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20 September 2018

British Museum collection showcasing the mighty Roman Empire on show in Canberra

Photo of a female statue head with a black background.
Female statue head, Villa Casali, Italy, 55–65 CE, marble, 62.5 x 32 x 28 cm, 1805,0703.98. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

A monumental marble statue of a Roman magistrate, a frieze featuring a rare depiction of female gladiators, and a fragment of a gilded wall painting from Emperor Nero’s Golden House are among the treasures in the British Museum’s Rome: City and Empire exhibition, launched today at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

In its only Australian venue, Rome: City and Empire draws on the British Museum’s extensive collection to feature stories of Rome and its empire which continue to intrigue 3000 years after its foundation.

The newly developed exhibition features more than 200 objects dating from the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE – many of which have never previously toured.

In Rome, the empire’s power and might, politics, sophistication, ingenuity, beauty, wealth, faith and diversity are all on display.

Central to the exhibition is a feature on the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome, the heart of the empire from which ideas radiated – and continue to radiate – globally.

'The Roman Empire’s legacy endures in modern Australia, encompassing our languages, our art and architecture, the design of our towns and cities and the laws by which we live – Australians are going to be captivated by this exhibition,' said National Museum Director, Dr Mathew Trinca.

Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said, 'The stories of Rome and its vast empire continue to captivate and intrigue people almost 3000 years after their foundation. This exhibition will be a rare opportunity to see masterpieces from the Roman Empire on display in Australia. We are delighted to be working once again with the National Museum, following successful collaborations in 2015 and 2016.'

The exhibition narrates the remarkable true story of how Rome grew from a cluster of small villages to become a powerful empire, the scale of which had never been seen before in the Western world. At its height, the Roman Empire encompassed more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Rome’s transformation from republic to empire is entwined in the lives and loves of a cast of iconic historical figures who also feature in the exhibition, including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and the adopted son of Caesar and first Roman emperor, Augustus.

The exhibition will feature the opulence and grandeur of the realm – its military might, the rulers who oversaw it, the gods they worshipped and the diversity of its people. An emotive marble statue of a bearded barbarian captive, a gold and jasper sealstone ring depicting Mark Antony, an ancient carved marble head of a woman resembling Cleopatra, a Pompeii fresco, and one of the finest bronze cavalry parade masks in existence, are some of the show’s highlights.

Rome: City and Empire is on show in Canberra from 21 September 2018 to 3 February 2019.

Background

  • Rome: City and Empire features more than 200 objects from the British Museum’s collection dating from the 9th century BCE to the 6th century CE
  • This newly developed exhibition has only previously opened in the United States (Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee)
  • The exhibition narrates the story of how Rome grew from a cluster of small villages to become a powerful empire, the scale of which had never been seen before – at its height, the Roman Empire covered almost five million square kilometres and had a population of around 100 million people
  • The legacy of the Roman Empire continues to resonate today through our forms of government (influenced by Roman concepts of legislative representation); law (built on Roman concepts such as trial by jury and the right to own property); architecture (Roman neoclassical style); language (many languages evolved from Latin); engineering (influenced by Roman roads, aqueducts and concrete); and religion (Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century CE, embraced Christianity as the state religion, underpinning its global spread)
  • Rome features an iconic cast of historical characters including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Augustus, the first Roman emperor
  • The show is divided into five parts: 'The Rise of Rome', 'Military Might', 'The Eternal City', 'Peoples of the Empire', and ends with 'In Memoriam', featuring poignant funerary scenes and practices
  • Many of the objects in the exhibition have never previously toured, including the Roman magistrate (1st century CE); an Etruscan bronze casket used for women’s toiletries (300–250 BCE); a 4th century CE stone mosaic featuring Phobos, the god of fear; and a golden diadem from 1st century CE Roman Egypt, inscribed with the name of a Roman athlete
  • Some of the exhibition’s objects originate from buried ‘hoards’ only unearthed in recent decades – the Selby Hoard discovered in Yorkshire, UK in 2010 and the Hoxne Treasure discovered in Suffolk, UK in 1992.

Other key objects include:

  • A gold and jasper sealstone ring depicting Mark Antony (40–30 BCE)
  • Marble statue of bearded barbarian captive (160–70 CE)
  • A fresco from Pompeii (50–79 CE)
  • An iconic late 1st century BCE marble bust of the young emperor Augustus
  • An ancient carved marble head in the style of Cleopatra (50–30 BCE)
  • One of the finest bronze cavalry parade masks in existence (2nd century CE) – never toured
  • A marble relief of two female gladiators, the only one of its kind to survive (1st–2nd century CE)
  • Gilt copper statue of Hercules wearing a lion-skin cloak (2nd century CE).

Fast facts

  • Rome: City and Empire runs from 21 September 2018 – 3 February 2019 at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra – its only Australian venue
  • The exhibition objects span the 9th century BCE to the late 6th century CE
  • The oldest object is a ceramic burial urn in the shape of a thatched house, found in the Alban Hills in Italy (900–800 BCE)
  • Rome includes some 35 marble statues, portrait busts and architectural sculpture
  • Roman statues were created to honour individuals, emperors, empresses and gods
  • The show’s largest statue is the colossal Roman magistrate (70–90 CE), featuring an adult male adorned in a voluminous toga and holding a scroll, which stands 2.41 m high and weighs 1655 kg
  • The magistrate required some 200 hours of conservation work and has not previously toured
  • The exhibition features a massive marble head of Empress Faustina I (140 CE) which stands 1.7 m tall and weighs 1000 kg – the original statue could have stood up to 4 m high
  • Rome includes objects from three Roman hoards – hoards are collections of valuable objects (coins, jewellery and tableware), hidden by wealthy families for safekeeping in times of conflict and unrest, in the 4th and 5th centuries CE
  • The exhibition includes objects from the Esquiline Treasure (hoard), discovered in Rome in the 18th century; the Hoxne Treasure, discovered in England in 1992; and the Selby Hoard, also discovered in England as recently as 2010
  • Two wall paintings from Pompeii, the Roman city frozen in time when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE
  • Rome showcases historical characters such as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus and Emperor Hadrian, a brilliant general and the first Roman leader to be depicted with a beard
  • Rome also features a vast pantheon of Roman religious figures, including Minerva, Luna, Venus, Jupiter and Apollo
  • Women were not citizens in Ancient Rome but their key role is reflected in objects presenting them as mothers, daughters, wives, as well as gladiators, empresses and priestesses
  • A piece of gilded wall painting from Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace in the eternal city of Rome, reflects that city’s status as the world’s first megalopolis and a touchstone for diversity, cosmopolitanism and urbanism, not to mention opulence, luxury and decadence
  • The exhibition also includes everyday Roman objects including a ceramic bowl, painted red with impressed decoration, which offered an affordable alternative to silver tableware.

Media contact: Tracy Sutherland, 02 6208 5338 | 0438 620 710 or tracy.sutherland@nma.gov.au

The presentation of this exhibition is a collaboration between the British Museum and the National Museum of Australia. nma.gov.au/rome

The Rome: City and Empire exhibition was supported by the Australian Government International Exhibitions Insurance (AGIEI) Program.

This program provides funding for the purchase of insurance for significant cultural exhibitions. Without AGIEI, the high cost of insuring significant cultural items would prohibit this major exhibition from touring to Australia.

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