Dear readers, as always, welcome.
This is posting number 351 and, if you are a regular follower of the blog, you know that, in over 350+ postings, a huge number of images have appeared. Usually, the writing of the posting inspires the choice of images, but, in this one, it was the other way around, as you’ll see…
The Romans were proud of their state, the Res Publica, “The Business of the People”.
Rome hadn’t begun as a people’s business, however. Instead, it had been farmers
who had lived in thatched huts
in little villages on 7 hills, overlooking the Tiber River.
In time, they had come under the control of their northern neighbors, the wealthy and sophisticated Etruscans,
and an Etruscan king, a lucumo, had ruled them.
Then, in 509BC, the Romans overthrew the king and established a new kind of state, that Res Publica. They retained the former kings’ council of elders, which they called the Senate, after the Latin root sen-, “old”, but, instead of a king, the Romans yearly elected two state officers, the consuls. Here are the two consuls in a session with the Senate.
Roman society had two big social classes, the Patricians and the Plebeians,
and, for the first century-and-a-half, consuls were always elected from the Patricians, until, in 367BC, a new law was passed, decreeing that one of the two consuls should be a Plebeian.
Consuls held a great deal of power, including acting as generals in time of war, but all of this came to an end when Augustus (63BC-14AD),
the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar (100-44BC),
having won a final civil war, became the sole ruler of Rome and the consuls became more holders of positions of prestige than of power. They were, at least initially, still elected, but they were nominated by the emperors, who sometimes even nominated themselves. Because the office had almost 500 years of tradition behind it, however, becoming a consul was to have achieved a lofty position in the state and certain senior state positions were only available to those who had held it.
By late imperial times, however, the office had lost its power and had become ceremonial, which included, at the consul’s installation, a massive celebration, including the Greco-Roman world’s favorite sport, chariot-racing.
Along with elaborate celebrations, there could be the distribution of commemorative gifts, one of which might look like this—
It is called a “consular diptych” (Greek di—“two/double” + ptukhe, “fold”) and consists of two panels, which could be made of wood, ivory, or metal. This particular one, seemingly the oldest surviving, dates from 406AD, and depicts the late western emperor, Honorius (384-423AD)—who had been consul once, himself—at the age of 2—and was dedicated to him by Anicius Petronius Probus, who was consul in 406. It’s a very graphic contrast to the power of the consuls of the old Republic that Probus describes himself as the famulus, “household slave” of Honorius.
The form of the diptych descends from a much less exalted object, the usual Roman notebook,
which consisted of two hollow wooden halves, into which wax was poured to form a surface.
The writer then used an instrument called a stilus, which had two functions: the pointy end was used to write on the wax, the other end was a kind of eraser, with which the writer could smooth the wax over what she/he’d written, thus erasing it.
By the first century AD, these apparently could also be used to hold letters of appointment, which I presume is how they became associated with consuls.
As you can see from the one dedicated to Honorius, the carvings on the outside of these can be wonderfully elaborate, my favorite being this,
which, although it’s a diptych, isn’t actually a consular one, its purpose being unknown. It has the names of two prominent late Roman families, the Symmachi and the Nichomachi, along the top, however, suggesting that, whatever it was for, it somehow involved them and, in particular, two women of the families, who appear to be acting as religious figures. (The left-hand panel was badly damaged in a fire, unfortunately.)
This posting came about because, as usual, I was looking for images to illustrate an earlier posting and came across the work of Tom Buggey, and this wood panel of Galadriel—does this form look familiar?
As Dr. Buggey explains, he is an admirer of a pair of my favorite Tolkien illustrators, the Hildebrandts, and this is clearly based upon one of their depictions of the Lady of the Golden Wood.
Although I enjoy Dr. B’s Tolkien work, I also find his other work impressive, as in this
of which I quote his description:
“This is an original composition based on a children’s story I was hoping to write illustrated with a series of carvings – If only I had the time. This carving measures 31″ x 15″. The story goes something like this. Long ago the woodsmen of the north were aided by the city dwellers of the south. The woodsman vowed to aid the city dwellers if ever they were in need. To secure this promise a spell was placed on a series of songs that would awaken future generations to the promise of aid. This carving represents a princess (of course) of the besieged city’s king who travels north with the court musician to garner the assistance of the woodsmen. The first songs are being sung.” (from the website, lightly edited by me)
There are a number of other carvings at his site: https://buggeycarve.com/ For myself, I hope that, since he wrote the above, he has continued both the story and the panels, maintaining a sculpting tradition which goes back far beyond consular diptychs, but which includes such wonderful pieces as this—
Thanks, as always, for reading,
Stay well—be careful—those carving tools are sharp!
And know that, as ever, there’s