Roman historical relief: battle of Actium
The so-called Medinaceli (Actium) reliefs relate to the life of Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), the ruler who established the Roman Empire. The series of eleven slabs was found in the middle of the 16th century, probably in Rome, but the cycle is not complete. It decorated the walls of a public building, perhaps a sanctuary. Three reliefs were brought to Budapest (in 1908 and 2000), while the other three are preserved in Spanish private collections.
One of the main subjects of the relief cycle is the naval battle of Actium, in which Octavian, the later emperor Augustus, secured hegemony in a bloody civil war. These fragments belong to the opening relief of the battle scene that spans several slabs. Apollo sits in the centre, at the promontory of Actium, holding a kithara and a plectrum, with a tripod behind him in reference to his sanctuary at Delphi. In front, in two lines, the sterns of two ships of Augustus’s victorious fleet appear. The arrangement shows clearly that the god is on the emperor’s side.
The depiction of Apollo reflects the Greek artistic tradition. The relief cycle is an outstanding example of the imperial art of the early Roman period. The battle scene continues on three slabs today preserved in Córdoba.
Marble analyses conducted by Danielle Decrouez (Geneva, Museum of Natural History) and Karl Ramseyer (University of Bern, Institute of Geological Sciences) have shown that the relief was made of Luna (Carrara) marble. Click here for the detailed results.