Art, Music, Books & Film


I am in the last room in the museum, the final destination confirmed by the section label on the wall. It reads “The End of the Ancient World”. They could have called it “Late Antiquity” or “A World in Transformation”, for even in those crisis-wracked times of decline and gathering impoverishment, of barbarian incursions and a failing state, there was always a next room, but “the end” gives you a better sense of accomplishment. It’s like the band across the finish line. “Bravo, you’ve done it!” it seems to say.

The last is relative, of course; it could just as well be the first room if one started here, but I doubt if anyone does. We duly follow the chronological path that the curators have arranged and start at the beginning at the Hall of Good Intentions.

Every museum has one and it is always the first. It may feature frescos of elongated Gothic madonnas and languid Christs on the cross, or the precursors to the shimmering pastel landscapes of the Impressionists, or, as in this museum, the figurines of the Neolithic and Cycladic civilizations. This first hall may not be the most studied of rooms or the one in which visitors linger the longest, but it is the room that is visited in the greatest earnestness, the one in which the visitors, buoyed by the hope of revelation, set off to see art with the enthusiasm of novice runners at the start of their first race and the same overestimation of their endurance. They look at every exhibit in the room.

By the time they get to this last room, their senses numbed by a surfeit of grave steles, armless nymphs and naked gods, they want nothing more than the gift shop or a cup of coffee. The airy well-light atrium of the museum’s entrance hall beckons with its promise of release from the burdens of art.

I can hear them already making plans. They think there is little reason to pause here, and indeed, there are no heroes or Olympian deities in this room, no youths on horseback to be seen here, no achingly beautiful athletes. It is a room of unassuming marble effigies and grave steles, a room of ghosts. At the back end sits a large sarcophagus that originally had been sculpted for a couple but reused years later in this century of crisis and slow decline to house the remains of a man alone. Most of the male figure that once stood alongside his wife has been chopped off, except for its legs, which were reshaped into reeds; the head of the female figure that had reclined atop the sarcophagus had been chiseled away, and its place stood, rather awkwardly, the marble head of its new male occupant.

Re-used sarcophagus, 230-240 AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Re-used sarcophagus, 230-240 AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

Few of the visitors filing past the room will have noticed the bronze portrait statue of the empress Julia Aquila Severa, wedged on a side wall amid the busts of nameless patricians. It is a flat, almost depthless statue, like the steel duck targets in a shooting gallery, and an unsettling one. The figure’s chiton is rent at the left hip, exposing a jagged-edged slit that gapes like an open wound. Her face is caved in, the nose hardly visible, one eye left looking at the other, the distorted visage of a Cubist mask. Yet there is grace to be seen in her delicate upturned lips and the rhythmic sweeping folds of her garment. Her right arm stretches out toward the viewer, the palm slightly cupped and facing upwards in a gesture of offering. I resist the thought that her pose could have been as stylized as the imperial coiffure that, along with her likeness on coins and a marble portrait bust in a Florence museum, helped curators date and identify her.

The damage is worse than the absence of a head or nose or arm, more disturbing than the pitted disfigurement of sunken treasures. A void leaves more to the imagination; here one encounters the act of violation itself, captured and set for centuries. One can easily imagine the rage and pleasure that the officer, vandal or cleric who wielded the hammer must have felt as he swung it into the statue’s face.

I dimly remember from a college course in Greek and Roman Civilization—like the antsy museum visitors, we had rushed through the chapter on Late Antiquity as the semester drew to an end—that Julia would have been a likely candidate for damnatio memoriae, as I knew her husband was. A consul’s daughter and Vestal Virgin, she married, or more likely, was coerced into marrying the 15-year old emperor Elagabalus, despite her vow of celibacy and the threat of death by interment that awaited her if she violated it. The marriage scandalized Rome, as did the young monarch’s installation of the sun god Elagabal, whose high priest he was in Syria, at the head of the Roman pantheon. What I do not remember, but this I am sure is because I was never taught it, was Elagabalus’ relationship with his lover and charioteer, Hierocles and the accounts of his marriage to an athlete from Asia Minor.

Unsurprisingly, the exhibit label recounts none of the sexual controversy surrounding the emperor’s life. I do learn, however, that Julia’s bludgeoned face was not the result of an attempt to expunge her memory. The statue was damaged when the building on which it stood collapsed.

Portrait statue of Julia Aquila Severa in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece

Portrait statue of Julia Aquila Severa in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

I go back to the museum on the following Sunday to revisit Julia, but the room is closed to visitors. Personnel cutbacks, apparently. I’m told the room would reopen in a few days.

I go back again the following Sunday. There is an acrid smell in the air as I approach the museum. The previous night a few hundred yards from the museum grounds a group of young anarchists clashed with the riot police, leaving behind smoldering garbage of dumpsters, shattered shop windows and trashed bus stops.

Closed again.

“I really need to see the room,” I tell the woman at the ticket counter. “This is my third time here.”

“Why don’t you to ask at Information? Maybe they could help,” she says, and points to a vestibule at the side of the main entrance.

I do. I tell the woman at the desk that I need to see the room for something I am writing, but I keep coming back to find the room closed. I only need 20 minutes, I say, and just one room. She makes a call.

I notice a sign of sorts on the side of the wall, printed in all caps in the ubiquitous Times New Roman font of the Greek bureaucracy. It’s an announcement to the non-permanent staff that due to funding cuts they should not expect to take all their scheduled leave.

She arranges the visit. A guard comes, unlocks the padlock and slides the heavy bolt to let me in. He turns on the lights and ushers me into the room.

“I don’t need more than 15 minutes,” I tell him, though I would like an hour.

“Take as much time as you need,” he says, turns on the lights, and goes to sit on a folding chair in the next room.

I’m aware of the imposition I’m making on him, but he seems not to mind. I’ve never been given a private showing before, though I’ve often found myself alone in galleries. I feel uncomfortable in this privilege, as though I were dressed in much better clothes I could afford.

I look at Julia and am again intrigued by the way eyes look into each other, a result no doubt of the damage the statue suffered when it smashed to the ground but a cast of features that nonetheless looks oddly modern, beautiful in her Picasso-esque distortion. It is impossible to see Julia only through the parade of statues in the rooms that preceded hers and not in the art that followed centuries later. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter that we start at the beginning, because in some way we have already seen the rooms to come.

The statue was found in what was then the Roman province of Achaia, not quite a distant outpost of the Empire but far enough from the center of power to be something of a provincial backwater. Still, news of imperial intrigue and scandal are likely to have reached the city.

I wonder what the men and women who passed below thought of their new statue. Were they affronted by the enthronement of the woman who broke her vows to marry a Syrian-born young emperor who set an Eastern sun-god at the head of the Olympian deities? Whatever the indignation, it could not have lasted long.

The statue must have been commissioned, executed and installed rather quickly, perhaps, I think, on the initiative of a provincial official eager to ingratiate himself with the new order. Julia’s marriage was soon revoked, purportedly at the instigation of Elagabalus’ grandmother. The couple married again a few years later, but even that, the young emperor’s fourth and final marriage, lasted only a short time before members of the Praetorian Guard beheaded him at the age of eighteen.

No sooner had the statue been raised to the roof of whatever building it stood on than her currency faded. Over generations the face of the graceful bronze figure would become as unrecognizable as the statues of statesmen and generals and philanthropists that adorn our parks and the names of the side-streets and lesser squares of our cities today. The past is not weighty as much as it is obscure.

As befits a city as old as Athens there are numerous emblematic monuments of its ancient past—the Theatre of Herodus Atticus, now used for summer concerts and dance performances of the Athens Festival, Hadrian’s Library, the few towering columns of what remain of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and rising above all the citadel temple of the Parthenon. But most of the distant past in the city peeks in on us from below.

We enter a downtown department store over a glass-covered floor set above ruins of the ancient city, and exit the subway along a glass-encased wall in which a two-millennia-old duct has been revealed in the brick like an artery during surgery. Ancient fortification walls, baths, cemeteries, cisterns, houses, workshops—they lay unearthed, gated fields of history, in the excavated pits that pocket the city.

Few, though, pause to inspect the finds. They are merely part of the seamless fabric of the city, as unprepossessing as Julia’s statue must have been decades after it was raised to its perch in Achaia. Few are burdened by the heavy consciousness of the glory that preceded them, the past made incarnate in the now anonymous figures that populate city squares or appear in the portraits hanging on the walls of libraries and city halls, or indeed in museums.

“Thank you for letting me in,” I say to the guard as I stuff my notebook in my knapsack.

“Don’t you want to see the rest of the wing?” he asks, disappointed, as if I were a guest at a family celebration who ate from only one of the dishes on the table.

I tell him I’ll be back when the wing reopens, trying to say it as if it will happen next week.


Featured image: “Syntagma Metro Station, Athens”, Dario Sušanj, used under CC by 2.0, cropped from original.


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