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Roman volute lamps: The conversion of real scenes into fake ones

Sometimes the fakery of lamps is revealed by inaccuracies in the scenes depicted on them. Although the fakers may be masters at recreating the technical aspects, the depth of their knowledge of the classical world may not be always on the same level.

The two examples of fake lamps shown here reveal that the faker blindly copied scenes from real lamps without really having the foggiest idea of what he was copying and he completely misunderstood them.

Roman lamp, probably Balkans, late 1st century AD

Fake lamp

The fake lamp on the right is a copy of the real lamp on the left. To the faker, the real lamp appears to show an animated gladiator in the act of fighting. Although the gladiator is obviously holding his sword in his right hand it was not so clear what he is doing with his left - so the faker filled in what he thought the gladiator should be doing with it. He has lowered the left arm a little and added the outline of a shield around the left hand, as if the figure is holding it.

The faker completely missed the clues to what the gladiator is really doing with his left hand because although he may have had modern ideas of swashbuckling heroes, he was unfamiliar with the way that gladiators fought and the conventions used in portraying them in ancient art.

For one thing, a gladiator is seldom portrayed holding his sword out to one side when actively engaged in fighting. The short sword carried by a thraex (the type of gladiator intended here) was used mainly for thrusting (not slashing, like some later swords) and would be shown pointing forwards in front of him, towards his opponent. Gladiators were not suicidal; they kept their posture compact when fighting, to present a heavily defended target.

For another thing, although it may look exciting to modern eyes accustomed to the antics of Zorro, gladiators were not shown fighting with their legs strangely akimbo, left leg bent acutely at the knee and right leg dragging behind.

In fact, the gladiator is not fighting at all! He is in the act of surrendering. He holds his sword out to the side to show this to his opponent, and his legs are acutely angled because he is about to kneel. His shield is not shown because he has already lost or discarded it 1.

So what is he doing with his left hand in the air? Hailing a cab to get him the heck out of there? Actually, he is making the conventional gesture of submission: raising the forefinger of the left hand
2. This same gesture is also shown by the central figure signalling his submission to the referee in the mosaic at right.

Roman mosaic depicting gladiators

At least the gladiator on the real lamp retains some dignity in defeat. The figure on the fake lamp incongruously holds a shield up in the air instead of raising his forefinger
3 but the faker has replaced his loincloth with what looks more like a bulbous nappy and the poor fellow may well be fleeing the arena overwhelmed by embarrassment.

Another misunderstanding is revealed in the second example of a fake lamp. Again, the fake lamp on the right is a copy of the real lamp on the left. The real lamp on the left depicts an altar with a caduceus leaning to the left behind it. But this is a late provincial lamp made from a worn mould. Earlier lamps clearly show a palm-branch crossing the caduceus and leaning to the right behind the altar. The only remnant of the palm-branch shown on this later lamp is the stalk, a faint diagonal line to the left of the altar.

Roman lamp, probably Balkans, late 1st century AD

Fake lamp

The fake lamp on the right omits the palm-branch altogether - even the stalk - because the faker copying an example of the later lamp did not realise what the faint diagonal line was.

A more surprising mistake made by the faker is that he did not recognise the caduceus, a rather well-known symbol, and appears to have interpreted it as a Roman toilet-brush.

The altar itself has also been mangled. Even the altar depicted on real lamps is frequently misidentified by those who fondly fancy they can see a Roman thatched cottage (perhaps raised on stilts rather like a Malay hut?). But what appears to be a thatched roof is in fact merely the flames rising from a burnt offering and the "stilts" are simply the feet of the altar.

Although only three feet are shown, the pronounced corner running vertically above the central foot on the real lamp makes it clear that the altar is three-dimensional, probably square, with one foot at each corner; it is being viewed at an angle.

The altar on the fake lamp however is two-dimensional and the originally rectilinear spaces between the feet have become a pair of high arches, rather like doorways, suggesting that the faker too subscribed to the popular fantasy that this object was indeed a thatched cottage. Perhaps he saw the caduceus as a leaning palm tree behind it, completing the tropical idyll?

Thus, on these two lamps a defeated combatant has become a swashbuckling infant-prodigy and a prosaic altar has become a Caribbean paradise. If the market for fake lamps ever dries up it seems likely that the fakers could find sparkling new careers as Hollywood scriptwriters.


1. Discarding or lowering the shield was typically the first signal of surrender.

2. Since gladiators typically held their shield with their left hand this gesture emphasised that they were no longer holding it.

3. It is incongruous because he is already displaying the secondary signs of submission, such as holding the sword out to the side and beginning to kneel, whereas discarding or lowering the shield should have come first.

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