The Emperor and the Ancient Deities - The Story of One Sculpture in Relief

The Archaised Style in Roman Sculpture

The holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria include a fragment of a work done in relief on fine-grained white marble depicting a ritual procession (Fig. 1). Štefan Mlakar described the relief as a first to second century work depicting a scene from the Artemis mythological cycle. Vesna Girardi-Jurkić rejected the identification of Artemis/Diana, proposing an interpretation of the relief in her early writings that saw it as a classical second to third century depiction of a procession of satyrs and nymphs, while in her last analysis of the imagery she referred to the sculpture as a first century work depicting two nymphs and a goat-footed Sylvanus. This relief is the only known example of Roman sculpture in the archaised style on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. The archaised style mimics and echoes the old archaic artistic style, characterised by austere and severe lines, and stiff depictions of motion that dominated Greek art in the period from the eighth to sixth century BCE. It is characterised by shallow volume, the depiction of feet in side view firmly planted on the ground and facing in the same direction, and by the straight drop of the folds of cloth, the edges of which form geometrically regular wavy lines. The Greeks employed the archaised style for religious purposes through the classical and Hellenistic periods, and it was later adopted in Roman art. The austere, formal and solemn archaic style and its symmetry and uniform rhythm convincingly expressed the preservation of tradition, strength, stability and dignity, and the sacrosanct authority of the ancient deities. The Roman art of the early Augustan period adopted the archaised style in cultic sculpture and the architectural decoration of temples and shrines. The archaised style expresses an important aspect of the Augustan political programme: piety (pietas). It is often eclectically blended with classical Neo-Attic or Etruscan-Italic elements and was retained in sculpture depicting deities throughout the whole of the first century CE.

Fig. 1 Marble relief with a procession, Pula, Archaeological Museum of Istria.


Numerous works in relief that depict processions of deities, created in the archaised style in the first century BCE in Neo-Attic workshops or under their influence, have been found in Italian cities. They are found on rectangular panels that clad podia or walls in temples and sacral complexes, and on bases or altars of rectangular or cylindrical form. The relief works are usually damaged at both ends and the full complement of figures depicted is unknown, but it is broadly held that there could have been twelve. A notable example of a relief depicting a procession of more than four deities in the archaised style is a marble panel of the first century BCE to the first century CE period found in Taranto showing a processionof twelve deities (Fig. 2). Also comparable to the Pula relief is a group of Roman citharode reliefs. The citharode reliefs include  four archaised figures of deities; the appellation is a reference to Apollo’s favoured musical instrument, the cithara (Apollo Citharoedus). They show the three figures of the Apollonian triad: the twins Apollo and Artemis/Diana and their mother Leto/Latona facing right in a procession towards an altar at which a winged Victory stands. Apollo leads the procession in the sacrificial ritual, followed by his sister and then their mother. Apollo bears a cithara and extends a small patera into which Victory pours a libation. In this group of reliefs, the archaised elements largely give way to less restrained and realistic elements of the Neo-Attic style. We see the greatest artistic similarity to the relief from Pula in two reliefs from the Villa Albani in Rome, one dated to about 30 BCE and the other now kept in Berlin (Fig. 3). The similarity is manifested primarily in the position of the feet, depicted with their full length planted on the ground, and in the manner in which the folds of the drapery fall. None of the citharode reliefs, however, feature a deer or other similar animal. Also comparable with the Pula relief is an important group of Augustan period archaised reliefs depicting deities found in Herculaneum. Four rectangular marble panels done in relief decorated a temple podium or some other architectural structure in a consecrated zone with temples, each showing one deity: Hermes, Athena, Hephaestus and Poseidon (Fig. 4).


Fig. 2 The Taranto relief with a procession of twelve deities, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum.

Fig. 3 The citharode relief from the Villa Albani, Berlin, Staatliche Museen.

Fig. 4 Reliefs of Hermes, Athena, Hephaestus and Poseidon from the shrine in Herculaneum (GUIDOBALDI 2008).




The Actium Altar with a Procession of Deities

The true model for the Pula relief is a depiction of deities done in the archaised style found in 2001 in northern Greece as part of a victory monument (tropaeum) of Octavian Augustus at Nicopolis (Figs. 5–6). This monumental complex was raised in the period from 29–27 BCE to celebrate Octavian’s naval victory over the forces commanded by Mark Antony near the Actium promontory (Fig. 5). The military triumph at Actium in 31 BCE over his opponent in the struggle for supreme power made Octavian the unchallenged ruler of the Roman state (the princeps). In 27 BCE the Senate voted to give him the title Augustus, which translates into “majestic”; a title he accepted and that is taken as marking the birth of imperial Rome. Octavian Augustus’ victory monument (Fig. 6) was greatly influential in shaping other monuments across the Roman Empire, including those in present-day Croatia. A marble semi-cylindrical altar with a procession of ten deities and heroes of the Greek pantheon depicted in the archaised style (Figs. 7–10) was found on the upper terrace with a large rectangular altar surrounded by three wings of a portico. Seven of the figures face right, and three face left. The group facing right is led by Apollo with a cithara and plectrum. He is followed by Artemis holding a hunting bow in her left hand and leading a deer; she holds the deer’s front left leg while it stands on its hind legs. The deer is disproportionally small. Walking behind Artemis and the deer is her mother Leto with covered head, followed by Hermes and three figures representing the Charites (Graces) or nymphs, followed in turn by three figures facing the other direction: Hebe or Hera with covered head, the bearded Hercules with club, and Athena with a spear in the left and helmet in her right hand. The relief covers only half of the outer mantle of a cylinder. Finds of fragments bearing the same type of decorative moulding and archaised relief work may be from the other half of the altar, or from another semi-cylindrical altar or pedestal. Two semi-cylindrical reliefs may have jointly depicted all twelve of the Olympic deities accompanied by minor deities.

Fig. 5 A map of the area of the battle at Actium indicating the location of the victory monument of Octavian Augustus.


Fig. 6 A reconstruction of the Actium Victory Monument (ZACHOS 2015).


Fig. 7 Altar with archaised relief from the Actium Monument.

Fig. 8 Altar with archaised relief from the Actium Monument (ZACHOS - KALPAKIS – KAPPA - KYRKOU 2008).


Fig. 9 Altar with archaised relief from the Actium Monument.

Fig. 10 Leto, Artemis and Apollo; altar with archaised relief from the Actium Monument (ZACHOS 2007).




Olympian Deities on a Monument Celebrating the First Roman Emperor?

The Roman religion adopted the Greek deities and associated them with its own pantheon, while the archaised style strongly emphasised the ancient Greek origins. The inspiration for the depiction of Greek deities in an architectural monument celebrating a ruler-founder comes from Hellenistic Alexandria in Egypt. We find the concept of depicting the twelve Greek Olympian deities at the Alexandrian Tychaion. This Hellenistic shrine to Tyche, the tutelary deity governing the fortune of the city, is preserved only in a description from around 400 CE by Pseudo-Libanius. The Tychaion was located in the core of the city near the Agora and consisted of a circular temple in an enclosed temenos. It is posited that the circular temple was covered by a cupola with an oculus. Antique sources describe the Roman building that replaced the Hellenistic predecessor that was destroyed by fire in 181 CE. In the description of the shrine it is noted that there were two groups, each with six statues of Olympian deities, arranged in two architecturally conceived semi-circles, each statue set in a niche between the columns. That the semi-circles were symmetrical in their arrangement is implied. According to the traditional interpretation of the text, one group was centred on a statue of Ptolemy Soter, the founder and saviour of the city, bearing a cornucopia, and the other on a Charis (Grace) representing the fecundity of the earth. A more recent interpretation has the statue usually associated with Ptolemy Soter now associated with his immediate predecessor and the actual founder, Alexander of Macedonia. The core of the structure was occupied by a composition of statues in which two Nikes/Victories are crowning a dominant Tyche/Fortuna. Tyche for her part is crowning Gaea, who is, in turn, crowning Alexander of Macedonia, the city’s founder and eponym. Besides the group of statues dominated by Tyche, the Tychaion also contained bronze plates with the statutes of the city. Also housed in this temple was a celebrated group of sculptures that symbolised the universal cosmic order: a large laurel wreath held by a pair of philosophers, one seated, the other naked, carrying the celestial sphere. This complex iconographic programme was aimed at providing a divine imprimatur to the legal line of succession that saw Ptolemy Soter succeed Alexander, a proclaimed son of Zeus. Augustus adopted the iconography of the cult of Alexander to his programme of expressing the universal divine justification of his own rule in works of architecture and art. Tyche/Fortuna with a mural crown (representing the walls of a city), as Oikoumene, the representation of the whole of the inhabited world, as creator and crowner of rulers, crowns Augustus with a wreath as depicted on the Gemma Augustea cameo. The procession of archaised Greek deities at the memorial to the victory at Actium had the same role as the statues of the Olympian deities at the Alexandrian Tychaion: divine confirmation of a government’s legitimate political authority, which constituted a critical religious element in the nascent stage of the formation of an imperial cult. The architectural and iconographic concept developed at the Tychaion inspired other edifices of the Augustan period, the most significant of which is Agrippa’s Pantheon in Rome.



What Kind of Monument Would the Pula Relief of Ancient Olympian Gods Have Belonged To?

In comparing the Pula relief with related archaised reliefs, we see that it was a variant of the procession of deities from the altar at the Actium tropaeum. Only a part of the Apollonian triad (Figs. 11–12) is preserved. The first, leading figure to the right, not preserved, would have been Apollo with a cithara and plectrum. The right, better preserved figure, was Artemis, and to the left was Leto, mother of the twins Apollo and Artemis. This finally confirms the initial interpretation of the relief as proposed by Štefan Mlakar. The posture of Artemis and Leto, with their left legs bared up to the mid-thigh, the identical arrangement of the folds of the drapery, and the deer standing on its hind legs and being led by Artemis, entirely mirrors the altar at the Actium tropaeum near Nicopolis. The relief kept at the museum in Pula depicted figures about 45 centimetres in height, which is consistent with the figures from the altar at Actium. Differences are evident in the shaping of the deer’s legs, which are less slender on the Pula relief, and the lack of sandals on the figures of the Apollonian triad in the Pula relief, as opposed to the Actium relief where we see the soles of sandals. The consistency of dimensions, relief modelling and layout lead us to conclude that the Pula relief was modelled after the Nicopolis relief and that it shows Artemis and Leto as part of a procession of deities and heroes that included Hercules. The basic difference between the two monuments is that the Actium relief is done on one half face of a cylinder, while the relief at the museum in Pula is done on a flat panel. With regard to the dating of the relief at the museum in Pula, the possible date range extends from the early Augustan period to the end of the first century CE. The highest probability would see it attributed to the period from 27 BCE to the first two decades of the first century CE. It was inspired by Neo-Attic art and points to the direct influence of the Greek workshop that created the Actium tropaeum.

There is also the question of the nature of the architectural complex in Roman Histria this archaised relief of a procession of deities belonged to. The relief cannot be associated with any of the extra-urban shrines of the Roman period, leaving us with the possibility that this was a public edifice of great sacral significance within an urban area. The Archaeological Museum of Istria has collected significant finds from the Roman urban hubs of Nesactium, Parentium and Pola. The Roman colony at Pula (Pola) was the largest and most important city in Histria and has the best-preserved Augustan period urban structure with which the relief may be associated. The symbolism of the archaised depiction of the major and minor Greek deities is modelled directly after the Actium Victory Monument and has the role of publicly celebrating Augustus’ unchallenged dominion, supported by all the gods. This iconographic programme is appropriate to the period of Augustan rule, the later phase of which saw the renovation and monumentalisation of Pula’s Forum. A pair of smaller symmetrical temples of the tetrastyle prostyle type were built to both sides of the existing central temple at the north end of Pula’s Forum. The western temple was dedicated to Roma and Augustus between 2 BCE and 14 CE, as borne out by the inscription on the architrave, while only the rear of the eastern temple, of unknown dedication, has been preserved. Local erudite tradition attributes it to Diana but fails to propose a clear rationale, as there are no preserved inscriptions that could be associated with the Forum’s eastern temple. The temple may have been attributed to Diana on the basis of the find of the relief with the recognisable figure of Artemis/Diana with a deer at the site. In the absence of data on the location of the find of the relief, this hypothesis would require confirmation in some future archaeological discovery.

We cannot rule out that the entire iconographic programme depicted twenty deities, including the twelve Olympian and a number of minor deities, arranged in two groups. In that case each of the groups would include six Olympian gods accompanied by four lesser deities. The Pula relief may have been attached to the base of a rectangular pedestal or to a facing panel at a sacral complex. The complete scene may have been divided into two symmetrically arranged panels, each with ten figures, depicting the twelve Olympian deities accompanied by minor deities as part of an iconographic programme glorifying the imperial cult. Given this iconographic message, bearing witness to universal divine support of the legitimacy of Roman imperial power, the relief is entirely consistent with a renewed late Augustan Forum complex in the colony at Pula and its two new temples; the western temple dedicated to Roma and Augustus, and the eastern temple, traditionally attributed to Diana.

Fig. 11 A reconstruction of the depiction on the Pula relief based on the altar from the Actium Monument.
Left to right: Athena, Hercules, Hebe or Hera, three Charites or nymphs, Hermes, Leto, Artemis and Apollo (STARAC 2018).


Fig. 12 A reconstruction of the depiction of the Apollonian triad on the Pula relief based on the altar from the Actium Monument.
Left to right: Leto, Artemis and Apollo (STARAC 2018).







Inv. no. AMI-A-8719
Fragment of a white marble panel with a ritual procession depicted in relief. Two barefoot figures with partially naked left legs stepping forward are depicted in a procession facing right. They are clothed in the Greek style, wearing long chitons over which a himation is draped. Only the left leg up to half way up the calf is preserved of the left figure, while the leg of the right figure is preserved up to the knee. Between them is an animal standing on its hind legs, with only the hooved hind legs preserved. The animal is disproportionately small, with the height of its back coming up to the knees of the human figures. The figures are in motion on a flat two-centimetre-high base. The bottom and the rear face of the panel are flat and polished. To the top, left and right the panel is broken.
Dimensions: Height: 16.6 cm (partial); Width: 21 cm (partial); Length: 5.2 cm (full).
Site: Unknown, pre-1949.






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MARUŠIĆ, B. - MLAKAR, Š. 1969. Pula – Forum, Vodič 1, Pula.

STARAC, A. 2018. Arhaizirani reljef iz Arheološkog muzeja Istre u Puli i utjecaj Oktavijanove Akcijske memorijalne građevine / The archaized relief from the Archaeological Museum of Istria in Pula and the influence of Octavian's Actium Monument, Diadora 32, 89-104.

ΖΆΧΟΣ, K. Λ. 2007. Τα γλυπτά του βωμού στο Μνημείο του Οκταβιανού Αυγούστου στη Νικόπολη: Μια πρώτη προσέγγιση, in: Zachos, K. L. (ed.) Nicopolis B. Proceedings of the Second International Nicopolis Symposium (11-15 September 2002), Actia Nicopolis Foundation, Preveza, volume 1, 411-434; volume 2, 307-321.

ZACHOS, K. L. 2015. An Archaeological Guide to Nicopolis. Rambling through the historical, sacred, and civic landscape, Monuments of Nicopolis 10, Athens.
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The Emperor and the Ancient Deities - The Story of One Sculpture in Relief


Carrarina 4, Pula
Window to the Past
26. 1. 2021. – 26. 4. 2021.

Exhibition and text author:
Alka Starac

Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:
Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Irena Buršić

Set up & graphic design:
Vjeran Juhas

Exhibition coordinator:
Monika Petrović

Translation in Italian:
Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation:
Neven Ferenčić

Irena Buršić, Giulia Codacci-Terlević, Adriana Gri Štorga, Alka Starac, Milena Špigić

Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 500

Pula, 2021.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.