The 10 highlights of… the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo)

The nineteenth-century Palazzo Massimo is currently the main seat of the prestigious Museo Nazionale Romano, which is completely dedicated to Roman civilisation. The museum has much to offer to visitors, basically too much for a single visit. This means it is virtually impossible to write a post about the museum that does some justice to the fabulous collection of Roman sculptures, mosaics and frescoes. This post is nevertheless an attempt to do just that by highlighting my ten personal favourites.

1. An altar with Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf

This beautiful altar was found in 1880-1881 in Ostia by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani (1845-1929). It was once part of a small sanctuary in Rome’s port city. An inscription indicates that the altar was dedicated on 1 October during the consulate of Manius Acilius Glabrio and Gaius Bellicius Torquatus, so in the year 124. This was during the reign of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). However, it should be noted that de moment of the dedication says little about the age of the altar. Its sculptural work suggests that it was made during the reign of the Flavian emperors, so between 69 and 96. Then during the Hadrianic era the altar was reused. Unfortunately the sculpted reliefs are quite damaged. The front had a relief with Mars, Venus, Amor and the god of marriage Hymenaeus, but these have all been decapitated. It is possible that this was a case of deliberate desecration by radical Christians. The sides of the altar, featuring the arms and chariot of Mars, have also been violated.

Altar with Romulus and Remus.

Fortunately the rear of the altar is still almost completely intact. Only the snouts of the ram’s heads are missing. At the bottom of the relief we see Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, a famous image that was also acceptable to Christians. Above the boys the eagle of Jupiter is on guard duty, and to the right of them a bearded man has been depicted who is the personification of the river Tiber. Depictions such as these are not uncommon even in Christian buildings. The much younger man in the top left corner is the personification of the Palatine hill. Romulus and Remus were, after all, suckled in the Lupercal, which was a cave in the slope of this hill. Each year on 15 February the Romans celebrated the Lupercalia. During this festival young Roman men ran around naked and tried to beat bystanders with strips of goatskin. This ritual may have symbolised keeping wolves away from the herds. Two shepherds complete the scene. They are probably the brothers Faustulus and Pleistinus, who found the boys and raised them.

2. Augustus as pontifex maximus

The emperor Augustus served as pontifex maximus or supreme pontiff from 12 BCE until his death in the year 14. He was the successor of his rival Lepidus, who had died in 12 BCE. It follows that the large statue of the emperor in the Palazzo Massimo was made after this year. When he was appointed pontifex maximus, Augustus was already in his early fifties, but the statue is that of a much younger man. This is deliberate of course. Augustus has his head covered with a veil, as befits a priest who is about to sacrifice. Unfortunately the right arm and left hand of the statue are missing. The statue, which is over two metres high, was found in 1910 in the Via Labicana, behind the Colosseum.

Augustus as pontifex maximus.

3. Boxer at rest

Even more impressive than the statue of Augustus is the bronze statue of a boxer at rest. The bearded pugilist seems to have taken quite a few punches to the face. Just take a look at the very lifelike cauliflower ears. The man is still wearing his classical boxing gloves. We do not know when exactly the statue was made. Estimates vary from the fourth to the first century BCE (ca. 330-50 BCE). The boxer was found in 1885 on the Quirinal hill and possibly stood in the baths of the emperor Constantine, built in 315.

Boxer at rest.

4. Mosaic of a cat with a prey and two ducks

This mosaic from the first century BCE is actually of mediocre quality. The top part of it is, however, instantly recognisable for anyone who has a cat: cats will be cats, if they see a bird, they will try and catch it. The mosaic was found in Cecchignola. This is now part of Rome, but in Antiquity it was well outside the city. The mosaic was part of the decorations of the dining room (triclinium) of a Roman villa.

Mosaic of a cat with a prey and two ducks.

5. Lion’s heads from the ships of Nemi

The Lago di Nemi is a small lake south of the more famous Alban Lake. During his brief reign the emperor Caligula (37-41) had at least two ships built here. The ships were 70 and 73 metres in length respectively, and they were probably intended for pleasure cruises. In 1929 the ships were recovered, but they were lost during World War Two. Fortunately many of their ornaments have been preserved. Two decorations featuring lion’s heads are truly splendid. The heads were attached to the two rudders of one of the ships. The animals are very lifelike, with wild manes and rings in their mouths. In the same display case we also find wolf’s heads with rings in their mouths. All of these objects were recovered from the lake as early as 1895.

Lion’s heads.

6. The Portonaccio Sarcophagus

I have already written an extensive post about this most impressive sarcophagus from ca. 180. It was possibly intended for a high-ranking officer who had served under the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) during the latter’s Marcomannic Wars. As regards the officer’s identity, the name Aulus Julius Pompilius is often dropped, but it remains doubtful whether he was really entombed in the sarcophagus. Note that neither on the lid, nor on the sarcophagus itself the face of the deceased has been completed. The sculpted reliefs of the sarcophagus are nonetheless exceptionally beautiful. We see Roman horsemen and foot soldiers completely destroying their ‘barbarian’ adversaries. The details are astonishing. See for instance the dragon standard (draco) in the background and the image of a ram on a helmet. The sarcophagus was found in 1931 in the vicinity of the Via Tiburtina.

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus.

7. Relief from a Christian sarcophagus

Not really beautiful, but certainly very interesting is the sculpted panel of a Christian sarcophagus. The top part is regretfully lost, but the remaining lower part features several miracles of Jesus Christ. We appear to be looking at a couple of miraculous healings, including the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum (far left) and the healing of the bleeding woman (right of centre). The miraculous multiplication has also been depicted, while the scene of a preaching Christ with a group of people may represent the Sermon on the Mount. The panel is dated to 290-310. This was a time when Christianity, which had been a religio licita (permitted religion) for several decades, suddenly became illegal again. This was the result of four edicts issued by the emperor Diocletianus (284-305) in 303-304. The persecution of Christians did not formally end until the emperor Galerius’ Edict of Toleration of 311.

The miracles of Christ.

8. Opus sectile from the Basilica of Junius Bassus

Junius Bassus was consul in the year 331. He himself still participated in the traditional cults, but his son – also called Junius Bassus – was a Christian. The latter’s sarcophagus can still be admired in the treasury of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Bassus senior, for his part, ordered the construction of a building that is called the ‘Basilica of Junius Bassus’ after him. It may have been a public building, but a private hall or even a funerary monument are also possibilities. We will never know its exact purpose, as the basilica was converted into a church which was demolished in 1930. In the Palazzo Massimo (but also in the Capitoline Museums) we can admire several decorations that once adorned the ‘basilica’. Here I would like to mention a splendid mosaic in opus sectile that has a clear connection to the games at the circus.

Mosaic in opus sectile from the Basilica of Junius Bassus.

In the mosaic, we see a bearded man in the centre, standing in his chariot drawn by two white horses. The perspective, especially that of the wheels of the chariot, is strange and looks unnatural. The bearded man is flanked by two horsemen on either side, representing the traditional circus parties. Although no specific location is given, the setting might be the Circus Maximus in Rome. Chariot racing continued to be popular in early Christian Rome. It was an acceptable alternative to the bloody gladiatorial games in the arena. It is not clear what the men are holding in their hands. One would perhaps expect a whip, but the objects do not look like whips at all. Perhaps they are wind socks or musical instruments. The scene is open to many interpretations. It could be a procession and the man in the chariot could be the consul Junius Bassus himself. But he could just as well be someone else and the scene might simply refer to the opening of the circus games.

9. Frescoes from the Villa of Livia

The frescoes from the Villa of Livia must certainly be counted among the highlights of the museum. Livia was the mighty wife of the emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE). She had a country estate at Prima Porta, about twelve kilometres north of Rome. The estate was situated on a hill along the famous Via Flaminia. The frescoes on display at the museum are from an underground dining room or triclinium. Visitors will imagine themselves in a garden with trees, plants, flowers, fruit and birds. Everything looks exceptionally realistic.

Frescoes from the Villa of Livia.

10. Mosaic with a Nilotic landscape

The last object discussed in this post is a large mosaic of a Nilotic landscape, which made a huge impression on me during my first visit to the museum in 2015. The mosaic features a number of naked boys (erotes) who are on a hippopotamus and crocodile hunt. The mosaic was found in a vineyard on the Aventine hill in Rome and dates from the second century. When I visited the museum again in 2022, the mosaic still impressed me, but in the meantime I had also seen the world-famous Nile mosaic of Palestrina. And let us be fair: the Palestrina mosaic is infinitely more beautiful.

Nile mosaic.

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