The Vigiles Urbani, also known as the Cohortes Vigilum or just the Vigiles, were a body set up by the emperor Augustus to combat the many fires that Rome suffered from. We tend to think of Rome as palatial buildings and public spaces, built of marble and looking pretty indestructible, but the reality was it was full of insulae, tenement blocks several stories high crammed together and often facing streets that were no more than alleys. Upper stories were often wooden, and everyone had to rely on open flames for cooking, heating and light. Inevitably the result was numerous fires which could easily spread very quickly, causing widespread death and destruction. The Vigiles were tasked with patrolling the streets, mainly at night, looking for signs of fires, and also trying to enforce the requirements on householders to have water and fire-fighting equipment available should the need arise. They would also fight fires, but with very limited sources of water all they could often do was to demolish neighbouring buildings to create a firebreak.
As a secondary role the Vigiles were also tasked with the job of night watchmen. Rome had no police as we would understand them, but the Vigiles might attempt to stop a disorder and perhaps bring a suspect before the city prefect. In very exceptional circumstances they might be called upon to assist the Urban Cohorts, who were the law enforcement body in Rome, in maintaining order, but it seems they usually carried only batons or whips to enforce their will.
The Vigiles carried axes, long hooks and other equipment for pulling down buildings, and the three male poses in this set have an axe on their belt. They also carry batons, but in all other respects these seem very unlike the picture of Vigiles. To begin with, all are wearing armour. Why would you wear armour to tackle a fire? Although there seems to be no contemporary image of the Vigiles, and so certainty is in short supply here, it make no sense for such men to wear armour. Not only that, but these three characters all have a muscle cuirass front and back, by far the most expensive of the available armours, and far more fancy than segmented or mail. We are told the early Vigiles were slaves, but these look very much like military personnel, which they were not. All have standard infantry helmets too, and the middle figure wears a particular ornate version which normally means he is a high-ranking officer. Again, totally out of place in a collection of fire-fighters. They even wear military belts and boots (caligae), and are armed with swords and a spear. Some have suggested they might carry swords, but a spear seems illogical. So while evidence is very sparse, these figures seem a very long way from the image of the Vigiles painted in every source we could find.
The fourth figure is of a woman. Her clothing is very revealing, and she is clearly a prostitute, who might expect a fair amount of her custom to be at night. Obviously nothing to do with fire-fighting, and not much to do with keeping the peace (prostitutes were not illegal in ancient Rome), so again we are not sure why this figure is here, except as a random civilian.
The sculpting is very nice here, nice detail and good faces. The woman is noticeably more slender than the men, but they are all nicely proportioned and well made. On our example we could find no trace of flash anywhere.
The poses are all of people relaxed and standing still, so not doing anything, which is reasonable as the box does not suggest they are in action of any sort. At least three of the figures (including the lady of the night) are very close copies of some 54mm figures by el Viejo Dragon, but again they offer no evidence for the chosen look.
So these are good-looking figures, but the large amounts of very expensive armour seems to make no sense for a group whose prime function was to detect and fight fires, and as a secondary role to deal with petty crime at night. To us these look more like the Urban Cohorts (plus ‘friend’), who were tasked with combating the gangs and other major disturbances in the city, and would have been both armed and perhaps armoured. Used as such these are nice figures, but as Vigiles we really can’t see that they are at all useable.