Roman marble sculpture is usually anthropomorphic: emperors, prominent citizens, and deities are all familiar from marble busts, but animals are rarely depicted. This representation of a bull may have served a purely decorative function, but alternatively may have been a symbol of, or allusion to, an associated deity – perhaps Mithras. The Mithraic Mysteries were a secretative cult which spread across the Roman Empire at an alarming rate from the Late 1st Century AD. Not much is known of the cult, apart from its many stages of initiation, the prominence of Chicken remains in the temples, and the imagery of Mithras slaying the bull. This is suggested by the fact that, of the few animals depicted in marble, some can be identified as the animal attendants of specific deities. It is also possible that this bull was part of a sacrificial scene. Bulls were prominent in many Grecco-Roman Myths, particularly that of Europa and the Bull. Europa was spotted by Zeus who instantly fell in love with her. He disguised himself as a bull and lured the princess with his gentle nature. Inquisitively, she climed onto the bull’s back and he flew to Crete where the pair had 3 children before Zeus ultimately left. Other popular myths include that of the Minotaur (a half man-half bull animal) which was terrifying the people of Knossos.
For more information about the meanings of animals in Roman art, see our relevant blog post: Animal Symbolism in Roman Art.