BMCR 2020.09.52

Reset in stone: memory and reuse in ancient Athens

, Reset in stone: memory and reuse in ancient Athens. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019. xviii, 366 p. ISBN 9780299322809. $99.95.

The central premise of this book is the reuse by the Athenians —of architectural blocks, public statuary, and stone artifacts broadly defined— in the creation of new buildings and monuments in conscious attempts to shape social memory in the physical realm. To this end, Rous applies the term “upcycling” to cases of the intentional reemployment of old stones in new contexts. She begins her Introduction with the sanctuary of Nemesis at Rhamnous and the celebrated cult statue of the goddess by the Athenian sculptor Pheidias, crafted from a block of Parian marble that the Persians had brought to Marathon in 490 B.C. to be used to erect their trophy after their expected victory over the Athenians. According to the well-known epigram in the Greek Anthology of the 1st century B.C. by Parmenion:

I, the stone which the Medes hoped would be their trophy-bearer, had my shape timely changed to Nemesis, the righteous goddess seated on the shores of Rhamous, bearing witness to Attica of victory and of art.”[1]

The rest of the Introduction reviews “upcycling” vis-à-vis spolia studies, at the core of which lie pragmatic factors versus ideology, “upcycling and social memory,” before showcasing six short stories about upcycling—channeling Susan Alcock’s “Six Short Stories about Social Memory”[2]—before that “extra turn” of Alcock’s Kaleidoscope. In her discussion of memory and physical realia, Rous touches on the work of many notable scholars, from Paolo Liverani and Salvatore Settis, to James Fentress and Chris Wickham (to mention only a few). But much of her overview is derivative rather than original, and there are still remnants of the original doctoral dissertation looming behind these pages. Although Rous speaks highly of Richard Brilliant’s spolia in se (or the physical reuse of real objects) and his spolia in re (reuse of virtual objects through literary, verbal, or visual imagery), the idea is left at that and is not developed. Consequently, a whole universe of ekphrasis—and the power of the unseen—is overlooked.

In addition to spolia, Rous looks at alternative terminology, including “recycling” and “reuse,” and goes on to suggest “that ‘upcycling’ can provide the concept and terminology that spolia scholars have sought with growing urgency” (p. 11). But there remains, to my mind, a certain “clunkiness” to the term “upcycling,” which Wikipedia defines thus: “Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, useless, or unwanted products into new materials or products perceived to be of greater quality, such as artistic value or environmental value.”[3]

With the ground thus laid, the volume proceeds in four chapters. The first, entitled “Creating Social Memory through Reuse that Accentuates”—the latter three words capturing well what the author actually means by “upcycling”—goes to the core of the Athenian experience in the 5th century B.C. and later. Rous deals cogently with the Themistoclean city wall and its various phases, the north Acropolis wall, the post-Herulian wall of the 3rd century A.D., and the temple of Ares. There is much to commend here, although, once more, there is little that is unexpected or original. Of these four monuments, I focus on two. The Acropolis north wall is well-covered by Robin Rhodes:

“The rebuilt north wall of the Athenian Acropolis . . . represented a specific monument consciously constructed from the ruins of the Persian sack to commemorate that specific event, to warn of the Persian threat, to kindle the anger of the Athenians against them, and, probably, to symbolize the Athenians’ selfless sacrifice of their city to the general defense of the Greek mainland. The rebuilt north wall of the Acropolis is a unique monument in the history of Greece, and is truly remarkable in its understanding of the potential power of ruins upon the emotions and imagination of people.”[4]

Rous dutifully notes that the suggestion, by Samantha Martin-McAuliffe and myself, that certain buildings, including the Stoa Poikile and the Stoa Basileios, were oriented specifically to view the Acropolis north wall, but she fails to note, as put forward in the same paper, that the entire Classical Agora was rebuilt in this new location in tandem with the post-Persian reconstruction of the Acropolis.[5] To paraphrase Jeffrey Hurwit, under the auspices of Perikles, the entire Acropolis—and, I would add, the Agora—was transformed into a vast and intricate dissertation of Victory itself.[6]

No doubt Rous’s reticence expresses American School orthodoxy, but she may well have missed an opportunity for greater originality pertinent to her argument. Something similar lies behind her overview of the temple of Ares. While her well-illustrated account is compelling, presenting the evidence evenhandedly, there is nothing odd or remarkable about an “itinerant” temple, moved from one place to another with full intent in the late 1st century B.C. But Rous neglects to see the elephant in the room: the Athenians did this already in the 5th century B.C. In relocating the Agora from its earlier location to the east of the Acropolis, the Athenians moved both the Stoa Basileios and the Altar of the Twelve Gods to their new home northwest of the citadel: a classic case of “Reuse that Accentuates”![7]

Chapter 2 (“Perpetuating Social Memory through Reuse that Preserves”) deals with three monuments: Pausanias’s agalmata archaia, the old Athena temple, and the Mycenaean bastion within the later sanctuary of Athena Nike. As Rous states: “Rather than being explicitly shown off or accentuated in their secondary use, the materials in this chapter have their existence preserved by reuse [there’s that word again!] that is visible but is meant to blend in more or less seamlessly with the surrounding context” (p. 79). It is in this chapter and in Chapter 3 that the author reaches her stride. In many ways, it is the old temple of Athena that dominates the third chapter. To be sure, like all good scholars, Rous here stands on the shoulders of giants, in this case Wilhelm Dörpfeld and Gloria Ferrari. Her account of both the old temple of Athena and the Mycenaean remnants associated with the sanctuary of Athena Nike—and Mnesikles’ Propylaia—typifies her approach: it is up-to-date and workmanlike, succinctly summarizing both the old and the new literature in a compelling and evenhanded manner.

For veterans of Athenian topography, Rous’s Chapter 3 (“Altering Social Memory through Reuse Meant to be Invisible”), is arguably the most interesting. Her primary point is straightforward, and best presented in her own words: “While the agents behind the upcycling discussed in the previous chapter made use of the ‘visibility of the trace’ to encourage the perpetuation of collectively held knowledge and memories, in the following case studies the Athenian demos chose to reuse monuments in such a way that the invisibility of the act of reuse was meant to effect a change in an existing social memory.”[8] The first major example in this chapter is one of the most fragmentary and enigmatic monuments, that of the Eponymous Heroes in the Athenian Agora. The account is based on much of the work by T. Leslie Shear, Jr., though it brings in other voices, including that of Uta Kron. For anyone wishing a good summary overview of this monument, this is the place to go to: read it before delving into the earlier literature. The second major case study in this chapter examines a group of statue monuments on the Athenian Acropolis originally set up as votive dedications in the late Classical and early Hellenistic periods, but which were re-dedicated in the early Roman period, mostly for high-ranking Roman officials. Rous begins this section with a cogent discussion of “honorifics and the ethic of reciprocity” in the Hellenistic period, before her presentation of Dio Chrysostom’s Rhodian Oration as background for the Athenian phenomenon. The examples in Athens include the Attalid pillar monuments, and various statue dedications, mostly preserved as inscribed statue bases, on the Acropolis, but also the Asklepieion and the sanctuary of Dionysos. For epigraphers, here is the juice of the study.

The title of the final chapter, “Upcycling and Athenian Social Memory over the Longue Durée,” describes well what it covers. Rous presents a uniquely Athenian diachronic overview, beginning in the late Archaic period and continuing into late antiquity. The periodization, in addition to those already noted, includes the Persian wars and their aftermath; the Periklean period; the Peloponnesian war; stasis at the end of the 5th century; the 4th century; the Lykourgan period; the Hellenistic age; the 1st century B.C. and the early Roman period; the imperial period and the second sophistic (with subheadings on both Hadrian and Herodes Atticus and Athens); and the late imperial period.

An Epilogue follows, focusing on the evening of Sunday, July 5, 2015 and the Greek response to the bailout plan offered to Greece by the European troika. The backdrop, appropriately, is Constitution Square and the Greek parliament, thus concluding the longue durée with a short fast-forward to the modern era. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square features prominently, as does the contentious issue of its construction, but it is the fictive columns drums in the corner of the monument, harking back to the Acropolis north wall, that serves as a fitting ending.

In going through this easy-to-read volume, I was struck, once more, by the work and drawings of Manolis Korres. What would Athenian—or Greek—topography and architecture be without his seminal contributions?

I noted above that this was a good book, which could have been a great book. This was not meant as faint praise—far from it. With better guidance and a willingness to challenge orthodoxy, the original dissertation and the present volume could have been a truly seminal contribution to Athenian topography and memory. As it stands, it is a useful work covering a number of monuments and issues that are critical in the making of Athens.


[1] Anth. Pl. 222, translated by A.S.F. Gow and D.L. Page, The Greek Anthology, London: 1968, p. 297.

[2] In S.E. Alcock, Archaeologies of the Greek Past: Landscapes, Monuments, and Memories, Cambridge: 2002, p. 2. Rous’s six short stories are all compelling: “stone window frames in Munich,” and a building which incorporated stone arches from the previous structure on the site; “a golden necklace,” given to the author by her mother with a pendant of a ring worn by her father who had passed away; “Polish Holocaust memorials,” featuring the Warsaw Ghetto Monument designed by Nathan Rapoport and the Kazimierz Dolny memorial wall constructed from damaged Jewish tombstones; “Cypriot stones in the Suez Canal,” and the widely reused ancient stones of the island; the “Ogham stones in souterrains,” and the reuse of stones in Ireland and Wales; and, finally, “a second marble Antioch,” in which the Sasanid king Chosroes I conquered and looted the stones of Antioch in 540 A.D. in order to create a brand-new Antioch of Chosroes outside his capital at Ktesiphon.

[3] Accessed September 1, 2020.

[4] R.F. Rhodes, Architecture and Meaning on the Athenian Acropolis, Cambridge: 1995, pp. 32-33.

[5] S. Martin-McAuliffe and J.K. Papadopoulos, “Framing Victory: Salamis, the Athenian Acropolis, and the Agora,” JSAH 71(3), pp. 348-352.

[6] J.M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, Cambridge: 1999, p. 153. See further T.L. Shear, Jr., Trophies of Victory: Public Buildings in Periklean Athens, Princeton 2016.

[7] The evidence is fully laid out in J.K. Papadopoulos, Ceramicus Redivivus: The Early Iron Age Potters’ Field in the Area of the Classical Athenian Agora, Princeton, chapter 5.

[8] Although citing work on “memory sanctions” and damnatio memoriae, the notion of “the trace” and its visibility, originates in the work of Jacques Derrida in his essay “Différance” (an intentional misspelling of Différence); see J. Derrida, L’écriture et la différence, Paris 1967, especially the essay “Cogito et histoire de la folie.”