The Triumph of Titus: an affair on painting

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The Triumph of Titus: an affair on painting

Postby Tarquinius Dionysius on Wed Sep 12, 2007 11:48 pm

(To examine the painting in detail, see this enlarged version)

As you all know, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was the (un)acknowledged master of classical painting. While I feel that, on a technical level, he was an accomplished painter in his own right, it is his meticulous historical research on his subject matter for which he is primarily - and rightfully - renown. Aside from entertainment value, his work is careful, studied attempt to bring the Roman Empire alive, which few painters ever rivaled (Jean-Léon Gérôme, or Henryk Siemiradzki do come to mind). I would say if you are not familiar with it, get yourself acquainted asap!

One of his favourite topics was the accession of emperor Claudius, which he painted in three different versions. Some of his more famous works however include The Roses of Heliogabalus, The Baths of Caracalla and Caracalla and Geta, the latter which influenced the production design of the movie Gladiator probably as much as Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Now I wanted to discuss this particular painting - The Triumph of Titus - because, while I was studying it up close and trying to guess who was who, something struck me about the way the characters exchanged glances.

The setting is 71 AD, Rome: Titus and Vespasian are celebrating their triumph over the Jewish Rebellion the year before. If we are to believe the account of Josephus, the procession was extremely lavish, and among the Jewish artifacts carried along with the loot were the Pentateuch, the Golden Altar and the Menorah, the latter which can be seen in the background of this painting (although I am unsure which building Tadema is depicting here). Of course, the use of the Menorah as a symbol of the Roman victory in the Jewish wars hearkens back to the Arch of Titus itself, which has a world famous bas-relief depicting Roman soldiers carrying the spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem.

Menorah aside, let's turn our attention toward the imperial family. I'm guessing the people at the bottom are lictors (judging from the fasces each is carrying). The man in the front, dressed as Pontifex Maximus, can easily be identified as Vespasian. The three figures to the left however are more interesting. The man at the back, also dressed in religious regalia, I believe is Titus. The couple in front of him should be Domitian and Domitia Longina. I arrive at this conclusion simply because: Titus was no longer married at this point in history and his lover Berenice was safely tucked away in Judaea (so he can't be the man in the armor), Domitian did marry the year before, to Domitia Longina, a woman he forced to separate from her husband, Lucius Aelius Lamia.

Which leaves us with the curious exchange of glances between Domitia and Titus. They seem to be sharing an inside joke here. Is it merely an attempt by Tadema to breathe some life in an otherwise static scene? Are Titus and Domitia just having a good time? Domitian seems blissfully unaware of what's going on between the two. Like Tadema's Caracalla and Geta, there may be more than meets the eye, and the truth tied to the death of Titus in 81 AD. According to ancient sources, Titus was preparing for a trip to the Sabine territories when he suddenly died of a fever, after barely two years in office as emperor. His last words are reported to have been "I have made but one mistake", with Suetonius further speculating:

"What this was he did not himself disclose at the time, nor could anyone easily divine. Some think that he recalled the intimacy which he had with his brother's wife; but Domitia swore most solemnly that this did not exist, although she would not have denied it if it had been in the least true, but on the contrary would have boasted of it, as she was most ready to do of all her scandalous actions."

Conclusion: this affair may very well be what Tadema is alluding with this composition here. As in Caracalla and Geta, the triumphant setting of the scene is trumped by darker, hidden tensions within the imperial family.

What I still don't have a clue about however is who the people on the right are supposed to be. I'm vaguely guessing Josephus or Tiberius Julius Alexander may be among them. The man with the beard has some resemblance to a fictitious depiction of Josephus from an 18th century woodcut. It's possible that Tadema may have used it. Otherwise...
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Tarquinius Dionysius
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