A Roman eagle crafted in marble, skillfully to convey its prominent details. The bird perches imperiously, with its talons spread widely apart, perhaps contemplating flight. It befits the role of eagles in the Roman era as the arch symbol of imperialism and domination. It has a prominent beak with its feathers arranged into diapers, and elongated tail feathers, demarcating an ambiguous realism that defies the typical abstraction of the late Roman period.
The best-known symbolism is the aquila or eagle that formed the most intimidating element of a legionary standard, carried by an aquilifer or eagle-bearer. According to Pliny the Elder, in the late Republican period, it was one of five animal symbols on military standards, alongside the wolf, ox, horse, and boar. One of the most famous legion legions, Legio XXII Deiotariana, formed by Mark Antony, had the emblem of the eagle emblazoned on its shields. Pliny also records the belief that eagles were the only creature never to be harmed by thunderbolts, hence their role as the armour-bearers of Jupiter. However, this did little to protect Legio XXII in the long-term, since it was destroyed by the Parthians in Armenia early in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (in AD 161).
Eagles were also popular in a range of artistic media, from small bronzes to marble sculptures in the round. Perhaps the most celebrated of the latter is one of the Sperlonga sculptures found in the Villa of emperor Tiberius on the coast between Naples and Rome, and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Sperlonga. As part of the Ganymede group, this depicts an eagle perching on the back of the divine Trojan hero, and is attributed to the Workshop of the Laocoon sculptors Athanadoros, Hagesandros and Polydoros of Rhodos, who were active in the early first century AD. Its original location was on a cliff above the grotto at the villa site, it is probable that our eagle once adorned the garden of a luxurious villa.
An impressive limestone eagle was recovered at Minories in the City of London in 2013 and it is thought that the creature formed part of a Mausoleum in Roman Londinium. One of the best known sculptures of an eagle, this time with an entwined snake, was found at Khirbet et Tannur in Jordan and is displayed in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio.
Private Collection, United Kingdom, 1980s.
New York Art Market, 2000s.
Published: Sold, Sotheby's, London, 8 July 1991, lot 382.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 16 June 2006, lot 291.