Trophies of Marius

The imposing brick structures visible in the north corner of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, known since the Middle Ages as the “Trophies of Marius”, actually belong to a monumental fountain built by the emperor Alexander Severus. The monument was located a few metres outside the Esquiline Gate, where the road forked before continuing towards Tibur (Tivoli) on the left and, with the Via Labicana, towards Labicum (Montecompatri) on the right. The fountain fitted perfectly into the trapezoid plot formed by the junction of the two roads and was not just a magnificent backdrop for anyone travelling along the two roads. Thanks to its location in one of the highest areas of the Esquiline Hill, it also had a utilitarian function, linked to the water supply to districts lower down on the slopes of the Cispius. The cisterns and pipes beneath the fountain functioned as a water tower for one of the many aqueducts on the Esquiline.

A gold coin minted in AD 226, showing the fountain on the reverse, tells us that it was probably inaugurated in this year. The coin also provides us with a faithful depiction of this monumental structure, on three levels with a large semicircular basin in front: cascades of water flowed from the two lower levels into the basin to striking effect, while the niches in the third level of the building hosted numerous marble statues including those of the emperor, his mother Julia Mamaea and probably Ocean, the god of water. Finally, as suggested by the tiny figure depicted on the coin, the fountain was crowned by an attic decorated with a four-horse chariot at the centre, following the tradition of Roman triumphal arches.
The surviving remains only give us a vague impression of the original magnificence of this structure, entirely clad in marble panels as indicated by the holes for the installation of the facing, still visible on the walls. Perhaps the best parallel would be the large fountains of the Renaissance, like the Trevi Fountain or the Fontanone on the Janiculum, of which our fountain on the Esquiline is the true ancestor.

But where does the traditional name “Trophies of Marius” come from? The structures are already given this name in the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, a sort of ‘guide book’ composed in around 1140 and aimed at pilgrims visiting Rome. The name comes from two marble statues depicting a Roman soldier surrounded by prisoners and the weapons captured from the vanquished. Unaware of their date, the antiquarian tradition linked these commemorative statues, known as trophies, to the victorious battle of 101 BC, which saw the triumph of the consul Gaius Marius against the Germanic peoples. In fact the statues, of the Domitianic period, celebrated Roman victories over other eastern populations.

The two trophies decorated the monument until the end of the sixteenth century; in 1590 they were moved by Pope Sixtus V and placed on the steps of the Capitoline, where they can still be seen today. The papal inscription still preserves their erroneous attribution to the Germanic campaigns of Marius.