Relief showing the reading of auguries and declaration of sacred vows
Grey marble.
First quarter of the 2nd CE.
H. 164 cm, W. 230 cm; H. 202, W. 170 cm.
Inv. Nos. MR 737 (Ma 978) / MR 792 (Ma 1089).Paris, Louvre Museum

Relief showing the reading of auguries and declaration of sacred vows.

Grey marble.
First quarter of the 2nd CE.
H. 164 cm, W. 230 cm; H. 202, W. 170 cm.
Inv. Nos. MR 737 (Ma 978) / MR 792 (Ma 1089).

Paris, Louvre Museum.

Private collection, Borghese.
Rome, Forum of Trajan.
Discovered in Rome ca. 1540. Purchased in 1807, formerly in the Borghese collection (MA 978 — Inv. MR 737; MA 1089 — Inv. MR 792).
Restorer: D. Ibled, 2005.

159. Relief Showing the Reading of Auguries and Declaration of Sacred Vows

1st quarter of 2nd century A.D.
Discovered in Rome, ca. 1540.
Grey marble.
1) H. 164 cm; W. 230 cm; 2) H. 202 cm; W. 170 cm.
Purchased in 1807, formerly in the Borghese collection (MA 978 — Inv. MR 737; MA 1089 — Inv. MR 792).
Restorer: D. Ibled, 2005.

The scene unfolds on two panels sculpted in high relief, which today survive in fragments. On the left panel (159a) are a soothsayer and interpreter of entrails (haruspex) wearing a tunic and cloak, two sacrificial assistants, and a laurel-crowned popa (servant who slays the animal victims) wearing a ceremonial apron with a wide belt. They gather over a dead bull lying on its back. One of the two sacrificial assistants is standing, while the other leans over the newly slaughtered animal to examine its entrails. The popa carries a sacrificial ax over his right shoulder and a bucket in his left hand. On the animal’s front left hoof, the sculptor has inscribed his name: M V[LPIUS] / ORE[S]/TES. Two lictors wearing a sagum, carry a bundle of fasces over their left shoulders: they provide a visual transition to the group presiding over the sacrifice: six toga-clad men, senators (among whom may be the consuls of that year), wearing calcei on their feet, all approach the emperor. At the emperor’s left, in the background, a flamen (priest devoted to a single cult) appears, wearing a pointed headpiece. He is in fact the Flamen Dialis, Jupiter’s priest in Rome, a figure who is rarely represented. The group is assembled in front of the facade of a hexastyle temple.

These reliefs, which have been heavily restored, have been known since the sixteenth century, well before they were incorporated into the facade of the Villa Borghese. A member of the school of Girolamo da Carpi (Gilli collection, Milan) drew them between 1540 and 1560, and they were also depicted by Pierre Jacques de Reims in the Capitol in 1576.1 Evidence that the two panels do indeed belong together, these sources also give us various additional details of the scene: the pediment of the temple of Jupiter Capitoline and the heads of two toga-clad men, one of whom is bearded, were in the large triangular section now missing from the right-hand panel; there was also a depiction of a Winged Victory carrying a banner (vexillum). The pediment and male figures have not survived, but the Victory is in the Valentin de Courcel collection in Paris.

The Louvre’s frieze depicts the religious ceremony, known as a profectio, that preceded the emperor’s departure for a military campaign. This ritual was held on the Capitoline Hill, as indicated by the three symbolically opened doors of the temple of Jupiter Capitoline. Departures for campaigns, as well as victorious returns (adventus), are frequently shown in reliefs. In the case of a profectio, the presentation of the bull at the altar or his actual sacrifice is the most commonly represented (cat. no. 39).

The precise moment depicted in these reliefs is exceptional: it shows the examination of the auspices (haustia consultatoria), to assure that the requisite approval of the gods was secured before any departure on a warlike mission. The scene on the right shows the extispicium, the inspection of the bull’s entrails by the priest in order to interpret the will of Jupiter. The Winged Victory in flight above gives incontrovertible proof of the god’s opinion: the omens are favorable. The only other known depiction of this particular moment of the ritual appears in the frieze of Herôon on the sanctuary of Trysa in Lydia (now part of Turkey).

The related scene shown on the right panel depicts the emperor surrounded by the Flamen Dialis and senators; with his right arm raised, he is intoning the nuncupatio votorum (vows of victory). Once the omens are determined to be favorable, the sacrificial priest will place the entrails in the bucket held by the popa for this purpose. The priests will then prepare the organs of the animal to be offered to the god, known as the laeta exta. The heart, liver, and lungs will be burned so that Jupiter can relish their scent. The emperor will soon don his cuirass and paludamentum (military cloak) to take command of the army, fortified by the favor of the gods.

The emperor’s head, which has been restored, was originally turned to the left. His identification can therefore only be determined from the location where the reliefs were discovered, as mentioned by Antonio da Sangallo in his studies on architecture.2

The author also describes in detail the pediment of Jupiter’s temple, which was drawn by Pierre Jacques among others. This reference, from about 1540, gives us the date and location where the reliefs were discovered. As it alludes to the eastern semicircular structure of the porticoes of Trajan’s Forum, it must be this emperor who is shown here, about to depart on one of his many campaigns against the Dacians or the Parthians.

The Louvre’s reliefs, which were signed by a Greek sculptor who had been freed by Trajan as indicated by his nomen and praenomen, can be compared to other panels on a comparable scale used in the Arch of Constantine. These were part of the large frieze that initially decorated Trajan’s Forum, perhaps beneath the porticoes of the large courtyard in front of the Ulpia basilica. The Louvre’s reliefs are certainly unlike the spirited cavalry charges reused in the Arch of Constantine, and the subject matter is very different; but there are several similarities to comparable scenes shown on Trajan’s Column and the Beneventum Arch, including the apron and belt worn by the popa, as well as the bucket he holds.3

The large frieze from Trajan’s Forum has often been dated to the beginning of Hadrian’s reign (117—138 A. D.), at least for its completion. The Louvre’s panels also have a number of Hadrianic characteristics; the rather full togas are midway between the styles depicted in the Beneventum Arch (ca. 114—118 A. D.) and the reliefs of Hadrian distributing alimenta (alms) (ca. 136—138 A. D.), now in the Capitoline Museum. However, the togas of the men declaring the vows are not as full in this depiction. The Victory in the de Courcel collection may also be compared to the allegory of Eternity in the Sabine Apotheosis (ca. 136—138 A. D.), now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In the opinion of I. Scott Ryberg, the drawing in the Codex Vaticanus Latinus, fol. 86c, depicting a bearded toga-clad man, may actually confirm the original presence of Hadrian himself in the missing triangular section of the left panel; however, this bearded head is very generic, and more recent excavations in Trajan’s Forum since 1998 have generally diminished the extent of the construction performed during Hadrian’s reign. It is difficult to determine whether a date late in Trajan’s reign or during Hadrian’s is correct for these reliefs; however, they represent a unique illustration of the Roman Empire’s state religion at the beginning of the second century A. D.

Ludovic Laugier


1P. Jacques, Album de dessins d’après I’antique, executés à Rome (1577), pl. 29 and 38 on the copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. [See also pl. 48. — Site Editor’s note.] There are also drawings of the reliefs in the Berolinensis Codex (fol. 25r) and the Vaticanus Latinus (fol. 83).

2Florence, Ufizzi Gallery, no. 1178.

3The neo-Augustan hairstyles of the surviving heads are often used to support arguments for dating the reliefs to Trajan’s era, but they were in fact reworked in more recent times; originally, they were bulkier.


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© 2007. Photo, text: C. Giroire, D. Roger. Roman Art from the Louvre. Hudson Hills Press, 2007, p. 232—233, cat. 159.
Keywords: αρχιτεκτονική architectura architecture architettura architektur γλυπτική sculptura sculpture sculptural scultura skulptur ρωμαϊκό roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines ανακούφιση relief rilievo αυτοκρατορικό imperial imperiale kaiserliches impérial ρωμαίος αυτοκράτορας μάρκος ούλπιος τραϊανός imperator marcus ulpius traianus emperor trajan traian imperatore marco ulpio traiano kaiser empereur ρώμη rome roma rom αγορά του τραϊανού forum traiani of foro di trajansforum de aedes iovis optimi maximi capitolini temple jupiter capitolinus optimus maximus tempio giove ottimo massimo kapitolinische tempel capitolin from the dal aus dem du απεικόνιση portrait portraiture ritratto ritrattistica porträtmalerei porträt a man male maschile uomo männliches mann masculin un homme antonine dynasty adoptive emperors dinastia degli antonini imperatori adottivi d’adozione antoninische dynastie adoptivkaiser antonins reliefs sollievo porträtrelief dress clothes clothing garment abbigliamento herrenbekleidung vêtements pour hommes ανδρικά ρούχα oblatio sacrificium sacrifice sacrificio opfer θυσία corona laurea laurel wreath alloro laureata lorbeerkranz couronne lauriers δάφνινο στεφάνι borghese collection dalla collezione der borghese-sammlung taenia tainia band ribbon fillet tenia tänie binden tænia ténia ταινία lictor littore liktor licteur volumen rotulus scroll roll rotolo schriftrolle κύλινδρος taurus bull toro stier taureau βόδι ταύρος aquila eagle adler aigle αετός apex flamen priest flàmine flamine architectural composition motive motives motif motifs composizione architettonica motivo architettonico motivi architettonici architektonische komposition architektonisches motiv architecturale architecturaux αρχιτεκτονική σύνθεση columna column colonna kolonne säule colonne κολόνα στύλος fascis fasces lictoriae rods fascio littorio lictorii liktorenbündel faisceau φάσκες popa servant servitore dolabra securis ax axe ascia axt hache τσεκούρι hostia victima sacrificial animal victim animale sacrificale vittima opfertier sacrificiel victime θυσιαστικό ζώο θύμα belt cintura cingolo gurt gürtel ceinture ζώνη toga toge τόγκα ordo corinthius corinthian order capital ordine corinzio capitello korinthische ordnung kapitell kapitäl säulenknauf ordre corinthien chapiteau κορινθιακός ρυθμός κιονόκρανο multileafed door porte battente porta battenti flügeltür flügeltüren portes battantes battante togatus culter cultri knife coltello opfermesser couteau hexastyle six columns esastilo sei sechs säulen colonnes gray marble marmo grigio grauer marmor marbre gris γκρι μάρμαρο victimarius attendant pontifex pontefice albogalerus albus galerus white hat cappello bianco del sacerdote weißer hut des priesters chapeau blanc prêtre gate gates tor cultrarius priestly haruspex foreteller aruspice wahrsager pronostiqueur haruspicium haruspicii extispicium extispicii inspection entrails extispex extispicis extraction internal organs liver fegato leber foie olla immolatio immolo immolation sacra publica great trajanic frieze inv no mr 737 (ma 978) 792 1089)