No, this isn’t a post about very tall people, but about mythological giants – the race of creatures in Greek and Roman mythology who played an important role in the story of the establishment of the Olympian pantheon. They are not commonly encountered in a Romano-British context, but are depicted on one of Lincolnshire finest mosaics and on a previously unidentified copper alloy statuette which I believe also represents a giant.
According to the Greek writer Hesiod it was the earth, Gaia, who gave birth to ‘the great giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands’ (Theogony 185). Their most crucial role in mythology was their battle with the Olympian gods (known as the ‘Gigantomachy’). The victory of the Olympians secured their reign over the universe and saw the giants either killed or buried deep underground.
Depictions of giants changed through time. Until the 4th Century BC, Greek giants were human in appearance, but from that date on they were increasingly depicted as anguipede creatures – having snakes for legs. There is a great piece on the nature of this change by Rachel Dodd of Harvard University. It is therefore as snake-legged creatures that we encounter them in the Roman world. Ovid (Metamorphoses 1.183-4) referenced ‘snake-footed giants’ and the so called ‘Pseudo-Apollodorus’ (Bibliotheca 1.6.1) described them as ‘terrible of aspect … with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet’.
The first depiction from Lincolnshire I want to discuss is a copper alloy statuette, recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The PAS record fails to identify the statuette, suggesting that it may represent a water deity, but from the anguipede form of the figure the interpretation as a giant seems certain, and the statuette one of great interest to the study of classical mythology in Roman Britain.
The figure is depicted in a dramatic pose, on its knees with head tilted back and the right hand raised in a gesture of submission. The lower legs are clearly in the form of snakes, splayed out to the sides of the figure, incised chevrons representing the scales and the heads simply moulded. The right hand holds some form of curved staff, perhaps a tree branch, up against the figure’s left shoulder. The musculature of the figure is pronounced, with chest, stomach and back muscles all clearly defined to the point of being cartoonish, perhaps accentuating the mythological nature of the creature.
The statuette, somewhat ironically given the creature it portrays, is smaller than most copper alloy deity statuettes, measuring just 57mm in height. This smaller size, combined with the submissive pose of the figure, suggests that it may have formed part of a larger group, perhaps depicting the Gigantomachy (as seen, for example, on the Pergamon altar*), this particular giant at the point of being defeated in battle by one of the Olympians.
The myth of the Gigantomachy represented the triumph of order over chaos, and therefore appealed to the Roman state. A copper alloy sculptural group of it might plausibly have been a suitable decoration for an official office or residence, perhaps associated with a magistrate or military official. The statuette was discovered by a metal detectorist at Caenby Corner, approximately 11 miles north of Lincoln on the line of Ermine Street. The nearest known settlement of any size is Owmby, approximately 2 miles to the south, but suggestions as to why the statuette came to be at its findspot must remain speculative.
The statuette is not the only known depiction of giants in Lincolnshire, however. The grand mosaic from the villa at Horkstow in North Lincolnshire featured four snake-legged giants holding aloft the central section of the mosaic. I discussed the contents of that central section and its possible Bacchic connections in this previous post. The giants are recorded in two surviving antiquarian illustrations, made at the time of the mosaic’s discovery in the late 18th Century, and both are worth of comparison. One was by Samuel Lysons and the other by Lincolnshire builder William Fowler – both can be seen below.
Although neither artist has attempted to capture the accuracy of individual tesserae, the broad similarities are obvious, although Lysons’ giants are actually holding up the central roundel, whereas Fowlers’ are simply making a strange, palms down outstretched gesture, as if playing with his own ‘feet’. The snakes forming the lower part of the legs, erupting from just below the knees, are consistent with each other, and with the Caenby Corner statuette. Both giants would appear to be naked, though Lysons’ illustration better captures a sense of musculature, with Fowler making the giants appear to be wearing some form of leather strapping.
The mythology of giants was, then, clearly understood to at least some in Roman Lincolnshire, though with so few known examples it perhaps remained part of a higher level of classical education. I looked at the both the depiction of Hercules and Antaeus on a knife handle and a tombstone referencing the rape of Proserpina in this previous post, and these objects seem to fit into a similar category – evidence of the more intricate details of mythology retained by a smaller number of individuals, perhaps those provided with a more classical education or whose social position made it useful to be able to communicate with those who had.
*The Pergamon altar was an enormous structure constructed at Pergamon in western Turkey in the 2nd Century BC. Excavated by the German antiquarian Carl Humann in the 1870s and 1880s, it is now partially reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The large scale friezes include the story of the Gigantomachy and the life of the hero Telephus.