Friday, October 02, 2009

Odysseus in Portus?

There is great excitement among Classicists and archaeologists about the University of Southampton's find of what may or may not be a luxury mini-amphitheatre in Portus, the imperial harbour fourteen miles west of Rome. I've just been looking at the pictures on the BBC photo gallery and saw this wonderful head of a bearded man (left) wearing what might be a pileus. The pileus was a felt skullcap, rounded or pointed. It could be the hat of a freedman, but also of a craftsman.

The bearded head from Portus made me think of a marvellous collection of oil-lamps I saw in Lipari (one of the Aeolian Islands in Sicily) in May. One of the oil-lamps depicts a bearded man wearing a pileus. His hammer and tongs show he is a blacksmith. His heroic nudity hints that he might be Vulcan, god of fire and the forge (and fish), and husband of Venus. I wonder if the bearded head from Portus could be Vulcan? According to Smith's Dictionary, Vulcan (AKA Hephaistos) was one of the few mythological figures who wore a felt skullcap. Also, Vulcan had a strong presence in Ostia, a few miles south of Portus.

But another famous character from Greek and Roman mythology often shown in a skullcap is Odysseus. The bearded head from Portus is very similar to the head of the Odysseus from Sperlonga , where the emperor Tiberius had a monumental sculpture of Odysseus blinding the cyclops in a grotto of his summer retreat. (The name Sperlonga comes from Latin speluncae i.e. "grottoes"). (below: bearded head from Portus & Odysseus from Sperlonga)

The monumental sculptural group of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus was a popular one. The emperor Domitian had a similar sculpture in a grotto of his imperial retreat on Lake Albano, fourteen miles southeast of Rome. I saw fragments of it last April when I toured the ruins of Domitian's Alban Citadel at the Pope's summer retreat in Castelgandolfo. Sadly, Polyphemus is all that survives of Domitian's monumental group. (below)

Other figures from Greek mythology who wore the felt skullcap were Charon the ferryman and Daedalus the craftsman and father of Icarus.

You can read all the reports about the 'luxurious mini-amphitheatre' at Portus on the official Portus Project site, but do also read Mary Beard's caveat!

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