A colossal hand pointed skyward. An enormous marble head of an emperor. A 1,700-year-old brick-made basilica so massive that we haven’t been able to replicate it without reinforced steel to this day.
These are only a few of the images I was left with after teaching and traveling on our program in Rome this summer. Seeing the eternal city through the fresh eyes of our inquisitive students revealed for me even more layers to a city that is already a kind of living palimpsest. For two full weeks the students translated ancient Latin texts, explored the ancient ruins where the events of the texts took place, and examined the art and artifacts that adorned them. The Classics came alive.
“Who’s head is this?”
The Rome program students saw the marble appendages mentioned above the day we visited the Capitoline Museum. Over eight feet tall, the head towered over everyone in our group. “Who’s head is this? Who does this hand belong to? Where do these come from?” The students asked. They learned that the hand and head were once part of a gigantic acrolithic statue of the emperor Constantine, who reigned from 306-337 CE. They also learned that this colossus once stood in the similarly sized Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine that we had seen just days earlier in the ancient Roman forum. When it was constructed, this basilica was the largest building ever attempted, with ceiling vaults nearly 130 feet high and a floor covering over 13,000 square feet. To this day, a marvel of engineering.
But the significance of this statue extends beyond identifying it and placing it in its ancient context. The students also learned that in ancient Rome, a ‘basilica’ was simply the Latin for a large, rectangular building that often served as a court of law. That, eventually, a semi-circular curved recess, called an ‘apse,’ was added to the end of the basilica and it’s here that the emperor, or his statue, would preside over the courts. And that it was only when Constantine legalized a new, foreign religion called Christianity and its subsequent adoption of the building type as a meeting place that the word ‘basilica’ took on any sort of religious meaning. This is why, now, most people associate the word with a large Christian church. The significance of the statue represents to me the essence of the Calder Classics programs: Learning about a specific moment in ancient Roman history through text, archaeology, and art opens our eyes to the interdisciplinary study of Latin and ancient history and their relevancy to the world we live in today.
“Who does this hand belong to? Where do these come from?”
So why are Constantine’s hands and feet in the Capitoline Museum? These questions from our curious students were more prescient than they realized, alluding to bigger questions of how we know what we know about Roman history and how that history has changed over time. Peter asked where an artifact came from, Juliette wanted to know who they belonged to; Julie, what Constantine did as emperor; Riley, about mythological symbolism; Charlie, how it was moved to its current location; Ben, when and why it was moved; and Frances, when the other artifacts were added to the room. Their questions all seemed to lead to the following idea in an “all roads lead to Rome” kind of way: Why and how Rome’s history was used and reused by emperor after emperor and generation after generation was a deliberate and curated process. Examining these ancient objects and spaces with the students reminded me that which buildings and artifacts were preserved and which weren’t has depended on what those with the power to do so have valued. Their selections could be based on monetary value; for example, few bronze statues survive from antiquity because the metal was so valuable that is was often melted down and used to make weapons or new sculptures of new leaders. They could be based on religious value. As Christianity grew and rose to power, statues of Constantine (the first Roman emperor to legalize and adopt Christianity) become more valued, while those of earlier pagan emperors lost value. The famous equestrian statue of the so-called philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, also inside the Capitoline Museum, only survived because later Romans thought it was a statue of Constantine, their Christian champion.
They could also be based on political value: those seeking power in Rome always found it beneficial to preserve statues of twins Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf, the former the founders of Rome and descendants of the gods. The most famous is also kept in the Capitoline (below).
Together, we explored the eternal city from viewing minute archaeological artifacts to asking big picture questions. And had fun doing it. I’m looking forward to returning next summer with a new batch of students and eight new pairs of eyes through which to examine the city and its history.