Celts, Persians, and Amazons: Smaller statues of fighting and dying “barbarians” associated with Attalos of Pergamon (third-second century BCE / second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts, Persians, and Amazons: Smaller statues of fighting and dying “barbarians” associated with Attalos of Pergamon (third-second century BCE / second century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7633.

Sketch of group by Overbeck.

Information and descriptions: These are a series of less-than-lifesized statues (known as the “Little Barbarians”) that are Roman copies of Hellenistic originals, perhaps based on bronze statues erected at Athens (on the south wall of the acropolis) by a king Attalos of Pergamon (part of the so-called “Lesser Attalid Dedication”). These presume a sort of long history of conquest, picturing defeated Amazons (usually associated with Scythians), defeated Persians in the wars against the Greeks (fifth-fourth centuries BCE), and defeated Celts or Gauls or Galatians of the Attalid era (third century BCE). The marble of at least seven of the statues comes from the Göktepe quarry in Cilicia and may have been sculpted by artists from Aphrodisias at Rome following the original bronze models in the form of casts (see Attanasio, Bruno, Prochaska and Yavuz 2012).

The first photo is from Naples museum and depicts several dying or dead figures (which were found in the renovation of a convent in 1514): a dying Gaul / Celt / Galatian at the back (inv. 6015), a dead Persian to the left (inv. 6014), a dead mythical Giant to the right (inv. 6013) and a dead Amazon at the front (inv. 6012). The subsequent statues are from other museums: a kneeling Persian warrior wearing a “Phrygian” beret (Vatican, inv. 2794), a “Defeated Persian” with a missing arm that likely held a shield (Aix Museum, inv. 209), a kneeling youthful Gaul (Louvre, inv. MA324 / MR133), a “Falling Gaul” (National Archeological Museum, Venice), a kneeling bearded Gaul with sword, and a dead Gaul (Venice).

Comments: The imperialistic penchant for stressing dominance over subjugated peoples comes across very clearly in monuments that depict “barbarians” as either dead or soon to die. Although not confirmable, there is some likelihood that these were Roman copies (second century CE) of Hellenistic originals (either in the time of Attalos I [ca. 269–197 BCE] or Attalos II [ca. 159–138 BCE]) that were originally dedicated by Attalos or another Attalid king of Pergamon at Athens. Pausanias refers to such depictions of defeated enemies at Athens: “By the south wall are represented the legendary war with the giants, who once dwelled around Thrace and on the isthmus of Pallene, the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, the engagement with the Persians at Marathon, and the destruction of the Gauls in Mysia. Each is about two cubits, and all were dedicated by Attalos” (Description of Greece 1.25.2; trans. Jones LCL; cf. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 34.84). The Romans’ appropriation of this imagery of dominating enemies is not unexpected as the so-called “Column of Trajan” (link) and “Trophy of Trajan” (link) illustrate well in connection with the subjugation of Dacians and / or Sarmatians.

In some cases, as with the cowering eastern Persian (from Aix museum) above, there is little “nobility” in the portrayal of “barbarians”, while in others such as the kneeling Persian warrior wearing a beret (now in the Vatican museum) there is more of the noble, courageous barbarian (a “noble savage,” so to speak). The courageous element is also very common in Greek and Roman portrayals of northern peoples, as the cases of the larger sized heroic-looking “Dying Gaul” and “Suicidal Gauls” show (link).  Although the portrayals are stereotyped, the clothing and other features help to distinguish Persians, Celts / Gauls, and others. And so, easterners such as Persians are portrayed wearing baggy pants or trousers, a long tunic and a cap or hat (sometimes called a “Phrygian cap”).

Work cited: Donato Attanasio et al., “Aphrodisian Marble from the Göktepe Quarries: The Little Barbarians, Roman Copies from the Attalid Dedication in Athens,” Papers of the British School at Rome 80 (2012): 65–87 (link).

Source of images: Photos of all Naples statues by “virtusincertus”, except dying Gaul by unknown; photo of “Kneeling youthful Gaul” (Louvre) by Mitko Denev (all licenced under CC BY 2.0). Photo of kneeling Persian with Phrygian beret by Jean-Pol Grandmont (CC BY-SA 3.0). Photo of cast of “Defeated Persian” (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0; ©Museum of Classical Archaeology, inv. 380a; original in Aix Museum, inv. 209). Photos of “Falling Gaul” and kneeling bearded Gaul with sword by Sailko (CC BY-SA 4.0). Photo of “Dead Gaul” from Venice by Ethan Doyle White (CC BY-SA 4.0). Image of sketch of all figures from Overbeck, public domain.

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