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Altar of Victory

"Not with altars nor ground wheat is auspicious victory prevailed upon to come. It is tireless toil, rude courage, surpassing energy of spirit, burning zeal, forcefulness, painstaking, that bestow victory, and stark strength in handling arms. If men at war lack these, then even though a golden Victory unfold her flashing wings in a marble temple, a lofty figure that cost a great price, she will not be at their side, and their spears turned about will seem to show her offended....It is a man's own right hand, and almighty God, no she-warrior with dressed hair, hovering bare-footed, girt in with a band, while the robe that clothes her swelling breasts flows in lose folds over her bosom....Would'st thou, wealthy Rome, adorn thy senate-house? Hang up the spoils that arms and blood have won; heap up, to mark thy victory, the crowns of kings thou hast slain; but break the hideous ornaments that represent gods thou hast cast away. Then will be preserved for thee in the midst of the temple the memory of victory not gained on earth only but beyond the stars."

Prudentius, Against Symmachus (II)

At the far end of the Roman Senate House (Curia) is a low platform on which stood an altar and a golden statue of Victory. It was placed there by Octavian to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 BC) two years before and decorated, says Cassius Dio, with spoils from Egypt (Roman History, LI.22). There, too, relates Suetonius, Augustus provided that incense and wine be offered at the altar (Life of Augustus, XXXV). In ridiculing the notion of a woman who "passes as a bird, a great vulture and a goddess both in one," the Christian poet Prudentius provides a description of how the Victory may have looked.

The statue, itself, was taken from Tarentum, which had been abandoned by Phyrrus and captured by the Romans in 272 BC. About the same time, a new type of coin was struck: one with a portrait of Roma on one side and the figure of Victory on the other. One of the most common virtues represented on the reverse of Roman coins, Victoria (from vincere, to conquer) was personified as a winged figure, usually holding a palm and descending with flowing robes as a messenger of the gods to bestow a laurel wreath on the victorious. Together with Victoriola, a small cult statue of Victory standing on a globe and extending a wreath, she symbolized the gift of victory and the renown it conferred. The image continued to appear on coinage long after other pagan deities had been excluded, an evocative symbol of Rome's triumph, although now only as a personification and no longer divine. By the fourth century, the winged Victory, its idolatrous association having begun to fade, was transformed into the figure of an angel, the intermediary and attendant of God, and the palm branch, a symbol of victory over death and the church triumphant.

The life-size bronze statue above suggests the winged appearance of the Victoria in the Senate House. Discovered in 1826 in Brescia (Brixia), where it now is in the Santa Giulia Museo della Cittą, it derives from the Aphrodite of Capua in the National Archaeological Museum (Naples), which itself is a Roman copy of a fourth-century BC original.

Depicted as Venus Victrix, Aphrodite originally gazed at her reflection in the burnished shield of her lover Ares and rested her foot on his helmet. The addition of wings and clothing the nude torso have transformed the figure into a representation of Victoria inscribing the name and military achievements of the victor, the shield now turned away from the goddess to face the viewer. Indeed, the second-century AD statue may have been a votive offering dedicated to the goddess by just such a person.

Reference: Prudentius: Crowns of Martyrdom (1953) translated by H. J. Thomson (Loeb Classical Library). The photograph is by Stefano Bolognini.

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