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Rome Wiki: The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius on Piazza del Campidoglio

London, Rome, Luxembourg, all home to astonishing equestrian statues featuring leaders of great nations. Looking at these various sculptures, depicting leaders in the saddle throughout the world, it becomes apparent that they all share similar features. Where do their visual similarities stem from? Comparing for example the Equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel in Rome with the one of Marcus Aurelius, the similarities in representing power and control are striking. For instance, the gesture as well as the suggested movement of the horse express superiority and evoke the feeling of humility in the viewer. Marcus Aurelius statue must have set an example for following equestrian statues. What made him a symbolic figure worth of aspiration?

Victor Emmanuel as part of
the Altare della Patria in Rome
Statue of Grand Duke
William II in
Luxembourg City
King George on
Trafalgar Square

1. Description
2. Marcus Aurelius through the Ages
2.1 Marcus Aurelius
2.2 Marcus Aurelius as a General
2.3 A Challenge to his Authority
2.4 St. Lateran
2.5 Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill
2.6 Replacement and the Statue today
3. The Equestrian statue around the World


Latin inscription on the statue's pedestal.

The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is 4,24 m high and 3,87 m long. The material of use is hollow-cast gilded bronze.[1] In the middle of a public square, it stands on a pedestal. The pedestal contains Latin inscriptions. The right front leg of the horse is lifted above the ground and Marcus Aurelius reaches forward with his right hand. The horse wears a saddle and harness which the viewer can detect on the hand and body of the animal. The rider is dressed in a toga and wears Roman sandals. Additionally, the absence of stirrups is notable, as Roman riders did not use them.

Translation of the Inscription: "To Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (son of the deified emperor Caesar Antoninus, grandson of the deified Hadrian, great-grandson of the deified Trajan who conquered the Parthians, great-great-grandson of the deified Nerva), pious, august, conqueror of the Germans and Sarmates, supreme pontiff, invested 27 times with the tribunician powers, proclaimed as imperator 6 times, elected consul 3 times, father of his country, from the Senate and the people of Rome."

Marcus Aurelius through the Ages

Given the prominence of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius one could assume that historians have an accurate picture of its genesis as well. However, the clarification of its origin is rather difficult. Even though there is considerable evidence in existence concerning the different theories on why, when, by whom and where it has been placed, we can still only take this evidence for what it is: support for a theory. In the light of this premise the following paragraphs illuminate the different approaches and theories that paint a picture of its origin and history. From a rhetorical perspective we will attempt to elaborate on the question of why and by whom it has been commissioned.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius (lt: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, * 26. April 121; † 17. March 180) was Roman emperor and commander in chief from 161 to 180. He ruled jointly with Lucius Verus until his decease in 169 and together with his son Commodus from 177.[2] In order to understand the rhetoric behind the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius one has to grasp the historical circumstances under which its genesis took place.

Marcus Aurelius as a General

Relief panel from a triumphal
arch of Marcus Aurelius

Out of all approaches that examine the genesis of Marcus Aurelius Equestrian Statue it seems especially likely that it has been erected in the late 160s or early 170s AD to commemorate Marcus Aurelius’ military triumph over the Marcomanni and Sarmatians as depicted in a relief that can be found in the Capitoline museums. Through his successful military campaign in the north of the empire on the Danube frontier, Aurelius fended of the Germanic tribes and prevented an invasion.[3] His victory owed immensely to his cavalry which was highly effective against the barbarian unarmoured infantry and eventually proved to be pivotal in tipping the scale to his favor. Therefore, it is possible that Marcus Aurelius himself, commissioned the statue and placed it in front of the cavalry barracks in Rome to remind the soldiers of their deeds and boost the morale of the troops. The statue shows nearly identical resemblance with Marcus Aurelius depiction in the relief (Dated 165 AD).[4] The only difference between the illustration in the relief and the statue seems to be that the kneeling barbarians were omitted from the equestrian statue, however, several scholars argue that originally there has been a barbarian under the horse's right hoof which presumably was removed in medieval times.

In order to understand how a statue communicates a certain image of the person it depicts, one must understand that a statue is a completely still image and therefore the maker needs to decide on a moment of most importance. This is called the most pregnant moment. In the case of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius this would mean that the victory over the barbarians is central to the understanding of the kind of leader Marcus Aurelius was. If a small barbarian statue was indeed under the horse’s right hoof, it is highly possible that the victory over the barbarians was seen as one of Aurelius’ most important accomplishments. Given the similarities, it appears very likely that there is a strong association between the commission of the statue and his victory over the Germanic tribes. There are several other hints that support the assumption of the statue as a tribute to his victories. A close examination of the horse and its harness, especially the saddle have revealed that Aurelius is depicted riding a captured Samaritan war steed rather than a Roman stallion.[5] In consideration of the fact that Marcus himself added the honorific title Sarmaticus to his name in 175 AD, it can be assumed that his triumphs must have been central to his image and therefore worthwhile displaying in the given statue, which goes in line with the assumption that it was commissioned by Marcus Aurelius and placed in front of the military baracks.

Depiction of the Marcomannic Wars on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome

Even though this theory seems plausible at face value, his military genius is not the only facet of his character that is depicted by the statue. Marcus is portrayed riding the horse of the vanquished, however, in contrast he is not wearing armour but rather civil clothing. Further, given that there has been a barbarian statue, his horse would have been rearing before the defeated, forcing them into submission, but in contrast his gesture rather indicates clemency than an order for execution. This is where the statue shows its ambiguity. Not only is Marcus Aurelius a strong leader, but he also took into consideration the value of philosophy. Considering the rider’s hand gesture, a viewer would read this as a calming, assuring gesture. Especially done by a leader, who Marcus Aurelius was, this hand gesture is most probably read as an universal sign of control. Given this discrepancy between him as a military general and his civil interest as a great political and ideological leader, we can assume that the artist’s intention was to combine these within one piece of art. Furthermore, the horse seems to be caught in movement. This depiction gives the statue a dynamic impression. In general, a horse is an animal that expresses elegance and grace. The slightly lifted hoof accentuates this. It reminds the viewer of a perfectly trained parade horse.[9]

A Challenge to his Authority

Marcus Aurelius as
depicted in "Gladiator"

Another theory concerning the statue’s genesis points out that Marcus Aurelius had enemies within the empire, and that the statue might have been an answer to those who dared to oppose him. Around 175 AD a rumor spread that Aurelius was deathly ill. As the Roman general Avidius Cassius heard of these news, he saw his chance and tried to seize the power, claiming himself to be the new Roman emperor (As depicted in the movie “Gladiator”). However, he was murdered by his own soldiers within 100 days of power, therefore not further constituting a threat. Nevertheless, Marcus was forced to travel to the eastern provinces in order to re-establish control.[6] We can only speculate how he tried to stabilize his position within the empire, however, it is very well possible that he or the senate did this, not only, but also by commissioning the creation of such a statue and eventually placing it at the Forum Romanum. It could have been placed in a central spot where all of Rome's citizens could admire their dear emperor and be reminded off his heroic deeds.

The Forum Romanum. View facing north east from above the Portico Dii Consentes

This theory sounds especially valid in the light of the fact that the Forum Romanum had been home for another bronze gilded equestrian statue of a Roman statesman before, namely the first Roman emperor Augustus in 43 BC.[7]. Regarding this established practice of displaying statues of Roman emperors in the Forum Romanum, it is clearly a powerful move to put Marcus Aurelius statue in succession of this. Interesting about this location of the statue is its centrality in Roman life. Situated directly in the center of the Forum Romanum, it is clearly visible to everyone who passes by. This includes clergy and politicians. Using a pedestal to locate a statue, elevates the object above the viewer and consequently removes the statue out of the viewer’s personal sphere. Again, this will support an image of power and control. The statue might additionally have been part of the Piazza Colonna where we can appreciate the Column of Marcus Aurelius today.

Piazza Colonna - The Column of Marcus Aurelius at the center of the square

St. Lateran

Equites Singulares on Trajan's Column, Rome

Given the enormous difficulty imposed by moving such a large and heavy object intact we might as well hypothesize that it has not been moved within the first 850 years of its existence. The first reliable piece of evidence on its initial position comes from the Liber Pontificalis[8] which mentions it to be standing next to the Basilica of S. Giovanni at the Lateran. As the Lateran served as a place of punishment Marcus Aurelius is not longer the calm, merciful leader, but one that executed his power violently. With a new location comes a complete new interpretation of Marcus’ hand gesture which shifts from mercy and control to admonishment. As people walk towards their punishment, they will see Marcus Aurelius, who lifts his hand, to once again remind them that someone rules above them and because they have neglected this rule, they will be punished. It is possible that Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus had the statue erected at the Lateran site. Marcus had strong family connections to this part of the city, as he was raised here at his grandfather's house. Conceivably, it might have been commissioned by the Roman senate and placed here for similar reasons. Moreover, the barracks of the equites singulares, the imperial horseguards, were located in the immediate surrounding of the St. Lateran. This notion supports the theory that the equestrian statue was erected in order to honor the cavalry.

Even though once there were many bronze statues of Roman emperors, they rarely survived throughout the ages. In the sixth century Italy was under Gothic rule and they were not particularly concerned with art from the antiquity, but rather in the bronze that was used for many of the imperial statues. Therefore, it was common practice that bronze statues were molten down for reuse as material for coins, armor and weaponry.[9] Another reason for the vast destruction of antique Roman statues was the fact that the medieval Christians believed them to be pagan idols. One theory revolving around the survival of the statue of Marcus Aurelius theorizes that perhaps it was incorrectly thought to portray the first Christian Emperor, Constantine and therefor not molten down in the Middle Ages.[10] In addition, the fact that the statue was positioned at the Lateran site might have further increased the likelihood for confusion.

A drawing of the statue in front of St. Lateran, circa 1535

Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill

Pope Paul III, painting
exhibited in Naples

In 1538, two additional illustrious historical figures became involved with the equestrian statue. By orders of Pope Paul III. (* 29. February 1468; † 10. November, 1549), Marcus Aurelius was moved from the Lateran to Piazza Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill, which at the time subject to a massive reconstruction by Michelangelo.[11]Initially it may seem paradoxical to the reader, that a religious ruler such as the pope would choose the statue of a secular ruler for his new project. However, given the historical context, the fact that it was a reoccurring theme for popes to place themselves in succession of previous powerful rulers. This apparent contradiction is also mirrored through the general purpose of the Campidoglio, the centre of the republican communal government, which was in fact controlled by Renaissance popes such as Paul III.[12] We can attempt to understand Paul III’s motivations by considering the modes of persuasion.

Firstly, the statue of the mighty emperor signifies an appeal to ethos and authority. Paul III puts himself and the papacy in place as the rightful successor to Roman antiquity, symbolized by Marcus Aurelius.[9] This hypothesis is supported by the directionality of the statue. Geographically, the statue of Marcus Aurelius faces towards the Vatican, away from Palazzo Senatorio and the Forum Romanum behind. This can be interpreted as a temporal sequence in which Marcus Aurelius and the Forum Romanum at his back, representing antiquity, address the pope as a successor and give him legitimacy.

Secondly, the equestrian statue represents an appeal to pathos. The reason for the redesign of the piazza from was motivated in part by an approaching visit from Charles V and acted to showcase Roman grandeur.[13] This new design also acts as an appeal of emotion to the Roman people, through the reminder of a glorious shared past and the creation of a group identity. The position of the Palazzo Senatorio between the Forum Romanum and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius can also be seen as an attempt to place the Roman people of the Renaissance into the context of the long gone Roman empire, whose rightful successor is then revealed as the pope.

Lastly, the fact that the statue depicts Marcus Aurelius had at the time of the move not reached the general public completely. While contemporary scholars did agree on this, many of Rome’s less educated citizens still assumed the statue to show the Christian emperor Constantine, whose image contributed even more to Paul III. desire of expressing papal superiority over secular rulers.[14] This can be seen as a strategy to appeal to the people’s pathos.

Michelangelo's systematizing of the Campidoglio

In contrast to the pope’s intentions of using Marcus Aurelius for the persuasion of populace and foreign emperors, Michelangelo’s objectives seem to have been mainly artistic. The artist was initially unenthusiastic about the statue’s inclusion in his newly designed piazza, but had been mandated to do so by the pope. He eventually used the statue as a focal point, tying together the piazza and its three palazzi. Embedded in a twelve-pointed star, the statue is the absolute center of the square.[11] Again, this visually communicates Marcus Aurelius in the center.

This twelve-pointed star, making reference to the twelve astrological constellations, however did not exist before the 20th century. Although it was part of Michelangelo’s original plans for the piazza, it had not been integrated during his reconstruction projects. Positioning a person in the centre of the cosmos is a very strong visual communication and can be translated in the person’s central position of everything. This situation stands exemplary for how the meaning of the statue can remain throughout history, when placed in a similar position. The statue in this case kept its rhetorical situation. Pope Paul III had not allowed the design to be executed due to its implications of astrology and teachings not in line with Christian ideology. In 1940, Michelangelo’s original plans were ordered to be completed by Benito Mussolini.[13]

Replacement and the Statue today

The copy at the Capitoline Museums

After a terrorist attack on the Palazzo Senatorio involving a bomb in 1979, an initial structural survey on the equestrian statue was conducted. Results indicated an already ongoing process of corrosion and following this, the statue was removed from the centre of the Campidoglio in 1981.[15] A lengthy process of restoration was concluded in 1988. The thoroughness and extent of this restoration suggests that the statue has already gained importance and is important to preserve. Mostly, this amount of restoration would only be done if the artwork has central meaning in history. Due to the thermic and mechanical stress the statue would have been exposed to, had it been restored to its former place on the piazza, the decision was made to instead house it inside the Capitoline Museums. An exact copy was generated using numerical modelling, as traditional approaches to producing a copy, such as making as a cast, were not feasible without damaging the original.

In 1997 the copy was revealed on the original pedestal in the piazza Campidoglio and remains there to this day. This double positioning of the statue is interesting in the way it communicates meaning. On the one hand, the statue is kept in its original position, in the center of an important square and therefore communicates power and centrality of its subject. The statue inside on the other hand exemplifies another vision on Marcus Aurelius. Obviously, it is located within a closed room and therefore experiences protection. Also, elaborate explanation on smaller tablets tells its history. The statue inside turns into an artwork, located within a museum, whereas the statue outside is still an image of a successful leader.

The Equestrian statue around the World

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus
Aurelius at Brown University

In addition to the original statue and its copy on the Capitoline hill, a third Marcus Aurelius can be found as far away as Rhode Island, United States. Unveiled on June 1908, the statue was a gift to Brown University by Moses Brown Ives Goddard in dedication to his deceased brother. It now adorns Lincoln Field at the University Campus, accompanied closely by a statue of Augustus. The choice for a copy of this particular statue seems to have been motivated simply by its pleasing aesthetic features, links to Aurelian philosophy and a desire to connect the university's values with the imagery of Marcus Aurelius.[16]

Furthermore, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is also featured on the backside of the Italian 50-Eurocent coin. Designed by Roberto Mauri, the choice of motive was the result of a television campaign, in which the public could vote on alternative designs through calling a telephone number.[17]

A 50-Eurocent
coin minted in


  1. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equestrian_Statue_of_Marcus_Aurelius. Viewed 29.11.17
  2. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Aurelius. Viewed 15.11.17
  3. Le Bohec, Y. (2013). The imperial Roman army. Routledge.
  4. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Marcus_Aurelius. Viewed on 25.11.17
  5. Nickel, H. (1989). The Emperor's New Saddle Cloth: The Ephippium of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 24, 17-24.
  6. Grant, M. (1994). The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (No. 415-13810). Psychology Press.
  7. Zanker, P. (1990). The power of images in the age of Augustus. University of Michigan Press.
  8. Duchesne, L. (1886). Le liber pontificalis (Vol. 3).
  9. Van Ackeren, M. (Ed.). (2012). A companion to Marcus Aurelius (Vol. 96). John Wiley & Sons.
  10. Baskett, J. (2006). The horse in art. Yale University Press. pp. 17–.
  11. Liberman, A., & Brodsky, J. (1994). Campidoglio: Michelangelo's Roman Capitol. Random House.
  12. E. Thorin. Cooper, J. G. (2003). The genesis and design of Michelangelo's Campidoglio (Italy).
  13. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitoline_Hill. Viewed on 28.11.17
  14. Ackerman, J. S. (1957). Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill. Renaissance News, 10(2), 69-75.
  15. Official text plate in the Capitoline Museum (Rome)
  16. Retrieved from: http://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=M0110. Viewed on 27.11.17
  17. Retrieved from: https://www.fleur-de-coin.com/eurocoins/italy-euro-coins. Viewed on 22.11.17
  18. Fehl, P. (1974). The placement of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Middle Ages. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 362-367.