Art in Roman Britain


Distinctly Celtic artwork

Two silver plaques dedicated to the local God Cocidius were found in the strong room in the HQ building of Bewcastle fort on Hadrian's Wall.

  • The art style is crude, suggesting a Celtic creator.
  • The God appears on both with weapons, leading us to believe he is a war God.
  • Both are inscribed with some form of 'Deo Cocidio'.

A relief sculpture of three hooded spirits known as the genii cucullati has been found in Netherby, Cumbria.

  • There is very little detail to these figures, and we don't know anything about them.
  • They are particularly prevalent in the Cotswold area and around Hadrian's Wall, and they usually appear in threes (occasionally fours).
  • They are all holding an egg in their right hand, which is symbolic of life and immortality, but in some depictions they have weapons, so we are unaware of their role.
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Distinctly Classical artwork

The limestone head of Mercury was found at the site of a Romano-Celtic temple in Uley, Gloucestershire.

  • The craftsmanship is particularly impressive and is very similar to the work of Praxiteles, in particular the marble statue of Hermes in Olympia, Greece, so the sculptor is believed to have been well-acquainted with classical art.
  • It is made of limestone and is just one of several representations of Gods found in the Gloucestershire/Cirencester area of the Cotswolds.

The distance slab from old Kilpatrick on the Clyde marked the Western termination of the Antonine Wall, which was erected by Emperor Antoninus Pius.

  • Whenever a legion finished building their section of the Wall they put up an inscription such as this one recording the exact distance that they had constructed.
  • The central figure is the Goddess Victory, reclining with one elbow resting on a globe and holding a palm branch in her hand.
  • In the other hand she holds a large wreath containing part of the distance inscription. She is portrayed within a detailed, temple-like structure.
  • There is also a wild boar in the centre of the panel, the symbol of Legio ** Valeria Victrix.
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Romano-Celtic fusion pieces

A silver gilt pepperpot from the Hoxne treasure found in Suffolk appears to be of a late Roman Empress

  • She is wearing a necklace and her hair is beautifully arranged, her dress is also very detailed.
  • The face has a long, thin nose, circular eyes with drilled pupils, and a downturned mouth.
  • It may depict no particular Empress, or it may depict the Empress Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother.

The male head from Northgate Street, Gloucester is made of limestone

  • The sculpture has bulging eyes, a mouth with no lips, and a long, pointed nose.
  • The face has been compared to that depicted on the Aylesford Bucket found in Kent, which contained cremated human bones and dated from 75-25 BC.
  • The hair is in Roman style, and has been compared to that of Claudius on the bronze head found in a river in Suffolk.
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Romano-Celtic fusion pieces 2

A female head was found in Towchester in Northamptonshire

  • She has Celtic features, such as bulging eyes and drilled pupils, a long thin nose and a downturned mouth.
  • The hair is in classical style, tied up on the head with a band. 
  • The head was likely part of a monument, comparable to several heads found in Gaul associated with tombs. As a result, it has been suggested that she was an underworld Goddess.

The head of the God Antenociticus was found at the site of his temple in Benwell, Newcastle, along with three altars dedicated to him

  • The sculptor was likely a Celt who had been trained in classical sculpture.
  • The bulging eyes are diamond-shaped and have drilled pupils, his hair is a mop and there are marks on the neck indicating that a torc was once there. 
  • This was a full-sized statue, and depicting the Gods in this way within their own temple was a classical practice.
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Romano-Celtic fusion pieces 3

The male gorgon is from the pediment of the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath

  • This is the only known depiction of a male gorgon anywhere in the world.
  • He has a head of snakes, and wings behind his huge ears.
  • He has a long nose and eyes with drilled pupils, a downturned mouth and a moustache.
  • The sculptor was well acquainted with both Celtic and classical art, and may have been a British Celt or a Gallic immigrant.
  • The face is of a river God with gorgon-like attributes.

The relief sculpture of Venus and nymph attendants is from High Rochester

  • Venus has ropy hair and a pear-shaped body, and is reminiscent of the Rudston Venus mosaic.
  • Venus is kneeling and the nymphs are holding a jug and what might be a towel.
  • The figures have little detail and downturned mouths.
  • The sculpture is surrounded by a columned arch.
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Romano-Celtic fusion pieces 4

A pot from York is believed to portray the Empress Julia Domna

  • Julia Domna was the wife of the Emperor Septimius Severus who died at York in 211.
  • The York head pots were probably the work of just one potter who is admired for his complex treatment of hairstyles.
  • The pot has bulging, diamond-shaped eyes with drilled pupils and a long, thin nose.

Appliqué moulds of two Gods were found at Corbridge, in South East England

  • One of the moulds shows a Celtic God, possibly Tanaris, with a wheel alongside him. 
  • The other is a Celtic blacksmith version of the Roman God Vulcan. Smithing was a secretive business for the Celts, and each tight group of smiths would have their a God who was particularly sacred to them. It was easier for them to depict Vulcan than to show their own secret God.
  • Both moulds were probably made by the same craftsman.
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The mosaic of Winter in the dining room of Chedworth Roman Villa is a very Celtic figure.

  • Winter carries a dead hare in one hand and a leafless branch in the other. 
  • Two branches with leaves fill in the corners of the triangle.
  • He wears thick boots, a tunic, over-tunic, and birrus britannicus.

Mosaics depicting Bellerophon slaying the chimaera

  • The figure of Bellerophon in the mosaic at the Hinton St Mary villa in Dorset is damaged, but he rides Pegasus and spears the chimaera beneath him. A red cloak billows from his shoulders.
  • The image of the chimaera was not a popular choice for artwork in the Empire in general, but seems to have been particularly popular in Britain.
  • Bellerophon appears again in a mosaic at Lullingstone villa, slaying the chimaera whilst riding Pegasus. This mosaic is framed by a diamond shape, and also has the four seasons at its corners.
  • The depiction of Winter at Lullingstone also wears a birrus britannicus.
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Mosaics 2

The Hinton St Mary villa has a lot of Christian imagery, including a suspected mosaic of Jesus

  • The mosaic shows a male figure with a chi-ro behind his head, and with a pomegranate at either side, with the pomegranates being thought to symbolise Christ's victory over death.
  • The figure could be Jesus, or it could be Emperor Constantine.
  • In the four corners of the same room, framed by either pomegranates or rosettes is a bust depicted in mosaic of four male figures, which may be the four Evangelists.

The Venus mosaic from the Rudston villa is very Celtic in style

  • Venus is pear-shaped with long, ropy hair and claw-like hands. She holds an apple and a mirror, and is almost identical to the Venus on the relief at High Rochester.
  • Appearing in the same mosaic as Venus but much smaller than her is a merman holding a torch.
  • Surrounding the Venus mosaic are depictions of animals such as a bull (with the inscription 'TAVRVS OMICIDA' - 'the man-killing bull), and a lion which has been speared, and a bust of Mercury.
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The tombstone (stele) of Aurelia Aureliana from Carlisle is from the mid 3rd century AD, which we know from her hairstyle

  • There is little detail, which suggests the work of a local Celtic craftsman, but the image of Aurelia is surrounded by a columned arch.
  • She is wearing a long-sleeved Gallic coat, which suggests it may have been a ready-made tombstone for men or women, because the length of the coat is shorter than what women would have worn.
  • She holds a bunch of poppies, symbolising eternal sleep.

The tombstone of Regina, wife of Barates was found at the fort of Arbeia in South Shields

  • Regina was from the Catuvellauni tribe in South East England, and had been a slave. Barates was from Palmyra and freed her and married her. 
  • Uniquely in Britain, this expensive stele has an inscription in the husband's native tongue Aramaic beneath the Latin inscription reading 'Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas'.
  • She is depicted seated in a columned arch, with a jewel casket on her right and a workbasket full of wool on her left.
  • If the sculptor was from Palmyra it would explain the grammatical error in the Latin script which places 'Regina' in the ablative case and not the dative.
  • Barates own tombstone was found in Corbridge - a simple, inscripted slab.
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Tombstones 2

The tombstone of the Centurion Marcus Favonis Facilis from Colchester is the earliest known sculpture from Britain

  • From his title of Centurion, rather than Veteran, he appears to have died before 50 AD when Colchester became a colony.
  • When Boudicca's revolt occurred 10 or so years later, and the town was sacked, the tombstone was hurled face down to the ground, which helped preserved the tombstone, as there is little weathering on the face of the stone.
  • His features are realistic, almost a portrait, and his stance (resting on the left leg) may have been borrowed from Greek statues, particularly those of Praxiteles. 
  • The tombstone was made by an excellent Mediterranean sculptor, and may originally have been fully painted.
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Tombstones 3

The tombstone of Longinus Sdapezimaticus, a Cavalry Sergeant, was found in Colchester

  • He was a Thracian in the rank of Duplicarius. He must have died before 50 AD like Facilis, whose tombstone was in the same cemetery. This had also been thrown face-down, but is damaged, with his face and the muzzle of his horse being completely smashed away.
  • The inscription is complete. Typical of statues of Roman cavalrymen, a naked hairy tribesman is portrayed cowering beneath the horse.
  • This was made by a high class sculptor and includes a sphinx and two lions, but the Celt has Celtic features in his hair and beard, indicating the sculptor was himself a Celt, possibly Gallic.

The tombstone of Flavinus, a standard-bearer from Hexham, Northumberland

  • The detail isn't as good as the tombstone of Longinus, as the horse's legs aren't in proportion to the rest of its body.
  • A native tribesman crouches beneath the horse, with a hairy beard and grasping a sword in his right hand.
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Christian artwork

The flask from the Traprain Law treasure is of silver gilt and has four scenes from the Old and New Testaments as decorations

  • Traprain Law in Caledonia was the only hill fort in Britain to be occupied by its tribe (the Votadini) throughout the Roman period.
  • Suggested dates for the treasure are between 395 and 423 AD.
  • The first scene on the flask shows the Fall of Adam, the second the Adoration of the Magi, the third Moses striking water from the rock, and the fourth is the Betrayal of Christ by Judas.
  • The chi-ro symbol appears on a smaller flask from the hoard as well as on two of the spoons. Another spoon has the Christian fish symbol, and a small strainer has a chi-ro together with the words Jesus Christus written in holes around the edge.
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Christian artwork 2

One wall in the Christian house church above the 'deep room' at Lullingstone Villa is decorated with a large chi-ro symbol

  • The chi-ro is flanked by the letters alpha and omega, a common Christian symbol representing the beginning and the end - their view of the existence of one, true God.

On an adjacent wall, is a portrayal of six men at prayer

  • The six praying men stand between columns above a marbled dado.
  • The men had large hands, are all dressed in long robes, and are raising their arms upwards, which was a feature of Christian prayer at the time.
  • The dado is decorated with a 'fried egg' finish, which is common with wall paintings.
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Verulamium paintings

The floral wall painting from Verulamium has a yellow background, and four spirals survive from the original scroll which would have wound its way around the room.

  • The spirals are green and blue leafy scrolls and in the centre of each spiral sits a bird or the head of a panther.
  • As the scroll travels upwards it forms a letter Y, in the forks of which there is a floral decoration.

Immediately below that painting was a section of the main wall plaster.

  • This part of the wall has three surviving red panels which are surrounded by black intervals.
  • The panels are square with yellow candelabras and flowers.
  • Green birds stand on perches in the centre of each panel.

A ceiling from Verulamium has survived, with a purple-red background.

  • In this section alone there are sixteen small squares, each with a bird at the centre except for two which have a panther's head.
  • A copy book will have been used by probably a local Celtic craftsman to carry out this work.
  • This is all in the second and fourth styles, and could have come straight from a house in Italy
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The supply of Samian pottery from Gaul to Britain dwindled out in the second century, and it is not clear why this happened.

  • By this time a pottery producing Samian (terra sigillata) had opened up in Colchester, however production seems to have extended not far into the third century.
  • The potters themselves probably came from Gaul originally, employing local Celtic tribesmen to assist in the workshops.

A moulded gladiator beaker was discovered in a Roman grave at West Lodge in Colchester.

  • It dates from around 175 AD and was probably made in Colchester.
  • Four gladiators can be seen on the base.
  • Above them are inscribed the names Secundus, Mario, Memnon and Valentinus.
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Head of Minerva

The gilt bronze head of the cult statue of Minerva from the temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath is entirely classical in style.

  • It dates from the late first to the early second century AD.
  • It is all that survives of a larger sculputer, but had been wrenched off from the body in ancient times.
  • The head would have been wearing a tall, Corinthian helmet, but this too is gone.
  • The quality of the workmanship implies that the head was cast in Gaul.
  • This head has been compared to the head of the Emperor Claudius in the river Alde in Suffolk, and the head of Emperor Hadrian found in the Thames - they too had been hacked from the bodies of the statues.
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