Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.48

Franz Alto Bauer, Christian Witschel, Statuen in der Spätantike.   Wiesbaden:  Reichert, 2007.  Pp. viii, 372.  ISBN 978-3-89500-576-3.  €98.00.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Anderson, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 2778 words

Table of Contents

The late antique statue was for many years an orphan of art history: insufficiently "classical" to appeal to the idealistic strand of classical archaeology, and insufficiently "Christian" to find a home within early Christian art. The statues of Aphrodisian magistrates discovered in the early twentieth century and housed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum could offer little to a latter-day Winckelmann in search of beauty and grandeur;1 if mentioned at all in the literature on late antique art, they and their kin were assimilated, as if by reflex, into the discipline's ruling clichés regarding "abstraction" and "spirituality." The extraordinary assemblage of sculpture discovered in the late 19th century in the Gallic villa of Chiragan was duly catalogued, published, and forgotten in the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse; its plethora of imperial portraits, statues of divinities, and reliefs depicting the labors of Hercules could say little to a discipline defined by a concern with Christian origins.2 Despite occasional earlier forays, the start of the intensive study of late imperial portrait monuments can be dated to 1982, with the publication of Rudolf Stichel's Die römische Kaiserstatue am Ausgang der Antike.3 The consideration of small-scale mythological statuary within the context of late antique culture likewise began in 1981 and 1982 with the publication of seminal studies by Elaine Gazda, Charlotte Roueché and Kenan Erim.4

If, then, the foundations for the study of late antique statuary were laid only in the 1980s, the succeeding decades have witnessed a veritable explosion of research, with a variety of scholars energetically pursuing the study of public portrait monuments, the mythological statues that decorated late antique villas, and the re-use of older statues in both public and private realms (to name a few of the more active directions of inquiry). Their findings remain, as of yet, in need of a synthesis; the interested student will find no monograph on "Late Roman sculpture" to introduce her to the field. In the meantime, the collection of essays under review will serve admirably, even if it is by no means intended as an introduction. The majority of the studies within its covers originated as papers presented at a colloquium at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich, in 2004, in which a number of the most productive researchers in the field, at least from the English- and German-speaking academies, participated.5 It is a sign of the dynamism of the colloquium itself that all of the papers presented in this volume reference, and often engage with, arguments presented in the others; no mere restatement of current orthodoxies, then, but an attempt to develop new critical approaches in dialogue with other scholars, and consequently a welcome invitation to reflect on the future of the field as it enters its second generation.

First to the fundamentals. This is an attractively designed book, its plates reproduced with consistent legibility. Typos are scarce and never fatal. Worthy of particular praise are the superb analytical indices (an Ortsregister, a Personenregister -- this further analyzed by profession and social class, and partially cross-referenced with the PLRE -- and a Sachregister). It is rare enough for a Sammelband to include any kind of index, exemplary for it to include several of such utility. The individual contributions have in most cases been revised to take account of literature published since 2004.6

An introductory essay by the editors summarizes current discussions of the primary genres (dividing production into "Statuen von Herrschern, Beamten und Privatpersonen" and "Götterstatuen, mythologische Sujets, Idealplastik") and provides a more detailed account of two primary preoccupations of the modern literature: the dating and attribution of the so-called "Esquiline group" and the possible explanations for the "end of the statue habit." The remainder of the volume is divided into three sections: "Statuen im kulturellen Diskurs der Spätantike," "Statuen im öffentlichen Bereich," and "Statuen im privaten Bereich."

In the first section, Peter Stewart offers a series of soundings from the literary record with particular attention to the discrepancies between modern and ancient perceptions of continuity and discontinuity in the production of portrait statuary. Barbara Borg addresses the apparent caesura in the production of statue monuments during the third century. She argues that this phenomenon, while real, should not be read as a by-product of "crisis," but rather as a sign of a positive preference among Roman elites for more "performative" forms of self-representation, particularly those emphasizing social relationships. These were better served by architectural settings and by two-dimensional media such as relief sculpture. In the final essay, Franz Alto Bauer analyzes a number of inscriptions from public portrait monuments, and argues that in late antiquity the inscription became an autonomous bearer of meaning, independent of the object to which it referred, which circulated through correspondence, sylloges, and anthologies.

The essays on public statuary begin with a contribution by Christian Witschel, who seeks general trends in the use of statues in fora in Italy and northern Africa. He characterizes fora as "neutral spaces" in the context of Christianization, in which urban history could be preserved and reconfigured without the interference, or indeed any sort of participation, of the church. Robert Coates-Stephens addresses the so-called "statue walls" of late antique Rome, in which fragments of shattered sculptures were used as rubble. Rejecting a connection with triumphant Christianity, he focuses instead on the effects of a late antique building boom which would have presented urban prefects with difficult decisions regarding preservation and re-use. Sarah Bassett provides a synthesis of her recent book-length study of the display of statuary in late antique Constantinople, emphasizing the role of statues in providing the new city with a heroic and mythical past. In a study of the decoration of the "Hadrianic Baths" of Aphrodisias from their construction into the sixth century, R.R.R. Smith argues that the decline in the production of sculpture perceived by modern observers would not have been perceived as such by late antique citizens, who were still surrounded by statues of all eras in the public spaces of their cities. The one essay which did not originate as a colloquium paper, by Johanna Auinger and Elisabeth Rathmayr, presents new archaeological evidence for the (late antique) dating of an assemblage of statuary in the "Vediusbad" in Ephesus, while summarizing the role of statuary in the decoration of the other baths and the fountains of the late antique city (including significant evidence for the mutilation of nudes).

The final section focuses on statues in the decoration of villas. Niels Hannestad presents a provisional stylistic chronology for the small-scale mythological statuary of late antiquity, proposing criteria for the re-dating of sculptures previously perceived as Antonine into the late antique, and emphasizing the importance of sarcophagi and portraits for comparative stylistic analysis. Lea M. Stirling draws attention to regional peculiarities in the decoration of Iberian and Gallic villas, the former being distinguished by a taste for Dionysiac figures and a concentration of statues around baths, pools, and nymphaea, and the latter by a wider spatial distribution of statuary and a greater interest in portraiture. Marianne Bergmann focuses on the series of imperial portraits from Chiragan, which she prefers to see as a collection gradually assembled from Roman workshops from the first through the third centuries, and not (as has been argued by Hannestad) as a set gathered en masse and reworked in the fourth century. The final essay in the volume, by Susanne Muth, focuses on the interplay between statues and floor mosaics and wall paintings, which she sees as a "competition," with particular reference to the decoration of Piazza Armerina. As the two dimensional media succeeded in creating an all-embracing Bilderwelt, often including "gaps" to be filled by the visitor/viewer, three-dimensional media declined in importance.

The major themes of the modern literature are addressed in multiple essays: in addition to public portrait monuments and the decoration of villas, directly addressed by the second and third sections, a number of essays make important contributions to the discussion of the re-use and re-working of older statues (especially Witschel, Coates-Stephens, Bassett, Smith, Auinger and Rathmayr, Stirling, and Bergmann). Throughout the collection a salutary diversity of methodologies is employed, including close observation of style and technique, sophisticated use of the epigraphic record, and careful analysis of textual sources. A strong tendency towards contextual analysis of the conditions of display, including topographic and architectural considerations, is evident in a number of essays. Of particular importance in this regard is the theoretical introduction to Smith's essay, which emphasizes the synchronic interplay between newly-erected statues and older dedications. "We [historians] constantly get rid of the past, wiping the slate clean at arbitrary dates that suit us... Detailed contexts and assemblages where available can restore that sense of visual symbols accumulating in a single space" (204).

The essays of Bauer and Muth are particularly daring in their search for new interpretive models, and their conclusions have significant implications for the study of late antique art in general. Bauer argues that, in the case of late antique portrait monuments, the "inscription became an autonomous bearer of meaning that did not necessarily require an object to be understood" (93); and further still, that for "late antique man" ("dem spätantiken Menschen") "an image was not a painted surface, a carved piece of stone, a built structure, or a view of a city; for him an image was an impression that was first generated by the viewer" (105).7 Muth develops an account of the ability of two-dimensional media to draw their viewers into an imaginary world, laid on top of the actual space of the late antique villa, either by mirroring the activities characteristic of certain spaces, or by presenting only "secondary" figures who seem either to wait upon the visitor (e.g. servants) or indeed to be subdued by him. In the triconch of Piazza Armerina, the mythical opponents of Hercules and Dionysus are depicted in their death throes--but Hercules and Dionysus themselves are nowhere to be seen, and the visitor is thereby cast in the role of mythical hero. Muth's essay strikes this reviewer as a compelling application of the lessons of Rezeptionsästhetik to late antiquity. Both Muth and Bauer, in different fashions, underscore the increasingly subjective nature of the late antique reception of art. This shift is in fact one of the most venerable themes of modern scholarship on late antique art, but its precise mechanisms are still far from having been established.8

All of the essays seem to approach Spätantike from the classicist's vantage point; das Mittelalter appears less as a further step in the development than as a total vacuum, in which no more statues are erected and the fora and villas are abandoned. A common procedure is to compare the late antique forms of expression to the high imperial. In addition, a number of authors (especially Borg and Hannestad) raise the important question of the third century "crisis." Only Coates-Stephens, however, devotes any attention to the characteristically "medieval" modes of reception represented, e.g., by the Roman mirabilia literature, the Constantinopolitan patriographic corpus, and the Arabic texts on talismans. Yet the medieval tendency to attribute the erection of certain prominent statues to Apollonius of Tyana, as well as their efficacy in protecting cities from noxious beasts, is already attested in the fifth century at the latest;9 and this is certainly not the only "medieval" mode of reception that originated in fact during late antiquity. One task for future research will be to bring the hard-headed, primarily sociological, approach of current studies (thus the emphasis on self-representation and social rank, whether in the public or in the private realms) into dialogue with the markedly weirder tendencies in the late antique response to statues (e.g., the demonic, the prophetic, and the apotropaic). In this fashion it may be possible to gain a firmer grip on the "mentale und ästhetische Umorientierungen" (17) adumbrated by the editors as the primary cause of the end of the statue habit--or indeed to think beyond this telos.

The talismanic and demonic discourses are not merely of cultural-historical significance: with their emphasis on the uncannier aspects of three-dimensional representations they provide a late antique basis for the construction of "statue" as a coherent art-historical category. This could be useful, since there is at present little communication between the literatures on "public" and "private" statues in late antiquity. What connections have been drawn focus on issues of production and workshops, and not on issues of reception. It is a virtue of this volume to have at least placed the two literatures in proximity. But for the most part it is left to the reader to draw the lines between forum and villa. It is clear, for example, from the contributions of Witschel, Bassett, and Smith that the virtues of paideia, which have played a major role in modern interpretations of domestic assemblages of statuary, were equally on display in the fora of Italy and Africa and the baths of Constantinople and Aphrodisias (see e.g. Witschel at 124, on the fourth-century makeover of the forum of Aquileia, with portraits of significant figures in urban history displayed on the architrave of the portico, in addition to a prominent statue group of Virgil and his family). Was there a specific association between the statue as a medium and this type of "learned" representation? It is also worth asking whether the "immersive" qualities of two-dimensional media highlighted by Muth as a primary factor in their growing prominence in the private sphere were also exploited in the public. Did such Constantinopolitan monuments as the Agora of Leo, which depicted that emperor's accession in mosaic, the Chalke of Justinian, with the triumphs of Belisarius and the imperial couple in majesty, likewise in mosaic, or the Portico of Maurice, with its painted representations of the emperor's youth, address the viewer in a fashion similar to the domestic mosaics analyzed by Muth, and did the advantages of this mode of address contribute to the obsolescence of the imperial statue?10

One might also hope for closer attention to the "late-late antique" in future studies. While, as the editors note (2), newly dedicated portrait monuments are attested into the early seventh century (at least for Rome and for Constantinople), hardly any of the essays in this volume engage even with the sixth. This neglect needs to be redressed if a more robust model for the abandonment of statuary praxis is to be generated. In his 1985 review of Stichel, R.R.R. Smith published a striking graph representing "The end of portrait statues, A.D. 364-610" as a steady numerical decline.11 This has come to stand as a sort of visual shorthand for the "end of the statue habit" and is duly reproduced by the editors of this volume in illustration of their introduction. I wonder, however, if we have not been misled by this image, insofar as it seems to represent an inevitable process: as if the cessation of portrait monuments in the seventh century were already predetermined in the fourth. Closer attention to the social dynamics of imperial honors in the sixth and early seventh centuries reveals a complex and still-evolving set of interrelated phenomena, not the entropic winding-down of a obsolete system. A more robust model for the end of the statue habit will need to account for: the cessation under Heraclius of an apparently semi-official procedure for the erection of imperial statues by urban prefects; the growing role of the imperial statue as a medium for the expression of discontent with the ruling emperor, both during riots and via the posting of satiric metrical epigrams on imperial monuments; and for the radical changes in the conception of the imperial office in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, themselves in part a response to the gradual devaluation of such traditional symbols of imperial authority as, it might well be argued, the imperial statue itself.12 It will require a model more attentive to the role of portrait monuments as representations of and participants in both ideal and "real" social relations if we are to produce a synthetic account capable of embracing these various phenomena.13

These are merely the responses of one reader to this stimulating volume, which is simultaneously capable of serving as an up-to-date introduction to the field, as a major contribution to the same, and finally as a spur to further reflection. The editors are to be applauded for soliciting such a coherent collection of studies, the authors for responding to the challenge and to each other's arguments. Specialists in the field of late antique sculpture will want to read Statuen in der Spätantike from cover to cover, while anyone with an interest in late antique and early Byzantine culture and society will find much food for thought within its pages.


1.   See Taf. 51, fig. 4 of the volume under review; and the bibliography presented by Smith at 228, entries A 35 and A 36.
2.   See the summary of the excavations and initial publications in the contribution of Bergmann, 324; "danach wurden die Skulpturen jahrzehntelang kaum beachtet."
3.   (Rome, 1982); the review by R.R.R. Smith in JRS 75 (1985), 209-21, marked another important milestone.
4.   See the brief historiography in the contribution of Hannestad to the volume under review, 273-74.
5.   A Tagungsbericht is available here.
6.   One lacuna should be noted: K.M. Dunbabin, "The waiting servant in later Roman art," AJP 124 (2003), 443-68, relevant to the contributions of both Borg and Muth, is cited by neither.
7.   At 93: "Die Inschrift... wird zu einem autonomen Aussageträger, der nicht notwendigerweise des Objekts bedarf, um verstanden zu werden." At 105: "Für ihn war ein Bild nicht eine bemalte Fläche, ein behauenes Stück Stein, eine gebaute Architektur oder eine Stadtansicht, für ihn war ein Bild ein Eindruck, den erst der Betrachter generierte."
8.   A. Riegl, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Vienna, 1927), esp. 123-25, on the late antique as an art that "wesentlich mit einer geistigen, das heisst subjktiven Anregung des Beschauers rechnet" and the "gesteigerte Rolle, welche nunmehr dem Gedanken bei der Aufnahme eines Kunstwerks zukommt"; and compare J. Onians, "Abstraction and imagination in late antiquity," Art History 3 (1980), 1-23.
9.   See recently F.B. Flood, "Image against nature: spolia as apotropaia in Byzantium and the dar al-Islam," The Medieval History Journal 9 (2006), 143-66; and more specifically on Apollonius, G. Dagron, Constantinople imaginaire: etudes sur le recueil des Patria (Paris, 1984), 103-15.
10.   For a discussion of these monuments as representations of the "Gesta des Kaisers," see F.A. Bauer, Stadt, Platz, und Denkmal in der Spätantike: Untersuchung zur Ausstattung des öffentlichen Raums in den spätantiken Städten Rom, Konstantinopel, und Ephesos (Mainz, 1996), 322-23.
11.   JRS 75 (1985), 218.
12.   For the epigrams see Lydus, Mag., III.46 (under Anastasius) and John of Ephesus III.24 (Justin II); for the shift in imperial ideology see e.g. J. Haldon, "Ideology and social change in the seventh century: military discontent as a barometer," Klio 68 (1986), 139-90, esp. at 161-73.
13.   An outstanding example of such an approach, dealing with the imperial monuments of the fourth and fifth centuries, is E. Mayer, Rom ist dort, wo der Kaiser ist: Untersuchungen zu den Staatsdenkmälern des dezentralisierten Reiches von Diocletian bis zu Theodosius II (Mainz, 2002), especially the methodological remarks at 5-27.

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