ROME – Archaeologists excavating an area near the Roman Forum and Colosseum have stumbled upon a marble head that may represent the god Dionysus. The head appears to date to the early part of the Empire making it about 2,000 years old. The announcement of the discovery came from the deputy mayor of Rome, Luca Bergamo, and was quickly followed by tweets from the Archeological park of the Colosseum.
The head was found on via Alessandrina, a street that lies slightly northeast of the Roman Forum and part of the archeological excavation of Il Campidoglio, the Capitoline Hill that lies between the Imperial Forum and Campus Martius, one of the Seven hills of Rome. The head has been temporarily been given the name testa Alessandrina, head from Alessandrina. No other parts of the statue have been found but the head alone is garnering tremendous attention.The fine, white marble head with long and wavy hair was originally identified as a female of unknown origin. The seemingly feminine face of the statue was described as graceful, clear and smooth with the mouth half-opened. The eyes were hollow, likely having been filled with a substance to give the head life-like features. Claudio Parisi Presicce, the Director of the Capitoline Museums that oversaw the excavation, said, “The hollow eyes, which were probably filled with glass or precious stones, date it to the first centuries of the Roman Empire.” The head also had two corymbs of ivy, inflorescent stalks over the hair.
The deputy mayor though cautioned in his announcement that archeologists were reviewing evidence and that, “Accurate information will be coming soon.” He added that the new discovery was, “a warm welcome to the cultural heritage of Rome.”
Presicce, clearly excited about the discovery, added that there were possibly traces of color suggesting how the status may have looked 20 centuries ago. He said, “The surface is not completely visible because we haven’t yet given it a thorough clean. We think that there could still be traces of the original color conserved in the band around the hair.”
When it was found, the head was embedded in a buried wall. The depth of the excavation suggested the wall was of Medieval origin and the head had been re-used as building material, a common occurrence during the Middle Ages.
But the story of the head quickly changed. Just hours after the announcement of the discovery on Friday, Presicce made some additional observations. After a careful review of the inflorescence found in the hair, he added that the manner of its representation was typical of Dionysus. The head was decorated with a, “typically Dionysian flower, the corymb, and ivy.” He added that there was good expert consensus that the head was indeed that of Dionysus.Dionysus is well-known as the god of wine and wine-making. But he is also a fertility god that creates ritual madness and religious ecstasy. In some cults, he was the god of epiphanies and revelations. His veneration involves ecstatic dance; and the god himself often empowers and possesses his followers.
Dionysus may have been worshipped by Mycenean Greeks as early as 3,500 years ago. He is known in Greek as Bacchus and the ecstasy he creates is called bakkheia. Dionysius was likely brought to Rome through the Greek culture of Sicily or possibly through the Greek-influenced culture of Etruscan Etruria in central Italy. Whatever the path, he was revered in Rome as the patron of the citizen-commoners, called the Plebeians. The Bacchic mysteries were attested by Livy who called Dionysian worship as consisting of a secretive, transgressive, and even counter-revolutionary culture.
The Roman Senate attempted to suppress Dionysian worship to no avail. He was subsequently embraced into the Roman pantheon and his veneration officially added to Liberalia, the festival commemorating the coming of age of boys and the springtime promise of fertile and growing seeds.
The head has been moved to museum storage for protection and where it awaits further analysis. The excavation has been time-consuming and costly. It began in 2014 after the Republic of Azerbaijan donated €1 million to fund the archeological work following an agreement with the city of Rome.
The excavation was filmed and is visible on YouTube. The announcement of the discovery was met with excitement by Roman citizens. One person commented, “And to think that before today, the last time this sculpture was touched, in all probability, was centuries and centuries ago, if not even 2000 years ago. How magnificent, a moment of infinite and timeless fascination.”
Even the mayor was stunned. “Rome surprises and exhilarates us daily,” said Virginia Raggi, Mayor of Rome. “This morning the archeologists of the Capitoline Superintendency for Cultural Heritage, whom I wish to thank, found on via Alessandrina a head of an Imperial Age white marble status in excellent condition. The statue may depict a deity… it is a marvel.”