• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Heaven's Court Crumbles: the Byzantine Frescos of Luxor

East wall, detail

Once you’ve been immersed in Byzantium for long enough it’s easy to grow weary of the reel of churches, fortifications and art that repetitively do the social media rounds. It’s time, therefore, to focus on an underrated masterpiece that’s been hiding from the public gaze in Egypt for too long. I’m talking, of course, about the Great Temple of Ammon in Luxor.

Built in the reign of Amenophis III (who has the distinction of having the most surviving statues of any Egyptian monarch) one of the central rooms of the inner temple was remodelled during the Roman period. In fact, in the third century the whole complex was turned into a castrum.

Sadly, the weather destroyed parts and much of its remnants were vandalised by nineteenth-century Egyptologists. Nevertheless, bits can be rescued (mostly by the sketches of our forebears) or (at the very least) speculated upon. Inscriptions survive in the north-west corner where four columns mark the crossing of two colonnaded roads. They were dedicated to the tetrarchs Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus by Aurelius Regius v(ir) p(erfectissimus) praes(es) provinc(iae) Thebaid(os) and date to AD 300. Each column probably bore a statue of a tetrarch (see the illustration of Rome’s tetrarchy monument) and ruined acanthus capitals provide clues as to how they were adorned.[1]

Niche of the imperial cult

Another four columns – forming a tetrastyle on eastern side – were dedicated to the two augusti Licinius and Galerius and two caesars Constantine and Maximin Daia by Aur(elius) Maximinus v(ir) p(erfectissimus) dux Aeg(ypti) et Theb(aidus) utrarumq(ue) Lib(yarum) in 308/9.

The highlight, however, is the southern part of the temple. After the courtyard of Amenopolis III and the pronaos/hypostyle of the inner temple is the painted chamber, which contains a ciborium (with columns of reddish-pink granite) before a niche that probably once contained a throne.

A procession lines the walls. Soldiers armed with lances and circular shields lead horses by their bridles. They wear short tunics; indeed, the general overview is stylistically similar to the Arch of Galerius in Thessalonica. Some hold silver poles decorated in silver. A third-century description from Dexippus throws light on them:

“Then came the imperial standards… which are golden eagles and imperial imagines and lists of the legions made visible by golden letters. All these were raised to be seen on silvered lances.”[2]

Niche of the imperial cult

Such signa are also represented on Trajan’s column. Tetrarchic monuments often display signa, dracones and vexilla. That missing sections may have also contained golden spears/lances is a further possibility as from the fourth century it is occasionally mentioned that groups accompanying the emperor carried such hastae in processions or festive occasions. Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, reported that Constantine II, while entering Rome, was seated on a currus surrounded by

dracones, hastarum aureis gemmatisque summitatibus illigati.”[3]

In fact, Constantine’s labarum must have been similar to the “gilded lance” as Eusebius described it as a long gilt spear with a transverse bar forming a cross, crowned with a wreath of gold and precious stones enclosing the Chi-Rho with a square purple banner inscribed “ΤΟϒΤΩ NIKA” and embroidered with precious stones interlaced with gold hanging from the cross-bar. There were also medallions of the Emperor and his sons immediately above the banner.[4]

General view

The remaining figures have hands and parts of their forearms veiled. The act of manus velatae came to Rome as an act of religious significance from the court of the Achaemenids transmitted through Hellenistic cults and court ceremonial. The earliest instance of it is recorded at the court of Julianus.

The panel on the south wall has two figures in embroidered tunics and the long chlamys (or paudamentum). One holds a staff (baculus) that is very reminiscent of the sort that can be seen at the Great Hunt of the Piazza Armerina. While those on the south-west wear campagia (soft-shoes) and paudamenta. Two figures have arms extended towards one another covered by a cloth decorated with a large medallion – clearly they carry an object heavy enough for two. What it might be is a mystery. Other monuments provide clues: two carry large torches (thymiateria) on a relief of the arcus Argentariorum, for example,[5] and spoils or images of the gods were often carried on a litter (ferculum).

On the West wall the name of Diocletian once adorned a chariot wheel. But neither the inscription nor the emperor himself have been preserved. A triumph[6] or adventus[7] is probably depicted. A clue as to which is provided by the fact a rebellion broke out in Egypt in the late third century. The revolt began in upper Egypt in July 296 and spread from Coptos to Busiris and onwards to Alexandria where Lucius Domitius Domitianus was declared emperor. Diocletian felt it necessary to crush the rebellion himself (after a siege that lasted eight months) and Domitianus’ corrector Aurelius Achilleus paid – along with his followers – with his life:

Diocletianus obsessum Alexandriae Achilleum octavo fere mense superavit eumque interfecit. Victoria acerbe usus est; totam Aegyptum gravibus proscriptionibus caedibusque foedavit.”[8]

South wall to the right of the niche

As neither Rome (nor the emperor’s home town) is displayed and a triumph was not appropriate to celebrate a bella civilia, it is unlikely that that’s depicted. Instead, it was probably an adventus that contained a peculiarly Egyptian twist known as the komasia. This developed out of the ancient religious processions in which the images of the Egyptian gods paid honorary visits to one another. Later, the pharoahs received this honour and the gods were carried from their temples to greet successive rulers.

This tradition continued into the Roman period and found a place in the Roman army. In 215, when Septimius Heraclitus (prefect of Egypt) honoured the city of Arsinoe with a visit, a komasia was organized and a statue of Jupiter Capitolinus carried out of the temple. Furthermore, Herodian records a procession similar to the eastern komasia in the West. When Maximus arrived in Aquileia after the defeat of Maximinus in 238

“All the cities of Italy sent embassies to him of their most distinguished citizens clad in white and carrying laurel branches. Each group brought the statues of its ancestral gods…”[9]


Directly opposite the entrance lies the ciborium’s niche. It contains the remains of a fresco of the first tetrarchy. All are dressed in purple, have nimbi and stand before a blue background.[10] There would have been the two augusti (Diocletian and Maximian) in the centre with the two caesars (Galerius and Constantius Chlorus) on the sides. Maximian, however, has almost certainly been subjected to a damnatio memoriae of the variety Lactantius referred to when he wrote

eodeumque tempore senis Maximiani statuae Constantini iussu revellebantur et imagines ubicumque pictus esset, detrahebantur.”[11]

Diocletian carries a light blue globe in his left hand and a long golden sceptre in his right. The globus had been a symbol of universal rule since Caesar,[12] though the typical attitude associated with it (rector orbis) was originally a legend on the coins of Julianus. It had long been twinned with the sceptre as part of Jupiter’s regalia in imperial iconography where it was handed down to the emperor as one of the tools of rule.

Vicennalia monument, Rome

The figures, however, are not dressed in the paudamentum but graeca vestis. It became traditional for the emperor to wear the Greek pallium and the crepidae when visiting the eastern half of the empire. It was the customary dress of the Greek philosopher which later became the dress of saints in Christian art.

South wall, detail

[1] A similar monument was located in the Roman Forum where five columns were erected in AD 303 to celebrate the vicennalia (twentieth anniversary) of the tetrarchy. Four carried portrait statues of the rulers while slightly behind them in the centre stood a statue of Jupiter (Diocletian’s deus patrius).

[2] De bellis scythicis, Bonn ed. (1829), 12, line 8ff.

[3] History, XVI.x.7, LOEB I (1950), 245.

[4] Vita Constantini 1.26.

[5] A monumental gate to the Forum Boarium commissioned by the argentarii in honour of Septimus Severus and his family. It was incorporated into San Giorgio al Velabro in the seventh century.

[6] The Pompa triumphalis was the highest honour granted to a Roman: neque mangificentius quicquam triumph apud Romanos (Livy XXX.xv.12). It was the companion of the lustratio, which signified the opening of a military campaign. Its religious climax was the paying of the vota on the Capitoline Hill (which had been taken before the departure of the campaign) and the cleansing of the army from the pollution of war. Its pompa became the privilege of the emperor alone. In third century there was a tendency to connect it with the celebration of years in office or an appointment to the consulship. For processions the emperor was dressed in the tunica palmate and the toga picta (purple with golden embroideries) seated in a golden currus drawn by white chargers or elephants.

[7] The adventus commemorated the arrival the emperor in a city. It was well-established in Greece by the early fifth century BC. It was not tied to religious rites and the people involved were usually dressed in white, carried torches and flowers, and chanted acclamations.

[8] Eutropius, Breviarium, IX.23.

[9] VIII. VII.2, LOEB, II (1920) 294.

[10] The nimbi that surrounded their heads were the attributes of solar deities in particular and a symbol of divinity in general. For mortals, the nimbus first appears as a device on Indian rulers in the first to second centuries AD, while in the West the first appear in the second to third centuries AD.

[11] De mort. persec. XLII.1.

[12] A. Alfoldi, “insigniem un tracht der romnischen Kaiser” Romische Mitteilungen, 50 (1935), 60.