May 15, 2011

Myth at the heart of the Roman Empire

Tags: History, Podcasts

Available on iTunes and OU Podcasts

Like the previously reviewed Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds, these podcasts are part of The Open University course A330: Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. These podcasts examine how Rome represents its foundation myths through a number of historical objects, ranging in origin from the classical period to the 17th century. The series is composed of 10 episodes with: 5 video podcasts on specific artifacts; 2 audio and a video podcast introducing or giving an overview of the topic; and, two audio podcasts shared with “Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds” discussing the role of myth in the ancient world. The video podcasts are in documentary format, normally showing a talking head or an object being described. The video podcasts are all around 5 minutes long (50MB) and recorded at 640x360 resolution, or a smaller iPod optimised format. Transcripts are available in PDF format.

The well-known story of Rome’s Foundation is that Romulus and Remus (descendants of Aeneas, a prince of Troy) were abandoned as infants, suckled by a she-wolf and founded the city with Romulus killing Remus in an argument over the exact location of the new city. There is apparently some evidence of other slightly different foundation myths, where other families take a more prominent role. The myth in its current form became dominant during the reign of Augustus who claimed ancestry from Romulus. Augustus was adept at manipulating Rome’s foundation myths to help consolidate power in himself and his family. Suetonius writes that as an alternative to Augustus, Octavian was offered the name Romulus as the second founder of Rome.

The House of Augustus is the first artifact examined. Presented by Augustus as a small domestic building, its location was further reinforced his connection with the gods and foundation myths. It is on the Palantine amid rows of temples and close to the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were supposedly found by the she-wolf. In 13BC the Roman Senate commissioned the Ara Pacis, an altar to honour Augustus for bringing peace to Rome. It is the subject of one of the podcasts and again links Augustus to the foundation myths. The altar displays scenes of nature, Rome’s foundation and a religious procession including the figure of Augustus himself. Augustus is also connected to the last classical object investigated - the Lapis Niger. This artifact is a number of black basalt paving stones covering an important shrine in the Comitium area of the Roman Forum. Although it is not known what exactly the stones cover, it is know that the site is of archaic importance in the city’s foundation.

It was originally though that the Capitoline Wolf (the famous status of Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf) was classical or Etruscan. However, it is now known that the wolf statue probably dates from the medieval period, with the twins added during the renaissance. Still the statue’s image is plastered all over Rome as a symbol of the city as the traditional seat of power, even in modern Italy. Many people have used the foundation myths. In the 17th century the Popes had the d’Arpino frescoes painted in the salon of the Palazzo dei Conservatori by Giuseppe Cesari. These paintings are detailed in the last of the artifact podcasts. They depict scenes in the foundation of Rome together with a large statue of Pope Innocent X.

The artifact podcasts are interesting, but most of the others can be skipped if already seen as part of a previous Open University course on myth.