The terracotta in Fig. 1 depicts two people: a Roman emperor and a barbarian captive. The Roman emperor is clad in full armor including greaves on his legs. Around his neck hangs a medallion flanked by two large shoulder pieces. At the end of his arms, pronounced cuffs are visible. Tied around his head is a diadem and the two cords of the diadem hang down the right side of his face and rest on his right shoulder. Perched on his left shoulder is a raptor of some sort, possibly an eagle or a hawk, which where symbols of power and royalty in the Roman Empire. The emperor is fully bearded and holds a short sword in his right hand. The sword is in a stabbing position aimed at the head of the barbarian captive, which is being held by the emperor's outstretched left hand. The emperor stands upright and in a forward facing position. Traces of polychrome reside on the emperor. Colors represented are reds, blues, and whites.

The second person being depicted is a barbarian captive. He is position facing forward in a submissive position. He is heavily bearded and has long, thick hair. He wears a tunic cinctured with a belt around the waist. The cuff like ridges on his leg represents either the end of pants, or the tops of what may resemble shoes. This barbarian carries a sickle like weapon in his right hand and an oval shield in his left. On the bottom of the sword is a large pommel and the shield has a thin rim along its edge. His left leg is visible, but most of his right leg is hidden behind the left leg of the emperor. Along with the emperor, traces of polychrome can be found on the barbarian as well. Colors such as blues and whites are visible on the barbarian figure. Both characters rest on a base which protrudes slightly forward.

This artifact is unique. It is a representation of an ancient image known as a smiting scene. This motif originated in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt around 3000 B.C., if not earlier. The motif was continuously used throughout Egyptian history until the collapse of the Egyptian empire. The motif did not end though with the collapse of the Egyptian empire. It was adapted and incorporated into other forms in Hellenistic and Roman art.


One such use can be found in a stone relief once in the collection of Marc Rosenberg (Figure 2). This item, known as the Rosenberg stele depicts a Roman emperor holding a rope in his left hand which was tied to a captive and he has a sword in his right held on a horizontal line. This stele has numerous similarities to the artifact in the collection at USC. Both bearded emperors are clad in full armor, hold swords, wear diadems and medallions, and wear greaves. This is where the similarities end. In the stele, the emperor also holds a spear and instead of holding the hair of the captive, the captive is being held by a rope. It differs even more from the terracotta because of the positioning of the people being represented. The emperor's head and legs are in profile while his torso is front facing. There is also a raptor in the stele, but not on the shoulder. Instead a falcon head appears on the chest plate of the emperor just above the belt knot (Quaegebeur). The identity of the emperor in the stele has been debated, but it is commonly believed that the stele represents Emperor Hadrian, but we cannot be sure (Bailey, Little Emperors). This artifact contains many similarities to the terracotta in question, but there are too many differences to give a clear description of the terracotta.


The Egyptian smiting image also reoccurred in Roman art in a limestone statuette (Figure 3). The statuette is held in the Liverpool City Museum and is attributed to the second or third century A.D. This specific artifact shows a Roman emperor smiting a seated prisoner. He is holding a sword horizontally in a stabbing position in his right hand and holds the hair of the prisoner in his left. The emperor is also clad in full armor including greaves. He is fully bearded and wears a diadem on his head with the cords hanging down onto his right shoulder. The prisoner is fully bearded with long, thick hair and wears a tunic with a belt tied around his waist (Hall).

While the similarities are striking, a few differences do stand out. For one, this statuette is made of limestone and the emperor's legs and head are in profile while his torso is facing front, similar to the Rosenberg stele (Kiss). Another major difference is that the prisoner is seated instead of kneeling (Hall). Finally, there is no raptor represented on the Liverpool statuette. By analyzing the features of the statuette, archaeologists have tried to identify the emperor in the statuette, but they have not come to a consensus. There are a few options for his identity, and the most widely accepted identities are that of Septimius Severus, Hadrian, Caracalla, Diocletian, or Lucius Verus (Bailey, Little Emperors).


The Egyptian smiting scene has also been discovered to have reappeared in a model shield found in Western Thebes (Figure 4). When found the left side was lost, but the right side displayed and interesting image. A bearded emperor is seen dressed in military garb, with a cuirass over a tunic, and a pteryges protecting his upper legs. A diadem is tied around his head and the ties fall onto his shoulders. On the front of his head is a vertical device which could be either a uraeus or a crest of a helmet. The captive is held by a rope, similar to the Rosenberg stele, and holds a double axe in his left hand. The double axe is a distinctive weapon and it is displayed in several terracottas of Egyptian manufacture that depicts the Nubians of black African appearance, but the details of the captive on the shield are not clear enough to determine the captive's ethnicity. He wears a short tunic and a tall horned headdress. Archaeologists have been unable to identify either character, but none the less there are similarities and connections between the different smiting images (Bailey, Little Emperors).


 The smiting image also found its way into other Roman terracotta figurines. One example is a terracotta in Munich of Bes (Figure 5) dressed in Roman armor in the smiting image similar to that of the artifact in the USC collection. Bes is holding a short sword in a thrusting position with his right hand and the hair of a bearded barbarian with the left. The barbarian is most likely a sacrificial victim in this specific artifact (Schoske). There is another terracotta which is extremely similar to the item in the collection at USC. Held at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, this artifact is of the same type as the USC item, but there are a few differences. The emperor in the Moscow terracotta has an elongated, pointed beard and an abundant amount of hair is surrounds the diadem that adorns his head (Kiss). The barbarian is also much more detailed. He wears a short tunic with a roll of fabric around the neck and has pants. He also seems to be holding a short sword, but it is unclear whether a shield is present (Bailey, Little Emperors). While these two terracottas are similar to the USC artifact, they are not close enough to be named replicas, but none the less a great deal of information can be gathered from analyzing these two figurines.


The smiting image in Roman art can also be found in a terracotta formerly in Berlin (Figure 6). This artifact is strikingly similar to the one in the collection at USC. The image of the emperor is almost identical to that of the emperor in the USC terracotta with the major difference being the length of the sword and the large pommel on the sword being held by the Berlin figurine. The barbarian in the Berlin figure is interesting itself. He is fully bearded and is wearing a tunic with a belt around his waist. He carries a scimitar or sickle type weapon with a large pommel held upside down and also has a large oval shield with a distinguishable rim on the shield (Bailey, Little Emperors). Another similarity is that both figure face forwards, which is a departure from the Egyptian practice of the characters in profile (Hall). Unfortunately, the Berlin terracotta cannot be further analyzed because it was destroyed during the Second World War (Quaegebeur).


Housed in the British Museum is another terracotta figurine (Figure 7) depicting the smiting scene. The bearded emperor in this terracotta is in full military dress and is menacing a kneeling captive with a sword. He is also wearing arm protectors and greaves on his legs and around his neck hangs a bulla. A diadem is tied around his head with the cords hanging onto his right shoulder, and perched on his left shoulder is some sort of raptor. In his left hand he grasps a defeated barbarian. The barbarian is fully bearded and has long locks of hair on both sides of his face. He is armed with a short sword and an oval shield with a visible ridge running down the center. Just like the USC terracotta, the artifact in the British Museum has traces of white polychrome. It was made from micaceous orange-brown Nile silt and is dated to about 118 A.D. or 135 A.D (Bailey, 3509 GR Plate 93).

Me at the British Museum studying the British Museum Terracotta Figurine
Based on evidence from the comperanda, the USC terracotta smiting image is a mixture of three styles of art: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman. The style is rooted in the Egyptian smiting image, but has been influenced by Roman culture. For example, the sword placed horizontally in the terracotta instead of above the head comes from Roman culture. There is also a significant Greek influence in the art as well. In classical Roman depictions of soldiers, they are never seen wearing greaves, but the USC terracotta, including the comperanda, all have greaves. The use of greaves comes from depictions of Greek soldiers and has obviously had an effect on this art form (Kiss). This mixture of styles is also important because it hints at the artifacts place of origin.
Determining a place of origin for the artifact is important because it is a significant step in identifying the subjects of the terracotta, and the mixture of styles helps determine the origin. This mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art does not occur all across the Roman Empire; but it does occur specifically in Egypt. This unique mixture occurs in Egypt because at one point in history Egypt governed itself, was controlled by the Greeks after Alexander the Great conquered the territory, and then the Romans took control of the land. Each power that held control had vast influence over the culture of this area of the world. The Greeks influenced the scholarly work and caused a mixing of Greek and Egyptian religion, and then the Romans further influenced Greco-Roman Egypt by building temples to the emperors and building a system of government in the cities of Egypt.

The comperanda also gives us a few other clues as to the origins of the artifact. First of all, they were all found in Egypt. This is important because if theses significantly similar objects were all found in Egypt, there is a high probability of the USC terracotta coming from Egypt. Another clue displayed in the comperranda is the use of the raptor. The raptor, which could quite possibly be a falcon or hawk, was a symbol of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, and during that time, pharaohs were commonly depicted with a falcon or hawk either near or behind their head (Quaegebeur). With the raptor being placed directly next to the emperor's head, he is being displayed as an Egyptian pharaoh, most likely to gain the support of the Egyptian people. One final clue that solidifies the idea that the artifact came from Egypt is that the artifact in the British Museum is made from silt from the Nile River in Egypt (Bailey, 3509 GR Plate 93). The British Museum terracotta and the USC one are so very similar that it can be inferred that the USC artifact might be made from a similar, if not the exact same material, as the artifact at the British Museum, and if it is made from a similar material from the Nile, then the USC artifact must certainly have originated in Egypt.

With the origin being almost one hundred percent clear, the purpose of the artifact can be explored. The ancient Egyptians used the smiting scene to celebrate and commemorate a pharaoh's victory over an enemy, and with the artifact coming from Egypt, it is safe to say that this was a commemorative terracotta of a victory over a regional enemy. The Egyptians would not have cared about a victory over a Germanic tribe; they only would have cared about a victory near their borders. Based on the size of the object, it was also most likely a personal object kept in a home. Overall, the artifact most likely a personal terracotta kept in a home to commemorate an emperor's great victory over a regional enemy of the Egyptians.

Using this information, an identity of the emperor and of the barbarian can be looked into. Based on the features of the emperor in the terracotta, the actual person being depicted must have a beard have beaten an enemy, and since this is an Egyptian piece, the victory must have occurred over an Egyptian enemy. These needs narrow the field of identities which are possible. He could be Hadrian, who ended the Jewish Revolt in 118 which was started under Trajan, which caused immense destruction throughout Egypt and the Cyrenaica, or he could be Antoninus Pius who ended a riot of the Alexandrians that caused the death of the Prefect in 153. The emperor could also be Marcus Aurelius who suppressed the Bucolic Revolt of 172, or he could be Septimius Severus who defeated Pescennius Nigerat Cyzicus. Still the emperor could be Aurelian and Probus' defeat of the Palmyrenes in Egypt in 272 or Diocletian's victory over either the Blemmyes of Nubia or the usurper Domitius domitanus in 297/98, or Caracalla who sacked Alexandria because the Alexandrians were rioting (Bailey, Little Emperors).

In all, there are many different identities which the emperor could take, but until more concrete evidence can be found, the emperor's identity is still in question. He is most likely either Hadrian, Septimius Severus, or Diocletian, but this is still only speculation. Even though an identity cannot be determined, a relative date can be given for the artifact. This particular object most likely came from the second or third century A.D.



Bailey, Donald M. "3509 GR Plate 93." Bailey, Donald M. Catalogue of Terracottas in the British Museum Volume IV: Ptolemaic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 2008.


Bailey, Donald M. "Little Emperors." Bailey, Donald M. Archaeological Research in Roman Egypt. Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996. 207-213.


Hall, Emma Swan. "A continuation of the Smiting Scene." Bothmer, Bernardi V. Artibus Aegypti Studia in Honorem. Brussels: Koninklijke Musea Voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, 1983. 75-79.


Kiss, Z. "Un Pharaon Romain." Warsaw Egyptological Studies Vol. I: Essays in Honour of Prof. Dr. Jadwiga Lipinska. Warsaw: National Museum in Warsaw, 1997. 291-296.


Quaegebeur, Jan. "Dieu Egyptien, Poi Merotique ou Empereur Romain?" Hommages a Jean Leclant Volume 2. Cairo: Institut Francais D'Archaeologie Orientale, 1994. 333-349.


Schoske, Sylvia. "A 18 Terrakottagruppe Bes mit Gefangenem." Schoske, Sylvia. Agypten zur Romerzeit. Munich: Staatlichen Munzsammlung Munchen, 1989. 98-99.

  • Grant Dixon