BMCR 2017.06.10

The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices

, , The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. vii, 424. ISBN 9780472119691. $85.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review collects fourteen chapters that mostly originate from two seminars held in the Department of History and Classical Studies at Aarhus University, in 2008 and 2011. The seminars brought together scholars from many nations, whose contributions tackle the diverse afterlives experienced by classical sculpture during Late Antiquity (a period which, as defined here, extends from the third to the sixth centuries AD). What all the chapters have in common is a focus that has, until recently, been unusual: they want to interrogate the archaeological record to understand how statuary came to be broken (or, less often, unbroken), and investigate the various ways that Greek and Roman sculpture survived to our days.

Unlike previous approaches, which tended to interpret the life cycles of statues through textual sources or by isolating singular cases, scholarship during the last two decades has shifted focus to place a greater emphasis on the different stages in the life histories of statues. Classical sculpture is thus re-sited to its real contexts—physical and mental—with everything that entails: from the examination of the impact of physical decay and weathering during its prolonged display (statues in Aphrodisias and Cypriot Salamis, for instance, had been on a continuous display for over four centuries) to the investigation of the architectural and urban environments within which sculpture had always been an integral element.

One of the main contentions of the editors—and, in fact, one that rightly permeates every chapter—is that for the most part, the sculptural landscape that has been the focus of modern scholarship was largely shaped through a distinct range of late antique responses and practices (the last chapter even extends this period to the day the sculptures were inventoried in museum collections). These responses and practices, as outlined in the introduction to the book and further discussed by the contributors, may be summarized as production of sculpture, reuse, re-carving, handling as building material, burning in kilns for the production of lime, destruction (without a practical reuse), and mutilation.

The book is a welcome contribution to this expanding field of late antique studies. Yet it does much more than surveying the rich range of practices and responses of late antique communities to their statuary landscape. The contributions show, on the one hand, that much knowledge is yet to be gleaned from a re-reading of the evidence produced by unscientific or ill-documented excavations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prioritizing archaeological data in fact serves as a counterweight to textual sources frequently infused by Christian triumphalism and recurring literary topoi. On the other hand, the contributions presented in this volume provide fertile ground for further analytical studies. Comparative analyses of responses to sculpture in both temporal and spatial frameworks will furnish perspectives and cross-references that may be helpful in filling in the gaps, when critical data are wanting.

In the first part, the authors investigate late antique practices that defined the archaeological record, and consider how scholarly discourses interpreting the latter have shaped the way we see the former. According to Ben Croxford, who investigates metal sculpture from Roman Britain, older interpretative approaches do not adequately do justice to the material, its fragmented condition, or the circumstances of the deposits. Croxford leaves aside the (reasonable) assumption that the value and static qualities of the different sculptural materials had predominantly dictated the fragmentation of sculpture, and instead underlines how survival patterns (e.g. the preponderance of fingers over other body parts) may suggest the impact of individual agencies. In that respect, what the archaeologists unearth are not merely scraps, but products of destructive episodes performed by people whose actions may have been influenced by diverse factors and motivations. In the following chapter, Beth Munro explores the location and nature of sculptural deposits at villas in relation to recycling activities. She reaches the reasonable conclusion that by the time the sculptures were piled up or shattered into pieces, it was only their raw material that defined their value. Troels Myrup Kristensen turns his attention toward earthquakes in order to investigate some of the methodological tasks an archaeologist faces when identifying the impact of such disasters on sculptures. Kristensen suggests the existence of three distinct criteria or destruction patterns to consider in order to establish whether statuary had been damaged by earthquake. Since the firmest confirmation comes from closed archaeological contexts, earthquake-damaged sculptures may only be identified with certainty in those cases where subsequent activities had left the earthquake debris undisturbed.

The second part investigates the different afterlives of classical sculpture, by looking at individual sites. In the first chapter, Ine Jacobs presents a group of mythological statuettes recently excavated in Sagalassos. The sculptures, of various dimensions and dates, were found in a colonnaded street, which was renovated after suffering earthquake damage in the early sixth century. Their redisplay—some statuettes were presumably relocated from private contexts—provides telling evidence that mythological sculpture could still have been chosen and employed for prestige purposes in the mid-sixth century. Nadin Burkhardt’s contribution moves on to discuss statues from late antique Athens, with or without a “precise archaeological context,” (p. 118) and Christian responses to “pagan” sculpture within the Athenian landscape. Burkhardt’s division of the material seems problematic, as it becomes obvious that those sculptures defined as “without a precise context” (pp. 120-123) were in fact excavated “in late Roman deposits (or later ones), in wells in the area of the Agora, or in the destruction debris around the Areopagus and the Agora” (p. 121). Although we do not know the whereabouts and last function or significance of these sculptures prior to their deposition or destruction, their final context, quantity, and condition are particularly informative concerning both the circumstances of their afterlives and also the sculptural landscape of Athens in the time of their destruction during the Herulian attacks in 267 AD. Moreover, Burkhardt’s contention that the fourth-century elite residences of Athens were decorated “with old reliefs, statuettes, and statues (all reused)” (p. 136) should be taken cautiously. While previous scholarship tended to believe that the functioning of sculptural workshops in Athens ceased with the Herulian attacks, recent excavations or publications of older finds have now made it clear – although more remains to be done – that such workshops were still operating up to at least the late fifth century, and that new sculpture was still imported, especially from Asia Minor, when the well-to-do Athenians built or maintained their houses.1 Athens also possessed a particularly rich cache of antique sculptures, whose late-antique redisplay, as Burkhardt shows, established connections with the legendary past of the city. The next chapter by Amelia R. Brown is a meticulous investigation of the fate of sculpture in late antique Corinth, with particular focus on cross-marking, deliberate defacement, and underground disposal. Brown’s chapter also serves as a case study for what can and cannot be concluded from the archaeological context and condition of statues about the causes for their damaged state. The reuse of funerary sculpture in elite domus and prestigious buildings of late antique Ostia is the subject of the next chapter by Cristina Murer. Murer, importantly, highlights the integral role of the sculptural décor of funerary monuments (even a sarcophagus lid was inventively reused in a domus for its aesthetic merit) in the decoration of late antique structures in the city. Moving farther west, Philip Kiernan discusses the three oft-cited agents responsible for the destruction of cult images in Gaul and Germany (Christians, barbarian invaders, and pagans), suggesting that the afterlives of statues were associated with multiple agents, while their temporal and spatial occurrence varies greatly. The next two chapters deal with the fate of sculpture in Sicily and the Lower Danube, respectively. By mostly relying on indirect sources, such as contemporary literary accounts and numismatic iconography, Denis Sami concludes that the fate of Sicilian statues should only be understood within the context of local traditions, identity, and politics. In her chapter about the lower Danube, Christina-Georgeta Alexandrescu laments the problematic and insufficient documentation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century excavations in the region, which particularly hinders the investigation of late antique responses to sculpture. The better investigated sites suggest a reuse of sculptures on the basis of their material value (rather than any aesthetic or historical importance), and burning in the kilns.

The final part of the volume comprises chapters that seek to reconstruct the larger picture, by adopting synthetic approaches to the visual culture of Late Antiquity. In her comparative investigation of sculptures displayed in homes and baths, Lea Stirling notes that the greatest difference is evidenced in the treatment of statuary, at the same time underlining the differing social conditions at play in each type of building. In the next chapter, Benjamin Anderson explores the changing social function of the imperial statue through the impact of various seventh-century phenomena, namely the disappearance of public portrait monuments and individualized portraiture in imperial coinage. As Anderson puts it, the disappearance of imperial statues eventually marked the final death-knell for the production of sculpture in the round. The emergence, growing importance, and diffusion of two-dimensional panel portraits is also taken into account for the disappearance of three-dimensional sculpture in the next chapter by Paolo Liverani. Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Michael Greenhalgh departs from antiquity and provides an overview of the fate of sculptures from the medieval period to the time when statuary was moved to museums based on travelers’ accounts.

The volume is elegantly produced and well proofed, with hardly any misprints. Each chapter is supplied with black-and-white illustrations and plans; the book also includes short biographical notes about the contributors, a unified bibliography and an index at the end.

Authors and Titles

Introduction. The Lives and Afterlives of Greek and Roman Sculpture: From Use to Refuse; Troels Myrup Kristensen, Lea Stirling

Part I. Practices of Deposition and Reuse
Metal Sculpture from Roman Britain: Scraps but Not Always Scrap; Ben Croxford
Sculptural Deposition and Lime Kilns at Roman Villas in Italy and the Western Provinces in Late Antiquity; Beth Munro
“Christ-Loving Antioch Became Desolate”: Sculpture, Earthquakes, and Late Antique Urban Life; Troels Myrup Kristensen

Part II. Regional Perspectives
Old Habits Die Hard: A Group of Mythological Statuettes from Sagalassos and the Afterlife of Sculpture in Asia Minor; Ine Jacobs
The Reuse of Ancient Sculpture in the Urban Spaces of Late Antique Athens; Nadin Burkhardt
Crosses, Noses, Walls, and Wells: Christianity and the Fate of Sculpture in Late Antique Corinth; Amelia R. Brown
The Reuse of Funerary Statues in Late Antique Prestige Buildings at Ostia; Cristina Murer
Germans, Christians, and Rituals of Closure: Agents of Cult Image Destruction in Roman Germany; Philip Kiernan
The Fate of Classical Statues in Late Antique and Byzantine Sicily: The Cases of Catania and Agrigento; Denis Sami
The Fate of Sculpture on the Lower Danube in Late Antiquity: Preliminary Observations; Cristina-Georgeta Alexandrescu

Part III. Grand Narratives
Shifting Use of a Genre: A Comparison of Statuary Décor in Homes and Baths of the Late Roman West; Lea Stirling
The Disappearing Imperial Statue: Toward a Social Approach; Benjamin Anderson The Sunset of 3D; Paolo Liverani
Travelers’ Accounts of Roman Statuary in the Near East and North Africa: From Limbo and Destruction to Museum Heaven; Michael Greenhalgh



1. For instance a locally-made statuette of a seated Cybele of the late fourth century, also mentioned by Stirling in the book under review (p. 284); further examples and references in Katakis, S. 2012. ‘Αγαλμάτια Δήμητρας και Κυβέλης των ύστερων ρωμαϊκών χρόνων από την Αθήνα’, in T. Stephanidou-Tiveriou et al. (eds.), Κλασική παράδοση και νεωτερικά στοιχεία στην πλαστική της ρωμαϊκής Ελλάδας (Thessalonikē: University Studio Press), pp. 99-114.