Cancelleria Reliefs

The Cancelleria Reliefs are a set of two incomplete bas-reliefs, believed to have been commissioned by the Roman Emperor Domitian (81 AD – 96 AD). The reliefs originally depicted events from the life and reign of Domitian, but were partially recarved following the accession of emperor Nerva. They are now in the Vatican Museums.

Cancelleria Reliefs
Year1st century
TypeWhite Marble
LocationVatican Museums, Rome


The Cancelleria Reliefs were discovered under the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome in the late 1930s, and owe this name to their place of finding.[1] It is not known who sculpted these works or which building they were intended to adorn, but it is believed the entire work was executed by the same man, on a commission by the Roman Emperor Domitian.[1] They are currently on display in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The two panels, commonly referred to as Frieze A and Frieze B, were found incomplete. Frieze A survived relatively intact, but misses a part of the left end, making it difficult to assess the exact length of the original work. Frieze B contains various broken panels, and is thought to have spanned a width of nearly 597 cm. Both reliefs measure 210 cm in height.[1]

A number of cautious suggestions have been put forth as to the original location of the Cancelleria Reliefs. Most likely, the sculptures decorated one of the numerous buildings erected under Domitian. Brian Jones suggests two possible locations: the Templum Divorum, which was a shrine dedicated to the military triumphs of Vespasian and Titus.,[2] or one of multiple arches which were said to have been erected under Domitian, but were torn down following his death.[3]


Purpose and style

The Cancelleria Reliefs depict events from the life of Domitian and the history of the Flavian dynasty, which was founded by Domitian's father Vespasian in 69 AD. The content of the works has dated their creation to at least 83. As a source of historical information, the reliefs are thought to have been part of a propaganda effort to legitimize the rule of the Flavian dynasty.[4]

The style of the works has imposed some difficulties on their correct dating however. Whereas similar bas-reliefs which can be dated to the reign of Domitian with certainty, such as from the Arch of Titus, feature a more mannered, baroque style of sculpture, the Cancelleria Reliefs seem to have been carved in the classical style of the Augustan period.[5]

Frieze A

Frieze A originally depicted Domitian as he prepared to depart for a campaign against the Chatti.[6] Contemporary authors such as Suetonius later alleged that Domitian's military endeavours were largely a failure, motivated by a quest for personal glory rather than necessity.[7] The scene depicted on Frieze A seems to counter such accusations by presenting Domitian as a reluctant general, spurred on by the Gods Mars, Minerva and Roma, who are pictured on the far left, to defend his home country.[8] Other characters who appear in this scene are the Genii, or guardian spirits, of the Roman Senate and the people of Rome, and a number of soldiers.

Following his assassination on September 18, 96 however, the Senate passed damnatio memoriae on Domitian's memory—his name was erased from all public records and his statues and arches were destroyed. Some of his statues were resculpted to depict the new emperor Nerva, among which was Frieze A of the Cancelleria Reliefs. Nerva's head is markedly out of proportion with his body. His right eye is smaller than his left, and his neck is too long, clearly suggesting the head was carved out of an earlier model for Domitian.[9]

Frieze B

Frieze B depicts Vespasian's reconciliation with Domitian following the civil war, in 69. After the death of emperor Nero in 68, war erupted among the four most influential generals in the Roman Empire—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. After Galba and Otho had perished in quick succession, Vitellius' claim to the throne was challenged by Vespasian. Vespasian was at the time conducting the siege of the city of Jerusalem in Judaea. Rather than heading back to Rome however, he entrusted the war against Vitellius to his political ally Gaius Licinius Mucianus, while Vespasian himself gathered support in the province of Egypt.

Mucianus invaded Rome on December 20 of 69, and quickly defeated the forces of Vitellius. An interim administration was installed with Mucianus as acting emperor, and Domitian as representative of the Flavian family. Vespasian returned to Rome in late September 70, which is the scene historians believe to be depicted on Frieze B. The composition of the characters, with Domitian on the left, and Vespasian on the right, suggests that Domitian assures his father that Rome has been governed well in his absence, and that their relations are good.[9]

Once again, ancient authors paint a different picture of the events presented in the Cancelleria Reliefs. According to both Tacitus and Suetonius, Domitian's conduct during Mucianus' interim government was less than satisfactory; they allege he was over-zealous in distributing political offices, and eager to partake in unwarranted military campaigns.[10] The chief motivation for Vespasian's return then, was the need to restrain Domitian. The literary evidence of this time must be treated with caution however, as Tacitus is known to have been heavily biased against Domitian. If, on the other hand, the Cancelleria Reliefs were indeed propaganda, they may have been intended to dispel popular rumours regarding the future emperor's conduct. Either interpretation cannot be established with certainty, although Jones favours a straightforward account in which Vespasian's reconciliation with Domitian was indeed amicable.[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Last (1948), p. 9
  2. ^ Jones (1992), p. 87
  3. ^ Jones (1992), p. 84
  4. ^ Last (1948), p. 14
  5. ^ Jones (1992), p. 30
  6. ^ Jones (1992), p. 128
  7. ^ Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Domitian 6
  8. ^ Last (1948), p. 13
  9. ^ a b Last (1948), p. 12
  10. ^ Jones (1992), p. 17
  11. ^ Jones (1992), p. 18


  • Last, Hugh (1948). "On the Flavian Reliefs from the Palazzo della Cancelleria". The Journal of Roman Studies. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. 38 (1–2): 9–14. doi:10.2307/298163. JSTOR 298163.(subscription required)
  • Jones, Brian W. (1992). The Emperor Domitian. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-10195-6.

External links


In ancient Rome the Latin word adlocutio means an address given by a general, usually the emperor, to his massed army and legions, and a general form of Roman salute from the army to their leader. Many researches of adlocutio focus on the art of statuary and coinage aspects. It is often portrayed in sculpture, either simply as a single, life-size contraposto figure of the general with his arm outstretched, or a relief scene of the general on a podium addressing the army. Such relief scenes also frequently appear on imperial coinage. The adlocutio is one of the most widely represented formulas of Roman art. The convention is regularly shown in individual figures like the famous Augustus of Prima Porta or can be put into a narrative context as seen in the Aurelian panel. Gestures and body languages are crucial for the study of adlocutio as in ancient time, as addressing to thousands of soldiers was less penetrable in voice sounds compared to body languages and gestures which were more powerful, infectious of raising the army's enthusiasm. Characteristic of the formula is the outstretched hand of speech as well as the contrapposto pose with the weight clearly shifted to one leg. Much information about adlocutio can be interpreted by these sculptures.


Domitian (; Latin: Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus; 24 October 51 – 18 September 96 AD) was Roman emperor from 81 to 96. He was the younger brother of Titus and the son of Vespasian, his two predecessors on the throne, and the last member of the Flavian dynasty. During his reign, the authoritarian nature of his rule put him at sharp odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

Domitian had a minor and largely ceremonial role during the reigns of his father and brother. After the death of his brother, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. His 15-year reign was the longest since that of Tiberius. As emperor, Domitian strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage, expanded the border defenses of the empire, and initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome. Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to procure a decisive victory against king Decebalus. Domitian's government exhibited strong authoritarian characteristics; he saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and by nominating himself perpetual censor, he sought to control public and private morals. As a consequence, Domitian was popular with the people and army, but considered a tyrant by members of the Roman Senate.

Domitian's reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. He was succeeded the same day by his advisor Nerva. After his death, Domitian's memory was condemned to oblivion by the Roman Senate, while senatorial authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. Modern revisionists instead have characterized Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic, and political programs provided the foundation of the peaceful second century.


Nerva (; Latin: Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus; 8 November 30 – 27 January 98 AD) was Roman emperor from 96 to 98. Nerva became emperor aged almost 66, after a lifetime of imperial service under Nero and the rulers of the Flavian dynasty. Under Nero, he was a member of the imperial entourage and played a vital part in exposing the Pisonian conspiracy of 65. Later, as a loyalist to the Flavians, he attained consulships in 71 and 90 during the reigns of Vespasian and Domitian, respectively.

On 18 September 96, Domitian was assassinated in a palace conspiracy involving members of the Praetorian Guard and several of his freedmen. On the same day, Nerva was declared emperor by the Roman Senate. This was the first time the Senate elected a Roman emperor. As the new ruler of the Roman Empire, he vowed to restore liberties which had been curtailed during the autocratic government of Domitian.

Nerva's brief reign was marred by financial difficulties and his inability to assert his authority over the Roman army. A revolt by the Praetorian Guard in October 97 essentially forced him to adopt an heir. After some deliberation Nerva adopted Trajan, a young and popular general, as his successor. After barely fifteen months in office, Nerva died of natural causes on 27 January 98. Upon his death he was succeeded and deified by Trajan.

Although much of his life remains obscure, Nerva was considered a wise and moderate emperor by ancient historians. Nerva's greatest success was his ability to ensure a peaceful transition of power after his death by selecting Trajan as his heir, thus founding the Nerva–Antonine dynasty.

Palazzo della Cancelleria

The Palazzo della Cancelleria (Palace of the Chancellery, referring to the former Apostolic Chancery of the Pope) is a Renaissance palace in Rome, Italy, situated between the present Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the Campo de' Fiori, in the rione of Parione. It was built between 1489–1513 by Donato Bramante (1444–1514) as a palace for Cardinal Raffaele Riario, Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, and is regarded as the earliest Renaissance palace in Rome. The Palazzo houses the Papal Chancellery, is an extraterritorial property of the Holy See, and is designated as a World Heritage Site.As of 2015, it was the residence of retired Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, United States.

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