Equus Domitiani


Fig. 1. A bronze sestertius commemorating Domitian, thought to depict on its reverse the equestrian statue from the Forum Romanum.  SC in the exergue denotes approval by the Senate of Rome. The obverse bears a portrait of Domitian in profile. British Museum 1978.1021.5 Source: BMC 476, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1200561&partId=1&images=true
Fig. 2. Portrait bust of Domitian in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photograph by author.
Fig. 3. Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Palazzo dei Conservatori. Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photograph by author.
Fig. 4. Pirro Ligorio's drawings of three Flavian coins depicting the emperors on horseback.
Fig. 5. Detail of Pirro Ligorio's smaller, more condensed 1552 map showing the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius but not the Equus Domitiani
Fig. 6. Filippo de' Rossi's image of the Capitolium.


Equus Domitiani


At the center of the early Renaissance artist and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio's 1561 engraved map of Rome is the historic Roman Forum (inscribed Forum Romanum), and there the artist situated an unassuming version of the Equus Domitiani ("Horse of Domitian"). Contrary to Ligorio's depiction, the so-called Equus Domitiani stood as a grandiose gilt bronze equestrian statue celebrating Rome's eleventh emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 C.E.) during the final years of his principate. This article demonstrates that Pirro Ligorio used not art historical or archaeological evidence, such as coins and similar finds incorporated elsewhere in the map, but Silvae 1.1 by the Latin poet Statius as his primary source for inclusion of the Equus Domitiani into his 1561 Anteiquae Urbis Imago.

The Senate and People of Rome dedicated the monument in the center of the Forum probably between the years 89 and 91 C.E. in honor of the emperor's military campaigns against the Germanic Chatti and Dacian people. As honorific monuments, equestrian statues consisted of a horse and a full-body portrait statue commemorating an individual as the ideal rider, usually an emperor, general, or prominent official. The reverse of a rare bronze sestertius minted under the principate of Domitian is thought to represent this now lost statue (Fig. 1. British Museum 1978.1021.5; RIC 2.1 797, p.324). This coin depicts Domitian on horseback raising his right hand forward in a gesture interpreted as the imperial virtue of clementia (clemency), while in his left hand he holds a faintly discernible statuette of his patron deity Minerva. The fate of Domitian's statue is uncertain, but it most likely was destroyed or reused in or after the year 96 C.E. following the assassination of the emperor, the condemnation of his memory by the Senate, and the subsequent widespread destruction or reuse of his images and inscriptions.

From antiquity the statue survives primarily through a Latin poem written under Domitian's principate. One of the imperial court poets Publius Papinius Statius composed a 107-line dactylic hexameter poem simply titled Silvae 1.1 (or possibly Ecus Maximus) about this statue. According to the ancient preface to these poems, Statius recited Silvae 1.1 at the dedication ceremony for the statue in Domitian's presence. In Silvae 1.1 (lines 15-18) Statius describes Domitian’s portrait statue that served as the equestrian rider:

“One rejoices to look on the face mixed
with signs of war and bearing gentle
peace. Nor should you think greater of the
true (face): it is equal in appearance and
glory, equal in honor.”

iuvat ora tueri 
mixta notis belli placidamque gerentia pacem.
nec veris maiora putes: par forma decorque,
par honor.

The obverse of the equestrian sestertius (Fig. 1) portrays a stern profile of Domitian wearing the general's military cloak (chlamys) as described by Statius. A marble portrait of Domitian from the Musei Capitolini in Rome approximates the sculptural physiognomy and possibly the facial expression to be expected from Domitian’s portrait in the round (Fig. 2; Inv. no. MC1156). The equestrian portrait, however, was likely over life-size or of colossal scale given additional description by Statius, although the poet may exaggerate the size. Ligorio captures the great scale of the statue as it rivals the roofs of nearby temples. Moreover, the inscription on the obverse legend of the coin presents Domitian in his seventeenth consulship as emperor, censor, and pater patriaeIMP CAES DOMIT AVG GERM COS XVII CENS PER P P (Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus Consul Septum Decimum Censoria Perpetuus Pater Patriae, "Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus, Victor over the Germans, Consul for the seventeenth time, eternal censor, father of the state"). The date of the seventeenth consulship shows that the statue was presumably in place by the years 95 to 96.

More importantly for Pirro Ligorio, the poem provides an approximate location for the Equus Domitiani in the center of the Forum Romanum beside the hallowed Lacus Curtius and surrounded by particular buildings. This poetic topography helped Ligorio to determine which direction the statue faced and the orientation of buildings to be mapped. Statius places the statue in the center of the Forum as an imposing colossal portrait statue with a base equal in size:

“What mass, doubled by the colossus
imposed above, stands having embraced
the Latian forum?”

Quae superimposito moles geminata colosso
stat Latium complexa forum?
“The base is equal to the statue. Facing
here, he opens the threshold by the gift of
his adopted son, he who is tired from war,
who first shows our deities the way into
the heavens.”

par operi sedes. hinc obvia limina pandit
qui fessus bellis adsertae munere prolis
primus iter nostris ostendit in aethera

Ligorio appears to have been the first among early map-makers to depict the Equus Domitiani in the landscape of ancient Rome. The text of Statius thus was Ligorio’s primary source for this statue rather than art historical or archaeological information. In his treatise titled Paradosse, Ligorio makes note of the equestrian statue in relation to the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace) set up by the emperor Vespasian, Domitian's father. Ligorio identifies the statue not as the Equus Domitiani, as inscribed in the map, but il cavallo di bronzo di Flavio Domitiano, “the Flavian Domitian’s bronze horse.” This description comes from Ligorio’s passage on locating Vespasian’s Temple of Peace, in which he attempts to enter the mindset of Statius and the ancient viewer:

“So it follows that it was close to the Forum at the middle of the mentioned path. I think it is not likely that Papinius Statius, when he writes about the bronze horse of the Flavian Domitian making mention of all the other temples that were around it, if he had been standing in the Forum, has forgotten this (temple) of Peace, being one of the most magnificent things built in the Flavian Dynasty.”

Onde ne seguita, che fosse prossimo al foro col mezzo della detta via. Senza che non è verisimile, che Stacio Papinio quando scrive il cavallo di bronzo di Flavio Domitiano facendo mentione di tutti gli altri Tempij, che gli erano d'intorno, havesse tacciuto questo della Pace, s'egli fosse stato nel Foro, essendo una delle piu magnifiche cose nella casa Flavia edificate

Ligorio is here referring to how Statius describes the surroundings of the statue in Silvae 1.1 (29-39):

“But the steps of your flanks look up at
the Julian roofs, there by the lofty Basilica
of belligerent (Aemilius) Paullus. (The
Temple of) Concord looks on with an
agreeable face; your father looks on the
back (from his temple). Your head, itself
surrounded by pure air, shines high over
the temples, and you seem to be looking
out for whether the new Palatine arises
more beautiful from the despised flames,
or whether the Trojan fire watches by its
silent torch, and already Vesta praises her
investigated attendants. Your right hand
prohibits fighting; the Tritonian maiden
(Minerva) does not weigh down your left,
even holding forth the head of Medusa
beheaded: it incites the horse as if by

at laterum passus hinc Iulia tecta tuentur,
illinc belligeri sublimis regia Pauli,
terga pater blandoque videt Concordia vultu.
ipse autem puro celsum caput aere saeptus
templa superfulges et prospectare videris,
an nova contemptis surgant Palatia flammis
pulchrius, an tacita vigilet face Troicus ignis
atque exploratas iam laudet Vesta ministras.
dextra vetat pugnas, laevam Tritonia virgo
non gravat et sectae praetendit colla Medusae.
ceu stimulis accendit equum.
In sum, Domitian's portrait turns to the Palatine Hill. Statius describes the Equus Domitiani facing the Temple of Concord with the Temple of Vespasian at the rear. To the left of the statue is the Basilica Aemilia and to the right, the Basilica Julia. Following Ligorio, Bernardo Gamucci mentions the statue in his illustrated guidebook published first in 1565, and from then it continues to garner interest in maps of Rome or prints depicting the area. 

Ligorio’s inclusion of the statue in his innovative map of Rome was meant to arouse interest in the ancient city and its relics. Its archaeological appeal for the Renaissance audience stems from details noted in the ekphrastic poem. Following the placement of Domitian's statue in the Forum, Statius relates the Equus Domitiani to another prominent nearby equestrian statue of Julius Caesar. The statue, possibly a Lysippan original bronze, once represented a portrait of Alexander the Great until Julius Caesar's portrait replaced that of Alexander. The statue was set in the Forum Julium in front of the Temple of Venus, which Julius Caesar built (84-90):

“The horse, which stands opposite the
Latin Dione’s temple, at the seat of
Caesar’s Forum, should yield, the horse
which you, Lysippus, dared to hand down
to the Pellaean general (Alexander), the horse which soon wondered at the face of Caesar on
its neck. Scarcely should you seek out in faint
light how far down it looked on this man
from that point. Who is so crude that,
when he has seen both, will not say that
the rulers are as different as the horses?”

Cedat equus Latiae qui contra templa Diones
Caesarei stat sede fori quem traderis ausus

Pellaeo, Lysippe, duci; mox Caesaris ora
mirata cervice tulit: vix lumine fesso explores
quam longus in hunc despectus ab illo. quis
rudis usque adeo qui non, ut viderit ambos,
tantum dicat equos quantum distare regentes?

The latter lines also likely were intended to distinguish the pose of Domitian's horse from that of Julius Caesar reworked from Alexander. A bronze statuette representing Alexander the Great on horseback, now in Naples, shows Alexander/Julius on a rearing horse. This presumably is the same type as Alexander's Granikos Monument. The Equus Domitiani, according to Statius, would have been observed differently, meaning that it more likely matches the pose seen on Domitian's bronze sesterius.

Because of these passages, modern scholars have intensely investigated the archaeological remains at the center of the Forum Romanum around the Lacus Curtius to seek out remnants of the Equus Domitiani to little avail. Excavations carried out from 1902 to 1903 by Giacamo Boni in the center of the Forum Romanum near the Lacus Curtius revealed remnants of what appeared to be a concrete statue base measuring approximately 11.8 meters long and approximately 5.9 meters wide. The blocks attributed to this base were found at a level cutting into the main cuniculus and cross-passage dated to the Flavian period; the base therefore seemed to be contemporary with the dedication of Domitian's statue. Rodolfo Lanciani had noticed these blocks but did not think they belonged to Domitian's statue base. Cairoli Giuliani and Patrizia Verduchi, who excavated the same area later, showed that the level of pavement attributed to the conjectural Domitianic base in fact lay higher up, indicating an earlier date between Julius Caesar and Augustus for the statue base. Richardson, however, points instead to a group of blocks (measuring 7.8m wide by 12.2m long) located beside Boni’s base in the travertine pavement and respecting the concrete and cuniculi underneath, thus supporting a Domitianic date. Ligorio does not give any indication of knowledge about the archaeological traces of a statue at this central point in the poem, but his attentive use of Statius' Silvae as documentation for the image of the Forum attests to the engraver's scholarly ambitions with the 1562 map.

In line with his scholarly interests, it is likely that Ligorio took the unofficial title Equus Domitiani for the statue from the later Latin commentaries on manuscripts of Statius rather than the poem itself. In the preface to the first book of the Silvae, Statius identifies the poem and statue as the ecus maximus:

“The first little book has a sacred witness: since it had to  use ‘beginning from Jove’. These hundred verses, which I made on the giant horse, for a most gracious emperor on the day after which he had dedicated the work, as I was ordered.”

Primus libellus sacrosanctum habet testem: sumendum enim erat 'a Iove principium.' centum hos versus, quos in ecum maximum feci, indulgentissimo imperatori postero die quam dedicaverat opus, tradere est iussum.

The title of the poem preserved in manuscripts, however, most often appears as Ecus Maximus Domitiani Imp. It is not until later in Latin commentaries on the Silvae that the spelling equus is paired with Domitiani. For this reason, it is most likely that Ligorio consulted a later manuscript of the Latin text for the title. The manuscript tradition of the Silvae of Statius emerged from antiquity in ca. 1417 C.E. with a now lost codex produced by Francesco Poggio Bracceolini who copied his own manuscript from Madrid where the surviving text of the Silvae was discovered. This modified spelling and title of the statue indicates the influence of Latin texts on Ligorio’s considerations in labeling the map.

For his portrayal of Domitian's equestrian statue as a monument on the map, Ligorio created a composite image based, in part, on multiple numismatic images from the reverses of Flavian coins and comparisons with the extant Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Musei Capitolini in Rome (Fig. 3). It is not clear whether or not Ligorio knew of the bronze sestertius thought to represent the statue, but because of its rarity, Ligorio’s observation is unlikely (Fig. 1). Among Ligorio’s extensive collection of numismatic drawings from his Libri delle medaglie da Cesare a Marco Aurelio Commodo are representations of three reverse images of coins from the principates of Vespasian and Domitian exhibiting equestrian images, all of which survive (Fig. 4). Yet, the bronze sestertius depicting Domitian on horseback that most closely resembles Ligorio’s engraving of the statue is conspicuously absent. The peculiarity of how Ligorio represents the Equus Domitiani on the 1562 map may perhaps be best explained by Ligorio’s smaller 1552 map of Rome (Fig. 5). The earlier map shows not the Equus Domitiani but the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline. Between the two maps, the two equestrian statues are depicted in exactly the same fashion and facing the same direction. A print of the Campidoglio in Filippo de Rossi’s later Ritratto di Roma antica (Rome, 1654) shows a similar treatment of the Marcus Aurelius' equestrian statue from the other side and with the omission of Domitian's statue (Fig. 6). The omission of the Equus Domitiani by later map-makers such as de Rossi underscores Ligorio's attention both to details of the archaeological and literary record as well as his goal of providing as accurate an image of the ancient city as possible. In the larger map of 1562, Ligorio omits the statue of Marcus Aurelius altogether. It seems that he substituted the statue of Domitian, possibly because of how integral Silvae 1.1 proved for reconstructing other buildings around the Forum in relation to what he erroneously thought was the Templum Pacis (ruins which are now known to belong to the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine).


J. Cody Houseman


Primary Sources:

  • Courtney, E., (ed.), P. Papinius Stati: Silvae, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

  • Davis, M. D., (ed.), "Del Tempio della Pace," Pirro Ligorio: Libro di M. Pyrrho Ligori Napolitano delle antichità di Roma, nel quale si tratta de’ circi, theatri e anfitheatri, con le Paradosse del medesimo auttore, quai confutano la commune opinione sopra varii luoghi della città di Roma (Venice, 1553). Accessed December 16, 2015. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/volltexte/2008/562

  • Ligorio, P., Libri delle medaglie da Cesare a Marco Aurelio Commodo. Ed. P. Serafin Pedrillo. Torino: de Luca Editori d'Arte, 2013.

  • Mattingly, H. and E. A. Sydenham, Roman Imperial Coins: Vespasian to Domitian, Vol. 2. London: Spink, 1923.

Other Rare Book Sources:

  • de Rossi, F., Ritratto di Roma antica, Rome, 1654. [Available online]

  • Gamucci, B., Le antichita della citta di Roma: raccolte sotta brevita da diversi antichi & moderni scrittori. Venice: Appresso Giovanni Varisco & Co., 1580. [First published in 1565 under title: Libri quattro dell' antichità della città di Roma] [Available online]

Secondary Sources:

  • Babut, E., “Les statues équestres du Forum,” in Melanges d’archéologie et d’histoire, 20 (1900): 209-222.

  • Bergemann, J., Römische Reiterstatuen: Ehrendenkmäler im öffentlichen Bereich, Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1990.

  • Boni, G., “Foro Romano,” in Atti del Congresso internazionale di scienzestoriche (Roma, 1-9 aprile 1903), (Rome 1904-1907), 574-577.

  • Cantilena, R. and P. Rubino, eds., Domiziano/Nerva: La statua equestre da Miseno, una proposta di ricomposizione, Naples: Macchiaroli, 1987.

  • Carradice, I., Coinage and Finance in the Reign of Domitian, Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1984.

  • Coarelli, F., Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, Trans. by J. J. Clauss, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

  • Coffin, D. R., Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian, University Park: PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 2004.

  • Darwall-Smith, R. H., Emperors and Architecture: A Study of Flavian Rome. Collection Latomus 231. Brussels: Revue d'Etudes Latines, 1996.

  • Geyssen, J. W. Imperial Panegyric in Statius: A Literary Commentary on Silvae 1.1. New York: P. Lang, 1996.

  • Lanciani, R., Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome (London 1897).

  • Platner, S. B. and T. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Oxford, 1929. ["Equus Domitiani," Available online]

  • Richardson, L., "Equus Domitiani," A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

  • Thomas, M., “(Re)locating Domitian's Horse of Glory: The Equus Domitiani and Flavian Urban Design,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 49 (2004): 21-46.

  • Varner, E. R., From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture, Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2000.

  • Wasserstein, A., “The Manuscript Tradition of Statius’ Silvae,Classical Quarterly 3:1-2 (1953): 69-78.

  • Wood, S., “Public Images of the Flavian Dynasty: Sculpture and Coinage,” In ed. A. Zissos, A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Malden, MA: Wiley, 2016, 129-146.


J. Cody Houseman, “Equus Domitiani,” Views of Rome, accessed June 20, 2024, https://viewsofrome.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/items/show/29.