Coffee With Caligula: Ancient Roman Artifact Rediscovered In New York Apartment

An interesting story that has been making the rounds in the art and archaeology press of late has been the rediscovery, inside a Park Avenue apartment, of a mosaic from one of the ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD. Caligula had luxurious pleasure craft for the use of himself and his entourage when he visited the imperial villa located on Lake Nemi a small resort town about 20 miles south of Rome, which were covered in statuary, mosaics, and other fine materials. It turns out that this particular floor section went missing sometime around World War II, and ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it had been converted into the top for a coffee table. The owner of the piece has – understandably reluctantly – returned it to Italian authorities, and you can read more about the unusual circumstances involved in this story here.

mosaic

Caligula was a bit of a nut, as you probably remember from your World History class, who succeeded his Great-Uncle Tiberius to the Imperial Roman throne. Among other bizarre acts best not shared here, he infamously made his horse a Inciatus a priest, and was considering making him a Roman Consul, as well. Following his assassination by the Praetorian Guard, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius, whose fictionalized two-volume autobiography by Robert Graves – “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” – is not only an absolute page-turner, but also the basis for one of the most engrossing TV miniseries ever produced. If you’ve not seen it, you definitely need to make that a priority at some point.

At Lake Nemi, Caligula had more to do than simply float about all day, soaking up the sun. The imperial family owned at least one villa by the lake shore, and could take excursions to interesting sites around the perimeter. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by one of these locations, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which is located on the north end of the lake. Although it no longer exists, it was a very ancient site of pagan worship, dating back at least to at least the 4th century BC, and had a rather bizarre ritual associated with it, which will call to mind a scene from “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” involving Indy and the ancient crusader.

The presiding priest at the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was known as the Rex (“King”) Nemorensis, and held that position against all comers only for so long as he could best those who would seek to supplant him in physical combat. If a sitting occupant was killed, then the man who bested him would become the new Rex Nemorensis. By long-standing tradition, only runaway slaves were eligible to compete for the position.

Rex

Not only did Caligula allow this practice to continue during his reign, but there are stories that he enjoyed watching the ritual take place. In fact, so much did he enjoy this rather gruesome day trip whenever he was in town, that according to the Roman historian Suetonius the emperor once sent one of his own slaves to fight the sitting Rex Nemorensis, since Caligula felt that the current priest-king had held his position for too long. There’s no word on who won, but no doubt both men, in their way, were going to lose, whatever the outcome.

You can see some of the remains of Caligula’s ships at a museum located near Lake Nemi today. There are many interesting objects that were once part of these vessels, but my personal favorites are the bronze animal heads – including lions, wild boar, and panthers – with rings in their mouths, which were used to help tow the boats around the lake (they could float but were too heavy to properly row or sail.) Presumably, the coffee table fit for an emperor will soon be rejoining them.

lions

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TBT: Ancient Edition

As curated link posts have been the thing of late, and I received a number of positive comments in response to my most recent iteration of same, here are a few topics that have piqued my interest in the area of ancient art over the last few days:

More Problems At The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to reel from one disaster to another of late. The latest kerfuffle involves two works from antiquity which the museum has had to hand over to authorities. On Monday, the news leaked that the Manhattan District Attorney had seized a magnificent Greek vase decorated with scenes of Dionysus from the 4th century BC, which had been on display at The Met since 1989. Authorities believe the object was looted from a tomb sometime in the 1970’s.

The following day it was revealed that, a month earlier, the Manhattan D.A. had also seized another object of Ancient Greek origin from The Met. This time the art in question was a fragmentary Greek marble sculpture of a bull’s head, which may have been looted from Lebanon during the long civil war which that country suffered through for much of the 1980’s. The sculpture was on long-term loan to The Met from collectors in Colorado, who have unwittingly been drawn into an international dispute while ownership of the sculpture is sorted out.

Bulgarian Baptism

Archaeologists have recently discovered an ancient baptismal font dating from around the 5th century A.D. at a dig in the very ancient city of Plovdiv – at one time it was known as Philippopolis, a wealthy and luxurious town named for the father of Alexander the Great. The font was donated by a Bishop Makedonii to the Christian basilica which once stood on the site, and which seems to have been the largest Christian church in the country at one time. The city was burned to the ground by the Huns in the mid-5th century, so this new basilica replaced the old one, remnants of which have also been found. You can see the font, as well as the magnificent mosaic floors of the church, by following the link.

France’s “Little Pompeii”

Meanwhile in France, the excavation of a new housing construction site in Sainte-Columbe, a town outside the city of modern-day Vienne, has uncovered the most important archaeological site to be found in that country in the last 50 years. A series of houses and public buildings dating from the time of Christ are being excavated, and because so much of it is well-preserved, archaeologists are referring to it as a “Little Pompeii”. It is believed that a series of fires eventually caused the residents to abandon the town and move elsewhere, but as in any disaster scenario it means that many things were left behind, as-is. While the beautiful mosaic floors will be moved to a nearby museum, scientists may be able to reconstruct what one of the houses looked like, from top to bottom, since during the blaze it collapsed on itself like a stack of cards.

A Brassiere Fit For A Queen

Finally, there are lots of interesting stories about the Queen of late – such as this piece about the sort of tipple which she enjoys at various times of day – but this one is quite something. In 1953, on the occasion of the Queen’s coronation, the then-President of Panama sent a rather unusual gift: a large gold Pre-Columbian-style breastplate. It’s something that Queen Boadicea or even Wonder Woman would appreciate, but I don’t imagine HM tried it on for size when she received it.

For unknown reasons it went into storage and was forgotten about, until curators sorting through the royal basements and attics came across it, and realized its significance. Although originally dated to sometime around 1300, experts now believe that the piece could date from as early as 700 A.D. If you happen to be in London, you can toddle along to see it in the “Royal Gifts” exhibition, taking place at Buck House now through January 10th.
Vase

Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.