An exceptional collection of Roman statuary at the Musée Saint-Raymond, the archaeological museum of Toulouse in south-western France, was discovered at a very large and very difficult-to-explain Roman villa at Chiragan. Chiragan lies 60km south-west of Toulouse, near the village of Martres-Tolosane, on the banks of the River Garonne. The site of the villa became known in the 18th and 19th centuries when the first statues were unearthed. Several excavations in the 19th century culminated in a major investigation by Léon Joulin, who produced a fine report on the whole site and the surrounding area.
It is a sprawling villa site, covering more than 16 hectares, and the excavator divided it into two parts: the pars rustica, devoted to agricultural activities, and the pars urbana, the residential part. The agricultural part had three lines of buildings running right across the enclosures. These buildings were workshops, perhaps, or dwellings for the farm workers. The residential part began in the Augustan period in the 1st century AD as a large though otherwise fairly conventional courtyard building, but it was subsequently expanded with peristyle courtyards, several sets of sizeable baths, a belvedere, and a gallery measuring 170m long. Chiragan was a very large villa indeed.
Even more striking than the villa’s size was the body of sculptures it yielded, many of which were found in three large pits. They can be divided into three groups. The most complete set, dating from the late 3rd century AD, formed a dramatic tableau showing the labours of Hercules in a rather florid style. Then there were a number of Roman copies of the Classical and Hellenistic Greek sculptures, including a rather fine marble Athena lacking her head and arms, a copy of a 5th-century BC bronze work for Athens’ Acropolis attributed to Myron of Eleuthera. But the most remarkable group of all, occupying fully half of the museum’s first floor, is a series of heads, many of which could be recognised as being Roman emperors.
These portraits are all of the highest class. A recent analysis has shown that, whereas the majority of the sculptures came from a local Pyrenean quarry, the Roman emperors came from a distant and very high-quality quarry at Göktepe in Turkey, the source of a favourite marble used by the imperial workshops in Rome. So, what were these marbles doing in a country villa in a corner of Gaul?
There are two possibilities concerning the presence of the fine heads at Chiragan – and I would like to suggest a third. It is possible that Chiragan was a very wealthy private residence, and that it remained in private hands with a succession of affluent owners, perhaps a single family, who appreciated fine art and showed their loyalty by steadily buying portraits of the current emperor.
An alternative suggestion is that the villa was, from the start, an official residence, possibly an imperial residence, a holiday home for the procurator or another official, who received regular supplies of portraits of the latest emperor, which were duly displayed. The portraits seem to run from almost the very beginning of the line of emperors, with Tiberius in the 1st century AD, and are particularly strong in the 2nd and 3rd century, though the latest are in the style of the 4th, possibly even 5th century.
I would like to offer up a third suggestion. It seems that in the late 4th century an effort was made to tidy up town centres. Forums everywhere were becoming crowded with statues. For centuries now, wealthy citizens had ornamented the town’s forum with statues, sometimes of the emperor, sometimes of themselves, and, by the 4th century, too many of these statutes had accumulated. So sometimes it was decided to declutter, and take some of the statues away and put them safely in storage. Indeed, it could have been more violent. Fashions may have changed, and the new Christian rulers may not have seen the point of having pagan images cluttering up the forum.
A number of such storage places are known. The best known are the Gardens of Maecenas at Rome. Maecenas was Augustus’ Minister of Culture, to use modern terminology, and he assembled a magnificent garden in the northern suburbs of Rome, which subsequently became a popular public garden. A very large number of sculptures were found there – more than one would expect in a single garden. Indeed, if you go round the Capitoline Museum today, it is surprising to see how many of the well-known sculptures of ancient Rome were found in the Gardens of Maecenas. Could it be that in the dying days of the Roman Empire, many of the finest sculptures in Rome were taken to this garden and installed there for safety?
There are other such sites. A classic example is Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli in the hills east of Rome, where a large number of sculptures were found in an otherwise insignificant part of the villa. The Antonine baths at Carthage are another candidate. Here, too, many fine sculptures were assembled. One would expect the largest baths in North Africa to be decorated with sculptures, but even so the number found in the baths was rather excessive.
Was Chiragan a similar case? Did the imperial sculptures come from Toulouse, where they originally adorned the forum? Towns were keen to acquire statues of emperors to show their loyalty, and the Chiragan heads were of a quality that came from the imperial workshops. But could it be that at the end of the 4th or in the 5th century these statues were out of fashion, and that the growing Christian population began to find them rather objectionable?
This was the high point of the existence of Toulouse, when it became the capital of the great Visigothic kingdom that extended from south-western France to include much of Spain. The Visigoths were Christians, albeit Arians: could we imagine an outbreak of mob violence – at a time when these pagan effigies seemed out of place – that knocked down these now unwelcome statues? And did someone – perhaps the owner of the Chiragan villa, or perhaps the Roman procurator, now powerless and trying to do his best – go round collecting up the heads and ship them upstream to the villa? It is notable that it is mainly the heads that have survived, and it would have been quite possible to ship the heads of statues on a barge up the River Garonne.
Indeed, one would like to know more about the three pits that were recorded as having been full of sculptures. Were these pits dug out to receive some of the heads, which were stored out of sight to preserve them until better times should come?
It was more than a millennium before such better times came, by which time Rome was a distant memory that was fast being rediscovered. The sculptures were rescued and now they are back in their possible original home in Toulouse, not indeed in the forum, but in the northern suburb of the Roman town, in the Roman cemetery where its first bishop, St Sernin, was martyred, and where his magnificent Romanesque basilica stands proud as one of the splendours of Toulouse. And in its shadow, the Musée Saint-Raymond, housed in a 16th-century former university building, displays the emperors on the first floor, where they can be admired in all their glory.
Pascal Capus, Les Sculptures de la villa Romaine de Chiragan, published by the Musée Saint-Raymond, is available free online (in French) at http://villachiragan.saintraymond.toulouse.fr.
For the fate of statues, see Anna Leone, The End of the Pagan City.
For further images, see the article on The Past: https://the-past.com.
For information about visiting the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse, including updates on COVID-19 measures, see https://saintraymond.toulouse.fr/.
All images: Andrew Selkirk.