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“Rome and the Barbarians”

Through July 20, 2008, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

Barbarian. The very word conjures images of invading hordes. Ruthless foreigners bent on pillaging. Savages absent culture. Yet as this exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi sets out to prove, the various 4th through 8th century tribes that Rome collectively referred to as barbarians did foster artistic expression. Many of the pieces incorporate Germanic motifs into the existing Greco-Roman tradition. Their militarism is also manifest in such pieces as bas-relief battle scenes, shields and ceremonial swords.

Among the 1,700 objects on display is a 19th century portrait of 9-year-old Honorius, the boy emperor who in 402 moved the Western Roman Empire’s capital to Ravenna ahead of invading Visigoths. He is shown seated on a throne, feet dangling, adrift in a scarlet tunic, struggling with a cumbersome gladius in one hand and an equally disproportionate victory trophy in the other. Rome’s vulnerability personified. An earlier sculpture of a bound, kneeling Gallic prisoner speaks to the disdain in which Rome long held those from the borderlands. Later objects reflect the shared martial and religious conventions of these seemingly dissimilar cultures. If you lack the lira to visit the museum in person, browse highlights in the online catalog.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here