Of Caves and Monsters

31 Dec

Something a little arcane to end the year: an unimportant little theory that I’d like to share, namely that the decor of Tiberius’ dining-room-in-a-cave at Sperlonga was influenced by Etruscan tombs.  If that means nothing to you, I won’t be offended if you don’t read on.

(By the way, the date should be on this, but just in case, for referencing purposes it is 31st December, 2011.)

Dinner at Sperlonga

The first and only time I was in Aberdeen, I remember looking for a place to have lunch and stumbling across a Frankenstein-themed bar.  The decor was dark and gloomy with plenty of chains, and the menu was full of dishes and cocktails which referenced vampires, zombies, and monsters of all kinds.  It seemed to be a fairly popular place, with the student population especially.

It’s not only Scottish students who see the appeal of dining with monsters.  Domitian and Hadrian both gave pride of place in the grotto triclinia (dining rooms) at their villas to scenes of Scylla consuming her own personal menu of Odysseus’ sailors.  They lifted the idea from the most famous grotto triclinium at Sperlonga, the same cave where, in 26AD, Sejanus saved Tiberius’s life when the roof came down during dinner.

The Sperlonga sculptures, discovered in 1957, are a gift to ancient historians and art historians, not only because of the quality of the four sculptual groups (Scylla attacking Odysseus’ ship, the blinding of Polyphemus, the theft of Palladium, and Odysseus with the corpse of Achilles) but because they provided what a historian loves best, controversy.  Starting with what the statues depicted (since they were found in pieces), and progressing to where they were placed, who placed them there, why and when, the discovery of the statues sparked years of learned arguments, some of which are not settled even now.  There is still no consensus on the date of the statues to within less than a century.

The link with Tiberius is a given – it was the grotto at his villa, after all.  But whether he put the statues in before the rock fall, as a background for his dinner parties, or afterwards, when the cave seemed more sinister to him, is not as easy to answer.  A major argument for the statues’ being placed in the caves after the accident is that scenes of people being eaten and monsters being blinded is not appropriate to decorate a dining room – “not while we’re eating, thank you.”  Grottoes, including grotto triclinia, were supposed to be peaceful places where nymphs frolicked with Dionysus.

That might have been the Greek conception of caves, but across the Adriatic Sea caves had a different place in mythology and in the psyche.  For Etruscans and other natives of Italy, caves were the place where the living world met the underworld.  In beautifully decorated tombs such as the Tomba dell’ Orco you find monsters like Cerberus and Polyphemus and celebrity shades like Agamemnon and Ajax, in scenes both Homeric and non-Homeric.  Demons of the underworld and the god of death occur frequently in these late Etruscan tombs.

It all sounds rather intimidating and would have no bearing on the question of the Sperlonga statues, except for one other feature of Etruscan tombs, probably the most common of all: banqueting scenes.  Too many tombs to mention feature scenes of symposia, either with mourners honouring the dead or with the dead enjoying themselves in the underworld.  These feasts by no means always appear in tombs that also feature monsters and violence, but there are certainly incidences where they do.  There seems to be no contradiction, in the Etruscan mind at least, in having a party, complete with dancing girls and plenty of wine, within sight of hideous and frightening monsters, and of reminders of their own mortality.

If the Sperlonga grotto  followed the Etruscan / Italian conception of the role of caves, the argument that the statues wouldn’t be appropriate for a dining room looks pretty weak.  The influence of the other peoples of Italy on Roman culture is so completely accepted that it doesn’t bear mentioning.  The civilisation that gave Rome the gladiatorial games for which the modern world now remembers them, may well have also bequeathed the idea of a connection between caves, feasting and death, and allowed for the development of dark, monstrous grotto triclinia.

This kind of dining room chimes well with Tiberius’ character, of course, which probably lent itself more to scenes of graphic violence than to frolicking nymphs.  This was an emperor with a nasty streak a mile wide and a disposition that would make Gordon Brown look sunny.  So the triclinium at Sperlonga was probably a stylish (though none too safe) place to bring friends for a dinner party not in spite of the scenes of violence and monsters, but because of them.  Add a few aptly-named cocktails and the students of Aberdeen might feel right at home.


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