BMCR 2004.03.01

Mariage et Suovetaurilia: Etude sur le Soi-disant “Autel Ahenobarbus.” RdA Supplementi 26

, Mariage et suovetaurilia : étude sur le soi-disant "Autel de Domitius Ahenobarbus". Supplementi alla RdA, 26. Roma: Giorgio Bretschneider, 2001. 134 pages, 48 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 30 cm.. ISBN 8876891609. EUR 180.76.

For historians and historians of art alike, the late Republican Paris-Munich Reliefs (also known as the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus) are, to say the least, enigmatic.1 To start, it is unclear what the original monument housing these reliefs looked like. This problem is exacerbated for several reasons. First, the five pieces of relief sculpture that originally made up this monument are currently housed in two separate locations: three (comprising the marine thiasos) are in the Glyptotek, Munich, the other two (census reliefs) are in the Louvre, Paris. Second, the style and subject matter of the reliefs appear to bear no relationship to one another. Third, no inscription was found with the monument telling us who erected the monument, why he did so, and when this was accomplished. Over the years, scholars have developed several interpretations concerning these richly detailed reliefs; the monograph currently under review provides yet another.

In this revised version of a Master’s thesis from the Department of Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne (1998), Florian Stilp suggests that the reliefs were originally part of a sculpture base found outside the Temple of Neptune in Rome, commissioned by an unknown censor of Rome sometime between the second century BCE and 70 BCE. Stilp cautions, however, that these reliefs will always remain paradoxical in the eyes of scholars.

The presentation of this work is carefully developed. Stilp divides the monograph into four main parts (introduction, part one, part two, and conclusions). The introduction, divided further into two sections, lays down the groundwork for the study. In the first section, Stilp meticulously leads the reader through the evidence, namely the literary and iconographic sources that have been used in the past to aid in the interpretation of the reliefs. The author goes on to explain why the reliefs were sold and transferred from the Palazzo Santacroce to their respective museums in the beginning of the 19th century. After their transfer, the marine thiasos reliefs received a great deal of attention, especially in German art historical circles, whereas interest in the census reliefs was not renewed until the 1890s. Stilp then sets the stage for the second section, describing the main scholarly theories (1825-1997) of the material. The introduction unfortunately does not offer any critical analysis of the evidence; rather, it is simply descriptive.

In Part I, the reader begins to catch a glimpse of Stilp’s take on the reliefs. This part, in turn, is divided into four sections: sculptural techniques, restorations, the “uniqueness” of the monument, and a general description of the iconography. In “techniques” the discussion centers on marble types and measurements. It should be noted here that Stilp does not provide new measurements but rather relies on those taken by Kähler in 1966 and more recently those of Wünsche in 1995.2 Very helpful to the reader are the remarks concerning modern restoration work on the reliefs. Beautiful black and white photographs aid in bringing Stilp’s observations to the forefront. Then, the author asks if this is a “unique” monument. The answer for Stilp is an unequivocal yes. The reliefs, carved in different workshops, were ultimately placed together to form a rectangular shaped monument. This point seems redundant, as scholars have decidedly attributed the reliefs to a rectangular shaped monument: the function of this monument (a point that Stilp addresses later) is the question of scholarly debate.3 The last section of Part I provides a general overview of the characters depicted on the respective reliefs.

In Part II, which is divided into four sections, the author attempts to contextualize the iconographic representations. In the first section, Stilp revisits, albeit in far greater detail, the characters depicted on the reliefs. Here, the author proposes some theories concerning prototypes for the iconography. For example, Stilp believes that the marine thiasos is based on a lost fourth century BCE painting. The census scene in Stilp’s opinion is not of a specific moment in time nor meant to invoke a specific historical figure. Rather, it is said to make reference to the Roman ideal of pietas. For Stilp, the scene is also the first use of continuous narrative in Roman art.4 In the second part, Stilp puts forward interpretations about these representations. More often than not the reader is directed to the opinions of others and rarely does one hear Stilp’s own. In the third section, the author revisits theories concerning the attribution of the sculpture base to Scopas and the monument’s connection with the Domitii. Once again, the detailed analysis seems somewhat wasted especially since the reliefs have associations neither with Scopas nor the Domitii. The author then suggests that a former censor of Rome may have commissioned the monument. In the final section, Stilp argues for a date of the second century to late first century BCE. The basis for this is a careful analysis of clothing and weaponry styles. The crux of Stilp’s analysis hinges on a line from Augustus’ Res Gestae. The emperor held his sixth consulship in 28 BCE and this is the first time a lustrum was performed since the census of 70/69 BCE. For this reason, this was the latest date that this relief could have been commissioned.

In the attempt to solve the conundrum surrounding the Paris-Munich reliefs the author concludes that this was a statue base that would have stood outside the Temple of Neptune in Rome. The base, commissioned by a former censor of Rome, would, in turn, have been surmounted by statuary related to marine deities. The census relief with its sacrifice symbolized the pietas inherent in this sacred space. Stilp emphasizes, however, that this scene cannot be attributed to one particular historical figure or one particular historical event. The iconography of the marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite was appropriate for a sanctuary dedicated to the god Neptune and would have had resonances with the marine statuary that Stilp believes surmounted the base.

This monograph will chiefly be of interest to art historians and historians. Problematic in many areas is Stilp’s speculative line of reasoning (something that Stilp is very well aware of). This work, however, will clearly open more doors to the future study of these reliefs.5 The author applies meticulous attention to the evidence at hand. Special credit must be given to the photographs appearing in this monograph. Although some are reproduced from other sources, the majority of the images (50 in total) are the author’s own. Stilp has carefully captured some very important details of the reliefs that will be of great aid to scholars. In addition, the author has compiled more than two hundred works in the bibliography: those interested in pursuing this topic further will welcome this also.


1. D.E.E. Kleiner informs her readers that the more accepted title of this work is the Paris-Munich reliefs because it is a forgone conclusion that the reliefs are not to be ascribed to Domitius Ahenobarbus ( Roman Sculpture, New Haven and London, 1992, 49). Curiously, Stilp has not acknowledged this and simply refers to the monument as the “so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus.”

2. H. Kähler. Seethiasos und Census. (Berlin 1966); R. Wünsche, EAA Suppl. II. 1995, 293-295, s.v. Domizio Enobarbo, ara di.

3. Kleiner, 49.

4. Some important bibliography that would dispel this claim is omitted. See for example, O. J. Brendel, Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art (New Haven and London 1979); R. Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca and London 1984).

5. The bibliography continues to grow. Most recently Holliday has devoted some time to this relief by looking into its influence of proto-Augustan relief sculpture. See P. J. Holliday, The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration in the Visual Arts (Cambridge 2002).