Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1994: Insignificant Others: Images of Barbarians on Military Art from Roman Britain (pp. 24–31)
Insignificant Others; images of barbarians on military art from Roman Britain
by lain Ferris
From Roman Britain come two distinct groups of commemorative stones portraying soldiers of
the Roman army in conflict with, or in association with, barbarians. These groups comprise a
well-defined series of auxiliary cavalry tombstones of the First and Second centuries, and
certain of the so-called legionary distance slabs from the Antonine Wall.
Both sets of stones are most usually discussed in terms of their epigraphic content and
significance or, in the case of the auxiliary tombstones, of their often accurate depiction of
military equipment and accoutrements. The central themes portrayed on all these stones are
linked to Ideas of conflict. conqllest and commemoration.
This paper, however, will suggest that other parallel and equally valid readings can be
made through the application of different frameworks of analysis, centred mainly on
considerations of gender.
As has been noted by Anderson in his brief survey ‘Roman Military Tombstones’ very little
synthetic discussion of tombstones, either military or civilian, has been published in English
(1984: 38) and indeed, apart from Anderson’s own study, the only works that consider aspects
of the military stones are Mackintosh’s paper on the sources of the horseman and fallen enemy
motif(Makintosh 1986) and, to a lesser extent, Bishop and Coulston’s (1993) Roman Military
Anderson identifies four main types of Roman military tombstone, one of which he terms
‘Rider Reliefs’, though these are more often known by the German designation of ‘Reitertyp’ ,
these showing mounted auxiliary cavalrymen either portrayed on their own or in action against
a barbarian enemy, either with or without the additional presence of a servant in the
background. No example of the servant type is known from Roman Britain, and indeed from
here portrayals of the lone cavalryman are also relatively rare.
The cavalryman and barbarian foe stones from Roman Britain differ little either in the
basic composition of the scene or in the way that the relationship between the two protagonists
is portrayed. The cavalryman rides down or tramples the barbarian, generally lying either
prostrate and facing the rider or in a protective huddle under the horse’s hooves, or the
cavalryman is caugllt in the action of spearing the prostrate enemy. In one instance, 011 a
fragmentary stone from Halton Chesters, the barbarian is shown trying to pull out the shaft of a
spear lodged in his chest. Only a single male barbarian is ever portrayed, and he is always
depicted as armed or with his arms dropped to one side.
On another stone, probably from Corbridge but now in Hexham Abbey, the barbarian is
being ridden down by the standard-bearer Flavinus. In discussing this particular scene Phillips
noted that the barbarian lay with his back to the cavalryman and that this indicated that ‘ he has
tried to escape by cowardly flight, but has fallen down and is suffering an ignominious death .
The stele is one of a few which depicts barbarians in humiliating postures. Usually the R01l1ans fnsir;m/icant Others, imar;es o/barbarians on military art/rom Roman Britain 25
showed more respect for their savage foes’ (Phillips 1977: 27). It could be argued that this
scene is in fact little different from the others and that it simply represents a variation on a
Phillips’ detection of cowardice and humiliation in the portrayal of the barbarian is very
debatable. This is a scene of combat and to depict the enemy as an unworthy and
cowardly opponent would devalue the achievement of the auxiliary soldier. The stone is meant
as a celebration of a soldier’s skill and career and not as a lament for his passive participation
in battles whose outcomes were predetermined and against enemies whose inherent cowardice
guaranteed virtually uncontested victory As will be demonstrated later, there would also appear
to be no evidence to show that Phillips is correct in his assertion that the Romans in art
‘showed … respect for their savage quite the opposite, in fact. This assertion would seem
to be underpinned almost by a nostalgia for a better and more moral past in which Gauls, Celts
and barbarians did, in fact, die with dignity,
There is the potential for misrepresenting the cultural significance of this group of
tombstones by referring to them as Roman military tombstones, when more properly they are
auxiliary and thus non-Roman. It is generally accepted that the origins of this tombstone type lie
in the Rhineland where it first appeared in the first half of the First Century Later examples, of
the Third Century, are known from the Danubian region and from memorials of the Equites
Singulares Augusti in Rome (Coulston 1987: Bishop & Coulston 1993 26).
There is no direct Roman or Italian prototype for the horseman tombstone, and while
Toynbee and, following her, Anderson have noted the possibility that the Hellenic stele of
Dexileos, who was killed in the battle of Corinth in 394 BC, could be a forenmner, they note
that this seems unlikely. Mackintosh has demonstrated that there are sources for the horseman
and fallen enemy motif lying ‘ultimately [in] archaic and classical Greece, [and] more
immediately in Hellenistic and late Etmscan art’ (Mackintosh 1986: I).
However, a Thracian origin seems more likely, perhaps somehow connected to a local
rider-god cull, and a tombstone dating to the First Century Be, from Abdera in southern
Thrace, depicts a horseman and his servant, though no defeated enemy or scene of combat is
here present. Toynbee also suggested that possible influences could have come from ‘the figures
of mounted and charging huntsmen on Roman and Italian tomb-monuments or by mounted and
charging warriors in large-scale early-imperial battle-scenes’ (Toynbee 1962: 158). Certainly,
two of the British examples of auxiliary tombstones betray a knowledge of classical funerary
both the memorials to Rufus Sita at Gloucester and that to Longinus at Colchester
are topped by pairs of guardian lions and sphinxes
The second group of images to be discussed as the central theme of this paper comprises
the four, out of twenty, Antonine Wall legionary-dedicated distance slabs on which barbarians
The first slab is from Bridgeness, West Lothian and consists of a central inscription
flanked by two sculptured scenes, one of which portrays a cavalryman and four barbarians. The
mounted soldier rides at a gallop with his spear raised, while in the foreground of the scene,
and obviously not intended as the victims of this one man’s charge, are the barbarian men, one
seemingly ridden down by the horseman, a second falling with a broken-off spear shaft in his
back, a third seated and bound and beheaded, his severed head on the ground next to him, and
the fourth seated and staring away from the scene of battle and towards the viewer. The pose of
this fourth man has been described by Keppie as being’ resigned and contemplative’ (Keppie
1979 9) and as ‘stunned by the onslaughL or resigned to Ilis fate. cradling his head in his
hands’ (Keppie & Arnold 1984 28) 26 lain Ferris
The second slab, from Hag Knowe, Dumbartonshire survives only in part, the surviving
fragment showing a kneeling and bound male barbarian captive.
On the third slab, from Summerston Farm, Lanarkshire in one sculptured scene a winged
Victory is shown crowning a cavalryman who, with spear raised, is about to ride down two
male barbarians, both of whom are seated and with their hands bound behind their backs. In the
other scene another bound captive sits beneath the emblems of the victorious army.
The fourth and final slab, from Hutcheson Hill, Bearsden, portrays two kneeling and
trussed male barbarian captives looking towards and flanking a central scene which shows a
representative of the army receiving thanks from a female deity.
There is no sense on any of these slabs of a poised struggle or of a victory having been
achieved by individual skill and resourcefulness, as might be construed from a reading of the
auxiliary cavalry tombstones, nor does there appear to be any magnanimity displayed towards
the enemy in defeat nor any residual respect for the humanity or individuality of the foe.
On all four slabs barbarians appear as bound captives, while on the Bridgeness stone one of
these captives is shown as having been subsequently beheaded. It must be asked, given the
significance of the cult of the head in Celtic society, if this particular portrayal was not intended
to be deliberately and especially provocative. Certainly, on the Antonine distance slabs there
would appear to be little evidence of Phillips’ assertion that the Romans usually displayed a
marked and decent respect for their foes.
But, perhaps, these military images, while obviously first and foremost images of victory
and triumph, cannot be understood in isolation. To tender further interpretation of these images
of barbarians some consideration needs to be given to what is not that is, female
barbarians, whose portrayal is entirely absent from the art of Roman Britain.
However, from Aphrodisias, in south-west Turkey, comes a relief that portrays Claudius
and Britannia, according to its accompanying inscription (Erim Smith 1987). This is,
however, just one of a series of sculptures from a large temple complex ‘dedicated to Aphrodite
and the lulio-Claudian emperors’ (Smith 1987: 88) For instance, another panel, found nearby,
shows Nero seizing a woman symbolising Armenia. Discussion of the Claudius and Britannia
panel on its own, out of its complex iconographic context and its eastern cultural milieu, must
be tentative. The scene may though be particularly valid to the present study in that it can be
read as an almost unique view of Roman imperialism from outside the core and structure of that
The emperor Claudius, perhaps not surprisingly, dominates the relief scene under
consideration and is shown, according to Erim, ‘in heroic nudity’ towering over Britannia. The
scene is generally described by him in this art-historical manner, from which I will choose to
depart in my own reading. With one hand Claudius grasps or pulls on Britannia’s hair. He
pulls her head up in this manner seemingly to deliver a blow to her head, thougll Claudius’
right forearm is now missing and so his original stance and attitude cannot be satisfactorily
reconstructed. One of his legs is hidden by Britannia’s body, though his stance suggests that he
could be bracing her body against it and driving it into the small of her back. With his other leg
he is kneeling on her thigh in an attempt to hold her lower body down.
Britannia, who according to Erim is here represented as an Amazon, though Smith does
not follow this interpretation, lies partially sprawled on the ground, overwhelmed by the
ferocity of the attack upon her but still trying to force Claudius away with her raised rigllt ann.
Her right breast is exposed. Erim noted what he saw as the contrast between ‘the decided, insignificant Others: images o/barbarians on military art ;rom Roman Britain 27
almost cruel expression of Claudius’ and Britannia’s look of ‘pain and anguish’ (Erim 1982:
280), but he offered little more analysis of the scene.
It would seem that in the published accounts there is a certain discomfort with the nature of
the subject matter. I would suggest that no matter how many layers of allegorical meaning are
assigned to this scene, once they are stripped away there remains a profoundly disturbing event
caught in stasis.
A woman’s bared breast can be used to suggest a lack of constraint, of unfettered wildness,
ofotherness, as Marina Warner has pointed out (Warner 1985: 280-281), and perhaps such a
state outside the framework of Roman society was itself seen as a considerable threat. The
‘imaginary overlap between sexual difference and non-humanity’ (Warner 1985: 281) gives
rise to the ambiguity of women’s positions as perceived polluters or perceived nurturers, and
this ambiguity can also be reflected in the image of the bared breast, at once comforting and yet
at the same time potentially threatening in its depiction of otherness.
The basic theme of the Aphrodisias relief is Roman male violence towards a barbarian
woman. The nudity of the Emperor is here, amongst the full range of sculptures at Aphrodisias,
not out of place nor is the medium for the message anything but part of a local artistic style.
However, given the actuality of the event being portrayed, the nudity now becomes anything
other than ‘heroic’, the adjective used by Erim to describe Claudius’ state of undress. The
woman’s perceived threatening otherness at this moment is stressed by her bared breast, rather
than it being merely a conventional way to portray an Amazon. The man’s nakedness may be in
preparation for what is to come next. The hair pulling, the pinioning with the knee, and the
blow about to be struck all suggest that the woman may be about to be raped. Even without the
certainty of this perhaps pending act the relief already shows a scene of sexual assault and of
Similar representations of brutalisation are not common in Roman art, as Natalie Boymel
Kampen has pointed out (Kampen 1991: 245 n. 5). She also noted that the barbarian woman
and woman captive is the most common mortal woman on Roman historical reliefs and that her
portrayal must therefore be seen as having been of some particular significance in terms of both
political and gender ideology.
A scene on the Gemma Augustea, in the bottom register of the design and below that
portraying the imperial triumph, shows barbarian captives, one of whom, a woman, is being
pulled or dragged by the hair by a ROlllan soldier.
On the Colullln of Marcus Aurelius, amidst numerous scenes of battle, slaughter and
retribution , a number of examples of violence directed against women can also be isolated. For
instance, during the destruction of a native village a soldier pursues a fleeing woman who drags
a child along behind her She is in evident terror and her garment has fallen away or has been
torn away to reveal her right breast. The soldier reaches out as if to grab her by the hair
All three of these scenes with the hair pulling motif, though chronologically of different
periods, could have a common explanation in that they define the lack of any perceived moral
and sexual barriers between the men of the army of conquest and the conquered barbarian
women. The whole issue of the proprietorial male and military attitude towards sex and the
display of sexual and political power is part of the overall context of imperialism as it has
sometimes been experienced by the conquered. In any situation it is true to say that relations
between men and women so often involve questions of power and oppression, something that
would inevitably be exaggerated or heightened at a time of crisis, war or upheaval, when
divisions between the public and private worlds become blurred. 28 lain Ferris
There is also a need to briefly consider the relatively few portrayals of barbarian children in
Roman art, for in these too can be read a message that could potentially throw light upon the
understanding of the adult representations.
On the Ara Pacis there appear the two so-called ‘barbarian princes’, one shown wearing a
torque to indicate that he represents a western barbarian and the other wearing a Phrygian cap
to show that he is from the east (Rose 1990). The presence of the two. along with their adoptive
Roman Imperial family, in scenes that determine to show harmony in both family and state,
seems at first consoling and comforting. Their presence, however, implies the end result of a
process of dislocation and enforced exile for these children. For their parents, their wider
family, and their tribe, their enforced absence would have constituted the denial and negation of
their reproductive future.
On the Boscoreale silver cups is found a scene in which a number of barbarian chiefs
present themselves before the Emperor Augustus in the company of their children; in fact, the
portrayal would imply that they are actually delivering their sons up to the Emperor (Rose
1990: 60). While this scene may be of a single specific historically-attested incident, Augustus’
visit to inaugurate a temple at Lugdunum in Gaul in 8BC, such surrendering of children as
hostages may have been a more regular event in conquered territories. The western barbarian
child on the Ara Pacis may in fact be one of the same youths handed over in the Lugdunum
E.S. Gruen. in the paper ‘ Augustus and the Ideology of War and Peace’ (1986), suggested
that the theme of Augustan art was not, as might be thought at first sight, peace but rather
‘Augustus … as guarantor of a world order – but one that he had acquired by force of arms and
retained through display of might and authority’ (Gruen 1986 72)
Indeed, the same notion of the incorporation of both the east and west barbarians into the
empire can be seen differently represented on the more-or-Iess contemporary statue of Augustus
from Prima Porta The emperor’ s decorated breastplate is particularly elaborate and includes
scenes such as the surrender of the captured Roman standards by the Parthians, ’emblematic of
Roman supremacy in the East’, while the figures of two dejected and submissive female
barbarians attest to the ascendancy of Roman power in the West (Gruen 1986: 61) Here the
image of the women, rather than one of barbarian men defeated in battle, is surely intended to
illustrate the comprehensiveness of the Roman victory in terms of its total alteration of the
barbarian status quo in both the public and private spheres.
The taking away of children is a symbolic act on many levels, instantly negating and
calling into question as it does the very memory of the act of giving birth to a child in the first
place. While we have no idea about the regularity of such institutionalised pedaphoric acts,
their implications for understanding attitudes towards the sexuality of the barbarians are
If the use of images of Roman women and children. of families in other words. can be
accepted as signifying ‘the whole’ and that this therefore implies ‘a happy future as well as the
benefits of romanitas to both public and private realms’. as Natalie Boymel Kampen has
suggested, then conversely, again in her words, ‘the barbarian family could be a sign for a
community in defeat’, and barbarian women could be symbolic of a reproductive sexuality that
can be affected through military and political actions. Male violence against women
circumscribes women’s social position in some situations and allows their sexuality and thus
their reproductive potential to be controlled. The barbarian women, in often being objectified in
this way, are tamed; the appropriation of the new province on the Aphrodisias sculpture is insignificant Others: images o/barbarians on military art pom Roman Britain 29
shown by the objectification of a woman, representing Britannia, as a sexualised. eroticised and
Thus it can be argued that while at first sight the two groups of sculptured stones from
Britain forming the subject of this paper portray the same theme, that is the victory of the
Roman army over barbarian foes, their messages are in fact quite different.
The auxiliary tombstones represent, by way of a culturally-defined motif that probably has
its origins outside the Roman world, a record of an individual’s life and achievements within
the military world. The scenes of combat do not portray the barbarian foes as anything other
than worthy opponents overcome by skill and guile. The cavalrymen often proudly wear and
display their armour, weapons and accoutrements, represented in such significant detail as to be
a signifier itself of pride felt in their role. This is, nevertheless, a representation of a nonRoman, a member of a tribe which was itself only recently classed as barbarian, slaying a nonRoman on Rome’s behalf While the rider motif Illay have been non-Roman in origin, its use
here has doubtless been sanctioned in that it fits well with a Roman pattern of portraying and
glorifying victories over barbarian tribes. The use of such an image could only have been
allowed on official sculpture outside the conquered province or on relatively small-scale art
within the closed and inward-looking world of the army.
The whole question of the iconography of war memorials of all periods has received little
scholarly attention. Some considerable insight is thrown on the creation of memorial imagery
in a short collection of papers produced by the Imperial War Museum to accompany an
exhibition on the works of Charles Sargeant Jagger, best known for the Royal Artillery
Memorial at Hyde Park Corner (Compton 1985) Jagger’s post-First World War memorials
have either been ignored or criticised for what many have taken as the literalness of his work.
His early attempts at symbolic themes were later abandoned for solid and often vividly accurate
portrayals of soldiers ‘ performing specific duties and equipped exactly as they would have been
at the front … [indeed] … Jagger borrowed guns and uniforms from the Imperial War Museum
to ensure accuracy’ (Compton 1985: 21) As an ex-soldier himself Jagger was aware of how his
uniform and equipment at the time completely defined his existence and how they were crucial
to his experience of the war (Glaves-Smith 1985 Curl 1985 84-85) Jagger’ s
literalness here was not the result of artistic impotence but rather a reflection of a change in
public attitude towards the war, away from the romanticised view of the soldier as being a
catalyst for reconstruction and social clJange and towards a more cynical view of the war’s
aftermath, though not one which negated admiration of the achievements, bravery and sacrifice
of the individual soldier. The soldier would be able to recognise himself in Jagger’s work and to
take pride in his individual role and achievement. It could be suggested that the same need to
see themselves in their memorials dictated the nature of the auxiliary cavalry tombstones, with
their general wealth of detailing, while the motif signalling the relationship between the soldier
and the barbarian was intended as secondary to their main purpose, though the sanction of the
army for the use of this motif may have placed principal emphasis on the importance of the
latter in terms of political ideology.
As to the images on the distance slabs, they are altogether of a different nature, showing as
they do not only scenes of combat and victory but also of the humiliation and, in one case, the
execution of barbarian prisoners. These captives are afforded no element of they have
become less than men, objectified and exposed naked in their indignity. It could be argued that
the curiously-posed barbarian at the forefront of the scene on the Bridgeness slab, the one
described by Keppie as being in a resigned and contemplative pose, is, in fact, attempting to 30 lain Fen’is
cover his nakedness and somehow, though inevitably ineffectually, to hide his shame and
vulnerability. The creation in this way of a visual narrative which objectifies the barbarian men
through the depiction of their dead, bound or mutilated bodies exiles them to a space also
occupied by objectified women. Imperial power relations are here being written on the bodies of
both men and women.
The distance slabs are very much of their time, and the scenes portrayed are reflections of
the same social and artistic trends that allowed for the even more harrowing scenes of warfare
on the Column of MarCllS Aurelius. Natalie Boymel Kampen, in her paper ‘Biographical
Narration and Roman Funerary Art’ (1981), traced the move away in this form of art from the
narrative framework towards the use of abstract representations of concepts of virtue, which
themselves became less and less relevant from the later Second Century onwards and which
were replaced by what she has called ‘a new and transcendent ideal of spiritual superiority’
(Kampen 1981 : 49) Amongst the abstract virtues were ‘virtus’, represented usually by a battle
motif. and ‘clementia’, represented by a scene of submission by a barbarian family. Changes in
attitude brought about by political crises and the perception of the breaking down of traditional
roles in society are considered by Boymel Kampen as factors in the questioning of the relevance
of the old perceptions of virtue. In art, these changes are best seen reflected in the Portonaccio
sarcophagus, usually dated to c AD 190-200, on which small scenes of what may still be called
biography are relegated to the lid and the sarcophagus itself is dominated by a complex and
harrowing battle scene, of an entirely symbolic value. Representations of the old virtues are
nowhere to be seen and in the battle it may be surmised that victory may be won at any cost and
that this is now seen as an end in itself.
Annalina Levi, in her study, ‘Barbarians on Roman Imperial Coins and Sculpture’ (1952),
discussed the trend towards the growing abasement of the position of barbarians in Roman art.
She described there the process whereby on coinage ‘the small physical size of the barbarian is
a device which emphasizes his abject position in contrast to the victorious emperor or divinity’,
and noted how from the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus onwards the barbarian
became, to all intents and purposes, simply an attribute of the emperor or of Victory (Levi
1952 27- 28).This trend could also be seen as part of the general process of dehumanisation of
The graphic depiction of the defeat and humiliation of the barbarian men was also, leaving
aside the military and political issues at stake, in many respects the end result of sexual
competition between Roman and barbarian men. The neutering of the barbarian men through
their defeat and humiliation was part of a more extended process that also involved the
mistreatment of barbarian women – something that would again allude to the impotence of the
barbarian men – and through the less well-defined but none-the-Iess attested taking away of
barbarian children, in itself an act of anti-fertility.
In conclusion, it has been argued that depictions of elements of the Roman army in conflict
with barbarians in Roman Britain are too generally accepted as being linked solely to ideas of
victory and triumph, and that contextualisation within a wider framework suggests that images
of barbarian men, women and children can have multi-layered meanings as dictated by the
political and social ideologies of the Empire. To ignore the issue of sexual power and
competition is to miss a vital avenue of research that would appear to raise uneasy questions
about the process of conquest and assimilation, and about Roman perceptions of empire. Recent
history has shown us that the objectifying process of war has a numbing effect on the
maintenance of sexual codes and our present time would not appear to have a Insignificant Others, images a/barbarians on military art jrom Roman Britain 31
monopoly on the resulting suffering brought about by the breakjng down of such vital social
I would like to thank Lynne Bevan for commenting on a first draft of this paper.
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