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Bill Thayer

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 p201  Equus Domitiani

Article on pp201‑202 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Equus Domitiani: a bronze equestrian statue of Domitian erected in the forum in 91 A.D. in honour of his campaign in Germany. Statius devotes one poem (Silv. I.1) to a description and celebration of this statue. It stood on the concrete base discovered in 1903 near the centre of the forum (CR 1904, 139, 328‑329; BC 1904, 75‑82, 174‑178; Mitt. 1905, 71‑72; Atti 574‑577; HC 141‑144; DR 479‑482). This base is 11.80 metres long and 5.90 wide, and its top is 1.50 metres below the level of the latest pavement. The mass cuts into the main cuniculus and one of the cross-passages, and dates from the Flavian period. In the top of the base are set three square blocks of travertine, in which are holes about 0.44 metre square and 0.15 deep, which seem well adapted to hold supports of some kind. In the east end of the base was a hollow block of travertine (over which was placed another block as a lid), containing clay jars, in which were sand, stone, pitch, and fragments of tortoise shell, and in one of them a small piece of quartz with a bit of gold attached, but nothing suggestive of funeral gifts. There seems to be little doubt that, as Hülsen thinks, the workmen who sunk the foundations for the statue came on a prehistoric tomb (for the pottery is identical with that of the necropolis near the temple of Antoninus and Faustina) and that, inasmuch as its true nature was unknown, the pottery was regarded as highly venerable and enclosed in the base of the statue. So also Von Duhn, Italische Gräberkunde i.417; and cf.  Busta Gallica, Doliola.

The statue itself was undoubtedly destroyeda in consequence of the damnatio decreed by the senate after the death of Domitian, and its  p202 base concealed under the pavement of the forum. Over part of it Trajan afterwards erected a building (not the imperial tribunal) (BPW 1906, 221; CR 1906, 132, where Boni's misinterpretation of Plin. Panegyr. 36 is discussed). It has been thought that the so‑called Trajanic reliefs (generally, and rightly, attributed to the Rostra) are really Flavian, and once decorated the enclosure wall round this statue (SScR 142).

Thayer's Note:

a "Undoubtedly", of course, is not at all the same thing as "without a trace of doubt". Sure enough, here, doubt does in fact creep in: the historian Procopius, writing in the sixth century, states that a bronze statue of Domitian, most curiously made entirely of small pieces, was set up, despite the damnatio, by his widow within at most a hundred meters of the Senate-house, and that it was still there in his time. In turn, some modern scholars have interpreted this dramatic, sentimental story to be an urban legend, a popular explanation of how there could have been a remaining statue of Domitian close to the Roman Forum, despite the damnatio, made up of reassembled fragments. Our own rational age has provided the explanation that this one statue, which had been smashed on the orders of the Senate like all the rest of Domitian's memorials, found its pieces preserved by the army or some other partisans of Domitian, then after a longish interval, was set up again.

The ancient tale and the modern explanation are equally unsubstantiated, but who can resist them? For the full luxuriant panoply of engaging, colorful details, see Procopius, Anecd. 8.13‑22 and Domenico Bassi's commentary; duly noting that in all this, there is nothing to make one think that this statue was the colossal statue discussed above by Platner.

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Page updated: 12 Oct 07