The auxiliary of the Roman Army were units of non-citizens, recruited from conquered peoples who had specialist skills that the Romans could use. For example, in Britain there was a unit of Syrian Archers and many groups from the Western Empire including Germans, Thracians and Celts who provided either cavalry or mixed cavalry (half cavalry/half infantry). In addition to providing specialist skills, Auxiliary units were spread across the empire, meaning that they couldn’t cause trouble in their home region. After serving for twenty-five years, an auxiliary would be granted citizenship.
Aurelius Lucius was an auxiliary cavalrymen. His tombstone at Chester is unusual in many ways, not least because it is not a Rider Relief, but a funerary banquet scene (see Callimorphus and Serapion). The medium is very Roman, but Aurelius adapts it to suit his own sense of self. This is not a martial scene, which seems odd when his fellow cavalrymen were charging down enemies on their tombs, though this might be why, since Aurelius was very proud of his heritage as a barbarian. And although the scene isn’t martial, he has managed to incorporate many military elements it, such as his helmet and sword displayed in a prominent position on the wall behind him.
The representation of Aurelius points to a Celtic, most likely Gallic background. The large moustache and stiff spikey hair are clues to his background, but the behaviour of his slave (just below the couch) a greater indicator. He is holding a severed head. I have mentioned previously (see Heads in the River) about the power of the head in the Celtic mindset and how it contained the fallen enemies’ power. Previous writers have dismissed it as grim or ghastly (Mason 2001) rather than a religious statement. Sometimes on Romano-British Tombstones an offering would be carved into it, as a way of permanently being in the gods favour, it seems that that is what Aurelius is attempting to do with the severed head.
The head is also part of the many martial motifs that Aurelius’ heir has managed to incorporate into the tombstone, since the head was a symbol of a victorious warrior.
The Gallic cavalrymen were renowned throughout the Roman Empire, and his pride in being part of it is obvious. The cavalry’s prominence in Rome was such that the Gallic goddess Epona was worshipped in Rome and had feast day on the 18th December. This shows there was a two-way cultural exchange, as the Gauls became more Romanised and were given Roman citizenship (as Aurelius was, his name being that of the Emperor Caracalla who granted universal citizenship in 212 AD) but the Romans adopted Gallic goddesses and military techniques.
Aurelius Lucius was both Roman and Barbarian. This contrast seems so stark to us, but reveals something of how the Romans viewed those beyond their boundaries: it was only a matter of time before they are let in. Aurelius challenges the very notion of Romanisation, since he still very much saw himself as a barbarian even though he took pride in his Roman citizenship, forcing us to look at how different ethnics mix and matched in order to gain a sense of self (as explored in The Use of Lead).
Anderson, A.S. (1984) Roman Military Tombstones. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.
Birley, A. (1979) The people of Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford Ltd.
Mason, D.J.P (2001) Roman Chester: City of Eagles. Stroud: Tempus.
Henig, M. (1984) Religion in Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford Ltd.
Figure 1: “To the spirits of the departed, (and) of Aurelius Lucius, horseman; his heir had this erected.” RIB 522 (authors own photograph).