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.

March 24, 2022

Antony's Legionary Denarii, by Campbell Orchard

When one thinks of the coins of the Roman Empire, ordinarily it is of a coin with the emperor’s visage on the obverse (heads), and an imperial or religious image on the reverse (tails) (Fig. 1). One also thinks of those famous Romans who steered the empire and made an impact on its history — figures such as Caesar, Augustus, Nero, and so on. However, whilst coins minted under these emperors were indeed prolific, Marc Antony’s legionary series somehow outlasted them all.

Fig 1
Fig. 1. RIC IV 193. Denarius. Obv: Laureate head of Septimius Severus, right. SEVERVS PIVS AVG. Rev: Dea Caelesris holding thunderbolt and sceptre, riding lion right. INDVLGENTIA AVGG / INCARTH. Photo taken by author. From the University of Warwick Classics Department Collection, 2016.3.9.

Between 32-31 BCE, Marc Antony’s (83-30 BCE) eastern mints issued a large series of silver denarii in the lead up to the Battle of Actium. There are two theories regarding where these coins were minted: some believe there was a mobile workshop that moved with Antony’s army in northwestern Greece, while others argue the coins were struck at Patras, a port city in Northern Achaea in the Peloponnese, where Antony had his military and naval base.

These coins are commonly referred to as ‘legionary denarii’ for their depiction of legionary standards and legends identifying specific legions and units within Antony’s army. As a result, legionary denarii are popular among collectors, providing an opportunity to not only collect Antony’s legions, but also an interesting historical link to the battle of Actium via the galley on the obverse.

Antony’s legionary denarii are distinguished by their reverence to Antony’s military forces (Fig. 2). Antony’s naval forces are represented by the right facing galley on the obverse, and his land forces are represented by the aquila (legionary eagle-standard) between two other military standards.

The galley on the obverse is ornately decorated, although the decoration varies between coins and likely reflects the artistic freedom of the die engraver. The mast slants forward over the bow. The rudder is depicted to the left and is accompanied by a single bank of oars, which vary between seven and 12 oars on the different dies and denarii in the series (Fig. 2 has 11 oars). The heads of the rowers are visible above the side, with railing to each side. The number of rowers also appears to have been an artistic freedom left to the engraver. A tri-partite ram is attached to the bow of the galley, the depiction of which again varies between different dies. A figurehead is also attached to the bow of the galley; it is difficult to discern but appears crocodilian.

The legend above the ship ANT AVG abbreviates the name Antonius (Antony) along with one of his titles, Augur, a prestigious priestly office of the Roman state. Below the ship is Antony’s other title: III VIR. R.P.C. (tres viri rei publicae constituendae), which states Antony’s position as a “Triumvir for the Reorganisation of the Republic”. The title III VIR was also behind Antony’s authority to raise troops and rule the eastern half of the Empire, hence its prominence on his coinage.

Fig 2
Fig. 2. RPC 544/25. Denarius. Photo taken by the author from a private NZ collection.

The reverse side of the coin shows a legion’s eagle (aquila) flanked by two standards. The aquila was sacred to the honour of the legion and its loss in battle was a disgrace (it was a big deal to recover a lost aquila, as seen on the breastplate of the Prima Porta Augustus referencing Augustus’ retrieval of the aquilae lost to the Parthians). A standard bearer (signifer) in each of the legion’s 10 cohorts carried the signum (standard), a pole adorned with metal discs and crescents. As with the obverse, the more general details outside of the overall design appear to have been left to the engraver. For example, the dotted disks on the standards are occasionally depicted as stars. Differences are also quite apparent in the depictions of the eagle, with some appearing squashed, others elongated, and some more naturalistic. The lengths of the poles, which are formed of dots, also varies between coins.

The inscriptions on the reverse of the legionary denarii changes between coins. This either appears across the field of the coin (fig. 2), or clockwise above, naming the legion or cohort being honoured. 23 legions are represented on Antony’s denarii, and two further specialist units (these include longer legends on the top outside of the coin).

The differences in the details in what is otherwise a fairly static series reveals an interesting fact about the production process: that an overall design brief was provided, but that in general, it was left to the die engraver how these elements were depicted. As a result, these depictions should be considered as representations rather than as accurate depictions of how these galleys and military standards may have appeared.

Although Antony’s legionary denarii appear to be a step away from the normal coinage types used in the late Roman Republic, which often propagated the family of the official in charge of the mint, they do in fact have historical roots. The galley prow was an important motif on early Roman coinage and continued to be used occasionally throughout the Republic; Sextus Pompey’s denarii seem to be the most immediate precedent for the legionary denarius galley (Fig. 3). Pompey's power was primarily naval, and this was reflected on his coinage.

Fig 3
Fig. 3. RRC 483.2.4. Denarius. Obv: Head of Pompey the Great, right. NEPTVNI. Rev: galley sailing right. Q NASIDIVS. From The British Museum, 2002,0102,4693.

The legionary standards and eagle on the reverse of Antony's coins have also appeared previously as features of coins with military-themed designs. However, the specific arrangement of the standards flanking the eagle alongside the legend representing the military unit is a new development.

Warwick’s own Dr Clare Rowan has suggested Antony’s choice of military themed iconography was a conscious decision intended to counter Octavian's claims that Antony was styling himself as a Hellenistic King (Fig. 4). As a result, the legionary denarii emphasise Antony's role as a Roman commander and his legitimacy as a triumvir of the Republic. The imagery of the galley and the representations of Antony’s legions emphasised the scale and Romanness of his military power.

Fig 4
Fig. 4. RRC 543.1.1. Denarius. Obv: Head of M. Antonius right. ANTONI ARMENIA DEVICTA. Rev: bust of Cleopatra right, draped and wearing diadem. CLEOPATRAE REGINAE REGVM FILIORVM REGVM. From The British Museum, 1860,0328.21.

Antony minted a vast quantity of these coins prior to his defeat at Actium. A full-strength legion in this era had about 4,800 men, with standard annual pay for infantry set at 225 denarii. It is impossible to accurately estimate how many of these coins were minted. However, the best estimate is that at least 25 to 35 million coins were struck to cover military expenditure.

To support such a large volume of production, the mint lowered the silver content. Ironically, it was the lower silver content of Antony’s denarii that prolonged their survival. The inclusion of the Marc Antony denarius is not unusual in imperial coin hoards — at the time of minting, this denarius contained 4% less silver than contemporary denarii, with a fineness of 92%, which is fairly comparable with the standards of the following two centuries. As a result, it seems to have remained in common circulation, rather than being re-minted, and many survive only in a highly worn state, as seen by Warwick’s own example (fig. 5).

Fig 5
Fig. 5. RPC 544/20. Denarius. Photo taken by author. From the University of Warwick Classics Department Collection, 2016.1.1.

Surviving Antony were his highly recognisable legionary denarii, although they were probably unpopular at the time due to their debasement. They circulated for centuries; meanwhile, the silver content of Rome’s denarii declined to the point that they came to equal the intrinsic value of Antony’s legionary coinage. The denarius under Marc Antony is 92% pure silver, under Vespasian it was 89% pure, under Domitian between 98% and 93% pure, under Trajan 89% pure, and under Antoninus Pius 83% pure. Near the end of Commodus’ reign the denarius dropped to 71% purity. Ongoing debasement essentially increased the value of the legionary denarius over time, and increased its staying power within circulation.

Also check out the numerous examples at Warwick’s Market Museum (fig. 6). The museum has two stunning early imperial hoards on display with large quantities of Roman republican coinage. It’s well worth the visit!

The Classics Department’s example (fig. 5.) will be on display in the antiquity’s cabinet on level 3 of the Faculty of Arts Building for the next month. Go check out this well-travelled piece of history!

Fig 6
Fig. 6. Photo taken by author and used with permission. From the Warwick Market Museum.


Bland, R., ed. (1992) Coin Hoards from Roman Britain: The Chalfont Hoard and Other Roman Coin Hoards. Vol. IX. (London: British Museum).

Crawford, M. H. (1974). Roman Republican Coinage. Vols. I-II. London: Cambridge University

Crawford, M. H. (1969). Roman Republican Coin Hoards. London: Royal Numismatic Society.

Harl, K. (1996). Coinage in the Roman Economy. Baltimore.

Lockyear, K. (2007). Patterns and Process in Late Republican Coin Hoards. Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series.

Murphy, N. (2014). A denarius perpetuus? : the circulation of the "legionary denarii" of Marc Antony in Roman Italy and Britain 32-BC-AD 294. University of Warwick.

Rowan, C. (2019). From Caesar to Augustus (c. 49 BC-AD 14) : using coins as sources. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. pp. 109–116.

Woytek, B. (2012). ‘The Denarius Coinage of the Roman Republic’ In Metcalf, W. E. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 315–344.

Campbell This post was written by Campbell Orchard, a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Campbell is currently researching the Roman mint of Tarsus in Cilicia.

February 16, 2022

A rather bould(er) claim: inscribed rocks and weightlifting in the ancient world by Matthew Evans

Anyone who has come across Strongman/Strongwoman competitions on television, in which robust men and women compete in feats of extreme strength and power, are likely to have seen the Atlas stones or Stone Shoulder. In these events, large, heavy stones resembling boulders are lifted from the ground to the shoulder, or onto platforms of varying height. To most gym-goers today, who are used to exercising on treadmills and lifting purpose-made dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells etc., the idea of lifting rocks might seem somewhat primitive. To some extent they would be right: apparently, the challenge presented by lifting heavy rocks tempted the strongest individuals in Greece of the sixth century BCE as much as they do today.

dsc_0245.jpg Figure 1 and 2: Bybon’s rock, ca. mid sixth century BCE. Museum of the History of the Olympic Games, Olympia, no. Λ 191. 0.33m x 0.68m x 0.39m (images by author).

Here is a sandstone block found at the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia (south-west of the Pelopion), weighing ca. 143.5 kg (315 lbs) (Figs. 1 and 2). It can be dated to the mid sixth century BCE from the style of the inscription that it bears, which reads:


βύβων τἠτέρει χερὶ ὐπερκέφαλά μ᾽ ὐπερεβάλετο ὀ Φό[λ]α. (Inschriften von Olympia717, Syll. 3. 1071)

Bybon, son of Phorys, lifted me over his head with one hand. (Trans. Stocking and Stephens 2021)

The translation of the text, with lines written in opposite directions (boustrophedon style), is somewhat problematic. In essence, Bybon claims to have thrown/lifted the stone over his head, above his head or to head height, and using only one hand — an impressive but equally unbelievable feat!

The question that most readers might ask is whether it is at all possible to lift a 143.5 kg rock above your head with a single hand. To try and put this in context, a quick Google search for things that weigh roughly 140-150 kg include an adult male Giant Panda, an average upright piano, or two kegs of beer. Such comparisons throw significant doubt on Bybon’s claim. That said, a comparison with recent weightlifting records make it somewhat more conceivable. The current weightlifting record for a double arm “clean and jerk” — a technique that involves lifting a barbell from the floor to the shoulders and then above the head in two separate movements — is 267 kg (589 lb). For a “snatch” — a technique where the barbell is lifted from the floor to above the head in a single movement — the record stands at 225 kg (496 lbs.). No official records exist for a single-arm variation of either technique, though Charles Rigoulot (a French Olympic Champion) is attributed with completing the heaviest one-arm snatch in 1929 at 115 kg (253lbs) (see the video here). Others have recently tried to beat this record to no avail (see here @1:50). In light of this, it is not categorically impossible for someone to have lifted the 143.5 kg rock above their head with one arm. But lifting Bybon’s rock, due to its awkward shape and texture, is much more difficult than lifting a bar. There is no evidence that handles were ever attached to the rock.

For Bybon’s claim to be true, he must have lifted the rock first with two hands to his chest/shoulders before throwing/lifting it above his head with one. It is almost impossible to get enough grip with only a single hand if lifting it from the floor. In fact, there are well-worn grooves along the bottom face of the rock which are “most likely caused by handling the rock” (Stocking and Stephens 2021, 307). These seem to suggest a two-handed lift from the floor, given that there are two grooves next to each other (see Figs. 2 (top face) and 3).

Bybon 3 Figure 3: image showing the grooves on the bottom face of Bybon’s rock (Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.org).

The fact that these grooves are well worn suggests that repeated attempts were made to lift the rock. Whether these represent the attempts of others prior/contemporary to Bybon’s lift, the attempts of Bybon himself, or even of those coming after who attempted to match Bybon’s feat is uncertain. Sandstone is a sedimentary type of rock and therefore is not particularly hard, so many attempts to grip the rock over a long period of time conceivably would have formed the grooves, especially given how smooth they are inside.

Bybon’s rock was likely set up on display in Olympia in order to celebrate his claimed feat of strength. Perhaps, therefore, visitors to the sanctuary, and especially Olympic athletes, tried their hand at besting Bybon’s efforts by lifting the rock. The rock, in this light, possibly represents an interactive monument. Such tactile interaction works towards further emphasising Bybon’s achievement: by handling the rock, the ancient visitor could literally get to grips with the rock’s weight and the strength required to lift it. Sanctuaries in antiquity, after all, were not akin to our museums where one can only look but generally not touch.

The rock sheds light on displays of strength in antiquity, even if weightlifting was never a formal part of ancient athletic games. Similar inscribed rocks are known like the rock of Eumastas. This example, a black volcanic rock found on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini), weighs 480 kg (1,058lbs) and the inscription claims that Eumastas lifted it from the ground (see Crowther 1977). Eumastas does not specify how far off the ground he might have lifted it, and he probably lifted this with two hands. The feat is as questionable as Bybon’s given that the current world record for a deadlift (without the aid of equipment but with a barbell) stands at 460.4 kg (1,015lbs). It is, therefore, likely that Eumastas only lifted the rock slightly off the ground if at all. Alongside the other attested feats of strength (collected in Crowther 1977), these inscribed rocks demonstrate the importance attached to bodily strength in antiquity.

But did the Greeks participate in weight training as many gym-goers do today? We only have a few references, but the answer seems to be that they did. Milo of Croton, a famous wrestler in the sixth century BCE, is said to have trained by carrying a bull since the time it was a calf (Quintilian 1.9.5). As the calf grew, Milo incrementally increased the weight resistance and could eventually carry the fully-grown bull. Whether or not this is true, Milo (or perhaps rather Quintilian, a Roman educator, writing around half a millennium after the famous athlete) understood the principles of systematic weight training, something which underpins most weight training programs today. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, shows a similar understanding when he says that in lifting the pestle (i.e. a weight), “the heavier it is, the more good I get out of doing so” (Discourses 3.20.10). Philostratus in his treatise On Gymnastics even shows how different types of weights had different benefits for parts of the body (55). Haltēres (see Fig. 4), long, dumbbell-like weights usually used by long-jumpers in ancient Greece, were used to exercise the arms or shoulders while round weights exercised one’s grip. Exactly what types of exercises were completed with these weights is uncertain, though Philostratus seems to base the weights’ benefits on their tactile properties.

Bybon 4 Figure 4: Inscribed marble halter (jumping-weight) dedicated by Akmatidas of Lakedaimonia, found at Olympia. Olympia Archaeological Museum, Λ 189 (photo by author).

Finally, Seneca in his Letters (56.1-2) complains of the noises coming from the bathhouse above which he lives:

  “I am living over a public bath. Just imagine all the varieties of cries that can fill the ears with loathing; when the tougher fellows are exercising and thrusting arms heavy with lead, when they are either straining or imitating those under strain, I hear their grunts, and whenever they let out the breath they have been holding, I hear their whistles and bitter panting.” (Trans. Fantham 2010)  

This acoustic impression offered by Seneca isn’t so distant from our gyms today. Thankfully we now have music systems to drown out most of the “grunts, whistles and bitter panting,” though, as a trip to the gym might often reveal, apparently some of those lifting weights still feel the need to make plenty of noise. Watch any video (like this) of eight-time Mr Olympian Ronnie Coleman and you’ll get what I mean… it’s a good job Seneca never lived above his gym!

Overall, the rock of Bybon sheds light on an interesting aspect of athletic culture in Archaic Greece. We see how feats of extreme strength were commemorated by inscribed stones in sanctuaries like that of Zeus at Olympia, perhaps as monuments with which consequent visitors could interact in a tactile capacity. The sense of touch, therefore, offered a connection between the visitor and Bybon himself, making his achievement more comprehendible and impressive. Likewise, by considering the sensory aspects of weight training, we realise that going to the gymnasion or bathhouse in ancient Greece or Rome was not so dissimilar from going to the gym today.


Crowther, N. B. (1977). ‘Weightlifting in Antiquity: Achievement and Training,’ Greece and Rome, 24.2, 111-120.

Dittenberger, W. and Purgold, K. (1896). Die Inschriften von Olympia. «Olympia», Textband 5. Berlin: Asher. No. 717.

Gardiner, E. N. (1930). Athletics of the Ancient World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Harris, H. A. (1972). Sport in Greece and Rome. London: Thames and Hudson. P. 142ff.

Stocking, C. H., & Stephens, S. A. (2021). Ancient Greek Athletics: Primary Sources in Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 307-308.

matt2 This post was written by Matthew Evans, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Matthew’s research focuses on gymnasia in Hellenistic and Roman Greece (mainland and Aegean islands) and examines the interrelationship between the built environment and socio-political and cultural conditions within specific poleis and sanctuaries. He is the organiser of a virtual conference titled The Sense(s) of Athletics in the Mediterranean World on 28th-29th April 2022. For more information and details on how to register, see https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/classics/research/seminars/athletics/

January 27, 2022

Dea Senuna – a goddess revealed, by Jacqui Butler

I first encountered the goddess Senuna in 2019 when researching for an epigraphy module essay for my MA here at Warwick. Although Senuna only had a brief mention therein, I intended to discover more about her and the Ashwell Hoard when time allowed. However, dissertation work and starting on PhD research meant that Senuna was forgotten, that is until later in 2019, I changed my volunteering role at the British Museum to become a tour guide. Luckily, there was a space on the rota for my first choice of eye-opener tour, “Gods and Goddesses of Roman Britain”, and when I started training, lo and behold, there was Senuna, and the Ashwell Hoard in all its glory, as the penultimate stop on the tour! So, happily we met again, but only briefly as Covid-19 struck, and my last tour was on 16 March 2020.

Given the recent amazing archaeological finds such as the Iliad mosaic at Rutland, the figural sculptures from Stoke Mandeville and most recently the wooden figurine from Twyford, I was reminded again of Senuna and the Ashwell Hoard. It was a similarly remarkable discovery in 2002 made by a metal detectorist, as before this, no one had heard of Senuna. She was then a newly discovered, previously unknown Romano-British goddess. So, I thought I’d take the chance to revisit Senuna and finally indulge my curiosity a little by using her as the basis for this article.

Ashwell HoardThe Ashwell Hoard, British Museum. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.

The Ashwell Hoard consists of ca. 20 gold and silver votive plaques, a statuette and base, and a suite of gold jewellery. Its discovery in 2002 in a field at Ashwell, near Baldock in Hertfordshire, was followed by acquisition by the British Museum in 2003 and intense conservation work before it went on display in Gallery 49. The hoard is understood as a “structured deposit” which means it was placed into the ground in an ordered way: the statuette had been placed on top of the jewellery and arms of the statuette, with the gold plaques stacked underneath, followed by the silver plaques. Dating of the objects is difficult but there are indicators that the plaques may date to the 1st to 2nd centuries CE, and the jewellery to the 2nd or 3rd century CE, whilst the deposition of the hoard is indicated to have been in the 3rd or 4th century CE. No container was found, although three iron nails were found alongside the hoard, but during conservation the remains of preserved textile (from lime tree bast fibres) were discovered, suggesting that the hoard may have been buried inside a fabric bag. It is also possible that it had been concealed by religious officiates for safekeeping, who intended to return to retrieve it, given the similarities to other hoards found in the wider geographic area (Stony Stratford and Barkway hoards).

The votive plaques, which would have originally been set up in a temple or shrine, have punch dot inscriptions. Radiography was used to clarify these and to allow the Latin to be read, although they were very difficult to decipher due to abbreviations, idiosyncratic language, and use of ligatures, as well as the variable density of the dots making the individual letters difficult to distinguish. The female goddess whose image appears on a number of the plaques appears as Minerva, but none of the inscriptions on the plaques confirmed this. Instead, they named Senuna, or Senua or Sena. In total, nine of the votive plaques have inscriptions dedicating them to this deity, with the dedicants being both male and female.


Gold plaques from the Ashwell Hoard, British Museum. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.

During a later excavation of the hoard’s findspot, the statuette’s inscribed pedestal base was discovered nearby. This named Senuna clearly, confirming her name and that the statuette was intended as a representation of her, although it does not have any specific attributes which identify or differentiate her from other deities. The hollow silver gilt figurine is badly deteriorated, damaged, and very fragile due to the very thin silver sheet it is made from, although the arms associated with the figurine are more robust as they are solid castings. However, the statuette is an extremely significant object from Roman Britain, as there are only two other known silver figurines of deities, one of which is unfortunately now lost. The figurine is draped in a full-length garment which leaves her left shoulder bare, whilst the back shows her hair is centrally parted on the crown, with a bun at the nape of her neck. The inscription on the base reads:


D(eae) Senun(a)e Flauia Cunoris u(otum) s(oluit) l(ibens) m(erito)

To the goddess Senuna, Flavia Cunoris has paid her vow willingly, deservedly

(Tomlin 2008, 306, no.1)

This shows that the statuette was dedicated by a woman named Flavia Cunoris, and although we know nothing more about her other than this dedication, her name has been shown to be a Celtic compound, the first part of which was commonly found in Britain, suggesting she was probably a native Britain.


The statuette (height 147.5 mm), arms and base. Museum Numbers 2003,0901.1, 2003,0901.2, 2003,0901.3 and 2011,8012.1, British Museum. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.

Senuna is thought to potentially have been a local deity connected to water, and the Ashwell spring near to the hoard’s findspot is likely to have been significant to local people both in pre-Roman and Roman times. There was also a river named Senua somewhere in southern England. Senuna probably shared some attributes of Minerva, given Minerva’s iconography appears on the votive plaques, and this may well have included healing or an association with water as these were both associated with Minerva. This is supported by Minerva’s conflation with Sulis at Bath (Aquae Sulis) and her role there as goddess of the thermal sacred spring. However, it is worth noting also that the right hand of the statuette holds a pair of corn ears, which are attributes of Roman Ceres and Fortuna, who are associated with agriculture and fertility, and therefore it seems likely that Senuna also had these connotations. Furthermore, it is possible that she was related to the Celtic goddess Sena “the Old” for whom there is epigraphic evidence from Gaul, Noricum and Spain.

One of the most wonderful things about the ancient world is new discoveries which shed light on hitherto unknown elements of people’s lives. The discovery of the Ashwell Hoard did exactly that – it introduced us to the worship of the goddess Senuna – and it is a fantastic example of something we didn’t previously have any evidence for. It is exciting to think how many more amazing artefacts are still to be found and what they may be able to tell us. If you would like to see the Ashwell Hoard, and the objects described above, they are on display in Gallery 49 on the upper floor of The British Museum. The eye opener tours have started again, with the “Gods and Goddesses of Roman Britain” tour having just restarted on Monday 24th January 2022.


British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_2003-0901-1

De Bernardo Stempel, P. (2008) “The ‘Old’ Celtic Goddess Sena: A New Testimony from Aquitania” in Veleia 24-25, 2007-2008, pp. 1203-1206.

Jackson, R. and Burleigh, G. (2018) Dea Senuna: Treasure, Cult and Ritual at Ashwell, Hertfordshire, London, British Museum Press.

Lockyear, K. (2015) Archaeology in Hertfordshire: Recent Research, Hatfield, University of Hertfordshire Press.

Tomlin, R.S.O. (2008) “Dea Senuna: a new goddess from Britain” in eds. M. Hainzmann and R. Wedenig, Instrumenta Inscripta Latina II: Akten des 2. Internationalen Kolloquiums, Klagenfurt, 5-8 Mai 2005, Klagenfurt, Aus Forschung und Kunst 36.

Tomlin, R.S.O. (2018) Britannia Romana: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

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.

December 03, 2021

Treasured Toys or Substitutes for the Dead? Dolls in Roman Tombs, by Professor Zahra Newby

The death of a child is always tragic, and there is a strong need for bereaved family members to continue to express their love through acts of comfort. In today’s society such acts might include placing teddy bears into the coffin to accompany the deceased, or placing toys at gravesites. We can see a similar phenomenon when we look at ancient Roman graves of children, especially those of girls between the ages of around 7-19. In a number of these, beautifully carved ivory dolls have been found, adorned with the latest hairstyles and with articulated limbs which allowed the arms and legs to be moved. Naked except for shoes, in antiquity they may have been dressed up with miniature clothing. Are these the ancient equivalent of a Barbie™ doll, a treasured toy which the girl had played with during her lifetime, placed in the grave to offer comfort in the afterlife? Or do they represent something else, the desire of the bereaved to offer their dead child a form of continued existence even after death, through the form of an imperishable doll?

Two particular dolls help us to explore this question. One was found in a tomb discovered in Rome in 1889, identified by the inscription on a sarcophagus lid as that of Crepereia Tryphaena. The sarcophagus was opened to reveal the skeleton of a girl aged around 17-19 years, adorned with a wreath and jewellery, as well as a finely carved ivory doll, which had been placed on her left shoulder.

Crepereia doll

Photograph of the doll and other objects found in the tomb of Crepereia Tryphaena. From Lanciani 1889: plate 8.

The doll had her own accoutrements, equivalent to those of the dead girl. She wore a tiny gold ring on her finger, attached to a key; another miniature ring linked with two larger rings, perhaps fitting the girl’s finger, and linking together the girl and the doll. An ivory coffer with two combs and silver mirrors completes the doll’s trousseau. Perhaps this is a doll which the girl had played with during her lifetime, buried with her to provide comfort in the grave. Studies of these dolls have suggested that they provided elite girls with a chance to model their own adulthood; equipped with fashionable hairstyles similar to those worn by the imperial family (Crepereia’s doll has a hairstyle modelled on that of the empress Faustina the Elder) they suggest models of femininity girls were inspired to meet. It is possible that girls dedicated their dolls to the gods on the occasion of their weddings (the literary evidence is fragmentary, but seems to suggest this: scholia to Persius, Satires 2.69-70 and Horace Sermones 1.5.69), so the fact that Crepereia was buried with her doll might also be a sign that she died before she could be married. Indeed, other studies of female burials with lavish jewellery suggest that these were particularly appropriate for girls who died before marriage, equipping them in death with the dowry they had not been able to use in life.

Our second example shares a number of features with Crepereia’s burial, and also suggests an even closer connection between a doll and the girl she was buried with. The so-called ‘Grottarossa mummy’ was discovered in 1964 during building works in the north of Rome. A sarcophagus was found buried below ground in a trench; its location may originally have been marked with some form of memorial, though none had survived. The sarcophagus itself is decorated with a lavishly carved scene showing the fateful hunting episode told in the Aeneid, book 4, during which Dido and Aeneas fall in love (Virgil, Aeneid 4.130-156).

SarcophagusSarcophagus showing hunting Trip of Dido and Aeneas. Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168186. Photo: By Sailko - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31975797

Inside was found the mummy of a girl, aged around 8 years, who seems to have died from a lung infection. Her body was embalmed and dressed in silk, wrapped around with linen cloths, with a number of amber amulets tucked inside the wrappings. She wore gold earrings, a gold and sapphire necklace and a gold ring, and was accompanied by an ivory doll, as well as cosmetics vessels made from amber.

Ivory doll found with the Grottarossa mummy, Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Museo Nazionale Romano inv 168181. Photo: Jastrow, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doll_Massimo_Inv168191.jpg


It may be significant that both of these dolls were made out of ivory, though simpler dolls could also be made from bone or wood. Ivory was a prestigious luxury material, but in literature it also appears as a substitute for human flesh. In the myth of Pelops, his missing shoulder (eaten by the gods when tricked by Tantalus) was replaced by one of ivory (Pindar, Olympian Ode 1, 26-27). The close connection in both these burials between the girl and her doll suggests that the ivory doll acts as a replacement for the dead girl, offering her an enduring body which will survive even after death. The decision to bury these girls with lavish jewellery and cosmetic items may have been prompted by a desire to equip them in death as they would have been in life, with all the bridal array they would have taken to marriage. The inclusion of the dolls may be a sign that they had not yet proceeded out of girlhood and had thus been robbed of the opportunity to dedicate their dolls on the occasion of marriage. Yet they also suggest a desire to give the girls an imperishable body which can continue after their own deaths – here the doll in her ivory form offers a form of parallel continued existence for the girl she accompanies into the tomb. Clearly this was an expensive grave, testifying to the grief felt by the girl’s family, and the care taken to give her a worthy burial. Here the doll also wears a period-style hairstyle, similar to that of Faustina the Younger (c. 150-160 CE). The same hairstyle is worn by the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus and, significantly, both the doll and the figure of Dido wear a diadem. They also share similar facial features, a straight nose, full but firmly closed mouth, and a curved chin, with a slight dimple. This similarity suggests that both may have been designed to evoke the portrait of a particular individual – the girl buried within. Indeed, early photographs of the face of the mummy seem to show similar features (though caution is needed, as it appears that the photographs were touched up to enhance the beauty of the embalmed girl). Here, then, the girl seems to have been buried with a doll whose features may have echoed those of the girl herself, and certainly were echoed on the figure of Dido on the sarcophagus. However, the doll’s body with its swelling hips and small breasts is not that of an eight-year old girl – rather than being a portrait of the girl as she was at the time of her death, it seems to project an image of what she might have become, if she had not been cut down by death.

In answer to the question we started with, then, we can see that dolls may have fulfilled both of these functions. Ancient families, like modern ones, experienced grief; the fact that mortality rates were higher in antiquity than in the present day does not necessarily mean that deaths were not mourned just as intensely. Yet the fact that it is particularly the graves of unmarried girls which seem to feature the addition of dolls, alongside jewellery and cosmetic items, suggests that these objects might also have fulfilled a particular need, allowing the dead a sort of parallel existence in the form of an imperishable doll, who can achieve the life stages which death had cruelly take away.


Ascenzi, A. et al. (1996) ‘The roman mummy of Grottarossa’, in Hummy Mummies. A Global Survey of their Status and the Techniques of Conservation, eds. K. Spindler et al. Vienna: 205-17.

Bedini, A. (ed.) (1995) Mistero di una fanciulla. Ori e gioielli della Roma di Marco Aurelio da una nuava scoperta archeologica. Milan.

Bianchi, C. (2012) ‘Le bambole in avorio e in osso’, in L’infanzia e il Gioco nel mondo antico, eds.A. C. Mori, C. Lambrugo and F. Slavazza. Milan: 27-32.

Bordenache Battaglia, G. (1983) Corredi funerari di età imperiale e barbarica nel Museo Nazionale Romano. Rome.

Castellani, A. (1889) ‘Descrizioni degli oggetti trovati nella sarcofago di Crepereja Trifena’, Bullettino Comunale di Roma 17: 178-80.

Castellani, O. (1964) ‘La momie de Grottarossa’, Revue Archéologique du Centre de la France 3: 138-42.

D’Ambra, E. (2014) ‘Beauty and the Roman female portrait’, in Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, eds., J. Elsner and M. Meyer. Cambridge: 155-180.

Dolansky, F. (2012) ‘Playing with gender: girls, dolls and adult ideals in the Roman World’, Classical Antiquity 31.2: 256-92.

Griesbach, J. (2001) ‘Grabbeigaben aus gold im Suburbium von Rom’, in Römischer Bestattungsbrauch und Beigabensitten in Rom, Norditalien und den Nordwestprovinzen von der späten Republik bis in die Kaiserzeit, eds. M. Heinzelmann et al. Palilia 8, Wiesbaden: 99-121.

Harlow, M. (2012) ‘Death and the Maiden’, in Dressing the Dead, eds. M. Carroll and J. P. Wild. Stroud: 148-157.

Harper, S. (2012), ‘”I’m glad she has her glasses on. That really makes the difference”: grave goods in English and American death rituals’, Journal of Material Culture 17.1: 43-59.

Lanciani, R. (1889) ‘Delle scoperte avvenute nei disterri del nuovo Palazzi di Giustizia’, Bullettino Comunale di Roma 17: 173-78.

Martin-Kilcher, S. (2000) ‘Mors immatura in the Roman world – a mirror of society and tradition’, in Burial, Society and Context in the Roman World, eds. J. Pearce, M. Millett and M. Struck. Oxford: 63-77.

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: 77-102.

Oliver, A. (2000) ‘Jewelry for the unmarried’, in I Claudia II. Women in Roman Art and Society, eds. D. E. E. Kleiner and S. B. Matheson. Austin: 115-24.

Palazzo dei Conservatori (1983) Crepereia Tryphaena. Le scoperte archeologiche nell’ area del Palazzo di Giustizia. Venice.

Sommella Mura, A. and E. Talamo (eds.) (1983) Crepereia Tryphaena. Un Tesoro nascosto di 2000 anni fa. Torine, Palazzo Madama, Febbraio-aprile 1983. Turin.

Zahra pic smaller This post was written by Zahra Newby, Professor of Classics and Ancient History in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Zahra’s research focusses on Roman art. This paper arises from her interest in exploring ancient and modern responses to grief, and draws on material presented in her book (co-edited with Ruth E. Toulson), The Materiality of Mourning, Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Routledge, London and New York, 2019).

October 19, 2021

Hector, Andromache and Astyanax in Apulian shoes, by Carlo Lualdi

Episodes recalling Homeric events are part of the imagery of ancient pottery. Greek myths were known and appreciated not only by the Greeks but also by the other ancient indigenous people of the Apulia region. This is testified by the decoration of Apulian red-figure pottery. The earliest red-figure pottery production in Southern Italy started in Lucania, in the city of Metapontum, followed by more expansive production in Apulia.

The imagery of Apulian red-figure pottery shows ideological models deriving from Greek culture which were adopted by members of the Apulian aristocracy. Modern scholars have stressed that some native centres of Apulia had strong trade and cultural relations with Athens. This is the case with the settlement of Ruvo di Puglia, located in the central area of Apulia, where the tribes named Peuceti were settled. These cultural exchanges are shown by a large number of red-figure vases which were found in funerary contexts in the Peucetian necropolis of Ruvo di Puglia. An example of this cultural interaction between indigenous aristocracy, and models deriving from Greek culture, is an image depicted on one side of a red-figure column-krater, attributed to the Painter of York and dated to ca. 380-360 BC.

Carlo1 Detail of the Apulian red-figure column-krater attributed to the painter of York, 380-360 BC, Ruvo di Puglia, National Archaeologilca Museum Jatta inv. 36724 (From Riccardi (2015) Tav. 58 .1)

On one side of the vase three draped young people are depicted. The two people on the right both hold a distaff in their right hands. This iconography is common on Apulian vases and its interpretation is the subject of debate. Some scholars have argued that these people could be interpreted as spectators talking to each other about the scene depicted on the other side of the vase.

Carlo2 Detail of the Apulian red-figure column-krater attributed to the painter of York, 380-360 BC, Ruvo di Puglia, National Archaeologilca Museum Jatta inv. 36724 (From Riccardi (2015) Tav. 58 .2)

On the other side of the vase a scene is depicted which is interpreted as the departure of a warrior: two warriors wear patterned draperies which are related to the costume of the indigenous people of Apulia. In the middle of the composition is a woman wearing a chiton and a richly decorated himation, seated on a chair, holding a child on her knee. The child is depicted wearing a patterned a short tunic.

The infant and the warrior on the right are depicted as interacting: the child stretches his left arm to the warrior on the right, who holds a crested hemispherical helmet in his right hand. The helmet is also decorated with a pattern testifying the high status of the warrior.

This image can be interpreted as an elaboration of an episode described in the Iliad of Homer. During the fight under the walls of Troy a family meeting took place at the Scaean Gates, between Hector, his wife Andromache and their son Astyanax. Hector, Andromache and Astyanax were important members of the Trojan royal family: Hector was the heir of Priam, King of Troy, and the military leader of the armed forces of the city of Troy. Andromache was one of the most prominent Trojan women and Astyanax would have been the next ruler of Troy after his father.

At the Scaean Gates Andromache and Hector spoke each other about the still ongoing war and then:

  ‘So saying, glorious Hector stretched out his arms to his boy, but back into the bosom of his fair-girdled nurse shrank the child crying, affrighted at the aspect of his dear father, and seized with dread of the bronze and the crest of horse-hair, as he marked it waving dreadfully from the topmost helm. Aloud then laughed his dear father and queenly mother; and forthwith glorious Hector took the helm from his head and laid it all-gleaming upon the ground. But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms.’

(Hom. Il. 6.466-474)

The comparison between the Homeric text and the vase shows some similarities. The people represented are shown wearing elaborate costumes and weaponry displaying their wealth and their high social status. The scene is interpreted as the departure of the warrior for the battle and the warrior on the right is shown bareheaded.

Hence, the image on the Apulian red-figure column krater shows the elaboration of the Homeric episode by representing Hector and Andromache as members of the Peucetian aristocracy, showing a scene not explicitly described by Homer, but one which is certainly plausible and tender: after ‘Hector’ takes off is helmet and ‘Astyanax’ recognizes his father and stretches his left arm to him.

In conclusion, the evidence testifies the cultural background and the values and ideologies of the members of the Peucetian aristocracy: the elites of Ruvo aimed to show both their knowledge and adoption of the Greek cultural models and their indigenous identity. This noteworthy iconographic synthesis provides a valuable example of the interaction of different cultures in the context of central Apulia.


Bottini, A. and Torelli, M. (2006) Iliade (Milano, Electa).

Homer, The Iliad, trans. A.T. Murray, (Harvard University Press: London 1924).

Herring E. (2018) Patterns in the Production of Apulian Red-Figure Pottery (Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

Montanaro, A. C. (2018) ‘Death is not for me. Funerary contexts of warrior-chiefs from preroman Apulia’ in Inszenierung von Identitäten. Unteritalische Vasenmalerei zwischen Griechen und Indigenen, Proceedings of the International Conference (Kolloquium, Berlin, Bodemuseum, 26-28 Oktober 2016), CVA Supplements, 8, eds. U. Kästner and S. Schmidt (München: München: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften): 25-38.

Riccardi, A. (2015) Ceramica a figure rosse protoitaliota, lucana e apula antica (CVA, Italy, 79, Ruvo di Puglia, Museo nazionale Jatta.1) (Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider)

Carpenter, T. H. (2009) ‘Prolegomenon to the study of Apulian red-figure pottery’, American Journal of Archaeology 113(1): 27–38.

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

Carlo smaller

This post was written by Carlo Lualdi, full-time PhD researcher of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Carlo’s research interests are in the representation of warfare from the late classical to the Hellenistic period and in Classical reception studies. He is currently writing his thesis about combat scenes in Messapia dating between the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third century BC.

September 21, 2021

Burying a Lightning Bolt, by Jon Madge

Jonimage1a Jon Image 2
Photo edited (cropped) from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 4.1 (pg.20). Photo from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 6.1 (pg.22)

In 2010, an excavation carried out by the Soprintendenza Archeologica per l’Umbria (SAR) in the town of Todi (Umbria) revealed a quadrangular structure dated to the late 2nd century AD, consisting of worked travertine slabs and reinforced at the corners with iron clamps. The structure was capped with two large slabs (118 x 60 x 18cm and 117 x 60 x 18cm) bearing the inscriptions FVLGVR and CONDITVM, which indicated that the archaeologists had discovered a Roman monument marking the ritual burial of a lightning bolt (fulmen condere).


Photo from Manconi, D., & Spiganti, S. (2017). ‘Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)’. OTIVM, 3: Figure 10.1 (pg.26)

This practice originally derived from the Etruscan art of lightning divination (disciplina fulguralis) and its specialised procedure was likely defined in Libri Fulgurales, a sacred text supposedly revealed by the nymph Vegoia. It, along with many other fulgural traditions, was adopted by the Romans because they recognized the Etruscans as masters of lightning divination from as early as the 3rd century BC.

Literary sources can shed light on the discovery at Todi. They tell us that following a lightning strike, a priest (a member of the sacerdotes bidentales) was required to perform a purification rite on the land to acknowledge the divine fulgural message, as well as sanctify the site. In doing so, the ritual served to preserve a healthy relationship with the gods. The 1st-century AD poet Lucan, for instance, mentions a venerable Etruscan seer named Arruns, who suggested the Romans expiate a lightning omen by collecting the scattered fires of the thunderbolt and burying them in the earth (B. Civ. 1.584–637. Cf. Apul. De deo Socr. 7; Schol. Pers. 2.26). It was an integral part of the ritual: any material objects damaged by the lightning were to be retrieved and consecrated to the gods by burying them in a pit or small enclosure, a bidental, which visually commemorated the lightning omen. Evidence for this practice can be seen at Todi: within the structural cavity (60 x 60 x 90cm) the archaeologists discovered 712 meticulously placed marble pieces (of varying sizes and shapes), as well as fragments of metal, pottery, and bone. Some of the marble fragments, thought to have lined the walls of a nearby building, even showed signs of heat damage – possibly as the result of the lightning strike.

The grammarian Festus (probably of the 2nd century AD) provides further details that support these interpretations. He tells us that the ritual involved sacrificing a two-year-old lamb on the site. Indeed, the obscure name ‘bidental’ derives from the Latin word bidens, which literally means ‘having two teeth’ but typically relates to the age of the sacrificial animal (Gloss. Lat. 30.15-19 L. Cf. Macrob. Sat. 6.9.5). Of the animal bones that were discovered at Todi, some belonged to sheep (of undetermined age) and had been charred, perhaps as part of the ritual.

Furthermore, Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that the sacred ground on which the lightning fell was to neither be looked at nor trodden on (23.5). The find at Todi also bears witness to this tradition. Firstly, the large slabs of travertine placed on all sides sealed the structure and prevented view of the collected contents. Secondly, while the monument itself dates to the late 2nd century AD, related contexts (the date of which was determined by material finds) suggest that part of the structure remained above ground for a long period of time, preventing people from stepping over it.

On multiple levels, then, the monument discovered at Todi can correlate with our understanding of the ritual as presented in the literary sources and, moreover, it helps piece together the various snippets of information they collectively describe. The structure and its contents thus allow the literary and material evidence to work together to better our understanding of a diverse range of topics: about the nature of space and the transformation of space into sacred ground, about the adoption of Etruscan religious practices in Rome, about how natural phenomena were seen as supernatural, as well as about the public and private performing of rituals, and many others. As new examples of fulgura condita are discovered, it only broadens the capacity for what we can learn. Indeed, across Europe, hundreds of examples have already been discovered. Most are identified by a simple tile inscribed fulgur conditum or as an acronym (FCS = Fulgur Conditum Summanium; FDC = Fulgur Dium Conditum), but in some cases, such as at Todi, the monument and its contents are more substantial. In the Casa dei Quattro Stili (House of the Four Styles) at Pompeii, for example, a hollow in the ground was discovered in 1939, filled with fragments of tiles, utensils, cement and stucco, all of which lay beneath a small mound of beaten earth and a broken tile inscribed FVLGVR (Maiuri 1942: 56-72; Van Andringa et al. 2010). Another lightning burial was excavated in 1941, in the southwest corner of the peristyle of a house at Ostia, subsequently named the Domus Fulminata, the House of the Thunderbolt (Van der Meer 2005). Here, a marble plaque was discovered, inscribed with the letters FDC and this time the chamber was filled with fragments of terracotta tiles, glass, the handle of an amphora, an unrecognisable bronze artefact, and a section of pavement. Other examples have been excavated in the Roman colony of Minturnae (Degrassi 1971: 123-127), at Vulci (Buranelli 1991: 161–166), Luni (Frova 1973: 820-830), and near the Theatre of Pompey (Pietrangeli 1949-1951: 44-52), to name but a few examples.

The similarities in their form and function over many centuries and locations therefore attest to the ritual's widespread significance in Roman culture. For archaeologists and ancient historians, this is particularly exciting because our understanding of this significance will continue to develop as more lightning burial monuments come to light.


Buranelli, F. (1991) “Il «fulgur conditum» di Vulci” in Gli scavi a Vulci della società Vincenzo Campanari-Governo Pontificio (1835-1837), L’Erma di Bretschneider, Roma: 161-163.

Degrassi, A. (1971) “Il bidental di Minturno” in Scritti vari di Antichità, Società Istriana di Archeologia e Storia Patria, Trieste: 123-127.

Frova, A. and Bertino, A. (1973) Scavi di Luni: relazione preliminare delle campagne di scavo, 1970–1971. Roma, L'Erma di Bretschneider.

Laubry, N. (2016) "Les « Coups De Foudre » De Jupiter Et L'exportation De La Religion Romaine En Gaule" in Gallia 73, no. 2: 123-44.

Manconi, D, and Spiganti, S. (2017) “Un fulgur conditum a Todi (Umbria)” in Otium 3: 1–40.

Maiuri, A. (1941) “Fulgur conditum o della scoperta di un bidental a Pompei” in Rendiconti della R. Accadema de Archeologia Lettere e belle Arti, 21: 53-72.

Pietrangeli C. (1949-1951) “Bidentalia”, RPAA, XXV-XXVI: 37-52.

Turfa, J. M. (2012) Divining the Etruscan World: the Brontoscopic Calendar and religious practice. Cambridge University Press.

Van Andringa, W. et al. (2010), “Pompeii: Le fulgur conditum de la maison des Quatre Styles, I, 8, 17) in The Journal of Fasti Online, accessed (03.08.21): http://www.fastionline.org/excavation/micro_view.php?fst_cd=AIAC_2532&curcol=main_column

Van der Meer, L. B. (2005) Domus Fulminata. The House of the Thunderbolt at Ostia (III, VII, 3–5)”, in Bulletin van de Antieke Beschaving 80: 91–111.

Weinstock, S. (1951) “Libri Fulgurales” in Papers of the British School at Rome (New Series Volume 6), 19: 122-153.


This post was written by Jon Madge, a final year PhD researcher of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His thesis explores the interaction between politics and celestial omens – lightning, comets, and luminary optics – from Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC to that of Domitian in AD 96.

August 13, 2021

An Ancient Detective Story: Roman Reuse and the Tomb of the Rabirii, by Kieren Johns

Tomb Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia, Rome. Creative Commons CC0.

There are two ways of seeing the Tomb of the Rabirii, and both will need you to travel to Rome. The first is the easiest: you could go and see the tomb relief – the real version – on the ground floor of the Museo Palazzo Massimo, opposite Termini Station (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Pay attention though, or you may walk right past, as the tomb relief vies for attention with some of the ancient world’s most famous masterpieces: the bronze Boxer at rest and Hellenistic prince statues are just opposite.

Relief Original portrait relief from the Tomb of the Rabirii. It is now on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Inv. 196633). Author's photograph.

But my favourite option means escaping the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Head southeast, past the Circus Maximus, keep going past the colossal remains of the thermae of Caracalla, and further still, until you’ve gone through the imposing Porta San Sebastiano and are on the Via Appia. About four miles down the picturesque ancient road, just past the turning at Via degli Eugenii, you will come across the Tomb of the Rabirii.

Tomb2 The Tomb of the Rabirii on the Via Appia with the plaster cast relief. Author's Photograph.

Roman law prescribed that the dead be buried outside of settlements. This means that the roads leading into cities became highways of memory – “an unsleeping thoroughfare” according to Propertius’ characterisation – creating a constantly evolving link between past and present. The Tomb of the Rabirii, then, would once have been just one of a number of similar memorials, which could range in scale from simple stone inscriptions to magnificent marble mausolea. All were meant to be very public and very visible to preserve memory in the eyes of the passing public.

This tomb is far from the most grandiose memorial on the Via Appia – that particular prize probably belongs to the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. However, the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to investigate the relationship in Roman society between memory, material, re-use and identity. Typically, investigations into material re-use are viewed through the prism of censorship, of damnatio memoriae and the erasure of an emperor’s tyrannical legacy: the clever cutting of a disgraced emperor’s coiffure was a convenient way of upcycling imperial portraits. Elsewhere, there are attempts to uncover deeper, ideological and propagandistic meanings in the re-use of materials on state monuments, such as on the Arch of Constantine.

The aedicular relief scene on the Tomb of the Rabirii allows us to explore these concepts at a much less rarefied atmosphere. Identifying the individuals on this tomb allows us to investigate the complexities that underpinned Roman memory culture at a non-elite level as well as their attitudes to materiality.

The monument’s façade, clad in Luna marble, has perhaps lost some of its decorative elements. However, the relief panel still holds intrigue. This relief comprises three bust-length portraits, one male and two female, all of which are carved in high relief. Below the portraits, a Latin inscription runs parallel to the length of the panel. In the nominative case, this inscription (CIL VI.2246) states:



G(aius) Rabirius Post(umi) Li(bertus) Hermordorus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima Sac(erdos or rorum) Isidis

Which translates as: Gaius Rabirius Hermodorus, freedman of Postumus, Rabiria Demaris, Usia Prima, Priestess (or of the Devotees) of Isis.

Relief2 Portrait relief and inscription from the Tomb of the Rabirii. Author's Photograph.

In identifying these individuals, the only surety we have is that Gaius Raibirius Hermodorus was the freedman (libertus) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is described by the Museo Nazionale as one of the number of slaves released in the period between the second triumvirate (c. 43-32 BC) and the Augustan age (c. 27 BC – AD 14). Hermodorus’ manumission is indicated by his toga, a symbol of Roman citizenship. Likewise, traditional Roman nomenclature was a vehicle of social mobility. Here, Hermodorus has been supplemented by the praenomen (first name) and nomen (family name) of his former master.

Readers of Cicero may recognise the name Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Hermodorus is believed to be the freedman of the same individual defended by Cicero in 54/3 BC against a charge of financial misconduct (Pro Rabirio Postumu). Rabirius was a wealthy equestrian and banker. Having lent a large sum of money to Ptolemy XII Auletes in Alexandria, Rabirius was granted the extraordinary position of dioketes (chief royal treasurer). In lieu of traditional repayment, Rabirius instead extorted his money back through taxation. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians soon rioted and Auletes imprisoned Rabirius. Cicero claims that in escaping back to Rome, Rabirius wound up destitute. Behind this rhetorical bluff, it is more likely that Rabirius escaped with significant wealth, including in slaves. One of these may have been this Hermodorus, with the name popular in Egypt and Alexandria especially.

To Hermodorus’ right, in the centre of the relief, is a mature female figure. This is Rabiria Demaris. Based on the epigraphic nomenclature, Rabiria was probably also a freed slave. Her portrait, however, emphasises her Roman identity; the palla (mantle) over her left shoulder proclaims Rabiria to be a Roman citizen. It is probably that she was the wife of Hermodorus, and if you look closely, you may spot the ring on the third finger of her left hand (it is unclear whether she wears a stola beneath her mantle, another sure sign of her status as matrona, or legally married). Most likely then, these two were married colliberti (freed slaves of the same master) of Gaius Rabirius Postumus. Taking Rabirius name allowed these slaves to bolster their nascent social status through the expected recognition of their former master.

The identity and status of the third figure, to the viewer’s right, and her presence on the monument, is rather more difficult to ascertain.

Identified epigraphically as Usia Prima, it is unclear whether she was a freeborn citizen or, like Rabiria, a liberta. Like her partner in perpetuity, she also wears a palla, however. Similarly, her name is curious. It is attested in only one other inscription (CIL XIII.12064), but it is close to the Greek word οὐσία (ousia, meaning essence), a term commonly in the spells of authors such as Lucan and Apuleius (Metamorphoses 2.32; 3.15-18).

Combining text, iconography, and literature can provide further insight. The inscription SAC ISIDIS proclaims that Usia had some kind of association with the cult of Isis, either as a priestess (sacerdos Isidis) or devotee (sacrorum Isidis). Female participation in the cult is presumed to have been low, based on epigraphic evidence, but priestesses are not unknown. Although her specific role is unclear, Usia’s association with the cult of Isis is communicated through iconographic cues. A garland of flowers in her hair recalls, much like her name, the works of Apuleius: Book XI.1-4 of his Metamorphoses describes the navigium Isidis, an Isaic festival, that was led by similarly garlanded women. A sistrum (the musical instrument) to her right and the patera to her left, also convey Usia’s Isaic connections.

Why is Usia here? Closer inspection of the relief reveals that she wasn’t always. Both the portrait and inscription of Usia testify to the monument’s re-use. There are several tell-tale signs on the portrait. Usia’s head is disproportionately small compared to her body, whilst a flatness to the figure suggests that this may once have been a male figure. This has affected the finishing on her clothing, as well as the proportions of both shoulders and neck. It is safe to assume that the patera and sistrum are also later additions. The differences in letter size between the names of Hermodorus, Rabiria and Usia are clear indicators of epigraphic reuse, as is the point of transition between the final ‘A’ of Rabiria and the ‘V’ of Usia. Someone has been obliterated from the historical record through Usia’s intervention on this monument.

Why Usia has been represented on this relief can only be speculated. Based on nomenclature, she was not a relation of the Rabirri. Instead, it has been argued that she has appropriated space on this tomb to exploit its mnemonic links to Alexandria, which would commemorate and communicate her association with the cult of Isis. An association with Hermodorus, likely involved in Gaius Rabirius Postumus’ dodgy dealings in Egypt, and the use of additional iconography, prompts the knowing viewer to make these connections. Usia’s reuse celebrated a relationship with Egypt and its cults through the considered appropriation of this memorial.

Usia’s re-use of this tomb, appearing to obliterate at least one identity, seems shocking, almost as the misuse of an inviolable monument. A previous investigation has suggested four possible scenarios:

1) Usia purchased the tomb, or a space within it, from Hermodorus’ legal heirs.

2) Usia inherited this tomb. The time between the original portraits and Usia’s reuse could be as long as a century. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Usia was connected to a Hermodorus’ heirs.

3) Usia took over the tomb. The nomen Rabirius is rare in Rome, suggesting the family died out. Usia would have been free to claim this prime memorial real estate for herself.

4) Usia was added to this tomb by her own successors. Her sudden death may have necessitated the pragmatic use of available space.

The reason for Usia’s reuse remains ultimately unknowable, but the Tomb of the Rabirri nevertheless provides a fascinating insight into the ancient world, allowing social identities that are otherwise muted to be written back into an understanding of non-elite Roman memory culture, with Usia herself an active participant. Alongside that, it should remind us, if indeed Usia did aim to commemorate her Isaic and Alexandrian links through the infamous case of Gaius Rabirius Postumus, that the Romans were just as obsessed with their history as we are today.


For more information on the tomb of the Rabirii, see especially:

Cupello K. E., and L. A. Hughes, ‘Reuse, the Roman Funerary Monument and the Rabirii: Violation of Memory or Commemoration of Past and Present?’, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, (2010) 5, 3-23, 365 with notes and bibliography.

See also:

Germini, B., ‘Funeral Relief of the Rabirii and Usia Prima’, A. La Regina, (ed.), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, (Milan, 1998)

Kockel, V., Porträtreliefs stadtrömischer Grabbauten: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und zum Verständnis des spätrepublikanisch-frühkaiserzeitlichen Privatporträts, (Mainz am Rhein, 1993).

On Roman memorial and mortuary practices more generally, see:

Carroll, M., Spirits of the dead: Roman funerary commemoration in Western Europe, (Oxford, 2006).

Hope, V. M., and J. Huskinson, (eds.), Memory and mourning: studies on Roman death, (Oxford, 2011).

kieren Kieren is a final year PhD researcher at the Universtiy of Warwick. He is currently writing up his thesis, which is an investigation of the epigraphic representation of Roman emperors in the period 180 to 235, or from the reign of Commodus to Alexander Severus, supervised by Professor Alison Cooley and Dr Clare Rowan. You can read more about his research interests, including papers presented, on his student profile.

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