Our phalera is rare and artistically accomplished showing the head of a boar in a three-quarter perspective, employing the repoussé technique, hammered to achieve low relief. It is finely detailed, depicting the ferocity of the animal with careful modeling and characteristic features (ears, eyes, mane, snout, tusks), the representation encircled by 22 domed rivets. It is probably military in character, since several Roman legions, mentioned below, are known to have used the boar as an emblem. The phalera is stylistically consistent with the fourth century AD, yet has an abstraction that suggests an influence from the Orient (cf. the central medallion on a Sasanian silver dish, fourth to fifth century AD, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ).
In light of its date and subject, it is possible to narrow down the legion of its origin. Legio XVII, XVIII, and XIX, were founded in Italy by Julius Caesar (49 BC), but were wiped out in the Battle of the Teutenbourg Forest in AD 9. Legio XVI Gallica was also founded by Caesar in Gaul (49), but was abolished by Vespasian for surrendering to Civilis during his revolt on the Rhine (70). Legio XXI Rapax (‘Rapacious’), also founded in Gaul by Caesar (49 BC), was destroyed on the Danube by the Sarmatians during the reign of Domitian (92).
possibility is Legio XX Valeria Vitrix (‘Valourous and Victorious’), again founded by Caesar in Italy (49), but later it is thought that soldiers were recruited in the Levant, which may explain the oriental style of our phalera. The legion saw distinguished service under Germanicus in the Pannonian War and took part in the invasion of Britain, where it remained, stationed at Deva (Chester), but was withdrawn before the end of the fourth century and appears to have been destroyed by the Franks and Vandals in Gaul in the early fifth century. One of the best-preserved symbols of the legion is a terracotta roof tile antefix from the site of their barracks in Deva, showing the boar emblem, in the British Museum (Inv. PE1911, 0206.1, second to third century). A second possibility is Legio I Italica, founded by Nero in Italy (66), remaining operational through the fourth century AD. The significance of the boar has its root in the Celtic world where it was used to ward off evil, and it is clear that this custom lingered, especially among those legions that were raised in Gaul. The most conspicuous example of this is the reliefs depicting boar standards on the Augustan triumphal arch at Orange in southern France.
Our phalera is the preserved decorative part of a circular device that was once punctuated with several holes to affix it to a breast-plate or the harness of a horse, worn in military parades, awarded as a medal for distinguished service.
Private Collection, Cologne, Germany, acquired 1990.