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Work Cup with Victorious Charioteer

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Christian and Byzantine Art

Cup with Victorious Charioteer

© 2008 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This cup testifies to the popularity of circus games and their representation in late Antiquity. African potters used this theme widely, with a preference for chariot races. Here we see the charioteer standing upright in a chariot pulled by a team of four horses. Dressed in the distinctive garb of his profession, he is holding the palm of victory, and brandishes the victor's coronet. This relief decoration was created using a technique typical of North African ceramic workshops.

A work from North Africa

This terracotta cup comes from a North African workshop, where it was made sometime in the fourth or fifth century AD. Featuring three grooves running around the inner rim, and lacking a base and handles, it belongs to a series of vessels produced in great numbers throughout the Mediterranean basin, but originating in what is now Tunisia. The inner medallion is decorated with low-relief motifs, which were molded separately and then applied to the clay - a procedure characteristic of ceramic workshops in this region of the Roman empire.

A victorious charioteer

The decoration consists of a single figure: a victorious charioteer standing in his chariot, pulled by a team of four horses. The compositional conventions of the fourth century AD are very much present, particularly in the disproportionate sizes of the charioteer and his four horses, and of the charioteer's own head and body. The horses and their driver are represented frontally, as was the norm in Late Antiquity. The man is dressed in the standard outfit of charioteers: a helmet and tunic, with additional protection in the form of long-sleeved padding held in place by leather straps. He holds a palm frond at his side, and brandishes the triumphal crown, the symbol of victory, in his right hand. Two palm fronds beneath this scene serve to balance the decoration and reinforce the symbolism of victory.

The popular iconography of victory

Very early on, "circus games" became extremely popular in the Roman world, inspiring a rich and varied decorative repertoire that was used in every artistic domain, but particularly ceramics, sculpture and mosaics. Games and sporting events appear as a theme in Roman African art in the first century AD, and became a favorite subject for mosaicists and local potters. From the third century AD onwards, chariot races became enormously popular throughout the Roman empire, particularly in North Africa, and were widely depicted in art. The figure of the victorious charioteer takes pride of place among the various motifs used on sigillated (stamped) ceramics and countless commemorative mosaics. The image might recall a real-life triumph, or simply signify good fortune. The latter interpretation seems most appropriate here: in contrast with most other examples, there is nothing to place the driver and team within the context of a hippodrome.

Bibliography

Le cirque et les courses de chars, Rome-Byzance, Lattes, 1990, n 23, p. 228-229.
De Carthage à Kaurouan. 2000 ans d'art et d'histoire en Tunisie, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, 1982, n 208, p. 149.
Baratte Fr., "La Coupe à l'charioteer vainqueur (sigillée claire) du musée du Louvre", Bulletin de la Société des nationale des Antiquaires de France, 1971, p. 178-192, pl. XXI-XXIV.

Technical description

  • Cup with Victorious Charioteer

    4th-5th century AD

    Provenance unknown

    North Africa

  • Terracotta with applied relief decoration

    H. 5 cm; Diam. 19 cm

  • Purchased 1971

    N° d'entrée Ca 5920

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Mosaics gallery
    Room 30

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