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  The Rise and Fall of an Imperial Shrine: Roman Sculpture from the Augusteum at Narona 7 July - 17 October 2004

In 1995, investigators from the Archaeological Museum in Split, Croatia began to dig in the area of the Roman Forum of Narona, the present-day village of Vid. When farm buildings on the side of a hill to the north were demolished, the ruins of a Roman temple were uncovered. A conspicuous feature was the presence of a number of headless marble torsos of male and female figures that had clearly been thrown down from platforms that ran along three sides of the interior of the building (Fig.1). The damage was inflicted at the time in the fourth century AD when Christianity replaced paganism as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Few cults could be quite as pagan as the one practised at Narona. The temple proved to have been dedicated to the cult of the emperor Augustus as part of the Romanisation process that occurred in the province of Dalmatia at the end of the first century BC.

The Augusteum at Narona seems to have been built in about 10 BC. It had four columns across the front supporting a triangular pediment. The outer walls were roughly built from local stone, but given a decorative stucco external surface that resembled carefully drafted ashlar masonry. The single chamber (cella) had a simple mosaic floor. At first there was a podium along just the west wall on which were placed statues of Augustus and his wife Livia and perhaps Agrippa, Augustus' right-hand man. After Augustus' death in AD 14, the Roman governor of Dalmatia (Publius Cornelius Dolabella) added two more statues of the imperial couple, as well as one of the new emperor Tiberius (Fig. 2 shows part of an inscription commemorating P. Cornelius Dolabella's dedication). There were further additions over the next couple of centuries: so many in fact that the podium was extended along two more sides of the cella. The substantial marble fragments include major parts of statues of the emperors Claudius (ruled AD 41-54) and Vespasian (AD 69-79).

The heads of most of the statues are missing, but those of Vespasian and one of the Livias still survive. The Vespasian head was found in rescue excavations in the Forum area in 1978, but the rest of the statue of a figure wearing a toga with his hand across his chest was found lying prone on the mosaic floor during the major excavations in 1996. The head of Livia was acquired in Metkovic, not far from Vid, in 1878 by Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Evans. It has recently been re-united with its body which was located together with other large fragments in the town hall of nearby Opuzen which had almost certainly come from the Augusteum of Narona in the nineteenth century, for a missing fragment of one of them was found in the 1996 excavations.

Ancient Narona, like the Roman predecessors of Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester and York, held the honorific title of colonia. It was situated on the River Naron (modern Neretva) some 15 miles from the Adriatic sea, and was one of the three most important cities of Roman Dalmatia. It had long been an important trading centre, and was in a location of strategic importance for communication between the Adriatic and the interior as far inland as the Sava and Danube rivers. Today, it is a small village in a backwater, but there is a project to build a new museum on the site of the ancient temple, where the finds will have a permanent home.

Fig. 1 (right): Pagan statues overturned by Christian iconoclasts
Fig. 2 (left): Part of the inscription commemorating P. Cornelius Dolabella's dedication
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