Bathing Venus

Now that the days are getting longer and the weather is getting warmer, we’re seeing more people out at the coast braving the North Sea for a swim – and it reminded us of one of our favourite objects in the Great North Museum: Bathing Venus! This stone may not have an inscription, but it’s well worth investigating..

This large stone relief originally came from Bremenium, which is now known as High Rochester Roman Fort. This fort is located north of Hadrian’s Wall, around 25 miles from Corbridge.

Site of the Fort from the West
Photo © Andrew Curtis

Bremenium was originally built around 80AD as part of the first invasion of Scotland under the Roman general Agricola. This means the fort actually predates Hadrian’s Wall since construction didn’t start on it until 120AD. Evidence from the site tells us it continued to be used as an outpost fort even after the Wall went up. A second fort (the ‘Antonine’ fort) was built in 139AD, while the third fort (the ‘Severan’ fort) – the ruins of which can still be seen on the site today – was constructed in the early 3rd century AD when the Romans were undertaking a major refurbishment of Hadrian’s Wall. Bremenium isn’t listed in surviving administrative records (the Notitia Dignitatum) of the late fourth century, indicating that by this point the fort was no longer in use.

Bremenium is closely linked to water through its name which means ‘the place on the Roaring Stream.’ This roaring stream is the Sills Burn, a tributary of the River Rede. It sits to the west of the fort, and might even be the bathing spot of a famous Roman goddess..

Inside a water tank at Bremenium’s headquarters (principia), archaeologists discovered something intriguing – a watery picture carved into stone:

Bathing Venus
Stone relief c.2nd-3rd century AD

At the centre we can see Venus the Roman goddess of Love and Beauty. Kneeling by a stream, she is bathing and her arms are raised as she washes her long hair. Venus is accompanied by two water nymphs stood on either side of her, one holding a water jug and the other holding a towel. In Greek and Roman mythology, nymphs were divine personifications of natural geographical features like streams, woods, and springs.

Our three divine ladies don’t look that pleased to be bathing in rural Northumberland – perhaps Sills Burn is a little chillier than Venus’ usual bathing spots! The carving on this stone is a great example of the Romano-British style we’ve seen on some of our other objects. The subject matter is very classical, but the style of the carving – especially around the face – is more Celtic in design. You might notice some similarities with our previous Romano-British pal Antenociticus’ eyes, nose, and hair if you look closely at the original stone relief:

On display at the Great North Museum Hancock
Photo: © Carole Raddato

Spot any similarities? There’s a few common Celtic features reappearing: the long faces, the leaf-shaped oval eyes placed close together, tiny slit mouths, and the long rectangular noses. These often create the impression of a very stern face! Take a look at this comparative example of a Celtic stone head from northern England, dating from the 2nd – 3rd centuries AD — the same period as our Bathing Venus:

Celtic Head, Cleveland Museum of Art

Looks familiar, right? These strong facial characteristics on Celtic stone carving have been described as capturing ‘the stern and brooding presence of an Otherworld being’ by Barry Raftery in his 1994 book on Pagan Celtic Ireland. What do you think?

Let’s take a look now at the classical side of our stone relief. Venus (or Aphrodite, her Greek equivalent) was a popular goddess in the ancient world. She is most famous for her associations with love and beauty, but her sphere of influence actually went far beyond this: Venus was also closely associated with military success and war, and came to represent Rome’s imperial power. In mythology, she was also the mother of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who was destined to found Rome.

Venus appears in many forms in ancient art. She is most likely to be found portrayed as a young beautiful woman – often without any clothes or with beautiful flowing fabric draped around her body. Some myths tell us that Venus was born from the sea’s foamy waves and so she often appears in watery scenes by sea, rivers or streams like our Bremenium Venus above.

But how classical is this particular depiction? Let’s take a look at some comparisons – starting with a small statue from around the 1st century BC known as the Rhodes Venus. She’s based on an earlier sculpture by a man called Doidalses. Notice anything interesting?

Rhodes Venus | c.1st century BC
Remodelling of the Hellenistic ‘Crouching Venus’ by Doidalses
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You can see that the stance of the Rhodes Venus is remarkably similar to our Bremenium version – despite the very different artistic styles! Both arms are raised as her hands hands grip the long hair which falls over her shoulders. Even her knees have the same one-up one-down pattern. Perhaps our Bremenium sculptor had seen – or was shown – a similar Venus statue for his own design!

The composition of the scene – how the figures are arranged – can be seen in different art forms too. Can you see anything interesting in this mosaic?

Timgad mosaic | c.3rd century AD
Photo: @transmarinae on Twitter

Discovered in Timgad, a Roman city in Algeria, this scene shows Venus in the centre – and she’s rinsing her hair again! Her arms are yet again raised with bent elbows, as her hands hold onto her hair. But this time her attendants have changed – instead of two water nymphs, we have something a little more unusual on either side: an ichthyocentaur (ick-theo-sen-tor)! These sea creatures have the head and upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse, and the tail of a fish. We can’t quite work out how you’d swim with all those different parts, but we like them! They’re also called sea centaurs – but that isn’t nearly as fun to say as ichthyocentaur.

Looking closer to home, there have been plenty of other interesting depictions of Venus in Roman Britain. So far, archaeologists have found over 400 little pipeclay statuettes, small enough to be easily carried around, of the goddess. Many of them come from military sites like Hadrian’s Wall, like this little example from Magna (Carvoran):

Fragmentary Venus
On display at The Roman Army Museum (near Vindolanda)

Why do you think archaeologists have identified her as Venus? You can read more about this and other fragmentary Venuses of Hadrian’s Wall here:

This little alabaster Venus also caught our eye in the collections of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums for her similarities to the Bremenium Venus – but her catalogue entry notes she may be a modern replica of a Roman statuette. Eheu! (Alas!)

Useful Reading:

High Rochester self-guided walk – map and walking instructions for a walk to the Roman fort, created by the Revitalising Redesdale project

Bremenium Fort – maps, details and inscriptions from the Fort

BBC History of the World in 100 Objects: Figure of Venus – another Northern Venus, this time from Binchester Roman Fort

Potted History – and if you fancy your very own Venus statuette, you can find one here!


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