The great bronze statuary of Nyon

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The great bronze statuary of Nyon

When the city was filled with bronze giants…

It is sometimes difficult to imagine what the city of Nyon looked like when it was the capital of the Colonia Iulia Equestris. If its location hasn’t changed since its foundation in 44 BC, the organisation of its urban centre and the everyday life and customs of its inhabitants has continued to evolve through time. 

The only witnesses of this rich past are the numerous archaeological remains and artefacts resting underground and discovered over the last two centuries. Amongst these discoveries were found several bronze fragments, some of which are richly designed, that are the proof of the existence of big sculptures in Antiquity.

A silent but conspicuous existence: In Roman times, bronze statues held an important, and visible, place in everyday life. They were omnipresent, inescapable images of the roman citizen’s daily life. They could be of human scale or monumental and were usually dedicated to a divinity, political figure or, more often, to the emperor and/or his family.

Political or religious statues were usually displayed in a public location. The forum (the city’s trading, legal, political, religious and business meeting place) was the perfect place for such a display. You could also catch a glimpse of these statues on quite a few street corners, entertainment and administrative buildings and the baths. Temples, dedicated to the worship of either the imperial family or any other divinity, were also filled with statues.

In the private sphere, sculptures adorned rich estates and their gardens. In this case, the statues could represent mythological scenes, daily life topics or even members of the family. Some sculptures could be dedicated to artists or athletes, a habit inherited from Greek tradition.  The roman author, Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 AD), mentions that the poet L. Accius “had a statue of himself erected in the Temple of the Muses, which was extremely large, although he himself was very short.” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book XXXIV, 10, 2).

Even though the statues’ iconographical diversity was quite vast, depictions of the Emperor were the most common. He could be on horseback, on a chariot or simply represented full length… This way he could take part of the city’s life. This was especially important in provincial territories that were far from Rome, as was the Colonia Iulia Equestris. In public and legal places, courts of law for instance, these statues, representing the Emperor’s authority, validated every decision made. 

Let’s make the clues talk: Whilst walking around Nyon today, it’s quite difficult to imagine what the city looked like back then, when the statues were omnipresent. Throughout the ages they were melted for their precious alloy, very sought after. One the place where they were exhibited was abandoned or that the person depicted was no longer in service, the statues were dismantled and their metal reused for the creation of smaller bronze objects (dishes, figurines, fibula…).

For those statues that made it through time, a lot of them were considered as pagan and were destroyed in medieval times… with a few exceptions.  For instance, the statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitol in Rome, was only saved because it was mistaken for a statue of the Christian Emperor Constantine. The other exceptions are mainly sculptures from Herculaneum and Pompeii, preserved through time by the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.

In Nyon, some fragments were preserved. The one illustrated in this article was found in the “la Duche” archaeological digs, in 2005. It was found near a portico and a richly decorated area, the function of which has not yet been determined. Thanks to the study of the building’s foundation wooden stakes, we know that it has been restructured between 143-145 AC. The object might have belonged to a statue that sat in this building, later dismantled. The function of this building remains unclear, but by studying the means used for its construction, the researchers suspect it might have been a large-scale public building.

But what does this fragment teach us? The first thing that raises questions is its colour. Even if bronze had a coppery colour, far from the greenish colour we can see today due to oxidation, Romans chose to sometimes cover it with a patina. In this case, it was gilded with gold foil. This was usually restricted to prominent figures such as a divinity, the Emperor or even a high dignitary. We can rule the first case out, because Gods were generally represented nude, and the fragments constitutes a part of a garment. It is composed of a smooth portion followed by fringes which is characteristic of what we may found on the pallium (male coat) of a high ranking figure.

The clues lead to the conclusion that this object might be the last remaining part of a statue representing an important figure, in gilded bronze, probably a life-sized, or larger, statue of an emperor wearing a fringed coat. If this statue was indeed exhibited in the unidentified structure, where it was found, it might confirm that this building had a formal role in the city.

There are several other fragments of bronze statues that were found in Nyon and that bear witness of the Colonia’s rich past. Amongst these were found a sword and a horse’s ear, both still in study, which were probably respectively part of a armoured statue and an equestrian statue. Let’s hope that these statues, that used to be exhibited all over town, will give us more to learn about our Roman past. At least, they are proof that the city has a lot more secrets to reveal.

Flore Higelin
Guide and auxiliary at the Roman Museum of Nyon. Archaeology graduate currently working on a thesis about the great bronze statuary in Switzerland.

Something to read:

  •  J. Fejfer, Roman Portrait in Context, (Berlin 2008)
  • P. Hauser, C. Henny, V. Rey-Vodoz, F. Rossi, Musée romain de Nyon : Colonia Iulia Equestris, (Gollion, 2019) 
  • Pline L’Ancien, Histoire naturelle, texte établi, traduit et commenté par J. Beaujeu, (Paris 1944)
  • E.A. Friedland, The Oxford handbook of Roman sculpture, (New York 2015)
  • E. Formigli, G. Lahusen, Römische Bildnisse aus bronze : Kunst und Technik (Munich, 2001)


Data sheet:

Bronze fragment


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