Rain Miracle Scene from the Column of Marcus Aurelius


replica: by artist Carrie Allen

date of the original: c. AD 176-193

provenance of the original: Italy

description: Rain Miracle Scene from the Column of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Plaster and wood replica.

The Column of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius was commissioned to celebrate his triumph in 176 over the Marcomanni tribe and their allies, the Sarmatians and the Quadi, whose territories rested on Rome's northern Danube frontier. The column was completed sometime after his death in 180 during the reign of his son Commodus, though the exact date is not known. It was not dedicated until 193, the first year of the reign of Septimius Severus.

The column, which stood on the Campus Martius by the Via Lata, was modeled after Trajan's column. The part visible today measures about 30 m in height; in its prime, before the rising ground level covered the base, and while it was still surmounted by a statue of Marcus Aurelius - replaced in the Renaissance with a statue of St. Paul - the monument as a while may have approached 50 m in height. The column consists of 26 drums made of Luna marble with a hollow interior and stairs that lead up to the top. Sculptures in high relief spiral around column 21 times, presenting 116 scenes depicting Marcus Aurelius's campaigns against Germanic tribes threatening the Danube frontier. In contrast to the scenes on the Column of Trajan, which emphasize the theme of conquest, those on the column of Marcus focus on the destruction of the enemy.

Perhaps the most famous of the panels is scene XVI. It depicts how the Roman army, surrounded by Quadi and "in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst" (Dio 72[71].8.3), was saved and the enemy destroyed thanks to a "Rain Miracle." This panel gives the official Roman interpretation: Heaven had intervened on the Roman side. The miraculous deluge is personified on the column as an ancient god of colossal size from whose locks and outstretched arms rain pours down onto the battlefield.

The question of which god performed the "Rain Miracle" inspired opposing pagan and Christian accounts. Dio knew of a pagan report that credited Hermes of the Air (Hermes Aerio) (72[71].8.4). For the Christian apologist Tertullian the miracle was a response of his god to prayers of Christian soldiers who happened to be fighting in the Roman army (Apologeticus 5.6). Tertullian cited as his source a letter of Marcus Aurelius; this can hardly have been a genuine letter. Nonetheless, the widespread view existed that a prayer of Marcus Aurelius incited the occurance of the miracle, which was considered evidence of divine support for his reign.

(See also: Trajan; Hadrian; Marcus Aurelius.)