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Etymological Resonances Between the Argiletum and the Forum Transitorium

Emma Brobeck

University of Washington

Built by Domitian the Forum Transitorium (or Forum Nervae) bears a double name and identity grounded both in the damnatio memoriae of the emperor and its construction over a portion of the Argiletum, the primary arterial road leading from the Subura to the Forum Romanum. The site is difficult to interpret due to its unusual location and lack of preservation in the artistic program, and previous scholarship has analyzed the forum either within the larger coherence of Imperial Fora (Anderson, von Blanckenhagen, Frazer) or by situating the Le Colonnacce frieze—with representations of Arachne, Minerva, and weavers—within Domitian’s desire for cultural renewal (D’Ambra). The etymological and cultural associations of the Argiletum, however, are critical in further understanding the larger themes and function of the site. This paper considers the commonalities between the surviving artistic program of the forum and the literary and cultural connotations of the Argiletum, and it further explores how these associations shape its literary reception in Flavian Rome.  

Domitian’s patron goddess Minerva dominates the forum both in the remains of a temple and in the sole surviving bay of the frieze, which depicts Arachne’s punishment. As goddess of war and crafts, Minerva represents both the imperial family and the craftsmen with shops in the Subura. This paper connects Minerva’s dual identity within the Forum Transitorium with the two etymologies of Argiletum: either from argilla (‘potters’ clay’) or Argi letum (‘death of Argus’). Vergil uses both etymologies in the Georgics and Aeneid, most prominently in Evander’s Tour of Rome. The description of argilla in the Georgics includes programmatic language and puns that connect Minerva as goddess of crafts with the soil found especially in the Argiletum. The etymology “death of Argus” in the Aeneid refers to an attempted usurpation of Evander’s throne and the ruler’s warning to Aeneas (Papaioannou), and thus thematically resonates with the theme of divine punishment in the frieze depiction of Minerva and Arachne. I argue that, as a bringer of culture and founder of Latium (Livy 1.7), Evander is a mortal analogue to Minerva within the cultural imagination of the Argiletum. Finally, Martial (Epigrams 1.117, 2.17) and Statius (Silvae 4.1) carry these associations from Vergilian texts into Flavian Rome, suggesting an enduring symbolic image of the road despite the imperial renovations.

The Forum Transitorium and the Argiletum are closely linked functionally, since the forum remained a thoroughfare into the Forum Romanum, and symbolically through Minerva’s association with crafts. That Martial and Statius evoke Augustan Rome through references to the Argiletum and particularly to Evander highlights Domitian’s ideological program of cultural renewal and provides a literary comparandum for the didactic functions of his imperial forum. Especially considering that Martial treats Rome as a symbolically charged literary space in which he expresses issues of patronage and status (Rimell, Roman), the etymological references that connect Minerva, Evander, the arts, and even divine punishment present a complicated picture of the negotiation of space between the local craftsmen and the monumentalization of the imperial family.

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Materiality and Literary Culture

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