~ Marble for the Empire ~

The Centurion’s Private War

The centurion goes into a tavern to get a bite to eat. The place is full of people, mostly men. The entrance of an armed man turns the heads of more than one customer. There seems to be a certain diffidence toward the soldiers that have been going around town since Trajan’s return from Mesopotamia. But it’s only a matter of time; it won’t be long before the townspeople are used to their presence again.

The centurion sits off to the side at a small empty table and orders a focaccia, olives, and some pickled fish. Sure, he’s eating alone, but it’s a meal the he enjoys down to the last bite. At the end, as he sits there sipping his wine, he closes his eyes and thinks back to his time in prison in that far-off city in Mesopotamia. He wouldn’t be here had it not been for a chain of unlikely events: The Roman troops’ assault on the city. The moment when the Parthian enemy forces went running in all directions onto the defensive walls to get ready for the attack. And then when the prison guard ran out to get into position on the wall, fumbling with his helmet as he ran out, forgetting his keys on the table, so close to the peephole of the cell.… Breaking apart the wood board that functioned as a bed was an instinctive reaction, and fishing the keys through the peephole was child’s play. And then opening the door, freeing his comrades-in-arms and racing up the stairs, knocking the enemy soldiers cold and taking their weapons. The centurion relives the moment when he threw open the door to the room of the enemy commander, just as that man was putting on his armor, with the assistance of his attendants. All the adrenalin he felt at that instant resurges through his body. He had turned into a fury, an animal. With lightning-fast thrusts his sword pierced the flesh of all their bodies and finally, when he plunged it into the commander’s side, that corpulent man with his black beard and his ever-sweaty bald pate, he felt compensated for all the beatings he had suffered in prison. His wine glass held fast in midair, the visual memory of those moments passes before his eyes: the breathless sprint toward the gates of the city as the battle was raging; opening them; the agitated, almost ferocious faces of the first Roman soldiers who burst through them. A gentle touch delicately lowers his hand. It’s the hand of the waitress; her gaze is sweet but determined. The centurion has to pay his bill and free up the table. Some other customers are waiting. The centurion takes another couple of seconds to break out of his daydream; his breathing is labored and he bats his eyes repeatedly. Then he pulls out a coin and stands up, forces an embarrassed smile, and walks out. His leg muscles are all stiff. The war is still pulsing through his veins. He’s a victim of what will later be dubbed post-traumatic stress syndrome. Who knows how many other legionnaires back from the campaign in Mesopotamia have to deal with these same problems, like veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. We’ll never know. To be sure, the esprit de corps, the sense of fraternity that binds the legionnaires, helps a lot, allowing each of them to unload their pent-up emotions onto the others. To engage, in other words, in group therapy.

The coin, meanwhile, is picked up by the waitress. She carries it to the innkeeper, at the cash box. It remains there for just a few minutes, time for the new customers sitting at what had been the centurion’s table to have their meal. When they pay, our sestertius is part of their change.

The Death of the Emperor

The sestertius is picked up by a man with a friendly way about him, salt-and-pepper hair, a captivating smile, with wrinkles on the sides of his mouth. His name is Alexis and he sells marble. He’s here together with a colleague, thin and curly-haired. It’s their last meal here in Antioch. Their ship is leaving in a little while and everything has gone fine, from their dreams, to the divine signals, to the sacrifices. They’ve got the gods’ permission to depart.

A couple of hours later they’re on the big merchant ship, which sets its sails and starts to pull away from the dock. They take off their fancy clothes. Sailing in the nude is normal, especially in these warm climes. Nice clothes aren’t needed on board; they’d just get ruined. Same for their shoes; they’re both wearing caligae. When they take them off we notice their feet are striped, covered in tan lines from the thin leather strips that wrap their feet.

While at sea, ships have to be careful about false lighthouses. Farmers, fishermen, or shepherds quite often light bonfires, deceiving the ships out at sea when darkness falls that there is a port nearby. The fire setters purposely choose a place where a ship could run aground so they can attack it, steal its cargo, and rob its passengers. These attacks on the maritime wagon train became incredibly frequent, to the point that Emperor Hadrian, and even more so his successor, Antoninus Pius, promulgated very severe laws and punishments against it. Under Antoninus Pius, if the raid was carried out in a violent way and the cargo was valuable, those responsible were sentenced to clubbing and sent into exile for three years, if they were free citizens and well-off. If instead they were poor they were sentenced to three years hard labor. If they were slaves they were sent directly to the mines.

Alexis, a marble dealer, is lying down on the stern under a curtain stretched out to create a bit of shade. Rocked by the movement of the ship, he observes the luminous reflections of the waves on the hull; they look like the flames of a hearth and give the impression that the ship is sailing on a bed of fire. Then he gradually closes his eyes and falls asleep. Off to his right, the coast of the land that we now know as Turkey glides by.

He is awakened by excited voices and the agitation of the crew. They are all pointing at a large group of ships moored in a roadstead in the port of Selinus (Gazipasa). It’s the emperor’s fleet. What’s it doing here in such an anonymous place? There are no sanctuaries or palaces. The coast is bare, except for some hills covered with forests and silent beaches where the turtles come to deposit their eggs. Why is Trajan here? Everyone on board is asking the same question, but nobody has an answer.

Actually, there is a real drama going on. Trajan is dying. In Antioch, after returning from Mesopotamia, he had a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed. He turned over the control of operations to an excellent commander, Hadrian, the future emperor. Then he took the imperial yacht, together with the empress Plotina, to return to Rome and enjoy a well-deserved triumph in the capital. But on the way back his condition grew worse, and it became necessary to enter the closest port and take him to shore.

For a lot of people, this comes as no surprise. Lately, the emperor’s health has been deteriorating visibly. An extraordinary bronze bust of Emperor Trajan, on display in the forum of Ankyra (present-day Ankara) and unearthed by archaeologists, shows him in what are perhaps his last weeks of life. He is unrecognizable—much different from the statues and portraits that represent him on coins (including ours). His face is drawn, there are circles under his eyes, the bones of his hollow cheeks are sticking out, his nose is prominent and lacking the harmonious look of his younger years. His skin is sagging and his forehead wrinkled. These are sure signs of age, of someone who has faced the rain, the wind, and the desert storms elbow to elbow with legionnaires forty years younger than him. But his sixty-two years are not worn well. He has lots of physical problems and has made too many demands on his body. It is almost certain that what gave out in the end was his heart: without adequate medicine, someone who had already suffered a stroke simply didn’t make it.

According to Julian Bennett, a British archaeologist and an expert on Hadrian, there is also the possibility that he was done in by a violent infection contracted in Mesopotamia. Indeed, according to the ancient historian Flavius Eutropius, Trajan suffered internal hemorrhaging. One of his closest and most trusted attendants, M. Ulpius Phaedimus, died just three days later at the tender age of twenty-eight; this may be another indication of an infection that dealt the final blow to an already debilitated organism.

Trajan never clearly indicated a successor. He is thought to have adopted Hadrian on his deathbed, clearing his road to the imperial throne. But there is some doubt about this. For a long time the dominant hypothesis was that Trajan’s wife, Empress Plotina, organized the succession, letting everyone believe that Trajan had announced it on his deathbed. We’ll never really know.

The inlet and the port of Selinus disappear from view, along with the imperial fleet. After the ritual ceremonies, the emperor’s body will be cremated here, and the gold urn containing his ashes will be carried by his ship to Rome, to be placed in the base of Trajan’s Column, in the heart of the city. Trajan, even though he is dead, will have his triumph: a grand parade will be organized that will carry his effigy through the streets of Rome.

And so the optimus princeps has died; he who has led us to make a unique journey through the Roman Empire at its high point, by making it wealthier, more extensive, more powerful, and more feared than ever.

As an emperor he was different from all of his predecessors. Indeed, he was the first provincial to serve as emperor (even if Emperor Claudius, a native of Lyon, was not properly speaking Italic, Trajan came from Spain), with a surprisingly global and modern vision of the empire. His most striking quality was his personality. He was a soldier who had come up through the ranks, accustomed to hard work and discipline. And, above all, he was a humble man, capable of sitting in the midst of the crowd at the Circus Maximus and eating rations together with his soldiers. He was even able to use his personal fortune to help needy children.

Dante will evoke his heroism and selflessness in Canticle X of the Purgatorio. But the common people will remember him for centuries as a just man, the best of the emperors, the optimus princeps.

The Marbles of Ephesus

Hadrian will eliminate nearly all of the key players in Trajan’s entourage (of which he himself was also a member). He’ll destroy the central military command, ordering the best generals to be killed or removed. Even Apollodorus of Damascus will meet his death; he was Trajan’s architect, a true Michelangelo of his age, designer of the bridge over the Danube, Trajan’s Forum in Rome, and Trajan’s grandiose and strikingly original column.

But above all, Hadrian will renounce almost all of Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia, provoking Dio Cassius to write: “Thus it came about that the Romans in conquering Armenia, most of Mesopotamia, and the Parthians had undergone their hardships and dangers all for naught.” (Roman History, Book LXVIII, Translated by Earnest Cary.)

This brings us to the following consideration: our coin was able to return to the empire thanks to that brief interval in which Rome extended its borders to look out onto the world of Asia. Otherwise it probably would have remained in India, perhaps to be found later by archaeologists.

As history is turning a page, the ship of Alexis, the marble merchant, continues on its route toward Ephesus. It arrives there after a few days of smooth sailing. After taking care of the formalities of docking and customs, Alexis and another marble merchant go ashore. They walk along chatting together through one of the most prosperous and beautiful cities in all of antiquity. Even in the modern era the ruins of Ephesus are jaw-dropping. With its incorporation into the Roman Empire the city has reached its apogee. Its harbor and its position on the Mediterranean make it a city of prime importance.

As we accompany the two merchants we notice that Ephesus is blessed with prosperity: its streets are paved with pure marble. The city has over two hundred thousand inhabitants, an endless expanse of red tile roofs, arches, temples, an agora, and scores of public buildings.

We cross its expansive forum, next to which rises an enormous basilica, over 650 feet long, divided into three naves. As we’re passing by, the sound of voices coming from inside attracts our attention. We look in the entrance and are presented with scenes of public life, with toga-clad men wheeling and dealing. In the Roman era, a basilica is not a church but a building that functions as a courthouse, merchants’ lodge, and trade center. It’s one of the central points of the city.

We go back to walking amid the crowds. It feels like we’re inside a beehive. All around us are temples and public buildings of breathtaking beauty. We pass the temple dedicated to the emperor Domitian, and it reminds us of another curious aspect of Roman cities: the importance of a Roman city is also measured by the number of temples in which emperors are venerated as deities.

It’s not easy to build a temple in honor of an emperor. You have to have his consent and then beat the competition from other cities. All of it is handled by lawyers with inside connections. One of them has left a plaque here in Ephesus that reports his exploits. It says that he made several trips to Rome to see the emperor, then he followed him to Britain, Germany, France, Bithynia, and even Syria before crowning his obstinacy with success. We can certainly imagine his gifts of diplomacy, cleverness, and flattery. But he must also have been a real pain in the neck.…

Another Wonder of the Ancient World

We get jostled by a group of pilgrims who pass us and keep right on going without turning to look. They’re from Egypt and they’re on their way to the outskirts of the city, toward the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. That’s right, our sestertius is leading us to discover another of these wonders. Why was it built here? It’s a very curious story, one that takes us back in time.

Three thousand years ago a primitive cult existed here, probably related to a freshwater spring, which would have been a rarity this close to the coast. It was said to be the work of a goddess who offered asylum to the needy.

Very early on this goddess was identified as Artemis, the Greek goddess with a multitude of breasts; or, according to another version, the testicles of sacrificed bulls strung on the image of the goddess as offerings; or—still another hypothesis—bees’ eggs. Her virginity was the symbol of the invulnerability of the refuge that she offered to the persecuted. So it became a protected area and safe haven for anyone seeking political asylum. Its territory was sacred and inviolable.

Over time the offerings to the goddess steadily became more precious and brought Ephesus enormous riches; this led to the birth of one of the most awesome constructions of the ancient world. In about 550 BC, Croesus, who will later succeed his father on the throne of Lydia, asked a wealthy Ephesian for a loan of 1,000 gold coins to allow him to engage mercenaries and go to war, and vowed to Artemis that if he should become king he would build her a temple of unheard-of beauty. He kept his word. The last version of the temple was a massive structure with some 127 columns. Each of the columns was embellished at its base with bronze reliefs and rested on huge blocks of marble.

At some point this wonder was damaged. It is said that it was burned by a madman, Erostratus, who wanted to go down in history, which he succeeded in doing. But it is more likely that the building was struck by lightning, destroying the roof, which was made of wood. The temple was eventually rebuilt, in the form that Alexis and his fellow merchant are seeing in their walk through the city.

Today, all that’s left of this ancient wonder is a single column, which emerges from the marsh. But it provides us with an interesting piece of information: it seems that the idea of building the temple in a marsh was the innovation of its architect, Chersiphron, to reduce the impact of earthquakes, which were very frequent in this area.

As we are entering the sumptuous city baths, the voices of Alexis and his colleague are drowned out by the buzzing of the crowd that reverberates throughout the complex. While the two men are inside, we decide to wait for them among the colonnades to observe the passersby. They belong to every nationality and social class. There are ordinary people, but also public figures, who arrive with their retinue of lackeys and supplicants.

It’s amazing to recall how many famous figures are tied to this city. Ephesus is the birthplace of the famous philosopher Heraclitus, who expounded on the mutability of things: panta rhei, everything flows. And famous visitors to the city included Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra.

Marc Antony (then the governor of the Roman provinces in the east) decided to live in Ephesus and had Cleopatra join him there. As everyone knows, she was a fascinating woman and also very clever. She came to Ephesus not only to be with her lover but also to murder her sister Arsinoë, whom she saw as a threat to her power and who had taken refuge in the neutral territory of the Temple of Artemis. With help from Marc Antony, Cleopatra had her taken out of the temple and killed. Never before had the temple been violated so blatantly.

Once out of the marble halls of the baths, the two merchants stop to greet a sumptuously dressed man who is revered by everyone but who has a sinister reputation. He is the organizer and coordinator of the gladiator fights in Ephesus. He is filthy rich, lives in total luxury, and leads a life punctuated by gala festivities and banquets, like the one he is holding this evening to which Alexis and his colleague have been invited. In a few hours they will be at his magnificent villa, amid perfumed servants and noble women wrapped in exquisitely fine silk robes flaunting their gaudy jewelry.

The Inferno of the Quarries

The next day, bright and early and still a bit hung over, the two merchants are back on board their ship, on their way to a marble quarry. In the area around Ephesus there are at least forty quarries, including the famous one at Teos (present-day Siğacik), where two special varieties of marble are extracted: black “African” and black-and-ash-gray “Africanato.” What we’re about to see is a radically different world, the antechamber of hell.

The quarry is behind a spur of rock, where the road ends. But we can already sense its presence, announced by the loud hammering of the slaves at work. After going around the spur, the two men reach the guard post at the entrance to the quarry, where they’re stopped by a man with a long beard and a clump of hair on his forehead, surrounded by baldness. He’s armed and asks to see their credentials. Then, having examined their passes, he lets them go in.

Alexis is ill at ease; he’ll never get used to these scenes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of slaves are at work, some in the shade of the rock wall, some in the glaring sun, which has already started beating down on the rock. An injured slave passes right next to him, assisted by two others who are leading him to the guardhouse; he has a sliver of stone stuck in his eye and is only half-conscious.

The work here is extremely dangerous and knows no pause. It’s a real assembly line. The first step to extracting the marble is to dig grooves in the rock with simple hammers and chisels. That’s the most debilitating part. Then wooden wedges are stuck into the grooves and water is poured over them. The wood gradually swells up and splits the rock at the selected spot, breaking off enormous blocks weighing five or six tons each. These are then moved by means of wooden levers or small cranes. It is heartbreaking to imagine little boys working here, emaciated and without a future. It’s inhuman. This epoch harbors so many wonders but also so much cruelty.

One little boy wipes his dripping nose with the back of his hand and then runs off to get some water to give to an elderly slave. A guard yells at him, picks up a stone and throws it at him, just missing. The kid is more agile than the guard’s meanness. In places like this, relations between guards and slaves are atrocious; that perverse psychological mechanism that causes some people to take pleasure in dominating others and seeing them suffer often turns the guards into outright sadists.

Alexis and his colleague have come to take delivery of some bases and capitals that they had ordered. They walk by an area where a line of slaves is pounding away at the rock with picks, making deep grooves. For the past twenty years or so the Roman quarries have been implementing a technological innovation that has improved their productivity: they have designed and manufactured a heavier pick to penetrate deeper into the hard marble. By using this tool and working in a line, the slaves work more efficiently and the blocks are rough-hewn to be finished later on. The big innovation, in fact, lies in not waiting for specific orders, but in “preshaping” columns, capitals, and sarcophagi without finishing them. They are made in serial fashion, warehoused, and then sent out to various places in the empire where workshops of chiselers finish them to the taste of the buyers. It’s a sort of preindustrial serial production, not technologically but certainly conceptually. Consider, for example, that sarcophagi are carved with one side twice as thick as the other; in the workshops of the destination city, chiselers will “extract” the cover from the thick side, to the sound of hammer blows.

The two merchants are attracted by a curious wooden structure that makes a tremendous noise. They walk over to it. At first glance it seems to be a simple waterwheel, turned by a torrent, as can be seen in a lot of mills. But this is different, thanks to a mechanism of cogwheels reminiscent of the machines designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The movement of the wheel powers a saw that gradually cuts through a block of marble. We are dumbfounded. It’s a stonecutting machine. So the ancients were perfectly capable of building such a machine and saving on manpower; there is just one slave overseeing the work of the machine (which in this way becomes the “slave’s slave”). Could this technology have been developed on a large scale?

There are some examples of this kind of automation in the Roman era, as in Barbégal, in France, where a system of waterwheels powered a series of mills, setting in motion a sort of ski lift to which some sleds were attached that continuously resupplied the mills with sacks of wheat. This automated system for cutting marble was found sculpted, with a certain pride, on the sarcophagus (a marble sarcophagus, obviously) of a man who lived right here in Ephesus. But a Roman might object: “Why automate? We have slaves that do the same work at no cost.” Perhaps that was all it took to impede the spread of technologies that, as indicated by archaeological discoveries, were certainly within the Romans’ capabilities.

The items ordered by the two merchants are ready: thirty-eight Corinthian columns with leaves already outlined but still to be finished. It won’t take long to load them onto their boat, just a few hours, time to be passed under the arbor of a little nearby inn where buyers usually spend the night. At the inn, while the merchant who’s holding our sestertius waits, chatting and drinking wine, his colleague entertains himself with the waitress, taking her to a room upstairs. It’s expected that all the waitresses and female owners of taverns and inns are available for sex, just like prostitutes.


The ship was loaded quickly. The capitals are arranged like glasses upside down on the column bases. By positioning these marble “couples” one next to the other the hold is filled in no time. When they head out to sea, the ship is weighed down by all that marble, and it moves slowly through the water, heading north along the coast.

It’s dusk by now and the sea is beginning to rise. Black clouds hide the stars, and the sea gradually swells higher and higher. It’s impossible to go on: with the darkness closing in and the sea swelling constantly, it would be madness to continue. So they seek shelter from a long tract of coast between two promontories.

But it’s not enough; the wind and waves are pushing them toward the coast. The sails have been taken down, and a man from the crew keeps plunging a sounding line into the water—that is, a rope with a lead weight on the end used to determine the depth of the water.

Another sailor is turning the crank of the bilge pump, sucking out the water that got into the hold when the waves washed over the deck. The ship is coming dangerously close to shore. In the semidarkness, Alexis and the other merchant can see clearly the white caps of the waves breaking against the shoreline.

A member of the crew immediately throws over the anchor in an attempt to keep the ship from drifting into shore. But it’s useless; with the stern turned toward land and the bow toward the sea, the ship, like a rider in some aquatic rodeo, straddles the waves that the sea sends up against it.

Then comes the final blow; the keel bumps against something, maybe a rock on the sea bottom. The ship pivots on that point and rolls on its side, pushed by the waves. Inside the hold the cargo is shoved out of position, causing the ship to lose its equilibrium.

Alexis gasps in horror as the ship leans more and more without stopping. The blow from the wave must have opened a hole in the side of the ship, because it feels like it’s about to tip over in the sea. Copious amounts of water come streaming out of the bilge pump. It’s as though an artery has burst open inside the ship.

It’s too late for any more maneuvers; by now the water is over the bridge and flowing all over the ship. When it gets to the big opening that leads down to the hold it pours inside thunderously. It’s the end: every man for himself. The ship sinks with determination, heading for the bottom like a knife.

Now Alexis and all the men are in the water. It’s all happening in the dark. There was no need to jump; they were swept along by water that washed over the deck. The men are at the mercy of the tumultuous waves and the current. Fortunately, they’re all able to save themselves; the beach is very close.

The ship sits down on the bottom, which gathers it in softly. Over the coming decades the hull will disappear, eaten away by the sea and by those mollusks that come to be called shipworms. The only thing left will be the cargo, the skeleton of that unlucky voyage. And incredibly enough everything is still there, extraordinarily visible.

But the striking thing is how the scene around the wreck has changed. Right there where the drama took place there is now a long, elegant, exclusive beach near the city of Cesme, with beach umbrellas, a gazebo, kiosks, and even go-go dancers entertaining the customers. But all you have to do is go fifty yards offshore to admire the magnificent capitals sitting on the bottom at a depth of just fifteen to twenty feet. It’s one of the most beautiful visions that any scuba diver could have, and it tells this ancient story.

It’s not immediately clear why the cargo was never recovered. Perhaps, since it all happened at night, it wasn’t possible to relocate the point where the ship went down. Or, given the proximity of the quarry, it was considered less costly to have new capitals made than to pay the famous urinatores to find and recover the sunken ones.

Alexis and his friend saved themselves by grabbing onto the little lifeboat on board. And now, still a bit in shock, they’re sitting on the beach shivering, as the storm unleashes its wrath out on the water.

Shortly, they’ll start walking back to the harbor, looking for help. And what about our sestertius? Is it at the bottom of the sea? No, the merchant still has it; it’s still in his purse, hanging from his belt. But it spent a long time in the cold, dark waters of the tempest.

After a long march the two marble dealers and the crew were welcomed and given hospitality at the port. During their stay there Alexis bought some clean clothes with the coins he had with him. And so our sestertius changed hands again. Now it’s inside a canvas bag, together with some other sesterces, swinging back and forth on the street to the rhythm of a man’s step.

The man is a shopkeeper, a libertus, and he’s taking the day’s receipts to the shop owner, his former master. It’s very common to see this type of relationship after a slave has been given his liberty. It’s advantageous to both parties, especially to the libertus, who gets the help of his former master to enter the world of commerce.

The owner is a rich man who owns a lot of property, including five ships he uses to trade with major ports on the Aegean Sea. Tomorrow, once the bad weather has passed, he’ll be embarking for Athens carrying, among other goods, a shipment of precious silk from Alexandria and embroidered fabrics that he’s just received from Antioch.

Voyage to Athens

The voyage across the Aegean reveals to us a sea with a surprisingly high volume of traffic. There are always sails on the horizon. The ships carry goods, of course, but also a lot of people. Many of them are traveling for trade and work (functionaries, administrators, soldiers, etc.); others are going to visit relatives. Sometimes goods and people are one and the same, as in the case of slaves being taken to Delos to be sold or coming from other markets.

There are also, as we have already mentioned, tourists. The interesting thing is that, unlike us, they are not in the least bit interested in the great spectacles of nature, such as breathtaking landscapes, snowcapped mountains, or pristine valleys. On the contrary, nature is often considered the source of threats to safety and health (thanks to wolves, malaria, etc.). If anything, the ancient tourists might be interested in those more intimate natural settings where the presence of some divinity can be felt: a spring (after all, who but a divinity can make water gush from the ground?), a sacred wood with its awesome silence, sulfur beds with their hellish fumes, etc. Tourists of the Roman era, in short, prefer places that are circumscribed rather than vast panoramas or overwhelming natural beauty.

The historic sites where they often go usually offer a blend of ancient history and mythology. So, besides admiring the tomb of Virgil in Naples or the tomb of Socrates in Athens, they also visit the tombs of mythological figures such as Achilles and Ajax in Sparta or the place where Penelope decided to make Ulysses her spouse.

In this context, there is no lack of places to visit that feature some curious relics. In Argos, for example, there is a mound under which is buried the head of Medusa. On the island of Rhodes the goblet that Helen of Troy used to drink from is on display, and it has the shape of one of her breasts. In Phaselis, in Asia Minor, we have Achilles’ lance. People go to see these relics just the way millions of people today go to see the relics of Christian saints. In the absence of scientific explanations, some of the relics or objects on display have taken on imaginative back stories: for example, the fossil remains of prehistoric elephants are believed to be the bones of giants (of Cyclops, as is the case in Sicily).

Among the ship’s passengers there are also people making pilgrimages to shrines, for help with health problems or to get an answer from the oracles. Three shrines in particular are the real engines of pilgrimages: the shrines of Epidaurus, Pergamum, and the island of Kos. Whether on the road or at sea, it is quite common to encounter sick pilgrims on their way to one of these temples. Among the treatments offered at these shrines is dream therapy, as Professor Lionel Casson tells us. After a purifying (and hygienic) bath, the patients enter the temple, they pray, and then they are told to lie down on the ground or on a mat, sometimes in large rooms where they spend the night. Their dreams bring them medical advice, sometimes clear and sometimes obscure, which the priests then interpret. The suggested treatments are always simple: kinds of food to eat or to avoid, baths to take, or exercises to do.

Finally, among the varied humanity transported by the ships, there are also Olympic athletes. We are now in the year 117 CE, and the 124th Olympic games are set to begin in Greece.


After disembarking at the port of Piraeus, our wealthy entrepreneur is now in Athens. Heliodorus is his name (literally, “gift of the sun”), and he is lying softly on a litter carried by four robust slaves. It’s a comfortable way to travel, but it always seems peculiar to our modern mentality. It’s a bit like someone picking you up together with the bed you’ve been lying on and carrying you around the city to do your errands.

As he advances through the crowd (or rather, over the crowd), Heliodorus looks up distractedly at the Acropolis. In its general appearance, the first glimpse will change very little over the course of the centuries, so what Heliodorus sees is very much like what we see today: the Parthenon, then as now, stands out with its forest of gleaming columns.

The litter’s little procession passes a point from which the view of the Acropolis is especially evocative. Today it would be the ideal spot for taking a picture. And that’s exactly what some Roman tourists are doing. But in the absence of cameras they are using substitutes that worked for millennia: artists. At very low cost, an artist makes a quick sketch on sheets of papyrus, a portrait of the visitor with the Parthenon in the background. Obviously, the artists are not alone; all the tourists are assailed by the exegetai, the local guides, who hover like flies.

Stone Twins

After a number of turns around the city, Heliodorus has one last errand to do. And it just may be the one he likes the most. He has to go to the workshop of the sculptor from whom he has commissioned a portrait bust.

In the entryway all kinds of things are on display. There are several statues of divinities, for decoration in the domus, marble tubs and pestles, even a sundial in the form of a basin to put in the garden. We go in. Everything is coated with a layer of extrafine powder, and on the ground under our feet we can hear the crunch of slivers of marble.

Around us are many pieces that have been left unfinished, waiting for a buyer before being given the final touch: exactly like what we saw at the quarry. But while in the quarry there were large unfinished objects (capitals, columns, sarcophagi, etc.), here the unfinished works are small. Our eyes skim over gravestones to inscribe, altars without any dedication, a pair of sarcophagi with the figures of the deceased undefined, even statues with the face just barely outlined, waiting for the definitive features. It all makes us think of a sort of “precooked” art, serialized objects waiting for the final touch, different every time.

We follow Heliodorus into the back room. The sculptor is at work, but he jumps up immediately from his stool, takes off his cap, and goes to meet his wealthy patron.

He knows why Heliodorus is here and he points to a bust covered by a cloth. When he uncovers it with a theatrical gesture, Heliodorus raises his eyebrows. The bust that the sculptor has made for him is a very good likeness. This Greek sculptor is good. The bust looks almost like his twin in stone. The only feature that’s a little different is the hair. Heliodorus has his hair fixed a little differently. But that’s fine, because the bust has the same hair as the official busts of Trajan.

It’s interesting to note that both men and women tend to have themselves represented in statues or portraits with the same hairstyle as the empress or emperor. This means that when you see a bust in a museum you can date it simply by looking at the hairstyle (and the beard). The problem is that Trajan just died. Will Heliodorus still be in fashion once the new emperor is crowned?

How to Make Serial Copies

While the two men are bickering over the price for additional copies, we take our leave and go out into the courtyard. Our attention is attracted by the ticking sound of marble being chiseled. We pull aside a curtain and discover the “shop boys” at work.

They’re sitting in a line and they’re all sculpting the same subject. In fact, they are making identical busts of the same person, an important government official. The statues are identical; it’s as if these boys are expert photocopiers in three dimensions. Today, if we go from one museum to another, we can see exact copies of the same subject, down to the last detail. In the case of Emperor Hadrian, for example, we know of no less than thirty marble “twins” of his portrait, scattered in museums all over the world.

How do they do it? Roman sculptors use what we might call geometric techniques. If a statue represents an emperor (Hadrian, for example) with a frontal bust and his face is oriented slightly to the side, a classic pose, the copyist starts shaping the marble by first outlining a cube for the head and a big block for the shoulders. Then he transforms the cube into an oval, and marks some key points of the future face such as the point of the chin, an earlobe, the longest curl of the beard. From one copy to the next these points must always be the same distance from the same point at the top of the forehead, which is the center curl of the hair. This is a crucial step and the distance is established with precision by using a caliper.

Afterward, the sculptor begins outlining the principal features of the face: the forehead, the cheeks, the sides of the nose.… Gradually, there emerges from the marble the figure of a sharp-featured, very expressive face. And the work will be easy to copy, precisely because the various facial features are expressed in such a mathematical way, at measurable distances.

The occupation of sculptor and “copyist” was fundamental in ancient Rome. In this era, statues were placed everywhere (which explains why the majority of ancient statues in museums today are Roman). They had several functions. First and foremost, they were celebratory: the serial copies of an emperor will be placed in lots of public places, exactly like photos of the president today are hung on the walls of public offices and army barracks. But the statues actually had a precise objective: to create impressions.

Alone or in a group, for example, in nymphaeums, they were supposed to evoke a theme that then stimulated cultivated conversations on various topics, from war, to the beauty of life, to eros (Laocoön, Venus in the bath, etc.). Or they functioned as sets for religious rituals (statues of Jove) or justified public celebrations (statues of Augustus or other emperors, divinities representing decisions to be made, etc.). In other words, the statues were not only decorative elements for the city, in the same way as ornamental floral arrangements, but rather catalysts for activities that were important moments in daily life.

The demand for statues was enormous, and it wasn’t possible to satisfy everyone with original Greek works. For this reason, the workshops started churning out serial copies of Greek masterpieces from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, and the figure of the sculptor and copyist became fundamental.

Gradually, temples and public spaces began to fill up with copies of Greek masterpieces from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, perhaps with small Roman variations on the theme, while private villas and houses displayed in their gardens myriads of Greek and Roman heroes, philosophers, poets, and men of power.

At this point, it’s clear that being represented by a statue became a status symbol. As a result, famous people or people with a powerful social position, even a modest one, began leaving legacies of busts and statues of themselves and their relatives. Our museums are full of them, and what is amazing about them is the extraordinary realism of their faces and clothing: they are truly three-dimensional portraits in stone. The Romans, unlike the Greeks and the Egyptians, were the first to represent physical defects in their statues: baldness, bags under the eyes, double chins, pudgy faces, etc. This practice has a curious origin. When someone died, a mold of his or her face was made, and from that an original was made to be displayed in the house, like a portrait, in a special place, together with the faces of other ancestors. At the funeral of a Roman from a good family the portraits of his ancestors were carried in the procession behind the deceased to demonstrate to everyone his noble origins. This tradition of the “true” faces gave rise to the realistic style of Roman statues.

One final curiosity to note is that many statues and reliefs were painted: the hair, the eyes, clothing decorations. The ones in our museums today are white simply because the colors have disappeared. But in the Renaissance this was not known, and that’s why all the Renaissance statues, sculpted from the whitest possible marbles because of the influence of the “white” Roman statues, are the fruit of a misunderstanding.

The Overly Severe Gaze of Augustus

As we’re going back into the sculptor’s workshop, we notice a damaged bust of Augustus in the corner, and next to it one of Nero, evidently no longer displayable. We notice a big difference in the impression they transmit: Nero seems alive, almost a person we know. But Augustus has a surprising coldness in his gaze.

The impression is not by chance. Between the time of Augustus and that of Nero about forty years later there was a change in style. The sculptors who were active under Augustus almost all came from Attica and perpetuated the centuries-old classical style of Greek statues. The style was perfect, to be sure, but severe, rigid, lifeless. As the decades went by the style of Roman sculpture changed, perhaps influenced by the work of sculptors from the East; statues acquired warmth and dynamism, with features so alive that when we see them in museums they often make us think: “But I’ve seen this gentleman somewhere before …”

Indeed, the statues in museums present the viewer with a little challenge. If you accept it, your museum visits will become like a game—to guess in what era the statue was sculpted, for example. Think of it in modern terms. Just think of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and of how much the way people appear in public has changed. You can figure out the period of an old photograph simply by looking at how the man has his hair combed or how a woman is dressed. The same holds true for the statues. Artistic styles and ways of dressing changed over the course of the generations, and so you can figure out the era the statue belongs to simply by observing the clothes and the style.

After the realism of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, just before and after the tragedy of Pompeii in the year 79, under Trajan and Hadrian the sculptures go back for a short period to a “cold” style: gazes are detached and they never seem to be taking into consideration who they are looking at (frankly, the viewer is made to feel uncomfortable, almost unwanted). Luckily, this style was abandoned almost immediately. Sculptors under subsequent emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius or Septimius Severus, go back to sculpting “live” statues, but with one important innovation: the chiaroscuro effect. It was an ingenious new twist. If you take a good look at sarcophagi or statues from that period you will notice a lot of holes in the hair, beards, mouths, and ears. They look almost like termite holes. Actually they were made by drills and purposely left visible, to create an effect of light and shadow.

Indeed, the statues of this period are no longer all smooth; the sculptors leave rough areas next to polished ones to create a play of light. They even create a textured effect on the skin. The gaze also changes. While the eyes of a statue of Julius Caesar are empty, without pupils (because they were painted), now the pupils are engraved. Imagine the color of the iris to which is added the shadow of a groove: the gaze becomes much more profound, in all senses. (This was a technique initiated under Hadrian, whose eyes were an intriguing deep blue, as suggested by the glass paste inserts of a bronze bust of him conserved in the archaeological museum of Alexandria.) The optical illusion is perfect; the statues become more realistic, yet it’s all just a block of stone or bronze. You might say it’s the ancient equivalent of CGI and 3-D effects. For centuries this technique enjoyed enormous success.

Another curious thing to note is that the size of the busts changed too, and this allows them to be dated with certainty. In the beginning, the portraits went down to the base of the neck. Then, in the second century CE, sculptors also included the upper part of the torso and arms; later, in the third century CE they decided to include the entire torso. Sometimes they inserted other kinds of marble in a statue: the head of white stone, the clothes with green, red, or speckled marbles. An elegant and prestigious effect.

But at a certain point this surprising vitality of the statues disappeared. This was the last hurrah of ancient statuary. Afterward, the subjects were represented “stiffened” like a dead man, with their eyes wide open and their gaze fixed. Until sculptors arrived at the Byzantine style, that is. To represent the power of the emperors and the superiority of the faith, subjects were portrayed drastically differently from the everyday reality of the common people.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!