BMCR 2006.12.07

Roman Imperial Statue Bases from Augustus to Commodus. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 7

, Roman Imperial Statue Bases from Augustus to Commodus. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 7. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2005. 664; figs. 8, tables 81. $59.95.

Table of Contents

For many decades now archaeologists and ancient art historians have labored to overturn the long-standing prejudice in Classics that privileges the written over the visual. Hence this reviewer feels some reluctance in touting here the role that the textual may play in expanding our understanding of the visual. But there is no denying that Jakob Hojte’s book, a revised version of his 2001 Aarhus dissertation, brings a new dimension to the study of Roman portraiture by examining the bases on which statues of the emperor once stood. Although perhaps unglamourous—and the paucity of photographs in this book does not help us to appreciate their aesthetic qualities —the bases, by virtue of their (usually) datable inscriptions, inject historical rigor into the discussion of what was ancient Rome’s most ubiquitous mode of imperial visual representation. Largely they bolster the evidence of the surviving portrait images themselves, but on the occasions when they do not they provide a valuable corrective.

Hojte’s substantial volume examines some 2300 bases found in 800 sites. Although the time frame—from Augustus to Commodus—is generous, the author’s decision to end with the Antonines does deprive us of the potentially illuminating comparison with the Severans, dynastic rulers whose reign is historically known as the acme of epigraphic production.1 In addition, the book’s exclusive focus on the bases of statues of the emperor limits consideration of the broader ideological program of which they formed a part; here Hojte bucks a trend, as it is now routine to acknowledge the contribution of women and other family members in forging a public imperial identity.2 Nonetheless, Hojte’s diachronic approach has the advantage of charting trends through both time and space. One perhaps surprising finding is that Hadrian received far more statues than his predecessor Trajan;3 this reverses not only the evidence of the extant portraits but also the standard impression conveyed by the literary sources of Trajan as popular and Hadrian not. Similarly, the Tiberius so unloved by the sources and by the Senate does not receive a statistically inferior number of posthumous statues despite the fact that he is one of the few emperors not to be deified.4 Not surprisingly, the author finds that those emperors whose statues we know to have been deliberately mutilated or destroyed after their deaths—Nero, Domitian, and Commodus—have a lower average number of statue bases per year of reign than other emperors. (Caligula remains a puzzling exception.)

After an initial chapter that considers the materiality of the base—its form, language, setting, and the type of statue it bore—Hojte turns to the issue of dating. Although a small percentage of bases cannot be dated, most can thanks to the use of imperial titulature or reference to known historical personages (i.e., local magistrates or donors). According to Hojte, nearly 40 percent of the bases can be dated to specific years, while an additional 25 percent can be loosely dated. Although they represent a chronologically random sample within each reign, the author concludes that their “chronological distribution is beyond all reasonable doubt representative of all the statues accompanied by bases carrying dedicatory inscriptions” (p. 81). Because of their certain dating, the bases necessitate rethinking a number of long-accepted “fixed” points in Roman imperial portraiture: Trajan’s Decennalienbildnis, for example, traditionally dated to 108 CE, probably should be moved earlier. It may be used for nearly two-thirds of the extant portraits, but the bases document many dedications earlier in Trajan’s reign. Likewise statue bases suggest that Marcus Aurelius’ type 4, typified by the Capitoline Museum’s Stanza degli Imperatori 38 bust, is likely to date from 169 CE rather than the commonly assigned year, 176 CE.

The chronology of the bases also permits Hojte to make broader conclusions regarding the production of imperial statues. Scholars have long debated why imperial statues were commissioned and why new portrait types were created. Importantly, Hojte shows that most of the traditional explanations—accession, jubilees, and imperial visits—are not supported by the statue bases themselves. Although we cannot be sure, the failure of the bases to commemorate these events diminishes the likelihood that they have a causal relationship to the portrait types themselves. The numbers point to a growing systematization of imperial image-making from Augustus to the Antonines but Hojte’s data further suggest that imperial portrait distribution during the first year of a reign was neither rapid nor widespread.5 From the surviving dedications the author posits that the emperor himself never instigated the erection of a portrait: instead the statues were always honorific (even in the Forum of Trajan the imperial portraits were dedicated by the State and People.) Typical dedicators were municipal bodies and wealthy aristocrats.

Some of Hojte’s findings challenge the historiographic tradition regarding Roman portraiture. For most emperors, the surviving bases outnumber the portraits by a ratio of 2:1.6 The findspots of the bases are widespread throughout the Empire, being particularly well represented in Greece, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Yet according to Hojte the preponderance of surviving portraits stem from Italy (but can Asia Minor really be far behind?), and most of them are of marble rather than the bronze we know from the technical evidence of the bases to have been the preferred sculptural material. Hence, as Hojte argues, modern scholarship has been biased towards Italy, and in particular, metropolitan Rome (a bias he notes as being encouraged by the ancient literary sources). While there is no doubt that metropolitan Rome was the trend-setter (not only on the imperial level but also the private), Hojte suggests that there may have been greater diversity in the portraits than we have acknowledged. Perhaps many of those portraits dismissed as representing “private” individuals who imitate the emperor are actually the man himself.

Clearly imperial statues erected in public spaces such as fora, agoras, and theaters do not represent the full spectrum of imperial representation. As the author notes, many imperial portraits stood in the private context of the domus or villa, where inscribed bases were superfluous. Despite the skewed evidence, his conclusions offer an important supplement to the corpus of Roman portraiture as conventionally defined — that is, exclusively by the statues themselves. The book’s many graphs and meticulous catalogue entries for the individual bases (which typically include the entire text and substantial material from earlier publications although no new commentary) will prove to be a valuable foundation for further scholarly work in a range of disciplines.


1.This omission is felt all the more keenly in view of Hojte’s demonstration of the shifting geographical focus of statue dedication from Italy to North Africa in the second century CE; surely under the Severans, whose founder was born in Cyrenaica, this trend would have continued. For the early third century as a period of extensive epigraphic production of all kinds, see R. MacMullen, “The Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire,” AJP 103 (1982) 233-46 esp. 243-46.

2.Designated heirs who ascend to the throne, however, are included in the discussion. For the creation of a dynastic image see C.B. Rose, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period (Cambridge 1997); S. Wood, Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images 40 B.C.-A.D.68 (Leiden 1999); E. Bartman, Portraits of Livia: Imaging the Imperial Woman in Augustan Rome (Cambridge 1999).

3.Apparently Hadrian was a slow starter, receiving very few statues during his predecessor’s reign—and thus not promoted as the obvious successor—even though he was married to Trajan’s niece (the childless emperor’s most eligible female.)

4.Most posthumous statues were erected in the first five years after the emperor’s death.

5.The numbers increase from 3.2 per year under Augustus to 19 under Hadrian (p. 192).

6.Exceptions are Augustus and Caligula, where the ratio is closer to 1:1.