Book Reviews -- Private Lives, Imperial Virtues: The Frieze of the Forum Transitorium in Rome by Eve D'Ambra

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Private Lives, Imperial Virtues: The Frieze of the Forum Transitorium in Rome

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. 170 pp.; 91 b/w ills. $35.00

The Forum Transitorium, also called the Forum of Nerva and a few other names, is an enigmatic complex, not merely because so little of it is available for us to study (most of it lies under the via dei Fori Imperiali today), but also because what remains is tantalizingly different from other monuments of its type in ancient Rome. Chronologically the fourth of five Imperial fora, it was begun by the emperor Domitian and dedicated by his successor Nerva in A.D. 97 or 98, about a year after Domitian's assassination and damnatio memoriae. It is little more than the enclosure and monumentalization of a stretch of the Argiletum, the street that led from the Quirinal Hill to the Forum Romanum: hence, one of its names. Except for the temple to Domitian's patron deity Minerva on its northeast end, the forum incorporated no rooms to house the business of Rome. In its form and in the kinetic fashion in which the visitor would experience it, the Forum Transitorium differs from the other fora, which it in fact binds together.

Most unusual about the forum, however, is its frieze, which meanders forward and back as the entablature creates a series of bays along the enclosure wall. Only about 6 percent of the whole is preserved, and it is unique in character among the sculptural programs of state monuments. The majority of the figures on the frieze are women; those whose activities are clearly recognizable are involved in worship or in working wool, spinning or weaving. Even though it is appropriate to Minerva as the patron goddess of handcrafts, the theme of the frieze appears derived from the private and domestic realm, and is thus surprising for the adornment of a public monument. In her provocative new book, Private Lives, Imperial Virtues, Eve D'Ambra shows how the frieze, through the juxtaposition of mythological and moralizing emblemata, forges a connection between the feminine virtues and imperial ideals. She agrees with what seems to be the majority opinion about the theme: that the central motif depicts Minerva's punishment of Arachne.

D'Ambra begins by setting the frieze in its historical and ideological contexts. The introductory chapter, loosely organized under the title "Domitian and Minerva," discusses Domitian's rule--much maligned in the ancient sources--his attempts at social reforms, which were modeled on those of Augustus, and his devotion to Minerva. In her discussion of the history, D'Ambra relies almost exclusively on the analysis of B. W. Jones, who refutes the ancient portrayal of Domitian and constructs a positive image for his rule.(1) Although this image reconstruction is perhaps the current trend in Domitianic scholarship, D'Ambra should acknowledge that the Arachne myth has very different overtones if one accepts, even minimally, the traditional view of Domitian as presented in the ancient sources.

The first chapter, "Architecture and Topography." discusses the ideological messages communicated by the architectural structure and placement of the Forum Transitorium. One of the most useful aspects of this well-researched section is its review of the ancient remains on the Quirinal Hill, which abuts the Forum Transitorium at its northern end and from which the forum serves as a passageway to the old center of the city. This hill was the site of the original Sabine settlement, and it always remained associated in the Roman mind with that element of the ancient population. The Flavian emperors, of whom Domitian was the last, traced their ancestry back to the Sabines, who were proverbial for their moral rectitude. Domitian styled himself renovator urbis, and his architectural renovations and new constructions furthered his general program of cultic revival and moral reform. D'Ambra discusses various Quirinal cults as they fit into this program and into the imagery of the Forum Transitorium frieze. …