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Work So-called Domitius Ahenobarbus relief

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Relief dit de Domitius Ahenobarbus

© 2010 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

Discovered on the Campo Marzio, along with three other fragments depicting mythological subjects in the Greek style (Glyptothek, Munich), this relief is from a monument probably built by the consul Domitius Ahenobarbus at the end of the second century BC. It represents a military census and the sacrifice of a bull, a ram, and a pig to Mars. The panel is the oldest of those historical reliefs, so peculiar to Roman art, that would flourish during the imperial period.

The Domitius Ahenobarbus monument

When it was discovered on the Campo Marzio in Rome, this broad relief was associated with three other panels decorated with a marine procession celebrating the marriage of Neptune and Amphitrite (Glyptothek, Munich). Rather than an altar decoration, these reliefs probably belonged to the base of the statuary group set up at the end of the second century BC in a temple consecrated to Neptune and Mars. Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, consul in 122 BC, may have commissioned it. Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXXVI, 26) attributes the decoration of the temple and the carving of this group representing Neptune, Amphitrite, Achilles, and the Nereides to Scopas, a sculptor from Attica active in Rome at the time.

The first known historical relief of the census ceremony

In contrast with the three reliefs in Munich, the Louvre marble depicts a specifically Roman scene, the census that was held in Rome every five years. The left part of the relief shows the census performed with a view to enroling young men in the Roman army. The citizens are registered on administrative lists according to wealth and then assigned to one of five classes in the army. The ceremony culminates in a sacrifice to Mars, the god of war. A bull, a ram, and a pig are taken to the altar by priests for the sacrifical killing ("suovetaurilia" in Latin). Mars, wearing a cuirass and helmet, presides over the solemn procession of the censor and priests, who wear veils over their heads and crowns of laurels. This low-relief, made around 100 BC, is a key landmark in the history of Roman art. It is the oldest known relief in which the political and religious reality of Rome is depicted with many details, such as the form of the clothing and arms. It starts off the tradition of historical reliefs that would later become widespread, notably in official art during the imperial period.

An eclectic art

In the second century BC, artists - the majority of whom were Greek - served the ambitions of the ruling classes. They had no choice, therefore, but to invent a figurative language that expressed the ideas of their Roman patrons. With no existing models to draw on, they adapted the Greek repertoire, adding details that were specifically Roman - hence the sometimes hesitant style of their work. The juxtaposition of very different figures and styles in the Domitius Ahenobarbus altar reliefs show the eclecticism that prevailed in the art of the Roman Republic. In the Munich mythological procession, sculpted earlier than the Louvre relief, circa 110 BC, the design, the theme, and the quality of execution are all drawn from the Hellenist Greek tradition. Conversely, the political and ritual iconography of the Louvre relief reflects the uncertainties of an emergent Roman art. A certain awkwardness is apparent in the squat figures, the three-quarters positions, and the poor mastery of perspective.


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BARATTE Fr., L'Art romain, manuels de l'Ecole du Louvre, Paris, 1996, pp. 74-75.
TURCAN R., L'Art romain, Paris, 1995, pp. 35-38.
MEYER H., " Ein Denkmal des Consensus Civium ", Bollettino Comunale di Archeologia, 95, 1993, pp. 45-67.
TORELLI M., Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs, Ann Arbor, 1982, pp. 5-25.
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Technical description

  • Relief dit de Domitius Ahenobarbus

    Fin du IIe siècle avant J.-C.

    Champ de Mars, Rome

  • Marbre

    H. : 1,20 m. ; l. : 1,47 m.

  • Ancienne collection du cardinal Fesch. Achat, 1824 , 1824

    Taking of the census and sacrifice

    N° d'entrée LL 399 (n° usuel Ma 975)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art
    Room 409

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