The only Roman emperor's sceptre to have been found has gone on public display in Rome for the first time.
The sceptre, which is topped by a blue orb that represents the earth, was discovered at the end of last year and is believed to have been held by Emperor Maxentius, who ruled for six years until 312AD.
Maxentius, who was known for his vices and his incapacity, drowned in the Tiber while fighting forces loyal to his brother-in-law, Constantine, at the battle of the Milvian bridge. Archaeologists believe that Maxentius' supporters hid the sceptre during or after the battle to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
It was found at the base of the Palatine hill, carefully wrapped in silk and linen and then placed in a wooden box. Alongside it were other boxes holding two other imperial battle standards and ceremonial lance heads. The depth of the burial allowed archaeologists to date the find to Maxentius' rule.
Sceptres, often two to three foot ivory rods topped with a globe or an eagle, were introduced by Augustus as a symbol of Rome's power. They would be carried by emperors while riding in chariots to celebrate military victories.
While emperors were often pictured on coins and in paintings holding a sceptre, no example of the real thing had been found up until last year. "We have never seen them for real before, there have been no similar findings," said Angelo Bottini, the head of Rome's archaeology department.
Clementina Panella, the archaeologist at Rome's La Sapienza University who made the find said that the grip of the sceptre was made of Orichalcum, a legendary gold-coloured brass alloy which parts of the sunken city of Atlantis were said to be forged from.
"These artifacts clearly belonged to Maxentius, the sceptre is very elaborate," she said.
Darius Arya, a professor at the American Institute for Roman Culture, said it was an "amazing" find. "You don't find that kind of wealth in Rome, you find fragments and pieces, but not in such good condition." The sceptre is now on display at the National Museum of Rome.
The Palatine Hill has yielded several important discoveries in the last few months, and is the focus of a major reconstruction plan.
The Italian government has stepped up attempts to preserve its cultural heritage, and has earmarked €20 million to save the hill from crumbling. More money will be raised in a telethon on Italian television.
Meanwhile, the government has ordered a police investigation into the disappearance of an ancient statue, which is thought to have gone missing when the famous Riace warriors were dredged from the sea in the 1970s.
The 6ft 6in warriors were one of Italy's most important archaeological finds, and attracted over a million visitors when they first went on display.
The two existing statues were spotted by Stefano Mariottini, a scuba diver on holiday. However, Giuseppe Bragho, an art detective, said a third statue "completely different from the other two", as well as two shields and a lance, were seen on the sea bed by Mr Mariottini.
The statues are so lifelike that when Mr Mariottini first saw them, half-buried 300 metres from the Calabrian coast, he thought he had found a set of corpses.
... a photo of the sceptre accompanies the original article... but why was that Atlantis reference needed? ... more on the Riace Bronzes below
Al Schlaf notes:
My guess is that the writer looked up orichalcum in a dictionary and found a reference to Plato's Atlantis story, so just tossed it in.
Instructive on the use of this alloy is the publication from The American Numismatic Society from 1964, "Orichalcum and Related Ancient Alloys" (Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 151) by Earle C. Caley. Imperial Rome seems to have had a monopoly on this alloy. It was mostly used for coins, sestertii, dupondii, semises and, sometimes, asses (the latter mostly under Nero). However, there are some other, non-coin objects that have been found and discussed in the monograph. It is very interesting that this scepter if of this material.
Personally, I suspect the opening line of the Wikipedia article is to blame for this one ...