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Roman Bronze Chariot Fittings - X.0720
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 100 AD to 300 AD
Collection: Classical
Style: Roman
Medium: Bronze

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These bronze ornaments once decorated a Roman chariot, with the large male head at the front of the vehicle and the women and lions towards the sides. The term ‘chariot’ is misleading, however, for this describes the lightweight racing vehicles used in the larger cities for competitive tournaments in the circus. Given the heavy and ornate nature of these accessories, it is probable that they were originally attached to a more substantial vehicle such as a pilentum (used to transport aristocrats on state occasions), a carruca (for transporting emperors and aristocratic matrons) or even a thensa (a ceremonial chariot used to transport deities to the imperial games). More utilitarian vehicles such as the arcera would not have been so richly decorated. These fittings would have been the finishing touch to a vehicle already resplendent with the most luxurious and expensive materials and fittings available. Contemporary sources describe ornate inlay, rare woods and metalwork incorporated into these vehicles, and it is probable that these heads would originally have been gilded to add highlights to the ensemble. The horses would have been similarly magnificent and groomed for the occasion, their tack carefully manufactured and polished in order to burnish the full impact of the whole. This group of five bronze fittings depicting three figural busts and two prowling lions is an outstanding example of the care and craftsmanship that went into such ornaments. The most prominent element of this set is the central bust of the male figure. His powerful torso emerges from a spiralling band, which may represent water. If so, then it is possible that he is Neptune (the God of the Sea) and that the female accompanying him may be Amphitrite, his wife. Alternatively, they may represent the owners of the chariot, or important contemporaries such as the imperial couple. His serene yet commanding presence makes for an arresting figurehead for the vehicle, boosted by the tranquil expressions of the women to his left and right. A pair of lion sculptures completes the grouping. Ancient symbols of strength and power, lions represented – as they still do – all the desirable qualities of nobility, strength, intelligence and fortitude. In short, all the qualities the Romans liked to see associated with their imperial might. With curving bases, the pair of lion ornaments would presumably have placed along the upper railing of the chariot, held in place by nails driven through the fittings. Although the wooden frame has long since deteriorated, we can still imagine the luxurious nature of such a ceremonial vehicle based on the magnificent decorative elements that have survived. - (X.0720)

 

 

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