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Work Young Slave

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

Young slave

© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

Found in the ancient baths of Aphrodisias in Turkey, this decorative statuette in black marble offers striking evidence of the taste for the exotic that prevailed in the Roman Empire, especially from the Hellenistic period on. It represents a black slave holding a flask of perfumed oil in his left hand. The statuette illustrates the popularity of the Ethiopian slaves employed at the baths in the late second and early third centuries CE.

A Young Black Slave

Discovered in the early twentieth century on the site of the ancient city of Aphrodisias in Caria (Turkey), this statuette of black marble was donated to the Louvre in 1995 by the family of Paul Gaudin, who discovered the site. It depicts the standing figure of a young slave wearing an exomis, a short tunic gathered at the waist and fastened over one shoulder. In his left hand he holds a balsamarium, a flask holding perfumed oil. The facial features and tightly curled hair indicate that the slave was an Ethiopian or a Nubian. Often used at Aphrodisias for bichrome sculptures (of black and white marble), the black marble here serves to render the color of the skin. The close attention to the musculature and the non-realistic conception of the piece are characteristic of the Aphrodisian sculpture workshops.

A slave at the baths

This statuette was discovered at the ancient baths of Aphrodisias. There it was possibly displayed in a niche, for while the sculptor has paid particular attention to the polish of the face and to the rendering of the folds of the garment at the front, the treatment at the back is much rougher. The presence of a statuette of a black slave in such an establishment is not surprising: in his Rhetorica ad Herrenium, Cicero tells us that the Ethiopian slaves employed at the public baths were very popular in Rome. A number of the pavement mosaics adorning public baths - at Pompeii (the House of Menander) and Timgad, for example - feature caricatures of these bath-slaves. Sculpted in the late second or early third century CE, this statuette thus represents an everyday reality in the life of this city of southwestern Asia Minor.

Black figures in sculpture

This statuette offers striking evidence of the taste for the exotic that seems to have developed first in the Greek cities of the Nile Delta, such as Naucratis and Alexandria. In the Hellenistic period, sculptors were particularly fond of genre scenes and "picturesque" subjects such as slaves, old men, beggars and hunchbacks. Small bronze or terracotta statues of black children in various attitudes were abundant, an example being the Young Slave in Chains (see link), a Hellenistic Egyptian bronze at the Louvre. This statuette from Aphrodisias falls into this tradition of decorative sculpture, and offers clear evidence of the survival of this taste into the Imperial period. It was at this time that the city of Aphrodisias grew greatly in importance, thanks in part to its sculpture workshops, which exploited the local marble to produce architectural decorations and numerous copies of Greek works. In these figures of exotic servants, the Hellenistic repertoire provided Aphrodisian sculptors with a favorite subject for works in which a concern for decorative effect is never far away.

Bibliography

Fr. Baratte, "Exotisme et décor à Aphrodisias: la statue de jeune noir de l'ancienne collection Gaudin", Mémoires et Monuments. Fondation Piot, 80, 2001, pp. 57-80

K. T. Erimp, "De Aphrodisiade", American Journal of Archaeology, 71, 1967, pp. 238-9, pl. 70, fig. 19-20

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