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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:33

Emperor or athlete? Rethinking a modern attribution

Video transcript

[Music] we're here in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a large bronze ancient Roman figure that the Met identifies as trebonius galas who was a Emperor in the third century during a period of military Anarchy when Emperor's were no longer rising through the ranks of the Senate but rather were military commanders Giovanni anise is only emperor for two years and that was typical in the third century there was a tremendous amount of political instability during this period in the Roman Empire and during those two years because of all the chaos and the breakdown of various Roman systems one of the things we don't have are very many securely identified stone portraits of him and even his coin portraits are pretty generic looking and not a lot of consistency from one mint to another so we don't really have a clear idea of what his official Roman image looked like for the first two centuries of the Roman Imperial government we know exactly what every emperor looked like and anyone who's studied Roman portraits can identify a portrait immediately on first glance because those image types were so well established that whole system falls apart in the third century art historians have thought he's an emperor because of his heroic size his nudity the fact that he's gesturing with his right arm up on the other hand there are things that are anomalous about him the most striking thing about this is how unclassified looks the proportions seem very off the head seems much too small for the body the contrapposto stance is very awkward the muscles in the torso look flabby very different from what we associate with the classical ideal where figures would be idealized where they would look youthful and athletic and what I'm noticing about his contrapposto is that although I see his left knee bent I don't see the associated shifting in his hips and there's not that sense of natural movement and flow to the body we would expect in contrapposto so this sculpture appears only in the early 19th century it's said to have been excavated in Rome near the Church of st. John Lateran but we don't know that for certain there's no specific archaeological records that's a story that was told that's a story that's told by later owners who have a vested interest in telling a good story about where this came from a story that would enhance its value and its prestige if we knew where this statue came from it might help us understand it's very strange bodily features that unclassifiable x' to me the closest comparison for this statue is not other statues of Roman emperors it's a particular set of mosaics that show very large bodied wrestlers from the baths of caracalla who often have these enormous torsos and who often have faces that are creased with lines that seem to convey some kind of worry or fierceness but it's much more prestigious for the museum and the collector to say that this is an emperor and one of the things that happens when we talk about the Emperor's of the 3rd century we tend to read their biography in the way that they look so that this more coarse looking face with some emotion to it is ascribed to the lower-class origins of the emperors of the 3rd century this has always been a think really a subconscious assumption in the scholarship because of course scholars know that Roman portraits were set up to honor the sitter so you always want to represent someone according to the ideals of the moment nevertheless there still is often this assumption that images of soldier emperors are going to show them as lower-class brutes and that has fed the interpretation of this statue in a circular reinforcing set of interpretations and prejudices so he looks this way therefore he must be a Roman Emperor from the 3rd century Roman emperors from the third century look this way that's right and all of that reinforces scholars assumptions about the relationship between class and the classical ideals and the problem with a statue like this where we just don't know where it came from we don't have any evidence about this statue external to the statue itself that could help us break out of that interpretive circle as long as we assume that soldier Emperor's are not going to have a classical looking body then there's no reason to doubt the identification of this so one of the things that's so key about the alleged fine spot of this statue in the region of st. John Lateran in Rome is that that was the location of a military barracks so the standard interpretation of this is that he would have been set up in a military environment where soldiers would actually have been the primary audience for it and they wouldn't have cared about the lack of its classical qualities but unfortunately that fine spot has no secure foundation it's just a rumor and of course it's been extremely convenient for scholars we so often study objects that don't have a secure fine spot when we interpret objects based on how they look on their style on their relationship to other objects the only thing we can do is reinforce things we already have an understanding about and we don't ever learn anything new that's right if we knew that this was in fact set up in a very prestigious place say in the Roman Forum it would force us to rethink a lot of our assumptions about a classical ideal and what that meant at various moments in history but without that secure information about where this came from this is only going to reinforce what we think we already know it can only reinforce our prejudices not help us get past them you