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
Sarah E. Bond
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)…………………
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……………