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Barbarians and Sculpture’s Color Barrier in Ancient Rome

Examining the clothing and also the color that Romans used to visualize those they defined as “barbarians” gives us a clue as to how Romans differentiated themselves from their foes

The ‘Kneeling Barbarian’ sculpture from the Palatine Hill in Rome, dates to the first century CE, made of pavonazzo marble and nero antico, in the Naples National Archaeological Museum (image by Carole Raddato, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The Romans drew lines between themselves and the “other,” between “barbarous” and “civilized” with words, customs, and clothing. They also used color. Color was an important means of defining and depicting what was foreign. The use of colored marbles and of brightly painted patterns in Roman art were common orientalizing techniques that told the viewer when they were looking at a statue of a barbarian or a painting of an easterner. Variegated marbles — stones with particolored veins and naturally mottled patterns—contributed to the fictive creation of an East that lived only in the imagination of Romans, most of whom only ever experienced those lands through the prism of art.

The clothing we wear, and imagine others wearing, is an important way we signal who we are, and aren’t. When Romans wanted to depict other non-Roman peoples, whether on statues, reliefs, mosaics, or frescoes, they often used clothing as a way to visually signal differences between them. For example, Romans typically depicted barbarians clothed in trousers. Although we take them for granted today, pants were once highly controversial indicators of the difference between the barbarian and the Roman citizen. The pant was not necessary for the sedentary senator who functioned well in a toga. But, pants were essential to the life of citizens occupied with riding and archery. In the later empire, pants were banned from being worn in the city of Rome as a means of trying to halt the barbarous fashion staple and forefront the Roman toga. All the while, some non-Roman people continued wearing pants in order to display their cultural differences with Rome.

At Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, where a Roman garrison was stationed in the second and third centuries CE, paintings from cult buildings in the city show Roman soldiers in military garb, while local town residents are depicted in traditional clothing, including tunics and trousers. At the mithraeum, the outer wall of the cultic niche has prominent depictions of individuals in local Parthian dress—trousers topped by a tunic—and a ‘Phrygian’ cap, associated with the followers of Mithras, and easterners more generally. These two individuals may have been prominent local members of the congregation, perhaps patrons, or may have been ‘prophets’ associated with the cult.

Front seated figure from the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos wearing a Phrygian cap (image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and is in the public domain)

In the Temple of Bel, many panels depict the local Durenes in their regional garb. There is, interestingly, a scene depicting the sacrifice of Julius Terentius. The event is identified by a Latin inscription in the painting, which names the subjects. It shows the commander and other members of the Roman garrison offering a sacrifice to both the Roman military gods and the local Fortunes of Dura and Palmyra. The soldiers and military gods are depicted in traditional Roman military garb including a tunic and chlamys, or short cloak. The local goddesses are dressed, by contrast, in eastern Greek garb (called a chiton and himation).

Julius Terentius Performing a Sacrifice, paint on plaster, from Dura-Europos and dating to the third century CE (image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and is in the public domain)

It is key to remember that polychromy—simply the use of multiple colors in artwork—is not limited to paint alone. Although sculptors applied variously colored hues, attached metal accents in bronze, and added bone or glass inlay to marble, all providing colorful notes, the marble itself could be a pivotal source of polychromy. As a small statue on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reminds us, naturally occurring multicolored marbles from all over the Mediterranean were often used by Roman sculptors to give statues patterns and color. The use of such multicolored marbles could lend life-like animation to the statues in ways that go far beyond painted techniques. This small statuette is one of many in which Roman sculptors not only carved non-Roman clothing but selected colored polychrome marbles in order to accentuate the difference between Romans and non-Romans.

Roman depiction of a barbarian in a tunic and pants dating to the first century CE with variegated marble from the island of Skyros now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (image taken by Sean Burrus and Sarah Bond for Hyperallergic)

The early Roman imperial geographer, Strabo, noted a number of variegated marbles in his Geography, and applied the Greek adjective ποικίλος, meaning a many-colored object. The word could be applied to many-colored textiles, metals, and even spotted cows. One of the most popular polychrome marbles was pavonazzo, a white marble with purplish-red veins running through it. Pavonazzo was quarried in antiquity from what is modern day Turkey. Although Romans favored the marble’s use in columns and flooring, they also used it as representative of “the East” more broadly. Other colored marbles used included green breccia marble and red porphyry, both from Egypt. All of these colored marbles have in common the fact that they were quarried outside the imperial center.

The “Captive Barbarians” from the second century CE(?), red porphyry and white marble, from Rome, now at the Louvre Museum (image by Carole Raddato under a CC-BY-SA-2.0)

To understand the shift in the use of marble, we must also understand Rome’s expansion. Throughout the first and second centuries, Rome’s borders expanded ever eastward, mostly through military campaigns and conquest. Making Roman citizens increasingly aware of ‘others’ at the borders of their empire, and also, within it. Precisely which peoples were considered ‘others’ depended, to some degree, on the political climate of the moment and the current military campaigns. In the Flavian dynasty (69 – 96 CE), the Roman Empire undertook campaigns in Judaea, Britain, and Dacia (modern Romania). The success of the Judaean campaign, for example, is depicted on the Arch of Titus and on ‘Judaea capta’ coins minted to commemorate the victory.

A silver Denarius of Vespasian that reads“Judaea Capta” (Judaea conquered) alongside a conquered Judaean placed next to a victory trophy on the reverse, Rome, struck circa December 21, 69-early 70 CE (image via the Classical Numismatic Group, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

During the emperor Trajan’s reign (98-117 CE), several campaigns against the Dacians (in modern Romania) and the Parthians (roughly modern Iran) were waged. The Dacians in particular became an important ‘other’ in the imagination of imperial Rome and exemplified the strength of Rome’s empire. From the mid-second century CE on, conflict with the Parthians was a particularly prominent feature of Roman politics and art. At this time, areas formerly under Parthian control (like the caravan town of Dura Europos) fell to the Romans. Imperial art often depicted these newly conquered ‘others’ in politicized and fetishized ways.

Statue of a conquered barbarian, likely a Dacian. He is wearing a Phrygian cap. The statue dates to the second century CE, perhaps during the reign of Trajan, and it may come from Forum of Trajan in Rome. It is made of green breccia marble from Egypt and is now at the Louvre Museum in Paris (image by Carole Raddato, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Paint and colored marbles could both breath life and movement into a piece, and communicate messages to the Roman viewer. These ‘barbarian’ statues are a reminder of the human impulse to measure ourselves against what we see depicted in art. During the Roman imperial period, many used multicolored marble to indicate ethnicity, status, and wealth. In the city of Rome, such statues were part of monuments that invited citizens to celebrate (and visitors to witness) the power and reach of the empire.

In 1986, Rolf Michael Schneider illustrated this point in a seminal study on the Roman use of colored marble to represent barbarians with his book, Bunte Barbaren: Orientalenstatuen aus farbigem Marmor in der römischen Repräsentationskunst.  As Schneider demonstrates, marble could and did transmit imperialistic messages. Romans from the wealthy elites, or members of the imperial family, who had paid for such statues, allowed for a story to be told that distinguished the average Roman citizens who viewed them, as the civilized alternative to the multicolored barbarian being gawked at. Outside of the historical context, in museum galleries today, the overtly political nature of these material choice and their role in creating an image of the citizen in contract to the barbarian is easily missed.

Non-Roman clothing and colors were frequently combined with specific gestures that displayed the inferiority of the Eastern other, most often by showing them in the guise of a captive. On a small statuette from the MFA, for instance, our pavonazzo barbarian is shown with arms crossed. Though the hands are missing, they would likely have been chained (possibly with added metalwork) to indicate his status as a prisoner of Rome. The statue of a conquered Dacian in green breccia, now in the Louvre (above), combines bound hands with a seated pose and posture indicating submission.

Most evocative are sculptures of pavonazzo marble that show barbarians kneeling on one knee in an act of capitulation. Adding insult to injury, their shoulders support a platform, and indicate that they were part of a larger sculptural program or monument. One such sculpture from Rome and now in Naples was probably from the Forum of Trajan and commemorated his military campaigns in the East. These statues render life-size themes of submission and vanquished ‘others’ that were also popular on coins and imperial monuments of the time. As Rome’s borders expanded through war, color accentuated the barbarian, and highlighted their conquest.

Statue of a kneeling barbarian originally part of a monument celebrating Roman victory and subjugation from the late first century BCE, now at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen (image by Wolfgang Sauber under a CC BY-SA-3.0)

Taken together, the clothes, gestures, and color of a sculpture–whether painted or effected by naturally colored marble–were important ways in which difference was depicted by artisans and sculptors across the ancient Mediterranean. In certain hands, these aspects could be combined to depict a subject as being inherently non-Roman, and by extension, inferior. During the Roman empire, sculptors in Rome combined a variety of colored marbles together with clothing and gestures in order to emphasize the foreignness of the conquered barbarian and other non-Romans. Outside the center, such as at Dura, with a local audience in mind, the same clothes, gestures, and colors could be used to accentuate and celebrate local differences from imperial Roman culture. These color-coded objects helped map an impression and concept of the East in the minds of those at the imperial center. Yet they were read differently depending on the perspective of who you were, where you were from, and what you valued.

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