Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.16
Stefan Feuser, Monopodia: figürliche Tischfüße aus Kleinasien. Ein Beitrag zum Ausstattungsluxus der römischen Kaiserzeit. Byzas, 17. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2013. Pp. xv, 285; 37 p. of plates. ISBN 9786054701216.
Reviewed by Dimitra Andrianou, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens (firstname.lastname@example.org )
Feuser’s book is the first systematic study of monopodia from the first century to the second half of the fourth century A.D. in Asia Minor. For the purposes of his study, Feuser defines a monopodium as a table with a single support and his corpus covers, more specifically, monopodia having a base and pillar embellished with one or more figures that play no functional role in supporting the table top. Earlier investigations of table supports concentrated on particular decorative themes with no discussion of workshops or issues concerning luxury in the Roman era. Feuser, however, examines these decorative themes alongside monopodia from the houses of the so-called upper middle class to deduce information about the culture and mindset of the Imperial period. His study is a welcome addition to the scholarly discussion of domestic furniture and luxury, and to Stefanidou-Tiveriou’s analysis of Attic monopodia published two decades earlier.1 Moreover, Feuser’s book is a valuable contribution to our limited knowledge of the sculpture and workshops of Asia Minor, a field aptly characterized as "desolat" by the author (3).
An introductory chapter (Chapter 1) discusses problems of terminology. Monopodium is attested in both Livy and Pliny but, as with many other furniture terms, we are not sure what the actual items looked like or if the term was even used, as it is now in modern literature, to mean table supports. Feuser defines the geographical and chronological range of his study, states its goals, and provides a brief outline of the ensuing chapters. A historiographic section helps place the work within its scholarly framework and the chapter concludes with a discussion on luxury in the Roman period stressing the fact that such studies have not included Asia Minor. Here Feuser formulates a series of important questions concerning the way we interpret domestic luxury.
Chapter 2 analyses the contexts in which we find monopodia, their origin and function. In Asia Minor they have been found in houses, nymphaea, Roman baths and basilicas but theories regarding their function are founded mainly on comparative material from Italy since most of the aforementioned find-spots are not primary, but rather secondary-use locations from late Roman strata (29). Feuser astutely raises the issue of mobility (12), but considers it somewhat restricted in the case of monopodia because of their weight and size (22). I would point out, however, that Italian comparanda probably do not tell the whole story, since they do not illuminate their function in secondary contexts. In Feuser’s publication a brief analysis of the layout of Roman houses where monopodia have been found, and a concise summary of the scholarship on excavated houses in Asia Minor would have been helpful. The author notes the variety and the, seemingly, contradictory nature of the find-spots in Asia Minor: houses with wall paintings and opus sectile (no. 6) but also slave quarters (no. 92); in bathhouses (no. 87) but also in latrines (no. 47). He correctly points out that these supports may have functioned in secondary contexts without the table top and could possibly have been appreciated as sculpture in later periods. At the same time, certain pieces were found repaired, an indication that there was an appreciation of their value in a later, and often different, context (22).
There is almost no iconographic evidence for monopodia in any other media from Asia Minor. The west and north-west provinces, and Palmyra, which produce reliefs depicting monopodia (23), are the only exception. Literary references are even scarcer: Varro gives different names to monopodia according to their different functions and Livy uses the term monopodia et abacos. Whether any of these terms correspond to the material evidence at hand is questionable (27). The existing literary evidence describes monopodia as “show pieces,” on which the most valuable vessels would be placed in order to flaunt the house owner’s level of prosperity and taste. Unlike other tables, they were not meant, according to Feuser, for cultic use in the house or in sanctuaries (28). I would argue that this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion as we know very little about the use of furniture in domestic cult, and the material from Delos that could provide us with such information has not been studied so far.3 The only assumption that can be made, based on the extant evidence from Greece, Spain and Cyrenaica, is that cultic use should not be ruled out.4
The origin of the type and the relationship between decorated and undecorated monopodia are discussed further. Undecorated items have close typological correlations to water basin supports, whereas decorated monopodia draw parallels from bronze pieces such as craters and candelabra (31). Feuser believes that monopodia were used to exhibit a household’s most expensive vessels, especially during symposia, as kylikeia were used in the Hellenistic period (31).
Typology and chronology form the main topic of Chapter 3. In the typological sections, Feuser elaborates on the base and the table top, and gives a brief analysis of the use of Proconnesian marble, identified in five pieces through isotopic analysis. Only sixteen monopodia, of three different heights, have been found complete (33). Support and sculpted front are made from a single piece of marble and they were clearly meant to be seen from one direction only.
Inscriptions and graffiti that could provide secure dates are entirely lacking, therefore Feuser follows, instead, the dates proposed for Asiatic columnar sarcophagi because of the similarities they share with the monopodia (42). He groups the material into two chronological groups: from the first to third centuries A.D. and from the third to fourth centuries A.D., summarizing his criteria at the end of each section.
Chapter 4 is devoted to workshops. Here Feuser, with appropriate caution, confronts the limitations of the “workshop” concept (54, note 283), used here in the sense of a “Produktionsstatt”, where numerous local workshops were established close to quarries for the production of monopodia, funerary reliefs and sarcophagi. Feuser detects three such production centers: Dokimeion (first to third centuries A.D.), Aphrodisias (second to third centuries A.D.) and Proconnesos (third to fourth centuries A.D.). The presentation of each center begins with a useful outline of the evidence for the relevant marble quarry, the type and extent of production, and the geographical limits of its use. Dokimeion marble workers must have migrated to Proconnesos in search of work before the middle of the third century A.D. and before the production of columnar sarcophagi ceased (70-71). Finally, Feuser finds evidence that contradicts Stefanidou-Tiveriou’s assumption that Attic monopodia were not imported to Asia Minor (73). It is quite plausible that monopodia and columnar sarcophagi (or other products of the quarries) were exported together.
Chapter 5 discusses iconography in five thematic groups – Dionysos and his circle, mythological, realistic, bucolic-maritime, and Christian – with frequent references to the catalogue items. Most of the monopodia bear similarities to columnar sarcophagi from Dokimeion but are also influenced by sculpture in the round and wall painting.
In Chapter 6, Feuser juxtaposes Greek and Italian monopodia in order to detect similarities and differences concerning dating, workshops and iconography. Remarkably, the smallest number of monopodia was found in Italy and the largest in Greece. Feuser compares the production of Italian monopodia with other pieces of furniture (marble candelabra, putealia sigillata (wellheads), and three- and four-legged folding tables). He concludes that, as with simpler items such as oscilla (masks), there is a reduction in production (or at least a decrease in the amount of excavated material) by the late second century A.D. Here one would have wished that Feuser had presented a broader sample including types of a wider variety of domestic objects. Such a synthetic analysis of Roman domestic luxury, along with a primary, theoretical definition of the term “luxury” within domestic spaces, is still lacking in scholarship.
Feuser explains the decline in production of “luxury objects” in second century A.D. Italy as a change in domestic culture, where houses become smaller and denser; insulae and multifunctional complexes are built instead of habitations with atria and peristyles; and commercial ground-floor spaces appear (176). This, however, is not the case in Asia Minor (and, to a certain extent, Greece), where peristyle houses continue to flourish throughout the second century A.D. 5
In addition, in the middle of the third century A.D., new themes prevail; a similar change is noted in the iconography of Italian wall paintings and mosaics. This is explained as a shift in the way “status” in society and self-representation are understood. According to Feuser, a luxurious house represents status and loses its character as a place of otium (179-180), and new themes in third-century A.D. art unambiguously demonstrate the wealth, status and education of the patrons (183). This shift might have been a result of radical social changes following the rise of the equestrian class in the middle of the third century A.D. and the replacement of the senatorial class in administrative positions (184). The resultant social mobility and change required new themes that would represent their education, career and, consequently, status.
The study concludes with brief summaries in German and Turkish, followed by the catalogue and figures. The catalogue contains 176 items; it is organized in alphabetical order by iconographic theme and is followed by a museum index and a list of figures, but no general index. The book is well illustrated with 37 black-and-white plates carefully chosen to complement his arguments.
Overall, Feuser’s study presents a thorough overview of the subject of monopodia in Asia Minor and endeavors to understand their position and function in the socio-political reality of the time using comparanda from Italy and Greece. Scholars and students of antiquity will be well served by this book which, I hope, will initiate new and much-needed discussion about issues of domestic luxury and the role furniture plays in it.
1. Stefanidou-Tiveriou, Τραπεζοφόρα με πλαστική διακόσμηση. Ι. Αττική Ομάδα Athens 1993.
2. Andrianou, The Furniture and Furnishings of Ancient Greek Houses and Tombs, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
3. Andrianou, op.cit., p. 51, footnote 161.
4. Stefanidou-Tiveriou, op.cit., p. 67.
5. For a similar case in Roman Greece in the second half of the third century A.D. see S. Zoumbaki, "More negotium than otium. Social and Economic aspects of Leisure in the Villas of the Roman Province of Achaia," in Devillers, O. (ed.), Neronia IX, La villégiature dans le monde romain de Tibère à Hadrien , Actes du IXe congrès de la SIEN, Paris 2014, pp. 185-194.