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

Advertisements

Real Heroism: No Dragons Required

As I watch my social media feeds, I confess I’m a tad jealous of two friends of mine who just so happen to be visiting Barcelona.  Today is the Feast of St. George – “Sant Jordi” in Catalan – and he is the patron saint of both the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. My friends really lucked out on their trip corresponding with the celebration of local traditions about the city’s favorite hero.

Of course, old stories about St. George fighting a dragon are not to be taken literally.  Most scholars believe that George was born in what is today Palestine to Greek Christian parents sometime around 275 A.D.; his father was a well-respected and wealthy army officer, but both George’s parents died when he was in his teens.  Like his father before him, George decided to join the army, and eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer.  He was later imprisoned, tried, and finally executed on April 23, 303 A.D., under the mass persecutions and purges of Christians carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century.

Even though he was never in Catalonia – whatever the charming old medieval legends may say – St. George does have a more important, spiritual connection to the Christian community in Barcelona.  St. George was part of a huge wave of martyrs, created just before Christianity was finally legalized under Diocletian’s successor Constantine.  In Barcelona, within 12 months of St. George’s execution in what is now Turkey, the city had a number of its own Christian martyrs, as a result of Diocletian’s murderous paranoia.

St. Eulalia, a young girl martyred as part of this persecution near Barcelona’s old Roman Forum, is now entombed in a magnificent shrine beneath the equally magnificent Barcelona Cathedral, just a few hundred feet from where she met her untimely end. St. Severus, Bishop of Barcelona during Diocletian’s reign, was also executed during the same time; today his remains lie in the only perfectly preserved Baroque church in the city, a beautiful, peaceful spot for contemplation.  And the ancient Basilica of Sants Just i Pastor, which served as the Pro-Cathedral in the Middle Ages while Barcelona’s present Cathedral was being built, was constructed over the catacombs containing the remains of two Christian schoolboys, Justus and Pastor.  They were beheaded near the spot where the beautiful church named for them now stands, during the same period, for refusing to recant their faith.

This gives us a sense not only of how the Church attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, but also how quickly and widely it spread from its humble beginnings in Jerusalem.  George serving in the army out in Turkey would never have known or heard about Eulalia, Severus, Justus, and Pastor living in a small colonial town on the Iberian Peninsula.  However all of them, as well as the many others who met their end for their Christian faith, knew that they were part of something much larger than themselves, and chose to act heroically, when faced with either confessing the truth or saving their own skin.

In the present age, examples like that of St. George are good ones for us to keep in mind.  Here was a real hero, dragon or no dragon.  He chose the fork in the road that lead to his death, but which also led him to life, and to the respect of thousands of Christians down the centuries who have named their children in his honor.  Would that if and when our time comes, we would be heroic enough to make the same choice that he did.

Detail of St. George from "The St. George Triptych" by Jaume Huguet (1460) Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Detail of St. George from “The St. George Triptych” by Jaume Huguet (1460)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona