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I saw this Roman period wall painting in The Dorset County Museum. It was recovered from a mid-fourth century mausoleum located in a Roman cemetery from Poundbury between 1969 and 1970.

The wall painting shows four figures, one in the back wearing a white garment, with possibly a purple strap over his shoulder, carrying a black & white staff with a knobbed end. Two at the left and the right, wearing purple cloaks and carrying similar black & white staffs, this time without knobs on the end. The final figure at the very front is wearing an all white gown, carries no staff, and judging by his white hair is the oldest of the four.

According to Ling & Davey1, these figures were one of many, as fragments of other figures were found (not pictured here), apparently showing a 'close-fitting white hat and red garments over the shoulder', another staff with a 'knobbed end', and even 'a small Chi-Rho in white against a blue background'. Their interpretation is as follows:

The interpretation of the paintings remains a matter for speculation. The south wall included at least nine figures, and assuming that the series was continuous for the whole length of eighteen feet (approximately 5.50 m) there would have been thirty-one or two in all. Whether they were all looking east, like those on the right half of the wall, or whether the missing figures of the other half of the wall were looking west, creating a focal point at the centre of the series, is entirely uncertain. Nor can we identify the figures with any confidence. The fact that they lack nimbi, the characteristic attribute of divinities and allegorical figures in the fourth century, suggests that they are human; and it is possible that the staffs with knobbed terminals are the insignia of some civil office. It is interesting to note that, if the series of figures was carried all the way round the interior of the mausoleum, there could have been a total of about one hundred figures, the number of the local ordo of decurions. Perhaps the mausoleum, one of the only two painted monuments in the parts of the Poundbury cemetery so far excavated (about two acres), belonged to one of their number.

Based on their attire, can we tell what office or status these individuals hold? Is this the standard attire of the members of an ordo (as Ling & Davey suggest) in the later Roman Empire?

enter image description here (Image my own) XLI No . 13 (B) Dorchester (Poundbury), restored section of figure-frieze from Mausoleum R 8


  1. Ling, R. and Davey, N. (1982). Wall-painting in Roman Britain. pg. 106-110
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    Since you seemed unsure, I changed "uniform" to "attire". I think that's closer to the word you wanted?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 13:25
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    Have you researched elsewhere for this? Is that picture from the book or 'own'? If it is (also) in the book, (how) do they reference this (collection X, No Y, etc). Please add this info, if available. And perhaps a relevant direct quote from the book might also help? Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 22:07
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    @LangLangC Picture is my own, I've added a more full quote from the book and the reference they use for the image. I haven't looked at other sources yet, I'll follow through some of the sources Ling & Davey provide and update the question if I find anything relevant Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 23:05
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    Your description fits a lictor.
    – Jos
    Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 4:48
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    @Jos That fits really well, apparently they even wore red cloaks while outside Rome, which matches (given maybe some deterioration of the colour) the wall painting. I'd be happy to approve your answer if you write one up Commented Jul 14, 2022 at 16:00

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I am fairly certain the person described is a lictor:

one in the back wearing a white garment, with possibly a purple strap over his shoulder, carrying a black & white staff with a knobbed end

That's exactly the clothing and equipment a lictor would wear. Their job was to make way for important office holders, such as consuls or praetors. They often carried (but not always) a bundle of rods or fasces. In Rome with an axe head, out of Rome only the rods. But that was ceremonial. They far more often carried a staff to make a path through the crowds, like a policeman wears a truncheon today.

This re-enactment photo was the best I could find. A Lictor was not a well paid, but a well-connected job. It wasn't something one would pursue on the cursus honorum, but it was a prestigious job for a lower class Roman citizen.

The man with the beard in front is almost certainly a chief lictor, in command of his colleagues. (Not on the photo I placed below, but in your photo above in the question.)

Being a lictor wasn't important, but having a lictor - preferably as many as possible - was hugely important, for status purposes. How many lictors accompanied an office holder was fixed by law. A lower official had one or two, but a dictator or emperor had many more, up to 24.

Roman lictor

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  • But the description reads: "staffs with knobs", not fasces with axes (or with axes, but perhaps with the loose clubs for quick beating & other attitude adjustments, shown in your pic)? These staffs are considerably more slender than these fasces. Did decurions (or whatever office these depicted might have had hold) in Britain have lictors at that time? Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 10:51
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    It's notoriously hard to figure out the minutae of civil structure in the Provinces, if this wall painting does show lictors (and I'm reasonably convinced) it might be the only piece of evidence for them in Roman Britain Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 21:06
  • I'm happy I could help you to figure this one out.
    – Jos
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 0:52
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There is really not much to discern exactly and directly, and unequivocally from the picture as present(ed). That we would see any lictores can be firmly excluded, however, as definitive attributes are missing:

The lictor's main task was to attend as bodyguards to magistrates who held imperium. They carried rods decorated with fasces and, outside the pomerium, with axes that symbolized the power to carry out capital punishment.
[emphasis added, LLC]

Asset number 34850001, COMPASS Title: Bronze figurine of a lictor (magistrate's attendant)
Asset number 34850001: Bronze figurine of a lictor (magistrate's attendant)

A few learned speculations may result in the already mentioned in question decurions or in later evaluations of the available research as:

Possibly also Christian (or at least showing Christians) is the painting of a number of figures from a mausoleum at Poundbury, Dorchester, some of them holding staves or wands. However, the most covincing explanation is that they represent local members of the curial class to which the deceased surely belonged, ‘perhaps specifically those who had held office as duoviri, and assumed a form of dress and insignia appropriate to those in higher authority’.

— Martin Henig: "The Art of Roman Britain", B.T. Batsford: London, 1995.

With Wikipedia explaining:

The duumviri (Latin for "two men"), originally duoviri and also known in English as the duumvirs, were any of various joint magistrates of ancient Rome. Such pairs of magistrates were appointed at various periods of Roman history both in Rome itself and in the colonies and municipia.

This remaining uncertainty allows for a wide range of possible interpretations, of which some are pointing towards the rather low and the very high, with equidistance in explanatory value:

At Poundbury, wall paintings from a fourth-century mausoleum seem to show the older styles with shoulder stripes (Sparey-Green 1993: 135–140; Hartley et al. 2006: 207, no. 193, fig. 37). Though it has been argued that the men depicted might be intended to show the Apostles, their appearance suggests they might be portraits of a family group. Certainly, the very square-cut faces would have been similar to that of one of the burials (Farwell and Molleson 1993: 166). So here we may have a snapshot of some of the men of a later Romano-British family and their clothing.

— H. E. M. Cool: "Clothing and Identity", in: Martin Millett, Louise Revell & Alison Moore (eds): "The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain", Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2016, pp406–424.

The original excavation report — Farwell, D. E. & Molleson, T. I. (1993). Excavations at Poundbury 1966--80. Volume 2: the cemeteries. is hard to find or access; and itself seems to suffer from its publication value in terms of its own pictures being of degraded quality and printed absurdly small. However, the expert on mausolea Sparey-Green contributing to that volume seems to have delivered almost all there is to say from the sparse and weathered reamins we see today:

I conclude with a strong protest at the total inadequacy of illustration to accompany Green's wholly admirable and learned discussion of the painted decoration – walls and ceiling – from the long-frequented cella memoriae known here as Mausoleum R8(135–9).

Apart from a page of plans (fig.92) showing the disposition of the material within the 6.4 by 4.8 m badly-ruined building, the only illustrations provided are photographed from mounted pages in one of the microfiches, degraded in tonal value and absurdly small: this is a unique thing for Britain and, in one particular, for Roman painting generally. There should have been a full series of colour photographs, including the 'small Chi-Rho', with a water-colour restoration, or at least a black-and-white interpretation. There are, indeed, photographs and drawings, including a colour print, elsewhere (N. Davey and R. Ling, Wall-Paintingin Roman Britain (1982), 106–11, and pl. xl); but since Green is not wholly satisfied with Davey's restorations, that can only be counted as a stop-gap.

The consensus of opinion is that the range of stately figures, brightly dressed and facing east, with a youth in a white tunic with clavi in front, is composed of mortals, lacking as they do the nimbus of sanctity or rank. They are reminiscent of the gaily-dressed notables who greeted St Germanus in 429 (Constantius, Vita Germani, 14 (Sources chrétiennes 112 (1965), 118)). Whether they carried wands, is not stated: here at least three of them do so, and from their black colouring with a white line down their leading edges, we might almost suppose that polished ebony, glancing in the light from the east, was intended. The identity of the figures is very uncertain: there is no known comparison, and no suggestion, for example, that the members of a city ordo carried such wands, although I suppose the decurions may have done so when in office, like the consuls of old. The bouleuterion meeting represented on a bronze coin of Alexandria Troas struck under Gallus (A.D. 251–3) (BMC Troas, Aeolis, and Lesbos, 27, no. 145, pl. vi, 7) shows curiales with no sign of wands. On the whole the late Professor J.M.C. Toynbee's suggestion that ancestors are represented is still the most likely, though proof is to seek. From the reference by Green to traces of architectural detail on other fragments, one is led to wonder whether a Raising of Lazarus may not have been depicted here, on the lines, say, of the fine painting, with Lazarus' tomb shown as an aedicula, in Cubiculum C of the Via Latina catacomb in Rome (A. Ferrua, The Unknown Catacomb (I991), 90, fig. 67). Christ may have been identified by the Chi-Rho; but in the Via Latina scene the onlookers are by no means so individualized as here, and of course carry no wands. Speculation remains; but this brief consideration is enough to show that the report is indeed gravely wanting in point of illustrations of this painting. We are left in amazement that the decoration of the ceiling and walls of this familial tomb should have survived at all.

— George C. Boon: "(Review) Excavations at Poundbury 1966-80. II: The Cemeteries by D. E. Farwell; T. I. Molleson", Britannia, Vol. 26 (1995), pp. 400–402. jstor

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