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Rare Roman Bronze Oil Lamp - Nubian Form

Roman, Imperial period, ca. 1st to 3rd century CE. An incredibly-detailed and striking cast bronze oil lamp in the form of the head of an African, who were known as Ethiopians (Aethiops) or Nubians to the Romans. The head is stylized, and elongates below the nose into a huge mouth with a hexagonal spout emerging from it like a monstrous tongue. The hair is depicted as styled into thick, incised rows. The eyes are large, and the nose broad. An incised dot in the center of the forehead may once have had an inlay. The head stands on a wide disc foot. A large, ornate handle with two flourishes rises from the back. There is a lid attached at the base of the handle by a hinge; in front of that is a tall projection, perhaps once used for suspension. Size: 5.25" L x 1.75" W x 3.6" H (13.3 cm x 4.4 cm x 9.1 cm)

The Romans had extensive contacts with people from Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa (in addition to variously occupying land in Egypt and western North Africa). Gold, food, spices, slaves, textiles, coinage, and even exotic animals were part of the robust trade between these regions. Some Africans lived in Rome, and some notable examples ascended to high social status. Well-read Romans regarded the kingdom of Ethiopia - which they used to refer to everything south of Egypt - as a place to be respected. However, in Roman mythology and literature, black skin was a sign of an inhabitant of the Underworld - for example, Charon is described not only as having black skin, but also as having the facial features of an Aethiops by multiple Classical authors, including Ovid, Pliny, and Virgil. Actual African and Egyptian performers played theatrical roles of Underworld characters, and according to Cassius Dio, Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 CE) threw a dinner party for Senators he disliked where he made his adolescent slaves paint themselves black to represent the Underworld in order to terrify his guests. What Romans intended by their artistic depictions of Africans is unclear, and remains a point of research and debate.

Condition: Intact, with mottled dark green and brown patina. The hinge on the lid is frozen in place.

Provenance: private East Coast, USA collection

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