The reliability of provincial sculpture as evidence
Crispvs(Paul Geddes)

When I wrote my article on the carriage of weapons I had already been testing the unbelted sword baldric, as shown in sculpture, for some time. I knew the results from practical experience, but I had not tested the position of the pugio as it is seen in sculpture. As a number of serving and former soldiers in the group have pointed out to me, a large dagger sheath resting against the front of the leg would quickly become annoying when walking and the preference would be to move it to the side. This was said from the experience of wearing heavy ammunition pouches in this position.

However, this is where they are generally shown being carried on funerary stelae. This gave me cause to become more wary about the position of these pugiones shown in sculpture. It is true that there are funerary sculptures which show pugiones worn at the side but rather more show them at the front, which, as already noted, is not a very practical position. A valid point can be made however, that this may be to allow the pugio to be seen more easily by the viewer. This brings me to the subject of the value of sculpture as evidence for the reality of the past. The pitfalls of using Trajan's Column and the column of Marcus Aurelius, along with various other well known pieces of urban pubic sculpture, as evidence are already well known. However, provincial sculptures and especially provincial funerary sculpture have normally been held to be more accurate, the rationale being that not only do they often seem to show details which are confirmed by archaeology, but also that the sculptors who created them were clearly not trained in the classical traditions of sculptural representation which can be clearly seen in many pieces of urban public sculpture, particularly in Rome but also to a lesser extent in Italy, Gaul, North Africa and Asia Minor, and might therefore be expected to depict what they saw rather than what they had been taught was the right way to depict a particular thing. However, whilst we can learn a great deal from provincial military sculpture and our knowledge of the Roman soldier would be so much poorer without it, is what we see always reflective of reality? What things might be the result of other factors?

Looking at provincial sculpture it can quickly be seen that the sculptors did not necessarily feel the need to be totally faithful to reality. The most obvious evidence for this is that often the people shown in sculpture are very oddly proportioned, with overlarge hands, unnaturally short legs, unusually sized heads, unnaturally large waists, very big ears etc. (figs 1. & 2.).


Fig 1. Petilius Secundus.

Fig. 2. Caecilius Avitius


Similarly, sword pommels are often depicted as being much larger than would be expected in reality and seem to conflict with the evidence of the length of surviving sword tangs. In addition to this, there are some indications that the sculptor has 'tidied up' the image slightly, so that, for example, we see aprons which are hanging from diagonally worn belts which are perfectly level at the bottom, so all of the apron terminals hang in perfect horizontal alignment. Such a thing would be difficult to achieve in reality so here we can see an example of a change made by the sculptor to better suit his aesthetic values (fig. 3).


Fig. 3. Detail of Firmus’ belt arrangement.

Similarly, we can sometimes see examples of simplification, where achieving realistic detail was beyond the sculptor's capability. Perhaps the clearest examples of this simplification are in the depiction of belt plates and pugio sheaths. In the case of type 'B' belt plates decorated with concentric circles the detail is normally well produced, but in the cases of type 'B' plates with more complex designs and type 'A' plates, which normally feature intricate abstract designs, this level of detail is difficult if not impossible to reproduce in stone. Therefore, simplified designs are often featured on sculpture which are not reflected in the evidence of the archaeological record but can be understood as an achievable representation of something which cannot be accurately represented in stone. The same applies to the decoration shown on dagger sheaths: the decoration found on the actual pieces is similarly complex and cannot easily be achieved in stone. Like belt plate decoration therefore, this decoration is normally either simplified or omitted so that sometimes they appear superficially similar to the designs apparently shown on belt plates (fig. 4).


Fig 4. Detail of Annaius Daverzus’ pugio and belts.

Attempts to compare the two from sculpture are misguided though, as, according to a wealth of archaeological evidence, what would be compared is extreme simplification of the reality, not the reality itself. Any advantage which the original painted surfaces would have given ancient viewers is lost to us.

It should also not be forgotten that in many of the places where we might expect to see provincial sculpture, we know of existing artistic traditions of formalisation or stylisation. This should lead us to be suspicious therefore, that there might be other things present in a particular sculpture which are as much the result of formalisation and aesthetic taste as the result of empirical observation. What other things, then, might be the result of 'tidying reality up' to suit the sculptor's taste or skill? As we have seen above, there is a strong suggestion that pugiones may have been 'moved' by sculptors to positions where they would be more visible from the front than they might be in the actual position they were normally carried in. This must lead us to the suspicion that there may, from time to time, be other items which have been 'moved' by a sculptor to allow them to be seen more easily. This might include distortion, particularly of shafted weapons to allow them to fit the available space. Another feature which may be present but unnoticed in funerary sculpture may be symbolism which displays aspects of the deceased's character. Looking at people in terms of the moral or practical characteristics they displayed was very common in ancient literature and in later mediaeval art we see a very heavy emphasis in art on symbolism which allows the art to transcend the purely visual and explore the moral, cultural, and practical aspects of a person. Whilst what symbolism which may be present on funerary stelae probably would not come close to the comprehensive level of mediaeval symbolism, a primitive symbolism may yet be present. Might particularly big ears represent a reputation for having particularly good hearing, or has the sculptor just given the figure large ears due to lack of attention to proportion? Might large eyes represent a particularly keen sighted or perhaps wise person, or could a sculptor used to Celtic artistic styles have almost unconsciously incorporated something of the large eyes often seen in Celtic art into the sculpture he was now doing for patrons in the Roman army. Was the decision for some soldiers to be represented in the act of dining (fig. 5) done for a moral purpose rather then a cultural purpose or perhaps simply a stylistic preference? At the end of the day, there is little we can do to see these sculptures exactly as their original audience saw them, but as I hope has been shown by this brief article, perhaps we should be more careful than we had previously supposed with provincial sculpture when we use it to inform ourselves about the Roman soldier.

Fig. 4: Caius Iulius Baccus.

(All photographs used have been taken from the imagebase)

©RMRS 2010