This magnificent painting by Carle Venet depicts the triumph of Aemilius Paullus, the Roman general who defeated the Macedonians at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC. At that date, mid-way between the Second and the Third Punic Wars, Rome’s conflict with Carthage was still unresolved, but at Pydna she smashed the last remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire and opened the way for conquest of the East. A little over twenty years later Roman legionaries stood astride the towering crags of AcroCorinth and proclaimed rule over all Greece, and in the same year Paullus’ son Scipio Aemilianus took Carthage and secured Roman control over the west Mediterranean. Without Pydna it’s unlikely that either of those victories in 146 BC would have taken place as they did, so this painting represents one of the pivotal events of ancient history.
Carle Venet had studied in Rome and was familiar with its monuments and vistas. However, at the time when he was painting this, in the 1780s, the precise dates of many of those monuments within the Roman period were unknown, and would probably have been of limited interest anyway - backdrops such as the one in this painting were a kind of generic wallpaper for scenes of Roman history derived from reading the ancient authors. Here, in approximately their correct disposition, you can see Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and, beyond the Temple of Jupiter, the Colosseum – all of them monuments of Imperial Rome, constructed centuries after the triumph. Neverthless, it’s a hugely powerful work that seems to manifest everything we imagine about Roman splendour. One of its strengths artistically is that Venet broke with tradition and depicted horses naturalistically, based on his study of horses in his native France. Seeing this detail in the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sparked my memory of a monument that I often dwelt on when I taught Roman art – lecturing about a time when art too was undergoing a transformation partly as a consequence of Paullus’ victory. It led me to return to the ancient account that inspired Venet, the description of the battle and the triumph by the Greek historian Plutarch, and to think of how these events might form early scenes in my novel Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage.
Today, the place where you can best imagine the procession is in the very heart of ancient Rome on the slope of the Capitoline hill, and that’s where in my novel I have Scipio and his friend Fabius watching the procession - standing on the steps and contemplating the scene along the Sacred Way just as we can in the ruins of the Forum today, blocking out in our mind’s eye all of the later structures and accretions which make it look more of a jumble than it would have seemed in the 2nd century BC. To the Romans, those buildings that seem so emblematic of ancient Rome – the great temples and law-courts, even the Senate House, one of the few structures to remain in its original position as Scipio and Fabius might have seen it – were of less significance than the Sacred Way itself or the holy places close under the Capitoline at the base of those steps, sites such as the Rostra that seem so nondescript to visitors today yet were far more meaningful than many of the grander structures beginning to appear by the 2nd century BC in the forum.
Plutarch – writing about the end of the first century AD, but basing his account on earlier sources – famously catalogued the enormous plunder brought by Paullus from Macedonia. It's this that has led art historians to see the Pydna triumph as marking an intensification of Greek influence in Rome, with many Greek sculptures in bronze and stone now adorning Roman public and private places and their styles being copied by Greek artisans who had come to Rome in the wake of the triumph. The scale of the booty shown in the procession was huge – according to Plutarch ‘... the first day was just barely sufficient for seeing the statues that had been seized, and the paintings, and the colossal images, all carried along on 250 wagons drawn by teams’ – and yet today no surviving sculpture can be securely attributed to that event, with all the famous works of art thought to have been looted in 168 BC having been destroyed or lost in the course of time.
One remarkable survival does remain, however - the monument that figured large in my courses on Roman art, and which I remembered when I saw the horses in the scene by Venet. Soon after the triumph Aemilius Paullus had a monument erected in the Greek sanctuary at Delphi, symbolically placing it on a pedestal that had been intended for a statue of his vanquished rival, the Macedonian king Perseus. The monument was a tall stone pillar surmounted by a bronze equestrian statue and adorned with a sculpted frieze of a battle scene, fragments of which can be seen in the Delphi museum today. In my novel I imagined a mock-up of the monument by the Greek artist Metrodorus – a man we know from Plutarch to have been responsible for paintings of the battle - being a centrepiece of the triumphal procession, carried towards the steps of the Capitoleum so that the frieze at the top was at eye level with Scipio and Fabius and the others watching with them, and could be fully appreciated:
It showed a battle-scene, with life-sized men pressing and lunging, hacking and stabbing. It was so realistic that Fabius felt he could walk right into it. Dying soldiers were shown on the ground with wounds laid bare, dripping with blood that must have been applied by Metrodorus just before the procession. In the centre of the melee was a riderless horse that Fabius remembered from Pydna, one that had broken free from the Roman ranks and galloped between the lines, stirring them to battle …
The riderless horse is one of the most striking and beautiful features of the frieze, its head arched away from the viewer as it rears up in the midst of battle. It was this horse that allowed art historians to pin the frieze to the Battle of Pydna – Livy, another ancient historian who mentions Pydna, also tells us that a riderless horse galloping between the lines precipitated the battle – and to see the sculpture as one of the first historical depictions in ancient relief sculpture, rather than a mythological battle scene. As the sculpture was made within living memory of the battle, it allowed me to feel that the accounts by Plutarch and Livy described a real event, and to write my own version of it into my novel. In this excerpt, the Paeligni, Italian allies of the Romans, have begun to surge towards the Macedonian lines, but already another of Scipio’s friends, the former Greek cavalry commander and future historian Polybius, had ridden forward to taunt the enemy – a fictional addition to the battle of a man who later insists that Metrodorus only show the riderless horse:
The Paeligni had already begun their charge, bounding forward like wild dogs, making a noise like a thousand rushing torrents. They were running at astonishing speed, and the distance between them and the phalanx had already narrowed. Fabius could see Polybius making for the gap, his shield held out diagonally to the left, charging in a swirl of dust. Another horse had followed riderless, breaking away from the Roman lines until it overtook Polybius and disappeared into a storm of dust. For a horrifying moment it seemed as if he would not make it in time, as if the gap would close and he would hurtle among the horde of Paeligni warriors. But then he was gone, and all Fabius could see was a streak of silver along the line of Macedonian spears, as if a wave were passing along it.
You can read the entire text of the Prologue containing that battle scene here. It’s rare to find any corroborating physical evidence for an ancient account of a battle, but these few fragments of sculpture provide as vivid a connection as could be found and help to put the backstory to Venet’s painting into its true historical context.
Extracts copyright © 2013 David Gibbins from Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage (Macmillan, London and New York, 2013)