Relief with a Nilotic scene

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1st century BCE
43.2 x 51.7 x 5.0 cm
Hood Museum of Art:
Gift of Leon A. Marantz, Class of 1935; S.977.201

This terracotta relief represents an exotic scene on the Nile River. It likely once formed part of a longer frieze that decorated the upper walls of a house in Italy and was made soon after Rome had conquered Egypt. Traces of paint indicate that it was once brightly colored.

On the left-hand side, a half-naked woman reclines leisurely on a bed with her buttocks exposed. She peers at a small statue of Priapus, god of gardens and fertility who is best known for his large, erect phallus. Below, a crocodile and a hippopotamus confirm that the scene is set in the southernmost region of the Roman Empire. The herons and reed huts in the background would also have implied an Egyptian context to the Roman viewer. On the right-hand side, a seated man steers a boat, perhaps shouting instructions to the naked rower in the bow.

The physiognomies and short statures of the two men in the boat suggest that they belong to a character type that was synonymous with Egyptians in the Greek and Roman popular imagination. These diminutive pseudo-Egyptians were often featured in groups, fighting bloody battles against exotic beasts of the mighty river with generally disastrous consequences. They were also often presented performing sexual acts that were considered taboo in Roman culture. Both the Priapic scene on the left-hand side and the small men on the right hint at this type of mockery and sexual innuendo. The tone of the scene, as is often the case with ethnic or racial caricature both past and present, is intended to be humorous. Images like this, produced in multiples, seem to have expressed condescension toward a once great and now subservient people.

Not on view

Further reading

Borbein, Adolf. Campanareliefs Typologische und stilkritische Untersuchungen. Heidelberg : Kerle, 1968.

Bricault, Laurent, Paul G. P. Meyboom, and Miguel J. Versluys. Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Hedinger, Bettina. ‘Die Campana-Reliefs der Archäologischen Sammlung der Universität Zürich.’ Antike Kunst  30 no. 1 (1987), 70–88.

Hemingway, Sean, and Colette Hemingway. “Africans in Ancient Greek Art”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (January 2008)Matthews, Roger & Roemer, Cornelia (eds.). Ancient Perspectives on Egypt. London : UCL Press, Institute of Archaeology ; Portland, OR. : Cavendish Pub., 2003.

Moltesen, M. ‘Hvor Nilen vander aegypterens jord.’ In Meddelelser fra Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 53 (1997), 102–115.

Tortorella, Stefano.  ‘Les lastre Campana. Problemi di produzione e di iconografia.’ In L’art décoratif à Rome à la fin de la république et au début du principat. Table ronde organisée par l’École française de Rome (Rome, 10-11 mai 1979). École française de Rome; Paris: de Boccard; Roma: »L’Erma« di Bretschneider. Coll. de l’École française de Rome 55 (1981), 61–100.

Versluys, M. J. Aegyptiaca Romana: Nilotic Scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt. Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2002.

von Rohden, Hermann & Winnefeld, Hermann (eds.) Architektonische römische Tonreliefs der Kaiserzeit. Berlin ; Stuttgart : W. Spemann, 1911.

Walker, S. and Higgs, P. (eds.) Cleopatra of Egypt: from History to Myth. London : The British Museum Press & Princeton UP, 2001.

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