RICHARD FIDLER: Ancient Rome was once full of colour. Every surface of every statue and every building was decorated with colours like red, blue, purple and gold. Today, few pigments have survived but if you look closely at the objects in this exhibition, you too will occasionally see faint traces of the vivid spectrum of the Roman Empire.
My name is Richard Fidler and I’ve always been fascinated by the Ancient Romans. I’ve spent days walking through the ruins of their towns and cities just trying to imagine their day-to-day lives. And I hope you can feel something of that today as you walk among these treasures.
You can ask yourself: Who wore this? Who wrote this? What was it like to be an emperor? What about a slave? What did Ancient Rome smell like? And what did it sound like? And how did a little village in Italy come to dominate such a vast empire, stretching from Britain to Syria?
Historians can debate whether the Romans were particularly ruthless or ingenious, or whether they were just lucky. But the Romans themselves never really had any doubt. They believed they’d been elevated to greatness by the favour of the gods and this unshakeable belief made their rulers famously arrogant.
Eventually Rome came to mean much more than just a city. Roman-ness was a powerful concept of a shared way of life that connected the centre of the empire with its far-flung outer limits.
You didn’t have to be born Roman, but you could become Roman by speaking Latin, by adopting their religions, their clothes and their customs.
Today we’re going into that world where there were hundreds if not thousands of gods, where public baths were almost unimaginably magnificent, and love, at least according to the poets, was around every corner.
I’m going to introduce you to objects from the world of the Romans — objects that tell us something of what they said and did in the wider world and within the privacy of their own homes.
The National Museum of Australia has animated 21 objects from within the exhibition through storytelling. These stories are based on real Roman people and events within the Roman world.
RICHARD FIDLER: At first glance, this statue of a Roman magistrate presents us with an image of the ideal Roman citizen. Look at his wrinkled, careworn face, his stern expression, the toga, the scroll. These are all symbols of Roman power. But not everything is as it seems.
MAGISTRATE: Friends, Australians, countrymen! Women too, and visitors from near and far. Here we gather on the Peninsula of Acton. I have travelled across oceans and millennia to be here with you. To share with you my wisdom, my secrets, my pleasures and my pain. What do you see as you survey my marble form? I am a Roman. This much is clear.
You observe my costume, my stance, my scroll. You imagine I’m a citizen of the capital, a man of status and influence. An orator, a man of letters. A man active in affairs of the state. But look closer. All is not what it seems. This is not my body. Not my toga. Not my scroll. See that crack around my neck? What does it tell you?
It tells you that my head was once attached to a different body. Reusing statues was a common practice in Ancient Rome. See these fine objects around me — pottery, mosaics, coins, ornaments. Don’t be fooled. Don’t let their fragile beauty deceive you. They are the shards and splinters of what once was the most powerful empire in the world.
RICHARD FIDLER: The Etruscans were a people in Italy who heavily influenced the city of Rome in its early years, but were eventually conquered by the Romans. Unlike the Romans, they didn’t leave written histories and we have not yet deciphered their language. However, as highly skilled metalworkers, they left behind beautiful bronze objects like this casket.
PANATIA: Alfia darling, I need to check my hair. Would you pass me the mirror?
PANATIA: It’s inside that casket over there. You should have a look at yourself while you’re at it. You’re getting pomegranate juice all over your cheeks.
ALFIA: Here it is.
PANATIA: Now to find the right earrings …
ALFIA: Pomegranate seeds are like little red jewels.
PANATIA: Yes, they are. What has you so captivated over there?
ALFIA: It’s the engraving on the casket, Mama. I’m trying to follow the story.
PANATIA: Ah, it’s the story of Demeter and Persephone. Mother and daughter, like you and I.
ALFIA: All I can make out is a man holding a woman still. While another man approaches.
PANATIA: Not men, my love, but gods.
ALFIA: Tell me the story! Please.
PANATIA: Well, Persephone, goddess of spring, is the only daughter of Demeter, the goddess that brings the harvests. Hades, god of the underworld, desires her as his bride. One day, he sees an opportunity and snatches her from the earth, taking her to live with him deep, down to the underworld.
ALFIA: Oh no! Does her mother try to rescue her?
PANATIA: Her mother, Demeter, goes on strike. Across the land, crops wither. A terrible famine grips the world. The great god Zeus summons Hermes to take an urgent message to Hades.
PANATIA & ALFIA: Release Persephone!
PANATIA: This brings us to that very moment depicted here on the casket, with Hades holding Persephone by the arm, as Hermes approaches with his message.
ALFIA: What happens next?
PANATIA: Hades knows there’s no arguing with Zeus, who’s king of the gods. So he lets Persephone go. Demeter and her daughter are reunited.
ALFIA: A happy ending.
PANATIA: But there’s more to the story. All the time she was held captive in the underworld, Persephone refused to eat any of the food Hades offered her. The only exception was four little pomegranate seeds. But that was enough to seal her fate. What it meant was that for four months of every year, Persephone must live with Hades in the underworld. Demeter, though, was not so accommodating. And every year when Persephone departs she goes into mourning.
ALFIA: Oh, I see. That’s why we have winter!
PANATIA: Now. How about these earrings? The stones look a bit like pomegranate seeds, don’t they? What do you think?
RICHARD FIDLER: Augustus was Rome’s first emperor. A ruthless political genius with a gift for propaganda. Who skilfully picked up the broken pieces of the Roman republic, shattered by decades of civil war, and put them back together, with himself as supreme ruler. Augustus brought peace and stability to the Roman world.
OLD AUGUSTUS: I always had a knack for optics. This marble bust is a case in point. I’m a young man here, not yet the emperor Augustus, still the young man Octavian. But even in my youth, my complexion was never so smooth, my features never so even as this bust would have you believe. This style was strategy. Cast your mind back for a moment, to the circumstances of my ascent to the role of emperor. I was just 19 when my father, Julius Caesar, was murdered …
YOUNG AUGUSTUS: I am Julius Caesar’s heir. I will surely vanquish my foes but how am I to become a worthy leader in the eyes of the people? I will look to the example of the great king and conqueror, Alexander.
OLD AUGUSTUS: I knew one day I would visit the tomb of Alexander in the famous city he founded in Egypt, the city that bears his name — Alexandria.
YOUNG AUGUSTUS: Here he is at last. Alexander, know that I come today to pay my respects. I see before me the body of a king, not a corpse, and I bring you a golden crown. I have conquered Egypt, just as you did centuries ago. Huh? Your body is so well preserved. Oh no! Your nose! It’s just a tiny piece. I’m sure I can fix it. No, that’s worse.
OLD AUGUSTUS: It is recorded that on this visit, I accidentally knocked off a piece of his nose. But that is mere gossip and slander. What I did knock off was his hairstyle. I gave the marble workers back home a clear brief.
YOUNG AUGUSTUS: Marble workers, style me like Alexander. Make me look like a conqueror. And give me that boyish, tousled hair — with the forelock. More. More. Perfect.
OLD AUGUSTUS: Over time, this hairstyle became my trademark, making statues of my person immediately recognisable. This look was a marked difference to the prior fashion of chiselled, aged and weathered features. Even as I grew gradually old and frail, my public image remained powerful, youthful, proudly Roman, yet equal to Alexander. You might call it smoke and mirrors. But the deceptions of marble and bronze are far more enduring.
RICHARD FIDLER: This bronze mask is thought to depict an Amazon warrior. The Amazons were a legendary tribe of warrior women who, for the Romans, represented an exotic and formidable foe. And this mask was used in cavalry training events.
CATULLINUS: Emperor Hadrian, how do you like the view from this platform?
HADRIAN: I can’t imagine a better vantage point, Catullinus. Your cavalrymen are splendid. Wait, is that a woman leading the first squadron?
CATULLINUS: That’s one of our finest horsemen, Emperor. See with his mask how he animates the warrior spirit of the Amazons, the legendary tribe of female warriors.
HADRIAN: Indeed he does. And on the opposing side, a Greek warrior. Let us see if the warriors within prove as skilful and intimidating as they look.
MARCUS: We enter the parade ground fully armed. We wear gilded helmets of bronze, crests and plumes aloft. In our finely cast masks we are the fierce Amazons, the legendary tribe of female warriors. We are ready to vanquish the Greek enemies, to show no mercy. We divide into two teams: attack and defence.
Wheeling, circling. We gallop along the enemy line. Wheel away to the right! Circling back around, I prepare my javelin arm. Aim. Throw! It hits its mark. A full-speed gallop from one end of the training ground to the other. Throwing 15 spears in quick succession. The last exercise — mounting tactics learned from the Persians, Sarmatians and Celts. In full armour, leaping from the ground to moving horses. Twisting, jumping and landing once more.
CATULLINUS: Ah, their movements are poetry.
HADRIAN: I couldn’t agree more, Catullinus. You and your men have excelled today. This is how the Romans have conquered the world. Training in the military arts. Discipline in the camp. Practice in warfare. Amazons, Greeks and Romans. We animate the mighty warrior spirit!
RICHARD FIDLER: One of the underlying strengths of the Roman Empire was its vast resource of people. The Romans would conquer a country and then conscript the male population as slaves or as soldiers. And if a provincial soldier could somehow survive 25 years of service, he would be rewarded with the prize of Roman citizenship.
AULUS: Grandpa, what’s this?
GEMELLUS: That’s my military diploma.
AULUS: Wow! What does it say?
GEMELLUS: You’re asking me? You’ve got better Latin than your old grandfather.
AULUS: Okay, let’s see. ‘From Emperor Hadrian, son of the deified Trajan.’
GEMELLUS: Optimus princeps. The best leader.
AULUS: ‘To the cavalrymen and infantrymen who served in Britain under governor Nepos, who have served 25 years, whose names are written below. You are given honourable discharge, citizenship for yourselves, your children and descendants.’ What does it mean, Grandpa?
GEMELLUS: It means very good news for you. You, your brothers, your father, all of us. We’re citizens of Rome.
AULUS: All thanks to your military service.
GEMELLUS: That’s right. 25 years I spent working my way up.
AULUS: But you weren’t just any soldier. You were a …
GEMELLUS: Ha ha. Sesquiplicarius.
GEMELLUS: That’s a junior officer, third-in-command of a cavalry troop, don’t you know.
AULUS: Didn’t you want to be a legionary, Grandpa?
GEMELLUS: I would have loved to be a legionary. Better pay and conditions, better equipment, less exposure to risk in battle, earlier retirement. But it wasn’t an option for me, Aulus. As a non-citizen, it was the auxiliary or nothing.
AULUS: I could join a legion, because I’m a Roman!
GEMELLUS: You could indeed. But you’ve a few years yet before you’re of age. Time enough to look after your old grandfather.
RICHARD FIDLER: Female gladiators were very rare, but this unique relief and a small handful of other sources, reveal that they actually did exist. At least before a ban on female fighters was enforced by the emperor Septimius Severus. Romans seem to have much preferred their women to be homemakers.
TRAINER: Come on. You’re never going to win like that. That’s pathetic. Arm up. Come on, strike again. That’s it. Two steps forward, watch her sword arm. Why are you defending yourself against an Amazon? Achilles, attack! Achilles, you should have been anticipating that blow. Amazon, when you had the upper hand why did you not press your advantage? What are you, women?
ACHILLIA: Yes, actually.
TRAINER: Right, that’s enough for today. You’re both clearly not as focused as you should be for such an important contest. After all the time I’ve invested in you …
ACHILLIA: I don’t know why I was chosen to role-play the Greek Achilles and you the Amazon Queen. Everyone knows that Achilles is one of the greatest warriors who ever lived! You’re clearly the stronger fighter between us.
AMAZON: Ah, but you’re the swiftest. We’re evenly matched, I think.
ACHILLIA: Still, it’s not quite fitting, when legend has it that Achilles was the ultimate victor. In any case, you’re going to have to die convincingly at the end of this fight.
AMAZON: I’ll do my best!
ACHILLIA: I do wonder exactly why we’re paired for such a contest. It would make more sense that a man and a woman would re-enact the battle.
AMAZON: You haven’t heard? The emperor Domitian is sponsoring the games. Apparently, it’s one of his quirks to observe women fighting at night by the flickering light of torches.
ACHILLIA: I don’t like the sound of this. What if he decides that a re-enactment is not enough, that he wants to see me, Achilles, run you through with a sword? Somehow, we need to impress him.
AMAZON: Or the crowd.
ACHILLIA: With our fighting prowess.
AMAZON: We’ll give him the show of his life.
ACHILLIA: We’ll fight with everything we’ve got.
AMAZON: To a standstill.
ACHILLIA: Woman to woman.
AMAZON: There will be no ultimate victor!
ACHILLIA: Then toss our helmets to the ground in exaltation.
AMAZON: While the crowd roars.
ACHILLIA & AMAZON: Missio! Missio! A draw! A draw!
ACHILLIA: Just imagine, our performance immortalised in stone or marble. AMAZON: Then our trainer would have something to boast about! We’ll be forever remembered as …
ACHILLIA & AMAZON: Amazon and Achilles!
RICHARD FIDLER: Hadrian was a particularly energetic emperor who ruled the empire at the very summit of its power and influence. He was an outstanding general and politician who also loved the arts. He travelled all over the empire and left his mark on cities across the Roman world. Hadrian designed and ordered the construction of a number of Rome’s architectural landmarks. But he could also be mean and vengeful. You didn’t want to get on his bad side.
HADRIAN: Here we are. What do you think, Apollodorus? This is the site I’ve chosen to build the temple I have designed.
APOLLODORUS: The temple dedicated to the goddess Roma and the goddess …
HADRIAN: Venus, bringer of good fortune. Ancestor of Romulus and Remus, twin founders of Rome. You are familiar with my plan?
APOLLODORUS: I am.
HADRIAN: Is it not a masterpiece of architectural design?
APOLLODORUS: Well …
HADRIAN: As an architect yourself, you will appreciate not only the classical Greek influence, but my many innovations and additions. A traditional face on a unique interior. That’s the idea.
APOLLODORUS: If you will permit me a question, Emperor. Why this particular location?
HADRIAN: Where better? We shall have to remove that huge bronze statue, of course.
APOLLODORUS: But …
HADRIAN: It’s time we rid our city of that madman’s legacy.
APOLLODORUS: But the Colossus no longer represents Emperor Nero. The statue was modified decades ago. It’s now the solar deity Sol, personification of the sun.
HADRIAN: Be that as it may, I’m going to move it. Now, I’m thinking a low, stepped podium. Ten columns at each end and 20 down the sides, in the Corinthian order, naturally. And with some of the tallest columns denarii can buy — 50, 60 feet at least. Well? Say something!
APOLLODORUS: A temple of that size should be set on higher ground.
APOLLODORUS: Its scale will be lost down here. I suggest you excavate the area around it.
HADRIAN: And the interior? Two main chambers, one for each goddess. Seated back-to-back facing opposite directions.
APOLLODORUS: You have them seated?
HADRIAN: That’s right.
APOLLODORUS: What if they want to get up? If they stood up, they’d bump their heads!
HADRIAN: Enough! I could have you banished or put to death for saying that.
APOLLODORUS: You could. But the flaw in your design would still be there for all to see.
RICHARD FIDLER: Livia, the wife of Augustus, was one of the most powerful figures of her time. Here, she may be depicted as a priestess, as a model of modesty and Roman female virtue. Livia was both admired and feared. But did she really poison all those rivals to install her worthless son Tiberius on the throne?
PRIESTESS: I’m going to depart from my normal devotions because I want to tell you a story instead. The story is about two women.
Livia Drusilla, wife of the emperor Augustus, was never poor. At the age of 15 or thereabouts she married her first husband. When she was pregnant with her second child, she met Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. From here things moved fast. Octavian divorced his wife and instructed Livia’s husband to divorce her. Three days after she gave birth, Livia was married to the most powerful man in Rome. Livia found herself cast in the role of evil stepmother. A woman who would stop at nothing to promote the interests of her blood offspring.
Murderer! Murderer! Augustus and Livia had no children of their own. And for various reasons, the line of succession was uncertain. It’s true that Livia did want Tiberius, her elder son, to become emperor after Augustus. Now, let me tell you about Julia, Augustus’s only child. A sad tale. Julia was 16 when her first husband died. Keen for a grandson to take over the reins of government, Augustus arranged for her to marry a second time. The groom, a rich man more than 25 years her senior. Not surprisingly, her second husband passed away. Her father stepped in and forced yet a third marriage upon her. This time with Livia’s son, and Julia’s own stepbrother, Tiberius. The gossips say she had many extramarital affairs.
Augustus meanwhile was pushing through legislation promoting family values. As each new scandal involving his daughter came to light, public pressure on him to do something about his wayward daughter increased. So Augustus banished her to a tiny, almost uninhabited, island. Julia died from malnutrition not long after the death of Augustus.
May she and her father find concordia in the afterlife. Two hearts together, finally at peace.
RICHARD FIDLER: The emperors built grand temples on high ground for their gods of light and power. But the people’s cult of Mithras was just the opposite. Secretive, underground. Come down, down into a cave, the mithraem, to listen in on their ceremony.
ALCIMUS: Good evening! Brothers and initiates, welcome to the mithraem — our place of worship, our underground temple devoted to the god Mithras, a god of the sun. Because we have new faces among our gathering tonight, I’m going to explain a few things about our beliefs and rituals.
We are soldiers, tax officials, freedmen and imperial slaves. Middle people I’ve heard us called in some quarters. We are exclusively men. No women allowed. The first thing you’ll have noticed is that the mithraem is unlike any temple you know. My name is Alcimus. Above ground I’m a steward in the household of Livianus. Here I am pater. Father or leader. I rose to the rank of pater by completing seven stages of initiation. These trials lie ahead of you. These rituals of initiation will challenge you in body and spirit.
Let the emperor and empress, patricians and those of high-rank worship at the altar of Jupiter or Mars. Let us descend into caverns beneath the earth. Our divine Mithras was born of a rock. It was inside a cave, perhaps like this one, that he slayed the bull he’d pursued and created the cosmos.
See Mithras in his Persian cloak and Phrygian cap. See how he straddles the bull and forces it into submission. See how Mithras pulls back its head. See how he draws his dagger and plunges it deep into the bull. See the blood spurt. See it soak into the ground at the base of the altar. See the dog and serpent lap it up. Where once was blood, see ears of wheat spring forth.
From violent death springs vibrant life. So runs the mystery of Mithras.
RICHARD FIDLER: Mosaics were an extravagance found in the homes of wealthy Romans. They were made to be a talking point for guests. And what better way for a Roman family to show off their possessions than to host a lavish dinner party, darling.
COOK: They’re having a dinner party here tonight. That’s what I’m preparing. And they do love their meat. If it’s not meat, meat, meat, it’s fish, fish, fish with bread, bread, bread. The odd vegetable.
Now, I’m just a humble cook and if I ask my fellow cooks to nominate their favoured vegetable, they invariably reply, ‘Asparagus’. And it’s true people here dote on asparagus. Not me though. No. As vegetables go, my pick is the artichoke. I’m in good company. The great author and naturalist Pliny liked his artichokes. Eating artichokes can reverse baldness, promote the conception of boys, and unblock digestive pipes. And of course they’re considered an aphrodisiac.
I don’t know about that, I just like how they taste. And I like to spice things up. Once cooked, I leave the artichokes to cool, then douse them with honey and vinegar and season with cumin. This evening, I’m toasting them as well.
I’ve got a new assistant and he’s hopeless. Scared of his own shadow. He goes into the dining area, looks down at the mosaic and takes off screaming. It was seeing Phobos on the floor. I coaxed him back and explained that Phobos keeps us on our toes. Puts the fear of a god in us.
Hey! There’s work to be done. Get in here, you little weed! I said toast the artichokes, not set the place on fire. Get some water! Quick! Watch out!
RICHARD FIDLER: Nero is remembered as a delusional monster, the emperor who built a gigantic palace for himself, right in the centre of Rome. When it was completed Nero was said to have remarked: ‘Good. Now at last I can begin to live like a human being.’
ARTIST: This way.
DAUGHTER: Are you sure it’s alright for me to be here, Father?
ARTIST: After last night’s partying, they’re all fast asleep. So no-one will hear us tiptoe around. You asked me about my work.
DAUGHTER: I did.
ARTIST: So I thought I’d show you the frescoes I helped to make. Welcome to the Golden House. Emperor Nero’s grand new villa. DAUGHTER: Oh, Father, it’s amazing! I’ve never seen a room so adorned with gems. Is that mother-of-pearl? And such a beautiful scent! Where is that smell coming from?
ARTIST: Look up. See the pipes, running along the ceiling? They carry perfume to be showered upon the guests while dining. Keep looking at those panels. When I pull this lever ...
DAUGHTER: Oh, it revolves like the heavens. Are those fresh flowers pouring from the ceiling? They are! It’s really raining flowers! Stop, Father! Someone has to clean this up! Is the emperor in residence?
ARTIST: No. He’s away on a tour of Greece, I believe. Competing in various cultural and sporting contests.
DAUGHTER: And winning them, no doubt.
DAUGHTER: I’ve never seen such an excess of marble and gold leaf. It’s dazzling.
ARTIST: See this fresco here.
DAUGHTER: Sphinxes and acanthus plants.
ARTIST: And Leda.
DAUGHTER: Queen of Sparta.
ARTIST: Awaiting Zeus who’s disguised himself as a swan. Come along, there’s lots more to show you.
DAUGHTER: How do you make a fresco, Father?
ARTIST: We start with layers of plaster on the wall. We mix the dry pigment with water and merge it with the plaster. Sometimes we add powdered marble to the top layers to produce a sheen effect.
DAUGHTER: The colours are extraordinary.
ARTIST: We make black from burnt wood. Red from cinnabar. For blue we bake a mix of sand and copper.
DAUGHTER: What’s the most expensive colour?
ARTIST: That would be purple. We obtain that dye from sea snails.
DAUGHTER: I think people are waking up.
ARTIST: Come on, let’s go and get some breakfast. I expect you’re hungry.
RICHARD FIDLER: The Romans exported vast quantities of goods throughout the ancient world, such as wine and gold and silver coins, and they established complex trade networks that reached Persia, India, Africa and China. In return, they imported exotic commodities like perfumes, purple dye, silks and slaves. Wine sellers would sell cups of wine poured from large terracotta vessels like this amphora.
WINE SELLER: Come in, be joyful! Come in, let’s drink wine and toast Bacchus, god of the grape and all that flows from that divine fruit. Come on, come in and taste my intoxicating wares. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet but I think it’s fair to say that I’m considered by many to be Rome’s best wine merchant.
Phew, that’s heavy. We store the various wines in these amphorae. This one contains an excellent Falernian, Rome’s most prized varietal, made from late harvest grapes, crushed by the well-washed feet of slaves.
This amphora holds a dark wine of excellent quality from Spain. That one over there, a vintage of uncertain origin, most likely from Greece. In the corner, a wine for the travellers, spiced with honey and pepper. As you know we Romans prefer our wines white. We’re not barbarians. Mix one part water with two parts wine. Don’t speak of strife or war while drinking the blood of the vine. Wine prepares the heart for love and consoles if love doesn’t arise.
Drink with me, be young with me.
RICHARD FIDLER: Now, this toothpick and ear cleaner (yes, you heard that right) is part of the Hoxne Treasure, the largest trove of Roman silver and gold to ever be found in the soggy Roman outpost of Britain. It was discovered in the early 90s by an amateur detectorist. You know, those people who spend the weekend looking for buried metal objects with metal detectors? Every detectorist aspires to find buried treasure such as this.
DETECTORIST: This metal detector is the best retirement gift ever.
FARMER: Think I’d have taken the gold watch.
DETECTORIST: No. A watch just sits on your wrist whereas a metal detector gets me out the house. I haven’t found anything yet, but it’s the thrill of the chase. Oh! I’m picking up something. Pass me the trowel. Sorry, just a 50 pence coin. Here you go, it’s yours. Don’t spend it all at once.
FARMER: We are on my property after all.
DETECTORIST: Finders keepers I think you’ll find.
FARMER: Is that a rule you detectorists have made up?
DETECTORIST: Been the law for donkey’s years.
FARMER: Oh, yeah?
DETECTORIST: But if you find anything really valuable and it’s not clear who it belonged to, well then the Queen gets it, doesn’t she?
FARMER: Sounds promising.
DETECTORIST: Trowel, trowel. Quick!
FARMER: What is it? More coins?
DETECTORIST: Valentian the First, I suppose. These coins are old, and I mean seriously old. Even older than me.
FARMER: Look! There’s something else down there. Lots more objects. Go on, tell me what we’ve got.
DETECTORIST: Spoons. FARMER: Spoons?
DETECTORIST: Silver tableware by the looks of it. Here, take a look at this pointy ibis thingummyjimmy. Oh, it’s beautiful! Can’t see much use in it though.
FARMER: Looks to be Egyptian inspired. When they embalmed bodies, didn’t they stick things up the Pharaoh’s nose to pull out the brains?
DETECTORIST: Don’t be daft. And there’s jewellery. I reckon this bracelet is gold. It’s got an inscription on the inside. Your eyes are younger than mine, what does it say?
FARMER: Ut — Utere Felix Domina Juliane.
FARMER: What happens now?
DETECTORIST: Time to call in the archaeologists. They’ll excavate this properly. I do believe we’ve struck a genuine hoard of Roman treasure.
RICHARD FIDLER: The Goths were a Germanic people who clashed repeatedly with the Roman Empire along its borders. Sometimes the Goths wanted to take a piece of Roman territory for themselves. Other times they simply wanted to be admitted into the empire’s borders as citizens, but the Romans refused to accommodate them. As the empire’s strength began to wane, the Goths invaded Italy. One night in August in the year 410, the Goths reached the city of Rome itself.
PROJECTA: It’s common now that I can’t sleep the whole night through. It’s dark outside. But tonight, the stillness is broken. Turcius!
TURCIUS: Don’t wake the children. Not yet. Follow me. I’ve prepared the ground, dug a deep hole into the soil near the oak tree. Have you decided which items?
PROJECTA: I’ve sorted the jewellery. Counted the rings. I think we should bury these silver dishes. This one was a wedding gift. Do you remember? Our first supper together, just you and me. We piled it up with candied fruits and bursting dates and …
TURCIUS: I remember it well.
PROJECTA: And here, we should leave the silver and gold furniture fittings. They won’t be needed where we’re going.
TURCIUS: We should bury your mirror as well. I know you want to take it, but there’s only so much we can carry. I’m so sorry.
PROJECTA: Now to leave the olive trees we planted.
TURCIUS: Leave home and ...
PROJECTA: I’ve packed the things we’ll bring with us.
TURCIUS: We don’t need to take so much tonight. We’ll be back later.
PROJECTA: Will we?
TURCIUS: Time to take the children. Projecta! The barbarians are at the gates.
CHILDREN: Where are we going?
PROJECTA: We’re playing a game and everyone has to be quiet, as quiet as we can.
CHILDREN: But I don’t like this game. It’s cold.
TURCIUS: Close the door.
PROJECTA: Turn the key.
TURCIUS: Take my hand, Projecta. We’ll be alright.
PROJECTA: Turcius! I forgot the bronze lar statue from my grandmother. It will protect us. I can’t leave it!
TURCIUS: Forget it! There’s no time! Quickly now children, they’re coming! Don’t look back.
RICHARD FIDLER: Hercules was a god that Roman soldiers loved to worship. They drew strength from his legend — a story of epic voyages and of overcoming seemingly impossible tasks. A soldier posted to the provincial backwater of Britain, manning the defences on Hadrian’s Wall, might want to pray to this little golden god for solace on a dark and fearful night.
HERCULES: Allow me to introduce myself. Hercules, son of Jupiter, demigod. Surely, you’ve heard of me. I’m very popular with soldiers from all over the Roman Empire. Which is why I’m here, in a shrine somewhere along Hadrian’s Wall, at the very edge of the Roman Empire in its northernmost province.
The emperor Hadrian commissioned the wall after his visit to Britain, this gloomy, misty place. Three men tall, and just as wide, it’s rumoured to stretch from east to west, coast to coast across this wild land. To the north, the untamed wilderness inhabited by barbarians. To the south, the law and order of Roman civilisation.
The soldiers come from all over the empire. Africa, Gaul, Pannonia, Spain. They’re crammed in, eight men to a tent. I hear them writing their letters home:
‘Dearest, send me socks, a coat, underpants. Extra shoes please. I wish I could make it home for your birthday. It’s bitterly cold here in Britain, nothing but rain, rain, rain.’
Ugh. It can take a while for news from Rome to reach the forts up here along Hadrian’s Wall. Sounds like the barbarians are mounting another attack on the wall. You can hear the Roman soldiers rushing to the fray.
RICHARD FIDLER: Every aspect of Roman life has been studied, examined and pored over for centuries. But some objects are still something of a mystery to us. We don’t fully understand their meaning. Like this small statue. This was probably Tutela, a guardian goddess. But as you’ll see, she’s a bit of an enigma.
INVESTIGATOR: She’s a mystery. She’s what investigators like me call a cold case. No-one knows very much about her. We’ve called her Tutela, as Tutela means guardian or protector. And yes, she is a goddess. Most likely one whose role was to safeguard the city’s prosperity. At least, that’s the consensus. But there are other possibilities, and some people, including some with PhDs and letters after their names, dispute this identity.
Let’s examine the evidence. First question: Where was she found?
Imagine the scene. It’s a crisp March day in 1764. Sudden showers are frequent this time of year, but for now the sky is holding onto its blue. In the town of Mâcon in the Burgundy region of France, an agricultural labourer is at work in a vineyard. His spade hits something hard and metallic.
It was what came to be known as the Mâcon Treasure. Early reports suggested it comprised over 30,000 gold and silver coins, jewellery and plates from the late 2nd or 3rd century CE. There were also a number of silver figurines. Among them, this one of Tutela.
Look at her. In one hand she holds a libation dish. In the other a double cornucopia with busts of Apollo and Diana, god and goddess of the sun and moon, as well as various other things. Over her head, the planetary deities representing the seven days of the week.
Next question: How did she get from France to London? Well, soon after its discovery the bulk of the treasure disappeared. Probably melted down for the value of its gold and silver. For reasons we don’t know, Tutela escaped the furnace along with seven other statuettes and a plate.
So here she is. Tutela. Silver with some parts gilded. Provenance a mystery. The weight of time on her shoulders.
RICHARD FIDLER: The Romans saw Britain as a remote island on the very edge of the world, and they never fully conquered it. North of their border at Hadrian’s Wall was a cold and wild territory they called Caledonia, that we now know as Scotland. Sometimes the people north of the wall would pick up Roman materials and then refashion them in their own style. Like this armlet made of Roman metal, including brass.
MAG EACHAIDH: You might call it perverse but I always get a thrill out of transforming Roman instruments of violence, and coins made of brass, into Caledonian objects of beauty. What’s that you say? You can’t see the beauty in this armlet? Perhaps you will by the time I’ve finished with you. Step inside my workshop and I’ll tell you how it’s done.
What we have here is a bunch of broken-down weapons and pieces of armour that me and my mates here have been collecting from the Roman forts along a ridge nearby. Imagine the self-confidence of the Romans, coming all the way up here to the farthest reaches of their empire, thinking they could subdue Caledonia in the same way they defeated Britain. As a certain Gaulish comrade was fond of saying, these Romans are crazy!
Even more eloquent was Calgacus, one of our tribal chieftains. He led the Caledonian warriors into battle with the Romans at Mons Graupius. What was it he said about the Romans?
‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a wasteland and call it peace.’
Which brings us to this pile of detestable Roman weapons of war. How satisfying it is as a craftsman to toss them on the furnace then use the brass metal to fashion a decorative, native Caledonian armlet.
RICHARD FIDLER: Romans carved statues of women with smooth, calm faces. They didn’t really know how, or even wish to, present strong female personalities. This is a statue of the huntress Cyrene. Don’t be fooled by her demure face. One day, so the legend goes, Cyrene fought a lion to the death with her bare hands.
CYRENE: I can’t abide weaving or stay-at-home domestic tasks. I love to be out and about, here in the mountains, looking after my father’s sheep and cattle. I am Cyrene, the daughter of King Hypseus of the Lapiths. I protect the herds from beasts of prey with the aid of sword and spear.
And here are my two loyal hunting dogs, given to me by Artemis, goddess of the hunt and defender of young girls. But I need no defender. News of my great skill as a huntress has spread far and wide. The beasts keep their distance. If they know what’s good for them.
APOLLO: I, Apollo, have been travelling, and find myself in the north of Greece. But who is this? Wrestling a lion with her bare hands? I am overcome with feelings of love and desire. I will summon the centaur, Cheiron. Who is this woman, so brave and spirited, fearless as fire?
CHEIRON: Her name is Cyrene.
APOLLO: She is matchless.
CHEIRON: You will take her far from here, across the sea, to sunlit Africa with its tribes of summer bees.
CYRENE: I arrived in sunlit Africa. I who once was wild became an image carved in marble, pleasing to Apollo and the artisans of Rome. Compliant, but numb. I followed my god up every hill and into every abyss with my heart’s darkness growing ever darker. Until one day, he left me behind in Cyrene.
There is talk of immortality but I protest. I am more than Apollo’s echo. I will make my mark on history.
RICHARD FIDLER: Let me introduce you to Herta. Herta isn’t so much Roman as she is Palmyran. Herta lived in the ancient desert oasis city of Palmyra, on the far-eastern borders of the Roman Empire. Herta was a wealthy woman, and this statue was once placed in an elaborate mausoleum.
Palmyra was fabulously rich and was invaded over the centuries. Only recently, the city was occupied by the forces of Islamic State and some of its monuments were destroyed. In Herta’s time, Palmyra was controlled by the Romans, but only just.
HERTA: I am Herta. My father is Ogilu, son of Salmôi. My husband is Rabel, son of Yarhai Yat. I am the daughter of an ancient Semitic city, an oasis in the Syrian desert. The soil is rich, fed by springs. Twenty types of palm tree shade our colonnaded streets. From these towering trees my city derives its name: Palmyra.
For thousands of years, my city has offered refreshment and repose to merchants plying the ancient trade routes between east and west. Since the time of Tiberius we have paid tribute to Rome; been reckoned part of the Roman Empire. But in Palmyra we are a culture and a kingdom unto ourselves. Allied to the Roman Empire perhaps, but we are not provincial.
Two hundred and fifty years of Roman occupation is but a handful of sand in a vast Syrian desert. In Palmyra we have seen civilisations come and go. Though many have tried to destroy us, we remain defiant.
RICHARD FIDLER: The first thing you think when you look at this strange monument is that it must be a memorial, maybe a sarcophagus, for a Roman couple. But while the full figure of the woman can be seen, only the head and chest of the man is visible. It’s actually a bust of the dead man, being supported for all eternity by his extremely dutiful wife. His ashes would have been held in an urn beside her shoulder. The object is therefore a very elaborate setting for a funerary urn. Many of the details we have about ordinary Romans, particularly women, come from funerary monuments and their inscriptions. In this way, the dead speak to historians, archaeologists, and to you and me. Have a listen now to fragments of tombstone tributes. MAN
ON MONUMENT: Wayfarer! What brings you to this monument, to look upon my wife and me? The roads to Rome are lined with hundreds of tombs and monuments. They bear inscriptions with the names and occupations of the deceased. They’re begging to be read aloud, so that the memory of the dead might live on in this world. Listen. Do you hear the Di Manes, the spirits of the dead, calling?
HELVIA: I was Helvia Prima before my sad departure. The husband I enjoyed was Scrateius Cadmus, and we lived one in heart and twins in disposition. Now, led down by fatal fire and Stygian water, have I been given to the spirits to remain with him for long ages.
AURELIUS: She who went before me in death, my one and only wife, chaste in body, a loving woman of my heart possessed, lived faithful to her faithful man. In fondness equal to her other virtues. Never during bitter times did she shrink from loving duties. Aurelia, freedwoman of Lucius.
AURELIA: In life, I was given the name Aurelia Philematium. A woman chaste and modest, knowing not the crowd, faithful to her man.
ANONYMOUS MALE VOICE: Here is the unlovely tomb of a lovely woman. Her parents called her Claudia by name. She loved her husband with her whole heart. She bore two sons. Of these she leaves one on earth, and under the earth has she placed the other. She was charming in converse, yet proper in bearing. She kept house, she made wool. That's my last word. Go your way.
RICHARD FIDLER: The wedding of Bacchus and Ariadne that you can see on this sarcophagus seems to be in stark contrast to the imagery you’d expect at a funeral. There’s Bacchus, the god of wine and celebration, marrying his beloved mortal wife Ariadne, but in order to marry this god, Ariadne has to die. Could it be that Romans viewed death as just another rite of passage? Leaving one life and one family, for the joy of another?
GUEST 1: Smile, Ariadne, it’s your wedding. Welcome to the afterlife!
WEDDING GUEST 2: I never thought I’d see you this happy again. Not after, you know, what happened on Crete.
SNAKE HANDLER: We thought Greek tragedy for sure.
WEDDING GUEST 1: What did happen? I’ve heard rumours, but ...
ARIADNE: What happened on Crete was very nearly the end of me. Let me share from the beginning. My mother, Pasiphaë, fell in love with a bull.
WEDDING GUEST 2: And gave birth to the Minotaur.
WEDDING GUEST 1: Half-man, half-bull.
SNAKE HANDLER: Your half-brother.
ARIADNE: Yes. As you can imagine, my father, King Minos, was furious.
SNAKE HANDLER: Outraged.
WEDDING GUEST 2: Embarrassed.
ARIADNE: He imprisoned the Minotaur in a labyrinth. A huge maze from which it was impossible to escape.
ARIADNE: Then along came Theseus. He was …
VARIOUS CHARACTERS: Heroic! Adventurous! Dangerous!
ARIADNE: Condemned. To be sacrificed to the Minotaur. I developed feelings for him. They were intense, uncontrollable. He made me believe he felt the same passion for me.
WOMAN WITH FRUIT: So you helped the hero.
ARIADNE: I made a deal. Take me to Athens as your wife and I’ll help you kill the Minotaur.
SNAKE HANDLER: A fair trade.
ARIADNE: So, I gave him red yarn. He entered the labyrinth — dark, unnavigable. Yarn unravelling with every step. I waited at the entrance until he returned, retracing his path. The Minotaur? Slain.
WOMAN WITH FRUIT: What happened afterwards?
ARIADNE: We sailed away together on tempestuous seas until we reached the island of Naxos. I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the beach. When I awoke, I was alone on the island. Theseus had sailed away without me.
SNAKE HANDLER: Trickster!
WEDDING GUEST 2: Faithless mortal!
ARIADNE: I was absolutely distraught. I’d given up everything for this man. Now on this barren island I was stranded. With no love, no hope, no rescue on the horizon. A slow death.
SNAKE HANDLER: Until one day the god Bacchus appeared.
ARIADNE: Yes. And he was my red yarn. My rebirth.
SNAKE HANDLER: Here comes the groom with his merry train of satyrs and maenads.
ARIADNE: Bacchus! I was telling the guests how we came to meet. Only after Theseus abandoned me and left me to die.
BACCHUS: Ariadne, do you love me? ARIADNE: You know I do.
BACCHUS: Then let us forget what’s gone before. We shall live in joy, united forever in the afterlife.
RICHARD FIDLER: Dear listener, our journey through the Roman Empire is drawing to a close.
The stories around Ancient Rome are so colourful — full of conflict, family infighting, assassinations, the rise and fall of great powers — that the Romans can almost seem fictitious to us, living 2000 years later on the far side of the world.
But of course they were human beings just like us, preoccupied by similar things to us: family, career, status, love and death. At times, though, they can seem very distant to us. Like the way they seemed to be so comfortable with things like slavery and blood sport in the arena.
The conceptual force of Roman-ness, the very idea of being Roman, which sustained the empire, persists to the present day, and has travelled far beyond its geographical boundaries.
The Romans never quite made it to Australia, but Ancient Rome still lingers today through the language we speak, the words we use to frame our governments, our legal systems, and the shape and materials of our cities.
So as the Romans used to say: Amor vincit omnium [sic] — love conquers all. And Barba non facit philosophum — a beard does not make a philosopher. But it does make a barista.
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