Roman oil lamp fragment uncovered during excavations in north Southwark (c) MOLA

Battle of the sexes: Roman lamp fragment shines a light on gender politics and sexuality in 1st century Southwark

Michael Marshall - Roman Finds Specialist
02.11.2018

The discoveries from our excavations in north Southwark on behalf of MB Bermondsey have been making their way into the hands of our specialists. One object in particular caught the eye of Michael Marshall, one of our Roman Finds Specialists. He tells us a little more in this blog…

Roman Londoners were pretty keen on oil lamps. Over a thousand have been found in archaeological excavations in London and they help us to date our sites and to reconstruct ancient trading patterns. They were relatively cheap things, mass-produced in moulds, but they are often decorated and one of the reasons I like researching them is that these minor works of art can provide us with a window into Roman tastes, beliefs and lifestyles. Gods, myths, plants and animals are all very common subjects, but lamps also depict scenes of everyday life, racing charioteers, fighting gladiators (very popular in London) and erotic scenes (particularly popular up the road in Colchester!).  

A few days ago a colleague sent me pictures of a fragment from a decorated early Roman lamp, freshly excavated in Southwark.  At first glance, it appeared to be decorated with a fairly routine erotic design; a naked heterosexual couple on a bed or couch. Erotic scenes are fairly rare on lamps from Roman London but what is all together more unusual is the fact that woman on top is also heavily armed!

What are we actually looking at here?  Is this a specific historical or mythic allusion? Is it an act of sexual violence? In fact, if we look closely at the weapons, there are some good reasons to think that this actually a kind of genre-swap or mashup, drawing on the conventions of both erotic and gladiator lamps. The lines on the woman’s right arm are padded protective wrappings and in her hands she holds a curved blade and a small curved shield; this equipment is typical of the popular thraex type of gladiator. Beneath the bed, probably dropped by the man, are the straight sword and larger shield of the murmillo. The pairing of these two types of gladiator in the arena was very popular with audiences at the time this lamp was made, while the horizontal pose, dropped weapons and raised left hand of the man are the classic attributes of the defeated or surrendering gladiator in Roman art.

Similar lamps are rare but we’ve tracked down a few published references to examples found at military sites in Switzerland. Lamp expert Annalis Leibundgut suggests that the design might be some kind of visual pun, based upon the fact that the Latin names for swords and shields were sometimes used as euphemisms for male and female genitalia; a similar relief scene applied to a pottery vessel in the Museum at Arles has an inscription [ORTE] SCVTVS EST (‘armed with a shield’).

The Southwark lamp is a brand new find and so what I mostly have at the moment are questions. How should we read this scene? What is the purpose of the gladiatorial allusion? Does it play upon the trope of sexy heart-throb gladiators, well known from Pompeiian graffiti? Are these real gladiators or, perhaps more likely, is this sexual role play? What can the domination of the man by the woman tell us about Roman sexuality or about gender relations?  Who was the audience for this fairly rare lamp motif?

We might argue that the gladiatorial scene, transported from the arena to the bedroom, is a comment on differences in gender relations between the public and private sphere. Men formally wielded most of the political and legal power in the Roman world but there were plenty of formidable Roman women and so presumably the situation was often very different behind closed doors. Seen by different audiences, however, the same design could more straightforwardly reflect the sexual preference of particular individuals or be taken as a role reversal which only served to emphasise rather than challenge perceived norms

What can this tell us about sexuality amongst some of the very first Londoners? We will be undertaking more research during the post-excavation process to explore these and other possibilities, but I suspect that meaning of an image like this will always have been in the eye of the beholder, dependant on whether the lamp illuminated the barrack, the brothel or the bedroom.

RPS has been providing archaeological and historic environment consultancy advice on this site for over five years. Their tender for the appointment of archaeological fieldwork contractors led to the appointment of MOLA as the site archaeological contractor. RPS is oversaw fieldwork and will monitor the off-site post excavation works.

If you have any other ideas or know of other examples please let us know in the comments below. You can see lots of other lamps from Roman London on the Museum of London website https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/group/27042.html and if you want to chase up any of the ideas mentioned above you can start with:

  • Leibundgut, A. (1977) Die Römischen Lampen in der Schweiz, Bern, Francke.
  • Thüry, G E. (2012) Pálmaág a dominának. Mazochizmus a római korbanÓkor 11 2012, Heft 3, S.72 ff.
  • Vucetic, S. (2014) Roman Sexuality or Roman Sexualities? Looking at Sexual Imagery on Roman Terracotta Mould-made Lamps. In TRAC 2013: Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, London 2013 (p. 140). Oxbow Books.
  • From the experts
  • Artefacts
  • Roman