The Color of the Other: Importing Multi-colored Marble and Roman Constructions of the “Barbarian”

Sarah E. Bond
6 min readJun 4, 2018

This week over at Hyperallergic, Sean Burrus and I published a co-written article on the use of variegated marbles (which have particolored and mottled veins that give it color) in order to orientalize and illustrate Roman ideas of the “barbarian.” As per usual, I like to take to my own blog to discuss new essays, since it is here that I can provide a bit more context, bibliography, and pictures. Let’s talk about polychromatic marbles, barbarians, orientalizing through color — and how these elements helped Romans depict “the other.”

The “Farnese Leopard” from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli is done in pavonnazo marble in order to give the exotic animal its spots. It is an early imperial sculpture (image via Wikimedia taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and is under a CC BY 2.5 license).

This has its antecedents at the annual January SCS meeting in Boston, sparked (of course) by a visit to a museum. My husband and I were at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when he noticed a small, decapitated Roman sculpture. He asked me about the mottled marble and together we noticed how it depicted the “captive barbarian.” I also noticed he was wearing that most barbaric of clothing items: pants. When I began to tweet about the piece, it seemed that Dr. Burrus had been enamored with the piece as well.

The 1st c. CE “captive barbarian” from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Photo by Sarah E. Bond).

As I have noted before, museum labels can be essential to framing a piece of art for non-experts and providing background. The label for the MFA’s 1stC CE “captive barbarian” is a great example of this: It prompts the viewer to consider how “gaudily patterned clothing” aesthetically gestured to constructs of the “barbarian” in Roman art. It also noted the specific use of marble from the Aegean island of Skyros.

The public label for the 1st c. CE “captive barbarian” made of marble from the island of Skyros at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In antiquity, the island of Skyros was known for marble quarries that produced variegated stone called…

Sarah E. Bond

Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Ancient History, Digital Humanities, and Public History For All. Thoughts are my own, y'all.