feet of colossal dimensions, standing on the floor and surrounded by mosaics which still follow the contours of the female statue’s long dress. Both discoveries suggested the presence of other statues belonging to the circles around Hadrian, such as his wife Sabina or his lover Antinoüs.

Late this morning of Tuesday August the 12th another colossal head lying face down was discovered by the same team ca. 6m away from the find spot of last year’s colossal Hadrian’s portrait, be it still higher in the rubble. Our assumption that one was dealing most probably with Vibia Sabina, who only 14 years old was forced into a possibly never consumed marriage with Hadrian and who died in 136-137 AD,proved to be wrong, once the head was turned over: one faced a clearly more mature woman than the normal Sabina representation with large almond shaped eyes (only the tear-channels are plastically rendered, not the iris or pupils as became usual during the reign of Hadrian), fleshy thick lips and a hairdo, parted in the middle of the front and taken in wavy strains below and around the ears towards the back. The rendering of the hair only sparingly makes uses of the drill, a feature that was characteristic for portraits of Antonine empresses, this in sharp contrast with the beards and curly hairs of their husbands. On top of her head, she wears a circlet, a feature that was typical for most of Sabina’s portraits, but that was usually replaced by a large thicker but also smaller braid of hair for Faustina the Elder. Yet, in our case the whole physiognomy of the face clearly identifies the empress with the latter, except for the circlet, the best and even more colossal parallel being a portrait (with the same treatment of the eyes) of the Elder Faustina (H.: 1.45m) from Sardis, which is part of The British Museum’s permanent collection.

In contrast with the messy marriage of Hadrian and Sabina, the Elder Faustina and Antoninus Pius had a happy marriage, lasting 31 years until Faustina’s death in AD 141. The whole family belonged to the Spanish and Southern French Roman aristocracy. When the emperor Nerva died in AD 98, he was succeeded by M. Ulpius Traianus, his adoptive son, born in Italica (Seville in Spain) and married to Pompea Plotilla belonging to a family from Nemausus (Nîmes in the Provence). The lack of a male heir forced Trajan as well to adopt a son, for whom he selected P. Aelius Hadrianus or Hadrian, son of a homonymous father also originary from Seville and belonging to the circle of Spanish aristocrats around Trajan. Hadrian’s mother Domitia Paulina was also of Spanish descent, being born at Cadiz.

Despite the fact that he was gay, he was forced to marry the by ten ca 10 years old Vibia Sabina, daughter of Salona Matidia, herself the daughter of Trajan’s sister Ulpia Marciana. Whereas his marriage with Sabina was strained, Hadrian got on very well with his mother-in-law, who was even promoted to Augusta (empress). Being childless, Hadrian at first adopted L. Ceionius Commodus, henceforth known as Aelius Caesar, who, however, died before his adoptive father. He then chose as second ‘son’ Antoninus Pius, like the former empress Plotilla born at Nîmes, who married the daughter of a family friend from Ucibe (in Baetica, Spain), Annius Verus, who through her marriage (at the age of ten !) would become the empress Annia Galeria Faustina (the Elder). While adopting Antoninus Pius as his son and successor he tried to reassure the future of the dynasty by forcing the latter to adopt no less than two adoptive sons: first Faustina’s brother’s son M. Annius Verus, who would rule as Marcus Aurelius and marry Faustina’s daughter the Younger Faustina, and secondly the son of Aelius Caesar, L. Ceionius Commodus, better known as Lucius Verus, who would marry Marcus Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla. A long inscription, in fact the inaugural inscription of the huge bath complex discovered years ago in the ‘Kaisersaal’ dedicated ca. 165 AD to the co-rulers Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius is a strong indication that both colossal statues discovered thus far and representing Hadrian and Faustina the Elder originally stood there together with other members of the Antonine dynasty, so that in the future more imperial colossal heads might turn up in the spacious room currently under excavation. Despite the fact, that the ‘adoptive sons’ in several cases belonged to the female line of the family, the empresses and women of this dynasty hardly interfered in politics as previously had been the case with the Julio-Claudians, whose women belonged to old and powerful Roman families, or later again was the case with the empresses of the Severan dynasty most of them mothers of emperors and themselves belonging to a powerful priestly family from Emesa (Homs in Syria). The provincial, Spanish or Southern French origin of the Antonine empresses on the one hand, and the fact that in this family of ‘adopted emperors’, except for the Younger Faustina, mother of Commodus, none of them would ever be an emperor’s mother may explain this more humble position of Faustina and the other empresses of the same dynasty.

One also has to stress that colossal statues were very much in favour at Sagalassos: besides the 4 m tall hero occupying the NW Heroon and the twice-life sized statues of Dionysos from the mid-Antonine nymphaeum on the Upper Agora, one currently is putting together a 5 m tall Apollo statue from the late Hadrianic nymphaeum above the city’s Lower Agora.

(by Marc Waelkens)