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Emperor or athlete? Rethinking a modern attribution

Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus, 251-53 C.E., bronze, 241.3 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Marlowe and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(classical piano music) - [Dr. Marlowe] We're here in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a large bronze ancient Roman figure that the Met identified as Trebonianus Gallus, who was a Emperor in the third century. - [Dr. Harris] During a period of military anarchy when Emperor's were no longer rising through the ranks of the Senate but rather were military commanders. - [Dr. Marlowe] Trebonianus was 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. - [Dr. Harris] 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, any 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. - [Dr. Marlowe] Art historians have thought he's an Emperor because of his heroic size, his nudity, the fact that is gesturing with his right arm up, on the other hand there are things that are with anomalous about him. - [Dr. Harris] The most striking thing about this is how unclassical it 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. - [Dr. Marlowe] 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 that we would expect in contrapposto. - [Dr. Harris] - So this sculpture appeared only in the early 19th century, it's said to have been excavated in Rome near the Church of Saint John Lateran, but we don't know that for certain, there's no specific archeological record, that's a story that was told. - [Dr. Marlowe] 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 it's value and it's prestige. If we knew where this statue came from, it might help us understand it's very strange bodily feature, the unclassical style, those huge muscles, 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 of fierceness. - [Dr. Harris] But it's much more prestigious for the museum and the collector to say that this an Emperor, and one of the things that happens when we talk about the Emperors of the third century is we tend to read their biographies in the way that they look, so that this more coarse looking face with some emotion to it is subscribed to the lower class origins of the Emperor's of the third century. - [Dr. Marlowe] This has always been, I 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 and that circular reinforcing set of interpretations and prejudices. - [Dr. Harris] So he looks this way, therefore he must be a Roman Emperor from the third century, and Roman Emperor's from the third century look this way. - [Dr. Marlowe] 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 Emperors 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 find spot of this statue in the region of Saint John Lateran in Rome, is 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 have actually been the primary audience for it and they wouldn't have cared about the lack of it's classical qualities but unfortunately that find spot has no secure foundation, it's just a rumor and of course it's been extremely convenient for scholars . - [Dr. Harris] We so often study objects that don't have a secure find spot when we interpret objects based on how they look, on their style, on their relationship with 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. - [Dr. Marlowe] 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 the 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. (classical piano music)