BMCR 2009.11.18

He Athene kata te Romaike epoche: Prosphates anakalypseis, nees ereunes / Athens During the Roman Period: Recent Discoveries, New Evidence. Mouseio Benake – Parartema 40

, He Athene kata te Romaike epoche: Prosphates anakalypseis, nees ereunes / Athens During the Roman Period: Recent Discoveries, New Evidence. Mouseio Benake - Parartema 40. 488. ISBN 9789604760022. (pb).

It seems that there has never been a more interesting time to study Athens during Roman times. Rescue archaeology on the one hand and scholarly production on the other have lead in the last few years to an increase in publications that in the long term will enrich enormously not only our knowledge but also our understanding of Roman Athens. This book, for instance, contains 28 contributions presented at a Colloquium that took place at the Benaki Museum in Athens in October 2006 under the aegis of the Greek Ministry of Culture with the participation of numerous scholars, Greek and non-Greek. (Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review). The languages of the contributions are modern Greek, English and German; every paper is accompanied by a summary in a second language. Both the Colloquium and the collective volume are the outcome of the collaboration of a number of institutions : the Benaki Museum, the 1st and the 3rd Ephoria of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the American School of Classical Studies and the German Archaeological Institute of Athens.

The volume summarizes the results of research based on the discoveries during the recent excavations for the construction of the Athens Metro, the New Acropolis Museum and the Unification of the Archaeological sites of the city of Athens. It has also been an occasion for other two long term projects, namely the excavations of the American School of Classical Studies in the Athenian Agora and the excavations of the German Archaeological Institute in the cemeteries of Kerameikos, which contribute regularly to our knowledge of the Athenian past, to present new material specifically relating to Roman Athens. It is thus mostly new material that is presented here: it deserves the attention of archaeologists, historians, architects with an interest in restoration and conservation of ancient monuments, and in general, of all those who are interested in the history of Athens, a great city at all times and especially during the Roman Empire.

The renaissance of recent interest in Athens during the Roman period dates back to the late 80s when the volume, The Greek Renaissance in the Roman Empire (A. Cameron, S. Walker eds. 1989), appeared with no fewer than ten contributions exclusively concerning Roman Athens. Since that landmark study, other publications have presented and explored the ever-changing topic of “Roman” Athens. Importantly, another book, The Romanization of Athens: Proceedings of an International Conference held at Lincoln, Nebraska 1996, (M. C. Hoff, S. Rotroff eds., 1997), (see BMCR 1998.10.08) introduced and at the same time challenged the term “romanization” as a heuristic tool in order to study the Athens of Roman times. We should also mention the volume, The City Beneath the City (L. Parlama, N. Stampolidis eds. 2000), with exclusively new archaeological material from the metro excavation in the city of Athens (see BMCR 2001.10.24 and 2002.03.24). The Benaki Museum volume thus constitutes an addition to a bulk of important recent publications that haverenewed our knowledge of the city of Athens. Its focus is mainly archaeological.

The preface of the volume substantially revisits the historical problem of “romanization” in Athens and of the status (and the nature) of the city of Athens during Roman times. Significantly, the title of the volume eschews the formulation “Roman Athens”.1 The general assumption of the introduction is that Athens, this exceptional city, managed to stay the “same” throughout the so-called Roman period. Characteristically, in the introduction, the answer to the question “when Athens was transformed in a Roman city” is a great resounding “never” (p. 9). This “sameness” is supposed to form the city’s main originality. It is true that the mere description of the Athenian urban landscape suffices to demonstrate a tendency to conserve and display elements of the city’s classical past (or even heritage). However, by looking more closely at the material published in this same volume, that is, cooking pots and pans, glass vessels, building techniques, architectural decoration,, coins, fortifications and -repairs of fortifications, portraits, domestic religion, official religion and domestic economy, we find ourselves before a city that, during Roman times, was constantly reshaped by its inhabitants. Consequently, it seems possible—and it is also about time—to start revisiting the rhetoric of the “sameness” of Athens and see which elements are used in the construction of this “sameness”. The 28 contributions in this volume are arranged under three headings: topography/architecture, sculpture, ceramics/numismatics. What image emerges from this material? I here propose to rearrange thematically the mass of information delivered in the papers in the volume under review, sorting the material into the categories of urban structure, art and architecture, everyday life, religion and funerary practice.

First of all, the urban structure underwent important changes. After the sack by Sulla in 86 B.C., during the second half of the 1st cent BC and again around the middle of the second century AD, new neighborhoods were created in Athens and old ones were reorganized. The extremely rich and well structured paper of Th. Stephanidou-Tiveriou offers a very thorough insight into the monumental visual landscape of Roman Athens by going through this landscape systematically, in spatial and chronological order. A very instructive example of the transformation of an Athenian neighborhood is offered in the paper of S. Eleutheratou concerning the southern part of the city. On the occasion of the construction of a metro station and of the laying of the foundations of the new Acropolis Museum, a considerable area of 10000 sq. m. was excavated, larger than any uncovered during previous rescue excavations. The reconstruction of the neighborhood history is as follows: a residential area that existed there in the 5th cent. BC was transformed from the 1st cent. BC. onwards into an important industrial zone including pottery, marble and metallurgical workshops. Later on, a residential quarter developed there; during the 2nd cent. AD new residences were built with occasional luxury features. This part of the city was later destroyed by the Herulian invasion. This is, of course, the neighborhood of the recently inaugurated New Acropolis Museum. Part of this impressive excavation, which is still ongoing, can be seen, through a special architectural arrangement, under the floor of the New Acropolis Museum. Further insights into the cityscape of Roman Athens are provided by O. Dally and as well as J. Camp on the Agora, D. Sourlas on the Roman Agora, O. Zachariadou on the Eastern region of the city of Athens, O. Dakoura-Vogiatzoglou on the Western hills, and P. Karanastasi on the West slope of the hill of the Akropolis.

The passage of some distinguished Romans left architectural traces and further transformed the urban structure of the city. A good example of this is provided by Hadrian’s building program, including the so-called Library of Hadrian and the area around the Olympieion (studied in papers by A. Choremi-Spetsieri, I. Tigginaga and S. Vlizos). In a subsequent phase, the menace represented by the Gothic tribes forced the construction and the repair of fortifications (see N. Tsoniotis for the late Roman fortification system that is constituted by the Valerian and the post-Herulian wall). Domestic industry appeared in several contexts (see N. Saraga on a building with a grain processing installation from the Southern area of the Acropolis, S. Eleutheratou on a marble and metal workshop also from the Southern area of the Akropolis). More generally, the urbanistic interventions in Roman Athens sometimes bring to mind the architectural and urbanistic interventions in Regency London: see for example, in the paper of O. Zachariadou, the reconstruction of the Eastern region of the city, occupied today by Syntagma square, the National Garden and Zappeion Park, which became one of the opulent neighborhoods of Athens; it recalls nothing so much as the interventions in the Regent’s Park area in London of the 1810s re-modeled by the architect John Nash following the instructions of the Prince Regent.

Architecture and art are particularly well represented in this volume. Remarkably original is the information that I. Tigginagga’s paper provides on the hidden building techniques of Hadrian’s library: the paper presents the results of an excavation specifically aimed at investigating the structural features of the building. On sculpture particularly, see K. Hayken on the production of two local workshops of architectural sculpture (capitals) with a distinctive local tradition, independent of the tradition which is developing at the same period in Rome. K. Fittschen’s paper also focuses on the local character of the sculptural production in Athens (full-size statues) with a distinctive repertoire and style. R. Krumeich’s paper analyses the typology and the location of honorific statues for Romans on the Akropolis; he emphasizes that honorific statues for distinguished Romans represented them in movement in contrast with other statues in a static position which were placed on the Akropolis. This observation underlines the agency exercised by some significant figures; at the same time it sheds light on the specific significance of Akropolis as a display setting endowed with a particular symbolic value in Roman Athens. A. Choremi-Spetsieri’s contribution is centered on portraits of philosophers, including a portrait of Aristotle, found on the north-west area of the Makrygianni estate (south of the Akropolis) in a late antique fill. Her treatment, which involves a discussion of Aristotle’s will, is particularly fascinating on the theme of the post-classical afterlife of classical portraiture.

Concerning everyday life, the role of plain ceramic and glass vessels as a source of information for fashion trends in the Athens of Roman times is illustrated by the contributions of J. Hayes and of M. Stern. These papers offer original remarks about the origin of cooking pots and glass vessels in Roman Athens; surprisingly, they were imported. Discrepancies between the monumentality of the artistic production of sculpture andarchitecture on the one hand and the foreign origin of the cooking pots, for instance, offer food for thought.

Concerning religion in Roman Athens, a mass of information comes to light in the volume under review. A complex of cult places was incorporated into a new dynamic religious topography of Roman Athens where it seems that domestic or semi-domestic religious activities played an increasingly important role. This development is notably illustrated by P. Bouyia on domestic sanctuaries of the Mother of the Gods-Cybele, and by S. Eleutheratou on a lararium incorporated into a house. An especially rich paper is by O. Dakoura-Vogiatzoglou, who studies the cult of Zeus Hypsistos on the Pnyx, the cult of Dionysos, the cult of the hero Amynos, and lastly a sanctuary of Pan which was integrated in a complex residential unit. She also gives a general overview of the religious topography of the hills of Pnyx, of the Nymphs and of the Muses during Roman times. P. Karanastasi examines the “headquarters” of the well-known religious association of the Iobacchi: so far, this is the only known seat of such an association in Roman Athens. Furthermore, I. Trianti presents three marble statuettes identified with Ephesian Artemis, Zeus Heliopolitanus and Isis (or, less probably, Osiris) found in domestic contexts in the area south of the Akropolis. Finally, S. Vlizos studies the cult of Aphrodite in the area south of the temple of Olympian Zeus. The numerous portraits of priests illustrate a more official aspect of religious life in Athens of Roman times: all of these portraits apparently come from public contexts (see J. Camp on a head portraying a priest of the imperial cult, V. di Napoli on the portrait of a priest and the portrait of a magistrate related to the celebration of the Panathenaia; A. Spetsieri-Choremi on the portrait of another priest). Concerning the religious topography of Attica, I. Tsirigoti-Drakotou follows the history of the Sacred Way connecting Athens with Eleusis with many details about the transformation, through time, of the famous processional way connected with the Great Mysteries of Eleusis.

Funerary practices, and the way roadside cemeteries were included in the organic net of the city or grew in harmony with the rhythm of development of residential quarters are the theme of a number of contributions (see the joint contribution by E. Giatroudaki, E. Servetopoulou and M. Panagiotopoulos, as well as the papers by O. Dakoura-Vogiatzoglou, J. Stroszek, I. Tsirigotou-Drakotou). Also on this theme, W.-D. Niemeier and K. Hallof offer an illuminating analysis of the very good quality funerary relief from the tomb of a youth who can be identified with an ephebe known from an inscription (IG II/III 2 2086 l. 138). I note that K. Hallof’s contribution is one of the rare papers to draw on epigraphy; this type of evidence is generally absent from the volume. To get a more complete image of Athens during Roman times, the Benaki Museum volume must thus be read alongside more epigraphically based work, such as G.R. Schmalz, Augustan and Julio-Claudian Athens: a new Epigraphy and prosopography, Leiden/Boston, 2009 (see BMCR 2009.07.32). As an interesting detail of Athenian cemeteries of this period, note that two dog graves are included in the material from the wayside cemeteries on the Road to Mesogeia (see E. Giatroudaki, E. Servetopoulou and M. Panagiotopoulos).

Roman Athens can be studied through this volume as an organic ensemble, as a living city, where different areas were dynamically linked to each other. Not only were the (“Greek”) past and the (“Roman”) present not in conflict, but, if we focus on some crucial points, (the Akropolis, the Agora, the new city of Hadrian on the East part of town and also the area south of the Olympieion—see the study of S. Vlizos), we can see the conscious reshaping of the city’s past based on its “Greek” and “Roman” elements. The urbanism of Athens during Roman times, in a city with such a strong tradition of auto-representation through its art and architecture, along with the nature and character of religious life in Roman Athens, casts light on the selective use of the past as a form of creative reshaping of the present.

On the other hand, “Rome” is significantly present in some highly symbolic places. D. Tsouklidou argues that the Roman figure standing next to the goddess. Athena on a Panathenaic amphora is none other than Marc Antony; furthermore, some fashions of everyday life in ceramic wares andfunerary practices as well as traces of religious activities, give an image much more subject to change. Athens through the Benaki Museum volume, emerges as another, very well documented, example of an urban center of the Eastern Roman empire (such as Corinth, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Sparta, the cities of Bithynia etc.) which participates in a frenetic competition for excellence and imperial attention. The quest for exceptionality was a common feature among cities of the Roman empire; the only difference is that it seems that Athens during Roman times was particularly successful in managing the sources of her potential prestige located in her past and originality. This exceptional city, that never stopped wanting to be exceptional, was substantially reshaped during Roman times— even as she tried to give an image of sameness and continuity. This was neither the first, nor, by far, the last time that this happened.

Table of contents

Th. Stephanidou-Tiveriou, “Tradition and romanization in the monumental landscape of Athens”


O. Dally, “Athen in der frühen Kaiserzeit-ein Werk des Kaisers Augustus?”

N.Tsoniotis, ” Νεα στοιχεία για το υστερορωμαικό τείχος της Αθήνας

K. Heyken, “Kaiserzeitliche Baurornamentik in Athen. Kapitelle aus dem Kerameikos”

J. McK. Camp, “The Agora Excavations: A summary of Recent Work in Roman Athens”

D. Sourlas, ” Νεώτερα στοιχεία για τη ρωμαική Αγορά της Αθήνας

A. Choremi-Spetsieri / I. Tigginaga, ” Η βιβλιοθήκη του Αδριανού στην Αθήνα. Τα ανασκαφικα δεδομενα

I. Tigginaga, ” Η αφανής αρχιτεκτονική της βιβλιοθήκης του Αδριανού

O. Zachariadou, ” Η ανατολική περιοχή της Αθήνας κατά τη ρωμαική περίοδο

E.Giatroudaki/M. Panagiotopoulos/E.Servetopoulou, ” Παρόδια ρωμαικά νεκροτάφια της οδού προς τα μεσόγεια

S. Eleutheratou, ” Στοιχεία πολεοδομικής και οικιστικής οργανώσης από το νότιο τμήμα της αρχαίας Αθήνας

P. Bouyia, ” Ρωμαικά ιερά της Μητρός Θεών Κύβελης σε αθηναικές αστικές επαυλείς

N. Saraga, ” Κτήριο των ρωμαικών χρόνων με εγκατάσταση επεξεργασίας σιδήρων

O. Dakoura-Vogiatzoglou, ” Οι δυτικοί λόφοι στους ρωμαικούς χρόνους

P. Karanastasi, ” τα ημερολόγια του W. Dörpfeld από τις ανασκαφές στη δυτική κλίτυ της Ακρόπολης και το ρωμαικό Βακχείον

J. Stroszek, “Römische Gräber und Grabbauten vor dem Dipylon”

I. Tsirigoti-Drakotou, ” Η ιερά οδός των ρωμαικών χρόνων


K. Fittschen, “Über den Beitrag der Bildhauer in Athen zur Kunstproduktion im Römischen Reich”

V. di Napoli, ” Δύο εικονιστικές κεφάλες από το Ωδειο του Περικλέους και το αττικό πορτραίτο τον 1ο αι. π.Χ. και τον 1ο αι. μ.Χ.

R. Krumeich, “Formen die statuarische Repräsentation römisher Honoranden auf der Akropolis von Athen im späten Hellenismus und in der frühen Kaiserzeit”

A. Choremi-Spetsieri ” Πορτρέτα απο προσφατες ανασκαφες γυρο απο την Ακροπολη

I. Trianti, ” Ανατολικές θεότητες στη Νότια Κλίτυ της Ακρόπολης

S. Vlizos, ” Γλυπτά από την περιοχή νότιως του Ολυμπιείου

W. D. Niemeier/K. Hallof, “Eine neugefunde Stele der Römischen Kaiserzeit aus dem Kerameikos: Grabmal des Epheben Hermeias aus Besa des Jahres 163/164 n.Chr.(IG II 2 z. 138)?


J. Hayes, “Tablewares, functional ceramics and ritual pots: creating a typology of Roman-period Athenian products”

D. Tsouklidou, ” Παναθηναικός αμφορέας πρωιμών ρωμαικών χρόνων

M. Stern, “Roman Vessel Glass from the Athenian Agora”

P. Tselekas, ” Ταυτότητα και ιδεολογία στη ρωμαική Αθήνα

G. Kokkorou-Aleura/O. Palaggia, ” Απολογισμός


1. Concerning the problematic term “Roman”, which at the same time defines a form of material culture, a time span, and an ethnicity, there is much to ponder in the remarks of L. Revell, “Roman imperialism and local identities”, Cambridge University Press, 2009. See BMCR 2009.08.66.