If you were to ask what the Romans ever did for us then you might hear sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, but you could also add the many buildings, aqueducts etc. that they erected, using stone, brick and concrete. Many still stand, at least in part, so their achievements are still there to be seen. What is less obvious of course is the enormous amount of manpower used to build these marvels, for in an age of few machines it was largely manpower that had to do all the work. This set is a depiction of those men.
In a society that had large numbers of slaves it is no surprise that slaves provided much of the hard manual labour in construction. Of course the more skilled artisans would usually be free men, and the army was an excellent source of such men, particularly for the creation of the major roads, but when it came to moving heavy loads of stone, timbers etc. it was the slaves that toiled. The majority of figures in this set seem to be slaves, and there are two indications of this. First, many seem to have a thick collar around the neck to which chains would be attached, and second, the rest have some form of square plate hanging from a cord around their neck. Our guess is this is a slave tag, a metal disc or plate on which was inscribed a message to the effect that the wearer was a slave and if found should be returned to the owner. Such things do not seem to be widely illustrated but they certainly existed. The slaves wear varying amounts of very simple and brief clothing, from the usual tunic to a basic loincloth. This would be typical of any manual labourer, slave or not, so is suitable here, and the sculptor seems to have gone to some trouble to show this clothing in tattered condition.
The slaves are shown in a good variety of tasks, including the use of a number of tools and some pairs carrying a large timber and a stone. All these items are authentic for the Roman period, so the poses are fine.
Also included in the set is a surveyor using a groma, a standard ancient surveying device that dangled four or five plumb lines from a wooden cross mounted on a pole to obtain straight lines and true right angles. He wears a rather long tunic and looks to be peering along the instrument, so is another good figure.
Finally we find two rather surprising figures. The first is the first figure in our top row, who holds a parchment and so is presumably meant to be the supervisor, master builder or similar. The strange feature of this figure is he is dressed in full armour, including both sword and dagger. Clearly he is an officer in the army, and as we have said the army often engaged in building works, but such a man would only have worn armour if he thought he was in reasonable danger of being attacked by an enemy. If legionnaires worked on roads etc. then they too would only wear armour if some danger was near - Roman soldiers no more carried full gear and wore full armour when away from a battle than any soldier would today. Normally such a man would wear the usual tunic, and if he were a military officer then he would also wear his belt and perhaps his personal weapons, but rarely the full battle array like this. Equally surprising is the man wielding a whip (bottom row). He too is dressed in full battle gear, so again he is a soldier who is near a likely enemy. Much more usual would have been the same dress code as the man in charge, and indeed as pictured on the box artwork. Neither of these men are wrong, but they are pretty exceptional, so a better choice of costume could have been made in our view.
While the choice of poses is good the way in which the set has been sculpted leaves something to be desired. The standard Strelets chunky style is not attractive and tends to exaggerate smaller items in order to include them on the figures. This is particularly evident in the whip, which is massively thick, and in the plumb lines on the groma. Since these would be held by string even the most delicate manufacturer would struggle to reproduce them at this scale without making something so thin they would simply break, and this sculptor does not do delicate. As a result the lines look more like rope, and the way they are attached to the top piece (corniculi) is quite crude. Add to that the fact that the central fifth line is missing, and that because of the way this device was used the surveyor would never look directly across where the pole was, as he does here, and you can see that it was a valiant effort but the result is fairly basic.
Some of the basic anatomy is also quite poor, so the man carrying the full basket has his head too far to one side of his torso. Also the manner in which the pick is being held is ridiculous - holding anything that close to the head eliminates the swing and completely negates the purpose of the long handle. Since most of the clothing is extremely simple and unadorned the lack of fine detail matters little for most of the figures, so this is one of those subjects which is most forgiving of this sort of sculpting. Where assembly is needed - the carrying pairs and the groma - the parts fit together well enough, and there is no excess plastic areas, but there is a fair amount of flash in a few places.
Another very interesting subject from this relatively new manufacturer, but while the simple needs of the subject allow them to get away with much, the quality of the sculpting remains the main problem here. Apart from the master and overseer being dressed for battle all the design ideas are good ones though, so as a set depicting those that quite literally built the Roman Empire this has much merit.