Roman, black acrobat balancing on a crocodile, first century. Marble, 75 cm.
British Museum, London

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Among the most original treasures of the British Museum, a marble figure of a young black acrobat performs the daring act of a chest stand on the back of a diminutive crocodile. In its original context, the roughly half-life-size figure ostensibly served a purely decorative function, most likely as an exotic ornament in a Roman garden.

His energetic, rising form almost certainly stood on a pedestal, elevating the figure to eye level for the contemplation of visitors amid the carefully arranged collection of objects, fountains and plants that made up the ideal upper-class Roman domestic garden. But beyond the monumental display of athleticism of the young acrobat, this collector’s piece embodies a deeper commentary on belonging and ethnicity in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

The black acrobat has not come down to us unscathed. When bought by the English collector Charles Townley in the late 18th century during one of his visits to Rome, the figure lay in several pieces, with most of its lower legs, as well as the base, missing. Intact, however, is the superb grasp of physical dynamism and knowledge of anatomical form. The black man’s hair is arranged in corkscrew curls of a type often seen in Greek and Roman art.

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The piece is further placed within the context of contemporary Roman taste and style by the existence of a closely related variant, almost certainly also made in the imperial capital. One of these, now in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, differs in some key respects from the Townley figure. The hair is arranged in tight, spherical curls conforming to an alternate convention adopted by the ancient Greeks and Romans for the representation of black hairstyles. In addition, the mouth of the figure is fitted with a lead tube, a sure sign of its use as part of an elaborate fountain. However, the crocodile is not included; instead the figure is balancing on an ordinary flat surface.

This engaging study of physical equipoise harks back to the widespread appearance of acrobats and dancers on Greek vases, reliefs and small-scale figurines in clay and bronze. It was the particularly Roman sense of engagement with decoration and scale that brought the theme of the acrobat to the more elevated level of monumental sculpture.

The motif of the nude acrobat poised on the back of the crocodile may also evoke the transit of the soul to another realm of consciousness. In another notable fountain group from Naples, the love god Eros plunges into the sea on the back of a dolphin. The similarly inverted pose of the black acrobat and his association with water implies a further dimension of psychic mutability to complement his athletic prowess. This view is reinforced by the sacred nature of the crocodile for both Egyptians and Nubians. As seen here, the type of crocodile worshipped as the god Sobek seems to have been a smaller version of the much-feared variety and was regarded as a beneficent force in both nature and the progress of the human soul in the afterlife.

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The expertly crafted figure of the black acrobat was one of many products of specialized shops catering to a kind of nouveau riche class eager to surround itself with instantly acquired culture. Consciously or not, its members were also installing a very potent symbol of otherness into the quiet composure of their gardens. The association, at least in the Townley case, of blacks with crocodiles recalled the rich land of Egypt and the great life-bringing River Nile.

For a well-read Roman viewing the acrobat, the great wealth of lore generated by the exotic land of Egypt would have come to mind. In his Natural History, the author and scientist Pliny the Elder, living during the time that these black acrobats were carved, mentioned the peculiar practice of the Tentyrites, a dark-skinned tribe living along the Upper Nile. He vividly records their proclivity for diving off the backs of crocodiles into the water. Although described as small in stature, their diminutive form may have been changed to a somatic norm for presentation in a patrician garden.

In a different vein, the geographer Strabo tells of the arrival of actual crocodiles in Rome long before this time, to be used for display in the Circus Maximus. He also describes their attendants as members of the same people discussed by Pliny: the Tentyridae. All of these reports take on an ever-greater relevance given the acquisition of Egypt by Rome after the defeat in 31 B.C. of Antony and Cleopatra by their archrival Octavian. The symbolic significance of the crocodile in a black land was transformed from the literary realm to the stark reality of political dominance by a foreign power. On Roman coins minted just after the downfall of Cleopatra, the device of a crocodile is used to represent the captured land of Egypt itself.

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What the crocodile meant for black people both in Africa and the Mediterranean Diaspora may also inform the image of the Townley black acrobat. In his robust figure can be discerned a new charge of political meaning, signaling a paradigm shift engendered by the transfer of power to Egypt’s new Roman master.

The figure of the acrobat no longer bears the quotidian flavor of the small-scale object, and his monumental bearing references more than just the actual life of the itinerant street performer. He now stands as an enduring symbol of regional identity, an abstracted human presence slipped symbolically into the heart of the Roman power structure.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.