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Roman sculpture from London and the South East

Blog • History • Penny Coombe

In London, it is said you are never more than a few feet away from a rat – though someone has done the maths quite recently, and it’s actually much further than first thought. But to me, the real question is how far are you from a Roman sculpture?

On the face of it, probably quite some distance. The London and South East volume of the Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani, the tenth in the Great British series of this international catalogue of Roman sculpture, includes just 229 objects. I say ‘just’, but this is a large assemblage for the province of Britain, more diverse in style than any yet, and includes more imported marble and fine bronze than any other region. Yet this is no doubt a small proportion of what must once have existed: if we are to believe Suetonius, for instance, we should expect many more statues of emperors; while of impressive civic structures, such as the theatre and arch at Verulamium, or the monumental gateway to Britain at Richborough, very little remains above ground level.

Some of the items are truly magnificent: the bronze head of Hadrian dredged from the Thames, the marbles from the London Mithraeum, and the busts from Lullingstone villa rival the finest pieces from across the Empire. This volume allows new conclusions to be drawn on some familiar pieces as well as fuller consideration of newer items, including as it does for the first time, comprehensive petrological analysis of rock types, considerably enhancing discussion of the artistic styles. It is, though, just a hint at what London and the South East must once have held. Whether bronzes lost to the melting pot or limestone to the lime-kiln to make mortar, disintegration or deliberate destruction and deposition, there were many opportunities for Roman statuary to meet a functional end.

What remains has survived in a variety of ways. Some was deliberately collected, and we here include several of the Earl of Arundel’s ‘marbles’, his seventeenth century collection of antiquities, unearthed on the site of Arundel House near the Strand in the 1970s after being abandoned on the site in 1680s when the house was demolished. Such ‘Grand Tour’ acquisitions are not the focus of the catalogue, since they would not have been known in the Roman period, but in many cases it is hard to be certain, and we include them in the hope discussion of provenance will continue.

Rescue from destruction is another way sculptures have come to us. Charles Roach Smith, the 19thcentury London antiquarian and really pioneer ‘rescue archaeologist’, was committed to the rescue and display of over one thousand ancient artifacts in his ‘Museum of London Antiquities’ as the city around him was developed. His pieces now form the core of the British Museum’s collection, such as a carving of the London Hunter god. Objects have needed rescuing from developers even as late as the 1970s, as in the case of the Classis Britannica fort in Dover, but revolution in the methods used by local planners in the 1990s have really changed things.

Many of the 15 bronze items in the catalogue have only survived in wet conditions. An arm found in a pond in a first century gravel pit in the City of London in 2001 is a particularly early example and could even have been hacked from a statue of Nero, who suffered damnatio memoriae after his death in AD68. The marble busts from Lullingstone villa, possibly of Pertinax as governor of Britain, before he became emperor and of his father, and a head of Geta from the Thames, now in the Getty Museum in Malibu may also have been subject to political iconoclasm. Religious zealotry may have motivated the destruction of two statue fragments of Egyptian stone, and a cache of sculpture found in a well under Southwark Cathedral.

Finally, reuse of Roman stone for new buildings as older monuments lost their resonance, both in the Roman period and later, is well known, and perhaps exacerbated in the South East region by the scarcity of an abundant local freestone. In many instances, though, we can thank such practice for the survival of the sculpture. It is unlikely we would know about the existence of the monumental London Arch and Screen of Gods had 29 blocks of carved stone that made up part of the structures not been recovered from the late Roman Riverside wall. The Bastions, third-fourth century defensive additions to the London city wall, especially Bastions 8, 9 and 10, stood firm on a base of stone sculpture, neatly packed. Bastion 10, near Camomile Street, for instance, contained a large, pouncing lion and the tombstone of a solider, buried carefully with head placed beneath his feet in accordance with contemporary burial practice. Funerary monuments were plundered for building stone, but we have the tomb of a procurator of the Province, C. Julius Classicianus because its stones formed a rubble core of Bastion 2, and a Roman sarcophagus from Westminster perhaps in part because it was recut with a tenth or eleventh-century splayed cross on its lid either to accept a Medieval burial or maybe as suggested by Martin Henig in a forthcoming paper in the transactions of the British Archaeological Association’s Westminster conference in order to recognise the interment within as that of an early martyr. Romanspolia is built into the Saxon Shore fort at Richborough, including a carving of a lion, set over a doorway.

Recent archaeological investigations in the area have yielded amazing new discoveries. An eagle grasping a writhing snake in its beak, unearthed in the City of London in 2013, exemplifies the finest quality limestone sculpting in the region. As the area is further developed, and excavation for new building provides the opportunity to delve again to Roman depths, it is likely the patchwork of discovery will grow. As Roach Smith wrote, ‘the ruins of one age have been covered by the buildings of another to be…the basis of a new superstructure’. Just imagine what may be right underneath you, waiting to be found: Roman sculptures could be closer than you think.

Penny Coombe is a Roman sculptural art specialist and Civil Servant. She is one of the authors of Roman Sculpture from London and the South-East, published by OUP/British Academy.

Watch a video on Roman sculpture in London and the South East here.