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.

Three black-and-white photos of a Mercurius Arvernus altar showing its front and sides. The aedicule on the front shows a highly damaged, front-facing portrait of Mercury seated on an irregularly shaped rock. The god wears a hip cloak that leaves his left leg uncovered from the knee down and falls to the ground over his lower right leg. The cloak seems to wrap over his left shoulder. The winged serpent's staff rests in his left arm, the outstretched right hand holds the money bag. Behind the god's left leg lies a ram with outstretched forelegs, and a tortoise is crawling in front of his right foot. To the right of the deity's head is a rooster standing on an originally painted pillar or column. The altar's sides have reliefs of typical Mercury attributes: on the right a rooster on a caduceus, on the bottom a filled bag; on the left another bag on a pedestal, above it ring-shaped objects (punched coins?) drawn on a thread.
The badly damaged Mercurius Arvernus altar from Germania Superior (Horn). Base inscription: CIL XVIII 8709. Image source: Hupe, 1997.

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.

A black-and-white photo of the front of a votive to Mercurius Quillenius. The high relief sculpture is much better preserved than the low-relief one to Arvernus. It is also much narrower, only leaving just enough room to show the front-facing portrait of Mercury sitting in the same style as Jupiter on His throne. It is almost a mirror image of Arvernus altar, in terms of which leg the robe covers and the lying ram sits beside. The robe only covers Mercury's lap, leaving Him entirely bare from the hips up. He still holds His caduceus in the left hand while His right arm has broken off. There is no sign of a rooster, and it appears the wings on His hat have fallen off. The base reads: Mercurio Quillenio Aulus Ibliomarius Placidus negotiator castello Mattiacorum lanius VSLLM. A line drawing of Phidias' colossus of Zeus, seated in a similar manner to Mercury Arvernus.
Left: High-relief of Mercurius Quillenius from Germania Superior (Groß-Gerau) using the same “enthroned” motif as the Arvernus altar, except much better preserved for study. Base inscription: AE 1997, 01187. Image source: Hupe, 1997
Right: Illustration of Phidias’ colossal Zeus statue, in a very similar enthroned posture. Image source.

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.

A front-facing, full-color photo of a golden bronze figurine of a fully-nude, muscular Mercury sitting slouched on an unnatural, almost T-shaped rock. The figurine's platform has no decoration and is shaped unevenly to look like the natural Earth or a rock. Mercury's right leg sticks out while He holds His left leg back. His left hand rests on His thigh with fingers closed like it once held something (perhaps a caduceus). His right hand rests to the side on the rock carrying a strange purse (almost in the shape of a turtle). His face looks up towards the left, with an innocent or even pouting expression in His eyes. His hair is thickly curled with two wings popping out over His forehead. A tiny lamb lies at His right foot, a rooster sits by His right, and a tortoise lies in front, facing towards Him. Of to the side is a flat, round cap with two wings popping out of the top, fully detached from the rest of the figurine.
Bronze Mercury from Reims. Image source. Museum site.

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:

A black-and-white line drawing of the typical nude Mercury bronze Boucher is referencing. He is completely naked, holding out the purse in the open palm of His right hand. His hair, devoid of the petasus, sprouts the wings. Nothing is held in His left hand, which probably should have the caduceus which is so often lost.
Illustration of the nude Mercury bronze type figurine, typical of Gaul. The caduceus should presumably be in His left hand but is often lost. Image source, Boucher 1976.

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

A black-and-white photo of a large, wide vase with a narrow base. On the front is a relief of Mercury standing under a roof with columns, beside a disembodied face that is also under a shorter roof, around half the height of Mercury. Mercury fills the full height of the building. He wears a tunic, has wings on His head, and holds His caduceus in His left hand, money bag in His right. The structure is assumed to be a cross-section depiction of a Gallo-Roman fanum, with the shorter roof representing the ambulatory that surrounds it.
Vase from Sains-du-nord. Image source: Poux, 2019.

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

A full-color photo of the badly weathered brown sandstone landscape-oriented relief mounted on a wall. There are two rows of figures: seven human figures on the top, and four below. Mercury stands in the middle of Them at the full height of both rows. A cloak is clasped over His shoulder. The caduceus is in His left hand, perhaps the bag of money in His right, below which is the ram or goat. The figures paired on the lower row (two on each side of Mercury) each have a horse. See footnote \#5 for further detail.
The „Zwölfgötterrelief“ (Twelve-God Relief) from Marbach. Image source. Museum site.

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.

A color photo a bronze rooster with dark green and brown patina. It has an almost scientific anatomical detail, with fully realized plumage and even individual tail feathers sculpted separate from one another. It has an angry expression on its face with an open beak and is stepping forward like going after some unseen foe. Large talons and spurs on the back of its legs give it a vicious look.
Bronze cock from the Saône. Image source: Feider, 2017.

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.


  1. Commentaries on the Gallic War, Book 6, chapter 17.
  2. Natural History, Book 34, chapter XVIII.
  3. Denoyelle, et al. (2012).
  4. Poux, 2019.
  5. Although twelve in number, and with substantial overlap, they are not quite the Classical “dodecathon” of the Olympians. We can identify: Jupiter, Fortuna, Sol, Silvanus, Castor and Pollux, and Hercules. Another male god is possibly Mars, and three other female deities are uncertainly speculated to be Luna, Juno, and Ceres. Source.


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