Friday, January 31, 2014


The Campus Martius – in Italian, Campo Marzio – is the heart of old Rome. Largely spared the indiscriminate demolitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its ancient fabric harbors many a fugitive remembrance of things past: here, in a propitious moment, it is possible to have a fleeting impression of the Rome that captivated Gibbon and Goethe, Byron and Stendhal.

One of the oldest streets of the quarter is Via del Pellegrino, which forms part of a network of ancient roadways whose layout is fossilized in the modern street-system. In the days of the Julio-Claudian emperors, these roadways traversed green fields that opened to the west of the porticoes, theaters and baths for which the Campus Martius was famous. Today they are dark and evocative alleys etched into the dense accretion of the mediaeval city. At the northwest end of Via del Pellegrino, set into the façade of an undistinguished building, is a block of stone inscribed with the following text:


Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Drusus, Supreme Pontiff, vested with the Tribunician power for the ninth time, Consul for the fourth, Censor, Father of his Country, upon the enlargement of the territory of the Roman people increased and delimited the pomerium.

The stone was excavated on the opposite side of the street. Unlike most such artifacts, which are almost invariably removed to museums, it was set up at a location near its find-site. The left side is damaged: in the transcription, the lower-case characters enclosed in brackets represent lost text. These portions can be restored with confidence from the text that survives in various degrees of preservation on a handful of identical stones commemorating the same occasion.

That occasion, as the inscription declares, was the Emperor Claudius’ extension of the pomerium – Rome’s sacred boundary. In antiquity, the pomerium formed the religious limit of a city that had been augurally constituted – that is, one whose territory had been ‘inaugurated’ by the public diviners (augures) who interpreted the will of the gods. The number of such cities was quite small: it included Rome herself, her Latin neighbors and her colonies – those cities, in other words, which shared the characteristic foundation-ritual of the ancient Latin peoples. In that ritual, a bullock and a heifer were yoked to a plow, and a furrow was drawn around the site of the new town. The pomerium was identified with the ridge of earth raised by the plow-share on the inner side of the furrow. According to tradition, it was Romulus himself who had traced the original pomerium of Rome.

As evidenced by his interest in the archaic and obsolete pomerium, Claudius was a man of scholarly – if not indeed pedantic – disposition. He is said to have written a monograph on the Etruscans and, improbable as it may seem in an emperor, we have it on the authority of Suetonius and Tacitus that he devoted considerable attention to the matter of spelling-reform. In the present inscription, a clue to his concern with the matter is seen in the archaic spelling CAISAR instead of CAESAR. Historical linguists in fact confirm that as early as the first century BC, the pronunciation of the diphthong AE – originally pronounced something like the English aye – had already begun to mutate into the vowel heard today in the Italian Cesare and the French and Spanish César. The unfamiliar spelling favored by Claudius was evidently intended to ensure that the imperial name at least would be pronounced correctly!

This nicety did not exhaust the emperor’s orthographic zeal. According to the historians, he went so far as to introduce three altogether new characters into the Latin alphabet: Ⅎ, Ͻ and Ⱶ. Each addressed some deficiency in the traditional spelling of Latin. For example, the word vinum (‘wine’, pronounced weenum) was written VINVM – that is, the letter V did double duty for the consonant sound W and the vowel sound U. The Claudian letter Ⅎ disambiguated the spelling by providing a distinctive symbol for the consonant: ℲINVM. In the present inscription, the new letter appears twice in the last line: [a]MPLIAℲIT TERMINAℲITQ (i.e., ampliavit terminavitque, with suspension of the final syllable).

The letter Ͻ was introduced to represent the combination PS, which was sometimes spelled PS, as in auceps (‘bird-catcher’) and sometimes BS, as in caelebs (‘unmarried’). In the Claudian orthography, these became AVCEϽ and CAELEϽ.

Finally, there was a Latin vowel that in pronunciation fell somewhere between the sound of U and I. Thus we find variations in spelling such as monimentum / monumentum and maximus / maxumus. In the Claudian system, these words are represented as MONⱵMENTVM and MAXⱵMVS.

Spelling-reform has a reputation for failure – a reputation corroborated by the fortunes of Claudius’ effort. The new characters are found with some frequency in the inscriptions of his own reign; thereafter, all three fell into complete and permanent disuse. Nevertheless, in a development that would doubtless have pleased the emperor, in 2006 the Claudian letters were included in version 5.0.0 of Unicode.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


According to legend, the Palatine Hill was the birthplace of Rome: here, on 21 April 753 BC, Romulus took the auspices and traced the pomerium (sacred boundary) that defined the nascent city. Over the succeeding centuries, a thatched hut said to have been built by Romulus was not only preserved but piously restored whenever damaged by wind or rain. When Caesar Augustus fixed his residence in Rome, it was on the same corner of the Palatine as the hut of Romulus. In the tradition of Rome’s founder seven centuries before, the first emperor lived in exemplary modesty, preferring to dignify his residence not with exotic marbles and costly furnishings but with the tokens of honor bestowed by a grateful Senate and People: an oaken wreath granted ob cives servatos (for having preserved the lives of fellow citizens) and a pair of laurel trees in allusion to Apollo, his divine patron. It remained for Domitian, younger son of the bluff and frugal Vespasian, to construct an abode that would transmute the toponym Palatium into a byword of imperial opulence – the ‘palace’ par excellence.

The Flavian Palace (Domitian’s full name was Titus Flavius Domitianus) was the marvel of its age. Echoing a famous passage of Virgil’s, the poet Statius extolled the edifice in a fluent if hyperbolic flight of rhetoric: Tectum augustum, ingens, non centum insigne columnis / sed quantae superos caelumque Atlante remisso / sustentare queant (‘A house majestic, huge, conspicuous not with a mere hundred columns, but as many as could sustain the gods and heaven above should Atlas be dismissed’). Laid out on two levels and covering thousands of square meters, the palace represented the grandest architectural statement of the Roman Empire hitherto. Its endless suites of chambers, with their peristyles, fountains and gardens, were those of an aristocratic dwelling magnified to Olympian proportions; the throne room and banqueting hall were on a scale to befit the pretensions of an emperor who styled himself dominus et deus (Lord and God). A self-contained universe with the emperor at its center, the palace was a microcosm of the world over which Caesar claimed untrammeled sovereignty.

By the traditional date, the Western Roman Empire passed out of existence in AD 476. In the place of provinces there were now Germanic kingdoms: Angles and Saxons in Britain, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul, Visigoths in Spain, Vandals in Africa and Ostrogoths in Italy. After the quixotic reconquista of Italy by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 540s and 550s, Rome – the erstwhile seat of empire – passed under the authority of an ‘exarch’ (viceroy) domiciled at Ravenna. The imperial palace continued in use as the seat of the city’s Greek governors. On into the seventh century, its cavernous and dilapidated halls were maintained in some wise by the exarchs and the bishops of Rome. When at length the imposing pile was abandoned to the elements, one can only imagine the scene of desolation – lofty halls open to the sky, marbles shattered, stuccoes green with moss, fallen masonry involved in the rank Mediterranean vegetation.

With the loss of northern Italy to Germanic invaders in the late sixth century, Rome entered a struggle for her independence – a struggle concluded some two centuries later when the popes resorted to the desperate expedient of summoning Franks to oust Lombards. Christmas day of AD 800 – the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in the Basilica of St Peter – was the birthday of a Holy Roman Empire that would dominate the fortunes of the Eternal City for five centuries. In Rome itself, the order imposed by Charlemagne and his heirs was short-lived: by the end of the ninth century, local strongmen were erecting petty fiefdoms on the ruins of Carolingian authority. The ‘Iron Century’ over which these strongmen presided was in turn brought to an end by the rise of the barons – a closed group of clans whose power so far outstripped that of the minor nobility that they handily carved all of Rome into districts controlled from fortified compounds. The massive ruins of the Palatine Hill were colonized by the family Frangipane.

Only after another two centuries did the parochial power of the barons give way to the pan-European prestige of a papacy regenerated by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). Indeed, for the popes of the early Renaissance, the barons proved less troublesome than the Roman comune (municipal government), which – fired by the civic glories of a Florence or a Siena – chafed under the suzerainty of its bishop. The triumph of papal dominion over the claims of the commune was consummated by Pope Paul III Farnese (1534–1549): Michelangelo’s superb renovation of the Capitoline Hill, nerve-center of the municipal government, bodied forth with matchless éclat the imperial pretensions of the resurgent papacy.

The Palatine Hill, for its part, lay at the margins: the heart of medieval and Renaissance Rome was situated in the bend of the Tiber River to the northwest. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that the Palatine should be absorbed into the corona of villas that sprang up on the heights to the south and east of the Campus Martius. The Horti Farnesiani – Farnese Gardens – owed their inception to the same Pope Paul III who ordered the renovation of the Capitoline Hill. Elaborated by his successors over the second half of the sixteenth century, the Forum side of the Palatine was configured in lush terraces enlivened with ramps, pavilions and an artificial grotto: conceived as a pendant to the Basilica of Constantine opposite, it presented one of the most scenographic flourishes ever executed in the history of landscape architecture. On the hill’s top, formal gardens extended to the brink overlooking the valley of the Circus Maximus.

In the scientific atmosphere of the eighteenth century, the ruins known from ancient literary sources to repose beneath the gardens exerted an irresistible attraction. From 1720 to 1726, the first modern exploration of the Flavian Palace was conducted under the auspices of Francesco I Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. Like many pioneers of his discipline, Francesco Bianchini – the duke’s Veronese archaeologist – was equal parts scholar and thief: such treasures as he succeeding in extracting from the cyclopean ruins were promptly dispatched to the court of his master at Parma. These included colossal basalt statues of Bacchus and Hercules and numerous architectural fragments. The haul is catalogued in an inscription dictated by Bianchini and mounted in the apse of the aula regia (throne room):


The Farnese gardens display for inspection, in the extensive remains lately excavated by the order, and at the expense, of the most serene Francesco I, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, the Palatine Hall of the Domus Tiberiana of the Caesars, disfigured by a number of fires under Nero, Vitellius and Titus and restored by Domitian and improved with magnificent decor, fitted with columns of exotic marble – porphyry, Theban, Lucullan – twenty, thirty and thirty-eight feet in height, their architraves, friezes, cornices and bases all lavishly wrought, with a complement of colossal figures in Ethiopian basalt, in the year 1726.

Bianchini of course could not know that the building he had plundered was not the domus Tiberiana – the agglomeration of preexisting houses that Augustus’ successor had transformed into an improvised palace in the early decades of the first century AD, and which was replaced by the Flavian Palace. However that may be, Bianchini’s inscription in the aula regia marks the site where Domitian sat enthroned in unimaginable splendor. To stand on that site and gaze upon the wrecked glories of a self-styled Lord and God is perforce to meditate on the vicissitudes of fortune.

With the extinction of the male line of the Farnese and the passage of their property to the house of Bourbon in 1731, the gardens fell into decline. The property remained in Bourbon hands until 1860, when it was purchased by Napoleon III. Further areas of the hill were excavated, in particular the site of the authentic domus Tiberiana. After the unification of Italy in 1870, new and more destructive campaigns were undertaken. Owing to the special fervor of Rodolfo Lanciani, the dominant figure in the archaeological establishment of Roma Capitale, with a few isolated exceptions, the marvelous blend of ancient and modern represented by the Horti Farnesiani – so typical of Rome – was swept away in the course of a few years. Compensated by our enhanced knowledge of the ancient Palatine, we are left to wonder whether the destruction of its splendid Renaissance successor was worth the cost.

Monday, July 26, 2010


On 7 October 1571, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, the forces of a ‘Holy League’ sponsored by Pope Pius V defeated those of the Ottoman Sultan Selim II. The battle involved more than 200 galleys on each side: it was both the last great naval engagement of that type and the last European military venture that could be characterized as a crusade.

In an era when the Turkish threat was keenly felt, the victory occasioned unbounded jubilation: at Lepanto, the seemingly inexorable Ottoman advance had at last been checked. The commander of the papal fleet was Marcantonio Colonna, a scion of one of Rome’s great baronial families. Colonna returned to Rome to be fêted on 4 December with a magnificent triumphal procession that entered the City on the Via Appia and terminated at the Vatican. A few days later, he dedicated the captured Ottoman standards in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. The proceedings are commemorated in a monumental inscription on the inside wall above the portal (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.8B):


In the year of Salvation 1586, upon the safe return
of Marcantonio Colonna, captain of the papal fleet,
and his reception with the exultant thanksgiving of all orders,
the Senate and People of Rome embellished this church
with gilt coffering and with the enemy’s ensigns for Jesus Christ,
author of mankind’s Salvation,
because Pius the Fifth, Supreme Pontiff,
in loftiness of spirit, having entered into an alliance
with Philip the Second, King of the Spains
and with the Senate of Venice,
in the greatest naval engagement in human memory
defeated Selim, tyrant of the Turks, at the Echinades Isles.

If Colonna’s victory procession resurrected the pomp of a Roman triumph, his commemorative inscription exhales the full majesty of imperial dedicatory inscriptions. In order to illustrate the skill with which ancient prototypes are here adapted, it is convenient to furnish an item of comparison. A suitable candidate is housed in Palazzo dei Conservatori, just across Piazza del Campidoglio from Aracoeli:

TI CLAV[dio drusi f cai]SARI
AVGV[sto germani]CO
PONTIFIC[i maxim trib potes]TAT XI
COS V IM[p xxii cens patri pa]TRIAI
SENATVS PO[pulusque] RO[manus q]VOD
REGES BRIT[annorum] XI D[iebus paucis sine]
VLLA IACTVR[a deuicerit et regna eorum]
GENTESQVE B[arbaras trans oceanum sitas]
PRIMVS IN DICI[onem populi romani redegerit]

The Senate and People of Rome to Tiberius Claudius Caesar
Augustus Germanicus, son of Drusus, Supreme Pontiff,
vested with the Tribunician power for the eleventh time,
Consul for the fifth, acclaimed Imperator for the twenty-second,
Censor, Father of his Country, because with no losses
he defeated eleven kings of the Britons,
and first subjected their kingdoms
and the barbarian nations domiciled across the ocean
to the sovereignty of the Roman people.

The dedication commemorates the invasion of Britain undertaken by Claudius in AD 43, on the successful conclusion of which the emperor was voted a triumph (the portions of the text enclosed in brackets have been reconstructed by conjecture). Reduced to its essentials, it consists of a subject (‘the Senate and People of Rome’, line 5), an indirect object (‘to Claudius’, lines 1–4) and a causal clause (‘for having conquered Britain’, lines 5–9). In dedications of this type, the verb and the direct object (‘authorized this monument’) are implied as a matter of course. Because Latin permits a good deal of flexibility in the construction of sentences, the emperor’s name and titles are able to stand first: ‘To Claudius / the Senate and People of Rome / for having conquered Britain’. A special nuance of Latin syntax is the use of the subjunctive mood to assign a motive. Here, the verbs devicerit (‘defeated’) and redegerit (‘subjected’) might as well have been put in the indicative mood (devicit, redegit) without materially changing the sense. The indicative would simply assert that the Senate and People granted the monument because Claudius had, as a matter of fact, conquered Britain. The subjunctive tells us not only that the conquest took place, but that this was the Senate’s and People’s motive for the honor conferred.

Within the limits imposed by the very different political and religious circumstances, the Aracoeli dedication hews assiduously to the classical pattern. The three basic elements are present: the subject (the Senate and People of Rome); the indirect object (Jesus Christ); and the causal clause with its subjunctive verb (‘because Pope Pius V defeated the Turks’). Already, however, an important structural difference is apparent: whereas the ancient inscription has a protagonist and a deuteragonist – the emperor and the S P Q R – the modern one has a protagonist (Jesus Christ), a deuteragonist (the S P Q R) and a tritagonist (Pope Pius V), as well as a supporting cast that includes Philip II of Spain, the Venetian Senate, the Ottoman sultan Selim II and Marcantonio Colonna. Jesus Christ, the recipient of the dedication, naturally takes pride of place. On the ancient pattern, the S P Q R should immediately follow, while the pope – who in the logic of the matter forms the subject of the causal clause – should appear last. That is not, however, the order adopted. The wish to reflect a hierarchy in which Christ and his Vicar on earth stand above the temporal authorities has resulted in the demotion of the S P Q R to third place. By adopting an order of presentation that is less rhetorical than logical, the English translation aims at achieving a more transparent exposition of the contents. The Aracoeli inscription departs from its prototype in another respect: it features a verb and direct object – elements, as we have seen, that were routinely left implicit in imperial dedications. The kernel of the predicate is ÆDEM HANC … EXORNAVIT (‘embellished this church’).

Innovations notwithstanding, the language and epigraphical conventions evince a thorough commitment to classical precedent. There is only one outright error: the word proelio (‘in battle’) is spelled prælio; in post-classical Latin, the diphthongs OE and AE fell together in pronunciation and are routinely confused in spelling. Suspensions are few and correct: PONT(ifex) MAX(imus), HISPANIAR(um), S(enatu) Q(ue), S(enatus) P(opulus) Q(ue) R(omanus), PRAEF(ecto), SAL(utis). In default of imperial titulature, Christ is elegantly styled ‘author of mankind’s salvation’. Philip II is king of the ‘Spains’ – that is (as one might imagine) the kingdoms of Aragón, Castile and Léon, united under his crown. In fact, the choice of the plural is more likely due to the fact that the Iberian provinces of ancient Rome comprised a trio – Lusitania, Baetica and Tarraconensis: the designation ‘Spains’ had a pleasingly antique resonance. As for the Venetian ‘Senate’, that is the classicizing name by which the Consiglio dei Pregadi or Consiglio dei Rogadi came to be known during the Renaissance. In a particularly felicitous appropriation of ancient terminology, Selim II, the Ottoman sultan, is stigmatized as a ‘tyrant’ – the mot juste for an oriental despot. The site of the battle is identified by the ancient toponym Echinades – the Greek name of the archipelago at which the conflict took place. The battle itself is characterized as the greatest post hominum memoriam (‘in human memory’), a favorite phrase of Cicero’s. The church is not a medieval ecclesia but a classical aedes (‘shrine’). The text is not only a marvel of creative adaptation but a miniature masterpiece of rhetoric in its own right.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


A permanent legacy of Italy’s fascist period is the destruction of large swaths of medieval Rome in the cause of modernization. The most famous such project is the urban highway today called Via dei Fori Imperiali (Avenue of the Imperial Fora). Also known as Via dei Monti (Avenue of the Mountains), it leads in the direction of the Alban Hills to the southeast of Rome. Its counterpart is Via del Mare (Avenue of the Sea), which leads towards the Mediterranean coast to the southwest. Both streets have their head at Piazza Venezia: there the ancient Via Flaminia, descending from the north of the peninsula, debouches at the feet of the monument to Victor Emanuel II, first king of a united Italy. (Question: How is it that Italy’s first king was called Victor Emanuel the Second? Answer: Among the kings of Piedmont-Sardinia, his ancestors, there had been a Victor Emanuel I – whence the unexpected numbering).

The initial tract of Via del Mare (today known as Via del Teatro di Marcello – Via Petroselli) was planned so as to connect Piazza Venezia with Piazza Bocca della Verità. That route was peculiarly disastrous, as it entailed the demolition of the dense and ancient quarter of houses, convents, churches and piazzas that had grown up over a thousand years on the southwestern slope of the Capitoline Hill. By a procedure vividly characterized in Italian as ‘disemboweling’ (sventramento), this quarter was ripped out in the years 1926–1941. The most prominent modern building to rise on its ruins is Palazzo dell’Anagrafe (state registry office), built in 1936–1937 to the design of Cesare Valle. On the façade, the following inscription occupies a plaque surmounted by the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus above the initials S P Q R (Senate and People of Rome). A large expanse below the text originally accommodated three bronze fasces – a frequent decorative motif on monuments of the fascist period:


In the year of the Lord 1938,
seventeenth after the renewal of the fasces,
in the time of Victor Emanuel III, King and Emperor,
Benito Mussolini, ‘il Duce’, Piero Colonna, Governor.

The Latin word fasces denotes a bundle of wooden rods enclosing an axe. In antiquity, this emblem of sovereignty was borne by attendants called ‘lictors’ who escorted magistrates endowed with imperium – the quasi-sacral right of military command. Under the Roman Republic, praetors were entitled to six fasces, consuls to twelve, and dictators to twenty-four. With shrewd political instinct, Mussolini named his political movement fasci di combattimento (loosely, ‘militant crews’). Derived from fasces, the Italian fascio (‘league’) had been used in preceding decades of agricultural and labor organizations. The choice of that term, and of the fasces as his symbol, enabled Mussolini both to evoke Rome’s imperial past and to draw a specious parallel between fascism and progressive movements of the recent past.

In conformity with other inscriptions of the period, the present specimen cites the date by reference to Mussolini’s ‘revival’ of the fasces. It begins conventionally enough with the citation of the Christian era: A(nno) D(omini) MCMXXXVIII. After that, however, appears a formula commencing with the Roman numeral XVII and continuing with a phrase to be completed thus: A FASC(ibus) R(enovatis). The formula refers to the fascist era, which was calculated from 29 October 1922 – the day on which Victor Emanuel III withdrew his support from the prime minister in office and invited Mussolini to form a cabinet. Not coincidentally, this was the day after the ‘March on Rome’, the crowning episode of Mussolini’s slow-motion coup d’état. Year seventeen of the fascist era accordingly began on 29 October 1938; it shared with the year of the Lord 1938 the 64 days from 29 October through 31 December. The reckoning ‘from the renewal of the fasces’ deliberately evokes the ancient reckoning of Rome’s age ab urbe condita (‘from the founding of the City’).

The bulk of the inscription is occupied by the Latinized names of the officials under whose auspices the works were carried out. The first is VICTOR(io) EMAN(uele) REGE IMP(eratore). The man in question is Vittorio Emanuele III, king of Italy from 29 July 1900 through 9 May 1946. In Latin, the most usual form of his name is Victorius Emmanuel (with doubled M). Here he is styled both REX (‘king’) and IMPERATOR (‘emperor’). The first of these titles he inherited from his father, King Umberto I, whose assassination in 1900 emboldened the American anarchist Leon Frank Czolgosz to murder President McKinley the following year. The second title – Emperor of Ethiopia – he assumed in 1938, after the Italian army overthrew Haile Selassie and annexed his dominions. That year would henceforth be reckoned by the fascists as ‘first of the empire’.

The second personage to figure in the text is Benito Mussolini, who in 1925 adopted the style il Duce (‘The Leader’). Although semantically equivalent to Hitler’s der Führer, the title was not borrowed from Mussolini’s more prestigious partner: it had been used previously not only of King Victor Emanuel III but also of Giuseppe Garibaldi, father of modern Italy. The phrase BENITO MVSSOLINI DVCE features a point of grammatical interest: because the names in the inscription are all cast in the Ablative case (indicating ‘in the time of …’), this phrase has almost exactly the same form in Latin as in modern Italian. The fortuitous coincidence between the form of many Italian names and the Dative or Ablative case of their Latin equivalents has led, I believe, to a deliberate effort in many Neo-Latin inscriptions to ensure that names appear in one or the other of those two grammatical cases. I say ‘fortuitous’ because (as we are informed by historical linguists) the Italian name Marco, for example, derives not from the Latin Ablative Marco, but from the Accusative Marcum – in the course of the Middle Ages the final M was lost and the U relaxed to an O.

Finally, there is Piero Colonna. Colonna was the scion of one of Rome’s great baronial families: as the leading Ghibelline (pro-imperial) clan of the thirteenth century, the Colonna vied with the Guelph (pro-papal) Orsini for the domination of Rome. In its heyday, the family produced several cardinals, a pope (Martin V, 1417–1431) and a military hero (Marcantonio Colonna, victor of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571). Son of a former two-time mayor of Rome, Piero Colonna joined Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1921, eventually serving as fascist governor of Rome from 1936 until his death in 1939 at the age of forty-eight. In an unfortunate grammatical slip, Colonna’s name here appears not in the requisite Ablative case – Petro – but in the Nominative – Petrus. Alternatively, Colonna can be understood as the subject of an implied predicate: ‘Pietro Colonna (had this project implemented) in the time of Victor Emanuel III and Benito Mussolini’.

Mussolini had instituted the governatorato (‘governorate’) of Rome in 1926. A cabinet-level official, the governor was appointed – not elected – and reported directly to the minister of the interior. In the present inscription, Colonna’s Italian title governatore is rendered with fitting pomp by the Latin praefectus urbi. The latter was an official created by Augustus to oversee the city of Rome and its district. Colonna’s Augustan connection does not end there: in addition to Via del Mare, his tenure as governor saw the demolition of the neighborhood surrounding the first emperor’s mausoleum – but that is a theme for a future post.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


The sack of Rome in 1527 by mutinous imperial troops under the command of the Duke of Bourbon was one of the blackest episodes in the City’s history. Consisting of some 34,000 men, the imperial force was opposed by a rag-tag militia and the papal Swiss Guard, which had been instituted in 1506 by Pope Julius II. The assault on the fortifications of the Janiculum Hill and Vatican took place on the morning of 6 May. Although the Duke of Bourbon was killed, the defenders were overwhelmed and the City fell. The Swiss Guard performed heroic service, fending off the attackers for long enough to allow Pope Clement VII to escape from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, the papal fortress. Less than a quarter of the Guard survived: in commemoration of their sacrifice, new recruits are sworn in on 6 May of each year.

Although allusions to the Sack can be found in various inscriptions, there is only one in which any of its episodes are described in detail. It is a commemorative plaque mounted with a portrait bust opposite No. 17 Via Penitenzieri:


To God, Best and Greatest.
For Bernardino Passeri,
most outstanding goldsmith
and gem-maker
to Popes Julius II, Leo X and Clement VII,
who, after he had slain
many of the enemy while fighting in sacred warfare
on the neighboring part of the Janiculum
and had wrested a standard
from a soldier opposite him,
bravely fell on 6 May 1527.
He lived thirty-seven years, six months and eleven days.
The brothers Giacomo and Ottaviano Passeri
set this up for their most affectionate father.

The Latin shows the polish typical of the High Renaissance: the only outright error is VEXILIVM for VEXILLVM (line 10). The dedication D O M (‘to God, Best and Greatest’) was contrived by Christian humanists as a substitute for the pagan dedication D M (dis manibus, ‘To the Spirits of the Dead’), which frequently appears at the head of ancient epitaphs. The extent to which the humanists were willing to ‘classicize’ their religion is seen in the fact that the phrase optimus maximus (‘best and greatest’) is borrowed from a title of Jupiter, whom the ancients had worshiped as Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the great temple on the Capitoline Hill.

Abbreviations, where they occur, are in strict conformity with classical usage. Whereas medieval inscriptions often omit letters in the middle of words, the ancients instead employed suspension – that is, letters were omitted from the end. In the fifth and final lines of the present text, for example, the words praestantissimo (‘most outstanding’) and amantissimo (‘most affectionate’) appear as PRAESTANTISS and AMANTISS. The seventh line has PROX(ima) IANIC(uli) PARTE (‘on the neighboring part of the Janiculum’) and the twelfth line has V(ixit) A(nnos) XXXVII M(enses) VI D(ies) XI (‘he lived thirty-seven years, six months and eleven days’).

In the fourth line, suspension is combined with the multiplication of the terminal letters to produce an evidently bizarre collocation: PONTTT MAXXX. This is in fact quite conventional. In classical Latin, the final letter of a suspension was frequently doubled to indicate that it represented a plural. For example, COS = consul and COSS = consules. By extending this principle, it is possible to obtain a series such as the following: D N = dominus noster (‘our lord’), DD NN = domini nostri (‘our lords’), DDD NNN = domini nostri [tres] (‘our [three] lords’). In the final example, the word tres (‘three’) is merely implied by the threefold repetition of the characters: the abbreviation conveys more information than the grammatical forms that it represents.

In the eleventh line, the date appears thus: PR(idie) N(onas) MAI (‘on the day before the Nones of May’). Although the suspension of the first two words is classical, the form MAI (‘of May’) reflects a holdover of medieval usage. In classical Latin, the date would be expressed with the month appearing as an adjective: pridie Nonas Maias (literally, ‘the day before the May Nones’, Maias being in grammatical agreement with Nonas). In medieval Latin, as in English, the names of months generally appear as nouns (‘Nones of May’).

Finally, there is a curious hypercorrection. From their study of ancient inscriptions, the humanists of the Renaissance were aware that forms such as PLVREIS (line 8) occurred alongside the more familiar PLVRES. They naturally inferred that PLVREIS represented a more archaic (and thus a more authentic) grammatical form. They were half right. In Old Latin, the third declension plural in the nominative case was in fact spelled -EIS (ultimately deriving from the Indo-European termination *-eyes). In the accusative case, however, the form was always -ES (deriving through the Italic *-ens from Indo-European *-ms). Because PLVREIS is here the accusative direct object of OCCIDISSET, the form must be PLVRES.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Arco di Portogallo was a ruinous archway on Via del Corso demolished in 1662 to facilitate the running of horse races during Carnival. Partly because it is known exclusively through drawings and descriptions, the monument presents problems with respect to its date and identity. To judge by surviving representations, it was a barrel-vaulted arch with a single opening and was constructed in the late imperial period. Its association with Portugal dated from the end of the fifteenth century: the Portuguese prelate Jorge da Costa, titular cardinal of the nearby San Lorenzo in Lucina from 1489 to 1508, resided in the palace that it abutted.

Like many late-antique structures, Arco di Portogallo incorporated elements taken from earlier monuments. Its north side was decorated with two large relief panels whose principal figures are identified on stylistic grounds as either Hadrian (AD 117–138) and his wife, Sabina, or as Antoninus Pius (AD 138–161) and his wife, the elder Faustina. When the arch was demolished, the panels were preserved and mounted in Palazzo dei Conservatori with an impressive dedicatory inscription that erroneously identifies the figures as Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180) and the younger Faustina (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.6H).

Like most of the dedications on the Capitol, this one bears the names of the magistrates in office at the time. One of the officials sports a rather elaborate title: CAROLVS ANTONIVS A PVTEO EQVEST MILIT D STEPHANI PP ET MART EQVES COMEND. As often in Neo-Latin inscriptions, the name is Latinized. Fortunately, Vincenzo Forcella’s Iscrizioni delle Chiese e d’altri edificii di Roma includes an index nominum: the Latin Carolus Antonius a Puteo represents Italian Carlo Antonio Pozzi. The name, however, is the least of the difficulties.

The phrase EQVEST(rium) MILIT(um) – ‘military knights’ – reveals that Pozzi belonged to a military order. The phrase D(ivi) STEPHANI P(a)P(ae) ET MART(yris) – ‘of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr’ – indicates that it was the Order of the Knights of St. Stephen. The St. Stephen in question is neither the protomartyr of the Christian church nor the first Christian king of Hungary: he is Pope St. Stephen (r. 254–257), whose feast-day recurs on August 2. On that day in 1554, the forces of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany defeated a Sienese army at the Battle of Marciano, in the wake of which the Republic of Siena was incorporated into the Grand Duchy. To commemorate the victory, Cosimo formed a new knightly order of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr, in 1561.

In point of fact, Pope St. Stephen almost certainly wasn’t martyred; nevertheless, having pontificated during the Age of Persecutions, he acquired that status honoris causa. As for his title, he appears in the inscription not as sanctus Stephanus but as divus Stephanus. The designation divus is borrowed from pagan antiquity: it was the title of a deceased emperor whose apotheosis had been officially recognized by the Roman senate. Incongruous as it may seem, it was widely used as an equivalent for ‘saint’ in ecclesiastical Latin of the Renaissance and later, when medieval terms such as sanctus were replaced wherever possible by classicizing equivalents.

Finally, there is EQVES COMEND. The first word is ‘knight’; the second abbreviates COM(m)END(atarius), which derives from the verb commendare (‘commit’, ‘entrust’). In church history, the epithet commendatarius designates the tenant of an ecclesiastical benefice in commendam – that is, a tenant technically acting in the capacity of a provisional caretaker. In the case of a military order, it designates the tenant of a ‘commandery’ – an income-producing estate analogous to a church property supplying a benefice. An EQVES COMMENDATARIVS (‘Knight Commander’) was a member of the order who had been granted (or who had inherited) the tenancy of such an estate.

With all the suspensions filled out, the lines read: CAROLVS ANTONIVS A PVTEO EQVEST(rium) MILIT(um) D(ivi) STEPHANI P(a)P(ae) ET MART(yris) EQVES COM(m)END(atarius) – that is, ‘Carlo Antonio Pozzi, Knight Commander of the Military Knights of St. Stephen, Pope and Martyr’. A history lesson in a dozen words!

Saturday, September 12, 2009


The dedicatory inscription of the Trophies of Marius on the balustrade of Piazza del Campidoglio illustrates one of the ways in which the popes of the early modern period expressed their domination of the municipal institutions of Rome (Latin Inscriptions of Rome, 1.4). In antiquity, the Capitoline Hill had been the heart of Rome’s civic identity; as such, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was the natural seat of the Roman Commune – the City’s municipal government – and the inevitable flashpoint of political agitation against papal authority. From the year 1420, when Pope Martin V regained possession of Rome after the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the papacy at Avignon and the ensuing schism, the popes exerted themselves unremittingly to assert their presence on the Capitoline and to stamp out the ancient traditions of civic self-determination that it represented.

In order to secure the cooperation of the City’s petty nobility, the papacy found it necessary to work out a compromise with the Roman Commune. By the terms of this compromise, the officials of the Commune exercised limited autonomy under the supervision of the Cardinal Camerlengo, who directed the temporal affairs of the Holy See. The executive officers of the Commune were the three Conservators, elected by lot for three-month terms; the Prior of the Caporioni, a lesser official, shared ceremonial rank with the Conservators (the rioni were the fourteen administrative quarters of papal Rome, headed by as many caporioni, of whom the Prior was chief).

Eventually, as the papal chokehold on Rome’s municipal institutions tightened, one of the few fields of activity remaining open to the Conservators and the Priors of the Caporioni was the dedication of monuments on the Capitoline Hill: casual inspection of the many dedicatory inscriptions in the Capitoline Museums suffices to demonstrate the zeal with which these impotent figureheads sought to perpetuate their memory. As the nominal sponsors of monuments, the communal officials naturally form the grammatical subject of many dedicatory inscriptions; this is the case in the dedication of the Trophies of Marius, mounted on the Capitoline in 1590:

‘Paolo Emilio Zeffiri, Girolamo Moroni, Pompeo de’ Cavalieri, Conservators, and Domenico Capodiferro, Prior, saw to the transfer to the Capitol of the trophies of Gaius Marius, seven times Consul, granted for victories over the Teutoni and Cimbri, from the ruined cistern formerly belonging to the Aqua Marcia on the Esquiline Hill and, after bases had erected, to their placement in a distinguished spot, by authority of Sixtus V, Supreme Pontiff, in the year of Salvation 1590’.

The only name present on the base of the Trophies is that of the pope. In Latin, the first line of the inscription reads: SIXTI V PONT MAX AVCTORITATE (‘by authority of Sixtus V, Supreme Pontiff’); the last reads: ILLVSTRI LOCO STATVENDA CVRAVERE (‘saw to their placement in a distinguished spot’). The names of the Conservators and Prior of the Caporioni are to be found some distance below, at the level of the balustrade. Pope Sixtus V had no intention of playing second fiddle to the magistrates of his puppet government on the Capitoline!

How was this self-serving bit of verbal legerdemain possible? The answer lies in the nature of Latin syntax. Because the sense of Latin is determined not by word order but by grammatical inflections, without the least awkwardness or distortion the contents of the inscription can be presented as follows: By authority of Sixtus V — the Trophies of Marius — they saw to the transfer of — the Conservators and Prior. Arranged in a more transparent order, these elements are seen in their true guise as a subject (‘the Conservators and Prior’), a verb (‘saw to the transfer of’), a direct object (‘the Trophies of Marius’) and an expression of agency (‘by authority of Sixtus V’) – an order, be it noted, precisely the opposite of that in which they appear in the Latin.