Brescia: Santa Giulia (part 4)

Daone helmet.

As Brescia’s municipal museum, the Museo di Santa Giulia is all about the city’s own history. In part 4 of this series about the museum, I will take stock of several museum objects and use them to discuss the history of Brescia. Brescia in Antiquity is the main subject of this post. As early as the Late Copper Age (ca. 3000 BCE), people started to settle on and south of the Colle Cidneo, the strategic hill in the centre of the city. From the fifth century on, the area was prospering and contacts had been established between the local people and the Etruscans further to the south. But then Celtic peoples invaded the Po Valley. The area of Brescia was settled by a tribe that was known as the Cenomani. Their principal settlement was known as Brixia.

Cenomani and Romans

Contacts between the Cenomani and the Romans go back to at least 225 BCE. In that year, these Celts refused to join a great Celtic coalition of Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae that had made plans to invade Roman territory. Instead, they joined forces with the Veneti (a people from the modern Veneto) and made an alliance with Rome. That alliance was put to the test not much later, during the Second Punic War, but it seems to have remained intact. In the Battle of Trebia in 218 BCE, for instance, the Cenomani fought side by side with the Romans and perished side by side with them.

Decorative Celtic horse trappings.

Rather ironically, it was right after the Romans had actually won the war against Hannibal that the Cenomani decided to forsake their alliance with Rome. In 200 BCE, they fought alongside the Boii and Insubres against the Romans, but a defeat on the battlefield and a diplomatic mission by the consul Gaius Cornelius Cethegus brought them back into the fold three years later. The Cenomani once again became Roman allies and relations between the two peoples were so cordial that a praetor who, in 187 BCE, had begun to disarm the tribe for no good reason was reprimanded by the Senate: that was no way to treat friends of Rome.

In 89 BCE, the inhabitants of Gallia Transpadana – the part of Gallia Cisalpina north of the river Po – were granted Latin status under the provisions of the Lex Pompeia de Transpadanis. As a result, the citizens of Brixia were, as Latins, henceforth ensured of the rights of intermarriage and commerce with Roman citizens. The process of Romanisation, which had set in some decades previously, was given a boost. In 58 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar, who was then governor of Gallia Cisalpina, zealously began recruiting new troops in the area to serve in the legions that had been raised for his upcoming campaign against the Helvetii on the other side of the Alps. Strictly speaking, only Roman citizens were allowed to sign up for the legions, but Caesar simply ignored the fact that his new soldiers were, from a legal point of view, merely Latins.[1] He treated them as if they were citizens, which, from a cultural point of view, they were. As relations between the Romans and Cenomani were still excellent, there is little doubt that there were also young men from Brescia among the fresh recruits.

Roman wall fresco, 1st century BCE.

In 49 BCE, the Lex Roscia awarded the citizens of Brixia full Roman citizenship. The Cenomani were enrolled in the tribus Fabia. This is hardly surprising, as Julius Caesar and his adoptive son, the future emperor Augustus, were also members of this tribe. It would be Augustus who, somewhere between 27 and 8 BCE, granted the city of Brixia a great honour: it was allowed to call itself Colonia Civica Augusta Brixia. All these developments led to prosperous years for the city. Brixia became a proper Roman settlement, with straight streets, city walls, a residential area and public buildings. During the reign of the emperor Vespasianus (69-79), a whole new forum was laid out, with a large temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (the Capitolium), a square with colonnades on the long sides and a basilica. At about the same time an immense theatre was built in the city, which could possibly accommodate 15,000 spectators. The remains of the Capitolium and the theatre are situated just west of the Museo di Santa Giulia and are open to the public. I will discuss them in a separate post.

The decline of Brixia started towards the end of the fourth century. West of the Roman city centre, a new centre sprang up, which was dominated by Christian churches. During the reign of the great king Theoderic (489-526), the city passed into the hands of the Ostrogoths. The Ostrogoths ruled over most of Italy for a few decades, but were defeated by the Eastern Romans under their famous emperor Justinianus during the Gothic War of 535-554. It should be said that Justinianus himself never visited Italy. He left the war there to his capable generals, of whom Belisarius and Narses were the most important. Unfortunately the Eastern Romans were not allowed to enjoy their victory for long. In 568 the Longobards invaded Italy and quickly overran huge swathes of territory. Brixia too became part of their realm, and the last Longobard king, Desiderius (757-774), was a native of the city. This story has already largely been told in part 1 of this series.

Things to see

Vittoria alata (photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto / Wikimedia Commons).

The Museo di Santa Giulia possesses a large number of objects which were crafted in the period discussed in the previous paragraph. These objects paint a vivid image of life in that era. An example from the Celtic period is the Daone helmet, found near the town of Daone, situated about 55 kilometres north of Brescia (see the image above). This type of helmet was used in battle in the Alpine area between the fourth and first century BCE. And then there is a very impressive collection of decorative Celtic horse trappings (see the image above). This collection comprises two large round discs, twelve smaller discs and a few other items. On all the discs we see human heads, while the two larger discs also feature a symbol that is known as the triskelion. This triple spiral was often used by the Celts, but the symbol itself is much older. The decorations are made of silver, and according to the museum they were produced in the Danube region, where Celts had settled as well. Trade routes across the Alps were responsible for the arrival of the decorations in Italy.

The most famous object in the museum from the Roman era is without any doubt the bronze statue of the winged goddess Victoria, the Vittoria alata. Bronze statues from Antiquity are fairly rare, as most of them have been molten down in the past. The Vittoria alata was one of the main reasons for us to visit the Museo di Santa Giulia. The statue has its own room, and we were rather disappointed to discover that the original there had been replaced with a (marble?) replica. It was not clear why the original had been removed, but fortunately the Internet is crammed with images of this precious work of art. Visitors may wonder about the rather curious body posture of the statue, but it is easily explained. The left foot used to rest on the helmet of Mars, the Roman god of war, which is why it is higher than the right foot. Victoria used her left hand to clasp a shield and her right hand to write down the name and deeds of the victor. Unfortunately all of these extra elements have been lost.

Replica of the Vittoria alata.

The iconography of the winged Victoria was developed from the image of a semi-naked Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, admiring herself in a mirror. There is even a theory that the Vittoria alata had originally been a Greek statue of Aphrodite from the third century BCE. According to this theory it was shipped to Italy under the emperor Augustus and then transformed into the winged Victory during the reign of the emperor Vespasianus. It was subsequently given a prominent place on the emperor’s new forum (see above). The Museo di Santa Giulia, however, claims that the statue was probably made by a workshop in Northern Italy in the second century CE, so some time after Vespasianus.

The Vittoria alata was found in 1826 behind the remains of the Capitolium. It had been hidden there along with several other valuable items, including six gilded bronze busts. These have been put on display in the room before that in which the Vittoria alata has been set up. Five of the busts are of a man and one of a woman. In three of them we recognise the emperors Septimius Severus (193-211), Claudius Gothicus (268-270) and Probus (276-282). I also liked a bronze figurine of a semi-naked prisoner. It was probably once part of a larger work that depicted a triumph.

Claudius Gothicus / prisoner / Probus.

In the north-eastern section of the museum, the visitor can admire the remains of Roman houses from the Imperial age. These were discovered between 1967 and 1971 during excavations in the kitchen garden of the monastic complex. We see the remains of two Roman houses (domus) that have been in use from the first to the fourth century. Parts of the precious wall frescoes and mosaic pavements have been preserved. I consider the mosaic of a naked Dionysos with a leopard to be the true highlight. See the slideshow below.

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Ivory diptych of the consul Boethius.

Now we come to an ivory diptych from the fifth century which was made for the consul Nar(ius?) Manlius Boethius, the consul ordinarius of the year 487. He was likely the father of the philosopher Boethius, the man who was executed by order of the aforementioned Ostrogothic king Theoderic on charges of high treason. The magistrate features twice on the diptych. On the left we see him standing straight, holding a staff with the Roman eagle in his left hand. This is the symbol of his power. On the right he is seated. Again he is holding a staff with an eagle, while in his right hand he clutches a mappa, a piece of linen which was used during the circus games. If the magistrate dropped the cloth, the charioteers were allowed to leave their starting gates or carceres. The Latin text above Boethius is not easy to read. It presumably reads:


As vir clarissimus et illustris, Boethius was a member of the highest social class. He had been praetorian prefect and twice city prefect. He was also regular consul in the year 487 and bore the title of patricius. So all in all, he was an extremely important man, which is furthermore demonstrated by the quality of the diptych. Note for instance the patterns on Boethius’ robes. The level of detail is most impressive.

The last interesting object to be discussed here is the front of a sarcophagus from the second century. It was found in the seventeenth century, north of the church of San Salvatore. According to the museum it is possible that the sarcophagus was crafted by a workshop in the vicinity of Aquileia. The museum claims we see a naval battle, but this interpretation is hardly convincing. It is true we see ships on the right, but the fighting on the left clearly takes place on land.

Front of a sarcophagus with the Battle of Marathon.

A Dutch ancient historian has rightly claimed that what we see here is the final stage of the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. The Athenians are chasing the fleeing Persians back to their ships and are massacring them on the beach. On the ship closest to the beach we see a desperate Persian (or Phoenician) trying to keep the attackers at a distance by throwing rocks, while on the left an Athenian is unhorsing a Persian. According to the most common version of the Battle of Marathon the Athenians were able to win the fight because the Persian cavalry was absent. I sincerely doubt whether from the presence of a single horse on a sarcophagus from the second century we may conclude that cavalry did participate in the battle after all. We may very well see a lone officer’s horse here, and it is rather unlikely that the sculptors, who crafted their work at least 600 years after the battle, aimed to depict it as realistically as possible.


[1] Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar, p. 256-257.


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