Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.11.26

Johanna Fabricius, Die hellenistischen Totenmahlreliefs. Grabrepräsentation und Wertvorstellungen in ostgriechischen Städten. "Studien zur antiken Stadt" series, P. Zanker ed., vol. 3.   Munich:  Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, 1999.  Pp. 384, 45 figs., 48 pls.  ISBN 3-931516-51-2.  $97.80.  

Reviewed by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2734 words

Since the nineteenth century Greek funerary monuments have attracted a great deal of attention, not only for their (often high) aesthetic value but also for the information they can provide about historical circumstances, religious beliefs, and prosopography. In more recent years the Athenocentric focus has expanded somewhat to include peripheral areas of the Greek mainland (Lakonia, Achaia, Boiotia, Thessalia, Makedonia) and especially the Greek islands and the cities of Asia Minor. For these last, the great corpus compiled by Ernst Pfuhl and Hans Möbius (1977, 1979), despite its checkered history (see its reviews, e.g., in AJA 82 [1978] 414-15, and 84 [1980] 543-44) has provided an indispensable research tool for material dating from Archaic to Roman Imperial times. Lately, the Hellenistic evidence has been supplemented in monographic form by D. Berges (1986, 1996, on East Greek, Koan, and Rhodian round altars), C. Breuer (1995, on reliefs and epigrams), M. Cremer (1991, 1992, on stelai from NW Asia Minor), and especially S. Schmidt (1991, with emphasis on chronology and workshops). Paul Zanker, on the other hand, has concentrated on the meaning behind the typology, with essays (1993, 1995) exploring the self-representation of the East Greek citizens on their gravestones; Fabricius, as his student, has followed in the same direction.

F.'s topic is the analysis of the so-called Funerary Banquet Reliefs (Totenmahlreliefs) from four different Hellenistic cities: Samos, Rhodes, Byzantion, and Kyzikos. Each city had a different civic administration, ethnic composition, territorial range, and burial tradition; yet each city, to a greater or lesser degree, used this specific iconographic type -- in various formats -- as one of its grave markers. It is therefore assumed that the differences within the standard formula should be revealing in terms of the image the users from each site meant to project of themselves and/or their families. In order to be fully meaningful, however, these specific monuments had to be seen within the context of whatever other forms of funerary reliefs were adopted by each city and -- because of their own heroizing overtones -- against the evidence for the civic awarding of heroic status to deceased or still living inhabitants. To assess the value of the various iconographic symbols, each had to be analyzed per se in all four cases, as well as in a general introductory section. Meaning and formula, moreover, seem to vary through time, especially since the Banquet Reliefs of the Classical period in Greece proper were primarily meant as votive offerings; the inquiry, therefore, had to be diachronic and prefaced by an analysis of the forerunners, including the evidence of the painted gravestones from Demetrias (with the important observation that most of the named deceased on the ca. 30 Banquet scenes are Phoinikians or Orientals), the Graeco-Persian stelai, and the Lykian funerary monuments. The impressive result is a very dense, information-packed text supported by extensive footnotes that delve into history, epigraphy, gender studies, mortuary and religious practices and imagery all over the ancient world.

F. has made extensive use of all previous studies on the subject, including the two major monographic treatments of the Banquet Reliefs, by R. Thönges-Stringaris (1965) and J.-M. Dentzer (1982). On the strength of these and other compilations, F. has dispensed with a catalogue, and, understandably, can illustrate only a few select examples, referring to previous publications for the remaining monuments. A thorough reading of her text, therefore, requires a library at hand. Moreover, F.'s adopted procedure results in a considerable amount of repetition, with proleptic and retrospective, albeit often illuminating, comparative statements. To be sure, only a reviewer reads every word of a volume of this nature; the interested reader will more likely investigate specific features or focus on individual sites. A very detailed Table of Contents with many subheadings, a concordance between site-specific publications and the numbering in Pfuhl/Möbius, indices of ancient authors and modern epigraphic sources, and a general index should help in finding almost any desired reference. Yet I discovered that I could not figure out if or where an individual piece had been mentioned; one more index, by museums, would have been welcome.

The hasty reader, on the other hand, is excellently served by the Concluding Remarks (especially pp. 341-43). F. displays great objectivity in pointing out how the chance of the finds affects statistics; how the relative lack of information on the various nekropoleis (or the lack of publications about their excavation) obfuscates the general picture; how the provenience of some early finds, now scattered through different collections, is often in doubt; how the absence of significant inscriptional evidence usually prevents determination of the correct status of the individuals depicted. Chronology is problematic, especially since the type of the Funerary Banquet continues well into the Imperial period and few fixed external points can be brought to bear on the reliefs; some of them also may have been reused in antiquity, with added inscriptions, thus increasing the uncertainty. Even the attempted identification of workshops seems of limited usefulness since attributions to Kyzikene ateliers, for example, range between three and 16 pieces and the more prolific ones go down to Trajanic/Hadrianic times (p. 294). In general, F. seems to follow Schmidt's chronological leads, but his dates are mostly based on style and iconography. For many reliefs, opinions vary sharply, and even intrinsic evidence may be read differently. I shall only cite the instance of a relief now in Leiden (fig. 9, p. 41 and n. 8), where the architectural background suggests a second-century date but the presence of worshippers is taken as typical of only the early phases of the Hellenistic Totenmahl.

On the other hand, the same concluding remarks summarize the positive contributions of the study, and there are several. Analysis has shown how a traditional iconography from the Greek Mainland, primarily Attika, was joined to local, even non-Greek, traditions to produce a shift from the votive to the funerary meaning of the East Greek Banquet. The relative simplicity of the Classical examples was enriched by elaborate backgrounds, luxurious furnishings, and a profusion of attributes meant to extol the deceased not only as a cultured man of means but also as a hero, and occasionally as the member of a family, with a conspicuous number of attending slaves. The often minuscule scale of these servants is a clue to the symbolic form of the presentation: each element is to be read not as part of a coherent unit but as an independent signifier that may bear no relationship to reality -- hence the ambiguity between indoor and outdoor features within the same scene, the implausibility of some depictions, the abbreviated forms of the "heroizing" horse that can be reduced to a protome resting on a kylikeion! (p. 58, pl. 40b) An understanding of the syntax of these monuments is essential for the correct reading of their message.

Other important conclusions focus on the role of both men and women within the Totenmahl. If the world of the banquet is still male-dominated, certain sites stress the growing importance of females. On Rhodian and Byzantian, occasionally even on Kyzikene reliefs, the woman can be shown reclining on the kline together with the man or (at Rhodes) even replacing him entirely; at Byzantion and its environs, she can be crowned by the man, thus being depicted as his equal, and, as F. successfully argues, she often uses the andronym rather than the patronym in her identifying inscription. The presence of more than one woman even in conjunction with a single man, and the inclusion of diminutive children stress the family ideal.

Can these depictions correspond to the true components of a family? When inscribed names identify all participants, the assumption is plausible that the relief was commissioned ad hoc to serve for an entire family, even if only one of its members was deceased at the time. In such cases, the sculpture was used in a family plot or structure, and technical details (use of clamps and dowels, roughly finished edges and back, side tenons and wedge-shaped format) support the conclusion that the intended setting was made known to the sculptor in advance. Such practical information, often unavailable, is most useful and is occasionally illustrated by the author's own photographs. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of F.'s book is in fact her interest in visualizing the possible forms of installation for the Totenmahl: as panel above a doorway, as decoration for a round or rectangular altar, as independent stele set into a base or in the earth (occasionally on a tumulus) and, according to the number of its figures, either in isolation, as family "portrait", or surrounded by gravestones for each additional member. Imaginative reconstructions are provided as figs. 25 (rock-cut tomb on Samos), 33-34 (funerary precinct and hypogaeum surmounted by altars on Rhodes), 39 (family plot in Byzantion), and 42 (family tombs in Kyzikos). Maps show each site and, where pertinent, its geographic sphere of influence.

Samos loves Funerary Banquets: approximately 100 are known from the island, with many details and ever-present heroizing features, as well as (infrequent) inscriptions with names in the vocative and mentioning a hero. The women there, often unnamed although with an occasional reference to a heroine, are relegated to a minor position -- a surprising hierarchy, I find, given the predominant cult of a female goddess, Hera, at the site. Rhodes is most unusual in having yielded far fewer examples ("at least 21" on p. 165, "19" on p. 179) with the most varied iconography; here the heroizing connotations are often left out or shifted to funerary altars -- indeed, even the table with food indicative of the "banquet" can be omitted, and one reclining youth sans trapeza may show the effects of excessive drinking on an empty stomach (pl. 15a). In Rhodes, however, Totenmahl reliefs seem preferred by the numerous associations (koina) created primarily by non-citizens; over 170 such "clubs" are epigraphically attested, with social or religious functions, reflecting most of the 200 different nationalities known to have lived permanently on the island. Restrictions preventing resident metoikoi from attending the gymnasion and other similar constraints may explain their interest in such leagues and their forms of burial. Byzantion (with ca. 60 examples) is said to eliminate almost entirely the standard heroizing attributes (p. 235) but to stress rather -- "as nowhere else" (p. 270) -- the civilizing connotations of the symposion and the cultural level of its citizens, probably in deliberate contrast to the "barbarian" Kelts and Thrakians who were their neighbors. A similar contrast, although between city proper and the villages of its Mysian hinterland, is noted for Kyzikos, with its approximately 110 Hellenistic Banquet Reliefs and a similar number from Imperial times, in uninterrupted sequence. The difference here is primarily one of quality, with most of the elaborate naiskos-plaques coming from the city proper, the simpler and more formulaic examples from the wider territory. The influence of the Graeco-Persian stelai is most explicitly felt in the tall slabs (some over 2m. high) with several carved registers, some of them duplicating the initial Banquet scene, but others showing symbolic depictions like the hunt or the heroic rider, mourners (most surprising), or allusions to the profession of the deceased. The presence of banqueters on secondary registers in votive reliefs (to Zeus Hypsistos and other gods) attests to religious links between the votive and the funerary formulas.

It would be impossible, for a book of such scope and detail, to give a point-by-point critique of its contents. Moreover, the author's range is admirable and I would be hard-put to comment intelligently on her opinions without retracing her research steps. I shall therefore limit myself to a few remarks within the limits of my own interests and knowledge.

The first is an obvious Bryn Mawr addition: given F.'s thoroughness in exploring painted parallels and prototypes, she should have included the Karaburun Tomb (M.J. Mellink, AJA 75 [1971] pls. 54-56; 77 [1973] pls. 44-46) with a reclining dignitary holding a phiale, attended by a female and various servants -- an important Lykian precedent from around 470 B.C. for the fourth-century funerary sculptures mentioned by F. I would also have included the banquet scene on the Athenaion at Assos, which F. omitted because irrelevant for the self-representation of the individual (p. 37, n. 95). Yet the Trysan and Xanthian symposia (pp. 30-31, fig. 5), although connected with the burial of specific dynasts, are hardly indicative of family context; if a more general context, appropriate to the social level of the deceased, is considered pertinent, then perhaps the Assos banqueters can rank with the religious worshippers of the Kyzikene reliefs and function as the forerunners of the Byzantian scenes by contrasting the proper behavior of civilized men with the unruly actions of the wild centaurs, as recently suggested by B. Wescoat (in The Art of Interpreting, 1995, 292-320). In view also of the terracotta plaques from Larisa, it would seem as if the Archaic Eastern Greeks had a special interest in the reclining feast.

In her introductory section, F. analyzes the various components of a typical scene -- the kline, the throne, the footstool, the kylikeion, the trapeza, and so on -- proposing various meanings for each. The most significant in terms of the heroization of the dead are the tree and the snake, often shown together (pp. 63-68). Of the previously suggested interpretations she omits the connotation of immortality for the animal, based on the erroneous belief of a new life obtained at every shedding of its skin, and of resurrection for the tree, whether leafless or foliate, through the regenerative process of all vegetation. Yet, since these symbols recur on other types of Hellenistic gravestones from different sites, a more universal meaning should perhaps be sought for them; or rather, as I believe, a certain heroizing flavor should be acknowledged for most of the figured East Greek funerary monuments -- which may explain why the democratic Athenians eschewed them even long after Demetrios of Phaleron's antiluxury decree in 317.

The Hellenistic preference for abstraction is noted not only in the wealth of signifiers, but also in the occasional omission of the human figure in some reliefs that depict only groups of objects; this practice is said to contrast with the Classical tradition that relied on the consistent rendering of the deceased (p. 52). Yet the elaborate griffin-cauldrons and other vessels among the marble tomb-markers of the Athenian Kerameikos seem to me to embody a somewhat comparable degree of abstraction. Icons of status and personal qualities have also been recognized through a semiotic reading of the Classical Athenian gravestones (e.g., J. Reilly, "Adornment as the Image of Virtue on Athenian Funerary Reliefs," CAA 82nd Annual Conference, 1994, Abstracts). Perhaps the conceptual break between Classical and Hellenistic funerary art has been somewhat overvalued.

To be sure, in matters of interpretation, certainty can seldom be achieved, especially when little correspondence exists between picture and the rare accompanying epitaph or inscription. F., for instance, points out (p. 342) how the abundant number of slaves in Byzantian reliefs may reflect the reality of a prosperous commercial harbor-town, whereas the luxurious sculptural environment of the Samian banquet scenes may depict an ideal image of desirable lifestyle unconnected to local economic conditions. Yet F. interprets alleged Classicizing trends in Rhodian funerary art as indicative of the cultural and philosophical level of the inhabitants gleaned through the ancient sources (pp. 222-24). To me this reading seems strained, since I view Classicizing trends as ubiquitous and unlimited in time; perhaps our opinion of Rhodes ("a kind of Museum of Greek culture for the Romans ... more Greek than all the other Greek cities around it"; p. 224) has been built too confidently on the ancient literature and not enough on the material evidence. What seems certain is that Rhodian funerary monuments relied less on established stock types and more on personal preferences, but, as the stelai with embracing women show, certain set formulas could continue from the fifth into the second century with only minor stylistic variations.

My criticism basically amounts to a matter of nuances, and F. herself emphasizes throughout her text how lacunose our evidence is and how much more needs to be known before making general pronouncements. She has certainly pointed in the right direction with the careful and intelligent assemblage of such varied material, hopeful that others will follow -- as it is, indeed, to be greatly desired.

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