Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.21

John Ma, Statues and Cities. Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxvi, 378.  ISBN 9780199668915.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Chicago (


John Ma's Statues and Cities is an immensely learned and handsomely illustrated study of honorific portraits in the Hellenistic city. Ma takes in both public and private statuary, so long as it was erected in a public space. He employs epigraphic, archaeological and art historical perspectives on his evidence. The chronological parameters run essentially from 350 to 1 BCE (vi), though Ma reflects on the origins and antecedents of such statuary in the late archaic and early classical periods and refers regularly to monuments and texts of the Roman period, particularly when these re-use or refer to Hellenistic artifacts. Finally, as a matter of geography, Ma largely restricts himself to the Aegean world and more particularly to Attica and Ionia – Athens, Oropus, Ephesus, Knidos and Priene being prominent among his case studies.

By some measures, this is therefore an extremely ambitious volume. What is more, for a very long work – the pages are oversized and the font very small – it has been exceptionally well produced. And yet, its explanatory ambitions are quite radically circumscribed. This results, it seems to me, from choices Ma has made regarding both method and theory. In what follows, I first provide a sketch of the book's contents, both in Ma's terms and, to a point, my own, before outlining my misgivings.

Ma describes the book as having three themes, "the honorific, inscribed culture of the Hellenistic polis," "the social context and function of Greek art," and "monumental space in the Hellenistic city" (8). Though honorific statues and their inscriptions constitute only a very small subset of surviving epigraphy or indeed of Hellenistic art, Ma describes "the honorific statue habit" as "a test case" for the study of Hellenistic political culture writ large:

The payoff of the exercise ... will be to give a holistic sense of the post-classical polis, which constitutes one of the main problems of Hellenistic history. The various specific components of this problem are the following: first, the balance between subordination and agency; secondly, the interaction of elite and community ... ; thirdly, the interaction between public and private within the social space of the polis.(9)

Ma then urges that his topic also impinges upon "three related themes in cultural history": "the practical workings of representations and images"; "the history of the body"; and "the history of memory" (9-10).

This program is elaborated in a text of four Parts of two chapters each. Each Part displays a light division of labor, such that the first chapter is concerned more directly with gathering examples and posing formal questions, while the second chapter addresses issues of a more thematic nature, often enough by returning to the same examples. Thus the first chapter of Part I, "Statues and Stories," treats the language of the inscribed texts, asking, e.g., what party to any given transaction is in the nominative, while the second chapter asks what it means that in public monuments, some civic body or corporate institution is the agent of the verb in question, while the honorand is in the accusative.

That said, the distinction between empirical and thematic inquiry is very light, indeed. This is so for at least two reasons. The first is that the case studies explored in any given first chapter are not investigated in full but rather in light of the priorities of the Part in which it falls, so that the data given salience in analysis are (nearly) always and (nearly) exclusively those to which one returns in the second chapter of the Part. (One might also put the matter with somewhat different force as follows: the case studies in any given first chapter are selected because they provide data salient to the questions Ma wishes to pose in the second.) The second reason is that Ma himself is much more deeply invested in settling empirical questions than framing or answering interpretive ones. Thus the first chapter of Part II, "Statues and Places," "list[s] and exemplif[ies] the various sites where Hellenistic communities set up honorific portraits" (67), while the second chapter addresses the question, "Where did the civic communities set up their honorific portraits?" (111). It may be a sign that Ma himself was unsure how well the first chapter had formulated this question or, for that matter, how it had not addressed it, that over the next two thousand words he asks it again, in several different guises: "Where within these spaces?" (112), "But where, in fact, did the civic communities of the Hellenistic world set up their honorific portraits, and why?" (112), "Where did the other honorific portraits go?" (112), "Epiphanestatoi topoi?" (113). One feels vaguely like the interlocutor of a tourist in a foreign land who believes clarity can be achieved through repetition at ever greater volume.

Part III, "Statues and Families," takes up private monuments, by which Ma means monuments erected on private initiative but presumably with public approval in public spaces, and in particular those same kinds of spaces where public monuments were erected. He does not consider private monuments set up in private or extra-urban public spaces nor does he give extended consideration to public monuments erected with private financing. Part IV, "Statues as Images," studies the production of statuary: sourcing of raw materials; techniques of production, reproduction and assemblage; cost; and genres.

Before I turn to the book's major argument, let me single out for praise a number of its more fine-grained achievements. Chapter 4 provides a number of apparatus for thinking about the accumulation and disposition of statues and the effects of these processes on the experience of visitors to the spaces where they occur, which Ma calls segmentation, sedimentation, stratigraphy, and serialization. There is less here on movement through space than one would wish (cf. 131), and the processes that Ma discusses will be familiar to many students of the Greek city in the Roman era. Nevertheless, the exposition is exceptionally clear and helpful. In discussing private monuments, Ma argues that these do not so much focus on patrilineal relations as they emphasize relational networks centered around an individual, "a web of kin" or "network of relatives" that is constantly re-created (195, 209). Also regarding private monuments, Ma urges first that they should be seen on a continuum with developments commencing in the archaic period, but also that their development "echoes and mimics" that of public monuments, with a time lag of approximately a generation (202). I also found delightfully apt Ma's naming of later inscriptions that "settle" on unused sides of statue bases: "epigraphical pigeons" (61, 141).

The central argument of the book has two components. First, Ma suggests that the actual "subject" of private honorific monuments is "not the person represented by the work of art, but the relation between various elements involved in civic politics: individual, society, political institutions, and, often, the gods or specific gods linked to place" (46; very clear statements again at 212 and 290).1 Hence his claim that "the people" are in the nominative and thus possess agency. "The people is as important as the honorand–or more important?" (55; Ma's question mark). Over against this "communitarian" ideology, as he names it, Ma situates pressures toward elitism or, perhaps, elite capture of the institutions and spaces that "the people" nominally continued to control (the most pointed language may be found at 231). At a few key moments but alas, nearly wholly without argumentation, he posits a tension between these ideological structures, such that "civic history ... involve[s] the possibility of competition, of individual or group aims, of conflict, of cunning and patience by non-state actors as well as the state itself.... [P]ublic space was a site of interaction" (151; see also 295, 297).

What is one to make of the banality of this language and the point it conveys or, for that matter, the lack of argumentation in support of it? What would it mean to posit the existence of a city without competition or conflict or a public space without interaction? In my view, the difficulty results from two related factors; consideration of each will lead to the articulation of a broader concern about the book's method.

The lack of argumentation must result in part from Ma's decision to cite as evidence almost exclusively inscribed statue bases and honorific portraits. That is to say, his vision extends solely to highly formalized documents on permanent media intended for public consumption. Virtually no literature is cited other than those passages in texts that describe or refer to formal aspects of such monuments. Ma thus relies more or less entirely upon evidence committed to the elision or effacement of precisely the tension that his analysis occasionally posits as central. For this reason, and for others I will discuss below, Ma leaves himself without a model or a language with which to describe the dynamics of this tension in any given occurrence or across time. "Competition" and "interaction" are merely historical constants.

The narrowness of the evidence under consideration creates another incongruence. Simply put, it cannot provide "a holistic sense of the post-classical polis" or speak in any meaningful way to "the social context and function of Greek art." Unless we take the inscribed statue bases of public and private honorific portraits and the statues themselves as synecdochic of the entirety of Greek epigraphy (and Hellenistic rhetoric and historiography) as well as Greek art, they cannot provide "a holistic sense" of anything other than the epigraphy of statue bases and the working of honorific portraits. A case study of all epigraphy and art from a single city would serve far better the ambitions stated at the outset of the book.2

The second factor informing the nature of Ma's conclusions is his theory of politics. For him, competition occurs between two fairly static and mutually exclusive entities, the people and the elite, and it concerns an extraordinarily limited range of issues. This feature of the work also arises in part from a choice about what evidence to study, as well as how to read the evidence. Simply put, Ma so selects and reads his evidence as to provide little sociological depth to the analysis, and this satisfies only insofar as one understands as political exclusively those topics defined as such by the ideological horizons of the actors under study. Ma's theoretical commitment in this regard is further supported by the choice to make a strong distinction between public and private. The choice not to give meaningful consideration to the capture of politics by the elite, expressed not least in the means employed to arrogate public space for private commemoration, helps to sustain his vision.3 The choice not to highlight private funding of public monuments in honor of oneself or one's kin, likewise.

Consider the matter comparatively. Could one provide a robust explanation of modern American euergetism by looking only at inscriptions honoring donors, while deliberately neglecting the tax code on, say, capital gains, social security and charitable giving? Would such a project even be conceivable? It's from the tax code and not building inscriptions that one would learn that the contemporary United States has a regressive tax code; that the tax code is designed to sustain an elite of wealth as an elite of wealth rather than (say) an elite of even on-going economic achievement; and that we grant the wealth of that elite moral esteem rather than critique on grounds of justice by giving public subsidy to so- called charitable giving. One obvious alternative to this arrangement would be to tax more progressively (or simply less regressively) and then make appropriations for public goods as these are selected by legislatures or the people themselves.

This has further ramifications for how strongly one can endorse Ma's communitarian reading of the dedicatory inscriptions. Let us allow that public honors were granted for acts in keeping with civic norms. Who would gainsay this? But not everyone is honored: basically, one had to be rich. More generally, one might say that the conditions of possibility for being honored for exemplary citizenship were extraordinarily constrained. One effect was implicitly to label the citizenship of the non-wealthy as defective in potentiality. But another was effectively to insist that a chief residual power of the people as sovereign—residual because the failure of public revenues made the community dependent on private wealth to finance public goods—was nothing other than the recognition and honoring of their betters.

In sum, Ma offers an extraordinarily rich, Robertian study of honorific statues in the Hellenistic Aegean. The chance, however, to embed these within a broader study of the politics of the Hellenistic polis was missed.


1.   Have viewers in past or present taken the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square to be about the power of a private clique of individuals, many serving in government, to commemorate one of their own on a site granted by Parliament and thus at public expense? Do people commonly refer to it as an icon or index of the contestation of political power in Britain 30 years after Nelson's death? Or is it a monument to Nelson?
2.   I set aside the issue that some of the themes announced in the Introduction do not achieve any real prominence in what follows: certainly "the history of the body" is little addressed (indeed, there is no entry for "the body" in the index), and the same is true, to a somewhat lesser extent, of the history of memory. This may result from sedimentation (the project began in 1998); it is also expressed in a certain dissonance between the postmodern theoretical claims implicit in the language of the "Introduction" and the book's method, which displays an epigrapher's resolute particularism.
3.   I refer to "arrogation" to differentiate my focus on the practice of politics from Ma's narrower focus on mere occupation of space, which is the one issue where he does give extended consideration to elite capture, though he prefers to speak of "competition" and "segmentation" (151; see also 11, 228, and 291-2). But who said "elite capture" was final or total? Politics had to remain nominally democratic in order to (re)legitimate the elite. On this topic comparative consideration of the municipal decrees of the Roman west might have shed light on the issues at stake: there, members of municipal councils regularly voted to provide public space so that a member of their class could advertise, at his or her expense, the exclusive possession of true civic virtue by precisely members of their class, even if they implicitly allowed that the honorand had recently instantiated those virtues in a noteworthy way. The normatively legitimate functioning of notionally democratic politics was thus used, there as in the Hellenistic polis, to legitimate discrepant potential for citizenly virtue distributed along class lines.

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