Important faces: Grave reliefs with more than one individual (mainly) from the northern Roman frontier

Summary of lecture by Postdoc Niels Bargfeldt, Det Danske Institut i Rom og Afdeling for Klassiske Studier, Aarhus Universitet. Palmyra Portrait Project lecture series.

2016.12.07 | Christina Levisen

Written by Nathalia B. Kristensen and Jesper V. Jensen

Niels Bargfeldt, postdoc at Aarhus University and the Danish Institute in Rome, is currently working on a project “The family back home: The unseen social network of Roman harbour cities”. For the lecture, however, he returned to the roots of his PhD thesis and gave a fascinating presentation on grave reliefs from garrison towns near the northern Roman frontier.

The study of the Roman provinces has always been influenced by the ideas of colonialism, post-colonialism and the ideology and ethics of Romanization. Archaeologists and historians have always tried to apply the typologies of Imperial Rome onto the provinces. By doing so, we lose the individual in a more regional and local context. This is also the case for the grave reliefs from these frontier areas. Niels’ focus is, therefore, on the personal relationships of the portrayed as well as on how the local traditions and the Roman traditions have been combined.

The tradition of using grave reliefs was introduced to the conquered northern areas by the Roman soldiers and the craftsmen they brought with them. Naturally, this meant that the early reliefs had a very Roman style of portraying the individuals. But later, changes are seen in the dress on portraits of different grave reliefs from Britannia, Germania and Pannonia. The attire became inspired by both local and Roman style and was used in different combinations.  

The question is whether the portraiture in the reliefs reflect more of a personal choice or an adherence to the norm of Rome? An example of this is a relief from York (Eboracum) where a family consisting of the parents and two children are represented. The children both died at the age of one, but they are portrayed as being older. The relief reflects the vision of a unified family – Concordia. It shows the ideal and not reality, which was the tradition in Roman portraiture.

The eclectic iconography shows a clear influence from Rome but also reveals a very distinct taste. It is clear that the individuals living in the Roman provinces were not subjects of a “Romanization”. The people of the provinces led their own lives as a result of a form of negotiation between themselves and the central power in Rome.





Lecture / talk, History and achaeology