February 13, 2023

Hair today, gone tomorrow: imperial trendsetters, by Tallulah George

This detachable marble wig piece from the second or third century CE (Figure 1) perfectly captures the zeitgeist of upper-class female life in imperial Rome, and is a testament to the existence of trends regarding beauty and adornment, or ‘cultus’, in the ancient world. It demonstrates the shared care, cultivation and pride in appearance between ancient and modern societies. Beauty, as a complex concept often expressed through clothes, hair, and makeup as well as posture, physique, and behaviour, dictated everyday decisions regarding personal presentation.

In imperial Rome, there were certain criteria which had to be filled in order to be perceived as a beautiful or desirable woman. To satisfy this set of tick boxes one would have to demonstrate high status and wealth. Hair colour and style were essential components in forming the upper-class Roman woman between the firstcentury BCE and the thirdcentury CE. Sculpture records hairstyles, particularly the use of wigs, and the volume of portraiture depicting women in formal dress with extravagant hairstyles, typically mimicking that of the current empress, reveals how fundamentally important art was in expressing beauty and Roman ideals. An ancient portrait would have been carefully carved to reflect the attitudes and values of the time in order to present the subject in the optimum light for centuries to come.

Beauty was full of unspoken rules and implied meanings. Portraits demonstrated social, political, intellectual and moral alignment; portraiture was not a method of self-expression or capturing a specific moment but was a device to demonstrate an enviable lifestyle, exhibiting the most elaborate hairstyle, ability to afford expensive materials, and slaves to achieve it. That is why I have chosen this statuary hair piece for this article as it epitomises the power and importance of portraiture in expressing identity and social status.

Marble wig

Figure 1. A detachable marble wig from a female bust, Severan period. Thermen Musei, Rome. Olson, (2008), 72; Photo: Singer/DAI neg. 1972.2979.

Visually pleasing facial festures were generally not contributing elements to a woman's beauty; beauty was attributed to wealth and status, portrayed through adornment, opulent hairstyles, shining jewellery and items such as wigs which acted as special additions, elevating the subject, increasing their ‘beauty’. The practice of wearing fake hair and purchasing wigs is referenced in ancient texts, with Ovid explaining that a woman's curls were 'bought' and she pays for hair from another (Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 3.3.33-4). One could understandably assume that, since modesty was often desired in a woman, Roman women would have kept their hairstyles neat and simple, not adorning themselves with extravagant wigs, but this is a modern lens, and the ancient process of wearing a wig actually covers the hair, and thus the hair is modestly kept out of sight. In reality, a wig may have been worn on occasion by a woman, but in the portrait, it acted as a symbol that went further than a fashion statement. Elegant hair controlled by pins, plaits and curls signified the civilised woman compared to natural, unrestrained and messy hair, associated with something slightly more barbaric, such as a foreigner or woman in mourning. The marble wigs are carefully carved to show every curl and element of detail. Having a wig would be something one would want to show off; there are even statues that depict the subject sporting a wig with their own hair visible from underneath so people could be assured it was not their real hair and they were wealthy and high-class enough to wear wigs (Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Profile view of a woman in a wig. Early third century CE (?). Capitoline Museum, Rome. Olson (2008) 74; Photo Faraglia/DAI neg. 1940.1059.

Marble wig with real hair

It would not be insignificant that a woman was portrayed in a specific way as this may be the only portrait that survives of her and thus the way she is remembered in perpetuity. The fact that most private portraits are relatively easy to date, since they have 'period-faces', ie. faces comprised of a set of elements and styles widely used in a particular period, and distinguishing coiffures that mimicked those of the imperial family at the time, demonstrates a distinct lack of self-expression and individualized beauty, eliminating reason to believe that ancient beauty had a spectrum. Roman styles and the portraiture which reflected them suppressed uniqueness and championed the appearance of a collective: proportional, youthful faces were common, with hairstyles being the same from private woman to empress, simply demonstrating elevated status. This allowed the imperial family to be viewed as the ideal Roman family, as well as the upper-class women to be viewed as even higher status and akin to imperial women in morality and values. Hairstyles functioned as a uniform: wigs with ornate but controlled styles began to signify a group identity of higher status and thus someone worth social recognition. Soon all upper-class women resembled each other, no one wanting to be excluded from this elite club, and thus no one risking a different hairstyle.

One of the central aspects to a Roman woman’s image, and one that governed the beautification process, was the reciprocal close relationship between the empress and her private women. The relationship is proved by the intentional difficulty in distinguishing between images of the empress and of another private woman. As the imperial family, and thus the basis to model oneself on was everchanging, hairstyles were constantly evolving, as was beauty. The desperation to keep up to date with what was fashionable or acceptable at the time can be seen in the number of statues that have detachable hairpieces: there are about 25 statues of women surviving from the Antonine and Severan periods with this detachable element. This was thought to have been so the subject was able to keep up to date with the current trending hairstyle without getting a new bust every time. It was even thought that these could have been funerary busts with the subject wanting her image to stay current even posthumously, with a family member swapping out the hairpieces, thus demonstrating how important hairstyles were in reflecting status.

Julia Domna, empress from 193 to 211 CE and wife of Septimius Severus, had a notable hairstyle and was arguably the wig’s most prominent patron. She wore a heavy, globular wig with finger waves and a centre parting (Figure 3). We can see the similarities in the detachable wig piece (Figure 1) to the empress’ styles with the hair in a neat formation directed towards the back of the head. Julia Domna adopted a wig to imitate her predecessor, Faustina the Younger, thus demonstrating that familiarity and replication were sought after.

Julia Domna

Figure 3. Bust of Julia Domna, though not certain identification as little distinguished private women. ca. 200 CE. Capitoline Museum, Rome. Stuart Jones (1912) Catalogue of the Capitoline Museum, 103, no. 27.

Julia Domna was the daughter of a high-ranking priest from Syria and this style with the centre-parting and waves is indicative of those provincial origins. This detachable wig piece, epitomising Roman fashion, thus also demonstrates the infiltration of trends and styles from other geographic areas into Rome. There is even a theory that the detachable marble wigs existed to accommodate the Syrian ritual of anointing the skull of the bust with oil, again illustrating the possible fusion of cultures that occurred in Rome.

While beauty is not a modern concept, elements of modern-day beauty can be observed in ancient material. These statues, primarily the detachable wig piece, encapsulate the importance of keeping up with trends, as well as being inspired by role-models or prominent figures. Since Roman beauty did not necessarily mean looking aesthetically pleasing, the ancient word ‘cultus’ translated as ‘care of the self’, ‘fine appearance’ or ‘apparel’, may be a more appropriate term than beauty. It suggests the idea of cultivation or lavishing attention and thus better captures the attitudes and representations of women who focused on factors such as artificial adornment regarding appearance. Hair transcended surface level preferences and was a key element in expressing social and moral alignment; beauty was beyond superficial.


Primary Sources:

Ovid, The Art of Love, trans. A. S. Kline, (Poetry in Translation 2001: https://www.poetryintranslatin.com/PITBR/Latin/Artoflovehome.php, last accessed 29/03/22)

Secondary Sources:

D’Ambra, E. (2007), Roman Women, (Cambridge University Press).

D’Ambra, E. (2014), ‘Beauty and the Roman Female Portrait’ in Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, ed. J. Elsner & M. Meyer, (Cambridge University Press), 155-80.

Davies, G. (2008). ‘Portrait Statues as Models for Gender Roles in Roman Society’ in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 7, (University of Michigan Press), 207-220.

Fejfer, J. (2008), Roman Portraits in Context, (Walter de Gruyter).

Fischler, S. (1994), ‘Social Stereotypes and Historical Analysis: The Case of the Imperial Women at Rome’ in Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night, ed. L. Archer, S. Fischler, & M. Wyke, (Basingstoke and London), 115-133.

Kleiner, D. & Matheson, S. (1996), I, Claudia: Woman in Ancient Rome, (Yale University Art Gallery: Austin, Texas).

Meyers, R. (2015), ‘Female Portraiture and Female Patronage in the High Imperial Period’ in A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, ed. S. L. James & S. Dillon, (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), 453-466.

Olson, K. (2008), Dress and the Roman Woman, (Routledge).

Scott, J. W. (1986), ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in The American Historical Review, 91. 5, (Oxford University Press, American Historical Association), 1053–1075.

Trimble, J. (2011), Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture, (California: Stanford University).

Wyke, M. (1994), ‘Woman in the Mirror: The Rhetoric of Adornment in the Roman World’, in Women in Ancient Societies: An Illusion of the Night, ed. L. Archer, S. Fischler, & M. Wyke, (Basingstoke and London), 134-151.

Tallulah 2

This article was written by Tallulah George, a postgraduate student at the university of Warwick, studying towards a taught MA in the visual and material culture of ancient Rome. Her interests are in identity, self-representation and portraiture, and ancient societal structures. Tallulah is passionate about making classics relevant to wider audiences and making it relatable to the modern day, check out her website to see how she does this!https://classicsbytallulah.co.uk

January 10, 2023

The Male Gaze Made Marble? The Venus de Milo, by Katharine Broderick

The Venus de Milo, which can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, is one of the most famous Hellenistic artworks in the world. The Venus is a sculpture by Alexandros of Antioch, although little is known about the artist. The statue was found on the Aegean island of Melos in 1820, possibly by a member of the French Navy, named Olivier Voutier, who anchored in Melos and spent time digging through the remains of a theatre and searching for antiquities. There are also rumours, however, of the Venus being found by a Greek farmer, so the story of its discovery remains contentious.

The Venus (Figure 1) stands at slightly larger than life size, at around six foot seven inches. She stands in contrapposto (counter pose), with a realistic weight distribution, echoing the naturalistic aspects of Hellenistic art. Perhaps the most noticeable element when initially viewing the statue is her lack of arms, encouraging the audience to question where her arms are, the original positioning of them, and whether she was holding anything. Some claim that the “left hand [was] holding an apple”, (Arenas (2002) 37) although this is a topic of debate amongst scholars. If true, it implies that the Venus de Milo is in fact a representation of Aphrodite, as is generally accepted. Kousser suggests that “Aphrodite likely held out an apple in token of her victory in the Judgement of Paris” (Kousser (2005) 227).

Venus de Milo

Figure 1: The Venus de Milo, Accession number: LL 299, Louvre Museum, Paris. Image from Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Judgement of Paris was a contest which stemmed from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. All gods and goddesses had been invited bar Eris, goddess of discord. She attempted to attend despite the lack of invitation and was turned away, but in her anger she cast the golden apple which was addressed “To the Fairest”. Consequentially, three goddesses laid claim to the apple: Aphrodite, Hera and Athena. Zeus commanded Hermes to lead the goddesses to Paris of Troy to decide the winner. Aphrodite promised to bestow upon Paris, Helen, the most beautiful woman, to be his wife, which swayed him to announcing Aphrodite as the winner. According to scholarship, the Greeks had understood the Judgement of Paris as symbolising “a man’s three choices: war (Athena), politics (Hera), or love (Aphrodite)” (Stewart (2014) 163). As well as alluding to the Judgment of Paris, it was a pun on the island’s name; mēlon is the Greek for apple, and the fruit also feature strongly on Melian coins. The statue is half nude, with a drape hung around her hips. It is believed by some that the right hand was once in place holding up the drape, while the left held an apple, whilst leaning on a pillar. The style of ‘wet drapery’ was very popular in the late fifth century BC. Some scholarly debate exists over whether there was a reason why the Venus was depicted naked, yet due to her links to love and sexual love, she often was presented as such in other versions of Aphrodite and Venus.

The Aphrodite of Knidos

The Venus de Milo is understood to have been inspired by the Aphrodite of Knidos. The Aphrodite (Figure 2) was created by Praxiteles in Parian marble between 360 and 330 BC, and was supposedly based on his lover, the courtesan Phryne. Supposedly, this was the first life-sized representation of the female nude form in Greek history. This was part of the controversy surrounding the Aphrodite. Praxiteles created two versions, one clothed, the other nude. The island of Kos, who had the choice, rejected the nude version in outrage. The island of Knidos then bought the nude version. This Aphrodite does not survive, having been destroyed in a fire.

Figure 2: The Aphrodite of Knidos, Roman copy of the Greek 4th century BC original. Inv. 8619, Museo Nazionale Romano de Palazzo Altemps. Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0.

Palazzo Altemps Venus

The Aphrodite of Knidos stood, supposedly either about to get into the bath or having just left it, with a hand covering her groin. This statue quickly became synonymous with the island of Knidos, even being depicted on their coins. Tourism increased massively as individuals travelled to visit the famous sculpture, as commented by Pliny in his Natural History: “Praxiteles made Cnidus a famous city”, (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4) and led to a huge boost to the economy of the island. Further to this, the Aphrodite was so popular that King Nicomedes of Bithynia was anxious to buy the sculpture and offered to discharge the state’s vast debts in payment but was refused by the island (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4). The wealth of the island increased massively due to the tourism the Aphrodite attracted.

The Aphrodite of Knidos inspired copies and derivatives in antiquity which survive, particularly through the Venus de Milo, but also through other versions such as the Capitoline Venus and the Crouching Venus. There is much scholarly debate deriving from this statue, such as how the circular temple may have been laid out so individuals could admire this cult statue. Unfortunately, one of the most detailed sources which remain, Pseudo-Lucian’s Amores, is not incredibly reliable, and is likely to be heavily embellished (Montel (2010) 266). Despite this, however, the Aphrodite of Knidos was a ground-breaking statue who provides a key insight into the inherently sexist views at the time, and how those views can still be seen millennia after her creation, even echoing today.

The Male Gaze, Made Marble?

All of these sculptures, as well as depicting the Greek or Roman goddess of love and beauty, have other things in common too. Most importantly, the sculptures are nude and promote the ideas of modesty and innocence.

First, the Aphrodite of Knidos was placed in a round temple, meaning she could be approached from any angle (Pliny, N.H. 10.36.4). The Aphrodite is said to be smiling, some say at Ares (Stewart (2014) 179), her lover, and some say at the viewer. I believe that this statue is seen as sensual due to the fact that the viewer has walked in on her, either during an intimate moment with her lover, or during a moment alone. No matter what angle an individual would approach this statue from, it would still feel as though an individual was ‘walking in’ on the goddess.

Capitoline Venus

Figure 3: The Capitoline Venus, Inv. MC0409, Palazzo Nuovo, Musei Capitolini, Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Capitoline Venus (Figure 3) also covers areas of her body from prying eyes, despite being nude, and other versions such as the Crouching Venus (Figure 4) depicts the Venus crouching covering her breasts, with her head turned as she looks over her shoulder. In each of these versions, therefore, the Aphrodite or Venus is, in some way, posed in a way to make the viewer feel as though they are intruding on a private moment. We can wonder why that is the case.

Figure 4: Crouching Venus, (Lely's Venus), Accession No. GR1963.10-29.1, The British Museum, London. Image from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Lely Venus

The popularity of these sculptures may be reflective of the patriarchal society which still exists today. Now, if a celebrity, particularly someone identifying as female, was to experience an unexpected leak of sensual images or videos, the media would consider this to be excitingly provocative, whereas if an individual releases sensual images or videos purposefully, they are seen as vulgar and disgusting. Realistically, the key difference between these scenarios is that in the latter she has granted her consent. If the Aphrodite was posing in a way which was not modest, where she was not attempting to partially cover herself from the prying eyes of visitors to her sculpture, it would be seen differently, and while the sculpture may still have been as famous, this could have been due to its notoriety. The surviving epigrams also highlight this idea of modesty. Frequently recorded is the supposed quote from Aphrodite: “where did Praxiteles see me naked?”, (Plato, The Greek Anthology 16, Book XVI, Number 160) and others with similar meanings, such as “None ever saw the Paphian naked, but if anyone did, it is this man who here erected the naked Paphian” (Lucian, The Greek Anthology 16, Book XVI, Number 163). This notion that no one had seen Aphrodite naked furthers the idea of her innocence, which adds to the sexual appeal of the statue, as individuals appear to be watching a modest creature who exists just for their eyes, and even if her pose was to draw the viewer in, and the positioning of her hand to draw attention to her groin, her innocence is seemingly broken for that individual only, and thus the appeal remains.

The Venus de Milo, as a sculpture inspired by the Aphrodite of Knidos, can give us a real insight into the reception of these nude or semi-nude depictions of the goddess, and can help us to raise our own questions around the depiction of women in ancient sculpture. The sculpture can also help us to think about depictions of women in the media today.


Primary Sources:

Lucian. Soloecista. Lucius or The Ass. Amores. Halcyon. Demosthenes. Podagra. Ocypus. Cyniscus. Philopatris. Charidemus. Nero. Translated by M. D. MacLeod. Loeb Classical Library 432. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Pliny. Natural History, Volume X: Books 36-37. Translated by D. E. Eichholz. Loeb Classical Library 419. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

The Greek Anthology, Volume V: Book 13: Epigrams in Various Metres. Book 14: Arithmetical Problems, Riddles, Oracles. Book 15: Miscellanea. Book 16: Epigrams of the Planudean Anthology Not in the Palatine Manuscript. Translated by W. R. Paton. Loeb Classical Library 86. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918.

Secondary Sources:

Arenas, A. (2002) 'Broken: The Venus de Milo’ in Arion Volume Nine, Number Three.

Kousser, R.M. (2005) ‘Creating the Past: The Venus de Milo and the Hellenistic Reception of Classical Greece’ Vol 109, No. 2, ‘American Journal of Archaeology’ (Archaeological Institute of America).

Montel, S. ‘The Architectural Setting of the Knidian Aphrodite’ in Brill’s Companion toAphrodite, Chapter 13, pp. 251-268, ed. A. Smith and S. Pickup (2008, KoninklijkeBrill, Leiden, The Netherlands).

Stewart, A. Art in the Hellenistic World: An introduction (2014, Cambridge University Press, New York).


This post was written by Katharine Broderick, an MA (by Research) student of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Katharine's interests mainly focus on the influence of ancient Athenian politics on modern democracies, and also how the ancient world influences modern life more broadly.

November 25, 2022

Cuniculosa Celtiberia: rabbits as symbols of Spain on Roman imperial coins, by Abby Wall


Fig 1: RIC II, 3 (2nd) (Hadrian) 582-585, Aureus, Rome, 121-123 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

I first encountered this beautiful aureus, minted at Rome between 121 and 123 CE, whilst conducting research for my MA dissertation. I was immediately struck by the unique composition on the reverse and, in particular, by the little rabbit it includes. The main figure in this scene can be confidently identified as Minerva, helmeted and holding her usual martial attribute of a spear. A rabbit, small but recognisable with its long ears and stocky body, stands at her feet. The final element of the scene, an olive tree, grows up from the ground behind the rabbit. The accompanying legend refers to Hadrian (76-138 CE), under whose authority the aureus was issued.

I was initially puzzled only by the inclusion of the rabbit; the olive tree could be explained away, however tenuously, as a second attribute of the goddess. Although the tree had never appeared alongside Minerva on Roman coinage before, the mythology of her Greek counterpart presents a potential link. Athena famously won the contest against Poseidon for patronage of Athens by offering an olive tree to the city’s founder. The rabbit, however, had never been associated with either Minerva or Athena. Was it added only for aesthetic purposes, to create a visually appealing rural scene? This seems unlikely as a rabbit had never appeared on the imperial coinage at all before this specific aureus. Surely its presence here must have some specific meaning. But what?

An answer may be found by examining some of Hadrian’s later coins where the rabbit appears once again, this time at the feet of a regional personification.


Fig 2: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1529-1532, Aureus, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

On this aureus, Hispania is depicted as a female figure, dressed in a long chiton and reclining against a pile of rocks. The rabbit sits at her feet, and she holds in her right hand a large olive branch. To understand this personification, her attributes, and how they may be linked to those of the Minerva type we must situate both coins within the context of Hadrian’s reign.

Along with his enthusiasm for Greek culture and his infatuation with the young Antinous, Hadrian is perhaps best known for the extensive journeys he undertook throughout the Roman empire. Unlike previous emperors who preferred to leave Italy only when conflict required them to, Hadrian spent more than half of his twenty-one year reign touring the provinces. But being away from Rome for such extended periods of time made him unpopular with many of the capital’s inhabitants. Perhaps to explain his absences (or at least present them in a more favourable light) a series of coins was issued between 130 and 133 CE while he was away in the eastern provinces. Each of these types, sometimes referred to collectively as Hadrian’s ‘province’ series, depicts the personification of a place that had been honoured by an imperial visit.

The ‘province’ types can be subdivided into three categories: those showing the personification alone (Fig. 2), those showing the personification being raised up by the emperor (Fig. 3), and those showing the personification sacrificing upon his arrival (Fig. 4). Hispania and her olive branch feature in all three categories, but the rabbit is present in only the first two. Nevertheless, an association between the animal and the region is clearly indicated.


Fig 3: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1584-1586, Denarius, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.


Fig 4: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1752-1756, Sestertius, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

It should be noted that ‘Hispania’ was not a single province. Upon Roman conquest, the Iberian Peninsula had been divided first into two and then three parts (Baetica, Lusitania, and Tarraconensis). This was mainly for administrative purposes, and the three provinces were often grouped together under the name Hispania. Representing the region as a female figure was not a Hadrianic invention; Hispania was personified on coins as early as 81 BCE, and she subsequently appeared on the imperial coinage of Galba, Vitellius, and Vespasian. On these earlier examples, however, she was never accompanied by a rabbit, nor did she hold an olive branch. So why do these attributes appear with Hadrian’s Hispania?

Ancient literature reveals that rabbits were commonly associated with the region. Varro describes a short-legged species of hare known as the cuniculus which was native only to Hispania (On Agriculture 3.12.6). He explains that the animal was given this name on account of its burrowing (cuniculus also meaning ‘mine’ or ‘underground tunnel’ in Latin). Hispanian rabbits were often considered pests for their fertility and the speed with which they could devastate crops. Pliny and Strabo report that rabbits were so prolific on the Balearic Islands that they caused a terrible famine, and the first writer additionally tells the tale of an entire city collapsing due to the animals burrowing beneath it (Pliny, Natural History, 8.81; Strabo, Geography, 3.2.6). These stories may be exaggerated (or indeed entirely fabricated) but they indicate that the rabbit was considered an iconic animal of Hispania, recognisable to many as a unique symbol of the region

As an attribute of Hispania personified, the rabbit may not have had exclusively negative connotations. Just as they are in modern times, rabbits were kept by the Romans both as pets and for their meat. Laurices, rabbit fetuses or newborns, were considered a culinary delicacy and, consequently, the animals were exported across the empire. It is also worth returning to the two definitions of the word cuniculus. Hispania was rich in valuable minerals, with abundant deposits of gold, silver, lead, and copper. Catullus describes the region as ‘cuniculosa Celtiberia’, which could be interpreted both as ‘Hispania full of mines’ and ‘Hispania full of rabbits’ (37.18). On Hadrian’s ‘province’ type, the animal may have had a similar dual meaning – one small symbol used to playfully acknowledge two resources provided by the province.

The olive branch held by Hadrian’s Hispania can also be explained as an important natural product of the region. Although olives were grown throughout the Mediterranean, Hispania was especially productive and Baetica in particular was famous for its olive oil, reportedly rivalling that of Athens! Furthermore, the branch may have had personal significance to the emperor himself. Both of Hadrian’s parents were born in Hispania, and his paternal line descended from the Aelii, a gens that had settled in the town of Italica in about 206 BCE. A wealthy family, the Aelii owed much of their prosperity to the olive plantations they owned in the area.

So, the choice of a rabbit and olive branch as representations or identifiers of Hispania on the ‘province’ types is understandable, but what of the rabbit and tree on the Minerva type? Given the rarity of the animal on Roman coinage overall and its exclusive use in combination with an olive branch on Hadrianic coins as attributes of the personified region, it seems highly likely that the earlier aureus also referred to Hispania in some way.

Hadrian was away in the West on his first provincial tour when the aureus was minted at Rome. After travelling through Germania, Britannia, and back through Gallia, he made his way to Hispania and spent the winter of 122/3 CE at Tarraco on the west coast of Tarraconensis. Perhaps a visit to his ancestral home was considered worthy of commemoration on the imperial coinage, although there is no record of him reaching his mother’s birthplace of Gades (modern Cádiz), and he pointedly did not visit Italica. Hadrian’s tour ended abruptly in 123 CE when a brewing war with Parthia called him away eastwards. The Minerva type may have been chosen to mark this departure and wish him good fortune as he sailed from a Hispanian port across the Mediterranean to face the Parthians. This is the explanation that I find most plausible, although both theories reinforce the idea that the rabbit and olive tree were present on the type as a reference to Hispania, the emperor’s presence there, and possibly his familial connection to the region. Overall, although the precise meaning of the Minerva aureus cannot be stated with absolute certainty, the floral and faunal components must surely refer to the Iberian Peninsula. If this is accepted, the type can be seen as an interesting precursor to Hadrian’s ‘province’ series, perhaps providing inspiration for the attributes chosen to clearly identify Hispania’s personification in later depictions (for example, Fig 5).


Fig 5: Marble statuette (height 27.30 cm) of a draped and veiled female figure, probably Hispania, with a basket resting on her knee; in the basket, a rabbit, 100-180 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.


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Abby This post was written by Abby Wall, an MPhil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Abby's current research concerns the use of natural imagery as representations of people and places on Roman coinage of the late Republic to early Imperial period.

October 25, 2022

Ismene in the wrong family? The tomb scene on the ‘Exeter vase’ by Danchen Zhang

My interest in the theatrical space in the three ‘Electra’ plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides led me to read about the representation of the homecoming and revenge of Orestes in vase paintings. This is how I came across an Attic red-figure pelike that presents an extremely intriguing case.

Dating from 390-380 BCE, the pelike (Figures 1 and 2) was discovered in a cardboard box in the Royal Albert Museum in 1950 and is now held by the University of Exeter. On its front side, this vase depicts the tomb of Agamemnon (inscription [ΑΓ]ΑΜΕΜΝΟΝΟΣ on the base), which is decorated with funerary offerings. Among the figures surrounding it, the inscription ΗΛΕΚΤΡΑ above the head of the short-haired girl on the right side of the tomb clearly indicates that she is Electra. She holds her right hand in front of her face, and in her left hand she carries a hydria. She is followed by another girl with a similar hairstyle and gesture, who is presumably an attendant. Closer to the tomb, on the same side as the women carrying libations, sits a young man at the steps of the tomb. On the left side another young man, with a cloak and a petasos hanging on his back, is cutting his hair. They are easily identifiable as Orestes offering a lock of hair to his father’s tomb, and his companion Pylades. Above Orestes, another male figure is painted in a reclining pose, his position indicating that he might be a divine figure as he is relatively detached from the scene. On the far left is another female figure, facing towards the tomb and probably kneeling. Above her head there are faint traces of letters ΙΣΜ.

1 Fig. 1 Front side of the ‘Exeter pelike’ (image from Coo 2013, 68).
2 Fig. 2 Detail of the woman on the left, and the inscription ΙΣΜ[ΗΝΗ] (Image from Coo 2013, 70).

Ismene? Why would she appear in a scene where Agamemnon’s children are visiting his tomb? This interesting oddity is noticed by Brian Shefton, who first discovered this vase, but seems to be quite ignored by later discussions on the vase until recent years (LIMC Supplement Elektra I 1; Coo 2013). The scholars who address this inscription agree that the girl on the left side of the tomb should have been labeled as Chrysothemis, another daughter of Agamemnon, who appears in Sophocles’ Electra. The painter, however, confuses her with another mythological character, Ismene, the daughter of Oedipus and sister of Antigone, whom we also see in plays by Sophocles. Considering that the painting might have been informed by Sophoclean tragedy, it seems to be a likely mistake. In fact, Shefton calls it ‘one of those slips we are all liable to make’ (1982, 178): in Sophocles, the representations of the two pairs of sisters do have a number of things in common.

Both the story told in Sophocles’ Antigone and the one in his Electra concern the death of a close family member and the issues about mourning for the dead. In each case, the different decisions taken by the sisters reflect their distinctive personalities. In the Antigone, the issue of burial is presented at the beginning of the play as Antigone and Ismene debate about how to react towards Creon’s prohibition on the burial of Polyneices, who is their brother and at the same time one of the Argive leaders in the battle against his native city. While Ismene chooses to obey the order of the ruler, Antigone insists on honoring her brother and is later sentenced to death by Creon. The story in Sophocles’ Electra is set years after the death of Agamemnon, when Electra and Chrysothemis have both settled on their own ways of coping with the family disaster. Chrysothemis tends to yield under the power of Agamemnon’s murderers, Clytemnestra and Aigisthos, and therefore manages to live a more comfortable life in the house, while Electra indulges herself in a never-ending mourning for her father, longing for Orestes to return and take his vengeance. In both plays, Ismene and Chrysothemis have a similar dramatic role, as they are depicted as a weaker character compared to their defiant sisters. Sophocles’ characterization of the sisters is unique in extant tragedy. It may even be possible that there was a performance tradition that would represent both pairs of the sisters with different costumes, masks and hair, thus giving them opposite roles. Therefore, it is natural to think that the painter is informed by Sophocles’ plays, having the other pair of siblings in mind when working on the tomb scene involving Agamemnon’s children.

The details of the painting itself also seem to show the knowledge of the difference in the characters of the sisters. Electra’s hair is cropped, an indication of mourning, while 'Ismene’ has long hair and wears jewellery—differences in hair and dresses are also mentioned in Sophocles’ play (Electra, 359-64, 448-52). However, here on the vase, as Electra’s hydria indicates that she comes with a libation, ‘Ismene’ is also bringing her offering to the tomb. As Coo (2013) points out, the visible leaves between her and Orestes should have been part of the funerary wreath that she is offering to her dead father. Therefore, different from the popular iconography that depicts Chrysothemis merely as a weak figure fleeing from, or at least not participating in, the vengeance of Orestes (e. g. Figure 3), this vase shows the sister actively engaged with the mourning. This can reflect the painter’s more detailed understanding of the dramatic role of Ismene/Chrysothemis, as both ‘weaker’ sisters do sympathize with the heroines and try to support them. In the Antigone, Ismene shows her readiness to admit the burial and die with her sister, while in Sophocles’ Electra, Chrysothemis visits the tomb on behalf of Electra and returns with joyful excitement after seeing Orestes’ offerings.

3 Fig. 3 Chrysothemis (labeled, on the left) flees in fear, as Orestes about to kill Aigisthos, Attic red-figure pelike attributed to the Berlin Painter, 510-490 BCE, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Image from Boardman 1975, fig. 143).

Indeed, Sophocles’ Electra never herself visits the tomb during the play. The play is set in front of the palace at Mycenae, and the tomb of Agamemnon is an off-stage place which the characters refer to verbally. Therefore, the painting of the tomb scene is of course not a ‘faithful’ depiction of any moment in Sophocles’ Electra. In fact, without particular attention to the ΙΣΜ[ΗΝΗ] inscription, this vase has been broadly thought to be related exclusively to Aeschylus’ Choephori, where the siblings Orestes and Electra reunite at Agamemnon’s tomb, and where the tomb is presented physically on stage. On the other hand, it is also common for vase paintings to depict off-stage scenes. During Sophocles’ play, Orestes, Pylades and Chrysothemis all leave the stage to visit the tomb of Agamemnon and re-enter with news or actions that shape the progress of the play. The tomb thus functions as a prominent conceptual presence throughout the play that is no less worth visualizing. Moreover, in an actual play, the stories would happen in a sequence: Orestes cuts his hair at Agamemnon’s tomb, before Chrysothemis comes to the tomb to decorate it, and Electra would reunite with her brother later in front of the palace. In this painting, different spaces and moments are brought together in the same composition. The painter is certainly not under any obligation to create a careful replica of a specific scene from Electra or Choephori. As a result, the viewers of the vase would also be able to appreciate the tension in this painting that recalls different crucial moments in the story, and even to make their own account of the curious presence of Ismene.

While the relationships between pots and plays are never straightforward, and it is hard to attribute this vase to a specific tragic scene, the interesting dynamic in this painting and the mislabelled sister make it certain that it draws on different tragic elements and merges together different stages of narrative. More than merely a forgivable slip made by the painter, it also reminds us about the various and 'slippery’ manners in which tragic performance and vase painting interact with each other.


Beazley, J. D., Attic red-figure vase-painters, 2nd edition (Oxford, 1963)

Boardman, J. Athenian red-figure vases, the archaic period (London 1975)

Boardman, J. Athenian red-figure vases, the classical period (London 1989)

Coo, L. ‘A Sophoclean slip: mistaken identity and tragic allusion on the Exeter pelike’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 56-1 (2013), 67-88.

Csapo, E. Actors and icons of the ancient theater (Chichester 2010)

Madsen, E. A., ‘Celebrating the pot-feast in the company of Aeschylus: an approach to an interpretation of the Exeter Pelike Beazley, ARV² 1516, 80. fig. 1A & B’, Classica et Mediaevalia 48 (1997) 53-73.

Shefton, B. ‘The krater from Baksy’, in The eye of Greece: studies in the art of Athens, eds D. Kurtz and B. Sparkes (Cambridge 1982) 149-81.

Taplin, O., Pots and plays: interaction between tragedy and Greek vase-painting of the fourth century B. C. (Los Angeles, 2007)

Trendall, A. D. and Webster, T. B. L., Illustrations of Greek drama (London 1971)

Wiseman, T. P., ‘Brian Shefton 1919-2012’, Pegasus 55 (2012), 48.


This blog was written by Danchen Zhang, PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are in the images and ideas of space and nature in Greek drama, and more specifically ‘winds’ in tragedy.

September 21, 2022

The Arras Medallion: material evidence for reuniting a divided Roman Empire by Giles Penman

After being a province of the Roman Empire for hundreds of years since the emperor Claudius’ invasion in AD 43, a naval commander Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius led a rebellion in AD 286. Britain and northern Gaul became a separate state for a decade under his rule and that of his finance minister Allectus. The Arras Medallion (Fig. 1), dating from AD 297 is a rare visual depiction of the Roman successful counteroffensive by the emperor Constantius in AD 296. Together with the Panegyric of Constantius it is a key source for this successful military action.


Fig. 1: Constantius I, Trier, Arras Medallion, AD 297-305; RIC VI, p. 167, no. 34; BM. 11477.

Obv.: FL VAL CONSTANTIVS NOBIL CAES: legend surrounds bearded bust of Constantius I, r., laureate and draped, wearing a cuirass.

Rev.: REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNA /LON/PTR: legend surrounds scene of Constantius I on horseback riding r. beseeched by Londinium kneeling l. before fortified London; beneath personified Londinium ‘LON’; Beneath Constantius, sailors in ship on sea sailing l.; beneath sailors, ‘PTR’. AU 42mm 36g.

After distinguishing himself in Caesar Maximian’s campaign against the Bagaudae tribe in Gaul in early AD 286, Maximian appointed Carausius, a river pilot from the Menapii tribe in Belgae, north-eastern Gaul, as a military prefect in charge of the Roman naval fleet, the classis Britannica, based in Roman Boulogne, north-western Gaul. Maximian tasked Carausius with patrolling the Oceanus Britannicus or English Channel to suppress Frankish piracy. However, Carausius was accused of allowing the pirates to raid ships and then taking their spoils to enrich himself. Once he learnt that Maximian had ordered his execution, Carausius fled to Britain, revolted and occupied the province later that year. Britannia and Northern Gaul where Carausius soldiers were mainly based seceded from the Roman Empire for the next ten years.

Although historians know little about Carausius’ reign, Carausius minted coins in Londinium with legends and imagery suggesting that he was a legitimate emperor in Britain. For example, an Antoninianus coin (Fig. 2) depicts a bust of Carausius wearing a radiate crown and cuirass with a cloak. This depiction is strikingly similar to the coin depictions of the legitimate Roman emperor Diocletian who is frequently radiate, cuirassed and draped, see for example the aureus in Fig. 3. This presents Carausius as a militarily powerful imperial ruler who is the equal of Diocletian. Similarly, Carausius received and adapted the Diocletian legend ‘IMP C C VAL DIOCLETIANVS P F AVG’ to ‘IMP CARAUSIUS P F AVG’. Carausius appears as the rightful emperor of Britain who claimed the same imperial virtues of loyalty to the Roman state and piety as Diocletian, even though he was an illegitimate usurper of imperial authority. Carausius reigned until he was assassinated by Allectus, his finance minister, in AD 293. Around this time, Constantius, Maximian’s son and successor as Caesar, besieged Boulogne and began rebuilding the Roman fleet.


Fig. 2: Carausius, Londinium, Antoninianus, AD 286 – 293; RIC V, p. , no. 25; BM 1925,0316.157.

Obv.: IMP CARAVSIVS P F AVG: legend surrounds bust of Carausius, radiate, draped, cuirassed, r.

Rev.: CONCORD MILIT / ML: legend surrounds clasped hands; beneath hands, mint mark ML.

AR 4.18g


Fig. 3: Maximian, Lugdunum, aureus, AD 284-294; RIC V, p. , no. 3; BNF AF.1582 / IMP-10520.

Obv.: IMP C C VAL DIOCLETIANVS P F AVG: legend surrounds bust of Diocletian, laureate, draped, r.

Rev.: VICTORIA AVG: Victory, winged, draped, standing l., holding wreath in r. hand and palm in l.

AU 4.99g

Constantius’ invasion of Britain, depicted in brief on the medallion, took place in AD 296, for which the Panegyric of Constantius is the only historical literary source. The armies of Constantius under his praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus and other military leaders defeated Allectus and his army of mercenaries in bloody combat (Panegyric 8.16.3). After Allectus’ death in battle, his mercenaries knew they were no longer going to be paid. They began to loot London to make good their losses. Although lost in fog, Constantius’ men slaughtered the looters, saving the provincials. The massacre of the mercenaries, the Panegyric reports, gave the provincials a ‘pleasure of the spectacle’ (Panegyric 8.17). This suggests that the massacre itself was a pleasure for them to behold and that the mercenaries were taken prisoner and used as part of spectacles in the arena. Whatever their exact fate, Constantius’ armies defeated Allectus and brought the province of Britain back under legitimate Roman control.

The medallion’s imagery and legends emphasize the military power and achievements of Constantius. The reverse depicts Constantius on horseback riding to the defence of the personified Londinium. Dressed in a tunic and cuirass and holding a spear, Constantius appears heroic and gallant in his reclamation of Britain and defence of Londinium. The personified city kneels with arms aloft, begging Constantius for assistance lest she be destroyed by the looters. This underscores the desperation of Londinium and Britain in its time of need, and Constantius’ heroism for coming to her rescue. Although he almost certainly was not present in Britain for the invasion and main attack, entrusting leadership instead to his generals including Asclepiodotus, this image creates the impression that Constantius was present, personally led his armies and heroically defeated Allectus’ mercenaries. The reverse legend ‘REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNA’ or ‘the restorer of eternal light’ of Roman civilization to Britain verbalizes Constantius’ great achievement. Even though his soldiers and generals defeated Allectus and his mercenaries, this suggests that Constantius personally has restored Britain from the darkness of separatism to the light of Roman laws, religion and customs. As a restorer of a province, this places Constantius in an imperial tradition of provincial restoration which stretches back to the emperor Hadrian. Constantius appears as a virtuous emperor who has similar qualities to his great deceased predecessors. Indeed, the obverse legend ‘Nobilis Caes’ or ‘Noble Caesar’ reflects Constantius’ exemplary qualities. The obverse image further highlights Constantius’ accomplishment. He wears a laurel wreath, worn by triumphing Roman generals, emperors and their soldiers during a triumphal procession, awarded after a victorious military campaign. Together with a cuirass and cloak, this presents Constantius as a great military leader who achieved a substantial feat by reuniting Britain and northern Gallia with the Roman World and deserves victory spoils. Therefore, even though Constantius was not present at the invasion of Britain, the medallion suggests that he led his army heroically to re-unify Britain with the rest of the Roman Empire.

The deposition site and material of the medallion suggest that it formed part of imperial image creation for the Caesar and later emperor Constantius. The medallion was minted in Trier, northern Germany, but excavated in a coin horde in Beaurains, north-eastern France. Its presence in a horde hundreds of miles from its mint and its substantial weight suggest that medallion had a significant role in transmitting the message of Constantius’ victory in Britain across the Roman World. This emphasizes that the emperor Maximian wished the Roman people to consider Constantius to be a great Roman hero and conqueror who had unified the Roman world. Indeed, the medallion is made from gold, the equivalent in weight of 10 aurei. That the campaign warranted commemoration with a heavy gold medallion, requiring much expensive gold to mint and skill to create, portrays Constantius’ victory as a brilliant feat of arms. Therefore, the gold medallion deposited far from its place of striking shows that it was designed to transmit a significant message about imperial power to Roman citizens.

In conclusion, the naval commander Carausius revolted and occupied Britannia and northern Gaul. Despite being a usurper, he presented himself on locally produced coin legends and imagery as a legitimate imperial ruler, rivalling the emperor Diocletian and his subordinate Caesar Maximian. Allectus, Carausius’ finance minister assassinated him in AD 293. The Panegyric of Constantius is a key source along with the Arras Medallion for Constantius’ invasion. Constantius rebuilt the Roman fleet and invaded Britain in AD 297. The Arras Medallion’s imagery and legend emphasize Constantius’ heroism and gallant actions as the re-unifier of the Roman World and a principled ruler.

Abbreviations and Bibliography


BM = British Museum.

BNF = Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Monnaies, médailles et antiques.

l. = left.

r. = right.

RIC V = Webb, P. H. (1933). The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. V Part II (Vol. V ). (H. Mattingly, & E. Sydenham, Eds.) London: Spink and Son Ltd.

RIC VI = Sutherland, C. H. (1967). The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. VI: Diocletian to Maximinus. London : Spink & Son.


Primary Sources

Ireland, S. (2008). Roman Britain: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Sutherland, C. H. (1967). The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. VI: Diocletian to Maximinus. London : Spink & Son.

The Trustees of the British Museum. (2022). 'Arras Medallion'. Retrieved September 16, 2022, from The British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_B-11477

The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. V Part II (Vol. V ). (H. Mattingly, & E. Sydenham, Eds.) London: Spink and Son Ltd.

Secondary Sources

Beard, M. (2007). The Roman Triumph . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Casey, P. J. (1994). Carausius and Allectus: The British Usurpers . London: B. T. Batsford Ltd.

Lyne, M. (2003). Some New Coin Types of Carausius and Allectus and the History of the British Provinces AD 286-296. The Numismatic Chronicle, 163, 147-168.

Nixon, C. E., & Saylor-Rodgers, B. (1994). VIII: Panegyricus of Constantius. In C. E. Nixon, & B. Saylor-Rodgers, In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini: Introduction, Translation, and Historical Commentary with the Latin Text of R. A. B. Mynors (pp. 104-144). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Southern, P. (2004). The Army in Late Roman Britain. In M. Todd (Ed.), A Companion to Roman Britain (pp. 393-408). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Williams, H. (2004). Carausius: a consideration of the historical, archaeological and numismatic aspects of his reign (BAR British Series). Oxford: British Archaeological Reports Publishing.


This post was written by Giles Penman, who is a final year MPhil student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, jointly supervised by the Department of History. His thesis concerns the reception of Greco-Roman imagery on British civic cultural artefacts of the Great War 1914-1918 and the Inter-War Period 1919-1938 to mobilise British people for the war effort and post-war commemoration.

August 24, 2022

Faces from the past – "Aline" and her children by Jacqui Butler

The Fayum portraits from Roman Egypt which are dated to the first to third centuries AD, are amongst the most captivating and poignant artefacts to survive from the ancient world, providing us with visual representations of how the people beneath the mummy wrappings might have looked in life. The portraits are evocative memorials and can be quite moving, with the deceased often depicted looking directly out at the viewer, inviting engagement with their image. They are all the more valuable given the lack of painted portraiture which survives from antiquity, as although marble portraiture survives in quantity, allowing us a similar look at the features of the dead, these painted images are more realistic, more evocative, and more engaging.

The portraits appear on a variety of media and incorporate different techniques; some show whole figures whilst others depict only the head and face. Some are likely to have been painted in life and kept until the death of the subject, whilst others would have been painted posthumously. Many are very sophisticated and high-quality works of art, portraying their subjects in a naturalistic manner, likely reflecting a degree of Greek influence in this regard, whilst others are stylised in different ways or are much more simplistic. They are of course a product of the society which created them; rather than an amalgamation of Greek, Roman and other cultural influences, Egypt maintained much of its own cultural identity and customs alongside these. Mummification to preserve the physical form, which was considered essential for life after death was, of course, an Egyptian ritual religious practise, and the portraits can be understood to reflect a development in Egyptian funerary art. This unique addition of portraits to the mummies, which began during the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37) often incorporated elements of Roman dress and adornment, reflecting this aspect of contemporaneous society in Egypt.

1 Fig. 1. “Mummy portrait of Aline”, Ägyptisches Museum, Staatliche Museen du Berlin, ID. No. AM 11411. Height: 42 cm; Width: 33cm; Depth: 2 cm. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

I was drawn to this particular image of a woman, “Aline” (Fig. 1.), due to a discernible element of sadness within the portrait, which the painter has managed to convey in a very realistic, perhaps even veristic, image. Aline’s mummy was found in a burial pit alongside other members of her family and she can most likely be identified, from an inscribed limestone stele (Fig. 2.) found beside her.


Fig. 2. “Stele with Greek inscription”, Ägyptisches Museum, Staatliche Museen du Berlin, ID. No. AM 11415. Height: 23 cm; Width: 16 cm. Now lost.

Inscription translated by J. Moje as “ Aline|aka Tenos| (daughter) of Herod, the good| Greetings!| 10th year of reign. 35 years of life| 7 Mesore”. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The Roman era burial pit in which Aline’s mummy was found, was discovered at the end of March 1892, by Professor Richard von Kaufmann, a German art collector, who undertook a small excavation at Hawara in the Fayum. The pit dates to the first to second centuries CE, and contained eight mummies, two of which had gilded cartonnage masks, three with painted portraits and three others with no ornamentation. The burial pit has a shaft leading to it, about 1 metre deep, and the pit is 3.5 metres long and 2.8 metres wide. The mummies themselves were found stacked on top of each other: the mummy of Aline was at the bottom, lying on its side, with the mummies of two small children alongside her, and the inscribed stele at her head. Lying on top and across these, was the mummy of a man and a further child, both with the gilded masks, and on top of these, again laid cross-wise, were the three further undecorated mummies.

The mummy of both Aline and the man were unwrapped at the time of excavation in Hawara, with the gilded cartonnage mask of the man and portrait painting of Aline being transferred to Germany, together with the mummies of the three children. Somewhat gruesomely, the head of Aline’s mummy was removed (and is now lost) in order for a facial reconstruction to be created, to prove the similarity between the facial features of the mummy and the portrait. However, the facial features of her mummified head were not well preserved, and a reconstruction therefore proved difficult, although some similarity can be seen in a drawing taken from the head and superimposed onto another of the portrait.

Therefore, whether the mummy portrait of Aline was intended as a true likeness or whether it was an idealised portrait cannot be definitively verified. More likely it is a combination of the two, and a closer look at elements of Aline’s portrait, as well as the portraits of the two children may demonstrate this. All three of these portraits were painted directly onto the shrouds bound around the bodies and are lit from the right-hand side, which adds depth to the images. They share similarities in facial features, specifically in the shape of face and their lips, signifying their familial connection. It has been suggested that they were painted by the same artist, although Aline’s eyes are much more realistically depicted than those of the children. The jewellery Aline wears is highlighted by being painted in gold leaf on top of applied stucco, whilst the children’s mummies are decorated with similar button shapes (Figs. 3 and 4).


Fig. 3. “Mummy of a girl with mummy portrait (“Aline’s daughter”), Ägyptisches Museum, Staatliche Museen du Berlin, ID. No. AM 11412. Length: 83 cm; Width: 27 cm; Depth: 20 cm. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

4 Fig. 4. “Mummy of a Male Child with Mummy Portrait (“Son of Aline”), Ägyptisches Museum, Staatliche Museen du Berlin, ID. No. AM 11413. Length: 78 cm; Width: 23 cm; Depth: 22 cm. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The dating of Aline’s portrait and those of her children are broadly given as within the first to second century CE timeframe, although some scholarship has suggested 69-117 CE. However, her hairstyle may suggest a slightly earlier dating of the middle of the first century CE. Indeed, Aline’s hairstyle shares some similarity with the so-called wife of Terentius Neo, who appears in one of the few paintings from Pompeii which can be identified as a portrait (Fig. 5.). This hairstyle is understood to have been popular around ca. 50 CE, but the Terentius Neo painting may not have been painted until towards the time of the Vesuvian eruption, and certain styles had some longevity, or came back into fashion at different times. It is also similarly represented on various statuary representations of Agrippina the Younger (14-59 CE) (for an example, please visit: https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/portrait-agrippina-younger%20). Therefore, Aline’s hairstyle, which does not have the same curls around the neck, may be an adaptation of the style which was popular from at least 50 CE onwards.

5 Fig. 5. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli Inv. No. 9058, Author’s own photograph.

The jewellery Aline wears consists of a gold collar type of necklace made up of a plain, “strap”-type of chain, with pendant drops suspended from it, whilst the earrings she wears may be either pearls or other semi-precious gemstones, set in gold. Opulent jewellery is a striking feature of the Fayum portraits, and its inclusion here contrasts with the realism in the facial features of the portrait, and I would suggest that this may indicate some element of identity projection, to indicate wealth and status. It is worth noting that there is literary evidence for what seems to have been an Egyptian practice of keeping mummies in the home (Diodorus Siculus 1.92.6; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 1.45; Lucian, On Funerals, 21.) and this may even point to the existence of a specifically Egyptian domestic ancestral cult. Therefore, instead of being confined to a single funerary occasion, the mummies may have had much more visibility, with dress and jewellery being significant inclusions in the portraits as a means of identity projection.

The portrait of the young girl “Aline’s daughter” (Fig. 3) is portrayed with a gilded wreath in her hair, wearing a gold necklace (which probably had an apotropaic pendant) and with disc and ball earrings which were a popular shape in the first century AD and are seen on numerous Fayum portraits. The younger child, “Son of Aline” (Fig. 4) is also shown with a gilded wreath and a rope-type of necklace with three gold pendant shapes which are difficult to interpret. Scholarship has suggested that the two outer pendants are lunulae which are crescent shaped, and these are usually worn for protection by girls and women, and again many of these can be seen in other Fayum portraits. For this to appear on a boy’s portrait is highly unusual, and this together with the bare shoulders of the child and the use of the colour lilac for clothing, has led to the child previously being assumed to be female. However, the CT scans carried out in January 2016 showed that the child was in fact a boy, aged 2-3 years, whilst “Aline’s daughter” was no older than age 4, with the cause of death unknown in both cases.

The portrayal of the children wearing lavish jewellery is not unusual since other Fayum portraits of children show similar adornment. However, it struck me that the earrings worn by “Aline’s daughter” are rather large and are more often seen on adult women. Therefore, the portraits are not likely to reflect the reality of the children’s everyday attire, but rather how they would have been dressed for important life events, had they lived. The young girl’s earrings could also be understood as an expression of this in terms of the jewellery she would have worn had she lived to be older.

In conclusion, I think that the portraits of Aline and her two young children combine the realism of their facial features with some elements of idealisation. Whilst there may have been some concern to promote ideas of wealth and status to the contemporaneous world via the lavish adornment in the portraits, the true likeness of the person would have had equal importance given the potential of display in the domestic setting. It would also have been important that the deceased were as well prepared for the afterlife as they could be, as the portraits formed part of the immortal substitute for the deceased. The portraits certainly provide a poignant snapshot, and I wonder if the sadness in Aline’s face is because the two cherub-cheeked young children died shortly before her, or in the case that she died first, the painter either captured or imagined her sadness at leaving her children behind. We can only surmise.


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Germer, R. Kischkewitz, H. and Lüning, M. (1993) “Das Grab der Aline und die Untersuchung der darin gefundenen Kindermumien”, Antike Welt, 1993, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 186-196.

Moje, J. (2022) “Stele with Greek inscription” online at: https://recherche.smb.museum/detail/761702

Newby, Z. (2019) ‘The Grottarossa doll and her mistress: hope and consolation in Roman tomb’, in The Materiality of Mourning: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, eds. Z. Newby and R. E. Toulson. (London and New York, Taylor and Francis) pp. 77-102.

Walker, S. and Bierbrier, M. (1997) Ancient Faces, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London, British Museum Press).


In 2018, staff and students in the Department of Classics and Ancient History had the opportunity to participate in a “Mummy Portrait Painting Workshop”, organised by Dr. Helen Ackers. We were able to learn about the production of the paintings and the different techniques used, as well as having the fantastic hands-on experience of trying to create our own portraits. You can read about the workshop here.

jacqui_pic2.jpg This post was written by Jacqui Butler, part-time 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 their depiction in art.

July 26, 2022

Precious boxes: the glitter of a new world by Carlo Lualdi

Culture is often linked by iconic objects and images of real objects which become symbols, and the sharing of these symbols are a hint at interactions between different cultures. In this article, I consider the depiction of a box represented on a northern Apulian red-figure vase, dating to the last quarter of the third century BCE, which testifies to cultural interaction between Daunia, in the north of Apulia, and Macedonia.

Before looking closely at the box depiction on the vase, it is important to consider the historical background of the Apulian region between 334 BCE and the end of the third century BCE. Between 334 and 330 BCE the king of Epirus, Alexander the Molossus, (the uncle of Alexander III of Macedonia, also called ‘the Great’), reached Southern Italy, following a request for military help from the Italiote city of Taras. Indeed, the threat to the indigenous people had brought the Tarentines to ask the political authorities on the Balkan peninsula for a military leader and military forces. Alexander the Molossus undertook operations in central Apulia and then moved to northern Apulia, taking the port of Sipontum, and this resulted in the dissemination of Greek and Macedonian culture in this area. A material consequence was the start of production of red-figure vases in the settlement of Arpi and in northern Apulia.

Scholars usually recognize the propaganda spread by Alexander the Molossus from a small number of Apulian red-figure vases which show the very well-known subject often defined as ‘the Macedonian king charging the Persian king on the battlefield’ (Fig. 1). Vases and fragments showing this image have mainly been found in central Apulia, in the Peucetia region. The image depicted on the vases is an echo of the victories of Alexander III of Macedonia against Darius III Codomanus. Most likely, Alexander the Molossus implied that his deeds in the west would be similar to the victories of his nephew in the east.

carlo1 Fig. 1 Detail of the subject ‘The Macedonian king charging the Persian king on the battlefield’ on the upper register of an Apulian red-figure amphora, attributed to the Painter of Darius (330 BCE), from the ‘Tomb of Amazonomachy’ of Ruvo di Puglia now displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples Inv. 81951 (Image from Giacobello (2020) 336 Tav. X, 2).

However, the connection between Macedonian culture and members of the aristocracies in northern Apulia can also be discerned by other details, such as the rectangular box depicted on the Apulian red-figure amphora,(Fig. 2) which has been attributed to the Painter of Arpi (315-300 BCE). The vessel was part of the grave goods of the so-called ‘Tomb of the vase of the Niobides’ found in July 1972 near Arpi. Despite the funerary chamber of the tomb having been partially looted by grave-robbers, the vast majority of the funerary assemblage was recovered by the archaeologists of the Archaeological Superintendence of Foggia. The tomb was named after the subject depicted on one of the red-figure Apulian vessels found in the chamber tomb, which have been attributed to the Painter of Darius and the Painter of Baltimore (both 340-320 BCE) as well as the Painter of Arpi.

As with the vast majority of the Apulian red-figure vases, the vessel has rich figural decoration: the neck is decorated on one side with an Amazonomachy, and on the other with a single female head, depicted in profile and framed by vegetal elements. The upper register of the body is decorated on one side by a mythological episode showing the release of Juno from the cursed throne made by Hephaistos, and on the other by a mythical scene including Persephone. The lower register is decorated with a sequence of figures represented with objects related to athletics, such as a palm branch, metal vessels linked with the consumption of wine, objects related to love spells and mythical figures such as Eros and Dionysus.

However, what is most interesting here is the rectangular box held by the draped female figure, who is depicted facing right seated on a kalathos (a basket), and also holds a sphere in her right hand (Fig. 2). The lid of the box is decorated with a star with nine rays, five larger rays and four smaller rays. The box is depicted open, hence the star pattern is represented on the internal side of the lid.

carlo2 Fig. 2 Detail of the lower register of a red-figure Apulian amphora attributed to the Painter of Arpi (315-300 BCE), from the tomb of ‘The vase of the Niobides’ from Arpi, now displayed in the Civic Museum of Foggia, Inv. 132723. (Image from Todisco (2009) Tav. XLVII b).

This box can be compared with the golden coffers which were found in the Macedonian royal tombs in 1970 by the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronicos, near the modern settlement of Vergina. Scholars usually identify these objects by using a Greek term meaning coffers: larnakes. More specifically, I refer to the gold larnakes found in the antechamber and in the funerary chamber of the large Macedonian tomb also known by the name of the tomb 'of Philip II’ (Figs. 3-6).

carlo3 Fig. 3 The smaller gold larnax from the antechamber of the large Macedonian tomb 'of Philip II', Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, Vergina, Greece. (Image from Vokotopoulou (1996) p.219 258).
carlo4 Fig. 4 Detail of the front side of the smaller gold larnax from the antechamber of the large Macedonian tomb 'of Philip II', Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, Vergina, Greece. (Image from Vokotopoulou (1996) p.219 258).
carlo5 Fig. 5 The larger gold larnax from the funerary chamber of the large Macedonian tomb 'of Philip II', Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, Vergina, Greece. (Image from Vokotopoulou (1996) p.218 257).
carlo6 Fig. 6 Detail of the front side of the larger gold larnax from the funerary chamber of the large Macedonian tomb 'of Philip II', Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai, Vergina, Greece (Image from Vokotopoulou (1996) p.218 257).

The identity and the name of the two deceased persons buried in this tomb are still intensely debated by modern scholars, due to the lack of inscriptions which would have easily identified them. Names such as Philip II of Macedonia, his wife Eurydice II of Macedonia, Meda of Odessos, another wife of Philip II, Kleopatra, the last wife of Philip II, Philip III of Macedonia, step-brother of Alexander III (also called ‘the Great’) of Macedonia and other members of the Royal Macedonian family, have all being suggested. However, here, I want to try to provide a new observation about an object which was part of the grave goods found in the large Macedonian tomb also known as ‘Philip II’s tomb’, which can be dated between 340 BCE and 310 BCE.

‘Philip II’s tomb’ consists of a façade with the well-known painting of ‘the Royal Macedonian hunt’ and two square rooms, the antechamber and the main chamber, which are both covered by a barrel vault. Goods have been found in the antechamber and the main chamber of ‘Philip II’s tomb’ and it is extremely difficult for us to distinguish between the objects which were part of the personal possession of the deceased, and the items which were placed in the tomb as funerary offerings. This observation brought me to the topic of this analysis. In the antechamber and in the funerary chamber two rectangular golden boxes were found, and these larnakes are richly decorated showing various patterns. The lid of the two larnakes is decorated by an iconic detail: a star with drop-shaped rays of two sizes. Scholars disagree about the original function of the larnakes; with debate as to whether the boxes should be interpreted as luxury coffins, funerary offerings, or luxury boxes used to securely keep jewels or other precious personal possessions of the Macedonian royal family.

By observing the pattern on the gold larnakes and the pattern on the lid depicted on the Apulian red-figure vase it is possible to notice some similarities. Additionally, the surprising parallel between the star-rayed pattern depicted on the internal side of the lid of the box represented on the Apulian vase and the similar decoration of the internal side of the gold larnax found in the funerary chamber of "Philip II's tomb’ must be stressed (Fig.7). This could be a hint that the box depicted on the Apulian red-figure vases is an image representing a real metal object that was known by the Daunian patrons and by the craftsmen operating in Daunia region.

carlo7 Fig. 7 Comparison between the internal side of the lid of the great gold larnax from Vergina and the rectangular box depicted on the Apulian red-figure amphora attributed to the Painter of Arpi found in the tomb ‘of the vase of the Niobids’ near Arpi. (From the left image from Andronicos (1994) 169 fig. 136, detail from Todisco (2009) Tav. XLVII b).

Moreover, the image on the Apulian red-figure amphora suggests that rectangular boxes similar to the gold larnakes found in funerary contexts, could have been used in ceremonies and social rites performed by the wealthiest members of the upper social classes, sharing similar ideologies and religious beliefs. It may be possible to suggest that such luxury larnakes were part of the personal possession of the indigenous characters identified by modern scholars by the expression ‘Daunian principes’.

Hence, the larnax depicted on the Apulian red-figure amphora may be connected with the so-called ‘Daunian principes’ who were at the top of the Daunian society between the fourth and the third century BCE. It is plausible, then, that Alexander the Molossian fought and also formed diplomatic agreements and cultural exchanges with the ‘Daunian principes’. The Macedonian culture brought into northern Apulia by Alexander the Molossian may include some ceremonies which required the use of specific objects, such as luxury larnakes, similar to the object depicted on the Apulian red-figure amphora. Therefore, it could be possible that some supporters of Alexander the Molossian, probably the members of the families related to the ‘Daunian principes’, aimed to demonstrate materially their political and cultural ideology by depicting some objects echoing some specific realia. Additionally, since the vessel is dated to the last quarter of the fourth century BC, more than fifteen years after the end of the military campaigns of Alexander the Molossus, it could be argued that the box depicted on the Apulian red-figure vessel is an echo of the earlier cultural interactions which enriched the cultural background of the indigenous people settled in northern Apulia. Therefore, it could also be argued that some details of the imagery of Apulian red-figure vases could provide us with more information about the political and the cultural links between the Daunians and the Macedonian culture.

In conclusion the red-figure box on the Apulian red-figure amphora can echo the luxury boxes used by the Macedonians and testified by the gold larnakes found in the tombs of the Royal Macedonian family, another hint proving the strong links between the new rising power in the east and the complex context of Apulia during the end of the fourth century BCE.


Andronicos, M. (1994) Vergina – The Royal Tombs and the Ancient City (Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A.)

Carpenter, T.H., Lynch, K. M. and Robinson, E. (2014) The Italic people of ancient Apulia : new evidence from pottery for workshops, markets, and customs (New York : Cambridge University press).

De Juliis, E.M. (1992) La Tomba del Vaso dei Niobidi di Arpi (Bari: Edupuglia)

Drouguou S. and Saatsoglou Paladieli, C. (2005) Vergina – The Land and its History (Athens: Militos Editions)

Giacobello F. (2020) Mito e Società. Vasi Apuli a figure rosse da Ruvo di Puglia al Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (Sesto Fiorentino: All'insegna del giglio).

Kottaridi, A. (2011) Macedonian treasures: A tour through the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai (Athens : Kapon Editions)

Kottaridi, A. (2013) The Royal Metropolis of the Macedonians (Athens: John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation)

Pouzadoux, C. (2005) ‘Guerre et paix en Peucétie à l’époque d’Alexandre le Molosse (notes sur quelques vases du Peintre de Darius)’, in Le canal d’Otrante et les échanges dans la Méditerranée antique et médiévale (colloque Nanterre, 20-21 novembre 2000), ed E. Deniaux (Bari: Edipuglia )

Todisco, L. (2008) Il pittore di Arpi: mito e società̀ nella Daunia del tardo IV secolo a.C. (Roma : "L'Erma" di Bretschneider)

Todisco, L. (ed.) (2012) a La ceramica a figure rosse della Magna Grecia e della Sicilia, Vol. II Inquadramento, (Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider).

Todisco, L. (ed.) (2012) b La ceramica a figure rosse della Magna Grecia e della Sicilia, Vol. III Apparati, (Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider).

Todisco, L. (ed.) (2012) La ceramica a figure rosse della Magna Grecia e della Sicilia, Vol. I Produzioni, (Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider).

Vokotopoulou, I. (1996) Macedonians : the northern Greeks (Athens : Kapcon Editions)

clualdiphoto_002.jpg Carlo Lualdi is a PhD student at Warwick University. Usually, he states that his academic interests are mainly related to combat scenes linked with real military events dated “From Pyrrhus to Pydna”. Naturally ‘A person proposes and the archaeology disposes’, hence Carlo is now analyzing some combat scenes coming from Messapia region dating before the arrival of Pyrrhus in Italy. Carlo is also interested in studying the reception of Classical culture in contemporary media as movies, tv series and comics.

June 21, 2022

Celebrating Tradition & Innovation with an Empress of Rome: Magnia Urbica by Richard Allard–Meldrum

Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee was a great opportunity to celebrate her wonderful achievement, and allowed us to glimpse the royal family during events that, although highly choreographed, were often less formal. We saw, at times, a more casual side to the family, especially the children. As the celebrations drew to a close, I wondered how an empress of Rome would have appeared in celebration. Alas for me, none of the empresses I am researching ever came close to celebrating a jubilee, let alone a platinum one! However, there is one empress who can give us a glimpse of an imperial celebration: the little known Magnia Urbica.

Magnia Urbica was a ‘Soldier Empress’ - these are a relatively understudied group of empresses who ruled between 235 CE and 285 CE. Magnia Urbica was the last empress in this group, she reigned between August 283 CE and August 285 CE and was married to Carinus, a ‘Soldier Emperor or Barracks Emperor’. Together they represent the last of their kind, at the end of an era.

Fig. 1

Fig 1: RIC V (Carus) 337, Magnia Urbica. Antoninianus, Lugdunum (Lyon) mint, struck 283-285 CE; courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Fig 2 June 2022

Fig 2: RIC V (Carus) 214, Carinus, husband of Magnia Urbica. Antoninianus, Lugdunum (Lyon) mint, struck 283-285 CE; courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Compared to the famous emperors of imperial Rome, little is known of the Soldier Emperors, and even less about their wives. Like most Soldier Empresses, Magnia Urbica was not mentioned by any ancient historian, we only know her through inscriptions and coins. Her husband, Carinus, was the last of a trio of short reigning, unsuccessful emperors: Carinus, his younger brother Numerian and their father Carus. The emperor Carus died, if you believe the myth, by being struck by lightning in his tent. More probably he was struck by his brother-in-law Aper, who also murdered Numerian soon after. In a tale that borders on comical, Aper, hid the death of Numerian by having the emperor’s body carried around in a litter and claiming the emperor was too ill to see anybody, until inevitably, the smell alerted those nearby to what had happened. Aper was then killed by Valerius Diocles, who after being proclaimed emperor changed his name to Diocletian. A few months later Carinus was betrayed and killed by his own men, leaving Diocletian the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. With Diocletian came a new era for Rome: the rule of four emperors, the tetrarchy, would transform the empire and within a century would also become a Christian Roman Empire. Given the negative impression of Magnia Urbica’s family, especially compared to Diocletian, it is easy to see why she gets overlooked.

So, who was Magnia Urbica? Sadly, there are few clues as the ancient patriarchy was adept at filtering out or distorting the women of the ancient world. Coins provide the majority of the surviving evidence for her, and like previous Roman empresses, Magnia Urbica is mostly depicted in the traditional and often drab motifs used by her predecessors. Her portraits on coins are not an accurate representation of her appearance but are instead a feminised version of the emperor’s own image (compare Figs 1 and 2). The differences between the images follow the same standard changes adopted by her third century predecessors: her hair is in the fashionable Scheitelzopffrisur style, she wears a diadem, and she is dressed in the traditional palla. Beyond her portrait, the images and inscriptions on the reverse of her coins also represent Magnia Urbica with similar values to the other Soldier Empresses and even the powerful empresses of the second century. She was the last empress to be represented alongside Juno Regina, queen of the gods. Magnia Urbica was linked to the famous empresses of the second century, such as Faustina the Younger (the daughter of the emperor Antonninus Pius and wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius), by having coins made with similar imagery, such as Venus Victrix (see Figs 3 and 4).

Fig 3 June 2022

Fig 3: RIC III (Marcus Aurelius) 1688, Faustina the Younger, Sestertius, Rome mint, struck 161-176 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

Nonetheless, Magnia Urbica was not always represented in such a traditional manner, and was also depicted in new and more interesting forms. None is more striking than the coins struck in the northern Italian mint of Ticinum, modern Pavia, which depict her wearing an unusually elaborate, embroidered costume which has often been identified as a trabea. She is also wearing elaborate jewellery: a double rowed pearl necklace with joining jewels (Fig 4).

Fig 4 June 2022

Fig 4: RIC V (Carus) 347, Magnia Urbica. Antoninianus, Ticinum mint, struck 283 CE; courtesy of the Münzkabinett der Universität Göttingen.

The trabea, or trabea triumphalis is also known as the toga picta. It is a decorated garment, often made with purple cloth and gold thread, worn by emperors, consuls and generals during a triumph. The suggestion that Magnia Urbica is wearing a trabea is controversial as it is considered to only have been worn by men. Nonetheless, the costume of Magnia Urbica shows remarkable similarities to images portraying the trabea,e.g. the ivory diptych of the consul Anastasius, and coins of the emperor Diocletian wearing a trabea triumphalis (Figs 5 and 6). If Magnia Urbica is not wearing a trabea, then it is of a very similar design, perhaps deliberately so.

Fig 5 June 2022

Fig 5: Ivory diptych of the Consul Anastasius, object no.O93125; courtesy of the © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fig 6 June 2022

Fig 6: RIC VI (Serdica) 14a, Diocletian, Nummus. Serdica mint, struck 284-305 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

Why Magnia Urbica is illustrated wearing this outfit remains open to debate, but all the theories suggest she is celebrating an important event: possibly her wedding as she may have married Carinus in or around Ticinum in 283 CE, or she could be celebrating her coronation as empress, which once again may have happened in northern Italy. The third theory is that she is celebrating a major military victory. Either way her husband, Carinus, is not depicted wearing a trabea or special outfit which makes its representation on Magnia Urbica all the more curious.

Although the nature of this celebration and her choice of costume may never be known, Magnia Urbica’s innovation did not end with her short reign. Many later empresses like Galeria Valeria, Helena and Fausta are depicted wearing similarly elaborate costumes and jewellery (Fig 7) suggesting that Magnia Urbica began a new trend, one that appears more vibrant and celebratory.

Fig 7 June 2022

Fig 7: RIC VI (Siscia) 204, Galeria Valeria. Bronze AE2, Siscia mint, struck 309-310 CE; courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

In fact, over the centuries that followed Magnia Urbica the appearance of empresses in elaborate costumes increases; the trabea triumphalis also evolved into the Byzantine loros,often depicted being worn by some Byzantine empresses, as well as emperors. These Byzantine empresses are often depicted in an elaborate loros and fine jewellery. Indeed, the bejewelled double pearl necklace worn by Magnia Urbica also bears a striking similarity to the necklace worn by the famous sixth century Byzantine empress Theodora, on the panel in the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna (Fig 8). The mosaic of Theodora helps us to take Magnia Urbica outside of the monochrome world of coins and into the vibrant world of colour. The added colour also allows us to get a little closer to the human side of Magnia Urbica and the world she inhabited and to get an idea of what she may have looked like during the imperial celebrations.

Fig 8 June 2022

Fig 8: Mosaic in situ in the Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna. Theodora wearing a white chalmys, on top of a purple robe and ornate jewellery, including a pearl necklace, earrings and crown. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Magnia Urbica was often represented as an archetypal empress of ancient Rome and it can be hard to see past her static, colourless images, with her stern face and traditional clothing. Yet, as with the Queen’s platinum jubilee, celebrations can become a window through which we can glimpse a different side of those whose public images are necessarily filtered. As Magnia Urbica demonstrates, an empress can be represented traditionally and innovatively. She was part of a long lineage of empresses emerging from the early days of empire. Through her triumphs and celebrations, she created both new traditions to be copied by later empresses, and an opportunity to glimpse a more human side to an empress of Rome.


Ando, C. (2012) Imperial Rome AD 193 to 284 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Estiot, S. (2017) ‘L'Atelier de Ticinum sous le règne de Carus et ses fils', Revue Numismatique 174: 75-118

Gricourt, D. (1995) ‘L'adventus de Carin à Ticinum et son mariage avec Magnia Urbica', Revue Numismatique 150: 95-112

Harries, J. (2012) Imperial Rome AD 284-363: The New Empire (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Kienast, D, Eck, W, Heil, M. (1996) Römische kaisertabelle: Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft)

Parani, M. (2018) ‘toga picta’, in The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, ed O. Nicholson (Oxford: Oxford University press)

Potter, D. (2014) The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395 (New York: Routledge)

Ricciardi, R. (2008) Where did all the Women go: The Archaeology of the Soldier Empresses (Cincinnati: Cincinnati University Press)

Ševčenko, N, P. (2005) ‘loros’, in The Oxford Dictionary Byzantium, ed A, P, Kazdan (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Southern, P. (2015 2nd edn) The Roman Empire form Severus to Constantine (New York: Routledge)

Richard Allard-Meldrum

This post was written by Richard Allard-Meldrum, part-time MPhil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Richard’s research interests are the third century CE, and the representation of the ‘Soldier Empresses’ in the period 235 to 285 CE.

May 26, 2022

Spoliated spolia: the tropaea Marii on the Capitoline Hill, by Kieren Johns


Portrait of so-called Marius, 1st century BCE, restored by Alexander Trippel, now in the Musei Vaticani (https://commons. wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Marius_Chiaramonti_Inv1488.jpg) with "A view of the trophies of Marius" Plate 25 in Sadeler, M. (1660) Vestigi delle Antichiat di Roma, Tivoli, Puzzuolo et altri luochi (Roma: G. Giacomo de Rossi).

Today, if you walk up the picturesque Cordonata Capitolina staircase towards the summit of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, you will be confronted by the imposing equestrian statue of the second-century CE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. An array of other ancient statues adorn the Piazza del Campidoglio, too. The top of the staircase is flanked by the Dioscuri, statue of the twin deities Castor and Pollux. Further along the balustrade are two other marble compositions. These depict “tropaea”, or “trophies”, which were displays of captured arms and armour that monumentalised Roman military victory.

Kieren2 An illustration of one of the tropaea from the balustrade of the Campidoglio, attributed to Pietro da Cortona ca. 1625-30. Image from Royal Collection Trust.

These arrangements are one of the most recognisable motifs in ancient iconography, featuring in an array of visual media, including marble reliefs, through to gems and coinage, across the centuries of the empire’s history. Representing spolia, the spoils of war captured from Rome’s defeated enemies, they symbolise Roman might. However, the examples on the Campidoglio have a curious history of display and movement in the city.


RIC I2 Augustus 4B: Denarius minted at Emerita by P. Carisius in 25-23 BCE. Obverse portrait of Augustus, reverse depiction of a trophy erected on mound of shields. Image from: Department of Numismatics and Monetary History at the University of Vienna.

K4 RIC VII Rome 345: Bronze medallion minted at Rome in 333-335 CE. Obverse portrait of Constantius II, reverse depiction of Constantius II erecting trophy with seated female figure. Image from: Münzkabinett Berlin.

The Capitoline tropaea have been in situ on the Campidoglio since 1590, when they had been moved on the orders of Pope Sixtus V; they’re visible in Giovanni Paolo Panini’s View of the Campidoglio from 1750. When they were moved in the sixteenth century, an inscription on the underside of one of the ensembles indicated that the monument was made of marble quarried during the reign of Domitian in the late first century CE. Despite this, they were – and indeed still are by many – commonly referred to as the ‘Trophies of Marius’.

K5 The right-hand tropaea as it appears today on the Campidoglio in Rome.(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trofei_di_mario_a_ campidoglio.JPG)

The Republican general had erected a number of monuments to commemorate his triumphs, first over Jugurtha and the Numidians (104 BCE) and then over the Cimbrians, defeated at the Battle of Vercellae (101 BCE). His political opponent, Sulla, had destroyed these monuments in the 80s BCE, but they were restored by Julius Caesar, during his aedileship, in 69 BCE, as recorded by Suetonius, Valerius Maximus, and by Plutarch: “he [Caesar] had images of Marius secretly made, together with trophy-bearing Victories, and these he ordered set up on the Capitol” (Caesar, 6.1).

These literary accounts have contributed to the modern misnomer. Although there were tropaea or monumenta Marii, the exact location of these monuments remains unknown. In reality, as noted above, these tropaea date to the late first century CE, and were therefore part of a now-lost triumphal monument, dedicated to either Domitian or Trajan. The dating is further indicated by the stylistic similarities between the shields on the Capitoline tropaea and those depicted on the base of Trajan’s Column.

k7 K8
Sides 2 and 3 of the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome. The iconography of captured arms provides a useful point of comparison with the so-called Trophies of Marius on the Capitoline. Image from University of St Andrews.

Later, in the first half of the third century CE, the trophies were moved for the first time. They were taken from the Domitianic/Trajanic monument and repurposed as part of a monumental nymphaeum on the south-eastern slope of the Esquiline Hill. Built at the point where the via Labicana and via Praenestina merged (today’s Piazza Vittorio Emanuele), this colossal water fountain was a project of the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 CE).

Built in opus latericium and covered in marble ornamentation, only remains of the brick structure survives today, although the monuments former prestige is clear from the size of the remains. In antiquity, the nymphaeum comprised of four levels; a ground level basin was fed by a total of seven fountain niches, five frontal and two on either side. A quadriga was situated on the very top of the structure. A good impression of the nymphaeum’s overall appearance is provided by an aureus of Alexander, minted in 226 CE.

K9 RIC IV Severus Alexander 58: Aureus minted at Rome in 226 CE. Obverse portrait of Severus Alexander, reverse depiction of the nymphaeum of Alexander, with details of statue decoration. Image from American Numismatic Society.

On the fourth level, a central niche featured a sculptural group of the imperial domus and the god Oceanus, who was depicted reclining. However, it remains conjectured as to whether this would have represented Alexander with his wife, Sallustia Orbiana, or with his grandmother, Julia Maesa. The role of Maesa and her daughter, Julia Mammaea (Alexander’s mother) in the emperor’s court remains the subject of ongoing debate, though notions of her overbearing influence increasingly appear to be historiographic tropes. In two lateral niches, either side of this central imperial statue group, were the tropaea.

The reuse of this overtly militaristic iconography in Alexander’s reign is striking. Although the emperor enjoys a largely positive reception in both ancient and modern assessments of his reign, his reputation as a military leader is wholly less positive. Indeed, this is frequently presented as the prime catalyst for his assassination in 235 CE: the legions in Germany effectively shifted their loyalty to the bellicose career soldier, Maximinus Thrax.

Despite this, it has been convincingly noted that the façade of the nymphaeum, with its three niches would have resembled a triumphal arch. The inclusion of the tropaea, repurposed from their original architectural contexts, would have contributed to this impression significantly.


"A view of the trophies of Marius" Plate 25 in Sadeler, M. (1660) Vestigi delle Antichiat di Roma, Tivoli, Puzzuolo et altri luochi (Roma: G. Giacomo de Rossi).

This movement and re-use of architectural material means that the tropaea, an artistic representation of spolia, became – in themselves – spolia. This is the term used to characterise artistic and architectural material re-used in new contexts and is characteristic of Roman practices from the fourth century CE onwards, most notoriously in the Arch of Constantine’s use of a plethora of earlier imperial material).

Specifically, these tropaea illustrate the complexities in identifying types of spolia, specifically, whether they might be in re, or in se. This was a distinction first identified by Richard Brilliant, as part of his analysis of the pedestals in the Boboli Gardens in Florence; these monuments had been spoliated from the Arcus Novus in Rome to decorate the Renaissance gardens. Brilliant’s analysis distinguished between the use of spolia as merely a form of architectural reuse (i.e. spolia in se), and the communicative and ideological capacity of re-used architectural material (i.e. spolia in re).

The movement of the tropaea to this new architectural context provided Alexander with the means to augment his own status. The nymphaeum was a public benefaction of the emperor’s generosity and a billboard for the imperial domus, while the tropaea asserted that the emperor commanded the support of his soldiers. Because of this, one might wonder whether Alexander’s use of the tropaea served as an assurance of his authority over the praetorians. Cassius Dio describes how the guards had rebelled early in his reign, and the fires they started reputedly threatened the city.

More generally, if the tropaea were from a Trajanic monument, they may have allowed Alexander to generate welcome associations with the optimus princeps. If they were taken from a Domitianic monument, then these tropaea would fit into a pattern identifiable elsewhere in Alexander’s Rome. The emperor had already overseen the renovation of the thermae of Nero on the Campus Martius, and the baths quickly became known as the thermae Alexandrinae; architectural reuse had again allowed for the creation of a new narrative of imperial generosity.

Ultimately, the so-called Trophies of Marius – the spoliated spolia – present a wonderful insight into the complexities of ancient Rome’s topographical history. The modern misnomer, although a fascinating indication as to how sixteenth century Romans mined the ancient texts for information and inspiration, nevertheless belies a rich legacy of artistic and architectural interaction between Rome’s emperors and their architectural legacies.

Further reading:

Brilliant, R. (1982) ‘I piedistalli del giardino di boboli: spolia in se, spolia in re’, Prospettiva, 31:2-17.

Claridge, A. (2010) Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford): 265.


This post was written by Kieren Johns, who has recently submitted his PhD at the University of Warwick and is awaiting his viva. His research presents an investigation of the epigraphic representation of Roman emperors in the period 180 to 235 CE, 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.

April 24, 2022

Who’s that girl? A burial pithos from Thebes, by Dr Paul Grigsby

In 1966, construction workers in the Boeotian city of Thebes discovered a unique burial pithos dating to the end of the eighth century BC containing the remains of a child.


Figure 1 - Burial pithos, Pyri suburb of Thebes ca.720-700BC, Archaeological Museum of Thebes (photo - Paul Grigsby).

Now in the Archaeological Museum at Thebes, this Late Geometric pithos, standing 50cm tall, depicts an elaborate scene running around its top - an unknown ritual of a maiden chorus led by a lyre. In what was clearly the dominant panel, the most interesting and arguably important figures are a small boy and even smaller girl facing each other, a brother and sister perhaps, flanked by adults – the male lyre-player behind the boy, and a line of six long-skirted females behind the girl, with the boy apparently reaching up to hold the hand of the first woman in line. Around the back a solitary woman on the right faces a line of eight women, much like that on the front.

Together with the pithos, other goods found in the grave included a kalathiskos, a sometimes-votive ceramic vessel modelled on a wool basket and often associated with female deities, suggesting that the child inside the pithos had been a girl, perhaps even the very diminutive figure gracing the central panel of the pithos itself. To understand who this tiny figure may have been, it would help to identify the ritual depicted, and our best guess for this is the Theban Daphnephoria.

The Daphnephoria

At its very simplest, the Daphnephoria involved the bringing of sacred laurel to the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios (named for the nearby river Ismenos) which stood on a small hill just to the south of Thebes outside the city wall.


Figure 2 - Summit of Ismenian hill with oracular sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios (photo - Paul Grigsby).

The Theban Daphnephoria is known from a number of late sources, namely Pausanias in the second century AD and Proclus’ Chrestomathia in the fifth century AD. At least three of Pindar’s Partheneia or Maiden Songs (fr. 94a-c), known from a papyrus published in 1904, are speculated to have accompanied the ritual, of which the Daphnephorikon for Agasikles (fr.94b) - so named by Grenfell and Hunt - is the most detailed. But with a millennium between Pindar and Proclus, variations between the rituals as described are many and may reflect inconsistencies in the accounts, differences of authorial focus, the changing of the rite over time, or the description of a completely different rite altogether; take your pick.

Inconsistencies aside, the rituals that these three authors describe nevertheless seem to be related. Pausanias (9.10.4) tells us that in a custom still, to his knowledge, carried out in Thebes in his day, ‘a boy of noble family, who is himself both handsome and strong, is chosen priest of Ismenian Apollo for a year. He is called daphnephoros, for the boys wear wreaths of laurel leaves.’ He goes on to record that the wealthier boys left a tripod as dedication, and that he himself saw the tripod left by Amphitryon for Heracles after he had worn the laurel.

Proclus’ account is by far the most detailed, explaining how ‘every nine years in Boeotia the laurel is brought by priests into the temple of Apollo, it is sung out by a chorus of maidens. A child with both parents still living [pais amphithales] leads the Daphnephoria; his closest relative holds up the wreathed log, which they call the kopo. And the daphnephoros himself follows, holding onto the laurel, his hair flowing freely, wearing a golden crown and adorned in bright garments down to his feet which are bound in Epikratides [sandals] … The chorus of maidens follow close behind him, holding outstretched branches in supplication, and singing the hymn.’

The kopo that Proclus describes is an elaborate ornamented log wrapped with flowers and hung with bronze spheres, not mentioned in either Pindar or Pausanias. With the kopo we assume a late elaboration, and the same might be said of Proclus’ other details missing from Pausanias’ brief account and the hymns of Pindar. In Pindar, the participants of the ritual are not clearly comprehensible given the fragmentary state of the text, but the similarity of each of these rites to another laurel-carrying ritual linked to Apollo, the Septerion at Delphi, ought to remind us of what lay at the heart of the Theban Daphnephoria.

Give the boy a big hand

Elaborations aside, both the Theban and Delphic rituals centred on the carrying of a branch of laurel by a young boy to a Sanctuary of Apollo. With that in mind, the unknown ritual on the Pyri pithos might well be imagined to be of this kind. If so, it would be the earliest evidence of Apollo Ismenios’ cult in Thebes by quite some way. A number of inscriptions relating to the cult have been dated to the sixth century BC, but the cult might be placed further back (to ca. 720-700 BC) if the Pyri pithos indeed shows the celebration of an Apolline Daphnephoria. Langdon suggests as much, recognising an early Apolline rite courtesy of the familiar figures of the boy and girl, maiden chorus and lyre, but whereas she sees no laurel being carried – ‘the pithos does not, of course, illustrate a Pindaric daphnephorikon, for it clearly lacks both laurel branch and decorated log’ (2001, 596) - I would argue that the boy’s raised hand is not simply large and crudely drawn but represents the branch itself.


Figure 3 - Detail of Pyri pithos (ca.720-700BC) (photo - Paul Grigsby).

A Kindly Daughter

In ancient Greece it is almost always about the boy. Proclus describes the Daphnephorikon as a type of Partheneia or maiden-song, sung by a chorus of girls usually accompanied by pipes, and which ‘praised men and gods alike’ – with an emphasis on the men. The Daphnephorikon for Agasikles (fr.94b) is no exception, praising a boy – Agasikles (possibly, though not unquestionably, the daphnephoros)– and his family, the well-respected family of Aioladas. As the maiden chorus sings (fr.94b trans. Race):


But quickly tying up my robe

and carrying in my gentle hands a splendid branch

of laurel, I shall hymn

the all-glorious house of Aioladas

and of his son Pagondas, (6-10)

As a faithful witness for Agasikles

I have come to the dance

and for his noble parents (38-40)

So much for the boy. But what of the girl? We have to wait, but from line 67 we have a fragmented passage which reads:


[son? Father?]. . .of Damaina, stepping forth now

with a . . . foot, lead the way for me, since the first

to follow you on the way will be your kindly daughter,

who beside the branch of leafy bay

walks on sandals (67-70)

The relationships are confused. Who is Damaina? Who is leading the way? Where is the daphnephoros? Is he Agasikles, or the girl’s father? But the kindly daughter, first to follow beside the well-leafed laurel, is suggestive enough of the little girl on the Pyri pithos standing beside her laurel-bearing brother to imagine some kind of link.

Looking again at the pithos what can we now say about its small occupant? It is tempting to see in its decoration a nod to the girl buried within. If so, she would have been an earlier version of Pindar’s ‘kindly daughter’, a girl from one of Thebes’ most prominent families, here shown enjoying her role leading the maiden chorus on her brother’s big day as daphnephoros; unaware, we hope, that her days in the sun were numbered and that this special occasion would soon decorate the sides of her burial jar and tell us something about her short but exciting life over two thousand years later.


Figure 4 - Detail of Pyri pithos (ca.720-700BC) (photo - Paul Grigsby).


Ancient sources:

Pausanias Description of Greece (9.10.4)

Pindar Parthenaia (fragments 94a-c = P.Oxy. 659)

Plutarch De def. or.417e-418d; Quaest. Graec. 12 (293c)

Proclus Chrestomathia in Photius (Cod. 239, pp. 321a-b Bekker).


Boutsikas, E. (2015). Landscape and the Cosmos in the Apolline Rites of Delphi, Delos and Dreros. In L. Käppel , & V. Pothou (Eds.), Human Development in Sacred Landscapes: Between Ritual Tradition, Creativity and Emotionality (pp. 77-102).

Gottingen: V&R Unipress. Grenfell, B. P., & Hunt, A. S. (1904). The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Part IV. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.

Langdon, S. (2001). Beyond the Grave: Biographies from Early Greece. American Journal of Archaeology, 105(4), 579-606.

Race, W. H. (1997). Pindar. Nemean Odes, Isthmian Odes, Fragments. Cambridge, Massachusets; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Schachter, A. (1967). A Boeotian Cult-type. BICS, XIV, 1-16.

Schachter, A. (1981). Cults of Boiotia:1. Acheloos to Hera. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

Schachter, A. (2016). Boiotia in Antiquity: Selected Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stromberg, A. (1993). Male or Female? Methodological Study of Grave Gifts as Sex-Indicators in Iron Age Burials from Athens. (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology and Literature, 123.) Jonsered: Paul Åström.

Paul This post was written by Dr Paul Grigsby, Research Fellow in Outreach and Impact in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Paul runs the Warwick Classics Network with Professor Michael Scott with whom he also teaches on the module Public Engagement in Classics. This paper arises from his interest in all things Boeotian and especially Boeotian religion and identity linked to games, festivals, and rituals.

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