From where we sit in time, it’s easy to lump the past together into one category, but even people living in eras long before our own could gaze in wonder at ruins and artifacts from times still older. For example, when Cleopatra looked out her window at the Great Pyramid of Khufu, she was looking at something that was built further in the past from her lifetime than we are from Cleopatra. When we see old buildings or artifacts in a museum today, we open our minds to imagine life in another era and attempt to connect ourselves with those people. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the people of ancient Rome felt similarly and were enthusiastic collectors of antiquities.
One reason the Romans were so interested in collecting objects from the past was because the past informed their identities in a major way. Romans who amassed a collection of artifacts, either through purchase or plunder, would display them in specific areas of the city dedicated to that purpose during important festivals. Those with enough resources and influence could even order the construction of a permanent structure for housing their artifacts. After the Emperor Vespasian sacked Jerusalem, he commissioned the ironically named Temple of Peace to showcase sacred objects and art from conquered peoples across the Empire. For Roman generals and soldiers, capturing religious artifacts was a way of demonstrating the superiority of their gods over those of their foes.
Speaking of religion, Ancient Romans were fascinated by the fossils because they were proof that the characters from their myths were actually real. They mistakenly identified the skeletons of dinosaurs and Ice Age megafauna as belonging to giants, dragons, or other legendary beings.
Spiral-shaped ammonite seashell fossils were connected to the love goddess Venus, because of the myth of her being born from the sea, and were kept in her temples. Sometimes these fossils traveled around the empire to boost the reputation of their discoverer, such as a 40-foot long spine and rib cage that was brought all the way from Jaffa in modern Israel to be put on public display in the Forum. The Roman Emperor Augustus was also said to have a large collection of these “bones of the giants” on display in his vacation house on the island of Capri. It is amazing to think of the ways a Roman citizen might have interacted with the bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago!
- The Temple of Peace by Encyclopaedia Romana (University of Chicago)
- The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor
- Roman Emperors, Monster Bones, and The Early History of Fossil Hunting by Sarah Bond
- Reconstructive view of The Forum of Peace (http://fori-imperiali.info/en/003-2/)
- Mammoth vs Cyclops (https://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/behind-the-scenes/tags/unicorn.html)
*Ryan Heazel is a public historian and content creator who loves bringing stories from the past to life through podcasts, short fiction, and role-playing games. He has a BA in History from the University of Georgia and an MA in History with a concentration in the Atlantic World from Georgia State University.*