by Roderick Conway Morris

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Marble in Rome, a tale of conquests

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 7 December 2002
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Bust of Septimius Severus in white marble,
alabaster and red porphyry, 200-210 AD



The Romans conquered Greece, observed the Latin poet Horace, only themselves to be enslaved by the superior culture of their captives.

Nor did the process cease with the annexation of the heartlands of classical Greece. For the Hellenistic kingdoms of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, as they were absorbed into the empire, had a major impact on Latin culture, not least in the visual sphere.

Romans of the old school lauded the virtues of sobriety and simplicity, but as Rome gained control of the riches of much of the known world and was exposed to the opulent, ostentatious, extravagant and pleasure-seeking Hellenistic cultures of the east, they found it increasingly difficult to live up -- or perhaps we should say down -- to these austere ancient Latin ideals.

No luxury eastern product had a more all-pervasive effect on the exterior and interior appearance of Rome and its provincial cities in the west than the exotic marble imported from the Orient. These materials, where they were quarried, how they were transported westward, what they were used for and the powerful ideological meanings they acquired are the focus of a fascinating and sumptuous exhibition, 'The Colored Marbles of Imperial Rome.' The setting is appropriately the Trajan Markets, the second-century multi-story shopping mall built by Trajan on the slope above the imperial forums, where the show continues until Jan. 19.

Before the invasion of the east, Rome was dominated by wood, brick, terracotta and plain white stone, such as the local travertine. In comparison, the quarries of the east offered an astonishing array of colored marble, from blacks, grays and greens, to reds, yellows and blues (the ancient term 'marmaros' being applied to any stone that could be highly polished).

Many of the sites from which these exotic marbles were excavated were in remote mountains and deserts roamed by wild, hostile tribes. Yet once these territories had even notionally fallen under Latin rule, Rome showed extraordinary determination in exploiting their resources. Indeed, the pillars on which the mighty edifices of the imperial enterprise rested came largely from the east.

The symbolic potential of exotic marble was fully appreciated by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, and consistently employed by his successors. Augustus made sure that the quarries yielding the choicest and most beautiful marble remained more or less his and his family's private property.

And, at the most basic level, the ability of the emperors to bring this booty to Rome, year in year out, from the most distant and inhospitable corners of the empire bore witness to the long and firm reach of their authority, and their almost limitless wealth.

The organizational challenges, logistical problems and sheer expense of these operations is well illustrated by a single site, Mons Claudianus (now Gebel Fatireh), a prized deposit of basanite granite in the eastern Egyptian desert, heavily worked under the emperor Claudius, as its Latin name records. Thousands of clay tablets discarded by the ancient administrators have come to light there, revealing a wealth of information about its day-to-day running.

In this isolated spot, nearly a thousand workers, administrators and guards were employed. All manner of architectural components were extracted and fashioned here, including monolithic pillars up to 50 feet long (15 meters). Given a metric cube of marble typically weighs around 2.75 tons, while granite is considerably heavier, the weight of each one of these large, 'prefabricated' building blocks was colossal. They had, moreover, to be transported 120 kilometers (75 miles) across the desert to the Nile to be floated downriver before being shipped to Rome.

Rare and costly stones such as porphyry -- which was only found at Mons Porphyrites, present-day Gebel Dokhan, in northeastern Egypt and became the imperial color par excellence -- basanite and alabaster, were especially suitable for statues and busts of emperors, their families, and the gods and goddesses they favored, the huge expense of the materials directly reflecting the elevated status of their subjects.

Greeny-black basanite had the additional illusionistic appeal that it can easily be mistaken for ancient, patinaed spelling bronze. It was also extremely hard and required immense labor and skill to fashion and finish compared with other marbles.

But expensive marble was used, too, for a more unexpected subject -- representations of supplicant 'barbarian' races conquered by the Romans. At one level these marbles reflected these peoples' exotic dress and even skin coloring, at another they reinforced the message that these materials had been wrested by Roman power from those fierce and recalcitrant nations that the emperor had subjugated.

An early example of these luxury slaves-in-stone are three larger-than-life-sized figures of kneeling oriental barbarians, two of which are now in Naples, the other in Copenhagen, which have been brought together again for the show. They date from the time of Augustus and seem to have formed part of a victory monument. They are sculpted mainly of lushly colorful and veined pavonazzetto -- whose price was later recorded in an edict of Diocletian to be inferior only to the fabulously scarce, red and green porphyrys.

The most spectacular use of this barbarian motif was realized in the second century in Trajan's new forum, where the emperor celebrated his victory over the Dacians, who lived in the region of modern Romania, by decorating the forum with lines of Dacian warriors, with folded hands, submissively acting as pillars. These figures, only fragments of which survive, were over three meters tall, and made not only of pavonazzetto, but also of red and green porphyry -- only the most sought-after spoils of the 'gorgeous East' being sufficient to put the icing on the cake of Trajan's triumphs (recorded in a blow-by-blow account with a cast of thousands in the spiraling narrative reliefs on Trajan's Column) on the turbulent fringes of the west.

By this time, although only the emperor could command the quality and quantity of exotic marble to undertake a project on the scale of Trajan's forum, colored marble had become well-nigh ubiquitous in the civic buildings and houses of the well-to-do in Rome and the provinces: covering floors and walls in slabs or in variegated mosaics, fashioned into statues, reliefs, basins and fountains and even furniture -- examples of all of which appear in the exhibition.

One of the most charming uses to which exotic marble was put was in statues of animals. Two that figure here are a sleek, muscular, intensely alert hunting hound in mottled green-gray serpentine, and a playful, lolloping, roly-poly baby hippo, in fantastic, children's picture-book 'rosso antico' red.

There are also further sections on the post-Roman uses of these 'beautiful and useful stones' in art, and those magnificent antiquarian cabinets of samples that constituted the first steps towards their classification and the systematic investigation of their origins.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023