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Fragment de relief architectural : préparatifs d'un sacrifice

© 2007 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This imposing architectural relief was probably part of the decoration of a triumphal monument built in Rome at the beginning of the second century AD. It is in the tradition of the historical relief peculiar to Roman art during the imperial period. The religious ceremony it depicts is thought to be a celebration of the victories of the emperor Hadrian in AD 118. Two sacrificing priests, preceded by a man in a toga and a flute player, lead a bull prepared for sacrifice to the altar.

Preparations for a sacrifice

This marble relief entered the Louvre in 1894 after long forming part of the Mattei collection in Rome. In spite of its imposing dimensions, the relief, which has been much restored, is only a fragment of a much larger decorative architectural composition. It depicts a religious ceremony with the participation of a man in a toga, a flute player, and two sacrificing priests leading a bull prepared for sacrifice by the noseband. The relief probably continued to the right with a priest waiting near the altar, ready to sacrifice the animal. The scene is set outside two temples decorated with garlands and liturgical objects, such as a shield and crossed spears, a "lituus" (an augur's staff), and a flamen's cap.

A fragment of a triumphal monument

The relief was certainly part of the decoration of a triumphal monument (possible a triumphal arch) built in Rome in the early decades of the second century AD. It was probably constructed to celebrate Hadrian's military victories over the Sarmatians and the Roxolani in AD 118. The laurel wreaths worn by the figures may signify that the sacrifice commemorated the victorious return of the emperor to Rome. (The ceremony might equally have been held prior to his setting out for the campaign.)

The art of the historical relief

Political and religious reality in Rome is depicted here in great detail; the clothes worn by the figures in the procession, the ornaments with which the bull is decked, and the architecture of the buildings in the background are shown with great precision. The fragment is in the tradition of the historical relief so distinctive of official Roman art. Scenes of this type first appeared at the end of the second century BC (see the Domitius Ahenobarbus relief, also in the Louvre) and were much produced during the imperial period. The emperor was often depicted surrounded by priests, magistrates, and Roman generals, presiding over a sacrifice, showing proof of largesse, or as a victorious military chief. The sculptors demonstrated in this way the power of the Roman Empire. The compositions remained much the same over the centuries, becoming almost conventional; only details were changed, to bring the scene up to date with the event commemorated.


MICHON E., 'Les bas-reliefs historiques romains du musée du Louvre', Monuments et mémoires. Fondation Piot, XVII, 1909, pp. 223-231.

Technical description

  • Fragment de relief architectural : préparatifs d'un sacrifice

    Premier quart du IIe siècle après J.-C.


  • Marbre

    H. : 2,10 m. ; L. : 1,75 m.

  • Ancienne collection MatteiAchat, 1894 , 1894

    Preparations for a sacrifice

    N° d'entrée MNC 1786 (n° usuel Ma 992)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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