Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.21

Markus Sehlmeyer, Stadtrömische Ehrenstatuen der republikanischen Zeit.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.  Pp. 319.  ISBN 3-515-07479-1.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Lisa A. Hughes, Classics, Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB, Canada E4L 1E4
Word count: 1243 words

Ehrenstatuen, or commemorative statues, played a prominent role in Roman art and architecture. Typically, these statues stood in a public area to commemorate the political or military accomplishments of either an individual or his ancestors. Previous discussions of these works have tended to focus on the funerary origins of Republican portraiture as cited in the famous passages of Polybios (Hist. 6.53.5) and Pliny (H.N. 35.4-8, 20-32) and they have failed to explain both the various types and development of commemorative statuary in the Roman world.1

Based on a revised edition of his dissertation completed at Göttingen in 1998, Markus Sehlmeyer's recent contribution to the study of commemorative statuary shows both the complex nature of this particular type of artwork and the vast amount of literary evidence that is available for its analysis. His work is an immediate response to Lahusen's Untersuchungen zur Ehrenstatue in Rom, an archaeological examination of commemorative statuary in Rome.2 Although Lahusen has provided careful documentation of the archaeological evidence, Sehlmeyer believes that he does not furnish a sufficient methodological analysis of the literary sources. In Sehlmeyer's opinion, the literary sources would have provided the historical circumstances for the erection of these works (Sehlmeyer 13). By carefully examining the literary sources, Sehlmeyer sets out to establish a cultural context for the erection of these statues during the Republic. Part of his methodology then is to show that special attention needs to be given to both the literary and archaeological evidence within a specific chronological framework. Despite the fact that Sehlmeyer makes these claims, he finds the archaeological record, especially portraiture, less interesting (Sehlmeyer 17).

Regardless of this quick dismissal of portraiture, the author does provide a thorough and much needed examination of the literary sources dealing with commemorative statuary. He focuses his attention on Cicero, Appian, Plutarch, and Cassius Dio, and includes a host of other authors as well as a valuable discussion of Republican inscriptions. He is quick to point out the limitations in his study because of the presence of literary and historical biases which are outlined for the reader at the onset of this work (Sehlmeyer 17). He divides his work into seven chapters that show the chronological progression of commemorative statuary between the Regal period and the Age of Augustus.

Sehlmeyer establishes, in his first chapter, the cultural and literary contexts for these works. He provides an overview of previous scholarship and then turns to an examination of the cultural antecedents. The Etruscan examples in the form of bronzes from the seventh to fifth centuries B.C.E. are not a reliable source (Sehlmeyer, 19-20). His discussion of the Middle-Italic antecedents centers around the Capestrano Warrior found in a necropolis near L'Aquila (Sehlmeyer 20). The monumental size of this statue (6' 9"), its public location (fixed onto the top of a tomb), and a pre-Sabellian inscription possibly indicating the cursus honorum of the deceased provide early evidence for the development of commemorative statuary. Greek examples, whether from Magna Graecia or Athens provide the best sources for antecedents. For instance, at the Athenian agora, commemorative statues come in the form of historical figures and Greek generals (Sehlmeyer 24). The first chapter also handles important parallels between the Annalistic tradition and commemorative statuary: both share mythic qualities, focus on family tradition and contemporary history besides showing a strong Hellenistic influence (Sehlmeyer 32-33).

The second chapter, focusing on the period between 338 and 285 B.C.E., examines the factors behind an increase in the production of commemorative statuary and analyses where these statues were set up. Sehlmeyer first tackles the issue of the imagines discussed in the passages of Polybios and Pliny and takes a similar approach to Harriet Flower, who looks at the civic function of these masks.4 Sehlmeyer notes, however, that Rome's nobility does not use the bust portrait, a form popular amongst freedmen or liberti.5

The discussion then turns to the use of commemorative statues used as memorials in areas such as the Comitium. The situation is comparable to Athens in that noble contemporary figures set up statuary in honor of historical figures (e.g., the Tyrranicides) in areas such as the Agora. These statues provide a sense of stability to the community as families erect statues of mythic or notable figures to provide a sense of security and affluence in their own world (Sehlmeyer 103-108). In addition, Sehlmeyer brings equestrian statues into his study as they too contribute to creating an overall sense of stability in Rome. Individuals such as C. Maenius and L. Furius Camillus (338 B.C.E.) and Q. Marcius Tremulus (308 B.C.E.) defend the capital against formidable enemies and have equestrian statues erected in their honor in either the Comitium or the Roman forum. Finally, Sehlmeyer proposes that there was a trend to set up honorific statues with mythic subjects between 320 and 290 B.C.E. Mythic figures and not famous plebeians or patricians appear in order that all of Rome, regardless of status, could identify with the figures. As this period marked a stabilization in foreign affairs and domestic politics, mythic statues with which Romans alone could identify contributed to a sense of stability and unification (Sehlmeyer 109).

Sehlmeyer, in this third chapter, discusses how the third century B.C.E. marks a regression in the production of memorial statues. During this period, the type of statuary found in Rome reflects the unstable political situation at the time. For example, commemorative statues depicting triumphs or spolia from conquered lands appear in various public areas in Rome (Sehlmeyer 141).

Chapter four handles the Hellenistic influences between 200 and 130 B.C.E. which are not, as Sehlmeyer shows, as prevalent as one would think. New building programs focusing on large open spaces either in the form of a porticus or basilica begin to appear in the Roman forum (Sehlmeyer 171-173). Statues also begin to appear for non-magistrates and this, in Sehlmeyer's opinion, is a source of conflict for the ruling classes (Sehlmeyer 158).

Chapter five, covering the period from 130 to 80 B.C.E., in part, examines the numismatic evidence to reveal new forms of commemorative statuary. Statues during this period take the form of posthumous dedications or, as time goes by, are set up for the living. Individuals could also erect statues to honor their own achievements or those belonging to someone else. The composition of these statues takes the form of individual seated figures or group statuary (harkening back to the statues in the Athenian agora). At this time, equestrian statues abound on coins, and political rivals are starting to dismantle the statuary of their foes.

Chapter six (80-2 B.C.E.) continues to discuss the tradition of the equestrian statue, particularly those belonging to Sulla and Pompey. At this time, memorial statues make a resurgence. Octavian and Antony erect this type in honor of Caesar in order to make their claims as heirs (Sehlmeyer 260). Finally, we are brought to the Forum of Augustus. This marks the culmination in the development of commemorative statuary as it houses the statues of the historic and mythic figures of Rome.

Sehlmeyer's examination of the literary sources shows that there was considerable change in the types of commemorative statuary dating between 338 and 2 B.C.E. This work is an extremely valuable contribution for those who specialize in Roman art and literature. The only lacuna of this work lies in its lack of illustrations of extant works. Sehlmeyer provides references that deal with the actual statuary, but more visual examples would have helped the discussion overall.


1.   See James D. Breckenridge, "Origins of Republican Portraiture," in ANRW 1.4 (1973): 826-856.
2.   G. Lahusen, Untersuchungen zur Ehrenstatue in Rom (Rome 1983). See also T. Pekáry, "Review of Lahusen, Untersuchungen," Gnomon 57 (1985): 104-105.
3.   See Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli and Antonio Giuliano, Etruschi e Italaci prima del dominio di Roma (Milan 1973, 1985) 104-105.
4.   Harriet I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford 1996).
5.   For an illuminating discussion on the origins of the portrait bust in Rome see Timothy Allen Motz, The Roman Freestanding Portrait Bust: Origins, Context, and Early History (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1993).

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