One of the finest collections of Roman emperors is to be found hidden away in the Musée Saint-Raymond, the archaeological museum of Toulouse, in south-western France. But where did they come from, and how did such a magnificent collection of Roman emperors come to lose their heads?
The late Roman Empire was a time of growing religious intolerance. In the East, a Christian mob destroyed the Serapeum Temple at Alexandria: did a similar outburst of violence take place in south western France?
The very fine collection of Roman statuary was found at a very large and very difficult-to-explain Roman villa at Chiragan. Chiragan lies 60 km south-west of Toulouse, near the village of Matres 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 Leon Joulin, who produced a fine report on the whole site and the surrounding area.
Chiragan was a very large villa indeed, covering more than 16 hectares. 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 main enclosure. These were workshops, perhaps, or dwellings for the farm workers. The residential part began in the Augustan period in the 1st century AD as a fairly conventional but sizeable courtyard building. It was subsequently expanded with peristyle courtyards, several sets of very large baths, a belvedere, and a gallery measuring 170m long.
The most remarkable aspect of the site, however, was the sculptures, many of which were found in three large pits. They can be divided into three groups.
The most complete set formed a dramatic tableau showing the Labours of Hercules in a rather florid style. They are allocated the whole of one side of the display room in the museum.
Then there a number of Roman copies of classical Greek sculptures, including a rather fine Athena lacking her head and arms.
But the most remarkable group of all, which occupies half of the museum floor, are a series of heads, many of which could be recognised as being Roman emperors. The sculptures are all of the highest class, having been mainly constructed using the best marble from Turkey rather than the local marble from the Pyrenees.
So what were they doing in a country villa in a corner of Gaul?
There are two possibilities as to what the heads were doing at Chiragan – and I would like to suggest a third. It is possible that Chiragan was a splendid private residence, and it remained in private hands with a succession of wealthy 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. It may have been a holiday home for the procurator, or other official, who received regular supplies of portraits of the latest emperor which were duly displayed. The portraits seem to be arranged from the beginning, with Tiberius in the 1st century AD, and there are quite a few examples from the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The latest are in the style of the 4th, possibly even 5th century AD.
I would like to offer another suggestion. It seems that in the late 4th century AD an effort was made to de-clutter town centres. For centuries now, wealthy citizens had ornamented the town’s forum with statues, sometimes of the emperor, and sometimes of themselves. By the 4th century, too many of these statutes had accumulated. It was decided that a tidy-up was in order, and some were taken away and put 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 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. However, a large number of sculptures were found there – more than one would expect in a single garden. Indeed, if you go round the Capitoline Museum, it is surprising to see how many of the well-known sculptures 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 and installed there for safety?
Other such sites are known – a classic one being Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, where a number of sculptures were found in a single, otherwise insignificant, part of the Villa. Another candidate is the Baths of Antoninus at Carthage. One would expect the largest baths in North Africa to be decorated with many fine sculptures… but the number was indeed rather excessive.
Was Chiragan a similar storage place? 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 fit for the imperial workshops. Could it be that at the end of the 4th or during the 5th century AD it was decided to remove some of the statues from the forum?
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 statue smashing, if these pagan statues seemed out of place, objectionable, or perhaps even obscene? And had someone, possibly the owner of the Chiragan villa or the Roman procurator – now powerless and trying to do his best – gone around collecting up all their heads and shipped 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 send them on a barge up the river.
Indeed, one would like to know more about the three pits which were recorded as having been full of sculptures. Were they dug out to store and preserve some of the heads until better times should come? It was more than a millennium before such better times came, when Rome was a distant memory that was fast being rediscovered.
Nevertheless, they were rescued and are now back in their original home in Toulouse – not in the forum, but in the northern suburb of the Roman town, in the cemetery where Saint Sernin was martyred and where his magnificent Romanesque basilica stands as one of the marvels of the city. In its shadow is the Musée Saint Raymond, where the emperors can be admired on the first floor in all their glory.
Source: Les Sculptures de la villa Romaine de Chiragan, published by the Musée Saint-Raymond. It is available at http://villachiragan.saintraymond.toulouse.fr where it can be translated into English.