Imperial Dynastic Group at Sagalassos

Marcus Aurelius….still standing. Image courtesy of the Sagalassos project.

Another summer, another batch of great finds from the Sagalassos project… This season has yielded colossal portraits of Faustina and now Marcus Aurelius. As both of these as well as last year’s Hadrian, currently on display in London at the “Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” show but later to join the wonderful Burdur museum, come from the central room of the baths, this is quite clearly a dynastic group. A rather unusual and quite splendid thing about this find is that it even made it into Danish mainstream media (e.g. Jyllands-Posten).

My photos from Sagalassos here and here. Here’s the full press report:


1. The statues

Towards the end of July 2007, archaeologists of the KULeuven (Belgium) directed by Prof. Marc Waelkens discovered in the largest room of the Roman Baths under excavation since twelve years the remains of a colossal, ca 5m tall statue of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) composed of a 0.70 m tall head, the lower part of the right leg and the joining 0.80 m long foot. These fragments are currently at display in the rotunda of the British Museum where they form the centre pieces of the prestigious exhibition ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’ running until the end of October, an exhibition which has received a lot of attention in the international and Turkish press. These fragments were discovered halfway the rubble gradually filling up a 1250 sq. metres large cross-shaped and mosaic covered room, most likely a frigidarium. This room has three large niches on both the west and on the east side. Carbon 14 dating of the pellets of a couple of uhu owls living in the ruins suggested a date between AD 540 and 620, most likely around AD 590, for the buildings partial collapse by a massive earthquake. The finding spot of the remains of Hadrian’s colossal statue, in the southwest niche of the room, on top of a thick mortar layer fallen from the vaulted ceilings seemed to suggest at first that the fragments had been brought there either to remove the probably gilded bronze armour of the emperor or even to burn these huge marble pieces to cement in a nearby lime kiln, or both. Yet, some other statues of colossal remains, once occupied this room, possibly as the result of recycling, as shown by the front part of two female feet of colossal dimensions, standing on the floor and surrounded by mosaics which still follow the contours of the female statue’s long dress. These feet were found in the opposed south-eastern niche of the room, suggesting despite our previous thoughts, some relationship with the presence of Hadrian in the southwest nice. Therefore, it was not excluded and now is believed that the female feet, once belonged to Hadrian’s wife, the empress Vibia Sabina, who only 14 years old was forced into a possibly never consummated marriage with Hadrian and who died in 136-137 AD.

On Tuesday August the 12th, another colossal head (H.:: 0.76m; width from ear to ear 0.48m) was discovered by the same excavation team ca. 6m away from the find spot of last year’s colossal Hadrian’s portrait, be it still higher in the rubble. This head, later followed by a 1.25 m long right arm and the front part of a pair of female feet wearing sandals decorated with an ivy leave, as was also the case with ‘Sabina’s feet, occupied the eastern central niche of the room. Once the head was turned over, one faced a clearly more mature woman than the normal Sabina type of portrait, with large almond shaped eyes (only the tear-channels are plastically rendered, not the iris or pupils as became usual during the reign of Hadrian), fleshy thick lips and a hairdo, parted in the middle of the front and taken in wavy strains below and around the ears towards the back. The rendering of the hair only sparingly makes uses of the drill, a feature that was characteristic for portraits of Antonine empresses, this in sharp contrast with the beards and at the end also to curly hairs of their husbands. On top of her head, she wears a circlet, a feature that was typical for most of Sabina’s portraits, but that was usually replaced by a large thicker but also smaller braid of hair for Faustina the Elder. Yet, in our case the whole physiognomy of the face clearly identifies the empress with the latter, except for the circlet, the best and even more colossal parallel being a portrait (with the same treatment of the eyes) of the Elder Faustina (H.: 1.45m) from Sardis, which is part of The British Museum’s permanent collection. The portrait also represents the Empress at a younger age, i.e. younger than in the famous portrait from Sardis. In the days following the discovery of the remains of the colossal Faustina the Elder statue, the opposite niche, where a male statue was expected, as in the mean time it was clear that the western niches contained Antonine emperors starting with Hadrian, whereas those in the eastern niches represented their spouses, in fact the front part of a pair of male feet in sandals with a leather stretch fixed to the ankles was discovered. Although no other statue fragments were discovered here, these feet, because of the Elder Faustina presence in the opposite niche, can only have belonged to Antoninus Pius. That he clearly was represented as a togatus (wearing the Roman toga) instead of an army commander as was the case with the statues of Hadrian and the yet to discover representation of Marcus Aurelius, who both carried Imperial richly decorated military booths, can easily be explained by the fact, that contrary to Hadrian, who spend most of his life travelling and fighting, Antoninus Pius never had to take up weapons and even never left Italy.

After this find, it was expected that the north-western niche of the room would contain a colossal statue of Marcus Aurelius, the longest surviving successor of Antoninus Pius (his co-regent Lucius Verus married to Lucilla, Marcus Aurelius’ daughter, died before Marcus Aurelius).
Wednesday August the 20th proved our hypothesis to be right: early in the morning a pair of colossal legs (H. until their ending just above the knee: ca. 1.70 m) turned up in the rubble, which also seemed to contain the right hand and arm. This arm (L.: 1.55m) held a globe in its hand, probably once crowned by a gilded bronze Victory. The whole situation in this niche was clearly different from that in the others, where the vaults apparently had originally survived the earthquake of ca 590 so that the statues in them were still accessible and could be dismantled. In this niche the vault seems to have fallen down immediately, making the composite statue of the emperor (his torso was certainly made of bronze armour with a terracotta or wooden fill inside and catapulted away, so that it probably ended up in a later still accessible place) explode, whereby all heavy marble parts fell down in the original position. The colossal Imperial head (H. 0.90m) clearly represents the young emperor Marcus Aurelius: Most of his hair and bear except of some strains of his feathery beard are carved by means of a chisel and only a few parts drilled. The emperor wore exquisitely carved army boots covered with a lion skin and decorated with tendrils and Amazon shields. His characteristic bulging eyes are half concealed by bulging heavy eyelids, whereas the lentoid-shaped pupils, an innovation of his reign, make them gaze upward as if in deep contemplation, perfectly fitting to an emperor who was more of a philosopher than of a soldier, although he had to spend most of his life fighting Germans along the Austrian Danube, where in 180, he eventually died in nearby Carnuntum. This new portrait is one of the nicest representing the young emperor, and was probably ordered and completed around AD 165, when the construction of the huge bath complex, initiated under Hadrian (ca. AD 120) and dedicated to the then only since four years ruling Marcus Aurelius (138-161 AD). It thus is almost a certainty, that the still unexcavated north-eastern niche of the room will next year provide remains of the Younger Faustina, Marcus Aurelius wife.

2. Meaning and original location of the statues

All of the statues seem to have been carved in the beautiful and exquisite and expensive white Docimian marble (Afyon ‘seker’ or ‘bal’). Despite a distance of more ca. 250 km separating the quarries from Sagalassos, this city is full of Docimian marble used for statuary or as wall veneer, illustrating the enormous wealth of the city, which like the rest of the Emperor reached the peak of its prosperity from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius. The demand for this white Docimian marble was so great that we have signatures of a dynasty of Docimian sculptures living and working during several generations in Sagalassos. It is also striking that all preserved portrait heads of the two emperors and one empress represent them, during the first years of their reign, which is also the case with the Marcus Aurelius statue. The reason for this, one has to search for in the original location of the statues. In fact, their presence in the six southern niches of what was perhaps the large cold water room or frigidarium of the complex is clearly a secondary use, implied by the absence of a real statue base. They originally must have occupied a continuous socle elevating them even more than their mere size already did, in the central space of the complex, where the six metres long inaugural inscription of AD 165 was found. Such rooms representing the Imperial house, were characteristic for the larger bath complexes of Anatolia (e.g. at Ephesus, Sardis, Aizanoi etc.) and are either referred to as ‘Kaisersaal’ (emperors’ room) or ‘Marmorsaal’ (marble room because of their rich marble wall veneer and floors. The first couple to be worshipped in that room must have been the young Hadrian and Vibia Sabina. Hadrian had a special relationship with the city, which he promoted to become the official centre of the Pisidian emperors’ cult, to whom he gave the title of being ‘the first city of Pisidia, friend and ally of the Romans’, which brought the city all kinds of supplementary advantages because of the yearly festivals attracting thousands of Pisidians to Sagalassos. Moreover somewhere in the middle of his reign, he also moved Sagalassos from the province of Asia (capital: Ephesos) with which it had no special economic ties, to the province of Lycia et Pamphylia, to which Pisidia was added. This reflected much better economic realities as all import and export to or from Sagalassos passed through the Pamphylian ports (especially Perge), with whom Sagalassos was connected by means of the ‘via Sebaste’ the southern main highroad created by Augustus in 6 BC. These interventions explain why Sagalassos disposed of monuments which by far surpassed the needs of the local population, but served those of all of Pisidia during the Imperial festivals, such as the Odeon (seating 2000), the Roman Baths (one of the largest in Anatolia), the theatre welcoming 9000 and at least monumental nymphaea (monumental fountains), of which one was also dedicated to Hadrian in 129-132 AD. The fact that the huge bath complex was completed in only ca 45 years (the nearby Odeon took 200 years to complete) may even suggest an Imperial intervention. After the death of Hadrian, his adoptive son Antoninus Pius and his wife the Elder Faustina must have joined Hadrian and Vibia Sabina in the ‘Kaisersaal’. Finally, at the inauguration of 165 AD Marcus Aurelius and the Younger Faustina must have joined the group of statues. Other members of the family, such as Aelius Caesar, Hadrian’s first adoptive son, who died before his adoptive father, as well as Lucius Verus and his wife Lucilla, co-ruler and son-in-law of Marcus Aurelius, to whom the baths were also dedicated in AD 165 were most likely present in the same room, but were not moved the niches of the frigidarium of the complex, which only took in the longest living and most powerful emperors. This transfer from the ‘Kaisersaal’ to the six niches of the frigidarium probably took place in the later 4th century AD, when the Imperial cult was abolished and the ‘Kaisersaal’ transformed into a third hot water room or caldarium.

One also has to stress that colossal statues were very much in favour at Sagalassos: besides the 4 m tall hero occupying the NW Heroon and the twice-life sized statues of Dionysos from the mid-Antonine nymphaeum on the Upper Agora, one currently is putting together a 5 m tall Apollo statue from the late Hadrianic nymphaeum above the city’s Lower Agora.

3. A Spanish dynasty ruling the Roman Imperial Empire

After the Julio-Claudia dynasty (from Augustus to Nero: 27 BC – 68 AD) who was the first Imperial dynasty to rule the empire with emperors and their spouses belonging to Rome’s most prominent aristocratic families, and the Italiote dynasty of the Flavians (with Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) governing from AD 69 to AD 96 when Domitian was murdered, both representing messy Imperial families full of intrigues, murder and even incest, followed a new dynasty largely of Spanish provincial origin.

The first emperor, Nerva (AD 96-98) was already of an older age, while being selected as the successor of Domitian, and adopted a descendant of Roman colonists established in Southern Spain as his successor and adoptive son: M. Ulpius Trajanus was born in Italica (Seville in Spain) and married to Pompea Plotilla according to some belonging to a family from Nemausus (Nîmes in the Provence), to others however being a full nice of Trajanus and also of Spanish descent. The lack of a male heir forced Trajan as well to adopt a son, for whom he selected P. Aelius Hadrianus or Hadrian, son of Aelius Hadrianus Afer also originary from Seville and belonging to the circle of Spanish aristocrats around Trajan. Hadrian’s mother Domitia Paulina was again of Spanish descent, being born at Cadiz.
Despite the fact that he was gay, he was forced to marry the by ten ca 10 years old Vibia Sabina, daughter of Salona Matidia, herself the daughter of Trajan’s sister Ulpia Marciana. Whereas his marriage with Sabina was strained, Hadrian got on very well with his mother-in-law, who was even promoted to Augusta (empress). Being childless, Hadrian at first adopted L. Ceionius Commodus, henceforth known as Aelius Caesar, who, however, died before his adoptive father. He then chose as second ‘son’ Antoninus Pius, possibly born at Nîmes, who married the daughter of a family friend from Ucibe (in Baetica, Spain), Annius Verus, who through her marriage (at the age of ten !) would become the empress Annia Galeria Faustina (the Elder). In contrast with the messy marriage of Hadrian and Sabina, the Elder Faustina and Antoninus Pius had a happy marriage, lasting 31 years until Faustina’s death in AD 141 and after her death the emperor never remarried during the remaining twenty years of his reign.

While adopting Antoninus Pius as his son and successor he tried to reassure the future of the dynasty by forcing the latter to adopt no less than two adoptive sons: first Faustina’s brother’s son M. Annius Verus, who would rule as Marcus Aurelius and marry Faustina’s daughter the Younger Faustina, and secondly the son of Aelius Caesar, L. Ceionius Commodus, better known as Lucius Verus, who would marry Marcus Aurelius’ daughter Lucilla.

Despite the fact, that the ‘adoptive sons’ in several cases belonged to the female line of the family, the empresses and women of this dynasty hardly interfered in politics as previously had been the case with the Julio-Claudians, whose women belonged to old and powerful Roman families, or later again was the case with the empresses of the Severan dynasty most of them mothers of emperors and themselves belonging to a powerful priestly family from Emesa (Homs in Syria). The provincial, predominantly Spanish origin of the Antonine empresses on the one hand, and the fact that in this family of ‘adopted emperors’, except for the Younger Faustina, mother of Commodus, none of them would ever be an emperor’s mother may explain this more humble position of Faustina and the other empresses of the same dynasty. Commodus the only son of an emperor would turn out to be a monster, and was eventually murdered in AD 193, opening the way for another provincial dynasty, this time of mixed Libyan and Syrian origin, that would turn out to even more gruesome than some of the Julio-Claudians, Domitian and Commodus had been .

Further information can be obtained from Marc Waelkens (+32 475 750419) or through our website or Sagalassos Interactive Dig (

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1 Comment

  1. This is fascinating history. There are still people out there who are interested in classical history, and you’ve told me things I’ve never read before, the ethnic diversity of the late Roman empire.

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