Great honorary monuments were usually decorated with friezes carved in relief recounting the events of past and recent history, beginning with the most ancient and legendary. A common theme was in fact the mythical origin of Rome, which was traced back to the arrival of Aeneas in Italy. According to myth the hero, after fleeing the burning Troy with his elderly father Anchises and his son Ascanius and after many wanderings, landed on the coast of Lazio, where he finally settled. Romulus and Remus, the famous twins who founded the city, were indeed believed to be the offspring of his descendants.
Guide to the museum rooms
The historical commemorative bas-relief
The possibility to bring life-like figures and objects out of the two-dimensional background of a stone slab, allowed to cover monuments with “alive” depictions, able to offer a visual narrative of events of religious, civil or military interest.
Monumental historiated columns – such as the one dedicated to Trajan which is visible from the room – were erected from the second century AD to celebrate the great war accomplishments of some emperors, first in Rome and then in Constantinople. On these columns, prime examples of Roman art, the highlights of the events of the victorious wars fought in the name of the empire were carved in relief in a long frieze wound around the shaft. A statue of the emperor in military dress was placed on the top to assert his authority and seal the domination of Rome over the conquered populations.
In the sculptural decoration of public buildings, the depictions of the great celebratory reliefs were mostly inspired by true events. For the emperors they were an important propaganda tool in order to secure the legitimacy of their power with the people. Strongly representative scenes described the main military, political and religious events occurred under imperial rule: wars of conquest, the subjugation of the vanquished, the triumphs in victories, gratifications for the troops and the people, the sacrifices of thanksgiving to gods. The figure of the emperor, usually surrounded by his retinue and personal guard, always took a leading role, even when it did not appear directly in the scene.
In the Roman world, in all areas and at all levels, images always played a crucial role. Rome and other Roman cities were in fact thronged by images of all kinds, both in public places and within private spaces. In the public context the spread of images constituted a formidable means of communication and their conveyance could take different forms. Among these, the historical commemorative bas-relief undoubtedly had a special significance in Roman art. The facts narrated, always characterized by a strong political value, were functional to the exaltation of the qualities and merits of the personalities being honoured.
Alongside the account of real events, symbolic and memorial compositions were often used drawing from the mythological heritage, such as those which commemorated the most ancient origins of Rome.