|Photo edited (cropped) from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 4.1 (pg.20).||Photo from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 6.1 (pg.22)|
In 2010, an excavation carried out by the Soprintendenza Archeologica per l’Umbria (SAR) in the town of Todi (Umbria) revealed a quadrangular structure dated to the late 2nd century AD, consisting of worked travertine slabs and reinforced at the corners with iron clamps. The structure was capped with two large slabs (118 x 60 x 18cm and 117 x 60 x 18cm) bearing the inscriptions FVLGVR and CONDITVM, which indicated that the archaeologists had discovered a Roman monument marking the ritual burial of a lightning bolt (fulmen condere).
Photo from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 10.1 (pg.26)
This practice originally derived from the Etruscan art of lightning divination (disciplina fulguralis) and its specialised procedure was likely defined in Libri Fulgurales, a sacred text supposedly revealed by the nymph Vegoia. It, along with many other fulgural traditions, was adopted by the Romans because they recognized the Etruscans as masters of lightning divination from as early as the 3rd century BC.
Literary sources can shed light on the discovery at Todi. They tell us that following a lightning strike, a priest (a member of the sacerdotes bidentales) was required to perform a purification rite on the land to acknowledge the divine fulgural message, as well as sanctify the site. In doing so, the ritual served to preserve a healthy relationship with the gods. The 1st-century AD poet Lucan, for instance, mentions a venerable Etruscan seer named Arruns, who suggested the Romans expiate a lightning omen by collecting the scattered fires of the thunderbolt and burying them in the earth (B. Civ. 1.584–637. Cf. Apul. De deo Socr. 7; Schol. Pers. 2.26). It was an integral part of the ritual: any material objects damaged by the lightning were to be retrieved and consecrated to the gods by burying them in a pit or small enclosure, a bidental, which visually commemorated the lightning omen. Evidence for this practice can be seen at Todi: within the structural cavity (60 x 60 x 90cm) the archaeologists discovered 712 meticulously placed marble pieces (of varying sizes and shapes), as well as fragments of metal, pottery, and bone. Some of the marble fragments, thought to have lined the walls of a nearby building, even showed signs of heat damage – possibly as the result of the lightning strike.
The grammarian Festus (probably of the 2nd century AD) provides further details that support these interpretations. He tells us that the ritual involved sacrificing a two-year-old lamb on the site. Indeed, the obscure name ‘bidental’ derives from the Latin word bidens, which literally means ‘having two teeth’ but typically relates to the age of the sacrificial animal (Gloss. Lat. 30.15-19 L. Cf. Macrob. Sat. 6.9.5). Of the animal bones that were discovered at Todi, some belonged to sheep (of undetermined age) and had been charred, perhaps as part of the ritual.
Furthermore, Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that the sacred ground on which the lightning fell was to neither be looked at nor trodden on (23.5). The find at Todi also bears witness to this tradition. Firstly, the large slabs of travertine placed on all sides sealed the structure and prevented view of the collected contents. Secondly, while the monument itself dates to the late 2nd century AD, related contexts (the date of which was determined by material finds) suggest that part of the structure remained above ground for a long period of time, preventing people from stepping over it.
On multiple levels, then, the monument discovered at Todi can correlate with our understanding of the ritual as presented in the literary sources and, moreover, it helps piece together the various snippets of information they collectively describe. The structure and its contents thus allow the literary and material evidence to work together to better our understanding of a diverse range of topics: about the nature of space and the transformation of space into sacred ground, about the adoption of Etruscan religious practices in Rome, about how natural phenomena were seen as supernatural, as well as about the public and private performing of rituals, and many others. As new examples of fulgura condita are discovered, it only broadens the capacity for what we can learn. Indeed, across Europe, hundreds of examples have already been discovered. Most are identified by a simple tile inscribed fulgur conditum or as an acronym (FCS = Fulgur Conditum Summanium; FDC = Fulgur Dium Conditum), but in some cases, such as at Todi, the monument and its contents are more substantial. In the Casa dei Quattro Stili (House of the Four Styles) at Pompeii, for example, a hollow in the ground was discovered in 1939, filled with fragments of tiles, utensils, cement and stucco, all of which lay beneath a small mound of beaten earth and a broken tile inscribed FVLGVR (Maiuri 1942: 56-72; Van Andringa et al. 2010). Another lightning burial was excavated in 1941, in the southwest corner of the peristyle of a house at Ostia, subsequently named the Domus Fulminata, the House of the Thunderbolt (Van der Meer 2005). Here, a marble plaque was discovered, inscribed with the letters FDC and this time the chamber was filled with fragments of terracotta tiles, glass, the handle of an amphora, an unrecognisable bronze artefact, and a section of pavement. Other examples have been excavated in the Roman colony of Minturnae (Degrassi 1971: 123-127), at Vulci (Buranelli 1991: 161–166), Luni (Frova 1973: 820-830), and near the Theatre of Pompey (Pietrangeli 1949-1951: 44-52), to name but a few examples.
The similarities in their form and function over many centuries and locations therefore attest to the ritual's widespread significance in Roman culture. For archaeologists and ancient historians, this is particularly exciting because our understanding of this significance will continue to develop as more lightning burial monuments come to light.
Buranelli, F. (1991) “Il «fulgur conditum» di Vulci” in Gli scavi a Vulci della società Vincenzo Campanari-Governo Pontificio (1835-1837), L’Erma di Bretschneider, Roma: 161-163.
Degrassi, A. (1971) “Il bidental di Minturno” in Scritti vari di Antichità, Società Istriana di Archeologia e Storia Patria, Trieste: 123-127.
Frova, A. and Bertino, A. (1973) Scavi di Luni: relazione preliminare delle campagne di scavo, 1970–1971. Roma, L'Erma di Bretschneider.
Laubry, N. (2016) "Les « Coups De Foudre » De Jupiter Et L'exportation De La Religion Romaine En Gaule" in Gallia 73, no. 2: 123-44.
Manconi, D, and Spiganti, S. (2017) “Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)” in Otium 3: 1–40.
Maiuri, A. (1941) “Fulgur conditum o della scoperta di un bidental a Pompei” in Rendiconti della R. Accadema de Archeologia Lettere e belle Arti, 21: 53-72.
Pietrangeli C. (1949-1951) “Bidentalia”, RPAA, XXV-XXVI: 37-52.
Turfa, J. M. (2012) Divining the Etruscan World: the Brontoscopic Calendar and religious practice. Cambridge University Press.
Van Andringa, W. et al. (2010), “Pompeii: Le fulgur conditum de la maison des Quatre Styles, I, 8, 17) in The Journal of Fasti Online, accessed (03.08.21): http://www.fastionline.org/excavation/micro_view.php?fst_cd=AIAC_2532&curcol=main_column
Van der Meer, L. B. (2005) “Domus Fulminata. The House of the Thunderbolt at Ostia (III, VII, 3–5)”, in Bulletin van de Antieke Beschaving 80: 91–111.
Weinstock, S. (1951) “Libri Fulgurales” in Papers of the British School at Rome (New Series Volume 6), 19: 122-153.
This post was written by Jon Madge, a final year PhD researcher of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His thesis explores the interaction between politics and celestial omens – lightning, comets, and luminary optics – from Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC to that of Domitian in AD 96.
|Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia, Rome. Creative Commons CC0.|
There are two ways of seeing the Tomb of the Rabirii, and both will need you to travel to Rome. The first is the easiest: you could go and see the tomb relief – the real version – on the ground floor of the Museo Palazzo Massimo, opposite Termini Station (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Pay attention though, or you may walk right past, as the tomb relief vies for attention with some of the ancient world’s most famous masterpieces: the bronze Boxer at rest and Hellenistic prince statues are just opposite.
|Original portrait relief from the Tomb of the Rabirii. It is now on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Author's photograph.|
But my favourite option means escaping the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Head southeast, past the Circus Maximus, keep going past the colossal remains of the thermae of Caracalla, and further still, until you’ve gone through the imposing Porta San Sebastiano and are on the Via Appia. About four miles down the picturesque ancient road, just past the turning at Via degli Eugenii, you will come across the Tomb of the Rabirii.
|The Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia with the plaster cast relief. Author's Photograph.|
Roman law prescribed that the dead be buried outside of settlements. This means that the roads leading into cities became highways of memory – “an unsleeping thoroughfare” according to Propertius’ characterisation – creating a constantly evolving link between past and present. The Tomb of the Rabirii, then, would once have been just one of a number of similar memorials, which could range in scale from simple stone inscriptions to magnificent marble mausolea. All were meant to be very public and very visible to preserve memory in the eyes of the passing public.
This tomb is far from the most grandiose memorial on the Via Appia – that particular prize probably belongs to the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. However, the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to investigate the relationship in Roman society between memory, material, re-use and identity. Typically, investigations into material re-use are viewed through the prism of censorship, of damnatio memoriae and the erasure of an emperor’s tyrannical legacy: the clever cutting of a disgraced emperor’s coiffure was a convenient way of upcycling imperial portraits. Elsewhere, there are attempts to uncover deeper, ideological and propagandistic meanings in the re-use of materials on state monuments, such as on the Arch of Constantine.
The aedicular relief scene on the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to explore these concepts at a much less rarefied atmosphere. Identifying the individuals on this tomb allows us to investigate the complexities that underpinned Roman memory culture at a non-elite level as well as their attitudes to materiality.
The monument’s façade, clad in Luna marble, has perhaps lost some of its decorative elements. However, the relief panel still holds intrigue. This relief comprises three bust-length portraits, one male and two female, all of which are carved in high relief. Below the portraits, a Latin inscription runs parallel to the length of the panel. In the nominative case, this inscription (CIL VI.2246) states:
C · RABIRIVS · POST · L HERMODORVS RABIRIA DEMARIS VSIA · PRIMA · SAC ISIDIS
G(aius) Rabirius Post(umi) Li(bertus) Hermordorus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima Sac(erdos or rorum) Isidis
Which translates as: Gaius Rabirius Hermodorus, freedman of Postumus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima, Priestess (or of the Devotees) of Isis.
|Portrait relief and inscription from the Tomb of the Rabirii. Author's Photograph.|
In identifying these individuals, the only surety we have is that Gaius Raibirius Hermodorus was the freedman (libertus) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is described by the Museo Nazionale as one of the number of slaves released in the period between the second triumvirate (c. 43-32 BC) and the Augustan age (c. 27 BC – AD 14). Hermodorus’ manumission is indicated by his toga, a symbol of Roman citizenship. Likewise, traditional Roman nomenclature was a vehicle of social mobility. Here, Hermodorus has been supplemented by the praenomen (first name) and nomen (family name) of his former master.
Readers of Cicero may recognise the name Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is believed to be the freedman of the same individual defended by Cicero in 54/3 BC against a charge of financial misconduct (Pro Rabirio Postumu). Rabirius was a wealthy equestrian and banker. Having lent a large sum of money to Ptolemy XII Auletes in Alexandria, Rabirius was granted the extraordinary position of dioketes (chief royal treasurer). In lieu of traditional repayment, Rabirius instead extorted his money back through taxation. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians soon rioted and Auletes imprisoned Rabirius. Cicero claims that in escaping back to Rome, Rabirius wound up destitute. Behind this rhetorical bluff, it is more likely that Rabirius escaped with significant wealth, including in slaves. One of these may have been this Hermodorus, with the name popular in Egypt and Alexandria especially.
To Hermodorus’ right, in the centre of the relief, is a mature female figure. This is Rabiria Demaris. Based on the epigraphic nomenclature, Rabiria was probably also a freed slave. Her portrait, however, emphasises her Roman identity; the palla (mantle) over her left shoulder proclaims Rabiria to be a Roman citizen. It is probably that she was the wife of Hermodorus, and if you look closely, you may spot the ring on the third finger of her left hand (it is unclear whether she wears a stola beneath her mantle, another sure sign of her status as matrona, or legally married). Most likely then, these two were married colliberti (freed slaves of the same master) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Taking Rabirius name allowed these slaves to bolster their nascent social status through the expected recognition of their former master.
The identity and status of the third figure, to the viewer’s right, and her presence on the monument, is rather more difficult to ascertain.
Identified epigraphically as Usia Prima, it is unclear whether she was a freeborn citizen or, like Rabiria, a liberta. Like her partner in perpetuity, she also wears a palla, however. Similarly, her name is curious. It is attested in only one other inscription (CIL XIII.12064), but it is close to the Greek word οὐσία (ousia, meaning essence), a term commonly in the spells of authors such as Lucan and Apuleius (Metamorphoses 2.32; 3.15-18).
Combining text, iconography, and literature can provide further insight. The inscription SAC ISIDIS proclaims that Usia had some kind of association with the cult of Isis, either as a priestess (sacerdos Isidis) or devotee (sacrorum Isidis). Female participation in the cult is presumed to have been low, based on epigraphic evidence, but priestesses are not unknown. Although her specific role is unclear, Usia’s association with the cult of Isis is communicated through iconographic cues. A garland of flowers in her hair recalls, much like her name, the works of Apuleius: Book XI.1-4 of his Metamorphoses describes the navigium Isidis, an Isaic festival, that was led by similarly garlanded women. A sistrum (the musical instrument) to her right and the patera to her left, also convey Usia’s Isaic connections.
Why is Usia here? Closer inspection of the relief reveals that she wasn’t always. Both the portrait and inscription of Usia testify to the monument’s re-use. There are several tell-tale signs on the portrait. Usia’s head is disproportionately small compared to her body, whilst a flatness to the figure suggests that this may once have been a male figure. This has affected the finishing on her clothing, as well as the proportions of both shoulders and neck. It is safe to assume that the patera and sistrum are also later additions. The differences in letter size between the names of Hermodorus, Rabiria and Usia are clear indicators of epigraphic reuse, as is the point of transition between the final ‘A’ of Rabiria and the ‘V’ of Usia. Someone has been obliterated from the historical record through Usia’s intervention on this monument.
Why Usia has been represented on this relief can only be speculated. Based on nomenclature, she was not a relation of the Rabirri. Instead, it has been argued that she has appropriated space on this tomb to exploit its mnemonic links to Alexandria, which would commemorate and communicate her association with the cult of Isis. An association with Hermodorus, likely involved in Gaius Rabirius Postumus’ dodgy dealings in Egypt, and the use of additional iconography, prompts the knowing viewer to make these connections. Usia’s reuse celebrated a relationship with Egypt and its cults through the considered appropriation of this memorial.
Usia’s re-use of this tomb, appearing to obliterate at least one identity, seems shocking, almost as the misuse of an inviolable monument. A previous investigation has suggested four possible scenarios:
1) Usia purchased the tomb, or a space within it, from Hermodorus’ legal heirs.
2) Usia inherited this tomb. The time between the original portraits and Usia’s reuse could be as long as a century. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Usia was connected to a Hermodorus’ heirs.
3) Usia took over the tomb. The nomen Rabirius is rare in Rome, suggesting the family died out. Usia would have been free to claim this prime memorial real estate for herself.
4) Usia was added to this tomb by her own successors. Her sudden death may have necessitated the pragmatic use of available space.
The reason for Usia’s reuse remains ultimately unknowable, but the Tomb of the Rabirri nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into the ancient world, allowing social identities that are otherwise muted to be written back into an understanding of non-elite Roman memory culture, with Usia herself an active participant. Alongside that, it should remind us, if indeed Usia did aim to commemorate her Isaic and Alexandrian links through the infamous case of Gaius Rabirius Postumus, that the Romans were just as obsessed with their history as we are today.
For more information on the tomb of the Rabirii, see especially:
Cupello K. E., and L. A. Hughes, ‘Reuse, the Roman Funerary Monument and the Rabirii: Violation of Memory or Commemoration of Past and Present?’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, (2010) 5, 3-23, 365 with notes and bibliography.
Germini, B., ‘Funeral Relief of the Rabirii and Usia Prima’, A. La Regina, (ed.), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, (Milan, 1998)
Kockel, V., Porträtreliefs stadtrömischer Grabbauten: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und zum Verständnis des spätrepublikanisch-frühkaiserzeitlichen Privatporträts, (Mainz am Rhein, 1993).
On Roman memorial and mortuary practices more generally, see:
Carroll, M., Spirits of the dead: Roman funerary commemoration in Western Europe, (Oxford, 2006).
Hope, V. M., and J. Huskinson, (eds.), Memory and mourning: studies on Roman death, (Oxford, 2011).
|Kieren is a final year PhD researcher at the Universtiy of Warwick. He is currently writing up his thesis, which is an investigation of the epigraphic representation of Roman emperors in the period 180 to 235, or from the reign of Commodus to Alexander Severus, supervised by Professor Alison Cooley and Dr Clare Rowan. You can read more about his research interests, including papers presented, on his student profile.|
Terracotta figurine of a man grating cheese over a bowl (Thebes Museum).
(Author's own photograph).
The first time I saw this little object I was a PhD student studying at the British School of Athens, on a tour of Boeotia, back in 2004. The group had headed to the old archaeological museum at Thebes: ancient columns were strewn about the garden (some being used as coffee tables), and the building itself looked like it had some claim to being a relic. But nothing could prepare me for the riot of painted colour that confronted me in the museum: grave reliefs still vibrantly painted, and in unremarkable cabinets sat a plethora of small terracotta objects, resplendent in technicolour.
One of these was the ‘cheese-grater’. Just 9.7cm in height and 11.2cm in length, the model depicted a man sitting on a stool bent over a bowl. A shining knife lay on the floor beside the bowl, and over the bowl he held a block of cheese in one hand and a cheese grater in the other. What seems to be grated cheese pours into the bowl beneath.
The brand new museum of Thebes (well worth a visit when next in Greece!) has this object on display, and it also takes pride of place on their website (you can see it here: https://www.mthv.gr/en/permanent-exhibition/archaic-period/#image-23). You can also get up close to it via a 3D laser scan, which allows you to see the object from every angle, as if it were in your hands. Check it out here: https://www.mthv.gr/en/virtual-museum/3d-models/terracotta-figurine-of-a-male-grating-cheese-into-a-basin/.
It’s objects like this, I think, that completely make you re-think what it was like to be surrounded by the material culture of the ancient Greek world. It’s not just the vibrant colour of the object, reminding you of the highly coloured world of the ancient Greeks (compared to our modern visions of ‘classical’ white marble and stone). It’s the fact that someone chose to make, buy and own (and display?) this object as an active choice. Someone thought this was a worthy (and/or perhaps fun?), miniature statue to have in their lives. For a world filled with epic heroes, gods, mighty armies, great poets, intelligent philosophers and powerful political demagogues, the humble cheese grater is a refreshing reminder of the normal everyday life of the ancient Greeks and the world around them.
Found back in 1908, the cheese-grater was part of a burial assemblage excavated near modern-day Rhitsona (most likely the necropolis of the ancient Boeotian polis of Mykalissos). The grave was dated via the ceramics to ca. 500 BC. This little terracotta figurine was one of the many items in the burial assemblage of grave 18, and was but one of a number of miniature terracotta figurines included with the deceased, including models of doves, tortoises, frogs, dogs, rabbits, the half figure of a female and a full figure reclining. This item was thus something the deceased, or those around him, thought not just appropriate to have with them in life but also in death.
Ancient Boeotians are renowned for having a fondness for miniature terracotta figurines conducting everyday tasks from an early date (another favourite of mine is of a barber cutting a seated person’s hair). Boeotia would too in later centuries become well-known for creating a style of human terracotta figurine that was copied in other parts of Greece too (the ‘Tanagra Figurine’). So the small terracotta model may well be understood as a ‘Boeotian thing’ – but why a cheese-grater? Compounding the importance of the question is that we know this is not a one-off: other models of cheese-graters have also been found (like that currently in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).
One way of answering this question is to look more widely at the use and meaning of cheese-grating in the ancient world (you never thought studying Classics would take you down this path did you – I certainly didn’t!).
In Homer’s Iliad (11.640ff), Nestor’s servant (Hecamede) prepares a special drink for him to share with the hero Machaon who has been wounded in battle (they have both been in the fighting):
“Therein the woman, like to the goddesses, mixed a potion for them with Pramnian wine, and on this she grated cheese of goat's milk with a brazen grater, and sprinkled thereover white barley meal; and she bade them drink, when she had made ready the potion. Now when both had drunk and quenched their parching thirst, and were enjoying the pleasure of their conversation.”
Now we may baulk at the idea of grating cheese on our wine, but it seems to have been just the ticket for two battle weary heroic souls. Moreover, archaeological excavations tell us that cheese-graters, as part of a heroic warrior’s key kit, was not just the stuff of Homeric epic. The oldest known cheese-graters (in Greek turoknestis - normally a piece of bronze/silver/copper [or even terracotta] pierced with lots of small holes to give it the rough edge to grate) to be found were made from bronze and found in warrior burials at the Toumba cemetery in Lefkandi dating to the 9thcentury BC.
Other surviving examples of cheese-graters have been found in a number of orientalising and elite 7th century BC burials along the Tyrrhenian seaboard of Italy. Here again they seem to be a key part of the ‘symposium drinking set’ buried with the elite deceased.
Potentially then the humble cheese-grater, and our terracotta cheese grater, actually carried heroic and elite sympotic connotations, considered as a natural part of a warrior’s/ elite’s personal property.
|Grave-group with grater from Trebbia, Campania (Ridgeway 1997).|
That militaristic connotation of the cheese-grater seems to echo down through into 5th century BCE comedy. In Aristophanes’s Clouds, in which the dog Labes is put on trial for eating the Sicilian cheese, a cheese-grater is called as a witness. The play parodies an Athenian general Laches, who has been put on trial for embezzlement of military funds during the Sicilian expedition (hence Labes/Sicilian cheese in the play). But there is another joke at work here, as the Athenian base of operations in Sicily was Catana (modern-day Catania). In Sicilian dialect, katana means a ‘grater’ and Catana was on occasion as a result called the cheese-grater city (Plutarch Dion 58.2).
So was this stunning little terracotta buried with someone ca. 500 BC in Boeotia as a neat, very Boeotian, way of linking into the long-standing heroic militaristic and elite meta-narrative of the cheese grater? It’s tempting to see it as such. But as for what this little object tells us about another cheese-grating mystery (Aristophanes’ description in Lysistrata of a sexual position as ‘the lioness on a cheese-grater’), well that is another story….
R. Burrows & P. Ure (1908) ‘Excavations at Rhitsóna in Boeotia’ in The Annual of the British School at Athens, 14, 226-318.
C. Kerr Prince (2009) ‘The Lioness and the Cheese-Grater (Ar. Lys. 231-232) in Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, 4th series, 7:2: 149 - 175.
L. A. Post (1932) ‘Catana the Cheese-Grater in Aristophanes’ Wasps’ in The American Journal of Philology 53(3) 265-266.
D. Ridgway (1997) ‘Nestor’s Cup and the Etruscans’ in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 16 (3) 325-344.
B. Sparkes (1962) ‘The Greek Kitchen’ in The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 82. 121-137
This post was written by Michael Scott, Professor in Classics and Ancient History and Director of the Institute of Engagement at the University of Warwick. Michael is also President of the Lytham Saint Annes Classical Association, Trustee and Director of Classics for All and an Honorary Citizen of Delphi, Greece. He is the author of several books on the ancient Mediterranean world as well as ancient Global History; and has written and presented a range of TV and Radio documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, ITV and the BBC.
Canister, Museum of London, Object ID LLS02<3014>
Height 53mm, Diameter 58mm.
Images reproduced here with the kind permission of the Museum of London.
In the 21st century, not only is there a vast array of skin-care products and cosmetics on the market, with a huge variety of purposes, ingredients and finishes to choose from, but there are also ethical issues to be considered, such as animal testing and environmental sustainability. A plethora of questions accompany every purchase: peptides, retinol, or collagen? AHAs, Vitamin C or ceramides? Anti-ageing or anti-pollution? Highlight or hide? Hydrate or illuminate? The options are endless.
For the Roman consumer, the choice may have been less daunting, although perhaps fraught with other issues. In 2003, archaeologists were excavating a Roman temple precinct at Tabard Square in Southwark, London, when they made the remarkable discovery of the undecorated tin canister pictured above, which is now on display in the Museum of London. It dates to ca. 150 CE, and given that it was found alongside some intact pottery vessels, and a reasonable quantity and range of other small finds, it has been interpreted as being a ritual, perhaps votive deposit, rather than having been discarded.
Not only is the canister, with its closely fitted lid, a significant find, but its contents, complete with the imprints of fingerprints, are truly extraordinary. It provided a unique opportunity for a team at the University of Bristol to conduct chemical analysis on the soft cream contained inside the canister. This showed that the cream was unperfumed and made from an animal-based fat source (either from sheep or cattle), with added starch (produced from boiling roots or grains in water), and stannic oxide/cassiterite, i.e. tin, which gave a white pigment to the cream. Tin was available in Roman Britain from Cornish tin mines and was used as a substitute for white lead which had commonly been used in Roman cosmetics to whiten the face. The toxicity of white lead had been recognised by the time this cream was produced, and tin may therefore have been a desirable alternative. The University of Bristol team also recreated the cream from their analysis, and although it initially felt greasy when rubbed into the skin, it then left a white powdery smooth texture. There did not appear to be any medicinal value to the cream, and this supports its probable use as being a cosmetic to lighten skin tone.
Another similar, although slightly larger, canister was also found in the excavations at Tabard Square, but it was empty, damaged and missing its lid. However, it is interesting to compare the cream-containing canister with a bronze canister found in Pompeii (Museo Archeologico Nationale di Napoli Inv. No. 5568), which I believe is currently on display in the “Venustas” exhibition in Pompeii (you can see an image of it here: https://www.facebook.com/pompeiisoprintendenza/photos/pcb.2365921063715098/2365918810381990). It came from the House of the Lovers (I, 10, 11), and the shape of the canister and lid appear similar to the Tabard Square container, although this one has further decoration in the form of a small figurine of a child holding grapes and a ball on the lid. The canisters could also have contained other cosmetic preparations such as beautifying masks or treatments, commonly made from honey and vinegar mixed with other organic substances. Additionally, cosmetics based on different pigments were obtained from a wide range of mineral sources, and used as eye shadows, kohl, lip and cheek colours.
However, in antiquity, there was a distinction and indeed tension, between the preservation of beauty via the use of creams and other preparations, which was deemed acceptable, and artificial embellishment, such as via the use of cosmetics, which was considered unacceptable or even immoral (e.g. Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos 12.434-5, 445-6, 449-50 K.). These ideas are also evident in later Roman moralisation around the use of such cosmetics, with the albeit male dominated sources implying cosmetics were deceptive and suggestive of sexual immorality. Horace creates a vivid mocking image of a woman’s makeup melting in the heat of passion (Epodes 12.10-11); Seneca the Younger praises his mother for not having “defiled” her face with the use of cosmetics (De Consolatione ad Helviam 16.4); whilst Juvenal scorns women beautifying themselves for their lovers (Satire 6.461-470). However, Ovid gives recipes for treatments both to preserve and enhance female beauty in his treatise De Medicamina Faciei and specifically includes the use of “cerussa”, in one of the recipes (Ovid, Medicamina Faciei, 73). Pliny the Elder (Natural History 34.175-180) describes two methods to produce cerussa, which basically involved the combination/dissolving of white lead shavings into vinegar. The resulting substance was then dried out and formed into blocks, giving a fair complexion when applied to the face. Fair skin and a smooth complexion were idealised in the Roman world as being a marker of not just social status, but also of beauty, and sexual attractiveness. There is a variety of evidence which attests to this, for example, Horace describes how Achilles loved Briseis because of her snow-white skin (Ode 2.4); and the later long laudatory epitaph to Allia Potestas contains several references to the fairness and perfection of her skin (CIL 6.37965).
Therefore, although the Roman consumer may not have had so large a variety as the modern day, it would appear that there were certainly a range of different options to maintain, improve or even whiten the skin. Equally, there was certainly a variety of opinion on the use of cosmetic preparations, but unfortunately, we lack any clear female perspective as to their utilisation, which could perhaps balance the social contextualisation. Undoubtedly, the canister from Tabard Square, and more significantly its contents, are such a rare and remarkable find, and one which allowed the chemical analysis to not only replicate its contents, but also authenticate the cream’s effects. Likewise, it demonstrates that attention was being paid to the presumably elite female toilette, even in the remote province of Roman Britain. It may also signify a wider, and potentially influential, geographical spread of the utilisation of cosmetic preparations throughout the Roman empire in the second century AD, probably due to the mobility of merchants as well as spouses and families of the Roman governing elite.
Evershed, R.P., Berstan, R., Grew, F., Copley, M.S., Charmant, A.J.H., Barham, E., Mottram, H.R. and Brown, G. (2004) “Formulation of a Roman cosmetic” in Nature, Vol. 432 (London, Springer Nature) pp. 35-36.
Johnson, M. (2016) Ovid on Cosmetics: Medicamina faciei femineae and related texts (London, Bloomsbury Academic).
Killock, D., Shepherd, J., Gerrard, J., Hayward, K., Rielly, K. and Ridgeway, V. (2015) Temples and Suburbs, Excavations at Tabard Square, Southwark (London, Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited).
Museum of London, https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/727368.html
Olson, K. (2008) Dress and the Roman Woman: self-presentation and society (London, Routledge).
Stefani, G. (2020) “Creme, trucchi e acconciature. Il trucco c'e ma e meglio che non si veda” in eds. M. Osanna and G. Stefani, Venustas, Grazia e Bellezza a Pompei (Naples, arte’m) pp. 61-65.
|Shoulder lekythos by the Bowdoin Painter depicting Nike (?), pouring from a patera at an altar, Walters 48257, side A. Creative Commons CC0.|
*quoted from Patton (2009), 42.
This example of Greek pottery is a lekythos, dated to c. 480 – 470 BC, painted in the red-figure technique. It depicts the winged goddess of victory, Nike. While the findspot of this lekythos is not recorded, it is Athenian in origin, and it is now in the possession of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (48.257), although it is not currently on display. It is attributed to the Bowdoin Painter, whose career spanned at least 30 years, from c. 480 BC – 450 BC, based on other dated examples of their work.
Here, Nike is depicted in flight, facing to the right, holding a phiale, a shallow bowl used for pouring libations during rituals, in her right hand and an oval-shaped object in her left, possibly a fruit. An altar is depicted below the goddess, to her right, on which a fire burns and onto which Nike pours liquid from her phiale. She wears a chiton underneath a himation, disc earrings, serpentine braceletes and a ribbon in her hair, styled in a bun.
The majority of the works attributed to the Bowdoin Painter are lekythoi; more than 400, in fact, of the 558 entries in the Beazley Archive Pottery Database online, and Nike was a favourite subject of theirs: some 145 entries in the Beazley online database that are attributed to the Bowdoin Painter feature the goddess (where a winged female figure is identified as Nike), and all but 3 are lekythoi. What’s more, 110 of the 145 entries show this winged figure in the presence of, near or libating at an altar.
The term lekythos (Greek λήκυθος) had a wide-ranging application in antiquity, seemingly used for any kind of oil jug, from the oil vessels used by athletes, which are now categorised as aryballoi (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai, 139 ff.; Aristophanes, Frogs, 1198 ff.; an aryballos attributed to the Douris Painter, inscribed ΑΣΟΠΟΔΩΡΩΗΕΛΕΚΥΘΟΣ, ‘this lekythos belongs to Asopodorus’, ARV(2) 447.274) to storage vessels in the home (a cooking scene in Aristophanes, Birds, 1589; Aristophanes, Wealth, 810 f., regarding household stores). While it is still understood that lekythoi were multifunctional, archaeologists now use the term lekythos, -oi for a specific shape of pottery, a one-handed jug with a narrow neck, that would have contained scented oils (perfume) or oil for household use. In particular, lekythoi, especially white-ground lekythoi, are associated heavily with death in Ancient Greece vase-paintings, including on lekythoi themselves, often depict these vessels as offerings to the dead; many of the examples surviving to us were excavated from grave sites and cemetries, once left as gifts for the deceased; in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusai, 996, lekythos is used to refer to ‘funeral urns’ (ὃς τοῖς νεκροῖσι ζωγραφεῖ τὰς ληκύθους / The one who decorates funeral urns; ‘lekythos’, lambda439, Suda On Line); and, perhaps, they were used in the funerary rites themselves (Scholiast on Plato, Hippias Minor, 368 c).
Nike appears on this example in an unusual configuration for her role as a divinity, the personification of victory, but one that in vase-painting was surprisingly popular, especially in the Classical period of the 5th century BC. Nike is typically closely associated with Athena and Zeus, at times considered little more than an attribute of them, as opposed to an individual deity of her own right. Despite this, Nike also has her own attributes, and is commonly depicted in scenes with themes or contexts of victory with a wreath or a tainia (a headband, ribbon or fillet) and crowning a victor, or with other symbols of victory, such as a palm branch, a tripod, a lyre (kithara) to reference a musical contest, an aphlaston to designate a naval victory, or driving a chariot. Wings, indeed, are also considered an attribute of the goddess; Nike is rarely, if ever, depicted without wings, except in the case of the Temple of Athena Nike, sometimes also referred to as the Temple of Nike Apteros (Wingless Nike) (Pausanias, 1.22.4).
Yet, prolific in vase-painting is the depiction of Nike with a phiale and/or oinochoe, an incense burner, an altar, and holding torches. This group of attributes is religious in sphere and to ritual and sacrifice. Images of libating gods are not totally uncommon, but the absence of clear signifiers of victory is strange. What, then, is the goddess of victory doing with ritualistic and sacrificial instruments and without symbols of victory, much less participating in ritual?
One solution to this curious case of libating-Nike could be that the winged figure’s identification as the victory goddess is incorrect, and that in ritualistic contexts with no overt relation to a victory, the winged figure should be understood as Iris, a messenger of the gods. Iris, perhaps, could have greater claim to the role of libation-pourer, on account of her attributed pitcher, in which she carries water of the river Styx, and depictions of her in art as cup-bearer to gods such as Poseideon, Hera and Zeus. However, Iris is rarely seen without one of her main identifying symbols: the kerykeion or caduceus, a herald’s staff, also carried by Hermes. In three examples of Greek pottery where Iris is named by inscription, she has a kerykeion. In five examples of pottery where Nike is named, she does not. While it will never be possible to confidently identify every example of Greek vase-painting depicting a winged female as either Nike or Iris, and there is undeniable overlap in their iconographies, simply deferring to Iris in identifying the winged female in this libation scene at an altar is not satisfactory.
Likewise, it would be easy to say that images of altar-side, libating-Nike are simply meant to evoke the rituals that would occur following a victory, that she is libating in place of the victor. Even easier, that this imagery represents the success of the ritual itself. Yet, Greek art does not shy away from depicting overt victory, the rituals following victory undertaken by mortals, victory rituals undertaken by Nike, such as the famous image of the goddess leading a bull to sacrifice, or ritual scenes in general, but without Nike present. The image of Nike, alone, altar-side, attributes or contexts or victory absent, and engaged actively in libating, thus, requires a different approach.
To understand Nike’s role in this non-agonistic, religious scene, it is helpful to turn to an example of art later than the lekythos currently in question. A marble relief from the balustrade of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis of Athens, dated to c. 410 BC, depicts Nike bending to adjust or remove her sandal. The mundanity of this image of the victory goddess is quite bizarre: for a divinity so frequently depicted crowning a victor or with other symbols of victory, here, she could be anyone – she could be mortal.
Towards the end of the 4th century BC, a blurring of the lines between the mortal realm and the divine can be observed quite prolificly in art. The so-called Sandalbinder Nike may, in this timeline, signal the concrete beginning of this shift, with its construction at the end of the 5th century. It would seem, however, that this muddying of the waters may have already been occuring in early 5th century vase-painting. The image of the lone, libating goddess would have been relatable to the everyman of Greek society, and women especially could see themselves in the image of Nike performing the same rites they did. Care is taken to never completely destroy the boundaries of the mortal and godly worlds; Nike remains winged, a clear sign of her divinity, yet she nevertheless participates in libations of unknown end.
Nike, as a victory goddess, already transcends the separate realms within her usual sphere of activity. To bestow victory, she travels from Olympus to the mortal realm in order to crown the victory. By nature, she is already a transitional god, occupying and crossing liminal spaces. Perhaps, then, it follows that she is well predisposed to connect the two worlds in contexts outside of victory-seeking ones, too. The Greek people, already cogniscent of the fact that Nike visits their world to grant victory in games, contests and war - all hugely important aspects of Ancient Greek life - may thus consider their relationship to this particular divinity unique or special, and so it follows that she becomes the favoured actor in ritual scenes of all contexts, either as sacrificial attendant or active libation-pourer.
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|This post was written by Cara Grove, currently an MA by Research student in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Cara did her undergraduate degree in Classical Civilisation, also at the University of Warwick. Cara's research interests are in Hellenistic art and archaeology, the Antigonids, and using multidisciplinary approaches to understanding the iconography, functions, myth and receptions of the goddess Nike.|