Adriana Suchici (Université du Luxembourg)
Who are these four strange men, smaller than, us, embracing each other, with implacable faces and stern, confident expressions? They look ready to fight at any moment, clutching the swords on their belts with one hand, and their neighbour with another? They don’t look like emperors, at least not like the Roman emperors we are used to seeing – all wrapped in a toga or armoured in a decorated breastplate, youthful faces like Augustus or flowing beards like Marcus Aurelius. Even the stone from which the statues are made, looks strange – a purplish red, a hard stone for hard men. Porphyry, as it’s called, is quarried only in the eastern desert of Egypt and is very expensive because of the difficulty of sculpting it. It’s used only for imperial art.
This statuary group today stands transfixed to a corner of the facade of the church of San Marco in Venice – the museum presents only a copy of it. If we look at the whole ensemble in Venice, we notice straightaway that it does not fit into the architecture of the church: it looks out of place and out of time. Between the material from which the church was built and the one from which the statuary group was made, the difference (white-cream and reddish) can be recognised. It is the first thing that is obvious when you look at this sculpture in its Venetian context. There is a good explanation for this: the statue group was (perhaps) originally erected in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, the new capital city of the Empire founded (or: re-christened) by Constantine the Great in AD 330. At the very least, it was taken from there and brought to Venice, in 1204, when the so-called Fourth Crusade, a heavily Venetian-influenced expedition, was diverted from its original goal and instead attacked the Christian city on the Bosporus.
The work represents the tetrarchy, a form of government and administration of the empire established by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (293-303) so that the empire could be better governed and defended. It symbolizes the unity of the four leaders: Diocletian and Maximian (the main emperors, the Augusti) on the one hand, and Galerius and Costantius Chlorus (their subordinated co-emperors, the Caesars) on the other. The division of the sculpture into two pairs represents the symmetry of the arrangement. Each pair represents two men united by a strong and secure embrace. All wear a pillbox cap on their head, typical for soldiers and the region in the Balkans where the emperors came from, and are dressed and armed like soldiers. The two senior emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, while identically dressed, are distinguished by their beards, which indicate seniority and age. The embrace between them denotes their unity and the weapons they carry symbolize the military power of the four emperors and the Roman Empire. This sculpture expresses one of the main messages of the four rulers for the Roman people: that after the problems of the 3rd century, they would guarantee the stability and unity of the empire. This artwork is an artistic interpretation of the relationship between the four rulers of the Empire, the system of government and administration they adopted at that time. What’s more: it is a warning to those who want to attack the borders of the empire; it highlights the military power of the empire and is a message to the Roman people about the unity between the rulers of the Roman Empire.
Abb.: Tetrarchengruppe, Ende 3. Jh. n. Chr. (© RGZM, Mainz Inv. 42663, 42664)