Equestrian statue of Domitian, changed to that of Nerva
Bronze. Inv. No. 155743.Baiae, Archaeological Museum of Phlegraean Fields

Equestrian statue of Domitian, changed to that of Nerva.

Inv. No. 155743.

Baiae, Archaeological Museum of Phlegraean Fields
(Baia, Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei).

Though of the reared horse it remains only the head, the fore legs and the left hind hoof, this is the only great composition (statue plus horse) which has reached us of the rampant horse type.

The equestrian statue, found in the temple of Miseno, initially idealized Domitian (81—96 A.D.). After his death and the damnatio memoriae (it provided the destruction of all the traces which could eternalize the personage, as if the condemned man had never been born — writer’s note), thanks to a careful work of re-using, it represented his successor Nerva (96—98 A.D.).

To understand better the personage Domitian we should compare the equestrian statue of this emperor to the one of Mark Aurelius in the Capitol. His equestrian statue expresses itself in the static position of the horse (only one fore leg is lifted), the rider holds the reins with one hand and with the other one he tranquillizes the city: Mark Aurelius is seen as Pacator. In diametric opposition is the attitude of the statue of Domitian-Nerva in the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegraean Fields.

The emperor is on the back of the reared horse and closes his legs around the abdomen of the animal, with his left hand he holds strongly the reins, his look darts towards the ground, while his right arm is lifted and the lance (which we should imagine) is ready to hit the enemy.

The extraordinary expressive force and the unusual violence which appears through the bronze group reflects a military ideology reserved to the conqueror, to the victorious leader and so the rider is seen as Dominator.

The sculptural pattern was the one raised to Dion by Lysippus in 334 B.C. and reduced in the I century A.D. in Herculaneum. It is a reduction of the commemorative group of the battle of Granico, in which Alexander the Great hits with a cutting blow a Persian.

It is possible to read on the armour that before Nerva on the horse there was Domitian. It is short and equal to the one worn in battle by the Great Macedonian. The same kind of armour, in an outburst of folly, wore Gaio Caligula when, in order to celebrate his triumph, connected with a bridge made of ships the two cities Puteoli (Pozzuoli) and Bauli (Bacoli).

In both cases and for different reasons, the two emperors tried to identify themselves with the Great Macedonian leader.

Few images concerning the emperor Nerva reached us; his reign lasted little (from 96 to 98 A.D.). The facial mask of the equestrian statue points out exactly his somatic features. When he ascended to power in 96 A.D. he was nearly 70, a great legislator but old and tired, so that he let himself be helped on the throne by his adoptive son Traiano.

Nerva had not an exceptional body like his dangerous predecessor, he was short (like the greatest part of the Romans), minute and with a skinny face. This created some problems to the artists of Miseno when they had to insert on the big head of Domitian the facial mask of the skinny Nerva.

http://www.ulixes.it (2002)


5. 7. Baia, Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei nel Castello di Baia, inv. 155743.
H. 1.28 m.
Bronze equestrian statue.
Provenance: Miseno, sacellum of the Augustales.

A. Amadio, MusNazRom 1. 9. 1, 215;
Domiziano/Nerva. La statua equestre. Una proposta di ricomposizione (Naples 1987) (with earlier literature);
MusNazNap 1. 2, 112, no. 86;
G. Dareggi, Il ciclo statuario della “Basilica” di Otricoli: Le fase giulio-claudia, in BdA 14 (1982), p. 9, n. 24;
M. Torelli in A. M. Vaccaro and A. M. Sommella, eds. Marco Aurelio. Storia di un monumento e del suo restauro (Milan 1989), p. 93, fig. 64;
J. Bergemann, Römische Reiterstatuen (Mainz 1990), pp. 82—86, no. P. 31, pls. 56—58;
D. E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven 1992), p. 201;
J. Pollini, The Cartoceto Bronzes: Portraits of a Roman Aristocratic Family of the Late First Century B. C., in AJA 97 (1993) p. 425;
A. Oliver, Honors to Romans: Bronze Portraits, in C. Mattusch, ed. The Fire of Hephaistos: Large Classical Bronzes from North American Collections (Cambridge, Mass. 1996), p. 148;
S. Adamo Muscettola in P. Miniero, ed. Il sacello degli augustali di Miseno (Naples 2000), pp. 29—34, figs, 1a—e;
E. R. Varner, ed. Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture (Atlanta 2000), p. 12;
N. H. and A. Ramage, Roman Art. Romulus to Constantine (Englewood Cliffs 1991), p. 170, fig. 5. 26;
here, 114, 120—122, 190, 280, fig. 123a—c.

p.262 The Misenum statue is the only surviving bronze imperial image to have been altered as a result of condemnation. Domitian’s facial features have been severed from the back of the head and replaced with a new face representing Nerva. As a result the entire rear portion of the head from the ears back remains from the original Domitianic likeness. Ancient repairs to the statue suggest that it may have been attacked and damaged at the time of Domitian’s overthrow.

p.120 An equestrian portrait of Nerva from the sanctuary of the Augustales at Misenum is the only surviving bronze imperial image to exhibit signs of reworking and furthermore is one of only three bronze imperial equestrian statues to have survived from antiquity (cat. 5. 7; fig. 123a—c).66 The statue depicts the emperor in cuirass and paludamentum. Domitian originally held a lance in his raised right hand while the left hand pulled sharply back on the horse’s reigns. The head and torso are turned to the right. The partially preserved horse rears up on its hind legs.67 The p.121 statue’s dynamic disposition indicates that it is ultimately derived from equestrian representations of Alexander the Great.68 If the statue also included a fallen enemy in front of the horse’s raised forelegs, its aggressive military composition would have recalled similar depictions of the emperor on Domitianic coin reverses.69

In an extremely effective and practical gesture of reuse, Domitian’s facial features have been cut from the head and removed as if they were a mask.70 A clearly visible line runs beneath the chin, along the jaw line, behind the ears, and over the forehead, documenting the removal of Domitian’s face. The coiffure which lies behind this line belongs to the original likeness, a replica of Domitian’s third portrait type. In front of the line are the new coiffure and facial features belonging to Nerva. Naturally, individual locks in the two coiffures do not match along the line of removal. However, Nerva’s coiffure over the forehead is relatively full and strategically masks these discrepancies when the statue is viewed frontally and from below.71 Nevertheless, the position of the new face of Nerva does not accurately reflect the torsion of the neck and torso; consequently, and perhaps not surprisingly, the face appears curiously static and mask-like when compared to the fluid motion of the body. Ancient repairs in lead to the statue suggest that the image was attacked and damaged prior to its reuse and Domitian’s portrait features may have been vandalized at this time.72 In any case, the method of recycling adopted for the statue was certainly more economical than replacing the head in its entirety and, more importantly, the image maintains deliberately readable signs in the coiffure of its original Domitianic identity.

The figural decoration of the cuirass includes a variety of marine creatures, an aegis and gorgoneion on the breast, and a representation of the infant Hercules strangling snakes on the left shoulder. Domitian’s preparations for a campaign against the Parthians at the end of his principate may have inspired the imagery on the cuirass.73 Domitian intended to embark on this campaign from Puteoli, and the marine creatures on the breastplate refer to the emperor’s coming sea voyage, as well as his dominion over the ocean.74 A fragmentary Domitianic inscription from the Augustales complex, which was reinscribed under Nerva may have been set up in conjunction with the statue between December of 94 and September of 95, which would further suggest that the image commemorates the completion of the Via Domitiana linking Rome with the port of Puteoli;75 the new road facilitated transport of troops and supplies from the capital to the port and would have been crucial for the coming Parthian expedition.76

Fragments of the statue were excavated in 1968 in Building B of a complex associated with the Augustales of Misenum. The statue is likely to have been displayed within the complex, whose main temple contained heroic nude statues of Vespasian and Titus.77 Despite its specifically Domitianic connotations, as expressed in the p.122 reliefs on the cuirass, the image was nevertheless refashioned as a representation of Nerva, a further example of the rampant visual cannibalism which characterized Nerva’s short reign.

E. R. Varner (2002)
66Baia, Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei nel Castello di Baia, inv. 155743. The other surviving equestrian statues are the Augustus discovered in the Aegean (Athens, National Museum), and the Marcus Aurelius, on the Campidoglio. The Misenum portrait differs significantly from the other two in both gesture and costume. Augustus and Marcus Aurelius both wear the tunic and paludamentum of the traveling Roman general and raise their right hands in gestures of clementia, while Domitian/Nerva wears a cuirass and brandishes a lance.

67The composition must have been completed with some supporting element beneath the horses raised forelegs, perhaps a foreigner, the figure of Oceanus, or a decorative support; see R. Cantilena in Domiziano/Nerva 37—38: D. E. E. Kleiner (1992), p. 201.

68As preserved in a bronze statuette from Herculaneum, now in Naples, Museo Nazionale Archeologico. The statuette may be based on the equestrian portrait of Alexander by Lysippus from the Granikos Monument, which was transported to Rome by Metellus in 146 B. C.; see J. J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (New Haven 1986), p. 43, n. 41, fig. 36, and R. Cantilena in Domiziano/Nerva 32—33, fig. 30a—c.

69As, for instance a sestertius from Rome, BMCRE 409; RIC 361; American Numismatic Society, inv. 1957.172.1603; E. R. Varner, ed. Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture (Atlanta 2000), pp. 154—155, no. 34, with figs.

70A colossal marble statue of Elagabalus has undergone the same form of reuse, in which the facial features were removed, and a new face, belonging to Severus Alexander was attached, Naples Museo Nazionale Archeologico, inv. 5993, here, cat. 7. 17.

71The statue would presumably have been mounted on a base, insuring that the statue was viewed from below.

72R. Cantilena in Domiziano/Nerva 36; S. Adamo Muscettola in P. Miniero, ed. Il sacello degli augustali di Miseno (Naples 2000), p. 31.

73S. Adamo Muscettola in Domiziano/Nerva 54-65; B. W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (London 1992), p. 159.


75S. Adamo Muscettola (2000) 89; S. Adamo Muscettola in P. Miniero, ed. (2000), p. 34.

76S. Adamo Muscettola in Domiziano/Nerva, p. 65.

77Alternatively, the statue may have fallen into this area during seismic disturbances which destroyed the complex and other sections of the city at the end of the second century since no base for the statue has been discovered supports this idea. M. Borriello in Domiziano/Nerva, pp. 18—19; S. Adamo Muscettola in Domiziano/Nerva, p. 63. For the portaits of Vespasian and Titus, see Domiziano/Nerva, figs. 9—10; S. Adamo Muscettola in P. Miniero, ed. (2000), pp. 34—37, figs. 2a—b.
2019. Photo: from Internet.
© 2002. Description (1): http://www.ulixes.it
© 2002. Description (2): E. R. Varner. Mutilation and Transformation (damnatio memoriae and Roman Imperial portraiture) // Monumenta Graeca and Romana, vol. X. Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2004. Pp. 120—122, 261—262, cat. no. 5. 7.
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