The Column of Antoninus Pius: A Roman Valentine
The Column of Antoninus Pius is another of my favorite Roman moments. It is a unique imperial state relief because it was artistically inspired by freedmen art while adhering to the characteristic tenets of Roman art, realistically commemorating Emperor Antoninus Pius and his love and respect for his wife and the Roman people. Essentially, it is an eternal valentine, a marble love letter commemorating the love story of an emperor and his wife.
Faustina the Elder died in 141 A.D., twenty years before her husband. The frieze delineating the apotheosis of the emperor and empress together symbolizes their reunion after death in the freedmen style. The couple’s truncated bodies are oriented so they both face fully forward, and their bodies are snugly contiguous. They are being carried to the heavens by a winged, seminude male personification, a representation of their divinization. The presence of a serpent curled around the arm of the winged personification is another hallmark of divinization in Roman artwork. Antoninus Pius’s scepter is topped with an eagle, one of Jupiter’s attributes, associating the pair with Jupiter and Juno. A trait of Antonine art is to represent spouses, both aristocratic and freed, in the guise of mythological couples. In Greek lore, the eagle is associated with the ascension of souls to the heavens. Moreover, in Rome, the eagle is a symbol of power, majesty and political might. Thus, the eagle is commonly used as a divinization motif in Roman state relief; for example, the apotheosis of Titus, which is carved on the vault of the arch of Titus, depicts Titus on the back of an eagle being carried to heaven. Here, the spouses are bookended by two intricately carved eagles, representing the souls of the imperial couple ascending to the heavens. The eagles’ feathers are ruffled, viscerally portraying the pair soaring to the heavens,an additional detail furthering the focus on spousal reunion in the hereafter.
The hallmark of Roman artwork is that the form of the piece fits its function, creating a varied body of art that includes classically styled pieces and dignified, factual pieces. The friezes on the pedestal wed disparate styles and influences to create a unified message, a story of love and leadership.
Kleiner, Diana E. E. Roman Sculpture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
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Kleiner, Fred S. A History of Roman Art. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006.
Kleiner, Diana E. E., and Fred S. Kleiner. “The Apotheosis of Antoninus and Faustina.”