Nubian Boy Unguent Jar


replica: from the Louvre, Paris

gift of: Professor Gary Hanson

date of the original: 2nd century AD

provenance of the original: now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyons

description: Unguent jar in the shape of a bust of a young Nubian boy, with elaborate headdress; hinge remaining at top of head with cylindrical opening. Resin replica with verdigris finish; bronze original. Height 11.5 cm, width 8.5 cm, depth 7 cm.

Receptacles for unguents or perfumed oils were widespread during the Roman period. They took many shapes (see: Glass Unguentarium), as perfumed oils had many uses. In addition to being used simply as body perfume, oils were used to coat the skin before exercise (after which they were removed with a strigil), as libations to the gods, and in funeral rites.

This graceful, elegantly proportioned portrait of a young African boy illustrates the fusion between the two cultures, Roman and Egyptian, from which it originated. The portrait image, surmounted by an elaborate wig, recall the sculptures of Upper Egypt at a much earlier period.

Dating from the Punic Wars with Carthage (see: Hannibal), the Romans were active in North Africa. Their victories against various African tribes resulted in the capture of prisoners. Ethiopians, for example, are represented as slaves in the plays of Plautus and Terence. Slavery was widespread in the Roman world, however, and people of every color were unlucky enough to be subjugated indiscriminately. Both the Greeks and Romans recognized and theorized about the physical differences between themselves and other races, but attached no special stigma to color and were not racist in the modern sense.