Diggings has, in a previous issue, reported on the rennovations being carried out to the magnificent bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius. Most of Rome’s famous bronzes were melted down at one time or another by Romans eager for a bit of cheap metal. This equestrian statue survived simply because it was long thought to be a statue of Constantine, the first Christian Caesar.
Following its removal from the Piazza Campidoglio, where it was placed by Michelangelo in the 1550s, the statue has undergone considerable cleaning and restoration and now the authorities wish to place it somewhere safe from the ravages of pollution and the threat of vandalism. (A copy of the statue will be replaced in the Piazza so that Michelangelo’s grand plan will still be complete.)
After considerable debate, it was decided to make an extension to the Capitoline Museum, a small covered courtyard in which the equestrian statue and a giant head of Constantine (really, truly, this time) can be safely put. Accordingly the builders were called in and work commenced.
It was known that the museum was built over the remains of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Italian archaeologists decided to kill two birds with one stone, as it were, and use the opportunity to excavate the site. They intended to uncover the foundations of the temple and, if suitable, put them on display as well so that tourists whose necks were aching from staring up at Marcus Aurelius could gain a little relief by peering down at the hole in the ground where the foundations of the temple lay.
Almost immediately, however, the excavators found the remains of burials, indicating that the temple of Jupiter, one of the grand temples of ancient Rome, had been built over a cemetery. One of the burials was that of a young girl, approximately 4 years old, who was found with a complete set of funerary equipment – pots and pans to equip her for the needs of the afterlife.
The finding of such a burial is not, of course, particularly remarkable. Infant and child mortality was high and the dead were commonly buried with grave goods. What makes this particular burial so interesting is that the pottery style is typical of the 8th century BC – that is, any time between 800 BC and 701 BC. Yet according to the best histories that have come down to us, Rome was founded in 753 BC. The names of Romulus and Remus will, of course, be familiar to all our readers.
Most modern historians, however, discount the ancient legend of the twin brothers and the wolf with the golden heart. (Not least of the arguments against the tale is the fact that children brought up by animals subsequently prove to be uneducatable and quite incapable of looking after themselves, let alone of founding cities!) Instead the historians believe that as far back as 900 BC there were several villages perched on the famous seven hills of Rome. Each village had its own burial ground – early cemeteries have been found beneath the Roman Forum and the smaller Augustan Forum.
Gradually, however, the villages outgrew their hilltop perches and eventually grew sufficiently to merge into one single settlement. Whether it was that the old burial grounds had been abandoned and forgotten, or whether a conscious decision was taken, we cannot tell, but it would seem that the individual cemeteries were quietly built over, while a new burial ground was opened up on the Esquiline Hill. This merger, which represented the founding of Rome as we know it, may well have taken place about 753 BC.
This little girl, therefore, represents one of the earliest inhabitants of the city which was later to rule the world and though there is nothing particularly unusual about her burial, it does have its own interest. I, however, am intrigued by the thought that the greatest of the Roman temples was built over the remains of a cemetery, a fact which would have been regarded in those days as highly polluting.
It is almost inconceivable that the foundation trenches for this massive building could have been dug and by mere chance escaped unearthing any of the burials in the cemetery. The only conclusion I can reach is that the priestly college had already decided upon the Esquiline Hill, overlooking the Forum, as a suitable site and any discovery of ancient remains was hastily hushed up – rather like a modern builder discovering ancient remains and keeping quiet let the archaeologists disturb his construction schedule.
One wonders how many other habits of builders can be traced so far back: was the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus finished on time, for example? and did the roof leak when it was completed?
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