Reconstruction notes

Visualizing Statues in the Late Antique Roman Forum:  Reconstruction Notes

Gregor Kalas, University of Tennessee


The digital reconstruction of the Roman Forum featured on this web site was produced in order to assess the open-air installations of statues during the fourth and fifth centuries CE.  Many of the late antique portrait statues depicted individuals of the highest rank in the later Roman empire who wished to trigger associations with Rome’s past.  Given that none of the statues survive, research was pursued to determine the optimal three-dimensional strategies with which to represent the dynamic role of memory in urban space.  Inscribed statue bases furnish the most important testimony to understanding the displays.  Only two late antique bases from the Forum still remain at their original display spots (figures 1 and 2). Yet, pavement indentations mark the original placement of some additional statues; further testimony emerges from the documented modern find spots of the statue bases.  Based on the archeological testimony indicating the original display contexts, the current project developed visualization strategies that tested how individual commemoration was mapped in urban space.  Some of the main issues that we addressed using digital models concerned the sight lines and axes along which statues were displayed; we also sought to understand experiential sequences so as to explain the juxtapositions between adjacent or facing installations.  Digital representation was integral to the research methods pursued for this project.  Even though visualization primarily served as an analytic tool, disseminating the outcomes of the research remained a priority.  A major focus of the investigation concerned the correlations between statues and the highly formalized ritual ceremonies in which non-resident emperors staged processions through the Forum.  The core question posed was:  Did statues preserve memories of the rare personal appearances staged by emperors in the Forum?

Figure 1: Statue base of Constantius II in front of the Senate House in Rome (photo:author).

Figure 2: Statue base of Honorius on the Sacred Way (photo: author).

Ritual Space

Research on the ritual significance of the late antique Roman Forum focused on the last official imperial procession in Rome that resembled a triumph:  the celebration in 404 CE of the sixth consulship of emperor Honorius (ruled 395-423).  One reason to focus on Honorius’ procession results from the clearly attested display locations of four statues that distilled Honorius’ ritual concepts (CIL.VI.1187=SRF 11; 1730=SRF 33; 1731=SRF 34; and 31987=SRF 53).  A highly informative poetic text written by Claudian, On the Sixth Consulate of Honorius, was read to Honorius as an official panegyric at the culmination of the festivities.  The correlation between Honorius’ movement through the city and the manner in which the emperor was accompanied by his chief military commander, Stilicho, explains key features of the statues displayed in the Forum, since two pairs of installations joined representations of Honorius together with Stilicho as if they constituted a co-ruling team (figure 3). Much of the significance of the two statue pairs can be derived from the exclusively imperial nature of the Forum’s central area.  Of all the fourth-century statues known to have been displayed in the central area of the Forum, only one statue of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus presented the portrait of a senator who had not achieved imperial status and this display was pursued only after the senatorial assembly approved the exceptional honor (CIL.VI.1779a=SRF 37).  Stilicho’s portraits at their original display spots must have been controversial, since the military commander born to a Vandal father was excluded from the right to present his portraits in the central area of the Forum.  Stilicho’s violation of protocol was legitimized through his claim to membership, through marriage, in the imperial family.

Figure 3: Digital reconstructions of Honorius and Stilicho statues; on the Sacred Way in the foreground; on top of the western Rostra in the middle ground (©Regents of the University of California).

Representational Approach

Graphic Considerations.  The models we prepared representing the late antique Roman Forum deploy visual clues that tie degrees of verisimilitude to the levels of evidence substantiating the imagery.  The statues rendered in detail feature colors and imagery to point out that archeological and epigraphic testimony documents the height, subject, and original display location of these artworks.  Blank figures rendered in dark green tones, by contrast, depict statues for which archeological or epigraphic testimony ambiguously indicates a display context.  Consequently, rather than illustrating precisely how the Roman Forum appeared  during the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the graphic strategies we implemented united archeologically grounded representation with some conjecturally positioned statues so as to facilitate research concerning the spatial implications of the statuary on display.  The representational approach provides clues to the viewer about the degree to which the reconstruction is hypothetical.

Spatial Considerations.  A governing principle in the development of the visualization techniques involved the ability to explore the movement of viewers through space while also illustrating the scale and arrangement of different statues.  Two key priorities emerged in the course of research:  the browsing environment needed to both accessibly showcase the known coordinates of precisely localized statues and facilitate movement through the reconstructed space.  Topographically localized models situated in Google Earth allowed for the integration of precise geographic coordinates into the digital reconstruction.  The “HyperCities” platform using satellite imagery that associates architectural, cultural, and textual developments from the historical past at the appropriate geographic coordinates provides the interface for the models (  Facilitating transmission by reducing the download time of models accessed through a web interface allowed us to disseminate the results optimally, paving the way to receiving crucial feedback.   Also, linking the geographic coordinates for each statue with the year of its production allows one to chart the development of the installation over time by controlling the time slider.  After exploring interesting urbanistic implications of statues displayed in the Forum throughout late antiquity, we have featured key moments of the display in the “Spatial Context” portion of the website.

Textual Considerations.  Identifying the moment of production for each statue was facilitated by the inscriptions that list the patron together with the office held, usually the urban prefecture with only a one-year term.  The inscribed statue bases lacking clear prosopographical information were associated with the earliest possible date of manufacture.  All of the inscriptions are associated with geographic coordinates in the “Mapping Statues” portion of the website; links to the catalogue entries for each statue’s inscription are also listed in the “Inscription Database” section.

Sculptural Considerations.  As a visualization project seeking to test hypotheses concerning the ritual implications of statues that embedded memories into urban space, the scheme for presenting digital representation of statues had to enable relative ease of navigation.   Yet, the most pressing challenge faced in producing the models concerned ways of indicating the degree of certainty (or uncertainty) about where some of the statues originally stood.  In short, the reconstructed statues presented with photographic imagery have clearly identified subjects and can be traced to documented original display locations (figure 4), while blank figures indicate the conjectural nature of either the subject or the placement of those works (figure 5). Statues illustrated with photographs mapped onto flat surfaces, appearing as “billboards,” adopt imagery from late antique statues or diptychs from locations outside of the Roman Forum or from other cities in the later Roman empire.  Both the blank and the photographic “billboards” maintain a rusted green tonality to indicate that bronze was used for most of the Forum’s portrait statues; a low number of statues were made of silver plated bronze and these are rendered accordingly.  Statues in late antique fora lined the edges of the pathways or public squares or were placed under the porticoes or arcades of buildings, which can be deduced from the survival of statue bases at their original display spots in Aphrodisias (Asia Minor) and in Cuicul (North Africa).  We tested and rejected schemes of composing three-dimensional digital statues, because it was impossible to produce legible results using a low enough number of polygons to enable internet transmission.  “Billboards” situated on top of statue bases transform the appearance of statues into flat panels for which the two-dimensionality expresses conjecture about the reconstruction.   Overall, the advantages of the flat “billboards” outweigh the disadvantages, we determined, since our goal was to produce a digital model that could be transmitted using a web interface.  To be sure, awkwardness results.  For example, some of the reconstructed statues present the thin sides of flat panels, while other “billboards” turn toward the viewer.  As a result, the “billboards” fail to capture the directionality of the displays.  Nonetheless, one can note that the primary inscribed face of a base usually correlates with the frontal aspect of the statue.

Figure 4: Digital reconstruction of equestrian statue of Constantine in the Roman Forum (©Regents of the University of California).

Figure 5: Digital reconstruction of statue sponsored by Gabinius Vettius Probianus in front of the Basilica Julia (©Regents of the University of California).

Most of the late antique inscriptions localized in the Forum clearly indicate the subject of the statue; yet, the highly damaged statue bases with fragmented texts contain little if any information about the subjects.  Statue bases attested in transcriptions of the epigraphic evidence when the original inscribed marble surface is lost are reconstructed without the use of photographic imagery.  In these cases, it was impossible to determine the original scale of either the statue base or the statue that appeared on top.  A surviving inscribed base, by contrast, proves to be a powerful indicator of scale due to the strong correlation between the size of the plinth and the height of the statue resting upon it.

Models indicating the spatial relationships among the Roman Forum’s late antique statues furnished an understanding of the coordination between rituals and displays.  Due to the organization of numerous imperial portraits along processional routes and near the rostra or the Senate House, each new installation referenced the memories of earlier rulers depicted nearby.  The axial alignment among portraits implied a notional community, which can be documented for the statues of Honorius and Stilicho that face a Theodosian dynastic monument located in the piazza in front of the Senate House.  The spatial relationship among these statues and the topographical specificity of the accompanying inscriptions can be demonstrate to reinforce the ideological messages of the ritual performance so as to bolster Honorius’ legitimate claim to reinstate his family’s past and Stilicho’s more polemical insistence on claiming the same heritage.  In short, the spatial analysis conducted through the visualization of the Roman Forum demonstrated that statues of rulers activated memories of Rome’s history and the imperial past to advance the propagandistic messages of imperial processions.

Historical Issues

Relatively few statues originating from the period prior to Diocletian (i.e., before the beginning of his reign in 284 CE) appear in the model.  During the reign of Carinus in 283 CE, a devastating fire destroyed the rostra in the Roman Forum, the Basilica Julia, and the Senate House, as the Chronography of 354 CE attests; all three of the structures were rebuilt by Diocletian together with his co-emperor Maximian (Chronographus anni CCCLIIII, 148 M, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctorum Antiquissimorum, vol. 9).  Prior to this event, the Forum was entirely repaved during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE), as the archeologists Cairoli Fulvio Giuliani and Patrizia Verduchi have proven (L’area central del Foro Romano, Florence, 1987, p. 184).  Some statues dating from before the reign of Diocletian, including the sculptural relief inserted into the Lacus Curtius and the quadriga capping the Arch of Septimius Severus, have been included.  Since the evidence from the third-century repavement followed by the fire of Carinus suggests that the statues preceding Diocletian’s reign had been extensively uprooted from their original locations, the model represented here focuses on the late antique installations as forming a coherent display.  One juxtaposition between a late antique monument and earlier statues remained significant during the early fifth century CE, however.  A monument commemorating the co-ruling brothers Honorius and Arcadius appropriated the Trajanic sculptural reliefs (the Anaglypha Traiani) to compose a modified form of a triumphal arch.  One face of these reliefs illustrates a pairing of a Marsyas statue next to a statue of a fig tree (the trunk emerges from a statue base).  The statue of Marsyas, represented on coins as early as the first century BCE, appears in the central area of the Roman together with what we have determined to be statues resembling olive and fig trees.  It can be hypothesized that the Marsyas group was restored after the fire of Carinus in 283 CE.

The importance of the Marsyas group to the late antique Roman Forum hinges on our reconstruction of the unique type of triumphal arch that commemorated Honorius together with his brother Arcadius.  Epigraphic evidence suggests that the senate sponsored the arch to recognize the legitimacy of Honorius and Arcadius as rightful holders of imperial offices, Honorius in the western half of the Roman empire and Arcadius in the eastern realm.  The modified arch featuring inscriptions and reused Trajanic sculptural reliefs provided a relatively short and narrow passageway through which honored members of the imperial cortege marched so they could follow the trajectory marked by the street known as the Argiletum near its intersection with the Sacred Way (figure 6). The Trajanic reliefs were rediscovered in 1872 installed on top of the travertine foundation stones that still remain embedded in the Forum pavement.  Identifying this arch is also based on a correlation between the surviving fragments of the inscription text, much of it copied during the Renaissance, with the panegyric Claudian delivered in 404 CE.   On the main marble panel the inscription celebrates the imperial brothers for “protecting the Roman people from the rebellion and gladly reinstating Africa” (CIL.VI.1187=SRF 11).  A smaller architrave states that “mighty Honorius defended Libya” (CIL.VI.31256:  (a)RMIPOTENS LIBY(c)UM DEFENDIT HONORIUS).  In Claudian’s panegyric the personified Rome speaks directly to the emperor, stating that the city’s inhabitants had “built an arch that featured your name through which you in your radiant toga might walk and [Rome] was busy consecrating monuments to your battles with inscriptions honoring Libya’s defense” (Claudian, De VI Consolatu Honorii 367-373: defensam Libyam testata perenni).  The textual similarities between the inscription and Claudian’s panegyric substantiate the idea that an arch had been constructed out of the Trajanic sculptural reliefs.  It was determined that the structure was too small to support the weight of vaulting after representing this as a model (figure 7). Another alternative was to create a table-like assembly of a flat marble platform resting on top of the inscription panel that had been inserted upon one of the Trajanic reliefs (figure 8).  We rejected this proposal, since it was unclear how a series of large, marble panels could be installed to span the width of the monument.  Our final reconstruction, as featured here, utilizes a series of arches in a row to support the roof upon which appears an equestrian statue on top presumably depicting Honorius (figure 9).  Claudian mentions two white horses, but these probably were the ones pulling the emperor’s chariot along the Sacred Way.  It would be impossible to situate a four-horse quadriga on top of this small arch; thus, a single equestrian statue was hypothetically reconstructed as the capping element for the arch.

Figure 6: Plan of the Roman Forum c. 400 CE: (1) Argiletum; (2) Sacred Way (plan: Marie Saldaña).

Figure 7: Version one of reconstructed Arch of Honorius in the Roman Forum (©Regents of the University of California).

Figure 8: Version two of reconstructed Arch of Honorius in the Roman Forum (©Regents of the University of California).

Figure 9: Final version of reconstructed Arch of Honorius in the Roman Forum (©Regents of the University of California).

Future Research

Investigating the statues displayed in the Roman Forum from the period of Diocletian until the end of Theoderic’s Ostrogothic kingship of Italy in 526 CE highlights the ritual significance of statues in the Roman Forum that preserved memories of imperial officeholders.  It is hoped that feedback can contribute to the future refinement of this approach to digital scholarship.  More importantly, the digital environment we have developed is available as a platform in which other scholars can conduct historical research about the Roman Forum in late antiquity.