Abstract: Vergil at Sperlonga: Interior Decoration, Imperial Ideology and Roman Literary Culture


This lecture starts with a brief survey of Roman domestic space and the reliance of its decoration on Roman literature. Wall paintings, mosaics, and sculpture all show evidence of a deliberate basis not just on Classical mythology, but on the versions of myths found in Roman literature. These are found particularly in Roman dining spaces where hosts projected a self-consciously intellectual and cultured identity.

From this foundation, we turn our attention to the dining grotto of the emperor Tiberius at Sperlonga. With its dramatic colossal sculpture groups of Scylla and the Cyclops Polyphemus as well as smaller groups, the grotto was one of the grandest and best-decorated dining spaces in the Roman world. This lecture explores the subjects of the sculptures, the meanings behind their selection and concludes that the major groups illustrate scenes, not Homer’s Odyssey as long thought, but from Vergil’s Aeneid. In addition, the groups demonstrate a reliance on Roman literature directly with the major sculptures of Polyphemus and Scylla selected for Vergil’s reference to them in a dining context in the Aeneid. Finally,the use of the works as metaphors for imperial politics and as the foundations for ideological display in the imperial world is explored.

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