In the centre of Piazza del Campidoglio stands the equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). The statue is a copy; the original is on display in the neighbouring Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums).
Originally gilded, the statue may have been made after the emperor's death in 180, when he was deified. Over life-size, Marcus Aurelius is clad in military tunic and cloak; his right arm is outstretched, palm down, a gesture known as the adlocutio, which was used by an emperor when addressing his troops. Marcus Aurelius rides without the use of stirrups, which had not yet been introduced to the West. A small figure of a bound barbarian may once have crouched under the horse's raised right leg.
The emperor is depicted with the beard of a philosopher, which is appropriate for the man who penned the Meditations, his personal musings on life and the philosophy of Stoicism.
For centuries the statue stood outside the Lateran Palace and was only moved to Piazza del Campidoglio in 1538, at the behest of Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49), as one of the inscriptions on the pedestal proclaims.
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is the only example of its kind to have survived intact from antiquity? When the vast majority of ancient bronze statues were later melted down, how did this one survive?
It survived for the simple reason that the figure on horseback was thought to depict not Marcus Aurelius, but Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity!
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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