Mark Bradley on Roman Senses

Mark Bradley, Faculty member and Editor of Papers of the British School at Rome, visited the BSR in the first week of November to give a public lecture on ‘Roman noses: smell and the ancient senses’ and led a site visit for our award-holders to the Ara Pacis on the theme of ‘Religion, monumentality and the Roman sensorium’.

Below, he talks about why senses in the ancient world are so in vogue, and why we should study them.

‘Sensory engagements in the ancient world are now the dish of the day: back when I started working on Roman colour back in the 1990s I got some very funny looks, but now there are books, articles, conferences and PhD theses galore on the senses. What Greece and Rome – and what Greeks and Romans – looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like and felt like is very much in vogue in classical scholarship, and we’re all very interested – literature and material culture specialists alike – in the ancient sensorium. My interest in the senses, though, is not so much about reconstructing what the ancient world was like as probing how the ancients used the senses as a channel for understanding the world around them.

Constantine nose

Colossal bronze head of Constantine, Capitoline Museums

My lecture on Wednesday on ‘Smell and the ancient senses’ explored how ancient Romans used their noses in sometimes very sophisticated ways to sniff out the deviant bodies of the great unwashed, connecting odour to bad habits, obscene behaviour and unpleasant professions, as well as to characterise corrupt emperors – Nero, who perfumed even the soles of his feet, or Galerius whose persecution of Christians incurred the wrath of the gods and a mephitic disease that filled the entire city with stench. We also got thinking about the pervasive stenches of ancient Rome, the first giant metropolis in the west, and how far Romans themselves were sensitive to these bad smells (why, for example, did they not mind washing their togas in urine?). A sophisticated command of this sense was both sublime and animalistic: using your nose sensitively was a skill, but relying on it too much could bring out the animal in you.


Mark Bradley, and a group of award-holders, in front of the Res Gestae inscription

The site visit to the Ara Pacis on Thursday concentrated on the ways that this pivotal monument, set up by the first emperor Augustus in the centre of a massive new landscaped space north of Rome, celebrated the peace and prosperity he had brought to the Roman world by manipulating the senses of the Roman people who visited it during festive rites – through the sophisticated polychromy of the original painted monument, the sounds and aromas associated with ritual, sacrifice and feasts, and the sense of contact established between viewers participating in those ritual celebrations and the figures on the relief staring back at those around them.

Mark Bradley, lecturing a group of award-holders, in front of the Ara Pacis

Group at the Ara Pacis

The activation of the senses at key moments in the religious calendar is currently a major topic of research for classical scholars around the world, and the Ara Pacis is a fine example of what we can learn about the relationship between ancient religious activity and sensory enlightenment.’


Mark Bradley (Editor of the Papers of the British School and FAHL Committee Member)

Mark Bradley is the author of Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (2009), and editor of Smell and the Ancient Senses (2015).

Images by Lincoln Austin and Katherine Paines