Rosso antico και porfido verde antico: laconic but luxurious stones!

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Article by Peter Tzeferis*

Marmor Taenarium and rosso antico were the names given by the Greeks, but especially the Romans, in the red marble, which, according to Strabo (65 BC – 23 AD) was mined near Cape Tainaro, at Mani’s Peninsula southern point, in order to grace the architectures and sculpture works of Rome at the time of great glory.

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Also, the name Lapis Lacedaemonius or porfido verde antico was given by the Romans to the greenish porphyry stone (stained by light rectangular crystals) of the Krokees, also known from ancient sources as “krokeatis stone” or Lapis croceus or Avigian ascetic porphyritic tissue as is its scientifically right name, which also enjoyed a special appreciation during the period of Roman domination.

Both were “luxurious” stones, which were mined in order to satisfy the Romans’ luxury, according to Strabo’s famous passage (VIII 5,7 = C 367): Εισί δε λατομίαι λίθου πολυτελούς του μεν Ταιναρίου εν Ταινάρω παλαιαί, νεωστί δε και εν τω Ταϋγέτω μέταλλον ανέωξάν τινες ευμέγεθες, χορηγόν έχοντες την των Ρωμαίων πολυτέλειαν!

Indeed, after the naval battle of Aktio (31 BC) and the victory of Gaius Octavius ​​(later emperor Octavianus Augustus), in which the Spartan and Laconian political party of Euricles Lacharous contributes dynamically, the coastal cities of the Laconian Peninsula became of a further geopolitical and economic importance  for Rome in the wider area of Eastern Mediterranean. Soon, starting with Tiberius Governing Principles, a new order of things with a supra-local scope and under the direct supervision of the Emperor is set in the area, the well-known political and economic association of the Commonwealth of the Liberals, which was maintained around the middle of the 300m. X. c.

The new data radically alter the residential and spatial structure of the Laconian peninsula in order to meet the modern imperatives and housing programs of the Roman Emperors. The large building projects of Augustus Rome and the successors of the emperors of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, which are intensively urbanizing, entail increased demand and trade of the luxurious – mostly colored – marble and other stones of Asia Minor, Egypt and Greece, the main recipient of which is the capital city.

One of Augustus developing programs in Greece, was implemented in Laconia by Gaius Julius Eurycles (as Eurycles Lacharius was renamed after the victorious battle of Actium) tin order to redesign and create real urban centers, organize logistics ports, create road networks etc. He is the one who later built luxurious baths in Corinth (next to the temple of Poseidon), decorated with green porphyry from the quarry of Krokees, which were considered even more glorious than those of the Emperor Hadrian in the same city (Pausanias, Corinthian B, 3, 5).

The needs for colored stones were covered by a very limited number of coloured stone quarries of excellent quality – which belonged to three different territories of the Commonwealth cities: the Krokees quarry, which belonged to the territory of Gytheion (for porfido verde antico), the quarry of Prophet Elias Dimaristikon that belonged to the territory of the New Town and the quarry of Skoutari – Paganeas that belonged to the territory of the city of Las (for the rosso antico).

In addition, during this period, other colored or white stones, such as fior di persico or black bigio morato or white marble of the Taenaria peninsula. Besides, the area of ​​Mani, and in particular the Sagias Mountain, is the only marble area of ​​the Greek area, in which the entire sequence of “Plattenkalk” of the outer metamorphic zone develops. However, this mining activity appears to be on a more limited scale than the three export centers mentioned above, with the aim of mainly domestic consumption, ie the urban centers of the Commonwealth of the Liberals.

The extraction and handling of materials is organized at a high level, as mass production and standardization impose. Indeed, partly during the Tiberius rule and, in any case, on Domitian (generally Flavians) and thereafter, the most efficient quarries of luxury rocks in Greece, as well as other places, are generally governed by a state imperial monopoly. During Hadrian’s rule (117 AD -138 AD), crocodile stone quarries were an imperial monopoly while its production and trafficking was supervised by a special housekeeper of the imperial house. An impressive example of the infrastructure that has been developed is that the quarry at Prophet Elias in Mani is connected both to the stone-paved road (for transporting the quarry products) and to the ancient port facility at Agios Kyprianos, as well as to the ancient settlement of Spira, where significant prehistoric findings have been found. On the ancient road, which survives in a relatively good condition for over 500 meters, wooden towers were placed, which were allowed to slip on the downhill or their speed was controlled by ropes wrapped in wooden stakes. Major port facilities survive on the peninsula of Paganeas, which continued their operation during the later 19th century extraction period. Finally, the transfer of the crocodile stone to the various parts of the Roman empire was probably done through the ancient Spartan harbor in the area of ​​Trineasa in the municipality of Krokees.

The use of rosso antico in statues, sculptures, and various architectural-decorative elements- is for granted. Besides, the first exploitation and use of this material began in the Late Bronze Age, during which the radiance of Minoan civilization would leave its footsteps intensively in the civilizations of the Aegean (Late Cycladic Period 1600-1100 BC). During the Roman era, red marble was considered one of the most luxurious stones because of its color, similar to that used in the garments of wealthy, powerful people and especially emperors. It was widely used in the arcade decorative paintings (Opus Sectile type, ie piece work in a variety of compositions) in the period of Augustus and onwards. From the time of the Flavians, and especially during the Hadrian’s era, it was used in sculptures representing the deacon of Bacchus and the other figures of his Thyasos (fauns, satyrs, goats, centaurs, etc.), a practice that had obvious symbolic significance, with the color of the stone resembling that of the wine.

In later seasons, and especially after the second half of the 19th century, some ancient rosso antico quarries were rediscovered and reactivated by Greek and British companies in the context of the developing economy of the newly established Greek State. Bavarian sculptor Christian H. Siegel (1808-1883), the first teacher of Sculpture at the Athens School of Arts, contributed to this action and later – at the end of the century and at the beginning of the 20th century, Grecian Marbles (Marmor ltd). It is the same company that opened quarries in many areas mainly in island Greece (Tinos, Paros, Naxos, Chios, Evia, Skyros etc) and which continued to trade red marble until 1940. Unfortunately, Siegel never published his notes nor his plans, but neither the valuable files of Marmor Ltd still exist in their entirety. At the same time, the void in primary sources of the ancient quarries will be difficult to be filled due to the many destructive quarry exploitation of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The new 19th-century mines resulted in the export of rosso antico in Britain, used in churches, especially in the St. Paul and Westminster Cathedral in London, in commercial and university buildings, private homes and, as a gift from the Greek Government, at the base of Lord Byron’s statue at London’s Park Lane (see Figure 5).

The use of crocodile stone was the same, except for sculptures, because there were no large volumes to allow such use. Indeed, it is a volcanic rock, which during its cooling broke, so that pieces rarely encountered in dimensions greater than 0.5X0.5X0.5 of a meter. The crocodile stone was widely used by the Romans in the construction of architectural members, orthomacharas and marble works, in which public buildings and private luxury residences in Rome (Saint Savvas, Santa Maria Maggiore) are decorated in opus sectile works, in the Palazzo Massimo Archaeological Museum, in the basilicas of St. Peter, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Constantinople (Hagia Sophia, Holy Apostles), Ravenna (Saint Apollinarios the New), Ephesus, Egypt (Saint Catherine in Sinai), Spain and elsewhere in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Emperor Domitian used it to decorate his palace, the ruins of which are located in Trevignano Romano near Rome. Finally, the crocodile stone was recently selected for the decoration of the 300 Spartans cenotaph in Thermopylae.

Unfortunately, today, although 2018 has been designated as the European Year of Cultural Heritage, no action in the country is related to these stones: neither quarrying which could be beneficial and profitable, nor archaeometric studies to verify the origin and identification of marbles, not even an effort of museum showcase of the mining sites, the ancient quarries. All that has been done is an effort to mark the ancient quarries at the place of Psifi in Krokees and St. Elias in Dimaristika of Mani, respectively, efforts that should be continued for the further development of these quarries, which are undoubtedly among the important ones in  Greek-Roman mediterranean space!

*Dr. N.T.U.Athens – Author and General Director of Raw Mineral Materials Department, Ministry of Environment and Energy