The plethora of “Mercury” icons in ancient Gaul is well-known, due to Caesar’s commentary.1 None of the Gaulish idols he alluded to survived (perhaps having been crafted from perishable materials). But following Gaul’s absorption into the Roman Empire, the enthusiasm for depicting Mercury continued at the same time that stone and bronze sculpting began to proliferate.
Countless beautiful works of art were made, but the most prominent masterpiece of Gaulish Mercury idols is told to us by Pliny:
All the gigantic statues of this kind have been beaten in our time by Zenodorus with the Mercury which he made in the community of the Arverni in Gaul; it took him ten years and the sum paid for its making was 40,000,000 sesterces.2
We can only imagine what this awesome monument might have looked like, since it unsurprisingly has been lost. It unfortunately was not described in any more detail, nor has any part of it ever been found. But scholars have nonetheless sought for clues of its design.
As early as 1887 (Mowat), the French field of archaeology was advanced enough to start theorizing about the lost details. A monumental temple to Mercury built on the summit of Puy-de-Dôme (former Arverni territory) had been discovered a decade prior, and several altars dedicated to the Arvernan Mercury had also been documented in Germania. One of the altar reliefs for Mercury Arvernus, as it happened, had quite a distinctive image: unlike typical depictions of Mercury, the robed God is shown sitting, enthroned like the kingly Jupiter.
Several other examples of this seated Mercury motif come from Germania (though not always accompanied with the “Arvernus” epithet). And it is not only in the West these were found, but an intaglio of enthroned Mercury was noted being from the Arverni homeland by Mowat, also. Perhaps, it was reasoned, these unusual and more regal Mercury depictions were illustrations of Zenodore’s Colossus — a monument that would have been a natural choice for the Arverni’s loftiest and most sumptuous sanctuary at Puy-de-Dôme.
Some researchers suppose Zenodorus would have created a novel design for his Colossus, and that such a famous monument would inspire provincial artists to copy it.3 So anyone looking for echos of the original would logically follow unique Mercury motifs found in Gaul as a lead. Hupe (1997) also notes in his survey that seated Mercury images, while otherwise uncommon, account for nearly half of large-format Mercury sculptures in Gaul. This lends statistical weight to the 19th Century hypothesis linking Zenodore’s Colossus to the enthroned motif from Germania.
In 1930, a bronze figurine of seated Mercury was found at Durocortorum (Reims). It is unlike the enthroned motif from Upper Germany, since Mercury here is completely nude, sitting on a rock, with His more typical boyish demeanor. Bronze figurines of Mercury being completely nude, without even a petasus (the wings sprouting directly out of His head instead) is the norm in Gaul while being rare elsewhere, leading some to speculate this could be influenced by the Colossus. Personally I find the throne motif’s association with the “Arvernus” epithet more compelling, but Boucher (1976) rightly points out that Gaulish bronzes normally are nude while the enthroned reliefs are clothed, making them less likely to be copies of a bronze. Both guesses are plausible (if unknowable), and not necessarily mutually exclusive, if we assume that derivatives may have evolved over time.
Amidst the frequent speculation that the Colossus was seated, it shouldn’t be ignored that persuasive counterarguments exist. After all, large-format Mercury depictions in Gaul are statistically just as likely to be standing, and we know that colossi outside of Gaul certainly stood. Zenodore’s Nero statue is one such example, so some have argued Zenodorus must have already practiced its execution on the Mercury before it.3
Boucher also points out the awkward observation that there is hardly any uniformity of themes for Mercury sculptures in Gaul. No theme in particular seems consistent or precise enough to point to as being a faithful reproduction of anything. And the biggest tendency of Mercury in Gaul, compared to elsewhere, is that He is completely nude in so many bronze sculptures — most of which are standing! If we are to follow Gaulish trends to imagine the Colossus, then this unusually naked Mercury holding a purse in the open palm of His hand, argues Boucher, would be it:
This has the added weight of being distributed rather evenly throughout central Gaul rather than only concentrated in the Rhineland (which is not how we should expect copies of the Colossus to be spread).
And as long as we’re seeking reflections of the Colossus in other artworks from Gaul, we even have a Belgic vase showing a temple with a Mercury colossus standing inside:4
Could this be what Zenodore’s Colossus was like? Had the artist who made it ever even seen the Colossus? Or might there have been other giant Mercury statues in Gaul?
Furthermore, a unique relief from Germania Superior shows Mercury towering at twice the height of eleven other Gods.5
While this has been taken by some as symbolizing Mercury’s foremost position in the “Gaulish pantheon,” the Colossus could just as well be a factor in why Mercury stands so tall here, which could cut against the prevailing seated hypothesis.
Besides these points, I would add that Pliny himself describes the Colossus as having “beaten” all other colossal statues from his time. While he doesn’t seem to know its actual height measurement like he does for colossal statues from elsewhere, the most straightforward interpretation of his words would be that it was taller than any other — including the Nero colossus made after it, which he says was 106 Roman feet. Boucher affirms this by saying the Mercury was 33 meters (albeit without a source for that measurement). If that’s the case, a standing statue would seem more practical to soar over 106 feet than a seated one, which would have to be proportionally much more massive to achieve that height.
Whether the Colossus sat or stood, was robed or nude, was kingly or boyish, there are still other details to wonder about.
A couple decades prior to Mowat’s publication, a life-size bronze cock was unearthed from the river Saône at Lyon. While some doubt its authenticity on the basis that its realism seems more in line with modern craftsmanship (Feider, 2017), it nonetheless is accepted by the Louvre and displayed there as a 2nd Century piece.
Of course its find site lies outside Arverni territory; but its size, quality, material, (likely) provenance, and subject matter are all suggestive of what could be a detail from a Gaulish Mercury sculpture. This could serve as a stand-in for what at least one element of Zenodore’s Colossus might have looked like.
In the end, we are no closer to a vision of what the world-class Mercury statue boasted by the Arverni actually looked like. But the process of speculating about it nonetheless reveals some fascinating things about Mercury’s provincial iconography in Gaul.