The tethered barbarian currently cowering at the foot of the McManus stairs might be an impressive sculptural reminder of what lay in store for anyone on the sharp end of a Roman spear, but the gallery beyond shows that life in the Roman Empire could, for some, be a rather more profitable affair.


"This is the most ambitious thing we've done since the building was refurbished five years ago," says Christina Donald, Curator of Early History at the McManus Art Gallery and Museum, speaking of this exhibition of sculptures, jewellery and artefacts from the British Museum's impressive Roman holdings.

Exploring the wealth, power and organization of the Roman Empire during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, with a particular emphasis on how the Romans viewed their dependant provinces, there are objects from all corners of the Empire, from Rome to Egypt, from Scotland to Syria and beyond. The diversity is enormous, and show in fascinating fashion the way in which the influences of each of these places were absorbed, to greater or lesser extent, into the vast body that was the Empire.

The northernmost part of that Empire, Provincia Britannia, as the Romans dubbed it, was at that time a rough and ready collection of Celtic tribes, variously warring with or ignoring each other - plus ça change, you might say. Beyond the more densely populated southern areas, which, once 'conquered' (although the term in Britain could never be said to be absolute) were maintained not least through the building of a brilliant road system to facilitate the movement of troops, Roman Britain was a rather more patchy affair.

"They came and retreated and came again," says Donald of the Roman presence in what is now Scotland, a military occupation that never lasted beyond a few decades each time. Luxury items from the rest of the Empire, as displayed in the exhibition, were scarce in this northernmost outpost of the Roman Empire, largely populated by military personnel and traders. There were no mosaics, as can be seen in Roman houses in the south of Britain, and the few luxury goods found by archaeologists in Scotland, such as pottery and jewellery, were, suggests Donald, "diplomatic gifts" to win over the locals.

"There would have been nothing like the contents of the Emperor Nero's house in Rome. That kind of thing would never have been seen here," says Donald, and refers to the stunning statues and sculptures, some also from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, that form part of this exhibition.

Alongside these substantial loans from the British Museum are others from the National Museum of Scotland and Dundee's own collections. Exhibits range from a rather idiosyncratic grave covering depicting a reclining woman holding the bust of her husband (in which were contained his ashes), and the aforementioned statue of a captured barbarian slave clutching the skirts of an unknown figure. Here, too, are coins from the remarkable Hoxne Hoard, a collection of 14,865 Roman coins dating from the 4th and 5th centuries AD found in a field in Suffolk in 1992, and a stunning armlet from the National Museum in Edinburgh.

Perhaps more amazing still, at least in terms of survival, is an almost entirely intact knitted child's sock from Roman Egypt. "These are the everyday things that people would have used," adds Donald, who says there is even a military diploma in the collection that soldiers would have received when they finished their service.

Donald's own favourite is a statue of the Egyptian falcon-headed god Horus dressed as a Roman soldier which would once have been brightly painted and "quite wild looking".

"They call it cross-cultural cross-dressing at the British Museum," she laughs. As a way of inveigling the Roman system into the religion and culture of the conquered Egyptians, it is a prime example of how the Romans appropriated other cultural traditions to consolidate their Empire. No wonder most people submitted. But the barbarians - if not the one at the foot of the stairs - got their way in the end.

Roman Empire: Power And People , McManusArt Gallery and Museum, Albert Square, Dundee (01382 307200,, Jan 24-May 10, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, 12.30-4.30pm