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),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 14, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7447.

Third-storey frieze of the south building alluding to the conquest of 43 CE and depicting emperor Claudius (who wears a helmet, cloak and sword, and seems to have a melancholy expression) in the midst of subjugating and killing a slumped and partially naked representation of Britannia personified, wearing a tunic with one breast bare (in imitation of representations of Amazons; IAph 9.41: “Tiberius Claudius Caesar. Britannia”):

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 wearing an eastern hat with bow and quiver to the left (IAph 9.14: “Armenia. Nero [name erased after damnatio memoriae] Claudius Drusus Caesar Augustus Germanicus”):

Second-storey frieze of the north building depicting “the people (ethnos) of the Bessians” personified as a woman (with Dionysian headband):

Photo by Maia Kotrosits

Second-storey frieze of the north building depicting “the people of the Dacians” personified as a woman (with bull):

photo by Maia Kotrosits

Second-storey frieze of the north building depicting “the people of the Piroustians” (a subset of Pannonians or Illyrians from an outside perspective) personified as a woman wearing a cloak and helmet while carrying a shield and perhaps a spear:

Photo by Maia Kotrosits

Second-storey frieze of the north building depicting “the people of the Cretans” personified as a woman:

photo by Maia Kotrosits

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): The Sebasteion in Aphrodisias, Asia Minor (Turkey) is a temple dedicated to the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the goddess Aphrodite (built from 20-60 CE). 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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