The Color of the Other: Importing Multi-colored Marble and Roman Constructions of the “Barbarian”

This week over at Hyperallergic, Sean Burrus and I published a co-written article on the use of variegated marbles (which have particolored and mottled veins that give it color) in order to orientalize and illustrate Roman ideas of the “barbarian.” As per usual, I like to take to my own blog to discuss new essays, since it is here that I can provide a bit more context, bibliography, and pictures. Let’s talk about polychromatic marbles, barbarians, orientalizing through color––and how these elements helped Romans depict “the other.”

The “Farnese Leopard” from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli is done in pavonnazo marble in order to give the exotic animal its spots. It is an early imperial sculpture (image via Wikimedia taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and is under a CC BY 2.5 license).

This has its antecedents at the annual January SCS meeting in Boston, sparked (of course) by a visit to a museum. My husband and I were at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when he noticed a small, decapitated Roman sculpture. He asked me about the mottled marble and together we noticed how it depicted the “captive barbarian.” I also noticed he was wearing that most barbaric of clothing items: pants. When I began to tweet about the piece, it seemed that Dr. Burrus had been enamored with the piece as well.

As I have noted before, museum labels can be essential to framing a piece of art for non-experts and providing background. The label for the MFA’s 1stC CE “captive barbarian” is a great example of this: It prompts the viewer to consider how “gaudily patterned clothing” aesthetically gestured to constructs of the “barbarian” in Roman art. It also noted the specific use of marble from the Aegean island of Skyros. 

The public label for the 1st c. CE “captive barbarian” made of marble from the island of Skyros at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

In antiquity, the island of Skyros was known for marble quarries that produced variegated stone called (in Italian) Breccia di Sciro or Breccia di Settebasi (in Latin: marmor scyrium). As ancient economist Ben Russell explains in his book, The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade, colored stones only came into vogue from the second century BCE onward. This was a time of new-found Roman imperialism; a time when Rome was conquering and then annexing the East. The eastern Mediterranean was colonized and her art, wealth, resources, and people were then shipped back to Rome.

The more frequent use of colored marbles not only brought more polychromy to Rome and Italy, they served to exemplify the subjugation of the eastern Mediterranean through color. The Roman site of Trea in northern Italy gives a number of exempla demonstrating this late Republican and Early Imperial fad for using colored marbles that perhaps also gestured to Rome’s subjugation of the East. The colored marbles excavated by the University of Ghent during excavations at Trea show how many colored stones were quarried and then sent to the Italic peninsula (2012: Fig. 8).

(1) Africano (Teos, Turkey)
(2) Pavonazzetto (Iscehisar, Turkey)
(3) Breccia Corallina (Verzirhan, Turkey)
(4) Portasanta (Chios, Greece)
(5) Breccia di Sciro or Breccia di Settebasi (Skyros, Greece)
(6) Fior di Pesco (Eretria, Greece)
(7) Rosso Antico (Tainaron, Greece),
(8) Giallo Antico (Chemtou, Tunesia)
(9) Cipollino Verde (Karystos, Greece).

The Potenza Valley Project (University of Ghent) has put together a composite image of all the ancient colored stones found in the northern Italian city of Trea (Figure 8. in their original post is here). 

At this time, green stones called marmor carystium from the island of Euboea also began to be used extensively, along with Pavonazzetto from Asia Minor and Skyrian marbles. Roman knowledge of the “territorial associations” tied to each piece of marble is commented upon by art historian Mont Allen thusly:

Less strange to us, perhaps, but still unexpected, are the territorial associations that materials carried, depending on where they were quarried. One might have thought that Roman viewers would hardly know where a stone came from, let alone care. Pliny corrects us [in his Natural History] (2015: 157).

In addition to the use of “gaudy” marble to represent the clothing of the barbarian, the label from the MFA notes that the skin of the barbarian was likely depicted in “white marble.” I find no indications of whether those pieces survive or whether we know for sure that the marble was white, but those pieces may or may not have been painted. Other depictions of barbarians (e.g. the “kneeling barbarians” from the Farnese Collection at the MANN) use dark stone for the skin of the barbarian. Thus the clothing, the skin color, and the clothes (on the Farnese “barbarians” they wear pants, a tunic, and a Phrygian cap) together denote the subjugation of Dacians or eastern “barbarians” more generally.

The two “kneeling barbarians” in the Farnese sculpture collection at the MANN in Naples are likely from the early first century CE (image via Wikimedia by I saw Nina Fly under a CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It is important to point out that polychromy was achieved in a number of ways; not just through painting hues directly upon marble. Ancient sculpture could incorporate a mixture of various types of marble that were painted and unpainted–just think of the chryselephantine (ivory, gold, and wood such as ebony) Athena Parthenos statue placed in the Parthenon which also had a painted shield.

Chryselephantine sculpture likely of Apollo, Archaic period, Ionian workshop, 6th century BCE, Delphi, Archaeological Museum (image via Flickr by Egisto Sani under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Sometimes, an ancient artist let the brilliant color(s) of the marble speak for itself without paint (e.g. often in floor mosaic that were walked upon), while other times, white marble sculpture was painted partially or fully. The late antique fad for opus sectile mosaics, wherein pieces of colored marble were sectioned and fashioned together, is a prime example of allowing the natural color of marble to express itself.

An opus sectile mosaic of a charioteer (with some rather spooked horses) from the 4th c. CE. Now at Palazzo Massimo in Rome (Photo by Sarah E. Bond).

As I am currently writing about and will be posting on in the future, Greek and Roman statuary could be adorned with metal and with clothing. As such, the recreation of statues as they were experienced in antiquity must not only consider how we reapply color through paint, but also how we consider more ephemeral materials like textiles. Not every depiction of “the barbarian” used variegated marble in order to depict the clothing of those subjugated in Dacia and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, but study of the pieces that do survive can hint at how Roman artists used color codes to speak visually to Roman audiences about “the other.”

As the article argues, there are now many examples of the use of colored and mottled marbles in order to orientalize a statue. Through clothing, stance (e.g. kneeling or bound), and color, these statues gestured to stereotypes of the “barbarian” perpetuated in Rome and elsewhere in the western provinces. As I have similarly explored with the use of Nile crocodiles in Roman art and in the amphitheater, animals and objects from the eastern Mediterranean could serve to remind Romans back at home of the expanded bounds of the empire. Colors were but one way to signify the imperialism of Rome.

A second century ‘Nilotic scene’ mosaic from the Aventine Hill in Rome, now at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Photo by Sarah E. Bond). 


Mont Allen, “Technique and Message in Roman Art,” A Companion to Roman Art, ed. B. Borg (2015).

Sarah E. Bond, “The Ancient Crocodile Hunters That Helped To Supply The Roman Games,” (June 12, 2017).

Hannelore HägeleColour in Sculpture: A Survey from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Present (2013).

Potenza Valley Project, “News 2012: Archaeological Investigations in the Potenza Valley (Northern Picenum, Italy) – Field Season 2012” (2012).

Ben Russell, The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade (2014).

Rolf Michael Schneider, Bunte Barbaren: Orientalenstatuen aus farbigem Marmor in der römischen Repräsentationskunst (1986).





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