Treasured Toys or Substitutes for the Dead? Dolls in Roman Tombs, by Professor Zahra Newby (Dec 2021)
The death of a child is always tragic, and there is a strong need for bereaved family members to continue to express their love through acts of comfort. In today’s society such acts might include placing teddy bears into the coffin to accompany the deceased, or placing toys at gravesites. We can see a similar phenomenon when we look at ancient Roman graves of children, especially those of girls between the ages of around 7-19. In a number of these, beautifully carved ivory dolls have been found, adorned with the latest hairstyles and with articulated limbs which allowed the arms and legs to be moved. Naked except for shoes, in antiquity they may have been dressed up with miniature clothing. Are these the ancient equivalent of a Barbie™ doll, a treasured toy which the girl had played with during her lifetime, placed in the grave to offer comfort in the afterlife? Or do they represent something else, the desire of the bereaved to offer their dead child a form of continued existence even after death, through the form of an imperishable doll?
Two particular dolls help us to explore this question. One was found in a tomb discovered in Rome in 1889, identified by the inscription on a sarcophagus lid as that of Crepereia Tryphaena. The sarcophagus was opened to reveal the skeleton of a girl aged around 17-19 years, adorned with a wreath and jewellery, as well as a finely carved ivory doll, which had been placed on her left shoulder.
Photograph of the doll and other objects found in the tomb of Crepereia Tryphaena. From Lanciani 1889: plate 8.
The doll had her own accoutrements, equivalent to those of the dead girl. She wore a tiny gold ring on her finger, attached to a key; another miniature ring linked with two larger rings, perhaps fitting the girl’s finger, and linking together the girl and the doll. An ivory coffer with two combs and silver mirrors completes the doll’s trousseau. Perhaps this is a doll which the girl had played with during her lifetime, buried with her to provide comfort in the grave. Studies of these dolls have suggested that they provided elite girls with a chance to model their own adulthood; equipped with fashionable hairstyles similar to those worn by the imperial family (Crepereia’s doll has a hairstyle modelled on that of the empress Faustina the Elder) they suggest models of femininity girls were inspired to meet. It is possible that girls dedicated their dolls to the gods on the occasion of their weddings (the literary evidence is fragmentary, but seems to suggest this: scholia to Persius, Satires 2.69-70 and Horace Sermones 1.5.69), so the fact that Crepereia was buried with her doll might also be a sign that she died before she could be married. Indeed, other studies of female burials with lavish jewellery suggest that these were particularly appropriate for girls who died before marriage, equipping them in death with the dowry they had not been able to use in life.
Our second example shares a number of features with Crepereia’s burial, and also suggests an even closer connection between a doll and the girl she was buried with. The so-called ‘Grottarossa mummy’ was discovered in 1964 during building works in the north of Rome. A sarcophagus was found buried below ground in a trench; its location may originally have been marked with some form of memorial, though none had survived. The sarcophagus itself is decorated with a lavishly carved scene showing the fateful hunting episode told in the Aeneid, book 4, during which Dido and Aeneas fall in love (Virgil, Aeneid 4.130-156).
Sarcophagus showing hunting Trip of Dido and Aeneas. Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168186. Photo: By Sailko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31975797
Inside was found the mummy of a girl, aged around 8 years, who seems to have died from a lung infection. Her body was embalmed and dressed in silk, wrapped around with linen cloths, with a number of amber amulets tucked inside the wrappings. She wore gold earrings, a gold and sapphire necklace and a gold ring, and was accompanied by an ivory doll, as well as cosmetics vessels made from amber.
Ivory doll found with the Grottarossa mummy, Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168181. Photo: Jastrow, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:oll_Massimo_Inv168191.jpg
It may be significant that both of these dolls were made out of ivory, though simpler dolls could also be made from bone or wood. Ivory was a prestigious luxury material, but in literature it also appears as a substitute for human flesh. In the myth of Pelops, his missing shoulder (eaten by the gods when tricked by Tantalus) was replaced by one of ivory (Pindar, Olympian Ode 1, 26-27). The close connection in both these burials between the girl and her doll suggests that the ivory doll acts as a replacement for the dead girl, offering her an enduring body which will survive even after death. The decision to bury these girls with lavish jewellery and cosmetic items may have been prompted by a desire to equip them in death as they would have been in life, with all the bridal array they would have taken to marriage. The inclusion of the dolls may be a sign that they had not yet proceeded out of girlhood and had thus been robbed of the opportunity to dedicate their dolls on the occasion of marriage. Yet they also suggest a desire to give the girls an imperishable body which can continue after their own deaths – here the doll in her ivory form offers a form of parallel continued existence for the girl she accompanies into the tomb. Clearly this was an expensive grave, testifying to the grief felt by the girl’s family, and the care taken to give her a worthy burial. Here the doll also wears a period-style hairstyle, similar to that of Faustina the Younger (c. 150-160 CE). The same hairstyle is worn by the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus and, significantly, both the doll and the figure of Dido wear a diadem. They also share similar facial features, a straight nose, full but firmly closed mouth, and a curved chin, with a slight dimple. This similarity suggests that both may have been designed to evoke the portrait of a particular individual – the girl buried within. Indeed, early photographs of the face of the mummy seem to show similar features (though caution is needed, as it appears that the photographs were touched up to enhance the beauty of the embalmed girl). Here, then, the girl seems to have been buried with a doll whose features may have echoed those of the girl herself, and certainly were echoed on the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus. However, the doll’s body with its swelling hips and small breasts is not that of an eight-year old girl – rather than being a portrait of the girl as she was at the time of her death, it seems to project an image of what she might have become, if she had not been cut down by death.
In answer to the question we started with, then, we can see that dolls may have fulfilled both of these functions. Ancient families, like modern ones, experienced grief; the fact that mortality rates were higher in antiquity than in the present day does not necessarily mean that deaths were not mourned just as intensely. Yet the fact that it is particularly the graves of unmarried girls which seem to feature the addition of dolls, alongside jewellery and cosmetic items, suggests that these objects might also have fulfilled a particular need, allowing the dead a sort of parallel existence in the form of an imperishable doll, who can achieve the life stages which death had cruelly take away.
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Castellani, O. (1964) ‘La momie de Grottarossa’, Revue Archéologique du Centre de la France 3: 138-42.
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This post was written by Zahra Newby, Professor of Classics and Ancient History in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Zahra’s research focusses on Roman art. This paper arises from her interest in exploring ancient and modern responses to grief, and draws on material presented in her book (co-edited with Ruth E. Toulson), The Materiality of Mourning, Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Routledge, London and New York, 2019).
Episodes recalling Homeric events are part of the imagery of ancient pottery. Greek myths were known and appreciated not only by the Greeks but also by the other ancient indigenous people of the Apulia region. This is testified by the decoration of Apulian red-figure pottery. The earliest red-figure pottery production in Southern Italy started in Lucania, in the city of Metapontum, followed by more expansive production in Apulia.
The imagery of Apulian red-figure pottery shows ideological models deriving from Greek culture which were adopted by members of the Apulian aristocracy. Modern scholars have stressed that some native centres of Apulia had strong trade and cultural relations with Athens. This is the case with the settlement of Ruvo di Puglia, located in the central area of Apulia, where the tribes named Peuceti were settled. These cultural exchanges are shown by a large number of red-figure vases which were found in funerary contexts in the Peucetian necropolis of Ruvo di Puglia. An example of this cultural interaction between indigenous aristocracy, and models deriving from Greek culture, is an image depicted on one side of a red-figure column-krater, attributed to the Painter of York and dated to ca. 380-360 BC.
Detail of the Apulian red-figure column-krater attributed to the painter of York, 380-360 BC, Ruvo di Puglia, National Archaeologilca Museum Jatta inv. 36724 (From Riccardi (2015) Tav. 58 .1)
On one side of the vase three draped young people are depicted. The two people on the right both hold a distaff in their right hands. This iconography is common on Apulian vases and its interpretation is the subject of debate. Some scholars have argued that these people could be interpreted as spectators talking to each other about the scene depicted on the other side of the vase.
Detail of the Apulian red-figure column-krater attributed to the painter of York, 380-360 BC, Ruvo di Puglia, National Archaeologilca Museum Jatta inv. 36724 (From Riccardi (2015) Tav. 58 .2)
On the other side of the vase a scene is depicted which is interpreted as the departure of a warrior: two warriors wear patterned draperies which are related to the costume of the indigenous people of Apulia. In the middle of the composition is a woman wearing a chiton and a richly decorated himation, seated on a chair, holding a child on her knee. The child is depicted wearing a patterned a short tunic.
The infant and the warrior on the right are depicted as interacting: the child stretches his left arm to the warrior on the right, who holds a crested hemispherical helmet in his right hand. The helmet is also decorated with a pattern testifying the high status of the warrior.
This image can be interpreted as an elaboration of an episode described in the Iliad of Homer. During the fight under the walls of Troy a family meeting took place at the Scaean Gates, between Hector, his wife Andromache and their son Astyanax. Hector, Andromache and Astyanax were important members of the Trojan royal family: Hector was the heir of Priam, King of Troy, and the military leader of the armed forces of the city of Troy. Andromache was one of the most prominent Trojan women and Astyanax would have been the next ruler of Troy after his father.
At the Scaean Gates Andromache and Hector spoke each other about the still ongoing war and then:
|‘So saying, glorious Hector stretched out his arms to his boy, but back into the bosom of his fair-girdled nurse shrank the child crying, affrighted at the aspect of his dear father, and seized with dread of the bronze and the crest of horse-hair, as he marked it waving dreadfully from the topmost helm. Aloud then laughed his dear father and queenly mother; and forthwith glorious Hector took the helm from his head and laid it all-gleaming upon the ground. But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms.’ (Hom. Il. 6.466-474)
The comparison between the Homeric text and the vase shows some similarities. The people represented are shown wearing elaborate costumes and weaponry displaying their wealth and their high social status. The scene is interpreted as the departure of the warrior for the battle and the warrior on the right is shown bareheaded.
Hence, the image on the Apulian red-figure column krater shows the elaboration of the Homeric episode by representing Hector and Andromache as members of the Peucetian aristocracy, showing a scene not explicitly described by Homer, but one which is certainly plausible and tender: after ‘Hector’ takes off is helmet and ‘Astyanax’ recognizes his father and stretches his left arm to him.
In conclusion, the evidence testifies the cultural background and the values and ideologies of the members of the Peucetian aristocracy: the elites of Ruvo aimed to show both their knowledge and adoption of the Greek cultural models and their indigenous identity. This noteworthy iconographic synthesis provides a valuable example of the interaction of different cultures in the context of central Apulia.
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Homer, The Iliad, trans. A.T. Murray, (Harvard University Press: London 1924).
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Riccardi, A. (2015) Ceramica a figure rosse protoitaliota, lucana e apula antica (CVA, Italy, 79, Ruvo di Puglia, Museo nazionale Jatta.1) (Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider)
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Todisco, L. (ed.) (2012) La ceramica a figure rosse della Magna Grecia e della Sicilia, Vol. II Inquadramento, (Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider).
This post was written by Carlo Lualdi, full-time PhD researcher of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Carlo’s research interests are in the representation of warfare from the late classical to the Hellenistic period and in Classical reception studies. He is currently writing his thesis about combat scenes in Messapia dating between the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third century BC.
Photo edited (cropped) from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 4.1 (pg.20).
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).
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
(Photograph by Matthew Evans 2023).
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.
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.
This post was written by Jacqui Butler, part-time M/Phil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Jacqui’s research interests are in the representation of both mythical and real women in the Roman world, and more specifically how they are represented in art.
*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.
ARV(2) = Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, 2nd ed. 678.16. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
BAPD = Beazley Archive Pottery Database. (1997-). Pottery database. Accessed 17th May 2021. Available at: https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/pottery/default.htm. Accessed 20/05/2021.
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Smith, T. J. (2021). Religion in the Art of Archaic and Classical Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Sparkes, B. A. (1991). Greek pottery: an introduction. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.
TePaske-King, S. L. (1993) ‘A Lekythos by the Bowdoin Painter’, in Bulletin: Museums of Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan, eds. Lourie, M. A. et al. Vol. IX, 1989-91. United States: University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology. 30-48.
Zaidman, L., & Pantel, P. (1992). Religion in the Ancient Greek City (P. Cartledge, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
Incised gaming boards in the gymnasium of Messene on the interior steps of the propylon (left) and the benches of the palaistra’s exedra (right).
(Author's own photographs).
Pictured here are three incised gaming boards found in the stadium-gymnasium complex of the city of Messene in southern Greece. The two best preserved of the three boards each consist of a square (ca. 27cm on each side) neatly separated into six columns and six rows of smaller squares; two diagonal lines then form a cross through the board. The third board is slightly smaller (ca. 15 cm on each side) and is in a poorer state of preservation though it seems to follow the same basic design.
The complex, built in the late third century BCE and used until ca. 360/370 CE, is situated in the south of Messene and consists of a stadium with stone seating, surrounded by Doric colonnades on the east, north and west sides; the city wall provides a limit to the south. A palaistra (wrestling-school) is situated through the stadium’s west colonnade, suggesting that the complex functioned as a gymnasium (a place of athletic training and education) at least when athletic games were not being held in the stadium. Access to the complex was provided by a monumental Doric propylon (gateway) in the north-west corner, built in the Augustan period (late first century BCE to early first century CE), and it is on the surface of its interior steps that two of the gaming boards were discovered. The third was found in the palaistra, specifically on the surface of a stone bench located in an exedra (a hall with seating and a wide, columned-opening) on the building’s west wing.
A two-player strategy game not dissimilar to modern chess would have been played on these incised gaming boards, each player using an equal number of coloured pieces or pessoí (πεσσοί). Greek literary sources such as Plato (The Republic, 6.487d), Polybius (Histories, I.84) and Julius Pollux (Onomasticon, 9.97) causally reference these types of games using various names including petteia, pessoí, psêphoi (all three names meaning pebbles), pente grammaí (five lines) and poleis (cities). According to Plato, these games originated in Egypt before being adopted by the Greeks (Phaedrus 247d). In the Latin sources, the most well-known game of this type is called ludus latrunculorum or latrunculi (meaning the game of brigands or mercenaries) which is a variation of the earlier Greek games, referenced by Varro (On the Latin Language, X.22) and Ovid (The Art of Love, ll. 357-360; Tristia, ll. 479-481) among others (see the anonymous poem Panegyric on Piso, ll. 190-208). The precise rules of these different games are not clear in the literary sources, though they all seem to be based on military tactics: a player captures the opponent’s pieces by trapping an enemy piece between two pieces of his own. The pieces can only move vertically and horizontally though it is uncertain whether or not movements are restricted to one square per move; for the purposes of the game, it at least seems unlikely that a piece is able to land on, or jump over, another. The game is won when an opponent is left with a single piece.
Similar incised gaming boards have been discovered in various forms and places across the ancient world, from the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum to the numerous examples in the agora (marketplace) and streets of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Glass game pieces and the metal hinges of a wooden game board were even discovered in a mid-first-century CE grave in Stanway, Essex near Colchester, though there has been scholarly debate about whether these were used for latrunculi or a variant of the Celtic game called fidchell or gwyddbwyll. The incised examples from Messene and elsewhere, in any case, demonstrate that certain public places in ancient cities were often the settings of informal games among friends or those passing the time together.
The findspots of the gaming boards in Messene can inform us about the uses of these spaces within the gymnasium. The example on the bench in the palaistra is interesting since current scholarship strictly associates the type of room (exedra) where it appears with intellectual lessons, following the account of Vitruvius (On Architecture, 5.11). The gaming board here, however, indicates that the room was also used for relaxing and as a space in which people could spend their spare time with their friends. This is also supported by Plato’s description of youths playing a game of odd-and-even (ἀρτιάζω) in the corner of an Athenian palaistra’s changing room (apodyterion), a room apparently similar to this exedra at Messene. The examples on the steps are more informal in their setting, located at the entrance of the complex. Why would someone stop here on the steps, in the main circulation space of the complex, to play a game on these incised boards? The Basilica Julia gameboards, which are also located on the steps, are at least out of the way of circulation points and enjoy a good view over the Forum. Perhaps at Messene, this shaded spot under the propylon was the perfect place to relax and play games when athletic events were taking place in the stadium or perhaps it was a good place to hang around with your friends on the way in/out of the complex.
Finally, the association between the type of games played on these incised boards and their setting is significant. The gymnasium of Messene was the place where citizen youths and men would come each day to train in athletics and to receive a formal paramilitary/athletic education as part of the ephebeia, a two-year military service of 18 to 20-year-old citizens. The possible games outlined above, whether the Greek petteia or Roman latrunculi, were military in nature and followed basic battle tactics. Such games, therefore, would have been particularly suitable for the ephebes (those taking part in the ephebeia) who were receiving their military education in these spaces, allowing them to put their newly acquired tactical skills and knowledge to the test against their peers, (check)mates and future comrades on the battlefield.
If you want try your own hand at latrunculi, you can play an online version at: https://locusludi.unifr.ch/ludus-latrunculorum/
Austin, R.G. (1934). Roman Board Game I. Greece & Rome, 4.10, 24-34.
Austin, R.G. (1940). Greek Board-Games. Antiquity, 14, 257-271.
Kurke, L. (1999). Ancient Greek board games and how to play them. Classical Philology, 94, 247-267.
Lamer, H. 1927. Lusoria tabula. Realencyclopädie, 13.2, 1900-2029.
Locus Ludi (Accessed 28.04.2021). Inside Ephesus. https://locusludi.ch/inside-ephesus/
Schädler, U. (1994). Latrunculi – ein verlorenes strategisches Brettspiel der Römer. Homo ludens: der spielende Mensch, 4, 47-67.
Schädler, U. (2007). The doctor’s game – new light on the history of ancient board games. In P. Crummy, Benfield, S., Crummy, N., Rigby, V. and Shimmin, D. (Eds.), Stanway: an elite burial site at Camulodunum. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. 359-375.
Themelis, P.G. (1995 ). Ἀνασκαϕὴ Μεσσήνης. Πρακτικά της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών, 150, 55-86, πίν. 13-42. For the gaming boards, see p. 73.
Themelis, P.G. (1998/1999). Die Statuenfunde aus dem Gymnasion von Messene. Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie, 15, 59-84.
Themelis, P.G. (2001). Roman Messene: The Gymnasium. In O. Salomies (Ed.), The Greek East in the Roman context: Proceedings of a Colloquium Organised by the Finnish Institute at Athens, May 21 and 22, 1999 (pp. 119-126). Helsinki: Bookstore Tiedekirja. For the gaming boards, see p. 122.
This post was written by Matthew Evans, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Matthew’s research focuses on gymnasia in Greece and Asia Minor between the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, seeking to understand how space (architecture, statues, inscriptions) mediates the interrelationships between these complexes and cities/society.
Relief panel from Nimrud, Iraq. (229.9 x 187 x 5.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art No. 31.72.3. OA Public Domain.
This relief panel is from Northwest Palace at Nimrud, which is situated in modern day Iraq. Nimrud was a monumental site of various palaces and temples, with the most magnificent and perhaps the best understood archaeological remains, being that of the Northwest Palace, built by Ashurbanipal II (883-859 BC). The palace was decorated with an elaborate series of reliefs which boasted of the achievements and power of the Assyrian state. The panel was originally acquired by H. C. Rawlinson who gifted it to William Frederick Williams in 1854. The panel eventually ended up in the care of Union College, who sold it to C.E. Wells for J.D. Rockefeller. It was eventually gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1931 by J.D. Rockefeller, where it is now on display along with other Assyrian antiquities in Gallery 401.
The panel portrays a winged supernatural figure, which faces left, and has the head of an eagle with a male human body. These figures appear throughout the palace in a series of reliefs which were originally painted in vivid colours, but these pigments have sadly not survived. The figures are representative of the supernatural population rather than representing divine beings and are slightly different in form with some being human-headed and others eagle-headed figures. They appeared in the doorways and in close proximity to the throne room. Figurines were commonly buried under doorways for protection in this period and had some similarities to the ones in the Northwest Palace relief scenes. The figures, therefore, have complex meaning and significance and there has been much speculation about the symbolism contained within the relief series.
What the figure holds has been highly contested. The object in its right hand has been thought to be a purifier, but others have argued that it is in fact a bucket. The object in the left hand has proved more puzzling but is thought to be a cone, representative of a special implement used by Mesopotamian farmers in a ritual action whereby the date-palm tree was fertilised. This tree is thought to be representative of prosperity and alludes to the idea of protecting the Assyrian state. The figures’ presence within the palace hints at the extent to which the king has gone to ensure the state is protected. The figure is elaborately dressed and bedecked in jewellery which makes references to divinity and was ostentatious in its design.
These relief panels are unique in that they contain an inscription which cuts across the imagery. This inscription runs throughout the entire relief series, often in the middle of the image. The inscription was in cuneiform script and written in Akkadian, although it is unlikely that many people who frequented the palace would have been able to actually read the inscription, they would have been aware of its significant and powerful presence. The inscription details the achievements of Ashurbanipal II, and discusses the heritage and royal titles of Ashurbanipal, before detailing his extensive military and building campaigns. It has been suggested the inscription was also used in the palatial decoration, as it had magical connotations and contributed to the protection of the palace, king and more widely the Assyrian state.
Cline, E. and Graham, M.W. (2011) Ancient Empires from Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crawford, V.E and Harper, P. O and Pittman, H. (1980) Assyrian Reliefs and Ivories in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Palace Reliefs of Assurnasirpal II and Ivory Carvings from Nimrud. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Relief Panel- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322595 (2021) Accessed 14th March 2021.
Seymour, M. Nimrud- https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nimr_1/hd_nimr_1.htm (November 2016) Accessed 14th March 2021.
This post was written by Emily Porter-Elliot, who is currently studying for an MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture at the University of Warwick. Emily did her undergraduate studies in Archaeology at Cardiff University. Emily’s research interests are in museums and their collection histories and is especially interested in how museums sometimes controversially display artefacts.
Limestone statue of Herakles from Nineveh, Iraq. Height: 52.9 cm. British Museum No.1881,0701.1.Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.
This limestone statue of Herakles was discovered in Nineveh, Iraq in 1880 and is on display in the British Museum. Herakles is aligned facing the front of the plinth and is depicted as a bearded man, seated on a rock, using the skin of the Nemean lion as a cushion. His left hand originally held a club, the top of which is still visible on the plinth, and in his right hand he held a drinking vessel, like a skyphos or a kylix. Herakles has a ribbon wrapped around his head, with his eyes being carefully designed with an incision on the eyeball, indicating the iris and a drilled hole for the pupil. Stylistic and typological analysis of the statue make a dating to the 2nd century AD very likely.
Two Greek inscriptions are present on the plinth. The larger and more prominent of the two is on the front of the pedestal and reads:
‘ΣΑΡΑΠΙΔΟΡΟΣ ΑΡΤΕΜΙΔΩΡΟΥ ΚΑΤ’ ΕΥΚΗΝ’
‘Sarapiodorus son of Artemidorus (dedicated this) in fulfilment of a vow’
A small inscription on the left side of the plinth reads:
‘Diogenes made (this)’
Traces of red paint are visible in the cut letters of the inscription which increased the visibility of the inscription.
This statue was a votive offering to Herakles, the son of Zeus, famous for his twelve labours, who was worshiped for his outstanding strength and courage. Other Greek gods were present in the city of Nineveh as well, for example there is another limestone figure which is of Hermes on display in the National Museum of Bagdad.
Artemidorus and Diogenes are common Greek names that are not unusual in a well-connected city like Nineveh. The name Sarapiodorus has a strong connection to the god Sarapis and Ptolemaic Egypt. Nineveh was abandoned after the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 609 BC. The city was resettled under the Seleucid Empire, beginning in the 3rd century BC, and later by the Parthian Empire. It was then taken by a claimant to the Parthian throne, who was supported by Rome in 50 AD, and this opened the city to trade relations throughout the Greco-Roman world.
The statue has been identified as a copy of the Herakles Epitrapezios (Epitrapezios meaning ‘on the table’). The Epitrapezios is mentioned by Martial, in the Epigrams 9.43-44,and Statius, in the Silvae 4.6,who describe a small bronze statue in the possession of the wealthy Roman, Novius Vindex. According to Martial and Statius, the Herakles Epitrapezios was made by the famous sculptor Lysippus, for Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). It was a small table decoration, depicting the wine drinking Herakles seated on a rock, holding the club in one hand and a drinking vessel in his other. The statue accompanied Alexander on his conquest and was later in the possession of Hannibal Barka and Sulla, before finding its way into the collection of Novius Vindex.
The stylistic and typological features present in the Herakles from Nineveh are a striking example of a Roman adaptation of a Hellenistic statuary type. The frontal orientationand the incision indicating the iris are also present in 2nd century AD depictions of Herakles in Rome. The ribbon used as a headband for the Nineveh Herakles is present in depictions of Hercules on a Hadrianic relief tondo, used as a spolia for the Arch of Constantine and on a Hadrianic aureus coin.
The Nineveh Herakles was not only influenced by Roman but by local workshop traditions. The stylistic features in this statue are very similar to that present in other sculptures from the region, especially to the limestone statues from Hatra. The statue is, therefore, the result of a Roman adaptation of a popular Hellenistic statuary type, heavily influenced by the local workshop traditions of Mesopotamia.
British Museum. Online at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1881-0701-1
Bartman, E. (1992) Ancient Sculptural Copies in Miniature(Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 19) (New York, E.J. Brill).
Invernizzi, A. (1989) ‘L'Héraclès Epitrapezios de Ninive’, in: Archaeologia iranica et orientalis: miscellanea in honorem Louis Vanden Berghe, eds L. vanden Berghe, L. de Meyer, E. Haerinck (Gent: Peeters) pp. 623-636.
Reade, J. E. (1998) ‘Greco-Parthian Nineveh’, Iraq 60, pp. 65-83.
This post was written by Robert Schönell who is currently participating in an Erasmus exchange and is studying Ancient Visual and Material Culture at the University of Warwick as part of his Masters studies in Classical Archaeology at Freie Universität Berlin. Robert did his undergraduate studies in Archaeology at Universität zu Köln, Cologne. Robert's research interests are sculpture and iconography, and he is especially interested in Hellenistic art and how it was copied and reinterpreted by Roman artists.
Altar/statue base dedicated to Fortuna by Sosia Juncina, York Museums Trust, museum number YORYM: 2007.6194. Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.
This freestanding stone, measuring approximately 381 x 655 cm, records a dedication to the Roman goddess Fortuna, and is currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum. Dating to the mid-second century AD, it is constructed from magnesium limestone and would either have been used as a votive altar or statue base. There is some damage to the top and side of the stone as can be seen in the image, and it was removed from its original context and reused as a building stone in later centuries. The lettering of the first two lines of the inscription is slightly larger in height, measuring 50mm, than the remainder of the lettering, which measures 45mm. The inscription (RIB644) reads and translates as follows:
Deae | Fortunae | Sosia | Iuncina | Q(uinti) Antoni | Isaurici | leg(ati) Aug(usti)
To the goddess Fortune Sosia Juncina, (wife) of Quintus Antonius Isauricus, imperial (legionary) legate, (set this up).
The dedication is interesting for the socio-cultural information it reveals, especially as there are only a relatively small number of extant altars with female dedicants in Roman Britain. These provide important evidence that women dedicated altars in a similar way to men, independently choosing the deities they addressed. There are at least two other extant altars dedicated by women in Roman Britain to Fortuna in different guises, and this may suggest that the personification of this Roman virtue could possibly have had some specific appeal to women. This is plausible given that Fortuna was favoured in Roman Britain for luck-bringing to dice games, but also as an apotropaic force in both military and bathing contexts, and she was also further associated with state or imperial power.
The altar was found in the locale of the public bathhouse, and it has been suggested that this indicated separate gendered baths. However, as there is no direct evidence of this, it seems more likely that the intention behind the dedication was an appeal for protection, due to the vulnerability entailed by being in a state of undress in the bathing context. Equally, the dedication may also have been intended to reflect state power, or even the protection of imperial property. The inscription appears to support this interpretation, as it identifies Sosia Juncina as the “wife of Quintus Antonius Isauricus, imperial legate”. It also demonstrates her status via that of her husband: Isauricus had command of the Sixth Legion and was suffect consul around 143 AD. However, it is also possible that Sosia Juncina was related to the family of Quintus Sosius Senecio, who was Roman consul in 99 and 107 AD, which would further establish her within the ruling Roman elite, and indeed independently of Isauricus. If this is correct, then it is feasible that she travelled with Isauricus to Britain, from Italy, and therefore the dedication can be further understood in several ways: it functioned to both promote and display her own personal identity, but also ideas of continuity and stability via Roman cultural and religious norms, which were significant in such a remote province. Identifying herself via Isauricus, also evidences another Roman cultural norm, that of female status and identity being derived from male relatives. However, it is important to note that although altar dedications certainly functioned to project personal identity, this was undoubtedly subordinate to their central role as prayers; Sosia Juncina’s dedication would either have resulted from asking or receiving divine intervention from Fortuna or was part of a ritual of request.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that the inscription appears to foreground DEAE andFORTUNAEwith the slightly larger height lettering. This visual emphasis on the deity’s name may reflect the connotations of the location of the altar/statue base within the bathing context, or equally it may have been intended to highlight Sosia Juncina’s claim on a relationship with Fortuna, whilst simultaneously memorialising it for posterity. Regardless, the altar/statue base clearly evidences female religious participation which is similar to male dedications in a public context, and the ability to commission and dedicate in this way, suggests some level of female autonomy within the religious sphere.
RIB644, Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Volume 1. Online at: https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/644
York Museum Trust. Online at: https://www.yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/collections/search/item/?id=11543
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Birley, A. R. (2005) The Roman Government of Britain (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Campbell, J. B. (2012) “Sosius (RE 11) Senecio, Quintus” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary(4 ed.), eds. S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth and E. Eidinow, (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Cooley, A.E. (2012) The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
Henig, M. (1995) Religion in Roman Britain, (London, B.T. Batsford Limited).
Hope, V.M. (2016) “Inscriptions and Identity” in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, eds. M. Millett, L. Revell and A. Moore, (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
Parker, A. (2019) Assistant Curator of Archaeology, York Museums Trust. Information from private correspondence in March 2019.
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Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 1, Eburacum, Roman York(London, 1962).
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This post was written by Jacqui Butler, part-time M/Phil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Jacqui’s research interests are in the depiction of both mythical and real women in the Roman world, and more specifically how they are represented in art.