Fragments of antiquity at affordable prices
Owning a piece of the ancient world doesn’t have to cost a fortune. From mosaic to marble, via a Roman bronze of Hercules and a Greek relief of Aphrodite, here are eight intriguing objects offered in the Antiquities sale in London on 7 December — with no reserve
No one knows for how long dogs have been domesticated — most estimates suggest between 10,000 and 30,000 years — but they have been celebrated as ‘man’s best friend’ for at least two millennia. The Romans were great lovers of their canine companions and depicted them sleeping, playing and hunting in mosaics unearthed across their empire. A mosaic of a snarling black dog discovered in Pompeii, which includes the Latin phrase ‘Cave canem’, might even be the world’s oldest ‘Beware of the dog’ sign.
Tail raised, tongue wagging and freed from its leash, this lively dog bounds through the undergrowth. It measures around half a metre in length and is made from hundreds of tiny cut-stone blocks called tesserae. The artist has skilfully utilised the stone’s natural hues to create the curves of the collar, ribs and haunches, while two rounded, jet-black tesserae gives the hound its beady eyes.
After the collapse of the Roman empire at the end of the 5th century AD, a large swathe of the territory of Gaul — which covers much of modern-day France, Belgium and Switzerland — came under the control of successive Frankish kings. The Merovingian dynasty they established blended Roman institutions with Germanic customs.
Merovingian artisans continued to use the Romans’ glassmaking techniques across the following two centuries — a period that was, until recently, misleadingly referred to as the Dark Ages. This glass ‘bag’ beaker, free from decoration, has beautifully balanced proportions and an alluring amber hue, giving it a sculptural quality that seems to foreshadow 20th-century design.
This small sculpture depicts the Graeco-Roman hero Hercules. The son of Jupiter is identifiable by the skin of the Nemean lion slung over his shoulder: in the first of his legendary 12 labours, Hercules strangled the previously indomitable beast. He is cast from bronze in a delicately angled pose, with cherubic facial features and lightly tousled hair. It is likely that he once held his famous wooden club in one of his hands.
The figure probably formed part of a Roman chariot. While those used for racing tended to be lightweight, processional chariots belonging to noble and imperial families would have been adorned with elaborate bronze decorations indicative of the owner’s wealth and status.
Any comparisons drawn by the public between the courageous Hercules and this chariot’s rider would have been flattering. Even the emperor Commodus (161-192 AD) styled himself after the hero, and was sculpted with a lion’s pelt over his head for a famous bust now in Rome’s Capitoline Museum.
The protomes of antiquity are small bronze or terracotta devotional plaques depicting a figure or animal from the chest or neck up. Small holes on the reverse of this example indicate that it was intended to be hung on a wall — possibly in a sanctuary or tomb.
It depicts a voluptuous Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. One of her arms supports the flowing drapery of her dress. The other rests on top of her cascading tresses of hair. A small, winged Eros, the god of passion and fertility, sits on her shoulder. The terracotta’s surface contains traces of 2,300-year-old paint, a reminder that sculptures in ancient Greece were originally rendered in brilliant colours — the opposite of the bare, neutral appearance they have today.
Carved from carnelian, a hard, dark-red gemstone, these two miniature Etruscan sculptures have been made to look to like scarab beetles on one side, with incised pictorial scenes on the other. One shows a woman in a type of tunic known as a ‘chiton’, carrying her water jug to a fountain shaped like a lion’s head. The other is carved with a pair of horses. Both pieces once belonged to the antiquities dealer Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965), who amassed one of the greatest collections of classical carved gems ever seen.
The stones’ design was an Egyptian invention, probably imported to Italy by travelling merchants. Both scarabs have holes drilled through their centres, which is how they would have been attached to gold rings on the fingers of their wealthy owners. One theory suggests that they were worn with the beetle side showing, then flipped when the occasion demanded so that the unique design could be impressed into hot wax to give an official seal to documents.
Greek vases come in all shapes and sizes, from simple amphorae used to transport olive oil to elaborately decorated wine-drinking cups called kylikes which played an important role at banquets.
This type of vessel is known as an askos (plural askoi). It has a handle and spout, and would have been used to decant small quantities of liquid. Askoi are often shaped like animals, including weasels, boars and roosters. This example, however, made in an Athenian workshop, is shaped like a human foot. Some scholars think it may have been designed to store a perfumed foot balm, while others suggest it sheds light on the ancient Greek sense of humour, and was used to amuse guests at dinner parties.
This object, cast in bronze and measuring 16.5 cm in height, was made around 3,000 years ago somewhere near modern-day Iran. The ridges on the animals’ horns indicate that they are ibexes. Underneath them, a whetstone — used to sharpen the blades of metal tools and weapons — would have been pinned into place.
Scholars don’t know exactly why ancient people made such elaborate adornments for seemingly practical tools. One theory in this case is that they believed the ibex’s traits of being powerful and quick-witted would be transferred from the sculptural handle to the blade when sharpened, aiding its owner during battle.
Funerary reliefs decorated the exteriors of Roman tombs and were designed to reflect the life of the person commemorated. Choosing how you wished to be remembered forever would no doubt have been a daunting task.
Sometimes reliefs have an image of the deceased at work, whether a soldier, athlete, baker or boxer. One famous example belonging to the family that built Rome’s Colosseum depicts an individual lying on a couch while workers use huge cranes to construct a temple below.
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Other reliefs, such as this one, display images of the deceased’s favourite gods. Housed inside a naiskos — a small temple consisting of columns and a pediment — is a man on horseback accompanied by the goddess Artemis, carrying her quiver and bow, and the god Attis, with his staff and Phrygian cap. Both of these deities were particularly popular among rural communities because of their association with nature and hunting. Much like a modern gravestone, this relief probably once also included an engraved epitaph, although the name of the interred is now lost to time.