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5. The quadriga of elephants

The quadriga was discussed exensively by Micheline Fasciato (1947) She assumes that the quadriga was supported by a triumphal arch. She criticizes earlier identifications of the person in the chariot (Augustus, Claudius, Trajan), because these are based only on the role played by these Emperors in the creation of the port. She explains that the elephant quadriga is associated with triumph, especially posthumously. As to the person in the chariot, depictions are known especially of the deified Augustus. Fasciato adds that the honour of an elephant quadriga is not documented for Claudius and Trajan.

The elephant quadriga is in its origins a reference to the Indian triumph of Dionysus.1 He too can be depicted in the chariot, holding a thyrsus. Fasciato therefore considers the possibility that he is depicted in the quadriga of Portus. This is problematic, she says, because the figure is not holding a thyrsus and does not have other Bacchic elements: he is holding a short stick with a human bust and perhaps a palm branch. A depiction is known of Antoninus Pius holding this stick. Fasciato however tends to think of the Genius fori vinari, carrying a herm of Dionysus. This Genius would thus be the link between the quadriga, the expression ad quadrigam fori vinarii in the funeral inscription of Gnaeus Sentius Felix, and the collegium genii fori vinarii. Fasciato regards ad quadrigam fori vinarii as a description of a religious association, and equates it with collegium genii fori vinarii. She could have mentioned a parallel from Reate (Rieti, Italy), the cultores Herculis Respicientis sub quadriga.2

Fasciato adds that the quadriga also gave its name to a district (vicus) in Portus. She adduces a religious organization from Ostia called ad Martem Ficanum as a parallel.3

Click to enlarge. Relief of a harbour scene on a sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum
(Cortile del Belvédère). The heads of the two central figures are unfinished, to be finished
at a later stage. Photo: Wikimedia.

Click to enlarge. The same relief drawn by Cassiano dal Pozzo, before damage occurred.
The upper part of the lighthouse, held by a figure on the right side, can still be seen.
Illustration: Robert 1911.

Fasciato then continues with a comparison with a relief on a sarcophagus in the Vatican.4 A harbour scene is depicted. Which harbour is depicted (if a real harbour is depicted) has been much debated; Fasciato opts for Portus for the right part of the relief. On the right side is a seated female figure holding a lighthouse with arched openings. To her right, behind the sail of a ship, is a triumphal arch supporting a quadriga of elephants pulling a chariot. The person in the chariot cannot be identified. To the right of the quadriga is a veiled figure holding a cornucupiae.5 Fasciato suggests it is Bona Dea, recalling an inscription from Portus mentioning a sacerdos dei Liberi Patris Bonadiensium ("priest of the god Liber Pater of the Bonadienses").6 The Bonadienses, she explains, are the inhabitants of a vicus with a shrine or statue of the goddess, near the temple of Bacchus. This vicus, she suggests, is the same that took its name from the quadriga: we must think of the Bonadienses ad quadrigam fori vinari.

Russell Meiggs suggests that Domitianus is seen in the chariot. He points out that the Emperor is unbearded, and can therefore not be later than Trajan. The object in the left hand can be seen on coins of Domitianus' second consulship in 73 AD.7 Tuck concludes that Trajan is the person in the chariot. He stresses descriptions of Trajan as Neos Dionysos on coins, inscriptions et cetera.8

The deified Augustus and Claudius on a gold coin from 55 AD. On the obverse Nero and Agrippina. The elephants are bearing two chairs in which are seated
Divus Claudius (the further), holding an eagle-tipped sceptre in his right hand, and Divus Augustus, holding a patera in his right hand and a sceptre in his left.
From The figure of Claudius has been interpreted as Livia by Cohen.

Examples of Trajan in an elephant quadriga on coins from Alexandria, dated to 107/108, 110/111 and 111/112 AD. Typical legend: ΑΥΤ ΤΡΑΙΑΝ CΕΒ ΓΕΡΜ ΔΑΚΙΚ.
Trajan is laureate-headed, wearing a toga, holding an eagle-tipped sceptre and carrying a branch.

Contrary to what Fasciato says, Claudius is today believed to be seen pulled by an elephant quadriga, on a coin issued by Nero. Trajan is pulled by elephants on provincial coins from Alexandria (see the illustrations). Celebrating the cult of Bacchus was a reality at the court of Claudius, as recounted by Tacitus. Claudius is in Ostia. "Messalina meanwhile, more wildly profligate than ever, was celebrating in mid autumn a representation of the vintage in her new home. The presses were being trodden; the vats were overflowing; women girt with skins were dancing, as Bacchanals dance in their worship or their frenzy. Messalina with flowing hair shook the thyrsus, and Silius at her side, crowned with ivy and wearing the buskin, moved his head to some lascivious chorus. It is said that one Vettius Valens climbed a very lofty tree in sport, and when they asked him what he saw, replied, 'A terrible storm from Ostia.' Possibly some such appearance had begun; perhaps, a word dropped by chance became a prophecy".9

The quadriga and a triumphant Emperor can be seen on medallions that form part of earthenware vessels from Gaul, dated to the second century. One fragment is in the museum of Cologne, two others were found in Lyon, locality Trion and locality Avenue Max.10 The vessels have the inscriptions PORTVS AVGVSTI and FELICIS CERA. Alföldi has shown that we must read "(after the) wax (model) of Felix". Felix has been placed in the second half of the first century AD by Hugues Vertet. Armand Desbat says that the type of ceramics ("sigillée claire B") is not earlier than the second quarter of the second century. He seems to place Felix in the same decades.11 On the fragment from Lyon-Trion part of a graffito can be seen. It is tempting to read [FO]RI VI[NARI].

Fragments of vessels from Gaul with the quadriga.
Left: fragment from Cologne (Alföldi 1965-1966, Taf. 10). Right: fragment from Lyon, locality Trion (Desbat 2010, fig. 2).
The left fragment has the texts PORTVS AUGVSTI and FELICIS CERA, the right fragment the graffito [---]RI VI?[---].

Drawings of the same fragments.
Left: fragment from Cologne. Right: fragment from Lyon, locality Trion (Desbat 2010, figs. 1 and 3).

The fragment from Lyon, locality Avenue Max (Desbat 2010, fig. 5).

The scene is situated in Trajan's hexagonal harbour, as depicted on his well-known coins. In the lower part lies Oceanus, holding an anchor, which means that here he is a harbour deity, not a sea deity: he is the personification of the Tiber. To the left and right are columns supporting statues. The quadriga rests on a base. In the chariot of the quadriga is a triumphant Emperor. A Victoria holds a wreath over his head. The Emperor is bearded according to Desbat.

On the body of the chariot a row of figures is depicted. The leftmost figure is facing four other figures. This figure might be winged, stretching out an object (a wreath?). Other medallions from Lyon and Orange, after a design of Felix, have depictions related to the cult of Isis.12 She is seen in a chariot pulled by men with shaved heads. On the side of the chariot is a procession of six or seven people. One fragment has a depiction of Anubis, another busts of Serapis and Isis.

In Lyon we have a corpus negotiatorum vinariorum Luguduni consistentium.13 Perhaps one of these wine merchants owned the vessel, and scratched fori vinari below the quadriga.

In the right hand of the Emperor, on the vessel, the Torlonia relief and the Alexandrian coins, seems to be a branch, perhaps a palm branch, symbol of victory. The object in his left hand on the vessel and the Alexandrian coins looks like a pole or stick with a little winged figure on top, a bird one would say. On the Torlonia relief however it is a pole with a human head. Fasciato says: "semblable à un miniscule petit hermès".

A convincing argument for the object in the left hand of the Emperor on the Torlonia relief has never been found, which is in itself remarkable. Parallels that are regularly adduced are depictions of Domitianus on coins from 73 AD, and of Antoninus Pius on the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius. There however, and on the gold coin from 55 AD, as on the vessel and the Alexandrian coins, it seems to be a bird, presumably an eagle. It accompanies deified Emperors, and the living Domitianus.

Coins of Domitianus. Left: aureus from 73 AD. Right: an arch surmounted by two quadrigae of elephants.
Desbat 2010, figs. 9 and 10.

Detail of the base of the column of Antonius Pius. Photo: Wikimedia.

The object on the Torlonia relief is different and Fasciato's description may be spot on. A bacchic herm would fit perfectly in the context. The initiates, who knew the quadriga well, must of course have realized that the artist had replaced the real object with a fictitious one. The object would then be very specific for this relief, which explains why no parallels can be found.

That the quadriga was in the harbour of Trajan when the Torlonia relief was made is thus certain. Portus Traiani Felicis was the official name of the harbour of Trajan, Portus Augusti Ostiensis of the harbour of Claudius. The latter name was kept in use after the harbour of Trajan had been built.14 What then to do with the text PORTVS AVGUSTI (let us not forget that the Trajanic coin has the legend PORTVM TRAIANI)? A possible solution is that a model existed of the quadriga in the harbour of Claudius, made by Felix. This quadriga will then have been moved by Trajan when he demolished part of the harbour of Claudius. The medallion was adapted accordingly, without altering the text, which was still the name of part of the harbour. Another solution could be that the artist wanted the relief to refer to the Emperor of his time, Hadrian for example. In that case the "harbour of the Emperor" may have been regarded as more fitting than the "harbour of Trajan" (the alternative Portus Uterque would not mention the Emperor at all).

Now what about the Emperor in the chariot? I do not think he is bearded. His cheek is puffed (as it is on the Torlonia relief) and he has a strong jawline, but there is no indication of a beard. A beardless Emperor means that the Emperor is not later than Trajan, and leaves only two possibilities. If the quadriga was moved from the harbour of Claudius, the person in the chariot is surely not Domitianus, because he suffered from a damnatio memoriae, and certainly also not Nero. Trajan would have replaced a statue of Domitianus or Nero. The most likely candidate is then Claudius, and the quadriga had been erected by him, or for him by Nero. If the quadriga was erected ex novo in the harbour of Trajan, then the Emperor must be Trajan, the arch having been erected by him, or for him by Hadrian.

So much for the depictions. What does ad quadrigam mean in the funerary inscription of Gnaeus Sentius Felix? It is in any case not the name of a regular, commercial guild. Apparently there was something special about the organization of which Gnaeus Sentius Felix became a member. Fasciato equates ad quadrigam fori vinari with the collegium geni fori vinari. We can also try an alternative meaning of the word quadriga. It can also mean "the union of four persons or things in a common work", so it might also be a reference to four groups of traders and shippers involved in the wine trade.15 We must consider the possibility that the real, sculptured elephant group formed the inspiration for the metaphorical name for this cooperation. This could have been a societas.16

One question remains: why was adlectus in collegium geni fori vinari, or adlectus in / ad societatem vinariorum, replaced by adlectus ad quadrigam fori vinari? Perhaps because it had positive, emotional implications. Similarly, today, one can work at the airport of Fiumicino and live in the Eternal City.


(1) Matz 1952.
(2) CIL IX, 4673; EAGLE EDR104316.
(3) L. Calpurnius Chius was magister ad Martem Ficanum (CIL XIV, 309). A vicus may have been named after a statue of Mars. Meiggs argues that we must think of a public cult of Mars Ficanus, with the cult centre not far to the north of Acilia (Meiggs 1973, 343). This he bases on the place of discovery of an inscription with a dedication to Mars Ficanus, found in 1952 (EAGLE EDR031415).
(4) A detailed description was made by Amelung (1908). The sarcophagus was found in Rome.
(5) The attribute is almost completely lost, a cornucopiae is not recognized by Amelung (1908, 59).
(6) CIL XIV, 4328, our inscription nr. LG.
(7) Meiggs 1973(2), 158-159, comment on Plate XX. The coins: BMC II, pl. 12.2. See Desbat 2010, figs. 9 and 10.
(8) Tuck 2008, 330-335.
(9) Tacitus, Annales XI,31: At Messalina non alias solutior luxu, adulto autumno simulacrum vindemiae per domum celebrabat. Urgeri prela, fluere lacus; et feminae pellibus accinctae adsultabant ut sacrificantes vel insanientes Bacchae; ipsa crine fluxo thyrsum quatiens, iuxtaque Silius hedera vinctus, gerere cothurnos, iacere caput, strepente circum procaci choro. Ferunt Vettium Valentem lascivia in praealtam arborem conisum, interrogantibus quid aspiceret, respondisse tempestatem ab Ostia atrocem, sive coeperat ea species, seu forte lapsa vox in praesagium vertit. Translation A.J. Church - W.J. Brodribb. Silius and Messalina are performing as Dionysus and Ariadne (Matz 1952, 17-18 / 733-734).
(10) Alföldi 1965-1966, 70-72, Taf. 10,2 and 3; Desbat 2010. (11) Vertet 1969; about FELICIS CERA Alföldi says: "der Name des Verfertigers des Wachsmodells der zugrunde liegenden ursprünglichen Komposition".
(12) Alföldi 1965-1966, 69-74; Audin-Vertet 1972, 246-252.
(13) CIL XIII, 1911.
(14) The phrase Port(us) Aug(usti) et Traiani Felicis in the second half of the second or the first half of the third century: CIL XIV, 408.
(15) For this meaning see Lewis and Short: Igitur initiorum quadrigae, locus et corpus, tempus et actio (Varro, De Lingua Latina 5,12); quadrigae tyrannorum (Historia Augusta, Probus 24).
(16) Digesta Societates contrahuntur sive universorum bonorum sive negotiationis alicuius sive vectigalis sive etiam rei unius.

[Jan Theo Bakker, © 2020]