The Roman Emperor Who Wasn’t

When you’ve been around as long as the Catholic Church has – roughly 2,000 years and counting – you get to take on some of the aspects of the cultures that you outlast, and put them to your own uses.  Pagan temples get turned into churches, local customs are re-formulated to use as teaching tools for apologetics, foods can be prepared in such a way as to bring to mind particular saints or Biblical events, and so on.  And sometimes you simply take a work of art which has nothing to do with Christianity, and turn it into something else, to the confusion of art historians everywhere.

Some months ago a sculpture of a head, initially reported as being that of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was broken from its bust and stolen from the facade of a church in the town of Quintana del Marco, in north-central Spain.  It was recovered this week by the Spanish national police, and returned for conservation and restoration.  The headline of this particular article reporting the story refers to Marcus Aurelius as a “Roman emperor turned Christian saint”, but this is something of a mischaracterization of what is going on here.

Art experts agree that the sculpture in question was carved in late Roman times, probably around the 4th Century A.D.  Most also agree that it is not a portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius, but rather of an unknown Roman of importance.  The identification of the sculpture by some sources has to do with the somewhat shorthand tendency to assume that almost any statue of a Roman with a beard is probably one of that particular emperor, who was famous for his luxuriantly curly beard.

These types of lazy attributions can be comi-tragic.  If you have ever read “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, then you know how unfortunately humorous some of these errors can be.  In the coda to the novel, when a visitor describes a chapel in the Neapolitan palazzo of the last remaining members of the Salina family, he observes that it has been decorated with questionable paintings and bits of old tat passed off as saintly relics, which were not in fact what the elderly sisters thought that they were.  This assemblage has gotten the family into trouble with the Archdiocese, and if it were not so pitiable the mistakes would be laughable.  Yet in doing so di Lampedusa shows us how history and tradition can easily become obscured, and meanings changed, rather like playing a game of “telephone”.

In this case, although Marcus Aurelius was considered one of the “good emperors” for his stoic philosophy and for his initial tolerance, or more likely indifference, to the early Christians, the term “good” is really a comparative one.  The latter part of his reign was marked by widespread persecutions of Christians spearheaded by local governors, and the creation of martyrs throughout the empire.  While not brought about directly by imperial edict, Marcus Aurelius certainly did not stop or discourage such persecutions, as he became more suspicious of sectarianism and its effects on the stability of the empire.  Thus, prominent early Christian saints like St. Cecilia and the great apologist St. Justin Martyr met their deaths during his reign.  Indeed the latter was arrested, tortured, and killed after having written a book defending Christianity and attacking pagan philosophy, which he had presented to the Emperor and the Roman Senate.

Thus, if this were in fact a bust of Marcus Aurelius, it would be highly inappropriate to have him on the front of your church, even if he was not as bad as say, Nero or Diocletian.  The only explanation then, for why pseudo-Marcus Aurelius ended up where he did might actually come from his famous equestrian statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.  In fact that sculpture is so beloved that Michelangelo designed the entire square around it to showcase it, even though for centuries no one had the right idea of whom it represented.

That figure is one of the few large Roman bronzes to survive, and it did so because over time, people forgot who exactly it portrayed.  Rome had so many emperors, and so many invasions and migrations of new peoples into the city, particularly in the last centuries of the empire, that over time many people could not recall who Marcus Aurelius was.  They began to assume that the bronze was a statue of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who was clearly worthy of a substantial monument in Catholic eyes.  It was only much later realized whom the sculpture actually represented, and Marcus Aurelius was certainly no lover of Christians.

In the case of the mysterious bust in Spain, the sculpture was originally placed on the church facade in the 18th century not because the local people believed it represented Marcus Aurelius, but rather because they believed that it represented St. Peter. Who knows who first led them to reach this conclusion, but again, that conclusion was probably based on a strand of the popular imagination.  In this case, it assumes that any bearded figure with short hair in Christian art represents the first Pope. This can sometimes make identifications difficult, if there are no items traditionally associated with that person – for example, a key or pair of keys for St. Peter – which appear in the work of art itself, in order to clear up any doubt.

Thus, the people in Quintana del Marco decided that the man portrayed in the bust fit their mental picture of St. Peter, and used the sculpture accordingly.  Perhaps today, with a greater sense of historicity, we might find such a use inappropriate, and there is no word yet on what the parish intends to do with respect to placement of the sculpture.  Yet while we may never know the real identity of the subject, it is nice to see that his head has been returned home safe and sound.


Spanish police officer with recovered 4th Century A.D. head of a Roman
Quintana del Marco, Spain

2 thoughts on “The Roman Emperor Who Wasn’t

  1. I think I recognize that Roman ancient Emperor who wasn’t. I believe I’d seen a very distant relative of his in a Michel Angelo drawing. I also seen in a drawing Vincent van Gogh did at the Antwerp Academy under his drawing teacher Eugeen Siberdt. I believe Eugeen also slashed it with his own strokes of his crayon, just as he did to the beautiful Greek Goddess & The Good Samaritan that Vincent drew.


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