Why is the bronze equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (b. 121/ r. 161-180) the only example of its kind to have survived from antiquity?
When so many other pagan bronze statues were melted down by the Christians, who recycled the metal, how did this one survive? Not only did it survive, it stood, for centuries, in pride of place outside the Lateran Palace.
It was allowed to do so, for the simple reason that the figure on horseback was thought to represent Constantine, the first Christian emperor, and not Marcus Aurelius, a pagan emperor and persecutor of Christians to boot. It was this mis-identification, which kept the statue out of the furnaces. Had the Christians known who it really represented, the statue would have suffered the fate of all the others. Long before the statue was moved to the Campidoglio, the real identity of the figure had become known. But, by then, the statue was prized as a major work of art.
A copy of the statue now stands in the centre of the Piazza del Campidoglio; the original can be found in the Capitoline Museums.
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian, writer and guide