Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.01.42
S. L. McGowen, Sacred and Civic Stone Monuments of the Northwest Roman Provinces. BAR international series 2109. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010. Pp. vii, 159. ISBN 9781407306506. £35.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Margaret L. Laird, University of Washington, Seattle (email@example.com)
When, by the late first century A.D, the indigenous inhabitants of northwestern Europe and Britain were incorporated into the Roman empire, large-scale sculpture in stone was among the practices they adopted. McGowen seeks to understand the stylistic, formal, and iconographic choices that patrons made as they negotiated this new medium. In Chapter One, she proposes a case-study approach that focuses on sixteen “core sites” whose preserved monuments include varying combinations of architectural and relief sculpture as well as free-standing statuary. These well-preserved sacred and civic sites are geographically and chronologically scattered and are distinguished by their density of preserved sculpture in sufficiently documented archaeological and social contexts. The sacred sites include the sanctuary of Sulis Minerva at Bath and the Mithraeum in London (both in Britannia); the sanctuaries of Hercules at Deneuvre, Apollo and Sirona at Hochscheid, and an unknown deity at Champlieu (Gallia Belgica); the sanctuaries of Mercury and Rosmerta (?) at Genainville, and Mars (?) at Montmarte (Gallia Lugdunensis); and the sanctuary of the Matronae Aufaniae at Nettersheim (Germania Inferior). The corpus of civic monuments is limited to arches found at Londinium (Britannia); Reims (Gallia Belgica); Mainz and Besançon (Germania Superior); Carpentras, Orange, and ancient Glanum (Gallia Narbonensis); and Susa (Alpes Cottiae).
Chapter Two introduces each core site and its monuments in three chronological groups. Much of this chapter is description, although McGowen clarifies some contested details. Site plans, particularly of the sanctuaries, and reconstruction drawings of the arches would have added detail and specificity to each core site.
Chapter Three examines how patrons, artists, and the material from which a sculpture was carved impacted its style. The client kings who commissioned the arch at Susa and, perhaps, the initial phase of the sanctuary at Bath may have been inspired by personal experiences of Italian monuments to create Roman-style works that underscored their allegiance to the capital. For local magistrates and priests, carved stone monuments could project loyalty, status, and piety. Most commissioners, however, were ordinary people, although wealthy enough to afford stone monuments. The otherwise unknown individuals who dedicated over fifty stelae in the sanctuary of Hercules at Deneuvre may have selected a style that they deemed appropriate for that sanctuary’s particular cultic focus.
McGowen’s survey of inscriptions naming sculptores, marmorarii, and lapidarii illuminates the identity of stone carvers. Marmorarii, specialists in marble work, clustered near the quarries in the southern Gallic provinces. Some stone sculptors bore indigenous names, while others had Roman or even Greek names (though here, an inscribed name does not necessarily reflect an individual’s cultural background, especially given the caché of a Greek name for an artist). Most importantly, McGowen’s survey highlights the transient nature of sculptors, several of whom, she demonstrates, traveled for work.
Materials also impacted a monument’s cost and style. Locally sourced limestone predominates, minimizing expense and facilitating construction. Imported stone (from the region or abroad) added significant cost to large projects like the arch at London, built from Lincolnshire limestone. McGowen calculates the quantities of material required to construct the monuments at each core site and examines the logistics and cost of transport (in wagon- or boat-loads and work days). This type of analysis makes sense for the better-preserved arches, discrete monuments built in a single campaign by a patron or patrons. Less satisfying are the calculations for the sanctuaries, whose precincts included temples and other buildings that are now in extremely fragmentary states. Ensembles of votive stelae and sculptures gradually accumulated over time, the gifts of multiple donors. McGowen estimates that the largest of these statues would have been carved from a block weighing 1.2 tonnes, an impressive amount of stone but one that cannot be effectively compared to the quantity of material necessary to construct even the smallest arch (Carpentras, 431 tonnes).
McGowen concludes the chapter by considering how patron, artist, and material together influenced sculptural style. This is not regional style, as the geographic and temporal spread of the core sites defy such an analysis. Rather, McGowen focuses on the dichotomy between “high-quality, naturalistic, traditionally Hellenic” pieces and those that are “less naturalistic and of a lower quality.” (66-67) Reliefs on the arches at Glanum, Carpentras, and Orange, along with fragmentary sculptures from the sanctuary at Montmarte, conform to the Hellenizing style prevalent in southern France. Several imported pieces from the Mithraeum at London, like other imports found in Britain, are similarly classicizing. But much of the sculpture from the core site uses a more schematic style to render Greco-Roman and indigenous iconography. This choice may have ensured visual legibility (as on the arch at Susa) or reflected the limitations of material or artists’ skill (the sandstone votive reliefs from Deneuvre) or signaled a reliance on local workshops (reliefs from the Mithraeum at London). McGowen makes an insightful point about stylistic plurality: low customer demand for sculpted monuments in the northwest provinces led to fewer sculptors overall and a less competitive market. Patrons, she suggests, did not desire a particular artistic style, but a sculpture’s symbolic value as a gift to the gods or the community.
Chapter Four considers the imagery of sculpted monuments, their design and iconography. Drawing on present-day graphic design techniques, McGowen examines how the various monuments appealed to passersby. The earlier monuments (arches at Susa, Carpentras, and Glanum; the reliefs from the sanctuary at Deneuvre) utilize a “direct approach” characterized by simple, pared-down imagery. Repetition also made a monument memorable: multiple groups of captives recur on the arches at Glanum and Carpentras; the sanctuary at Deneuvre featured more than fifty nearly identical stelae. The panoply of votives must have been visually impressive, but such an agglutinative assemblage cannot be considered the product of a single design process, as with an arch. Other designers opted to use a “visual barrage” technique, covering a monument with a skin of relief (the sanctuary façade at Genaineville and the arch at Besançon). Because these monuments date to the second century, McGowen postulates a shift in viewer preference that reflects a period style found elsewhere in the empire. The Tiberian arch at Orange, however, furnishes an important early example of this trend. Moreover, had McGowen expanded her corpus, she could have included other early examples of visual barrage found on the mausoleum of the Julii at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and on the Jupiter column at Mainz.
McGowen’s examination of iconography yields interesting insights. Architectural sculptures from the sanctuary at Bath and the sanctuaries at Champlieu and Genainville demonstrate that monuments commissioned over time could include imagery that created cohesive iconographic programs appropriate to the cultic nature of each sanctuary and their rituals. On the arches, imagery expressed key messages about the emperor and the empire that shifted over time. Early arches (as at Carpentras, Glanum, and Orange) emphasize military victory and the emperor’s personal virtus and felicitas. This broadens to a focus on felicitas temporum brought by the emperor and an expanded cosmic virtus (on the late second-century arches at Besançon and Reims) to a cosmic felicitas temporum (the late second-/early third-century arches at London and Mainz). McGowen supports this convincing reading with well-selected comparison monuments and literary testimonia. She concludes by emphasizing the agency of patrons, best illustrated on the arch at Susa. There, the lack of military imagery suggests that the client-king Cottius selected motifs that expressed the peaceful integration of the Alpes Cottiae. While Cottius shaped the overall program of the arch, it is also clear that he (or his designer) also adapted standard Roman iconographies to express his novel message. For example, to depict the treaty signing on the west façade (otherwise unattested in Roman art), the artist reworked the conventional image of the single magistrate seated on a curule chair, arm outstretched,1 by placing its mirror reverse across the low table or altar. A deeper engagement with specific iconographies on this and other monuments might have revealed how such customizations nuanced and particularized the messages of the sculpture.
The final two chapters place sacred and civic stone monuments in their broader contexts alongside sculpted stone funerary monuments from the northwest provinces and among arches and sacred stone monuments from North Africa and the eastern provinces. These chapters are rather short (nine and seven pages, respectively) and McGowen has been selective rather than comprehensive. Stone funerary monuments, virtually nonexistent in the northwest provinces prior to the Romans’ arrival, find many parallels with their sacred and civic counterparts. Their use spread slowly and, in some areas, was exclusive to military sites. Their patrons, few of whom ranked among the political or military elite, may have chosen to commemorate in stone to display their Roman status and citizenship. Although some sepulchral monuments (notably the third-century monument of the Secundinii at Igel) rely on “visual barrage,” most funerary stelae position a single, frontal figure of the deceased in the center of the monument, a “direct approach” composition that resembles many votive stelae. The repeated use of motifs by particular social groups (for instance, images of riders on tombstones commissioned almost exclusively to commemorate auxiliary cavalry members) integrated the deceased into certain communities, just as, McGowen argues, the identical votive figures of Hercules or the Matronae Aufaniae emphasized ritual participation. Style or carving quality varies widely among funerary reliefs, suggesting that it was a secondary consideration. More complex funerary monuments and smaller stelae feature carefully composed visual programs, much like their civic counterparts. McGowen notes that funerary, sacred, and civic monuments often stood in close proximity to one another and their imagery and designs must have reinforced one another. The chapter raises interesting questions about the ways in which images and the objects they adorned functioned in various contexts, but McGowen’s analysis of civic, votive, and funerary sculptures largely focuses on formal qualities. Further, a more detailed examination of funerary objects from the core sites and surrounding areas might have yielded insight into regional workshops or iconographic conventions.
The final chapter compares the core site monuments with their counterparts from two other multi-province regions, the Greek east and North Africa. In both regions, the tradition of stone sculpture was more robust, due to their population, wealth, urban development, and ready supplies of hard, high-quality stones. Comparing arches, McGowen notes a strong preference for architectural façades over relief sculpture in both areas. Arches that feature sculpture, however, (at Oea, Volubilis, and Pisidian Antioch) provide significant parallels to the core site arches, particularly in regards to the social status of their patrons, their application of the theme of felicitas temporum, and their reliance upon the imagery of victory and conquest. Turning to sacred stone monuments, McGowen adduces the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, whose imperial cult function injected the imagery of imperial victory into a religious precinct. Some of the Sebasteion’s themes and iconography closely parallel the messages and imagery on the Gallic arches. Although North African votive stelae were almost unanimously dedicated to Baal/Saturn and render the worshiper rather than the deity, they compositionally resemble the sacred sculptures from the core sites.
The study concludes with a catalog of the core sites that provides deeper historical context and thoroughly describes the monuments’ sculptures, reliefs, and inscriptions.
While McGowen introduces other monuments as points of comparison, the book’s conclusions rest firmly on the core site material. Consequently, McGowen’s selection of the core sites has implications for the conclusions that follow. Most notably, the largely extra-urban sanctuaries do not easily compare to single arches. And, restricting the corpus of civic monuments to arches excludes monuments like the Jupiter Column at Mainz or the richly decorated tombs of the elite at Glanum and elsewhere. Nonetheless, McGowen’s study commendably brings together a group of stone monuments and illuminates the formal and practical patterns that went into their creation.
1. See, for instance, T. Schäfer, Imperii Insignia. Sella Curulis und Fasces (Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1989), pl. 31.