The Smiting King… What’s the Deal?

For the last two years I have been working on researching a Roman-Egyptian terracotta figurine owned by USC and housed in the USC Archaeology Research Center.

Over the last two years this project has produced some interesting results. This piece originally presented some interesting questions. I wanted to know what   this was representing, who the figures were meant to represent, what it was used for.  Through the research I have been able to determine that this object is a translation of a classic Egyptian motif called the Smiting King image type. It traditionally shows an Egyptian pharaoh smiting a group or a single barbarian enemy. It has a real world implication meant to depict the pharaoh’s dominance over his enemies, but it also has some religious significance. The image type also depicts the pharaoh’s duty and ability to defeat the supernatural forces of Chaos and maintain the natural order of the world.

In the case of this particular object the pharaoh/king figure is not an Egyptian pharaoh in the traditional sense but is actually a Roman emperor. The armor the king is wearing and the bird of prey on his shoulder identify the figure as a Roman emperor. The facial features are not detailed enough to identify the specific emperor based solely on distinguishable features. But the beard the emperor is wearing narrows the window of possible identifications. From here other elements are needed to identify the characters in question. The image type shows a king defeating an enemy who threatens the borders of Egypt, so to narrow the possibilities I looked for bearded emperors who fought wars against enemies who were located near, but outside, the Egyptian boarders and studied the different emperors and their military campaigns. I came to the hypothesis that the most likely identification for the emperor was the emperor Hadrian and that the figurine depicts Hadrian defeating the Second Jewish Revolt which occurred in 132-135 CE.

This was only a preliminary identification because I wanted to solidify the identification of the barbarian figure as a participant in the Second Jewish Revolt. So I started looking at the dress of the figure and his hair and facial hair. This did not produce adequate results because those features were not distinct enough to extrapolate a solid identification, so I shifted to the one distinct feature of the barbarian, the sword. This has actually produced some interesting results. I have learned that the sword is called a sica and that it is a weapon commonly used in the near east. I also discovered that the Romans called the Jewish people the Sicarii, which derives from the word sica. The Jewish people earned this name because they were thought to be assassins or hitmen for hire by the Romans and their weapon of choice was the sica. While some more foundational evidence is needed to completely solidify the barbarian as a Sicarii, I believe that this is the correct identification of the figure. If this holds true, then the identification of the emperor as Hadrian is confirmed and the identification of the piece is complete. This piece is very interesting, and if you would like some further information please go to to learn more about USC’s Smiting King.


Grant Dixon


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