Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Parthians: Kneeling colossal support statues in eastern garb (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 16, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14318.
Comments: These are three colossal statues of kneeling Parthians carrying a load, made from Phrygian marble. Partially reconstructed (the dark-coloured heads, for instance, are most likely modern reconstructions), they were likely originally from the Horti Farnesiani on the Palatine hill and used to support some architectural structure, perhaps a tripod (as suggested by Schneider). Two are now preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum and a third is in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen. If this was a tripod support, then our present monument finds an architectural parallel in Pausanias’ description of a monument in the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus at Athens (although dealing with Persians instead): “There is also a group of Persians made from Phrygian marble that supports a bronze tripod; the figures and the tripod are both worth seeing” (Guide to Greece 1.18.8).
If these are from the time of Augustus as sometimes argued (others suggest the early second century), then these would be among the earliest Roman imperial visualizations of eastern peoples and Parthians specifically. In the age of Augustus and after, the Parthians were the chief rival for imperial aims and, therefore, they frequently appeared in Roman imperial propagandistic contexts. This was the case even though there were no specific military clashes with Parthia in Augustus’ own time, and the Parthians were far from being a subjugated people. Augustus did make quite something out of the Parthians’ return of previously lost Roman standards, however, and there were efforts to depict Parthians as subordinate or inferior (on which go to this link).
The figures are pictured wearing long pants, a long cloak over a belted tunic, and the so-called Phrygian cap. The position of kneeling here suggests a subservient or subject position, as in Roman coins depicting subdued peoples kneeling in supplication (link). As Charles Brian Rose argues, this Roman image of Parthians (distinguished from Persians or other easterners) was newly constructed in this era. The personification as a man, rather than a woman (the usual Roman imperial approach to other foreign peoples), on coins also set the Parthians apart in imperial iconography.
Works consulted: C.B. Rose, “The Parthians in Augustan Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005): 21–75 (link); R.M. Schneider, Bunte Barbaren: Orientalenstatuen aus farbigem Marmor in der römischen Repräsentationskunst (Worms: Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1986), 18-97.
Source of images: Photos of Naples statues by Jamie Heath (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of Glyptotek statue by Harland.