BMCR 2021.03.09

Funerary portraiture in greater Roman Syria

, , Funerary portraiture in greater Roman Syria. Studies in classical archaeology, volume 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2019. Pp. xvi, 232. ISBN 9782503576336 €100,00.

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

A woman clad in a rich mantle, with a furrowed brow and stern eyes, gazes gloomily at an unknown point. Her life ended nearly two millennia ago, but she lives on as a funerary bust, on display at the Penn Museum. According to the museum website, the bust is part of the Rome gallery, which seems appropriate, since it was discovered in Hierapolis in Syria and dates to the third century CE, when the place was part of the Roman Empire. The “culture” to which it pertains is also listed as Roman. But how Roman was this stern looking woman, and how Hierapolitan? And what about the producers of her portrait—what cultural traditions did they embrace? Would they define their culture as “Roman”? Such portraits and related questions are the focus of this collection of articles, originating from a 2017 conference held at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen. The editors describe it as a step aimed at reconsidering funerary portraiture from Greater Syria in greater detail—both in broader contexts, such as the Roman empire, on the one hand, and very localized, “micro-regional” contexts, on the other—as well as proposing avenues for further research.

The brief introduction summarizing the background of the volume and its articles is followed by a contribution in which the two editors, Michael Blömer and Rubina Raja, present a history of research into funerary portraiture from Greater Syria, along with its conceptual background. Traditionally, these portraits were studied in connection with Graeco-Roman culture, as its “provincial art” extensions. The Roman “originals” were regarded as the standard against which such “peripheral” portraits were measured (and came up short). This research paradigm, argue the authors, is outdated and ought to be replaced with one which is more historically accurate and analytically efficient, one which could answer previously untackled questions and raise new ones. For instance, could the inhabitants of Syria make deliberate choices to distance themselves from Roman fashion and give precedence to their own, local stylistic conventions? Could we actually observe a continuity with older, pre-Hellenistic traditions? Most importantly, the authors maintain that the new paradigm should engage with the funerary context in its entirety, bridging the gap between epigraphic studies, funerary art, archaeological setting and local topographic and geological conditions. Furthermore, greater attention should be paid to the interactions between regions within Greater Syria, not only the between latter and Rome.

The trend proposed by the editors can be detected, at various degrees, in the other articles. Some of these focus on cities or regions within Greater Syria and seek to examine them in a broader local and foreign framework, as does the contribution by Andrea U. De Giorgi about Antioch on the Orontes. The author starts by placing Antiochene funerary portraits in their archaeological context, including a useful survey of the history of excavations and how the corpus of stelae was actually formed. At this point, De Giorgi is able to discuss trends within the corpus, from choices of medium (e.g., the absence of basalt gravemarkers) to iconographic choices (e.g., in figure types or artistic styles). Drawing out more general, identity-reflecting conclusions is difficult, but the author suggests that “folks in Antioch remained fundamentally Syrians in Greek dress” (p. 42).

A similar attempt at contextualization and trend detection is made in Michael Blömer’s article about the regions of Commagene and Cyrrhestice. Studies of the area tend to focus on two cities, Zeugma and Hierapolis, but the article explores sculpted and painted funerary decoration found in other locations, such as Doliche, Perrhe, and the Savur plain. Sculpted portraits, it appears, were not popular in Commagene and Cyrrhestice, and the population opted for other funerary ornaments. Blömer skillfully sketches the micro-trends within these two regions, such as the “crude and expressionist” arcosolia paintings discovered north of Doliche (p. 55) and the basalt stelae from the Savur, who seem to converse with both Roman and Iron Age iconography.

 The next contribution, by Jutta Rumscheid, employs the realm of the dead to learn about the living. It explores female dress, primarily headgear, in Northern Syria by relying on depictions on funerary portraits from Zeugma and Hierapolis. While expectedly technical in focus, the article puts forward some captivating questions and propositions, such as whether headgear that seems atypical to an area may indicate that the buried women originated elsewhere and were depicted wearing their traditional home clothing (p. 75). The article is followed by a catalogue of female sculptures, potentially useful for further studies focusing on dress.

Michael A. Speidel’s contribution is a further step in the broader contextualization trend. This time, the focus is on Roman soldiers, whose identity could be said to move between three spheres: their place of origin, their military function, and the place where they served and died. Despite a significant military presence in Greater Syria, the area rendered a relatively small number of soldiers’ tombstones. Speidel aptly distinguishes between soldiers who were permanently stationed at a particular garrison and those who travelled there for the duration of a campaign (“expeditionary soldiers”). The article touches on the fascinating interactions between civilian and military, local and foreign, producer and audience, raising questions that should serve as the basis of future, integrative studies on the Roman army in Greater Syria.

The famous corpus of funerary portraits from Palmyra is the topic of Rubina Raja’s article. Raja is the director of an impressive initiative, the Palmyra Portrait Project, which covers several thousand portraits from the city, produced in the course of three centuries (p. 96 mentions “more than 3700 portraits”; and p. 104 refers to “approximately 2600 objects”, possibly because some of these included several portraits). The article surveys the current state of knowledge and puts forward some interesting insights, for instance about the feelings of visitors to the graves and the purpose of the portraits’ display.

The same Palmyrene corpus is the subject of Signe Krag’s contribution, which focuses, however, on the female portraits within it. The author provides an introduction to the history and funerary traditions of the city, followed by several examples of how to study the development of tomb form, content, and relative dating of the portraits therein. Krag then considers important questions about the evolution of portrait traditions in Palmyra and their connections with the Graeco-Roman world at large.

The next article, by Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, moves to the south of Greater Roman Syria and explores the funerary portraits of the Decapolis region. Once again, the context and related questions of identity emerge as central. This portraiture is largely understudied and the authors provide an overview of categories and funerary contexts (e.g., stelae, sarcophagi, wall paintings) as well as open questions, including how “culturally coherent” the Decapolis was when viewed through the funerary prism. They rightly conclude that, “The details of the trajectory between knowledge, choice, material available, and local topography still need to be investigated more thoroughly” (p. 147), a recommendation which should be applied to studies of other funerary contexts in the ancient world.

Karl-Uwe Mahler’s article, despite the broad geographical scope announced in its title (“Funerary Portraiture from the Coastal Region of Roman Syria”), primarily examines one monument, the column of Qartaba. The column, however, is not even summarily introduced, and its material, inscription language, or names of the deceased never mentioned (they would have been relevant to the subsequent discussion). The author compares it with funerary monuments from both West and East, stressing its singularity.

In an interesting article Bilal Annan explores some of the funerary portraits and complexes from Roman Phoenicia. Through a series of examples, including a hypogeum discovered in 2003 in Amrit, the author sketches a clear picture of the region’s funerary landscape and its connections with the surrounding cultures. This is one of the longest contributions in the volume, including a bibliography that covers six full pages. It would be good to see this study expanded into a monograph.

The contribution by Christopher H. Hallett takes the reader to a different (though geographically near) world, and revisits the mummy portraits of Roman Egypt. This funerary portraiture consisted of painted wooden panels as well as painted and gilded masks; the latter, however, are less popular with modern viewers: “We do not like them, and do not regard them as successful works of art” (pp. 205-6). The connection between the two forms of portraiture is discussed by Hallett, stressing their concomitant existence and similar function. An interesting correlation could be made between the Egyptian and Syrian funerary worlds, not in terms of form but of commemorative concepts. This line, however, is not taken up by the author.

In the last contribution Sheila Dillon provides a survey of Attic funerary portraiture during the Roman period. The question of Roman influence surfaces here, too, as it does in the studies of portraits from Greater Syria. Dillon concludes in favor of the indigenous Attic sources of inspiration rather than external Roman ones, although the influence of the imperial center was certainly visible, for instance in hairstyles. Here, too, as in the previous article, connecting the discussion with the topic  of Greater Syria would have been welcomed, since otherwise these last two contributions, though interesting, remain disjointed from the rest.

The volume is richly illustrated with high quality images, mostly black and white. In fact, one of its valuable aspects is the juxtaposition in the space of 230 pages of a broad range of funerary portraits. Just leafing through its pages allows the reader to notice the variations between the regions and sub-groups and provides a clear impression of the funerary cultures that coexisted in and around Greater Syria. In those cases where the portrait was accompanied by an inscription, it would have been good to have the text, even if only in translation, included next to the image; Annan’s article is the only one that provides inscriptions and relates them to the portraits.

Blömer and Raja should be commended for producing a volume that is both qualitatively uniform and conceptually coherent (not an easy task for conference proceedings). The “new agenda in the study of the funerary portraiture of Greater Roman Syria”, proposed in the title of their joint article, evidently resonated with the other authors, as it probably would with the readers. True, the questions these articles raise may never be fully answered, but this is no reason for not asking them. And the stern looking lady whose bust travelled from Hierapolis and now resides in the Penn Museum? A photo on p. 11, taken at the beginning of the 20th century, shows her closer to her original, harshly sunlit surroundings in Syria. How she and the other men and women portrayed in the volume would describe themselves, however, remains shadowed.

Authors and titles

Michael Blömer and Rubina Raja, Funerary Portraits in Roman Greater Syria – Time for a Reappreciation
Michael Blömer and Rubina Raja, Shifting the Paradigms: Towards a New Agenda in the Study of the Funerary Portraiture of Greater Roman Syria
Andrea U. De Giorgi, ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Commemoration, Civic Pride, and Seriality in the Funerary Stelai of Antioch on the Orontes
Michael Blömer, The Diversity of Funerary Portraiture in Roman Commagene and Cyrrhestice
Jutta Rumscheid, Different from the Others: Female Dress in Northern Syria Based on Examples from Zeugma and Hierapolis
Michael A. Speidel, Roman Soldiers’ Gravestones in Greater Syria: Thoughts on Designs, Imports, and Impact
Rubina Raja, Funerary Portraiture in Palmyra: Portrait Habit at a Crossroads or a Signifier of Local Identity?
Signe Krag, Palmyrene Funerary Female Portraits: Portrait Tradition and Change
Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, Portrait Habit and the Funerary Portraiture of the Decapolis
Karl-Uwe Mahler, Funerary Portraiture from the Coastal Region of Roman Syria
Bilal Annan, Petrified Memories: On Some Funerary Portraits from Roman Phoenicia
C. H. Hallett, Mummies with Painted Portraits from Roman Egypt and Personal Commemoration at the Tomb
Sheila Dillon, Attic Funerary Portraiture in the Roman Period