Britons, Armenians, Bessians, and others: Reliefs of subjugated peoples at Aphrodisias (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Britons, Armenians, Bessians, and others: Reliefs of subjugated peoples at Aphrodisias (first century CE),' Last modified November 29, 2022,


Photo by Maia Kotrositsphoto by Maia KotrositsPhoto by Maia Kotrositsphoto by Maia KotrositsInformation and description: The first two photos involve two violent subjugation reliefs from the Sebasteion of the Augusti (Sebasteion) at Aphrodisias (built from 20-60 CE), a sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite. One relief from the third-storey frieze of the south building depicts emperor Claudius, who wears a helmet, cloak and sword (and seems to have a melancholy expression). He is pictured naked as a heroic warrior who is about to kill a slumped and partially naked representation of Britannia personified, who wears a tunic with one breast bare (likely in imitation of common representations of Amazons of the north as warriors). The inscription on the base reads: “Tiberius Claudius Caesar. Britannia” (IAph 9.41; link to Greek text). Emperor Claudius’ actual subjugation of Britannia (modern Britain) took place in 43 CE.

Another violent relief (also from the third-storey frieze) depicts a partially preserved Nero wearing a cloak and sword-strap while subduing Armenia personified (perhaps echoing the Amazon queen Penthesilea) as a slumped partially naked figure and wearing an eastern hat with bow and quiver to the left. The inscription reads: “Armenia. Nero [name erased after damnatio memoriae] Claudius Drusus Caesar Augustus Germanicus” (IAph 9.14; link to Greek text).

Several other reliefs from the second-storey frieze of the north building simply depict other conquered peoples as women with an inscription beneath (ethnē is the term used, e.g. “People (ethnos) of the Piroustians” in IAph 9.18 [link to Greek text]). But these are presented without an active depiction of domination by the imperial power. The photos depict: Bessians (with Dionysian headband), Dacians (with bull), Piroustians (with a woman wearing a cloak and helmet while carrying a shield and perhaps a spear), and Kretans.

The Piroustians (or: Peiroustians), for example, were a people located in what is now Montenegro in the Balkans, but we know very little about them.  From an outsider perspective, the Piroustians could be considered either a Pannonian (e.g. Strabo, Geography 7.5.3) or Illyrian (e.g. Livy, History of Rome 45.26.13) people (cf. Caesar, Gallic War 5.1). They were defeated by Tiberius in 6-8 CE.

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): The Sebasteion in Aphrodisias, Asia Minor (Turkey) is a temple dedicated to the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the goddess Aphrodite. Among the remaining large decorative reliefs are imperial portraits, personifications, mythological scenes and, most important for our purposes, depictions of various “foreign” nations or peoples.

The monument, which seems to position reliefs of peoples in the rough geographical direction with which their regions are associated, is a totalizing representation of the Roman empire. It includes peoples across the empire and at the empire’s borders. It attempts, then, to visualize “the whole civilized world” and its inhabitants for the local subjects of a Greek city in Asia Minor, for whom the size and composition of the Roman empire would have been abstract or very difficult to conceptualize (particularly since there was no such thing as what we would call a map).

Many of the reliefs depict allegorical vignettes of conquest (e.g. Claudius and Britannia), representing the conquered peoples in violently gendered and sexualized terms: as subjected and violated women. Likewise, many depict peoples with stereotypically barbarian features (wild beards and hair, for instance). However the representation of peoples is not exclusively overtly derogatory, and includes representations of peoples across a scale of barbarian/civilized characteristics. This scale may be seen as a visual rendition of the ethnic hierarchies discussed in Harland (cited below), in which subject peoples imagined themselves in relative positions to dominant categories (of wisdom and civilization, for instance).

The monument is in continuity then with both the Roman iconographic tradition of representing Roman conquest, and of the Greek ethnographic tradition, especially given that nearly all of the peoples represented are also groups named in Strabo’s Geography (link).

The subjugated peoples depicted at Aphrodisias can also be found in other Roman imperial monuments, of course. For instance, the Dacians are also depicted on Trajan’s column (2nd century; link) and the arch of Constantine (4th century). Bessians are depicted in a 2nd century mural at the “House of Terpsichore” in Valentia, Spain.

Works consulted: R.R.R. Smith, “Simulacra Gentium: The Ethne from the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias,” Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988): 50-77 (link); Philip A. Harland, “Climbing the Ethnic Ladder: Ethnic Hierarchies and Judean Responses,” Journal of Biblical Literature 138 (2019): 665-686 (link). María Paz de Hoz, “A New Set of simulacra gentium Identified by Greek Inscriptions in the So-Called ‘House of Terpsichore’ in Valentia (Spain)” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 163 (2007): 131-146 (link).

Source of images: Photos by Maia Kotrosits, 2010 (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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