Iconography and Identity: The Cavalrymen – Rider Reliefs

The cavalry of the Roman army was made up of contrasts. The attachment of cavalry that was part of the legion would have been made up of elite citizens, or rather those who could afford the expense of a horse. The auxiliaries were a separate detachment, made up of non-citizens, whose award at the end of their twenty-five years of service would be citizenship. The groups that made up the auxiliary cavalry in Britain are varied, but in Chester it was mainly groups from Eastern Europe, the Sarmatians (nomads who ranged from Romania to the Ukraine and beyond) and Thracians (from Modern Bulgaria), though there is some evidence suggesting either native cavalrymen or detachments from Gaul.

The comparison and contrast between auxiliary and legionnaire cavalry troops will be  here in relation to the iconography of the rider relief tomb style. The distinction between the two groups is certainly present in the iconography and the inscriptions that survive, but it is also important to discuss the process of how rider reliefs develop over time, since it reveals how different groups adopt the same idea and use it differently in order to show their own identity.

The rider relief has a long history in the Classical World, martial in nature and used in a funerary context. The Romans adopted from earlier Greek models, and its use was especially prevalent in the Northern border provinces such as Germania (especially in the Rhineland) and Britain. Troops from the Rhineland were among the first to enter Britain after the invasion, and through that transition the style travelled to Britain and to Chester

Figure 1 Monument to Dexileos, c. 395. The date of this monument is incredibly exact, as this family is attempting to disassociate Dexileos from earlier oligarchic cavalryman, protecting his reputation and solidifying his identity.

Anderson’s assertation that rider reliefs offer a unique view into the life of auxiliary troops, especially when looking at the effects of Romanisation, is interesting but a little outdated (his work Roman Military Tombstones was published in 1984). Although it is true that I am using tombstones to learn and discuss auxiliary troops, Anderson’s view is quite limited in that rider reliefs were generally for the auxiliary troops and that they are a testament of the Romanisation of subject peoples. In this re-examination of the evidence, I am going to look at two tombstones: one of Sextus, a cavalryman of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix and an unnamed Sarmatian Draconarius, and how they challenge this view of what rider reliefs mean to those they represent.

Sextus Simil[…]

Figure 1 The Main Relief on the Tomb of Sextus Simil[…]. A Contrast to other Rider Reliefs as the captive or slave has a passive role in the relief, as opposed to others where they would be trampled. Inscription runs: “Sextus Simil[…], son of Sextus, of the Fabian voting-tribe, from Brixia …” RIB 538.
The dates for Sextus’ tomb are linked to the 20th Legion’s occupation of Chester and the date range of Rider Reliefs. The fortress of Deva was occupied from 88 AD to up to the end of Roman occupation at around 400 AD. Anderson’s study puts rider reliefs within the late first and early second century AD, suggesting that this tomb one from very early in the fortresses occupation by the 20th Legion. However, his inscription doesn’t say the legion he is from, but it is possible to work it out by looking at where he was from and where others from that town were assigned. His home town of Brixia heavily implies that he is in the 20th Legion. Other tombs of soldiers from Brixia belong to the 20th Legion and it is very likely that he was too (RIB 503). Since Brixia (modern Brescia) is within Italy and he has been assigned a voting tribe, it is almost certain that he was a Roman Citizen, in contrast to Anderson’s assertation that Rider Reliefs were mainly for Auxiliary troops.

The concept of memoria is central to how to view these tombstones, and central to the ancient view of identity. Memoria was “a belief that all the values for which the dead stood lived on in their descendants,” (Anderson, 1984. 12.) it was more than simply memory, but an example for your descendants to follow. Large and grandiose tombs were a reminder of the values of the ancestors, which is why the funerary rituals of the Romans were so expansive, since they had to adhere the values of their ancestors. This explains why Sextus takes the time to mention his own father in his tomb, suggesting that the memoria that the older Sextus had, has been channelled through to Sextus and down even further.

If you view identity as an act of “(self-)description on the basis of similarity and difference” (Eckardt, 2014. 5), Sextus is wanting to present himself as a cavalryman, but is putting heavy emphasis on his citizenship and his dominance over the provinces, as the captive shows. His heir is likely to have put up a monument that represented Sextus, combining all the various layers that made up his identity. The high quality of the carving and the stone itself is part of Sextus’ memoria, since the size and scale will be reflected upon his personality. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the elite nature of citizen cavalry means that they are likely to be wealthy, something they’ll want to reflect in their funerary monument.

The Sarmatian Draconarius

Draconarius Tombstone, Chester, EDIT
Figure 3 The Draconarius Tombstone, of which no inscription survives. But the surviving iconography presents a thoroughly Sarmatian portrait.

After Marcus Aurelius’ campaigns beyond the Danube, he signed a peace treaty with the Iazyges (Sarmatians) in 175 AD: “As their contribution to the alliance, eight thousand cavalry [were provided], fifty-five thousand of which were sent to Britain.” (Dio Cassius, Roman History, 72.16.) It is not known whether any Sarmatians were stationed at Chester, but the presence of the Draconarius tombstone suggests that they were there, though probably not in any large numbers. At Ribchester, in Lancashire, there was a fortress that contained a unit of Sarmatian cavalry and since this was part of the land under the control of the 20th legion, the unit’s members may have travelled to and from the Legions headquarters in Chester, and this would explain why one of their number was buried there.

Figure 4 An example of booty taken from tribes North of the Danube, one of the reliefs from Trajan’s column. Shown are the Draco and the scaled armour of the Sarmatians.

The iconography that marks him out as Sarmatian is very distinctive. The conical hat with the vertical metal frame and the scaled armour type are especially Sarmatian. The Sarmatians are a nomadic people and horsemanship would have been as integral to their lives as breathing, and central to their identity, explaining why the stone displays a mounted warrior.

The standard he is holding is known as then Draco. It is dragon headed and when carried by cavalry it emits an eerie screech; it is symbolic of the Dacian and Sarmatian tribes north of the Danube. The fact this is displayed shows that the individual was an important figure in the unit, likely the Draconarius, the Dragon Standard-Bearer. This is one of the many layers of the man’s identity, he is more than a simple soldier, but one of rank and proud of his heritage.

If we return to Anderson’s date range for a moment and look at the possible date for this tombstone as after 175 AD, an examination of why the Draconarius goes beyond this is necessary. Two options are possible, the date range is inaccurate or the Draconarius has been inspired by other tombstones that he has seen on his travels. It is well known that the style of tombstone is only commonly known from Britain and Germany, suggesting that to increase his own memoria, reminiscent of the earlier examples.


Thinking about how a style of tomb evolves over time allows us to examine the individual circumstances of ancient people, one of the more interesting ways of learning more about the past and how the decisions of the great affected those on the ground. Since the cavalry were such an important part of the Roman system, it makes to look at individuals to gauge the impact of important decisions.

The iconography of Roman rider reliefs demonstrates how a model can be adapted and changed by many different groups that use it, in this case an early legionary cavalrymen and a Sarmatian Draconarius. Just as the medium of Greek coinage was spread across the world and adopted by many different cultures and ethnicities for their own ends, the rider reliefs are edited and changes to suit the identities of those who use them.


Dio Cassius, Roman History: Volume IX – Books 71-80, trans. E. Cary 1927. Cambridge MA: Harvard.


Anderson, A.S. 1984 Roman Military Tombstones. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.

Anderson, J. Birley, B et al. 2017. Hadrian’s Cavalry. Newcastle: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

Eckardt, H 2014 Objects and Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mason, D.J.P 2001 Roman Chester: City of the Eagles. Stroud: Tempus.


Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 20/08/2018) –

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 20/08/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/538

Vanderbilt, S. Roman Inscriptions of Britain (accessed 20/08/2018) – https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/503#RIB


Fugure 1: Dexileos Monument (accessed 20/08/2018)

Figure 2: The Main Relief on the Tomb of Sextus Simil[…] (authors own photograph)

Figure 3: The Draconarius Tombstone (authors own photograph)

Figure 4: An example of booty taken from tribes North of the Danube (accessed 20/08/2018) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dacian_Draco_on_Trajan%27s_Column_2.jpg


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