Barbarians: Modern colonial repurposing of images of captives

Citation with stable link: Maia Kotrosits, 'Barbarians: Modern colonial repurposing of images of captives,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 20, 2023,

Composite statue of a seated “barbarian” captive figure with the body made of green breccia  and dating to the first century (according to the Louvre description) and the head dating to the second century (Louvre, inv. Ma 1383):


Composite statue of a “barbarian” captive figure with an ancient head, modern (oversized) arms and a body of red porphyry which was reworked in the modern era (according to the Louvre description; Louvre, inv. Ma 1381):

Comments (by Maia Kotrosits): These statues demonstrate the ongoing salience and appeal of images of defeated or captive foreigners for colonial projects long after the Greek and Roman periods. Both of these larger-than-life statues, currently held at the Louvre in Paris, gesture to the iconography of ancient northeastern peoples, particularly Dacians (see, for instance, Dacians at this link). These statues were reconstructed or reworked by artists in the seventeenth century as neoclassicism began to sweep France and Italy. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were also, of course, part of the protracted and intense era of European colonization. France, for instance, saw substantial colonial expansion in this period. The collection of antiquities and the renewed interest in classical art and architecture were hardly incidental to this expansion, as European empires played their own political aspirations in tandem with or through their engagements with and interpretations of the ancient past, including ancient artefacts.

Both statues combine parts from different sized statues, producing odd visual effects (e.g. larger heads and arms on smaller bodies). The second statue was procured by Napoleon himself (it had previously decorated the Villa Borghese, belonging to a papal family in Rome, according to the Louvre museum). Napoleon offers a potent and extreme example of the way colonization and desires for the ancient past are mutually reinforcing: Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 involved the deployment of hundreds of scholars who were tasked with producing a scientific survey of Egypt’s history and landscape. They eventually produced the encyclopedic Description de l’Égypte, and ignited an exoticized fascination with Egypt (“Egyptomania”) in Europe and beyond that still holds sway. So these barbarian statues were not just objects of appeal across time: they emblematize an ongoing strategy of knowledge production about peoples that goes hand-in-hand with their subjection.

For more on the legacies of Egyptomania see the Everyday Orientalism website, generally, but posts such as this, specifically.

Source of images: Photos by Maia Kotrosits, 2023 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

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