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The Antonine Dynastic Gallery at Sagalassos August 27, 2008
by Marc Waelkens
Photos courtesy Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

A head of the emperor Marcus Aurelius has been found at the Roman Baths


Head of the Hadrian statue discovered in 2007

The Statues

Toward the end of July 2007, my team of archaeologists from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) discovered in the largest room of the Roman Baths at Sagalassos pieces of a colossal, ca. 5 m tall statue of the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), including a 0.7 m tall head, the lower part of the right leg and the joining 0.8 m long foot. These fragments are currently on display in the rotunda of the British Museum where they form the center piece of the exhibition "Hadrian: Empire and Conflict." We found these fragments in the rubble partly filling a large (1,250 square meter) cross-shaped and mosaic floored room, most likely a frigidarium or cold bath. This room has three large niches on both the west and on the east side. Carbon 14 dating of the pellets (regurgitated food remains) of a couple of owls living in the ruins suggested a date between A.D. 540 and 620, most likely around A.D. 590, for the building's partial collapse during a massive earthquake. The find spot of Hadrian statue--in the southwest niche of the room, on top of a thick mortar layer fallen from the vaulted ceilings--seemed to suggest at first that the fragments had been brought there to remove the probably gilded bronze armor of the emperor, to even to burn these huge marble pieces in a nearby lime kiln to make cement, or both. Yet, other remains of colossal statues were once in this room, possibly as the result of recycling, as shown by the front part of two female feet, standing on the floor and surrounded by mosaics which still follow the contours of the female statue's long dress. These feet were found in the southeastern niche of the room, suggesting some relationship with the presence of Hadrian in the southwest niche. Therefore, we now believe that the female feet once belonged to a statue of Hadrian's wife, the empress Vibia Sabina.


The head of the empress Faustina the Elder


The feet of Sabina

This year, on Tuesday, August 12, the same excavation team discovered another colossal head (height: 0.76 m; width from ear to ear 0.48 m) about 6 m from where we found Hadrian, though higher in the rubble. This head, later followed by a 1.25 m long right arm and the front part of a pair of female feet wearing sandals decorated with an ivy leave, as was also the case with Sabina's feet, occupied the eastern central niche of the room. Once we turned the head over, we could see it was a clearly more mature woman than the normal Sabina type of portrait, with large almond shaped eyes (only the tear-channels are carved, not the iris or pupils as became usual during the reign of Hadrian), fleshy thick lips, and hair parted in the middle of the front and taken in wavy strains below and around the ears toward the back. The rendering of the hair was done with only sparing use of the drill, a feature characteristic of portraits of Antonine empresses, this is in sharp contrast with the beards and at the end also to 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 indicates it is the latter. Except for the circlet, the best (and even more colossal) parallel is a portrait (with the same treatment of the eyes) of the Elder Faustina (H.: 1.45 m) from Sardis, which is part of The British Museum's permanent collection. The portrait also represents the empress at a younger age, i.e. younger than in Sardis portrait.

After this discovery, we believed that the western niches of the room contained colossal statues of the Antonine emperors starting with Hadrian, and the eastern niches had statues representing their spouses. In the following days we did, in fact, find in the niche opposite Faustina the front part of a pair of male feet in sandals with a leather stretch fixed to the ankles. Although we found no other statue fragments here, these feet, because of the Elder Faustina presence in the opposite niche, can only have belonged to her husband, the emperor Antoninus Pius. Unlike Hadrian the newly found Marcus Aurelius, he was represented as a togatus (wearing the Roman toga) instead of the armor of an army commander. (The statues of both Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius showed them in richly decorated military boots.) This can easily be explained by the fact, that contrary to Hadrian, who spent most of his life traveling and fighting, Antoninus Pius never had to take up weapons and even never left Italy.


Newly found head of Marcus Aurelius

After this find, we expected that the northwestern niche of the room would contain a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius, the longest-surviving successor of Antoninus Pius. (Lucius Verus, his co-regent and husband of his daughter Lucilla, died before him).

On Wednesday, August 20, our hypothesis proved to be right: early in the morning a pair of colossal legs (height to just above the knee: ca. 1.70 m) turned up in the rubble, which contained the statue's right hand and arm. This arm (length 1.55 m) held a globe in its hand, which was probably once crowned by a gilded bronze Victory. While the other vaults had apparently survived the A.D. 590 earthquake, so that the statues in them were still accessible and could be dismantled, the northwestern niche seems to have collapsed. The statue of the emperor was composite, that is his torso was certainly made of bronze armor with a terracotta or wooden fill. We believe that when the niche collapsed, the torso catapulted away, while all the heavy marble parts fell down in the original position. The torso may have remained accessible and was subsequently recycled.

The colossal head (height 0.90 m) represents the young emperor Marcus Aurelius (most of his hair and bear except of some strains of his feathery beard are carved by means of a chisel and only a few parts drilled). The emperor wore exquisitely carved army boots covered with a lion skin and decorated with tendrils and Amazon shields. His characteristic bulging eyes are half concealed by heavy eyelids, whereas the lentoid-shaped pupils, an innovation of his reign, make them gaze upward as if in deep contemplation, perfectly fitting to an emperor who was more of a philosopher than of a soldier, although he had to spend most of his life fighting Germans along the Austrian Danube, where in A.D. 180, he eventually died in nearby Carnuntum. This new portrait is one of the nicest representing the young emperor ever found. It was probably ordered and completed around A.D. 165, when the construction of the huge bath complex, initiated under Hadrian (ca. A.D. 120) and dedicated to Marcus Aurelius, then only four years into his reign (A.D. 138-161). It thus is almost a certainty, that the unexcavated northeastern niche of the room will yield remains of a statue of the Younger Faustina, Marcus Aurelius' wife, when we dig there next year.

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Marcus Aurelius' arm, legs, and feet were found in the rubble.

Meaning and Original Location of the Statues

All of the statues seem to have been carved in the beautiful and exquisite and expensive white Docimian marble (Afyon "seker" or "bal"). Despite a distance of more ca. 250 km separating the quarries from Sagalassos, the city is full of Docimian marble. Used for statuary or as wall veneer, it illustrates the enormous wealth of Sagalassos, which like the rest of the empire reached the peak of its prosperity from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius. The demand for this white Docimian marble was so great that we have signatures of a dynasty of Docimian sculptures living and working during several generations in Sagalassos. It is also striking that all preserved portrait heads of the two emperors and one empress represent them during the first years of their reign, which is also the case with the Marcus Aurelius statue. To understand the reason for this, one has to search for in the original location of the statues. In fact, their presence in the six southern niches of what was perhaps the large cold-water room or frigidarium of the complex is clearly a secondary use, as implied by the absence of real statue bases in the niches. They originally must have occupied a continuous socle elevating them even more than their mere size already did, in the central space of the complex, where we found the six-meter long dedicatory inscription of A.D. 165. Such rooms representing the imperial house, were characteristic for the larger bath complexes of Anatolia (as known from Ephesos, Sardis, Aizanoi, etc.) and are either referred to as "Kaisersaal" (emperors' room) or "Marmorsaal" (marble room, because of their rich marble wall veneer and floors).

The first couple to be worshiped in that room must have been the young Hadrian and Vibia Sabina. Hadrian had a special relationship with the city, which he promoted to become the official center of the emperors' cult in this region (Pisidia), to whom he gave the title of being "the first city of Pisidia, friend and ally of the Romans," which brought the city all kinds of supplementary advantages because of the yearly festivals attracting thousands of Pisidians to Sagalassos. Moreover somewhere in the middle of his reign, he also moved Sagalassos from the province of Asia (with its capital at Ephesos) with which it had no special economic ties, to the province of Lycia and Pamphylia, to which Pisidia was added. This reflected much better economic realities as all import and export to or from Sagalassos passed through the Pamphylian ports, especially Perge, on the Mediterranean coast to the south with which Sagalassos was connected by the Via Sebaste, the southern main highroad created by Augustus in 6 B.C. This explains why Sagalassos has monuments and pubic buildings that surpassed the needs of the local population: they served all of Pisidia during imperial festivals. These include the Odeon (seating 2,000), the Roman Baths (one of the largest in Anatolia), the theater (seating 9,000), and monumental nymphaea (fountains), of which one was dedicated to Hadrian in A.D. 129-132. The fact that the huge bath complex was completed in only about 45 years may even suggest an imperial patron. After the death of Hadrian, statues of his adoptive son Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina the Elder must have joined those of Hadrian and Vibia Sabina in the "Kaisersaal." Finally, at the dedication of the baths in A.D. 165, Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger must have joined the group of statues. Other members of the family, such as Aelius Caesar, Hadrian's first adoptive son, who died before his adoptive father, as well as Lucius Verus and his wife Lucilla, to whom the baths were also dedicated in A.D. 165, were most likely present in the same room, but were not moved the niches of the frigidarium of the complex, which only took in the longest living and most powerful emperors. This transfer from the "Kaisersaal" to the six niches of the frigidarium probably took place in the later 4th century A.D., when the imperial cult was abolished and the "Kaisersaal" transformed into a third hot water room or caldarium.

A Spanish Dynasty Ruling the Roman Imperial Empire


Marcus Aurelius

During the Julio-Claudia dynasty (from Augustus to Nero, 27 B.C.-A.D. 68), emperors and their spouses belonged to Rome's most prominent aristocratic families. Their Flavian successors (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, ruling from A.D. 69 to 96) were of Italiote stock. Following the assassination of Domitian a new dynasty arose, largely of Spanish provincial origin, beginning with Nerva (A.D. 96-98).

Already old when selected as the successor of Domitian, Nerva adopted Trajan, a descendant of Roman colonists established in southern Spain, as his successor and adoptive son. M. Ulpius Trajanus was born in Italica (Seville in Spain) and married to Pompea Plotilla, who some say belonged to a family from Nemausus (Nimes in Provence), while others says she was a full nice of Trajanus and also of Spanish descent. The lack of a male heir forced Trajan to adopt a son, for whom he selected P. Aelius Hadrianus, or Hadrian, the son of Aelius Hadrianus Afer, who was also originally from Seville and belonged to the circle of Spanish aristocrats around Trajan. Hadrian's mother, Domitia Paulina, was again of Spanish descent, being born at Cadiz.

Despite the fact that he was gay, Hadrian was forced to marry Vibia Sabina, daughter of Salona Matidia, herself the daughter of Trajan's sister Ulpia Marciana. (Sabina was only 14 years old and the marriage was possibly never consummated; she died in A.D. 136-137.) 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, possibly born at Nimes, who married the daughter of Annius Verus, a family friend from Ucibe (in Baetica, Spain). Through her marriage (at the age of ten !), she became the empress Annia Galeria Faustina (the Elder). In contrast with the messy marriage of Hadrian and Sabina, Faustina the Elder and Antoninus Pius had a happy marriage, lasting 31 years until Faustina's death in A.D. 141 and after her death the emperor never remarried during the remaining 20 years of his reign.

While adopting Antoninus Pius as his son and successor, Hadrian tried to assure the future of the dynasty by forcing the latter to adopt two sons. One was Faustina's brother's son M. Annius Verus, who would rule as Marcus Aurelius and marry Faustina's daughter, Faustina the Younger. The second was the son of Aelius Caesar, L. Ceionius Commodus, better known as Lucius Verus, who would marry Marcus Aurelius' daughter Lucilla.

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). This more humble position of the Antonine empresses may reflect their provincial, predominantly Spanish origin as well as the fact that in this family of "adopted emperors" none of them would ever be an emperor's mother (the sole exception being Faustina the Younger, whose son Commodus would turn out to be a monster and be assassinated in A.D. 193, opening the way for another provincial dynasty, the Severans of North Africa.