Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2001
Penelope J. E. Davies Death and the Emperor: Roman Imperial Funerary Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius Cambridge University Press, 2000. 265 pp.; 117 b/w ills. Cloth $80.00 (0521632366)

Death and the Emperor is an important new book that treats several familiar landmarks of the Eternal City in unfamiliar, stimulating, and insightful ways. The focus of the author’s inquiry is the series of tombs and other memorials erected to honor deceased Roman emperors from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Because some of these monuments were built to house the remains of entire dynasties, this elite class of buildings has very few members—in fact, only seven (for eighteen emperors). The first—and the one that established many of the leitmotifs of the group—was the Mausoleum of Augustus, the great tumulus-tomb that Augustus erected during his own lifetime. Work began on the mausoleum within a few years of Augustus’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. Completed almost forty years before the emperor’s death, it first housed the ashes of many of his family members, beginning with his nephew Marcellus in 23 B.C.

Second in the series, and strikingly different in form, was the Arch of Titus on the Sacra Via, neither a tomb nor a “triumphal” arch but rather a commemorative monument celebrating Titus’s apotheosis (justified in large part by his military success in Judaea, pictured in the arch’s famous relief panels). Next in line was the Templum Gentis Flaviae (Temple of the Flavian Dynasty), erected by Domitian, who also put up the Arch of Titus. The monument no longer stands and is of uncertain form, but we know that it was converted into a temple from the house in which Domitian was born. Thus, as Davies aptly observes, it was meant simultaneously to celebrate the emperor’s birth, death, and apotheosis. The temple-mausoleum also housed the ashes of Vespasian, Titus, and Julia Titi.

Probably the most famous of all the monuments Davies writes about is the Column of Trajan, which, like the Arch of Titus, is not obviously funerary in nature, but Trajan’s ashes (and those of his wife Plotina) were deposited in its base in golden urns. There is considerable debate among scholars whether or not the Column was intended from its inception to serve as the emperor’s last resting place and Davies cannot settle the question definitively. But her discussion of Trajan’s Column is one of the most original chapters of her consistently thought-provoking book. She argues that the form of the monument reflects its funerary purpose, and she explains the Column’s famous spiral frieze (and the corresponding spiral staircase within) as the designer’s means of forcing the viewer to circumambulate Trajan’s tomb, reenacting the circling ritual performed on the occasion of the emperor’s burial.

Completing the series are three monuments that emulate to varying degrees earlier imperial memorials. The Mausoleum of Hadrian, based on the Mausoleum of Augustus, was initiated by Hadrian and completed after his death, and like Augustus’s tomb, housed many members of the imperial family. The Antonine emperors (and the Severans also) were buried in Hadrian’s colossal tomb on the Tiber. The Column of Antoninus Pius, erected after the emperor’s death by his adopted sons, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, is unique among the monuments Davies examines, because it commemorated not only the emperor’s apotheosis, but that of his wife, Faustina the Elder—even though she died twenty years before Antoninus. Last in the series is the Column of Marcus Aurelius, a near-copy of Trajan’s Column but without a burial chamber, put up after Marcus’s death by his son Commodus.

The most striking aspect of this select group is the extraordinary diversity of form—tumulus, arch, temple, column—in spite of some repetition, and this no doubt explains why these monuments have never before been studied as a distinct class of commemorative or funerary monuments. By doing so, Davies has been able to draw our attention to the all-important common denominator of the series, namely their dynastic character. They are as much accession monuments as funerary monuments, and by celebrating the achievements and apotheosis of the deceased emperors, they legitimized the successors. As Davies states it so well: “the future of the living was dependent . . . upon the honors .. . . bestowed upon the dead” (1); “apotheosis played a crucial role in counteracting the immediate and inevitable instability that resulted from the emperor’s death . . . allowing his successor to be ‘reborn’ as the son of a god” (73).

Davies’s book is far richer than a catalogue of imperial funerary monuments and in her analysis of these grandiose projects she also has interesting things to say about, i.a., cosmic imagery in Roman funerary iconography, the role of the Roman empress as the fertile genetrix, who guarantees a peaceful and stable succession. In an especially fine concluding chapter on “the power of place,” she elaborates on the important sight lines connecting the imperial memorials with each other and with other monuments in the city, associating them visually as well as thematically.

Davies’s success in treating the imperial funerary monuments of the first two centuries of the Roman Empire as a discrete group makes one wish that she had extended her discussion beyond the scope of her 1994 Yale doctoral dissertation to include the memorials erected in honor of later emperors. But stopping at the end of the Antonine dynasty was a logical choice, because, as Davies so successfully argues, the common thread among these very different monuments is the legitimization of succession through divinization of one’s predecessor. Similar circumstances are very rare in the stormy century after the death of Marcus Aurelius, when ‘soldier emperors’ seized power by assassinating their predecessors. Expansion of the size and scope of the book would also doubtless have led Cambridge University Press to raise the already unjustifiably high price of Davies’s relatively slim volume, putting it beyond the reach of many private and college libraries—and Death and the Emperor is a book that belongs in both.

One subject, however, treated only in a cursory manner (10) by Davies, merited much more extended discussion, namely the series of elaborate funerary pyres resembling tower-tombs erected during the second century on the occasion of the cremation and apotheosis of the successive Antonine emperors. We have a much more secure idea of what these monuments looked like and how they were decorated than we do for the Temple of the Flavian Dynasty and even the Mausoleum of Augustus. (Although the latter still stands, scholars continue to debate how to reconstruct its original appearance from its present ruined state.) As Roman imperial funerary monuments par excellence, the multi-story pyres crowned by triumphal chariot groups reveal a great deal about “death and the emperor” and Davies’s decision not to discuss the pyres at length or even to illustrate them is disappointing. That decision is, however, consistent with the near-universal, if unfortunate, tendency among scholars of ancient art to study only those monuments that can be seen, measured, and photographed, at the expense of other monuments, pictured on coins and reliefs and/or described in ancient texts, that were in many instances far more important in their day than the monuments that have survived. Although higher importance cannot be ascribed to the temporary pyres of the Antonines than to the permanent memorials that are Davies’s subject, they were considered significant enough to be reproduced with some regularity on Roman coinage—something that cannot be said for the majority of monuments Davies examines in detail. A fuller discussion would not only have enriched our understanding of “death and the emperor” but underscored the validity of the central thesis of Davies’s consistently illuminating and unusually well-written book. These pyres were erected by the heirs to imperial power at the moment of their predecessors’ apotheosis to legitimize their succession. That, more than the fact that they were impressive structures, is the reason the new emperors reproduced the pyres on the reverses of some of the first coins they issued, placing their portraits—and their new imperial titles—on the obverses.

Fred S. Kleiner
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University