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‘"Masques de fer:” the face of Rome on the Northern Frontier.’ - Dr Shelley Hales (Bristol)

Research seminar by Dr Shelley Hales from the University of Bristol

In the mid first century a man’s ashes were buried in the territory of the Treveri, in the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. They were rediscovered in 1853 as a result of excavations near the village of Hellange in Luxembourg. Although buried in a manner of ‘local’ custom, his grave goods included several pieces of Roman glassware and a metal face mask, which is now identified as belonging to a type of Roman cavalry helmet introduced during the Augustan period. Earliest reports identified the Hellange man as a Druid whilst, in the 1970s, it was suggested that the presence of a Roman mask in a burial, which seems to be ‘Celtic’, must imply that it was obtained from Roman troops by illicit means. The burial is not unique, several others from Treveran and neighbouring tribal territories also feature cremations accompanied by face masks, burials which are now believed to belong to veterans of the auxiliary units recruited locally by the Roman army to serve in the Rhineland at the beginning of the principate.

Event details

The reactions to these masks and the identity of their wearers are a telling history of changing attitudes towards conceptions of Roman and barbarian (and romanticised, essentialist conceptions of Celtic and German). However, they have largely remained the preserve of military historians, amongst whom the main questions of interest have been the origin and function of the masks (especially the issue of whether they were simply ‘paraderüstung’ (parade equipment) or genuine battle gear). Whilst difficult questions of the relationship of the mask to the wearer and of his identification with the mask have been raised, invited in particular by the considerable number of later cavalry masks that seem to portray female faces, they have not often been pursued. The insistence on these masks as parade equipment, a strategy that relies on the idea of mask as an assumed disguise/temporary provider of theatrical alterity, provides a useful way of explaining away the presence of these female faces. 

This paper is my attempt to move away from a discussion of the cavalry face mask’s military capabilities to embrace the possibilities of the mask as a tool for investigating conceptions of ethnicity and gender (the making of military men) on the northern frontiers in the early empire. 



Building:One Bateman Lecture Theatre