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Enemies of Rome: Barbarians Through Roman Eyes

Enemies of Rome: Barbarians Through Roman Eyes

by I. M. Ferris

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The artists of Ancient Rome portrayed the barbarian enemies of the empire in sculpture, reliefs, metalwork and jewellery. Enemies of Rome shows how the study of these images can reveal a great deal about the barbarians, as well as Roman art and the Romans view of themselves.


The artists of Ancient Rome portrayed the barbarian enemies of the empire in sculpture, reliefs, metalwork and jewellery. Enemies of Rome shows how the study of these images can reveal a great deal about the barbarians, as well as Roman art and the Romans view of themselves.

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Enemies of Rome

Barbarians Through Roman Eyes

By I. M. Ferris

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 I.M. Ferris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9520-0


A Fear of Difference

From the days of the early Roman empire to the fall of Rome, the barbarian enemies of Rome were commonly portrayed in imperial art. Images of barbarian men, women and children illuminated the commemoration of numerous military triumphs and historical events, as for instance on Trajan's Column or on the later Column of Marcus Aurelius. But many of these images were simply stereotypes that tell us more about their creators than they do about the barbarian peoples portrayed.

Fear, dislike, suspicion or mistrust of those who are not like us are unfortunately common traits in most societies, in the past as today. This fear of difference can be an individual character trait or defect, or it can be commonly shared by a number of individuals, a class, or a group. It can also be articulated at a national level, so that the prejudice becomes institutionalised, and thus more starkly defined. Vocabulary and language, gesture and action, and literary and visual images, can all be deployed to describe and maintain these real or perceived differences, and to imbue that difference with negative or ambiguous connotations. Those perceived as different become 'other', often not viewed as being real people but presented simply through reference to generalised physical characteristics or to strange habits and customs. Gender, sexuality, colour and appearance are the most common differences defined in this way. Often what appears to be a fascination with difference can also have a negative aspect if it involves the idealisation or patronisation of the 'other'.

This book aims to investigate the creation and use of such stereotypical images in the Roman world, and to assess any variations dependent on time, place or context. Some early Roman portrayals of barbarians were virtually anthropological exercises in evoking nostalgia for the world of 'the primitive savage', while there was an undoubted move towards the dehumanisation of the barbarian in Roman art from the time of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus onwards. The study of these later, often quite harrowing, images may allow us to understand the perhaps deep-seated fear of the barbarian which, it could be argued, lay buried within the Roman psyche.

The chronological span of the study primarily encompasses the period from the second century BC, when a Roman art distinct from purely Hellenistic and native Italian arts emerged in the time of the late Republic, to around AD 410, when Alaric the Goth and his forces sacked the city of Rome. As with any such study though, reference will inevitably be made to works of art created both within and without this time frame.

This first chapter sets the scene by briefly looking at the barbarian in Greek, Italian and Republican Roman art. The four central chapters examine the chronological use of images of barbarians, but not by the discussion of the subject reign by reign. Rather, they concentrate on the best-documented eras, in terms of the creation and survival of relevant works of art. Thus the reigns of Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, the Tetrarchy and the House of Constantine dominate the narrative. The inclusion of the art of Late Antiquity, the period roughly AD 250–450, allows changing imperial perceptions of power and authority to be pursued as a major theme. The study thus traverses, but obviously does not ignore, the major stylistic, perceptual and social changes of Late Antiquity. The final two chapters attempt to provide an overview of trends, and to discuss the social and political contexts of the images.

For a study of this kind, based almost exclusively on the analysis of visual material, the variety of available sources is perhaps surprisingly limited. The visual source material considered consists principally of sculptural works produced as part of the official state commemoration of Roman victories, by generals in the Republican period and, almost exclusively, the emperor in the imperial period. The majority of these artworks or monuments were created and displayed in Rome itself. Monuments on which barbarians were depicted erected elsewhere in Italy and in the provinces are fewer in number. A later and significant exception to the control of the creation and use of images of barbarians by the state is the tradition that emerged among generals of the Antonine period in which their lives were posthumously celebrated through the commissioning of what are now generally known as 'battle sarcophagi'.

In addition to the major public monuments, there were particular periods when the Roman state used other artistic media to disseminate ideas about its goals and achievements. This was certainly the case at the very start of the imperial era when the courts of Augustus and the succeeding Julio-Claudian dynasty were responsible for the production of decorated luxury items, principally silverware, gems or cameos, to be given in most cases as gifts. To a lesser extent, a similar process can be said to have occurred towards the end of the period of study, when carved ivory diptychs were produced to celebrate the power and prestige of individual consuls and emperors. From the intervening period few such court-sponsored luxury items survive, though in the third century medallions can be seen to have replaced cameos as gifts. The early and the later imperial periods may have represented times when it was expedient for the Roman state to use gifts such as these to help establish relationships with provincial elites and with powerful barbarian groups and individuals outside the empire, as well as to demonstrate imperial prestige to its own aristocracy. If that was indeed the case, then the images of barbarians employed on these more intimate items of artistic production could have held an additional significance in comparison to those deployed on public monuments.

The figure of the barbarian was very common on Roman coinage but otherwise does not generally appear on other types of public art, such as mosaics. Barbarians were also relatively rare figures in private art, although some consideration will be given in this study to genre art, particularly the production of small bronzes for popular consumption. It was almost inevitable that the barbarian male appeared on many items of military art, though it may be deemed surprising that though he was often depicted in scenes of combat or defeat, the number of his appearances on commemorative stones, tombstones, and on items of military equipment is nevertheless relatively small.

Defining Others

The definition of the word 'barbarian' has some particular significance in itself. The word is of Greek origin, and is onomatopoeic – that is, when spoken it sounds like the very thing it is used to describe. In this case it was someone who, when speaking, sounded to a Greek incomprehensible, as if uttering a noise that sounded like 'bar, bar, bar' and in so doing betrayed their non- Greek origins.

This initial drive to define difference in purely linguistic terms later came to encompass both real and perceived visual, cultural and psychological differences. The barbarian needed to be categorised in this manner in order to allow the Greeks, and later the Romans, to understand their own position in the world. As an attempt at self-definition, in the ancient world this exercise relied on both the study of the barbarian peoples through historical, geographical and ethnographic writings, and the examination of their psyches through literature and drama. Vocabulary and grammar were both used by the Greeks to define and subtly defile others, while the vocabulary and grammar of Roman art could also be used in the same way. Words and symbols could be deployed with subtlety and discretion, as well as with malice and necessity. That language can control and divide, as well as liberate and unite, and that the same duality of roles can be said to apply to images as well as texts, is self-evident in late and post-twentieth-century society. Manipulation of image and text was in fact as prevalent in the ancient world as in our own, although consciousness of the fact was not then stated or debated.

The original Greek definition of barbarian left no room for manoeuvre: either you were a Greek speaker or you were not. However, the Roman imperial system allowed for the possibility of a transformation, a metamorphosis. Barbarian peoples, those outside the empire, could be transformed into subjects and citizens of the empire by conquest and incorporation. Whether this incorporation gave them equality is open to question, but certainly in state art they then became invisible, unless being celebrated at death for their service to the Roman state or by self-advertisement as new citizens following manumission from slavery. To the Romans, those citizens who were non-Romans were not always defined as 'peregrini' – foreigners – though in Rome itself the state official who dealt with legal or procedural matters involving non-Romans was perhaps tellingly called the Praetor Peregrinus.

Perhaps the most significant academic study of the relationship between the barbarian and classical worlds is Edith Hall's book Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition Through Tragedy, which, though obviously concerned with literary rather than visual sources, nevertheless provides a template for examining the place of the 'other', the outsider, in the Greek and Roman worlds. The complexity of Hall's thesis is impossible to summarise succinctly here, and, of course, the situation changed over time, but to some extent her work serves to demonstrate how the Greeks felt a certain need to define the barbarians as not just 'different' to them but also, somehow, as their generic opposites and enemies. This was at first the most overt manifestation of an otherwise internalised fear of the rise of Persian power and the threat that this potentially posed to the Greek world. In the earlier writings of Homer, for instance, there can be found no overt antipathy towards non-Greek peoples, and indeed his use of the term barbarian is limited to its descriptive rather than pejorative sense.

In creating stereotypical barbarian characters, Greek writers often used the description of their supposedly flawed psychological profiles and their foreign, and therefore fantastical, material attributes as a way of highlighting the admirable qualities and characteristics of the ideal Greek, both through contrast and by comparison. Thus ethnic stereotypes were created that said little or nothing about the barbarian peoples but a great deal about the Greek society which produced them.

Strategies for depicting the barbarians also began to be applied to vase painting and the other arts, if to a lesser extent, with a distinct genre of what is called 'battle painting' probably also emerging around the time of the Persian wars. The frenzied battle scenes on the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon, dated to c. 325–300 BC, were probably derived from now-lost battle paintings. The lack of a mythologising veil to depict the Greek and Persian protagonists is noteworthy, for it had previously been through the allusive depiction of battles involving giants, Amazons, Lapiths and Centaurs, as well as Greeks themselves, that such encounters and wars had been commemorated. The Alexander mosaic in Naples Museum, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, again most probably derived from a Greek painted source, thought to be by Philoxenos of Eretria.

The individual figure of Darius, the Persian king, seems to have gripped the Greek imagination in a way that for the Roman period can only be compared to the impact of Decebalus, the Dacian king. The remarkable depiction of Darius' preparations for his expedition against Greece on a painted krater from the Apulian workshop of the so-called 'Darius Painter', dated to the third quarter of the fourth century BC, well illustrates the ubiquity and significance of the Alexander/Darius trope.

A detailed study by Brian Sparkes of images of non-Greek peoples in Athenian art of the late sixth and early fifth century BC found that four main groups were most commonly depicted: Scythians, Thracians, Persians and Africans. The artists, mainly working in the popular and accessible medium of vase painting, paid greatest attention to the depiction of clothing and weaponry. However, in the depiction of the black African the Athenian artists employed a different strategy to distinguish their otherness; rather than relying on the distinctiveness of costume and weaponry to define this ethnic group, they did this through depiction of the more obvious physical difference – skin colour, facial characteristics and hair.

While Greek males were routinely depicted naked, with that state's connotations both of physical purity and heroic endeavour, non-Greeks at this time were generally shown fully clothed, as were slaves. In the case of the Scythians, a male archer was usually illustrated – the role for which these warriors were most renowned. For the Thracians, a male horseman or rider was the preferred type.

However, Thracian women were also commonly portrayed, marked out both literally and artistically by their tattoos. Many of these women were brought to Athens as slaves, so that their ethnically distinct art of tattooing also became a brand, their mark of subservience to their Greek masters, as well as perhaps an exoticised target of the Athenian male gaze. Their otherness was quite literally written on their bodies.

As has already been noted, the Persians became the most commonly depicted non-Greek characters in both Greek art and literature. Battle scenes between Persian and Greek warriors adorn many vases and kraters, obviously in the vast majority of cases celebrating Greek victories, although a few examples are known on which Persians emerge, temporarily at least, victorious.

Sparkes discusses in detail an extraordinary scene painted on a red-figure oinochoe or wine jug of c. 460 BC, in which a most explicit and implicit link is made between the sexual potency and superiority of the Greek victor and the sexual subservience, and thus implied effeminacy, of his defeated Persian opponent. The Greek male, clad only in a short, thin cloak, nurses his erect penis in his right hand as he strides towards the figure of the defeated Persian male. The Persian, his hands held up to either side of his head in a gesture of mock fright, bends over, the implication being that he is about to be buggered. An inscription by the figure of the Greek states 'I am Eurymedon' and one by the Persian, rather obviously, 'I stand bent over'. Here, otherness, through defeat in war, is being linked to femininity, or rather to the emasculation of the barbarian male. Though Roman imperialism later came sometimes to allude to defeated male barbarians as somehow impotent, and captive barbarian couples as barren, nevertheless there is no example of sexual denigration of foreigners in Roman art comparable in explicitness to the Eurymedon vessel.

Essays in Nostalgia

If there can be said to be any Greek works of art that encapsulate the almost schizophrenic state of both fearing and admiring the barbarian, then it would be the sculptures of the so-called Attalid Gauls and associated eastern barbarian figures. These sculptures, dating from the third century BC, were commissioned by King Attalos I of Pergamon, following his defeat of invading forces of Galatians (though they have become dubbed as 'Gauls') and their Seleucid allies, and were erected at victory monuments set up at Pergamon, Delos, Delphi and Athens. Of course, the forerunners of such works must have been the Greek representations of the triumphs over the Persians by Alexander the Great; indeed, Attalos was to an extent claiming for himself some element of continuity with the victorious Alexander. As well as these monuments, the Attalid dynasty also commissioned the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, on which the victory of Attalos' son Eumenes II over eastern barbarians was celebrated in a visually powerful and stunning manner, and yet one that was totally allusive, using a gigantomachy – a battle between gods and giants – to represent the historical conflict.

There has been much debate among art historians about which of the numerous extant free-standing statues of barbarians in western European museum collections definitely belonged to, or could have belonged to, these Attalid victory monuments. Many of these statues are in any case Roman copies rather than Greek originals. Nor is it clear in what combinations or tableaux the statues were originally presented. The details of these debates need not be repeated here. Rather, discussion will be focused on two or three of these statues only.

Perhaps the best-known of these works, and indeed one of the most admired Greek works of art in general, is the statue now usually called 'The Dying Gaul', though it probably can be quite convincingly equated with the work called 'The Trumpeter', attributed by Pliny in his Natural History to the sculptor Epigonos. This statue, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome in the form of a Roman copy in marble of a probably bronze original, is of a fallen Gaulish combatant, sculpted at life-size or just below life-size. He lies partially on his circular shield, discarded on the ground, supporting his upper body with his braced right arm, while his left hand holds one of his legs, perhaps on a wound. His head is bowed, whether in agony or shame is uncertain, and around his neck he wears a large torque, a common Celtic attribute. Great attention has been paid by the artist to depicting his thickened or limed hair and his moustache, again elements that identify him beyond doubt as a Celtic protagonist. He is otherwise completely naked. Also strewn on the ground are a Celtic trumpet, now broken into two, which gave the work what was perhaps its original name, and a sword and belt, though these latter items may be additions to the work made during its restoration or repair.


Excerpted from Enemies of Rome by I. M. Ferris. Copyright © 2013 I.M. Ferris. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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