The Puteoli Marble Block

A marble block over five feet in height that originally formed part of a monumental statue of the Emperor Domitian, who ruled between 81 and 96 AD (or CE). The monument was dedicated to him by the town of Pozzuoli, located near Naples, Italy, and it may have been set up to thank the Emperor for his help with new road construction. One side was covered by an eleven-line inscription that listed Domitian's titles, including tribune, consul, censor, and father of his country. These titles, which were standard flattery, did not in any way describe the true character of the Emperor — an autocratic ruler who consistently stripped the Senate of its decision- making powers.

This object is on display

After his assassination in 96 AD, the Senate ordered the defacement of all monuments that had been set up to honor him, including this one. This meant that one of the town's workmen would have set up scaffolding around the base, climbed to the top, and then hammered out each letter of the inscription. Some letters are completely obliterated, and some are only partly erased, so you can see where and how often his hand was getting tired. In spite of the destruction, the original inscription can be completely restored based on other inscriptions of Domitian, coupled with the letters that still survive.

A few years after the destruction, the town decided to reuse the stone to honor the Emperor Trajan, who ruled between 98 and 117 A.D. The Romans were always reluctant to waste a perfectly good piece of marble if it could be recycled for another commemoration. If you walk to the other side of the monument, you'll see that they carved what had been the back into a new relief, which would have concealed the original defaced inscription.

To the Imperator Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus, son of the deified Vespasian, high priest, in the fifteenth year of his tribunician power, imperator for the twenty-second time, consul for the seventeenth time, perpetual censor, father of the country, the Flavian Augustan Colony of Putoli [dedicates this] having been moved closer to his city by the indulgence of the very great and divine leader.

Matthews 1966 / Flower 2001

Inscription / Translation (Side A)

The inscription in eleven lines was carefully erased by deep and broad diagonal and horizontal chisel strokes. The height of the letters varies from ca. 5 cm on the bottom row to 11 c. at the top. Slanted acute accent markets (apices) are still visible in the interstices of the lines above certain vowels. The erased transcription is above.

Relief Panel (Side B)

Not long after the inscription on Side A was defaced, the back of the Puteoli block was carved into a relief panel and mounted on an arch to honor the celebrated Trajan. Depicted are three soldiers in parade dress who are members of the Emperor Trajan's personal bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard. Trajan himself would have appeared above or below them, but only this portion of the arch survives (an adjacent fragment is in the Berlin Museum). The defaced inscription to the Emperor Domitian and Trajan's Praetorian guard, back to back, remind us that an Emperor's power depended directly upon the support of his army.

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