Terracotta lamp with a caricatured scene


British Museum

British Museum

After Antony and Cleopatra's suicides in 30 BC, Octavian began a campaign to discredit the memory of the foreign queen who had come so close to toppling Rome. Unable to attack his adoptive father Caesar, Octavian had Caesarion assassinated, and concentrated his venom on Cleopatra's relationship with Antony, who, he claimed, had been unmanned by the 'harlot of Canopus'. Even long after her death, when Antony's descendants by his brief marriage to Octavia had brought the Roman imperial court into disrepute, Cleopatra's memory was still attacked. The excesses of Nero's court may have prompted the crude pornographic cartoon on this Roman lamp, often identified as Cleopatra. It is perhaps significant that this type of lamp, of Italian manufacture, is well represented among the finds from military sites along the Rhine-Danube frontier: did the exuberantly erotic Cleopatra serve as a soldier's pin-up, at the same time reminding them of their sacred duty to save the manhood of Rome from the amorous clutches of foreign queens? The top is decorated with a crocodile, symbolic of Egypt. Rising from the animal's tail is a huge human phallus on which sits the naked queen with her hair drawn back in a bun. She holds a palm-branch in her left hand; behind her plants, probably intended to be nilotic (of the Nile), rise up.

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  • Title: Terracotta lamp with a caricatured scene
  • Date Created: 40/80
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 9.20cm; Width: 7.60cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: mould-made; slipped
  • Subject: king/queen; reptile; eroticism/sex
  • Registration number: 1865,1118.249
  • Production place: Made in Italy
  • Period/culture: Roman
  • Material: terracotta
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Witt, George