The Seat of the Roman Empire – Literally! (1st C AD)

By: The Scribe on Thursday, November 29, 2007



Piece of an ancient Roman throne, the first surviving seat, as it was discovered under the ash that buried the city of Herculaneum after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.

For the first time in history, pieces have been found of an ancient Roman throne – a throne that was buried in 79 AD, after the eruption of Vesuvius covered the city of Herculaneum with lava and ash, killing thousands of people. As one of the three cities that was destroyed in the eruption – the others being Pompeii and Stabiae – Herculaneum was closest to the volcano’s base and would have been the first to be destroyed.

The ancient wooden throne was decorated with bas-reliefs in ivory that depicted several ancient gods, which spanned across the entire chair. Two legs and a portion of the throne’s back makes up the most of the remains, and were located very near to the Villa dei Papyri, which is believed to have been the home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law during the first century.

The back and the legs of the ancient Roman throne were uncovered; the chair was wooden with ivory decoration.

Prior to the discovery, Roman thrones were known only from artistic depictions – this throne is incredibly detailed in its own artwork, with images of Greek figures from myth shown in a Romanized style. The gods Attis and Dionysus are prominently featured, and other decorative features are made up of flowers, phalluses and pine cones – perhaps more than a little unusual for the modern eye.

The cult of Attis was prominent at Herculaneum during the 1st century AD, and since the god was associated with life, death, and rebirth, it is likely that the theme of the Roman throne was that of fertility – which explains the decorative features of choice.

While little is known as to how the throne would have been used – let alone whether the chair even belonged to the resident of the Villa dei Papyri – the cultic associations certainly point to it having belonged to someone who was prominently involved in Attis worship.

The images on the Roman throne depict Greek gods in a Roman manner, though the mysterious god Attis is featured prominently – suggesting the throne had a fertility-theme in its decoration.

Either way, the survival of such a large portion of wooden furniture is rather astounding, though organic materials aren’t entirely unheard of in Pompeii or Herculaneum – the volcanic mud that came after the eruption did a very good job at preserving nearly everything, even food from the time of the eruption, in both cities.

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