Tuesday 29 April 2014

Man vs. Bull - Trying to shed light on a Roman lamp

Scenes depicted on ancient lamps are sometimes hard to pin down. What may have been blatantly obvious to people living almost two thousand years ago may not be quite so clear to people living today. The motif on the discus of a fairly common pottery lamp made in the Roman province of North Africa (Africa Proconsularis) during the 3rd century AD is a case in point. The motif depicts a muscular man, head turned to the viewer and grappling a bull, holding one of its horns with his left hand. I was fairly confident that the scene represented Hercules and his capture of the Cretan Bull (one of his rather daunting Twelve Labours). Although I could not discern any of his attributes (club or lionskin), these are also sometimes omitted in other Roman representations of him and the composition bore a strong resemblance to ancient figures, reliefs and mosaics of the episode.

Roman ivory figure of Hercules capturing the Cretan Bull, British Museum 1814,0704.1652. (www.KornbluthPhoto.com)

Hercules (Herakles to the Greeks but since this is North Africa, his Roman name seems more appropriate) was never one of my favourite heroes - he was a bit bi-polar and had decided 'anger management' issues - but at least he only captured the bull. Another divine figure popular among 3rd-century Romans, the god Mithras, slew his bull - which I always thought was a trifle harsh.

But perhaps it isn't Hercules ...

A similar composition appears on another Roman lamp from North Africa in the Carthage National Museum, illustrated by Jean Deneauve (Lampes de Carthage, Paris 1969, pl.LXXVI, 827). Although Deneauve identifies the animal as a horse, I believe this too is actually intended as a bull. However, the man here is most definitely clothed and doesn't look at all Herculean.

Moreover, there is another (first generation?) version of the first lamp I mentioned that includes a group of objects in the upper left of the discus scene. These appear to be a rectangular shield (scutum) in front of a spear (pilum). I wonder if the motif does not depict a mythological scene at all but instead shows an arena entertainment, a bull being subdued by a venator or bestiarius.

Yet another Roman lamp from North Africa clearly depicts a venatio involving a bull.

Roman floor mosaic depicting a venatio, from Zliten, Libya, about the 2nd century AD. Note the shield in the foreground.

Any comments shedding light on these lamps would be welcome.

(With thanks to Guy Cloetens and Skander Sayadi, and to Hervé Dejean for permission to use an illustration from his Lampes Antiques à travers les Ages: Le Corpus, Editions Archeo-Numis, 2012, pl.111.)

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