The 10 highlights of… the Museo Nazionale Romano (Baths of Diocletianus)

Remains of the Baths of Diocletianus.

The Museo Nazionale Romano opened its doors as early as 1890. The immense collection of the museum is currently distributed across four locations: the Palazzo Massimo and Palazzo Altemps, which have been discussed previously, the Crypta Balbi and the Baths of Diocletianus. The baths can be considered the museum’s original location. In the sixteenth century the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri was built into the ruins of these baths, the last project of the great Michelangelo. Then in 1598 the church of San Bernardo alle Terme was erected inside one of the circular entrance buildings of the complex. I have already discussed the history of the Baths of Diocletianus in my posts about these two churches. I will repeat this history below and then discuss ten highlights from the collection of the museum. While the chief focus of the Palazzo Massimo and the Palazzo Altemps is on objects from the late Roman Republic and the Imperial Age, in the Baths of Diocletianus we also finds items dating from earlier periods. Moreover, these are not just items from Rome itself, but also from cities and towns elsewhere in Latium.

The Baths of Diocletianus

The baths were built between 298 and 306. They occupied a terrain that measured about 380 by 370 metres, making the Baths of Diocletianus the largest in the city. Even though they are named after the emperor Diocletianus (284-305), they were actually commissioned by his co-ruler Maximianus. Many buildings had to be levelled before construction could begin, but the pre-existing Temple of the gens Flavia, built by the emperor Domitianus (81-96), was spared and became part of the bath complex. In order to provide the baths with water, a new branch was added to the old Aqua Marcia aqueduct (built in 144 BCE). A good plan of the baths can be found in the Atlas of Ancient Rome[1], and those who do not have this magnificent book can have a look at this website or this one, which are equally informative.

Interior of the baths.

The baths had the standard layout to be found throughout the Roman Empire, the only difference being that this was a much larger complex, larger even than the Baths of Caracalla that opened their doors in 216. The Baths of Diocletianus could accommodate up to 3,000 people. These could undress in the apodyteria, then proceed to the frigidarium, tepidarium and caldarium (cold, lukewarm and hot baths respectively), exercise on the palaestrae (exercise fields) and go for a swim in the huge natatio (swimming pool). The complex was entirely walled, and on the west side there was an immense exedra (a semi-circular apse) with a diameter of about 160 metres. Nowadays this is the Piazza della Repubblica. On the corners of the wall there were two circular buildings, one to the north and the other to the south of the exedra. These were most likely entrance buildings, which gave visitors access to the bath complex. As was already mentioned above, the northern building was converted into a church, the San Bernardo alle Terme.

In the sixteenth century two cloisters were added to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a large one and a smaller one. These were used by Carthusians until 1870, but they are currently in use as exhibition spaces for the museum. It is therefore now time to take stock of the collection of this museum.

Large Carthusian cloister.

The collection

1. Sarcophagus with two vehicles

In the large cloister we find many funerary monuments and sarcophagi. My attention was drawn to a sarcophagus from the second century, found in 1723, decorated with a scene described by the museum as “Sarcophagus with journey of the deceased through the afterlife”. The scene is truly touching. On the left we see a two-wheeled open vehicle drawn by two mules. In the vehicle, a cisium, are a couple and a young child. The vehicle is escorted by an eros soaring through the sky. On the right a second vehicle has been depicted, a near-perfect copy of the first. Between the vehicles two children can be seen playing under a tree. The first child caresses a large bird (a duck?), the second has some kind of kick scooter. I could not find any information about whose sarcophagus this was, but as infant mortality reached staggering heights in Antiquity, this may very well have been the final resting place of two children.

Sarcophagus with two vehicles.

2. Helmet from Lanuvium

The museum possesses the complete arms and armour of a warrior from Lanuvium. These are burial gifts found in the man’s grave. The objects date from about 475 BCE, and the sheer quality of the items suggests that the deceased was a high-ranking military official. The helmet discussed here is made of bronze, silver, gold and glass paste. According to the museum it is a ceremonial helmet, so it was not used in battle. Truly fascinating are the eyes, nose and eyebrows that have been attached to the helmet. The top had space for attaching feathers or a crest.

Helmet from Lanuvium.

Lanuvium was a Latin city that was situated south of the Mons Albanus. Together with several of the other Latin cities it rebelled against Roman dominance in 340-338 BCE. The rebels were ultimately unsuccessful. In 338 BCE the armies of Lanuvium and neighbouring Aricia were defeated by the consul Gaius Maenius. The Romans won the Latin war and the inhabitants of Lanuvium were granted full Roman citizenship. By becoming Roman citizens, their influence and prestige may have grown, but they also lost their independence. During the Imperial Age Lanuvium was the birthplace of the emperors Antoninus Pius and Commodus.

3. Bust of Kore from Aricia

Aricia lay just north of Lanuvium. At the end of the sixth century BCE an important battle took place close to the city. The Etruscan king Lars Porsenna of Clusium had presumably just taken Rome and had then sent his son Arruns with an army into Latium to conquer other cities. The Latins quickly joined forces against this threat and received aid from the tyrant Aristodemos of Cumae, to whose court the last Roman king Tarquinius Superbus and his family had fled. In the vicinity of Aricia, Arruns’ army was defeated, causing his father to withdraw from Rome to Clusium (modern Chiusi). Tarquinius Superbus never returned to Rome, leaving a power vacuum in the city that led to the creation of a republic.

Bust of Kore from Aricia.

As a member of the Latin League Aricia participated in the Latin war and suffered a defeat together with Lanuvium (see above). The inhabitants of Aricia were also granted full Roman citizenship. Not far from the city stood a sanctuary dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Kore (Ceres and Proserpina in Latin). The museum possesses several terracotta objects from this sanctuary, which date from the end of the fourth century to the middle of the third century BCE. One splendid object is a bust of Kore, with highly conspicuous earrings.

4. Typhon from Gabii

Gabii, situated just north of the Mons Albanus, was also a member of the Latin League. Unlike Lanuvium and Aricia, it remained loyal to Rome during the Latin war and must have been rewarded for its loyalty, although we do not know how. In the vicinity of the city stood the sanctuary of an unknown female deity. A few decorative elements of this sanctuary have been preserved, and these are on display in the museum. Included in this post is an image of one of the acroteria of the pediment of the temple. It represents the monster Typhon, who was defeated by Zeus. Typhon has a full beard, wings and animal ears. What is special, is that the original colours have been preserved.

Typhon from Gabii.

5. Head of Lucius Cornelius Pusio

Not much remains of the bronze statue of the Roman general and statesman Lucius Cornelius Pusio. Only the head and an inscription have survived. The inscription indicates that Pusio served as a military tribune (tribunus militum) in Legio XIV Gemina and later as the commander (legatus legionis) of Legio XVI. Only the number of the latter legion is mentioned, not its nickname. Legio XVI was originally nicknamed Gallica, but after the legion had surrendered during the Batavian revolt of 69-70, it was disbanded. The emperor Vespasianus then raised it again as Legio XVI Flavia Firma, naming it after his own family, the gens Flavia which was already mentioned above. According to the museum the statue was set up in Pusio’s house in Rome around the year 55, after the general had returned to the capital from Germania. In 72 or 73 Pusio subsequently served as consul. According to the inscription the statue was commissioned by one Marcus Vibrius Marcellus, a centurion in Legio XVI.

Head of Lucius Cornelius Pusio.

6. Sol Invictus and Jupiter Dolichenus

On a beautiful relief from the end of the second century three persons have been depicted. On the left we see a beardless young man with a haloed head. He is Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The cult of Sol reached the height of its popularity in the third century. In the year 274 the emperor Aurelianus consecrated a temple to this deity in Rome. According to tradition he did this on 25 December, a date that according to the calendar of Philocalus was the NATALIS INVICTI, the birthday of the Invictus. The much smaller head of a woman in the centre represents Luna, the goddess of the moon. She can be identified by the diadem with the lunar disc. And then we have the bearded man on the right, who is the most problematic. The inscription on the relief basically offers three options as to his identity. A liberal translation of the inscription would be:

“To the unconquered Sol for the wellbeing of the emperors and the spirit of their elite horse guards Marcus Ulpius Chresimus, priest of Jupiter Dolichenus (has dedicated this). In doing so he fulfilled his promise, happily and willingly.”

Sol Invictus and (a priest of) Jupiter Dolichenus.

The first option is that we are looking at the spirit (genius) of the equites singulares, the emperor’s mounted guards. Both the genius and the horsemen are not only mentioned in the inscription, the relief was also found in a sanctuary at the horsemen’s barracks, which was levelled under the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) to make way for the cathedral of Rome, the San Giovanni in Laterano. On the other hand, the bearded man does not look much like a soldier, which brings us to the second and third option: the man is either the Marcus Ulpius Chresimus mentioned in the text, so the priest of Jupiter Dolichenus, or he is Jupiter Dolichenus himself. Doliche was a city in Roman Syria. Via the Roman army the deity was introduced in Rome as well. It should be noted that the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus was a mystery cult, so only those who had been initiated could participate. The usual attributes of Jupiter Dolichenus are a double axe and lightning bolts. As these are wholly absent, I think the most plausible interpretation is that the bearded man is Marcus Ulpius Chresimus.

7. Mithras born from a rock

The cult of Mithras was very popular in the Roman Empire, especially in the second and third century. However, the idea that the cult was a serious rival to Christianity is simply nonsensical. Mithraism never became a mass movement or a state cult and was only accessible to male initiates. Moreover, it was a cult that found little favour with the higher classes. Initiates were mostly soldiers, low-ranking civil servants, freedmen and slaves.[2] The claim that Mithraism was imported from the Parthian or Persian Empire is heard very often, but that does not make it true. The Persians did in fact worship a god named Mithra, and the word nama (‘hail’) used during Mithraic rituals may indeed derive from Persian, but the central element of the cult, i.e. Mithras killing the bull (tauroctony), is wholly absent in the Persian version. Academic consensus now seems to be that there is at best a very loose connection with Mithra, and Cappadocia in present-day Turkey is ever more often identified as the cradle of the Mithraic cult. Sanctuaries of the deity (mithraea) are mostly found in Rome and Ostia, and in former army camps in the western part of the Roman Empire.

Mithras born from a rock.

The museum possesses several objects that are related to the cult of Mithras, among other things a relief, still partially painted, found under the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. In this post I want to discuss another object found under the same church, i.e. a statue of Mithras who is born from a rock. The statue debunks another myth about Mithras, which is mostly popular on the Internet: the claim that Mithras was born from a Virgin (just like Jesus Christ). The statue, that dates from the end of the second century or the first half of the third, shows a naked god with a short sword in one hand and a torch in the other. The inscription refers to the fecund rock (petra genetrix), to the man who dedicated the statue (one Aurelius Bassinus) and to the Castra Peregrina. At this barracks the soldiers were stationed who served as the emperor’s secret service. The barracks was demolished in the fifth century and on its ruins arose the aforementioned church of Santo Stefano.

8. Urn of a slave of Vespasianus

A small urn from the first century CE tells a rather special story. The urn once contained the ashes of Servandus Agathopodianus. The inscription tells us that he was a SER[VO], so a slave of Vespasianus, the emperor who ruled the Roman Empire from 69 to 79. The urn was commissioned by one Spendo(nius?) Consortianus, probably another slave or freedman of the emperor. Below the text we see an eros, a little basket with a snake slithering out and the well-known Roman eagle. According to the caption in the museum the snake might be a reference to the cult of Isis, which was very popular in Rome.

Urn of Servandus Agathopodianus.

9. Gnothi Sauton mosaic

Already during my first visit to the museum in 2015 my attention was drawn to a large mosaic of a reclining skeleton with the Greek text Γνῶθι σαυτόν (gnothi sauton). The text means ‘know thyself’. Visitors to the temple of Apollo in Delphi found this text above the entrance of the sanctuary. The text has been attributed to just about any Greek philosopher, but the truth is that we do not know who came up with these famous words. The most plausible explanation is that gnothi sauton was simply a popular wisdom in those days. It went hand in hand with two other proverbs – Μηδὲν ἄγαν (‘nothing in excess’) and the much less famous  Ἐγγύα πάρα δ’ Ἄτα (about ‘pledge’ and ‘perdition’; exact meaning uncertain). The mosaic was found in a Roman cemetery along the Via Appia. It stressed the brevity of life.

Gnothi Sauton mosaic.

10. Tomb from the Via Portuense

Lastly I will discuss a most impressive tomb from the second century which was found along the Via Portuense in 1951. The tomb originally served as a columbarium. Urns containing the ashes of the dead were placed in the niches of the tomb. In the triangular pediments of two of the larger niches we still see the painted portraits of the deceased (or of their relatives). In the second and third century the Romans gradually shifted from cremating the dead to burying them. This explains why people were buried underneath the floor of the tomb from the Via Portuense, and why sarcophagi were placed inside the building. The walls of the tomb were decorated with colourful frescoes. Especially those on the right wall are conspicuous. Thirteen people have been depicted here. On the far left a half-naked child – who looks a lot like an adult – is playing with a kick scooter again; apparently this was a popular toy in Antiquity. And what is happening on the right? Do we really see two adults playing a ball game there? Whatever it is they are doing, the scene is a happy one. The afterlife must be a wonderful place indeed. On the other walls we also find beautiful frescoes of people, animals, plants and flowers.

Tomb from the Via Portuense.

Happy scene on the right wall.


[1] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 195.

[2] The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization 2006/2008, p. 585-586.

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