The mane event

The emperor rides again: an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the finest to survive from the glory years of ancient Rome, is on display once more, having galloped into a new, purpose-built home in the Capitoline Museum.

Aurelius (AD121-180) is drawing big crowds to the museum that flanks the Piazza del Campidoglio. Until 1981, he could be found saddled up in the Michelangelo-designed square, but was removed when the extent of pollution damage to his bronze became apparent. He and his mount were replaced by a dark brown copy that lacked the rich grey-green patina of the original.

The work - the equine equivalent of Michelangelo's David - now stands in a semi-circular, glass-roofed fixture called the Giardino Romano (Roman Garden). The light-flooded, uncluttered display area gives the piece new impact. From his barrel-bodied steed the bearded, curly haired Aurelius extends his right hand in a gesture combining command and blessing. The statue is believed to have been cast about AD176, just after the emperor led the Romans to victory over warring Germanic tribes. It's said that in the original a barbarian lay before the horse's raised hoof.

Aurelius was a combination of warrior-leader and philosopher, and although his self-help guide Meditations is turgid and his tolerance didn't extend to Christians, he was a considerable figure on the world stage.

A bird perches between the horse's ears. Roman legend has it that, when the end of the world is imminent, the bird will sing. An alternative legend says that, when the last trace of the statue's gilding disappears, Rome will fall and the world will end. Walter Veltroni, mayor of Rome, claims the gilding is spreading. And he reveals that when Aurelius was lowered onto his steed in its new location, the emperor wobbled worryingly for a few seconds. 'He's settling himself in,' said a workman.

Other Roman sculptures can be found on the perimeter of the new setting, including the foot, head and hand of a colossal statue of the emperor Constantine.


For many centuries the equestrian statue of Aurelius was believed to be of Constantine, and stood before the St John Lateran Basilica because Constantine was the first emperor to recognise Christians. That ignorance saved the statue from a date with the smelters in the years after the triumph of Christianity, when untold numbers of pagan icons were destroyed. After its identification as Marcus Aurelius in 1538, it was moved to its Campidoglio residence on the orders of Pope Paul III.

The other major attraction of the museum extension are recently unearthed foundations (60 metres by 40 metres) of the sixth-century BC Temple of Jove. The displays of artefacts prove that Capitoline Hill, the highest of Rome's seven hills, was inhabited from as long ago as the 16th century BC.

The hill looks down on the Roman Forum and across to Palatine Hill, the city's most central, where legend has it that Romulus founded Rome in 753BC, close to where he and his twin brother, Remus, were found by the wolf Lupa, which suckled them and kept them alive.

A 12th-century BC tomb containing the bones of a possible tribal chief was recently unearthed in the Forum. Its discovery brought the pre-Romulus and Remus era closer, although the past is always present in Rome. It might even give you a nip as a reminder: a colony of sweetwater crabs has appeared in Trajan's Forum, amid speculation that their forebears lived there even before emperor Trajan's time (53-117AD), thriving in the seventh-century BC drainage system, the cloaca maxima, which still empties into the River Tiber.


Additional reporting by Stephen McCarty