'Shutting the stable door: four lost Roman bronze horses'

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


While the everyday in Mediterranean society has received some attention in the last few decades, an area which has so far been little studied is the creation of extraordinary art out of ordinary objects. In some cases - such as elaborately-decorated spindle whorls - this may have been a purely personal act to identify the object or to make it more pleasing to use. In other cases such as gravestones, the particularization of the ordinary created such competition that it led to laws of austerity being imposed in certain places, and on a very broad scale, the detailed and masterly decoration given to cheap ceramic vessels in Greece has proved lastingly hard to explain.

‘Shutting the stable door: four lost Roman bronze horses’ This paper explores the evidence for four Roman ’bronze’ equestrian statues erected in Rome during the 1st century BC to 4th century AD. All four were lost as artefacts, but have survived for modern study through poetry, histories, epigraphy, numismatic iconography, and excavation of their original sites. These were the statues erected to honour Iulius Caesar, Domitian, Trajan and Constantius II. Their individual narratives became intimately interwoven because of their close physical proximity and their charged political dimensions. They were extraordinary artworks in terms of scale and fame. However, like so many images of deities, honorific dedications, and other statuary imported to the imperial capital and erected at key points in the urbanscape, they would also have become very familiar in the lives of Rome’s residents. Such works might become almost ‘invisible’ yet play an active part in both the imagined city and the practical patterns of diurnal and seasonal pathways. Urban Romans well knew the city’s prominent artworks, using them as popular toponyms and as meeting places. The equestrian statues may be compared to the statue parlante of the Renaissance and modern city, or to 'The Mucky Angel' in Newcastle upon Tyne (a Boer War Memorial with a Victory on the top: 'mucky' because it was a traditional meeting point for courting couples). Only one actual equestrian statue survives in Rome from the ancient period (Marcus Aurelius, now in the Piazza di Campidoglio), but there would have been an accumulation of scores over time. Unfortunately these artefacts were eminently recyclable. They could be seen as ‘everyday’ in the sense of well-recognised images, frequently encountered in towns throughout the Roman empire, but also as ‘extraordinary artworks’, the echoes of which in the varied evidence were not silenced by mere physical obliteration. Thus the everyday became extraordinary in the context of the imperial metropolis, yet the extraordinary became everyday in the lives of metropolitan Romans.
Period22 Apr 2016
Event titleMaking the Ordinary Extraordinary
Event typeOther