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Rome's Metaphoric Others: Barbarians and Amazons

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Images of barbarians were created to support a narrative of Roman superiority, and to justify military aggression as a defense of civilization itself. Though the Romans conquered real people, the portrayal of them as barbaric was self-serving and distorted. Amazons, which most Romans understood to be fictional, were employed in a similar way to suggest that, without the manly order of the empire, chaos and disorder would abound. This post refers back to a previous one on the Ludovisi battle sarcophagus.

The Portonaccio Sarcophagus

This sarcophagus dates to a few decades before the Ludovisi sarcophagus, but operates along similar themes. We have the chaos of battle, with a Roman cavalry combatting a Gaulish enemy. The decedent may have been a member of the Roman army, but he could also have been a prominent politician. The battle on the sarcophagus is not a particular historical one, but instead an allusion to the colonizing project of Ancient Rome: invading lands and making them client-states who funneled raw materials and taxes into the empire's governing structure. Roman leadership framed this project as civilizing "barbarians." In this narrative, Rome is the hero for taming people whose cultures they felt were barely deserving of the term, and ultimately their invasion does the defeated the favor of teaching them how to become Romans. An important part of this narrative was convincing Roman citizens that barbarian communities were an active threat to the Empire, and to true civilization itself.

So, this sarcophagus represents the descedent as an agent for the good in march of progress and the protection of their culture.

The Power of Rome

The sarcophagus contains battle scenes and defeated barbarians, like the Ludovisi, but seems especially concerned with representing barbarians as families—not only defeated warriors, but old men, women, and children mourning their conquering. The idea here is more than just the decedent's courage in battle (actual or metaphoric), but also how empire is built. Rome must destroy the identity of the barbarians to make them new subjects of the empire. Here we see an older man and woman, perhaps rulers, held captive beneath the tropaion which has the shields and helmet of their dead warriors.

Triumph of "Civilization"

This tropaion is unlike the one in the Ludovisi, which featured Roman armor, perhaps noting the fallen and acknowledging their sacrifice. This one gives great detail to the Goths cultural markers—perhaps heroic figures in the shield on the left, and Perhaps their sun god on the right-hand shield. The tropaion is like a ghost of their defeated glory, offered up to the Roman god of war.

The right side echoes the left, with another barbarian couple, vanquished, under the victory effigy made of shields and weapons of their fallen men.The older man’s helmet is on the ground. His wife’s hands are tied. They are a defeated enemy.

Resistance is Futile

In the upper register of the sarcophagus, we find this theme yet again. This time, under the tropaion, a woman cowers with her child. The iconography in such scenes follows this logic: if the empire kills or enslaves the men, and then controls or enslaves the women and children, too, then that culture is wiped out: the will be Romanized. The older figures represent the past, the woman the present, and her child the future. All have been captured by the empire. This is empire as cultural genocide. The message is that these people are to be either destroyed (if they resist) or transformed into new citizens. But, to be a citizen, they have to be broken from their previous identity, and work out of their enslavement. And, it worked. To this day, we remember the empire as glorious, with these people as either erased or made Roman.

The Dying Gaul

By way of contrast, here is a representation of the barbarian, which, while still othering, wants to assert that the Gauls were worthy opponents, and thus defeating them was very impressive. “The Dying Gaul” is a Roman copy of a bronze original from 4th Century BCE. It predates the Ludovisi Sarcophagus by about 200 years. While some Celts (Gauls) were noted by Roman historians to have fought nude, it was described as an indicator of their foolish primitivism. However, the eastern-empire location of the artist suggests that, in the East, the Ancient Greek ideal of heroic nudity was still remembered. The nudity in this statue reveals the strength of the enemy, not his weakness.

The free-standing statue referred to as “The Dying Gaul” was made in the eastern area of the Roman Empire. It is life-size, and the speculation is that it was part of a set of statues meant to awe the audience regarding the mighty enemies the emperor had conquered. As such, he is depicted as a mighty opponent, resisting defeat to the end. His ethnic markers (the greased hair and the torc) are not cast as signs of his sub-humanity, as they seem to be in the Ludovisi and Portonaccio sarcophagi.

Trajan's Column

Trajan’s Column, pre-dating the Ludovisi sarcophagus by about 200 years, Depicted a specific battle, where his army defeated the Dacians (in modern Austria). It’s like a film strip—the narrative winds around the column to a height of 115 ft. It gives real details of building fortifications, breaching and burning the city (as seen here, entering the walls), and capturing the Dacians for slavery. Also seen here, in the upper-right, are the Dacians are tied up and held on a parade platform, to showcase their humiliation.

This portion of the column shows both the crossing of the Danube in ships, and (below) the Roman use of shields to scale the walls of the Dacian town.

This appears to be the Romans (left) mounting a pile of Dacian bodies to be burned in front of what I think is a statue/idol/spirit of the Dacian gods. This would be done to demoralize the Dacians, showing their gods were powerless to protect them.

In this section of the column, A Dacian is on a rooftop (left), beseeching his god, while Romans are taking women and children (lower-left) into slavery. The men on the platform are prisoners to be taken back to Rome for humiliation in a victory parade.

This column would stand in Rome as a lasting victory monument to the greatness of the emperor, his military, and the Roman people.

Mr. and Mrs. Dying Gaul, or the Galatian Suicide

Similar to “the Dying Gaul” statue above is this one, called either the “Ludovisi Gaul” (it’s in the same Museum room as the Sarcophagus) or “The Galatian Suicide.” It's roughly contemporary to the Ludovisi and Portonaccio sarcophagi.

Like the Dying Gaul, it’s a Roman copy of an eastern original made about 400 years earlier. It has the same heroic nudity. In this case, the Gaul has just killed his wife and is plunging a dagger into his heart. In his backward gaze, we’re to interpret that the Roman army is closing in, and he is saving them both from shame and slavery.

Here, the dominant audience can feel powerful, having conquered a foe so determined to be free that he’d annihilate his family and himself, rather than be enslaved. This is an Other which, in this case, has an heroic stance which the Romans would admire, but still conquer.

It is worth noting here that Romans frequently recruited conquered enemies into their armies, with the promise that if they helped either maintain their local control of the area, or helped fight other tribes, they could attain citizenship and a pension after twenty-plus years' service. This is to say that the Romans wanted to incorporate strong people more than execute them, but would definitely break the rebellious. The Ludovisi and Portonaccio sarcophagi speak to an insecurity about the need to utterly stamp out that Other.


A few decades after Trajan’s Column, this Roman sarcophagus depicts an Amazonomachy. The idea is similar to the gigantomachy of the Altar of Pergamon (much earlier), and to the theme of the defeat of barbarians in the Ludovisi Sarcophagus: there is an appropriate social order, others threaten it, and the decedent positions himself as supporting the righting of the world.

In this closeup, you see similar tropes in representing how subalterns must be defeated. The heroic Greek soldier pulls the Amazon from her horse. Other Amazons are trampled to death (like the barbarians in the Ludovisi). On the left, an Amazon holds up a tropaion of armor of Greeks who have been killed. The sarcophagus is Roman, but it is depicting a scene that could have come out of the poetry of Ancient Greece. In this sense, the disorder of society is rendered as an idea or cultural value, rather than as an historical record of the decedent.

On the other side of the sarcophagus, we see Amazons attacking, and looking more victorious in the lower register. The female warriors use a double-axe, called a “labrys.” This would have been regarded as a less “civilized” weapon than a Greek or Roman sword or spear. In the upper-register, the Amazons are shown soundly defeated, in the captive position, with their weapons and shields strewn around them.

Romans had great variety in their burial monuments, and many weren't political in tone, as these sarcophagi were. In my next post, I'll cover some of those.


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