An exhibition in Rome traces the political and economic
foundations of the second century A.D., when the empire reached its
widest expanse and highest population.
"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the
world during which the condition of the human race was most happy
and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed
from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus," Edward
Gibbon wrote in "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
In so declaring, the English historian was following the lead of
a number of Roman and Renaissance authors, who took an equally rosy
view of the state of the empire and humanity during the second
At first glance, by its very title "The Age of Equilibrium, 98-
180 A.D.: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius," the
third in a series of exhibitions on art and society in ancient Rome
at the Capitoline Museums, seems to be endorsing this traditional
historical assessment that stretches from Pliny the Younger through
Machiavelli and Gibbon into modern times.
But a strength of this latest show, curated by Eugenio La Rocca
and Claudio Parisi Presicce with Annalisa Monaco, and especially of
its catalog, is that, while achievements are recognized, darker
aspects are not whitewashed and the dominant role played by
propaganda in public art of the era is highlighted.
The reputation the second century won as a golden age was
substantially based on the unusual stability of the political
establishment during this period and on the economic prosperity that
helped to nurture.
That stability was largely the result of the abandonment of the
direct hereditary principle in the imperial succession in favor of
the practice of adopting suitably talented candidates. Thus Nerva
adopted Trajan in 97 A.D.; Trajan's second cousin Hadrian succeeded
him in 117; Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius in 138, who adopted his
son-in-law Marcus Aurelius as his own successor.
In a return to the old system, Marcus Aurelius was succeeded in
180 by his son Commodus, whose behavior became increasingly
deranged. As everyone who has seen "Gladiator" now knows, Commodus
developed a penchant for taking a personal part in gladiatorial
displays (yet in reality met his end not in the arena but when he
was strangled in his bath).
The first room of the show, "The Leading Actors," introduces us
to the stars of the epoch in the form of more than 40 portrait
statues and busts of the emperors, their wives, daughters and
What is immediately striking in the representation of the male
players is that they are so often depicted in some form of military
This introduces one of the central paradoxes of this notional age
of peace and harmony. For while the Emperor Augustus, a victorious
general and founder of the imperial system, was seldom represented
as a warrior, the emperors of the second century relentlessly
emphasized this role.
The empire reached its greatest extent -- an area of 3.5 million
square kilometers, or 1.35 million square miles, with an estimated
population of 55 million -- during the reign of Trajan. Much of what
he did to transform Rome is still visible from the Capitoline
Museums or within a few minutes' walk. The Trajan Forum was the
largest and grandest of all the forums and the so-called Trajan
Markets on the hillside above are well preserved. Nearby are the
remains of the huge Trajan Baths on the Oppian Hill -- the first to
include a library, park and cultural complex -- which was to serve
as the model for all subsequent monumental baths. Vast
infrastructure projects included a new port at Ostia, canals, quays,
aqueducts and sewers.
But these improvements were mainly financed by war booty,
especially what was gained from 101 to 106 during the conquest of
Dacia -- a kingdom centered on present-day Romania and Moldova.
These wars were celebrated in the spiraling friezes of Trajan's
Column on the edge of the Trajan Forum, the first column of its kind
and the first depictions of an emperor on campaign. …