The Roman Senate, at times the senior political body in the Roman world, holds an interest today that few other ancient political institutions can match. Though often playing little more than an advisory role to the king or emperor of the day, it was a central pillar of the Roman establishment, and its decisions could affect millions. When we reviewed Set 1 of the Strelets Roman Senate, we expressed the hope that the planned second set would fill some of the obvious gaps in the first. Well, this is Set 2, so what has it delivered?
To begin with, half the figures in this set are exactly the same as those in the first set; the top two rows above show these figures. The bottom two rows show the new material in this set, but naturally there is much in common between the two sets, so in many respects the reviews will sound very similar.
Most of the poses in this set are of senators standing and sometimes speaking. Sometimes they gesticulate, as if passionately arguing their point, and sometimes they seem to be calling out as if heckling another speaker. All of them would make good speakers on the floor of the senate, or engaged in conversation outside, but as with the first set there is one obvious omission; no one is sitting down. When not speaking, senators would no more be expected to stand than members of assemblies would today, and benches were provided for this, since sessions could last all day. So the obvious weakness of the first set is not addressed at all here – instead we find more standing figures which are fine in themselves, but do not allow any sort of a realistic display of a senate debate.
Many of the new figures in this set are similar to those from set 1, but the bottom role offers something rather more interesting in terms of poses, though it does so by straying from the subject of the senate. The horse in this row is just a horse, but it puts us in mind of the story of the emperor Caligula (12-41) making his horse a Consul. Sadly like so many stories from antiquity this one is nonsense, as no writer ever claimed this happened. Some claimed the emperor considered doing this, or at least said he was planning to do so, but it is far from clear whether this was a serious proposal or simply a joke mocking the ineffectiveness of the politicians, and ancient writers were no less likely to exaggerate or fabricate lurid stories about celebrities than modern newspaper journalists do today. The fourth figure in this row seems to be holding the horse’s bridle and pointing to it, so we must assume this is meant to be the emperor himself, who was actually called Gaius Caesar Augustus.
The man playing the lyre and seated on a chair, like the Caligula figure, also has a laurel wreath in his hair, so would also be an emperor, and naturally the name that comes to mind here is Nero (37-68). Another of Rome’s many disreputable emperors, Nero was accused of many things, including playing music during one of the many great fires Rome suffered over the years. Again, there is no actual evidence for this, and indeed there is evidence that he was nowhere near Rome during the fire, which was in 64. What is known is his considerable efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the citizens in the aftermath of the fire, which makes the ‘fiddling’ story sound like character assassination by later writers, who often had good political motives to invent such things. What is certainly true however is Nero was a keen musician, and so this figure works perfectly well for that individual. The other figure of note in the bottom row is the slave holding the fan. No need for a long discussion of the purpose of this figure – it can get very hot in Rome, especially if you are wearing a toga!
The many senators in this set all wear the toga, as they should, so our reservations about the way this garment was modelled in the first set are equally valid here, as the new figures are much the same. Sometimes we worried that the arrangement of the cloth was a poor reflection of the toga during the early Imperial period, and in particular the left arm, which had to carry a considerable amount of the cloth in order to keep the cumbersome toga neat, looks quite wrong on some of these. In extreme cases we have figures with their arms behind their back, making no effort to carry their toga, which would have immediately meant the whole thing falling into disarray. The toga was very hot and difficult to wear, and so very unpopular with almost everyone, but many men here are in poses that will mean they seriously regret their lack of attention to its requirements. However all wear the tunica underneath, and sandals, so those elements of the costume are correct. The two emperor figures are very casually dressed, so are not in public. Were they in the senate or visible to the people then they too would wear a toga, but as they wear simple tunics and a cloak they must be in their palace and far from the public eye.
The sculpting is exactly the same as in the first set, partly because many of the figures are the same. Faces are quite nice, and the lack of fine detail lends itself well to the Strelets style. Unlike the first set, which had a number of active poses, everyone here is pretty sedate, and there is no problem with flat poses as a result. However we thought the lyre, which was a beautiful, curved instrument that was as much a pleasure to behold as to hear, is here rendered as square, crude and very ugly. Also the horse, which we assume is meant to be Incitatus, Caligula’s favourite racing horse, looks more like a cart horse. However we are happy to report no flash on any figure here, which is better than the first set.
For the most part this is a dry set of senators speaking or listening, and perfectly good for that, though the lack of anyone sitting down means there is no opportunity to model the senate itself. However any citizen could be represented by these figures, not just senators, since the toga was formal dress for many occasions. The two emperor figures in the bottom row, along with Incitatus, certainly add interest, and while both seem inspired by ancient gossip or libel and depict events that never actually happened (despite the nicely done box artwork), both are perfectly usable in themselves, though we would have preferred that they be dressed in formal togas. An interesting set, and by Strelets’ standards quite nicely done too.