A lot of bull

I wonder if anyone else has this problem – you see something which, although not at the forefront of the mind, niggles and you keep thinking about it This is mine, an object I saw in a museum in 2019 so it has only been three years. It is a stylised bronze wall bracket of a ship’s prow and rostrum, used for ramming and holing enemy ships, with the front of a charging bull set beween the prow and rostrum. It was in a Pompeii exhibition in Nimes but had little information attached. I thought it unusual as it was found in Roman Pompeii but, to me, the sea and the bull reference was more associated with Poseidon.

Six weeks ago I put this forward to several Facebook groups and the replies were varied and interesting ranging from could it be a reference to Mithras, to Dionysius I of Syracuse’ design for the prototype of a quinquereme (if Diodorus Siculus is to be believed) and, as he was so successful the owner liked to appropriate the same savage and merciless qualities to general points about the find location, the significance of bulls and Roman appropriation and manipulation of culture and mythology particularly Greek.

Since then, I have been giving it more thought, carried out a little research and would like to address some of the comments and suggest some possibilities.

Initially I was not convinced that there was any Mithraic influence and have now dismissed the possibility. The reason being that on virtually all material culture; altars, statues, friezes and frescoes the bull is depicted at the moment of contractual sacrifice as Mithras plunges the knife into the neck which is not the case here. I have always associated the popularity and spread of Mithras with the army not the navy although I concede army and navy could be banded under the term military. However, the most convincing reason that this is unlikely to be associated with Mithras is that the earliest archaeology of mystery cult is in Asia in the early 1st century CE and in Rome at the end of the 1st century with the main adoption and promotion being second to fourth centuries. This would preclude it as Pompeii was frozen in time in 79CE and therefore chronologically highly unlikely.

The idea that it represents Dionysius I of Syracuse’s design for the prototype of a quinquereme seems plausible. Building a new warship would give the opportunity for design changes and the image of a charging bull would be very appropriate. Whilst a bull, a manifestation of the Cretan Bull, could represent ferocity, power and strength there is perhaps a more compelling mythological connection. The Syracusan heritage is Doric Greek and the obvious contemporary reference to a raging bull from the sea would be Euripidean – the bull sent by Poseidon to frighten the horses of the chariot of Hippolytus. This would reflect the relationship between Euripides and Syracuse. It seems likely that Euripides’ only diplomatic role was as a peace envoy based on friendship (Aristotle Rhetoric 6.20) plus there is evidence that some prisoners who could quote passages from Euripides earned their freedom (Plutarch Nicias 29.3). However, as a working warship there are some concerns. The images that survive of warships invariably show them as having streamlined, smooth prows with the rostrum extended below the waterline. This would seem to be an obvious design to minimise friction through the water to ensure maximum speed and maximum penetration of the ram. Any departure from this would compromise both speed and effectiveness. Further, the passage in Diodorus Siculus’ Library (14.41-14.43) where he chronicles Dionysius’ reasons, preparations and weapon production and, although it mentions the first time quinqueremes had been built, the workforce and materials, there is no mention of the design. So, it seems more likely that rather than a working design it is more likely an ornament with an expression of divine assistance and success which nevertheless still points to a Greek influence.

As for finding a Greek influenced piece in Pompeii I was reminded by a commentator, and I will quote:
There is a wealth of examples of Romanisation and cosmopolitanism within Pompeii. It was common to reproduce styles of art from other cultures and to also import them. Just because it was rediscovered within a Roman setting now, does not mean that it originated there. Although most of the strongest associations with the bull lie with Ancient Greek culture (Minos, Cretan bull, sacrifices, etc.), the bull was a symbol that featured in many aspects of ancient history. To the Greeks it was a symbol of strength, power, might, and the ultimate sacrifice. It also had connections with ancient mythology and the gods. Keeping in mind that the Romans also revered literature such as Euripides, Ovid, Plutarch, Appolonius, Sophocles, etc., all of whom featured significant reference to the bull. It was also considered a sign of wealth and prosperity, not to mention the many links to religion and spiritualism from the Greeks, Minoans, Romans and even Christianity and the links with Egypt and the love of Nilotic art that was prevalent within Pompeii. With so many strong links, it doesn’t seem strange that a such a culture loving and cosmopolitan society as the Romans would have this.

All the above is true. We only have to look at the surviving mosaics, statuary and frescos to see the influence of myth and literature with Greek influences. As Horace said: “Gracia capta fermum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio” – “Conquered Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium” (Epistles Book II, epistle i, lines 156–157). I would also add that the discovery of a nautical artefact is not surprising as Pompeii was a harbour town but more importantly Misenum, the main naval station of the Mediterranean fleet, was close by.

It is the context of the object’s discovery that gives more of an insight into the potential meaning and possible owner. It was discovered as one of a pair during an excavation in 1903 on the south side of the atrium and the entrance to the Tablinum of a house named as House M. Obellius Firmus or Casa di MM. Obellii Firmi, pater et filius or Casa del Conte di Torino. Interestingly there were another two wall brackets with charging bulls incorporated into the prow of a ship but without the rostum. This would suggest the boats were merchant and non-military.

Image from Pompeii in Pictures

As a merchant vessel the meaning behind the iconography would likely have been different to the raging bull of Poseidon. There may well have been an element of divine protection in both cases for the safety of the vessel but, for the merchant vessel, there may have been a different aspect of safety. Part of Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus dated to 2nd Century BCE is a relief of a Neried riding a sea bull. The sea bull has the head and body of a bull, and a long serpent’s tail. The expressions on the Nereid and sea-bull are joyful and peaceful.

Glyptothek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The bull on the wall bracket, only showing the front, has a remarkably similar pose suggesting that, rather than charging the bull is now more docile. Drawing on the the myth of Zeus and Europa the bull can be seen as carefully carrying a precious cargo – gently and peacefully and possibly an interpretation which would have resonated in a merchant seafaring context.

The location of the brackets is of paramount importance. All four brackets were found on the south side of the atrium, opposite the entrance of the house and framed the entrance to the Tablinum. The Tablinum was a room used to store family records and the busts of family members on pedastals to two sides of the room. In a status culture where lineage, family and wealth were all important the brackets framing what is the focus of the family, visitors would have been in no doubt that the sea would have been an important and integral part of the paterfamilias’ wealth and success. They show that both in war and peace the support of Neptune, with influences from Greek mythology, was essential from different perspectives. In war, invoking the rage of the Cretan Bull, attacks were pressed home with ferocity and in peacetime the ship, crew and cargo were safe and secure all of which added to the family’s stature, reputation and wealth within society.

It is frustrating that there is so little on the suggested owners of this house to confirm a nautical background although it is equally exciting that another piece of the jigsaw may be discovered at any time during excavations to support ownership.

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