Games, banquets, handouts, and the population of Pompeii as deduced from a new tomb inscription

JRA vol. 31 (2018) is at the printer and will be ready in the first week of October. It includes (pp. 310-322) the first presentation of a remarkable newly-discovered inscription attached to a tomb close to Pompeii’s Porta Stabia. The article by Massimo Osanna is entitled “Games, banquets, handouts, and the population of Pompeii as deduced from a new tomb inscription”. As Roman historians will immediately recognise, the inscription has major implications for the later history of the town and its population. Since its interpretation is already the subject of much debate and discussion, which began at the conference “Studium erga populum, studium erga sapientiam, in ricordo di Enzo Lippolis” held in Naples on July 12, 2018, JRA  plans  to devote further space to this inscription in vol. 32. The Editorial Committee of JRA greatly appreciates the public-spiritedness of Professor Osanna in making available to the scholarly community the full text of the inscription so soon after its discovery. We provide here the apograph, two photographs, the complete text, and a preliminary Italian translation by Massimo Osanna.

The following long inscription is on the west side of the tomb:

Hic togae virilis suae epulum populo pompeiano triclinis CCCCLVI ita ut in triclinis quinideni homines discumberent (hedera). Munus gladiat(orium) / adeo magnum et splendidum dedit ut cuivis ab urbe lautissimae coloniae conferendum esset ut pote cum CCCCXVI gladiatores in ludo habuer(it ?) et cum / munus eius in caritate annonae incidisset, propter quod quadriennio eos pavit, potior ei cura civium suorum fuit quam rei familiaris; nam cum esset denaris quinis modius tritici, coemit / et ternis victoriatis populo praestitit et, ut ad omnes haec liberalitas eius perveniret, viritim populo ad ternos victoriatos per amicos suos panis cocti pondus divisit (hedera). Munere suo quod ante /5 senatus consult(um) edidit, omnibus diebus lusionum et conpositione promiscue omnis generis bestias venationibus dedit (hedera) / et, cum Caesar omnes familias ultra ducentesimum ab urbe ut abducerent iussisset, uni / huic ut Pompeios in patriam suam reduceret permisit. Idem quo die uxorem duxit, decurionibus quinquagenos nummos singulis, populo denarios augustalibus vicenos pagan(is) vicenos nummos dedit. Bis magnos ludos sine onere / rei publicae fecit; propter quae postulante populo, cum universus ordo consentiret ut patronus cooptaretur et IIvir referred, ipse privatus intercessit dicens non sustinere se civium suorum esse patronum.

F:IscrizioneIscrizione Model (1
JRA vol. 31 (2018), Fig. 7. Transcription of the whole inscription (Arch. R. Martinelli/copyright ©Parco Archeologico di Pompei).

To zoom into the precisely drawn apograph, CLICK HERE  and then use the magnify (+) button on your browser to be able to read the text or you can download the PDF to your computer, use the magnifying icon, and scroll across to read the full text.

Tentative preliminary Italian translation

Costui in occasione della sua toga virile offrì alla cittadinanza pompeiana un banchetto con 456 triclini in modo che su ciascun triclinio trovassero posto quindici uomini. Offrì uno spettacolo gladiatorio di tale grandiosità e magnificenza da poter essere confrontato con qualsivoglia nobilissima colonia fondata da Roma poiché parteciparono 416 gladiatori.

Ora, poiché la sua munificenza era coincisa con una carestia, per questo motivo, per un quadriennio, li alimentò; per lui la preoccupazione per i suoi concittadini fu superiore a quella per il suo stesso patrimonio; infatti essendo quotato un moggio di frumento a cinque denari, ne acquistò e lo mise a disposizione del popolo a tre vittoriati (al moggio). E affinché a tutti pervenisse questa sua liberalità, distribuì alla cittadinanza individualmente attraverso i suoi amici una quantità di pane cotto equivalente a tre vittoriati.

In occasione del suo spettacolo che aveva organizzato prima del senatoconsulto, per tutti i giorni dei giochi, per ogni tipo di combattimento (in programma) fornì animali di tutte le specie senza distinzione alle cacce.

E poiché Cesare aveva dato ordine di deportare dalla città oltre il duecentesimo miglio tutte le famiglie (condannate), concesse solo a costui di ricondurre in patria i Pompeii.*

In occasione del suo matrimonio elargì la somma di cinquanta nummi a ogni singolo decurione, per quanto riguarda il popolo venti denari per ciascun augustale e venti nummi per ogni pagano.

Organizzò in due occasioni grandi spettacoli senza onere alcuno per la comunità.

Per tutte queste cose, in base alla richiesta della cittadinanza, essendo d’accordo tutti i decurioni che fosse cooptato come patrono, mentre il duoviro riferiva (all’assemblea) egli stesso, da privato cittadino, oppose il suo veto, affermando di non essere in grado di essere patrono dei suoi cittadini.

A first discussion and interpretation is given by Osanna in JRA 31, which will be available in the first week of October.

The inscription as it appears on site:

JRA vol. 31 (2018), Fig. 4. The new tomb from the northwest (copyright ©Parco Archeologico di Pompei).


Introduction to a range of interpretations of the Elephant mosaic panel at Huqoq

By Katherine M.D. Dunbabin

The so-called “Elephant Mosaic” is a small (119.5 x 111.7 cm) panel located in the E aisle of the 5th- c. synagogue being excavated at Huqoq (Israel). It formed only one element of the overall mosaic decoration of a synagogue; numerous further scenes have been and continue to be discovered, only a few of which have yet been published [J. Magness et al., “Huqoq (Lower Galilee) and its synagogue mosaics: preliminary report on the excavations of 2011-13,” JRA 27 (2014) 327-55. For brief reports of later finds, with links to annual reports in Hadashot Arkheologiyot, see htpp://; other reports can be found online at]. Any attempt to assess the overall significance of the decoration or the relationship between the various scenes depicted must therefore await the completion of the excavations and their publication. But the Elephant panel already stands out as an anomaly; all the other narrative scenes known so far can be readily recognized as portraying a clearly identifiable story from the Hebrew Bible, as is normal in synagogue mosaics. This panel, however, is so far from being clearly recognizable that at least 6 major, different interpretations have been proposed to date, only one of them Biblical. In their Preface to the official publication by K. Britt and R. Boustan [K. Britt and R. Boustan, The Elephant mosaic panel in the synagogue at Huqoq: official publication and initial interpretations (JRA Suppl. 106, 2017)], the editors (J. H. Humphrey, K. Bolonnikova) listed the interpretation first put forward by the director of the excavation, J. Magness, that the scene portrayed depicts the legendary meeting of Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest; and that advanced by several Russian scholars, and apparently entertained by some members of the excavation team, that it shows episodes from the Maccabean Revolt against Antiochus IV, perhaps combined in some way with the story of the Maccabean martyrs. Britt and Roustan themselves surveyed (and rejected) both of these proposals, as well as the possibility that it shows an unidentified (and unidentifiable) Biblical scene, possibly related to Abraham, before setting out the interpretation that they espouse, that the scenes relate to the siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus VII, along with that king’s encounter and alliance with the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus.

The two book reviews and two articles that follow here add three further proposals for an interpretation, while producing cogent criticisms of the previous interpretations. In the first official review of Britt and Boustan, Janine Balty, after some useful methodological reflections, returns to the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV and the celebration of the ensuing victory; she stresses that the composition is symbolic rather than strictly narrative, and sees the most important point as lying in the reference to the feast of Hanukkah. In the second review to have been written of Britt and Boustan, R. Talgam has another suggestion: the panel refers to the confrontation between Ptolemy IV Philopator and the High Priest Simon, and the failure of the subsequent attempt to have the Jews trampled to death by elephants in the hippodrome at Alexandria. In the first article which follows the two book reviews, B. Gordon and Z. Weiss, noting that all other narrative scenes both in this synagogue (as known so far) and in others of this period are derived from the Bible, propose that it portrays the meeting of Samuel and Saul at Gilgal (I Sam. 15). For A. Erlich, in the second article, the top scene shows the (legendary) meeting between Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and the emperor Caracalla, who presents the Rabbi with a bull to improve the breeding stock of Judaean cattle.

Mosaic in the eastern aisle of the Huqoq synagogue.
Elephant panel at Huqoq, detail of encounter between white-haired leader and a Greek monarch (?) in the top register (courtesy J. Magness; Jim Haberman, photographer).

Readers will make their own judgments about the respective strengths of the varied contributions. However, it seems clear that no further progress is possible with the attempt to interpret the mosaic as an ‘illustration’ of a specific episode of Jewish history or legend on the basis of its degree of correspondence to the written sources for that episode. The lack of such correspondence is a frequent charge made in the criticisms by the various authors of their predecessors; but in setting out their own interpretations most of them have to rely at some point on hypothetical suggestions such as ‘the artist may have had these stories in mind’, or ‘perhaps the artist intended …’.

The relationship that is assumed here between the image and an underlying text, however, needs to be looked at more closely. Many recent discussions have stressed that ancient artists did not normally set out to give literal illustrations of written texts, even very well known ones, and the same is likely to hold for Jewish art, especially if dealing with non-Biblical subjects. Moreover, it should not be assumed that we know all versions of a given legend that may have circulated in late antiquity: there were undoubtedly oral traditions that are lost to us. But we can be confident that the artist would have aimed to compose a scene whose main message would be understood by its viewers in the village of Huqoq, without their needing to be familiar with all the details of a particular story.

The mosaic therefore raises the question how we might go about the exegesis and understanding of an image where our normal criteria — comparison with parallels, the presence of clear identifiers, correspondence to a familiar story — prove ineffective. An alternative approach would start with what is actually shown on the mosaic, and try to decipher how it might have been read by contemporary viewers with the aid of the visual codes that were familiar to them. The artist was not interested in anecdotal details, but in conveying a message clearly. To this end, he made use of compositional devices that are common in late-antique art, and which would have helped to guide his viewers. If he chose to include certain details, this must have been because he believed that they would help to make his point. Thus, if the defeated enemies in the lowest register include dead soldiers similar to those shown in the royal army at the top, a dead elephant [the fragment further to the right above the border appears to show the tusk of a second elephant, echoing therefore the pair that appear at the top], and a dead bull, the most natural way for viewers to read this would be to see them as the same figures as those shown in the top register, but now slain. Similarly, the young men in the middle register would naturally be taken to be the same as those at the top, but their dress differs in a significant way: in the top scene they wear plain tunics (apart from bands at the wrist), but the tunics of the lower ones are richly decorated with purplish orbiculi and segmenta, suggesting ceremonial costume [the tunic of the old man in the central register is also much richer than that which he wears at the top, with full sleeves and conspicuous clavi]. And given the frequency with which arcades are used as a framing device in late-antique art, in all sorts of media, the arcade in the middle register is likely to have been seen by its viewers primarily as serving to enhance the honorific presentation of the figures framed in it, the young warriors as well as the old priest at the center. It may also imply a reference to a specific building of significance to the overall theme, but the interpretation should recognize its rôle as an honorific device and not start from the search for a particular building. The relationship of the bottom register to that above it also echoes a familiar compositional device of ancient — and especially late-antique — art: the victors stand above the dead bodies of their foes, symbolically trampling them under foot.

There will continue to be disagreements amongst modern viewers about the way to read the ‘Elephant panel’ and the exact nature of the message that is being conveyed in it. Questions remain about the actions of the figures in the top register — a rapprochement between the two leaders, or a hostile encounter? Are the young men more likely to be shown as sheathing their swords, or as drawing them? And what, if anything, is held in the left hand of the old leader, and what message did it convey to the viewers? [In addition to the alternatives of a coin or a sword hilt raised by Britt and Boustan, A. Erlich (below) suggests “a small pile of something”, perhaps soil or earth, evidently held in the palm of the hand and not between the fingers. The fact that this is the old man’s left hand may argue against the theory of Britt and Boustan that he is handing a coin to the king; such a gesture might be expected to be made with the right hand.] The depiction of the 9 lamps along the top of the arcade must be intended to convey a point of some significance, but the question of their possible relationship to Hanukkah is likely to be a matter of debate between experts on the history of the Jewish festivals. It is important that the mosaic itself should not get lost in such discussions, submerged by the search for a suitable incident in Jewish history or legend. The community that saw the mosaic in the synagogue must have drawn from it a message that they understood, one that is likely to have dealt with their God’s power to save his people from threats by foreign rulers, as well as with the heroism of those people themselves; that message was not dependent on whether or not they could name the protagonists correctly.

McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

What did the Romans eat?

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

What would you assume the Romans ate, pork? Not quite. When it comes to textual accounts about the diet in Roman Italy, pork is terribly overrated, claims Mamoru Ikeguchi. In his study “Beef in Roman Italy”, the scholar from Kurume, Japan, grapples with the best ways of measuring meat consumption, arriving at data that positions beef, rather than pork, as the meat most widely consumed by the Romans.

Map A
Mamoru Ikeguchi, 2017.

When making assumptions about the Roman meat diet, historians have mostly trusted available literary evidence, such as the famous Roman cookbook by Apicius De re coquinaria, which clearly presents pork as preferred over mutton, goat’s meat, and beef. Such reasoning is not scientific enough, Ikeguchi argues, as it limits the evidence to rather elitist sources, shedding little to no light on the diets of the middle and lower classes. The way to go, according to the scholar, is by turning to zooarchaeology, the study of dead animal remains:

“Zooarchaeological evidence, which has not been given enough attention by historians, helps fill the gap between texts and the reality.”– Mamoru Ikeguchi, JRA 30 [2017], p. 7.

But how do you quantify meat? More importantly, how do you measure all the meat consumed as far back as the 5th century B.C. in all of ancient Italy? Clearly, there is not only one answer. The two dominant methods for assessing the meat consumed so far have been through collecting data of NISP (Number of Identified Specimens, practiced for example by Tony King of the University of Winchester, UK) and MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals, practiced for example by Michael MacKinnon of the University of Winnipeg). Translated into plain English, what you do with NISP is count dead animal bones and then multiply them by the accepted ratios of meat weight between domesticates. This has its virtue in objectivity: there is obviously no human factor to counting bones. However, as the saying goes, sticks and stones can break anybody’s bones, especially those of dead animals, and bone fragmentation can significantly mess up the data. Therefore, counting NISP alone is a no go. With MNI, the procedure is to attribute the bones that have been dug up to particular species and then count up the species. But not only is this too complicated to do, the method is also rather subjective, as data will depend heavily on the human factor, meaning the methods employed in excavation on each site by each different faunal specialist studying the bones.

Since none of the existing methods of quantifying meat consumption is sensitive enough on its own, Ikeguchi’s solution is to combine both NISP and MNI counts while devising a normalizing unit between them: that of quasi weights (kg). Quasi weights are based on NISP by assuming the same meat weights as in the MNI-based weights. This way, the sample size of each data set, such as how many dead animal remains were collected in total at a particular site, is neither downplayed nor given excessive significance. The scholar further contextualized the meat data, dividing the whole meat weight of each species by the number of centuries to which they belong and then adding up all sites into a chronological progression, as well as mapping out the trends in meat consumption on a geographical basis. As you might well expect, that makes for a bunch of data: 6 sets of tables, 1 map, and 10 sets of graphs, as featured in the JRA article. And guess what all that data is saying? Pork has been unjustifiably overrated as a staple of the Roman meat diet, with beef displaying a far wider record of consumption, especially in the rural and suburban areas of Northern and Southern Italy.

Now what? Pork is overrated and beef is underrated–who cares? Well, raw data makes far more sense when inserted into its historical background. First and foremost, the prevalence of beef as a staple of the diet in the rural and suburban regions of the North and South accounts for its lesser presence in literary sources such as Apicius’ cookbook. While pig was raised for butchering alone and produced tender meat of high quality, cattle such as cows, as well as goats and sheep, were first kept around for their labor, for dairying, and for their wool, until they were so old and useless that they would be butchered. Needless to say, their meat would have become subpar by that time, and was thus cheaper than pork (12 denarii vs. 8 per Italian pound). It is no great surprise, then, that pork was preferred by the elites and was less accessible to the lower classes. Furthermore, we learn roughly how much of the population belonged to the beef-preferring class, which is more than 60% of all the studied sites in Northern and Southern Italy. Even in central Italy, 36% of the sites studied had a beef-eating pattern, in strong competition with the pork-oriented ones at 34%. Finally, the keen competition between pork and beef in the central regions of Roman Italy indicates that those were the better-off regions at the time. An interesting detail highlights a steep increase in rural beef consumption near the turn of the era, towards the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire, when rural settlements are recorded to have shrunk, apparently leading to migration and the need to get rid of many cattle.

In short, Ikeguchi has a beef with beef consumption in ancient Italy. But he goes further, showing that by relying on the textual and visual sources alone historians risk significant bias in their results. After all, literacy in the past has a notorious correlation with socio-economic status. It is for this and other reasons that considering less conventional historiographies, such as that of dead animal remains, is of crucial importance for re-creating narratives of the past.

For access to the original charts, accounts of Roman herding systems along with contemporary attitudes toward the value of various domesticates, and even literary evidence (surprise!) supporting Ikeguchi’s beefy argument, follow the link to order M. Ikeguchi, “Beef in Roman Italy,” JRA 30 (2017) pp. 7-37, or even the whole volume 30 of JRA:



When digging alone won’t cut it…

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

Some things in history are clearly more challenging to figure out than others. We can, more often than not, identify the origin of a scientific invention, referring to available textual evidence and artifacts. We can also, without much changing the methods, deduce the political situation prevalent in a given country at a given time. And yet, when it comes to making an educated guess, let alone drawing firm conclusions, about the size of the entire Greco-Roman population between the 4th century B.C. and 6th century A.D., who do you turn to? “50:50”; “Ask a Friend”; “Switch the Question”? If this were “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, scholars John Hanson and Scott Ortman of the University of Colorado would both be millionaires. Their answer is: Math.

With the growing interest in the urbanism of the Greek and Roman world over the last few years, scholars have reached a general consensus about some of its vital statistics, among them the sizes of various settlement populations and of the urban population overall, the urbanization rate, and even the total population (urban and rural combined). Walter Scheidel in the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, for instance, positions the overall urban population of the Greco-Roman world in the range between 7 and 9 million, with the urbanization rate at 10-15% and a total population of 59-72 million accordingly. Yet Hanson and Ortman won’t buy it, explaining: “Although the bare outlines of this summary are almost certainly correct, there is surprisingly little evidence for many of these statements.” While the estimates for Rome, Alexandria and perhaps Antioch are backed by relatively good evidence, the data on the rest of the settlements is largely unfounded. Before suggesting an alternative solution, however, the two scholars take their time to make it clear why we all definitely need one.

For starters, the most common forms of evidence used in estimating ancient settlement populations have been textual sources, inscriptions and papyri. Not only are those hard to use because they usually refer only to specific groups (council members, taxable citizens, the military), which by default discriminates against most women, children, slaves, foreigners and other non-qualified groups, but also because many of the numbers refer to both the settlement and its surrounding countryside. Other ways of procuring evidence include counting the number of individuals buried in cemeteries, the seats in entertainment structures, the amount of water supplied by aqueducts, and other so-called “archaeological proxies.” These, too, are not to be taken at face value: after all, we can never know how many people were cremated rather than interred, and how consistently grave goods are present as an indicator of a burial that has no longer survived. Neither can we tell how many of the visitors frequenting entertainment buildings like theaters were residents of the immediate settlement and how many were those of its nearest neighbors, or how much of the water supplied by aqueducts was used for non-domestic versus domestic uses and how much was obtained through other means, such as wells and cisterns. All in all, too much bias: Hanson and Ortman won’t buy it.

The only technique that the scholars do give some credit, and which Hanson even tried using in 2016, is the ‘area x density method’: “the only method that allows one to correct the existing bias towards the most well-known sites and for which there is sufficient evidence for a large enough sample to allow one to explore overall patterns and trends, such as the size of the overall urban population, the urbanization rate, and the total population.” While the idea was first suggested by the German historian J. Beloch in 1886, it has recently gained in popularity due to the increasing amount of information about inhabited areas generated by surface surveys, aerial photography and satellite imagery, in addition to the traditional practice of using only excavated areas. The process is to measure inhabited areas and multiply them by a range of population densities. “Range” here is key, as it enables one to play with quite an array of density figures for each settlement, exploring the upper and lower limits of what sounds like the most credible answer. Alas, this feature is as attractive as ‘area x density’ gets. All would be great, were there enough evidence for how concentrated the occupation of settlements actually was. But since there isn’t, Hanson and Ortman (surprise!) won’t buy it.

So why are population densities so sought after by Hanson and Ortman and what information do they provide us with? Apparently, a better understanding of population densities can tell quite a lot about settlement history, including what conditions people lived under, how close their homes were to one another, and how large their households (did they own any slaves?). Hmmm, would not those factors also directly influence the number of human interactions that occurred, and thus how much wealth, innovation and invention, as well as crime, pollution and disease, there was to be expected in each settlement? The correlation is real, and is explained by the role of cities as “social reactors”, implying that more human interactions will produce more output (such as wealth, innovation, invention, crime, pollution and disease) with less infrastructure (such as miles of roads per capita). In fact, the principle works wherever you apply it, whether it is the Basin of Mexico in the pre-Hispanic period, medieval Europe, or the modern United States. Magic! Now let’s turn it into simple math.

When Hanson and Ortman did, they found that the relationship between the area and the population of a settlement could be expressed as: A=aN, which claims that area is population multiplied by a constant coefficient (specific to the settlement), raised to the relationship’s exponent. Applied to 52 sites from across the entire Mediterranean between the 4th century B.C. and 6th century A.D., the equation shows that the population densities of ancient settlements increased as they grew, and at rates not so different from those obtained for other civilizations. Turns out that earlier scholars were just a tad bit far off, with Scheidel’s Greco-Roman population estimate of 59-72 million against the newly estimated 150 million, and an urbanization rate of 10-15% against the new 25-30%. As can be seen, where digging alone won’t cut it, math might solve the problem.

The real math is actually outlined in the original article, J. W. Hanson and S. G. Ortman, “A systematic method for estimating the populations of Greek and Roman settlements”, JRA 30 (2017) pp. 301-324, which you can order at:


Lost in plain sight

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

When a Roman historical relief miraculously disappears, what are the chances it is actually just chilling in Russia? In the case of the “lost” Nollekens relief from Domitian’s Palace in Rome, chances are quite high. As John Pollini attempts to trace the fugitive artwork’s itinerary from its findspot and up to its present location, the scholar from Los Angeles ends up time-travelling through ancient Rome, 18th-century Italy, the Bolshevik revolution, and even World War II in Russia, only to discover the relief casually embellishing a Russian palace south of St. Petersburg. “The history of the relief and its supposed disappearance in the latter part of the 18th century are important for the history of collecting and the display of classical antiquities”, the scholar comments upon his return from that crazy ride.

It all started out clear as a day. Dug up from the Roman emperor Domitian’s palace on the Palatine Hill back in 1722, the relief acquired its Nollekens nickname after its first owner, the accomplished British sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Logical. Soon after, the relief attracted scholarly attention as it became known from two engravings and a pen-and-watercolor drawing. Possible narratives were discussed by Bianchini, the original excavator, followed by other historians. One of them was the famous classical archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann who in 1767 was the first to discuss the relief and to note that it belonged to Nollekens. But all of a sudden, “although Winckelmann knew that the relief was in Nollekens’ possession in 1767, by 1776 he reports that its whereabouts was not known.” The Western world had “lost” a sensational work of art from the Roman empire: presumably for good.

Fig. 2_adj
Rossi’s engraving of the Nollekens Relief published in 1738 (Bianchini [infra n.5] pl. VI).
Fig. 4_adj
Pen-and-ink watercolor of the Nollekens Relief now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (courtesy museum).

What really happened? Could Winckelmann have missed out on a sale, resulting in a false alarm? While these sound like obvious questions to ask, they were surprisingly overlooked at the time. Later scholars took the “whereabouts not known” announcement quite literally, Gerhard Koeppel being one of them. Initially sharing Winckelmann’s view, at the last moment Koeppel examined a drawing of the relief by Nollekens, at the bottom of which he could read something approximating “was mine, gone to Russia”–evidence of the exact sale that Winckelmann had missed. After following that Russian thread, however, rather than awaken Western academia to the long-lost relief, Koeppel did little more than add to his long study of Roman historical reliefs a brief postscript (brief enough to be missed by other scholars), “indicating only that the relief was displayed in the White Hall of the Gatchina Palace c. 50 km south of St. Petersburg, […], badly damaged with the heads broken off and lost during the War.” That might have deserved more than just a postscript. Did Koeppel simply give up on the relief as being irreparable, or was there more than that to the “Russian thread”?

Pollini, who started his own investigation in St. Petersburg, might not be entirely unsympathetic with his predecessor’s despair. The thread of events he was exposed to (in Russian by Russians) makes one wonder how the relief survived till the present day at all. Supposedly purchased from Nollekens in 1769 by the Russian Academy of Fine Arts’ first president Shuvalov (on behalf of Catherine the Great), the relief not only remained virtually unharmed up until 1938, but had also appeared in a photograph in “an obscure Russian periodical” dating back to 1914. Frighteningly, at some point during the German siege of St. Petersburg, one of the bloodiest Russian phases of World War II, the Gatchina Palace was terribly bombed, the museum personnel unable to return to the palace until six days after Gatchina was liberated in 1944. Presumably as a result of economic hardship, there wouldn’t be an official order to restore the palace until the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the walls of the White Hall ended up falling away to reveal brickwork, with much of the ceiling collapsed and the floor gone, the fireplace suspended in mid-air. Believe it or not, it was precisely in this wrecked room that the Nollekens relief had been in hiding, mounted above a mantelpiece, several of the figures’ heads missing but largely unscathed (at least not yet). “Just chilling.”

In case you were thinking WWII damage is the worst fate that could possibly happen to an artwork, the relief would actually lose far more heads in the post-War years, especially prior to the roof’s “repair” around 1950. That was when the real damage happened, as the relief fell victim to extreme temperature changes, rains, and snow. The fragments that fell off or were broken off the relief during its stay at the Palace have miraculously disappeared. Were the missing pieces pilfered, or did they truly dissipate in space and time? One wonders about the prospects of its restoration. If now not “lost”, the Nollekens relief might end up effectively being so.

But before that happens, you have a great chance to access what might well, by the way, be the definitive article on this Roman relief. If you, too, fancy time-traveling through ancient Rome, 18th-century Italy, the Bolshevik revolution, and even World War II in Russia (only to discover the artwork casually embellishing a Russian palace south of St. Petersburg), follow John Pollini from USC who not only knows what to do when in Rome, but also how to do it as the Russians do when in St. Petersburg.

To purchase the full article, J. Pollini, “The “lost” Nollekens Relief of an imperial sacrifice from Domitian’s Palace on the Palatine: its history, iconography and date,” JRA 30 (2017) pp. 97-126 (which includes the scholar’s detailed discussion of the relief’s iconography), or the whole issue of JRA, go to: