Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.23

Annemarie Kaufmann-Heinimann, Götter und Lararien aus Augusta Raurica. Herstellung, Fundzusammenhänge und sakrale Funktion figürlicher Bronzen in einer römischen Stadt. Forschungen in Augst 26.   Augst:  Römermuseum Augst, 1998.  Pp. 350.  

Reviewed by Birgitta Hoffmann, Dept. of Classics, University College Dublin (
Word count: 2614 words

Lararia and with them the small copper alloy and clay figurines representing gods and minor deities are, north of the Alps, a Roman introduction and, therefore, one of the many aspects of Romanisation. Figural bronzes1 are a recognised category of Roman finds and include, apart from the statuettes, any other copper-alloy object with figural decoration, including appliqués from furniture, keys, knives and vessels, horse trappings, and pieces of jewellery. The present volume is a collection of studies on various aspects of the figural bronzes from Augst, which forms one of the largest published corpora north of the Alps.2

The volume opens with a discussion of the difficulties involved in identifying the products of different workshops amongst figural copper alloy objects in the absence of metallurgical studies. After reviewing the evidence to date it suggests several cases where statuettes or other bronze objects could arguably have been produced in the same workshop, but stresses that these represent the exceptions rather than the rule.

The next chapter analyses the distribution of the figural bronzes found in various parts of Augst, reviewing first the public buildings, followed by the residential insulae. Each section begins with a short listing of the objects found, including black-and-white photographs, the catalogue number of each object (according to the catalogues of 1977 and 1994), its size, find year and exact location and finally dating evidence (based either on the object itself or the date of its context). The text concentrates on the character and development of the insula, possible workshops with identifiable crafts, the level of luxury displayed within the houses, as well as any associated finds, esp. statuettes or religious objects in other materials, military finds and items of furniture. In the case of a number of copper-alloy deposits containing small figural bronzes, which may be either the complete contents of lararia or hoards in response to external threats, the reader is given further information as to the exact find circumstances, where possible accompanied by the original excavation drawings (e.g. fig. 80) and photographs of the deposit in situ.

Following the catalogue, the statuettes of the lararium deposit in insula 5, which include the high quality Bacchus bust (easily one of the most impressive items on display in the Augst museum) are singled out for more in-depth study. As Frau Kaufmann-Heinimann shows, this bust is by no means the only high class item in this deposit, which is entirely made up of very high quality statuettes, having their best parallels either in Campania or amongst central Gallo-Roman metalwork of the first century AD (e.g. the Bacchus and Hercules busts).

The following chapter deals mainly with the analysis of the chronological and spatial distribution of the finds. The main result of the chronological distribution indicated that figural bronzes do not display the same loss pattern as other find groups, viz. glass and amphorae. While about two thirds of the amphora and glass material were deposited in the first century AD, with the later centuries accounting for only 25-30% of the material, the picture appears reversed for the bronzes, with only 25% deposited in the first century, 40% in the second and third century, and another 20% dating from even later or mixed layers. Kaufmann-Heinimann explains this as the result of the higher general estimation of the figural bronzes as objects of value, which were carefully guarded, treasured, and, therefore, not subject to any rapidly changing fashions. Differences in the volume or availability of imports or changes in fashion appear to be of minor importance for the statuettes, although they do seem to affect other bronze objects, like horse trappings, knife handles and jewellery.

The supporting table (fig. 108) gives the deposition date for all objects from datable contexts, while a manufacturing date (mainly on stylistic or typological criteria) is added where possible. It seems that most of the statuettes (substantial amounts of which were produced in the first century AD) were lost between the late second and late third century, when the town suffered from the results of an earthquake and a series of military engagements, and the ensuing abandonment of large parts of the city.

The spatial analysis of the small finds, especially the statuettes is mainly negative. There does not seem to be any meaningful correlation between the quality and frequency of statuettes found in a house and its function or standard of living. The history of the site (violent destruction or gradual abandonment) appears to have a much stronger influence on the nature of the material preserved than any factors deriving from its use.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the possible use and composition of lararia in Augst and the North-Western Roman provinces. Unlike the Campanian lararia, the examples from Augst appear to have been either populated by terracotta figurines or by metal statuettes, but usually not by both at the same time, even though both are derived from Italian prototypes and do not develop from an indigenous Gallic tradition (p. 159). Apart from the statuettes and the lamps, two other vessel types (the incense burner in the shape of a tazza and the Schlangentopf (snake pot) Type A) are equally wide-spread in the assemblages, and often found in close association with the statuettes, suggesting use in the lararia. Whereas the former tends to be a frequent enough find in Italian and Gallo-Roman household shrines, it seems that the snake pots are a local phenomenon, and fairly rare in religious contexts elsewhere in Gaul. Both vessels are, however, barely contemporary as the snake pots Type A are mainly found up to the middle of the second century, while the tazzae date to the late first to the third century.

The following chapter (pp. 163-167) deals with the figurines themselves and their contribution to the study of religion in Augst and the Gallo-Roman/Germanic provinces. Kaufmann-Heinimann argues that the statuettes, although usually portrayed in a classical Mediterranean style, nevertheless reflect, in the majority, local, indigenous gods and goddesses. Her arguments are based on the preponderance of Mercury statuettes in Augst (20 out of 80 statuettes can be identified as Mercury) and the Germanic provinces, which accords with the evidence from Caesar's statement for the popularity of Mercury in Gaul. More convincing (see below) are a number of cases where the classical statuettes are associated with identifying inscriptions, giving clearly Celtic or Germanic names, such as a Fortuna statuette identified as Artio and in another case as Rosmerta. Kaufmann-Heinimann also stresses the fluid nature of the interpretatio Romana, which tends to blur exactly these sharp differences in definition.

The different forms of commemoration are compared by studying the evidence for bronze statuettes, stone sculpture and inscriptions from Augst. As is to be expected given their comparatively low price in comparison to stone sculpture, the bronze statuettes are by far the most common and represent the widest variety of deities. Kaufmann-Heinimann also stresses the divergent nature of the two media stone and bronze: whereas stone sculpture and inscriptions are meant for public display in the local sanctuaries, bronze statuettes could be used in the private as well as the official cult. She also highlights clear differences in the devotions offered to different deities in Upper Germany. Nevertheless, she admits that when using the epigraphic material from all of Upper Germany, rather than just the 15 inscriptions from Augst as a basis for comparison, very few significant differences emerge. She mentions the higher frequency of Jupiter outside Augst, which may be a reflection of the high density of the Jupiter-Giganten columns in Northern Upper Germany (although this is nowhere mentioned), and the greater popularity of Minerva and Hercules statuettes in Augst. Throughout the chapter she frequently cites Leuissen's article in the Fundberichte aus Baden-Wuerttemberg3 for comparative evidence, rather than reproducing or summarising his table, thereby precluding rapid checks of the evidence. The high frequency of dedications to Mercury and Apollo reflects, in Kaufmann-Heinimann's eyes, the main gods of Augst, with Mercury being claimed as the possible resident god in the Schoenbuehl temple at the theatre, while Apollo is part of the official titulature of the colonia and may have owned the temples in the Grienmatt, in the Ergolz plain and possibly also the Gallo-Roman temple on Sichelen 2 in the Southern Upper city (although this is later also claimed as a cult centre for Mars and Diana).

The next chapter, on coin sacrifices in the lararia (pp. 168-180), draws attention to the small slits encountered on some statuettes (incl. one from Augst). Kaufmann-Heinimann is able to draw together sixteen statuettes and bases, mainly from the North-western provinces, which share this feature. The slit is not always large enough to insert a coin fully, and the majority cannot be securely locked, at least in their current state. By comparing the statuettes to a number of stone sculptures, which are commonly identified as the tops of more publicly displayed collection-boxes, Kaufmann-Heinimann interprets these as similar scaled down versions for use in the domestic lararia, ruling out an identification as secular saving boxes as these are usually made of pottery and have to be destroyed for the money to be retrieved (p.179). The interpretation as a place of monetary sacrifice seems fairly convincing for the little Fortuna and Mater statuettes, where the money is not so much inserted but effectively publicly displayed in the lap of the statuettes. This may be linked to other offerings to figurines such as bracelets and necklaces (e.g. on the Weissenburg Venus fig. 125). In other cases, especially the statuette of a begging girl from Rome (which makes an excellent motif for a savings box) it seems to the reviewer quite difficult to reconstruct a ritual use, and perhaps the usage as savings deposits should not be ruled out categorically. The deposition of savings in the safekeeping of gods and saints is a long-standing feature of Roman and post-Roman religion around the Mediterranean (with the Roman state treasury, held in the temple of Saturn, being perhaps the best known case), so to try to ascribe this phenomenon wholly to either the profane or the ritual sphere may not be doing perceptions of safety in antiquity justice. Certainly, to rule out their use as savings boxes, because of their difference in material seems slightly simplistic.

The fourth section of the book explores the role of the bronze statuettes in ritual contexts. Drawing on a corpus of lararia assemblages from the entire Roman empire, the shape and position of the shrines, the material and number of the statuettes and the identification of the statuettes are studied. Of the 100 complexes included in this study 41 come from Campania, 13 from the rest of Italy and 36 from Gaul and Germany, with only 10 assemblages being known from the rest of the empire. With the material so heavily weighted the study is of necessity a comparison between Campania and the Gallo-Roman provinces.

The small amount of material makes it equally unsurprising that Kaufmann-Heinimann can only list a single surviving domestic shrine from outside the Bay of Naples--the small temple from Insula 24 in Augst. It is obvious that this is unlikely to reflect the original situation, and she cites the possibility of wooden shrines and the use of wall niches as possible explanation for the lack of other structures.

The analysis of the Gallo-Roman complexes shows a fairly consistent pattern, with lararia usually containing 4-6 metal statuettes. Most of the figures date stylistically to the first and second centuries, while later material appears to be rare. Their late date of deposition makes it likely that they were handed down through the generations until the destruction of the lararia, mostly in the third century, resulting in a strong stylistic mix within the statuettes.

The deities represented agree largely with the finds from Pompeii, the notable rarity of lares in the Gallo-Roman shrines being the foremost exception. While Mars and Victoria statues are absent from the groups in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Egyptian gods Isis and Harpokrates, as well as statuettes of a non-religious character, seem to be largely absent from the Gallo-Roman assemblages, attesting to some regional differentiation. No further comment by the author is made on the preponderance of Mercury. Based on the frequency of the statuettes in Augst, she originally interpreted them as an indication of local religious beliefs (p.163), but her figs. 138 and 139 show that Mercury is the most common deity (after the lares) in Campanian assemblages, too. The reader is left to wonder if the preference for Mercury in Augst might, therefore, reflect a more general pattern in Roman private religion, rather than a purely regional preference. So rather than an early indication of Romanisation in Gaul, the popularity of Mercury (as the god of trade and financial well-being) might actually be constructed as an attestation of Italian or at least Campanian influence.

The following chapter deals with the use of statuettes as part of formal dining. Beginning with a passage from the cena Trimalchionis and including several hoards of fine tableware including single statuettes, Kaufmann-Heinimann shows that the inclusion of small statuettes as part of the dining service was not unheard of, although she doubts that it was particularly common at any time.

The third chapter of the section deals with the use of statuettes in sanctuaries and temples. Public ritual use is indicated, according to Kaufmann-Heinimann, by finds from the sanctuaries themselves, as well as by hoards, which may have been the furniture of the sanctuary or part thereof. Defining these is notoriously difficult and Kaufmann-Heinimann offers as criteria 'deposition close to a known sanctuary', 'inscriptions on the objects identifying them as dedications', and 'inclusion of characteristic objects (e.g. ritual objects or objects used in the cult of the deity)'. The sanctuaries show a much more variable picture than the lararia with statuettes reflecting local cult practices, including figural bronzes of animals that appear to be votives.

The final chapter deals with statuettes found in other circumstance than those so far described. For those wishing to check the basis of these results Kaufmann-Heinimann offers two tables, one for the lararia and one for the sanctuary hoards, which detail the results presented in the graphs included in the relevant chapters as well as a detailed catalogue featuring pictures of the surviving objects alone with a concise description of the hoards and their find circumstances (p.209-315). The catalogue is split between the Campanian examples and the geographically arranged material from the rest of the Roman empire. It thereby offers an excellent tool to check her analysis, as well as giving strong visual impressions of the variety of material covered by this study.

The book is extremely well referenced throughout and has a good index that makes it easy to find material on specific sites or gods. The only points worth criticising are the switched photographs on p.80 (bust of Hercules and Lar) and the presentation of the important table fig. 108 (the different grey hatchings are hard to tell apart at times). The 3D-graphics also suffer from the inherent problem that the information in the front column usually obscures the information in any of the other X-axes, although they are visually much more pleasing than series of 2D-presentations.

Overall this book is an excellent overview of the use of bronze statuettes and lararia in the North-western provinces. It offers a welcome addition to similar studies from Campania, and it is regrettable that sufficient material does not appear to exist for other regions of the empire. For Germany and Gaul Kaufmann-Heinimann has provided us with an important book, which should be on the reading-list of anybody writing in future on the private religion of the North-western provinces.


1.   The term 'bronze' is used throughout the book and this review as synonymous with 'copper-alloy', as nowhere is there a mention of a differentiation on the basis of physical or chemical analyses.

2.   A.Kaufmann-Heinimann, Die römischen Bronzen der Schweiz 1: Augst und das Gebiet der colonia Augusta Raurica (Mainz 1977)--id., Die römischen Bronzen der Schweiz 5: Neufunde und Nachträge (Mainz 1994).

3.   P.M.M.Leunissen, Römische Götternamen und einheimische Religion der Provinz Germania Superior. Fundberichte aus Baden-Württemberg 10, 1985, 155-195.

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