Why is the bronze equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) the only example of its kind to have survived from antiquity? When so many other pagan bronze statues were later melted down and recycled how did this one survive?
It survived for the simple reason that the figure on horseback was thought to represent Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. It was this mis-identification, which kept the statue out of the furnaces. Had it been known whom it really depicted, a pagan emperor and persecutor of Christians to boot, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius would have suffered the fate of all the others.
For centuries the statue stood outside the Lateran Palace. In 1538 it was moved to the Campidoglio; by this time the true identity of the rider was known.
Twice life-size and originally gilded to look like solid gold, the statue may have made made after the emperor's death in 180, when he was deified. Marcus Aurelius is clad in military tunic and cloak, his right arm outstretched, palm down, in a gesture of a clemency. A small figure of a kneeling barbarian would once have crouched under the horse's raised right hoof.
The emperor is depicted with the beard of a philosopher, which is appropriate for the man who penned the Meditations, his personal musings on life and the philosophy of Stoicism.
A copy of the statue now stands in the centre of the Piazza del Campidoglio; the original can be found in the Museii Capitolini (Capitoline Museums).
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