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

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

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,

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,

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,


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):

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.

July 21, 2021

Grating Cheese by Professor Michael Scott

Cheese grater

Terracotta figurine of a man grating cheese over a bowl (Thebes Museum).

(Author's own photograph).

The first time I saw this little object I was a PhD student studying at the British School of Athens, on a tour of Boeotia, back in 2004. The group had headed to the old archaeological museum at Thebes: ancient columns were strewn about the garden (some being used as coffee tables), and the building itself looked like it had some claim to being a relic. But nothing could prepare me for the riot of painted colour that confronted me in the museum: grave reliefs still vibrantly painted, and in unremarkable cabinets sat a plethora of small terracotta objects, resplendent in technicolour.

One of these was the ‘cheese-grater’. Just 9.7cm in height and 11.2cm in length, the model depicted a man sitting on a stool bent over a bowl. A shining knife lay on the floor beside the bowl, and over the bowl he held a block of cheese in one hand and a cheese grater in the other. What seems to be grated cheese pours into the bowl beneath.

The brand new museum of Thebes (well worth a visit when next in Greece!) has this object on display, and it also takes pride of place on their website (you can see it here: You can also get up close to it via a 3D laser scan, which allows you to see the object from every angle, as if it were in your hands. Check it out here:

It’s objects like this, I think, that completely make you re-think what it was like to be surrounded by the material culture of the ancient Greek world. It’s not just the vibrant colour of the object, reminding you of the highly coloured world of the ancient Greeks (compared to our modern visions of ‘classical’ white marble and stone). It’s the fact that someone chose to make, buy and own (and display?) this object as an active choice. Someone thought this was a worthy (and/or perhaps fun?), miniature statue to have in their lives. For a world filled with epic heroes, gods, mighty armies, great poets, intelligent philosophers and powerful political demagogues, the humble cheese grater is a refreshing reminder of the normal everyday life of the ancient Greeks and the world around them.

Found back in 1908, the cheese-grater was part of a burial assemblage excavated near modern-day Rhitsona (most likely the necropolis of the ancient Boeotian polis of Mykalissos). The grave was dated via the ceramics to ca. 500 BC. This little terracotta figurine was one of the many items in the burial assemblage of grave 18, and was but one of a number of miniature terracotta figurines included with the deceased, including models of doves, tortoises, frogs, dogs, rabbits, the half figure of a female and a full figure reclining. This item was thus something the deceased, or those around him, thought not just appropriate to have with them in life but also in death.

Ancient Boeotians are renowned for having a fondness for miniature terracotta figurines conducting everyday tasks from an early date (another favourite of mine is of a barber cutting a seated person’s hair). Boeotia would too in later centuries become well-known for creating a style of human terracotta figurine that was copied in other parts of Greece too (the ‘Tanagra Figurine’). So the small terracotta model may well be understood as a ‘Boeotian thing’ – but why a cheese-grater? Compounding the importance of the question is that we know this is not a one-off: other models of cheese-graters have also been found (like that currently in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).

One way of answering this question is to look more widely at the use and meaning of cheese-grating in the ancient world (you never thought studying Classics would take you down this path did you – I certainly didn’t!).

In Homer’s Iliad (11.640ff), Nestor’s servant (Hecamede) prepares a special drink for him to share with the hero Machaon who has been wounded in battle (they have both been in the fighting):

“Therein the woman, like to the goddesses, mixed a potion for them with Pramnian wine, and on this she grated cheese of goat's milk with a brazen grater, and sprinkled thereover white barley meal; and she bade them drink, when she had made ready the potion. Now when both had drunk and quenched their parching thirst, and were enjoying the pleasure of their conversation.”

Now we may baulk at the idea of grating cheese on our wine, but it seems to have been just the ticket for two battle weary heroic souls. Moreover, archaeological excavations tell us that cheese-graters, as part of a heroic warrior’s key kit, was not just the stuff of Homeric epic. The oldest known cheese-graters (in Greek turoknestis - normally a piece of bronze/silver/copper [or even terracotta] pierced with lots of small holes to give it the rough edge to grate) to be found were made from bronze and found in warrior burials at the Toumba cemetery in Lefkandi dating to the 9thcentury BC.

Other surviving examples of cheese-graters have been found in a number of orientalising and elite 7th century BC burials along the Tyrrhenian seaboard of Italy. Here again they seem to be a key part of the ‘symposium drinking set’ buried with the elite deceased.

Potentially then the humble cheese-grater, and our terracotta cheese grater, actually carried heroic and elite sympotic connotations, considered as a natural part of a warrior’s/ elite’s personal property.

3 Grave-group with grater from Trebbia, Campania (Ridgeway 1997).

That militaristic connotation of the cheese-grater seems to echo down through into 5th century BCE comedy. In Aristophanes’s Clouds, in which the dog Labes is put on trial for eating the Sicilian cheese, a cheese-grater is called as a witness. The play parodies an Athenian general Laches, who has been put on trial for embezzlement of military funds during the Sicilian expedition (hence Labes/Sicilian cheese in the play). But there is another joke at work here, as the Athenian base of operations in Sicily was Catana (modern-day Catania). In Sicilian dialect, katana means a ‘grater’ and Catana was on occasion as a result called the cheese-grater city (Plutarch Dion 58.2).

So was this stunning little terracotta buried with someone ca. 500 BC in Boeotia as a neat, very Boeotian, way of linking into the long-standing heroic militaristic and elite meta-narrative of the cheese grater? It’s tempting to see it as such. But as for what this little object tells us about another cheese-grating mystery (Aristophanes’ description in Lysistrata of a sexual position as ‘the lioness on a cheese-grater’), well that is another story….


R. Burrows & P. Ure (1908) ‘Excavations at Rhitsóna in Boeotia’ in The Annual of the British School at Athens, 14, 226-318.

C. Kerr Prince (2009) ‘The Lioness and the Cheese-Grater (Ar. Lys. 231-232) in Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, 4th series, 7:2: 149 - 175.

L. A. Post (1932) ‘Catana the Cheese-Grater in Aristophanes’ Wasps’ in The American Journal of Philology 53(3) 265-266.

D. Ridgway (1997) ‘Nestor’s Cup and the Etruscans’ in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 16 (3) 325-344.

B. Sparkes (1962) ‘The Greek Kitchen’ in The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 82. 121-137


This post was written by Michael Scott, Professor in Classics and Ancient History and Director of the Institute of Engagement at the University of Warwick. Michael is also President of the Lytham Saint Annes Classical Association, Trustee and Director of Classics for All and an Honorary Citizen of Delphi, Greece. He is the author of several books on the ancient Mediterranean world as well as ancient Global History; and has written and presented a range of TV and Radio documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, ITV and the BBC. @profmcscott

June 22, 2021

A Roman cosmetic from Southwark


Canister, Museum of London, Object ID LLS02[12855]<3014>

Height 53mm, Diameter 58mm.

Images reproduced here with the kind permission of the Museum of London.

In the 21st century, not only is there a vast array of skin-care products and cosmetics on the market, with a huge variety of purposes, ingredients and finishes to choose from, but there are also ethical issues to be considered, such as animal testing and environmental sustainability. A plethora of questions accompany every purchase: peptides, retinol, or collagen? AHAs, Vitamin C or ceramides? Anti-ageing or anti-pollution? Highlight or hide? Hydrate or illuminate? The options are endless.

For the Roman consumer, the choice may have been less daunting, although perhaps fraught with other issues. In 2003, archaeologists were excavating a Roman temple precinct at Tabard Square in Southwark, London, when they made the remarkable discovery of the undecorated tin canister pictured above, which is now on display in the Museum of London. It dates to ca. 150 CE, and given that it was found alongside some intact pottery vessels, and a reasonable quantity and range of other small finds, it has been interpreted as being a ritual, perhaps votive deposit, rather than having been discarded.

canister1.jpg Canister3

Not only is the canister, with its closely fitted lid, a significant find, but its contents, complete with the imprints of fingerprints, are truly extraordinary. It provided a unique opportunity for a team at the University of Bristol to conduct chemical analysis on the soft cream contained inside the canister. This showed that the cream was unperfumed and made from an animal-based fat source (either from sheep or cattle), with added starch (produced from boiling roots or grains in water), and stannic oxide/cassiterite, i.e. tin, which gave a white pigment to the cream. Tin was available in Roman Britain from Cornish tin mines and was used as a substitute for white lead which had commonly been used in Roman cosmetics to whiten the face. The toxicity of white lead had been recognised by the time this cream was produced, and tin may therefore have been a desirable alternative. The University of Bristol team also recreated the cream from their analysis, and although it initially felt greasy when rubbed into the skin, it then left a white powdery smooth texture. There did not appear to be any medicinal value to the cream, and this supports its probable use as being a cosmetic to lighten skin tone.

Another similar, although slightly larger, canister was also found in the excavations at Tabard Square, but it was empty, damaged and missing its lid. However, it is interesting to compare the cream-containing canister with a bronze canister found in Pompeii (Museo Archeologico Nationale di Napoli Inv. No. 5568), which I believe is currently on display in the “Venustas” exhibition in Pompeii (you can see an image of it here: It came from the House of the Lovers (I, 10, 11), and the shape of the canister and lid appear similar to the Tabard Square container, although this one has further decoration in the form of a small figurine of a child holding grapes and a ball on the lid. The canisters could also have contained other cosmetic preparations such as beautifying masks or treatments, commonly made from honey and vinegar mixed with other organic substances. Additionally, cosmetics based on different pigments were obtained from a wide range of mineral sources, and used as eye shadows, kohl, lip and cheek colours.

However, in antiquity, there was a distinction and indeed tension, between the preservation of beauty via the use of creams and other preparations, which was deemed acceptable, and artificial embellishment, such as via the use of cosmetics, which was considered unacceptable or even immoral (e.g. Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos 12.434-5, 445-6, 449-50 K.). These ideas are also evident in later Roman moralisation around the use of such cosmetics, with the albeit male dominated sources implying cosmetics were deceptive and suggestive of sexual immorality. Horace creates a vivid mocking image of a woman’s makeup melting in the heat of passion (Epodes 12.10-11); Seneca the Younger praises his mother for not having “defiled” her face with the use of cosmetics (De Consolatione ad Helviam 16.4); whilst Juvenal scorns women beautifying themselves for their lovers (Satire 6.461-470). However, Ovid gives recipes for treatments both to preserve and enhance female beauty in his treatise De Medicamina Faciei and specifically includes the use of “cerussa”, in one of the recipes (Ovid, Medicamina Faciei, 73). Pliny the Elder (Natural History 34.175-180) describes two methods to produce cerussa, which basically involved the combination/dissolving of white lead shavings into vinegar. The resulting substance was then dried out and formed into blocks, giving a fair complexion when applied to the face. Fair skin and a smooth complexion were idealised in the Roman world as being a marker of not just social status, but also of beauty, and sexual attractiveness. There is a variety of evidence which attests to this, for example, Horace describes how Achilles loved Briseis because of her snow-white skin (Ode 2.4); and the later long laudatory epitaph to Allia Potestas contains several references to the fairness and perfection of her skin (CIL 6.37965).

Therefore, although the Roman consumer may not have had so large a variety as the modern day, it would appear that there were certainly a range of different options to maintain, improve or even whiten the skin. Equally, there was certainly a variety of opinion on the use of cosmetic preparations, but unfortunately, we lack any clear female perspective as to their utilisation, which could perhaps balance the social contextualisation. Undoubtedly, the canister from Tabard Square, and more significantly its contents, are such a rare and remarkable find, and one which allowed the chemical analysis to not only replicate its contents, but also authenticate the cream’s effects. Likewise, it demonstrates that attention was being paid to the presumably elite female toilette, even in the remote province of Roman Britain. It may also signify a wider, and potentially influential, geographical spread of the utilisation of cosmetic preparations throughout the Roman empire in the second century AD, probably due to the mobility of merchants as well as spouses and families of the Roman governing elite.


Evershed, R.P., Berstan, R., Grew, F., Copley, M.S., Charmant, A.J.H., Barham, E., Mottram, H.R. and Brown, G. (2004) “Formulation of a Roman cosmetic” in Nature, Vol. 432 (London, Springer Nature) pp. 35-36.

Johnson, M. (2016) Ovid on Cosmetics: Medicamina faciei femineae and related texts (London, Bloomsbury Academic).

Killock, D., Shepherd, J., Gerrard, J., Hayward, K., Rielly, K. and Ridgeway, V. (2015) Temples and Suburbs, Excavations at Tabard Square, Southwark (London, Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited).

Museum of London,

Olson, K. (2008) Dress and the Roman Woman: self-presentation and society (London, Routledge).

Stefani, G. (2020) “Creme, trucchi e acconciature. Il trucco c'e ma e meglio che non si veda” in eds. M. Osanna and G. Stefani, Venustas, Grazia e Bellezza a Pompei (Naples, arte’m) pp. 61-65.

jacqui_pic2.jpg This post was written by Jacqui Butler, part-time M/Phil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Jacqui’s research interests are in the representation of both mythical and real women in the Roman world, and more specifically how they are represented in art.

May 27, 2021

‘A Holy Little Helicopter’*: The Curious Case of Libating Nike, by Cara Grove

Lekythos Shoulder lekythos by the Bowdoin Painter depicting Nike (?), pouring from a patera at an altar, Walters 48257, side A. Creative Commons CC0.

*quoted from Patton (2009), 42.

This example of Greek pottery is a lekythos, dated to c. 480 – 470 BC, painted in the red-figure technique. It depicts the winged goddess of victory, Nike. While the findspot of this lekythos is not recorded, it is Athenian in origin, and it is now in the possession of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (48.257), although it is not currently on display. It is attributed to the Bowdoin Painter, whose career spanned at least 30 years, from c. 480 BC – 450 BC, based on other dated examples of their work.

Here, Nike is depicted in flight, facing to the right, holding a phiale, a shallow bowl used for pouring libations during rituals, in her right hand and an oval-shaped object in her left, possibly a fruit. An altar is depicted below the goddess, to her right, on which a fire burns and onto which Nike pours liquid from her phiale. She wears a chiton underneath a himation, disc earrings, serpentine braceletes and a ribbon in her hair, styled in a bun.

The majority of the works attributed to the Bowdoin Painter are lekythoi; more than 400, in fact, of the 558 entries in the Beazley Archive Pottery Database online, and Nike was a favourite subject of theirs: some 145 entries in the Beazley online database that are attributed to the Bowdoin Painter feature the goddess (where a winged female figure is identified as Nike), and all but 3 are lekythoi. What’s more, 110 of the 145 entries show this winged figure in the presence of, near or libating at an altar.

The term lekythos (Greek λήκυθος) had a wide-ranging application in antiquity, seemingly used for any kind of oil jug, from the oil vessels used by athletes, which are now categorised as aryballoi (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai, 139 ff.; Aristophanes, Frogs, 1198 ff.; an aryballos attributed to the Douris Painter, inscribed ΑΣΟΠΟΔΩΡΩΗΕΛΕΚΥΘΟΣ, ‘this lekythos belongs to Asopodorus’, ARV(2) 447.274) to storage vessels in the home (a cooking scene in Aristophanes, Birds, 1589; Aristophanes, Wealth, 810 f., regarding household stores). While it is still understood that lekythoi were multifunctional, archaeologists now use the term lekythos, -oi for a specific shape of pottery, a one-handed jug with a narrow neck, that would have contained scented oils (perfume) or oil for household use. In particular, lekythoi, especially white-ground lekythoi, are associated heavily with death in Ancient Greece vase-paintings, including on lekythoi themselves, often depict these vessels as offerings to the dead; many of the examples surviving to us were excavated from grave sites and cemetries, once left as gifts for the deceased; in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusai, 996, lekythos is used to refer to ‘funeral urns’ (ὃς τοῖς νεκροῖσι ζωγραφεῖ τὰς ληκύθους / The one who decorates funeral urns; ‘lekythos’, lambda439, Suda On Line); and, perhaps, they were used in the funerary rites themselves (Scholiast on Plato, Hippias Minor, 368 c).

Nike appears on this example in an unusual configuration for her role as a divinity, the personification of victory, but one that in vase-painting was surprisingly popular, especially in the Classical period of the 5th century BC. Nike is typically closely associated with Athena and Zeus, at times considered little more than an attribute of them, as opposed to an individual deity of her own right. Despite this, Nike also has her own attributes, and is commonly depicted in scenes with themes or contexts of victory with a wreath or a tainia (a headband, ribbon or fillet) and crowning a victor, or with other symbols of victory, such as a palm branch, a tripod, a lyre (kithara) to reference a musical contest, an aphlaston to designate a naval victory, or driving a chariot. Wings, indeed, are also considered an attribute of the goddess; Nike is rarely, if ever, depicted without wings, except in the case of the Temple of Athena Nike, sometimes also referred to as the Temple of Nike Apteros (Wingless Nike) (Pausanias, 1.22.4).

Yet, prolific in vase-painting is the depiction of Nike with a phiale and/or oinochoe, an incense burner, an altar, and holding torches. This group of attributes is religious in sphere and to ritual and sacrifice. Images of libating gods are not totally uncommon, but the absence of clear signifiers of victory is strange. What, then, is the goddess of victory doing with ritualistic and sacrificial instruments and without symbols of victory, much less participating in ritual?

One solution to this curious case of libating-Nike could be that the winged figure’s identification as the victory goddess is incorrect, and that in ritualistic contexts with no overt relation to a victory, the winged figure should be understood as Iris, a messenger of the gods. Iris, perhaps, could have greater claim to the role of libation-pourer, on account of her attributed pitcher, in which she carries water of the river Styx, and depictions of her in art as cup-bearer to gods such as Poseideon, Hera and Zeus. However, Iris is rarely seen without one of her main identifying symbols: the kerykeion or caduceus, a herald’s staff, also carried by Hermes. In three examples of Greek pottery where Iris is named by inscription, she has a kerykeion. In five examples of pottery where Nike is named, she does not. While it will never be possible to confidently identify every example of Greek vase-painting depicting a winged female as either Nike or Iris, and there is undeniable overlap in their iconographies, simply deferring to Iris in identifying the winged female in this libation scene at an altar is not satisfactory.

Likewise, it would be easy to say that images of altar-side, libating-Nike are simply meant to evoke the rituals that would occur following a victory, that she is libating in place of the victor. Even easier, that this imagery represents the success of the ritual itself. Yet, Greek art does not shy away from depicting overt victory, the rituals following victory undertaken by mortals, victory rituals undertaken by Nike, such as the famous image of the goddess leading a bull to sacrifice, or ritual scenes in general, but without Nike present. The image of Nike, alone, altar-side, attributes or contexts or victory absent, and engaged actively in libating, thus, requires a different approach.

To understand Nike’s role in this non-agonistic, religious scene, it is helpful to turn to an example of art later than the lekythos currently in question. A marble relief from the balustrade of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis of Athens, dated to c. 410 BC, depicts Nike bending to adjust or remove her sandal. The mundanity of this image of the victory goddess is quite bizarre: for a divinity so frequently depicted crowning a victor or with other symbols of victory, here, she could be anyone – she could be mortal.

Towards the end of the 4th century BC, a blurring of the lines between the mortal realm and the divine can be observed quite prolificly in art. The so-called Sandalbinder Nike may, in this timeline, signal the concrete beginning of this shift, with its construction at the end of the 5th century. It would seem, however, that this muddying of the waters may have already been occuring in early 5th century vase-painting. The image of the lone, libating goddess would have been relatable to the everyman of Greek society, and women especially could see themselves in the image of Nike performing the same rites they did. Care is taken to never completely destroy the boundaries of the mortal and godly worlds; Nike remains winged, a clear sign of her divinity, yet she nevertheless participates in libations of unknown end.

Nike, as a victory goddess, already transcends the separate realms within her usual sphere of activity. To bestow victory, she travels from Olympus to the mortal realm in order to crown the victory. By nature, she is already a transitional god, occupying and crossing liminal spaces. Perhaps, then, it follows that she is well predisposed to connect the two worlds in contexts outside of victory-seeking ones, too. The Greek people, already cogniscent of the fact that Nike visits their world to grant victory in games, contests and war - all hugely important aspects of Ancient Greek life - may thus consider their relationship to this particular divinity unique or special, and so it follows that she becomes the favoured actor in ritual scenes of all contexts, either as sacrificial attendant or active libation-pourer.


ARV(2) = Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, 2nd ed. 678.16. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

BAPD = Beazley Archive Pottery Database. (1997-). Pottery database. Accessed 17th May 2021. Available at: Accessed 20/05/2021.

Beazley Archive Pottery Database. (1997-). 207963, ATHENIAN, Balitmore (MD), Walters Art Gallery, 48.257. Accessed 17th May 2021. Available at:

Childs, W. (2018) Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Clark, J. A; Elston, M. & Hart, M. L. (2002). Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles and Techniques. Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications.

Claxton, J. (2001). ‘A Victory for common sense’ in A Permeability of Boundaries? New Approaches to the Archaeology of Art, Religion and Folklore, BAR International Series 938, eds. Lymer, K. & Wallis, R. J. Oxford: John and Erica Hedges Ltd. 85-92.

Ekrothi, G. () ‘Why (Not) Paint An Altar? A Study of Where, When and Why Altars Appear on Attic Red-Figure Vases’ in The World of Greek Vases, eds. Norskov, V., Hannestad, L., Isler-Kerenyi, C. & Lewis, S. Rome: Edizioni Quasar di Severino Tognon srl. 89-114.

Giudice, F., & Panvini, R. (2004). Ta Attika: veder greco a Gela: Ceramiche attiche figurate dall'antica colonia : Gela, Siracusa, Rodi. Roma: L'Erma di Bretschneider.

Greene, W. C. (1938, 1981) Scholia Platonica. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

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Neer, R. T. (1997) Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu: Molly and Walter Bareiss Collection. (CVA.) USA Fasc. 32.

Oakley, J. H. (1992). Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, The Walters Art Gallery I, Baltimore, Maryland: Attic Red-figure and White-ground Vases. (CVA.) USA Fasc. 28. 32-33, FIG.9.2, PLS. (1446,1449) 34.3-4, 37.2. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.

Patton, K. C. (2009). Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox and Reflexivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Richter, G. M. A. & Milne, M. J. (1935). Shapes and Names of Athenian Vases. New York: Plantin Press.

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Smith, C. (1888) ‘Two Vase-Pictures of Sacrifices, Plates I., II.’ in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 9, 1-10.

Smith, T. J. (2021). Religion in the Art of Archaic and Classical Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sparkes, B. A. (1991). Greek pottery: an introduction. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.

TePaske-King, S. L. (1993) ‘A Lekythos by the Bowdoin Painter’, in Bulletin: Museums of Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan, eds. Lourie, M. A. et al. Vol. IX, 1989-91. United States: University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology. 30-48.

Zaidman, L., & Pantel, P. (1992). Religion in the Ancient Greek City (P. Cartledge, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cara This post was written by Cara Grove, currently an MA by Research student in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Cara did her undergraduate degree in Classical Civilisation, also at the University of Warwick. Cara's research interests are in Hellenistic art and archaeology, the Antigonids, and using multidisciplinary approaches to understanding the iconography, functions, myth and receptions of the goddess Nike.

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