BMCR 2021.06.16

Polis, Platz und Porträt die Bildnisstatuen auf der Agora von Athen im Späthellenismus und in der Kaiserzeit (86 v. Chr.-267 n. Chr.)

, Polis, Platz und Porträt die Bildnisstatuen auf der Agora von Athen im Späthellenismus und in der Kaiserzeit (86 v. Chr.-267 n. Chr.). Urban spaces, Band 9. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. x, 276. ISBN 9783110652833 $137.99.

The History of democracy is unthinkable without the Agora of Athens. While it is widely known that honorific statuary played a significant role in lending this ‘mother’ of all political spaces a semantic structure and a lasting collective memory, knowledge about the original appearance of the monuments is lacking. The exceptions are those described by Pausanias, recognizable among the largely anonymous mass of Roman copies that have been found. Now a helpful publication, the dissertation of Silvio Leone (University of Freiburg, Germany), brings together, for the first time, all of the various testimonia dealing with the statues of the Roman phase of the Agora. He deals primarily with portrait statuary but also with statues of gods and heroes erected outdoors.

The chronological parameters chosen by the author extend from the sack of the city by the troops of Sulla in 86 BC to the Herulian invasion in 267 AD. These events mark the period for which most honorific monuments for Romans have been discovered in the Agora. Late antiquity is briefly discussed at the end, but no examples are included in the catalogue. The author’s aim is to establish how the Roman period influenced the new layout of the site, and what impact this period had on the cultural memory of Athens.

Literary sources and the inscribed bases of portrait statues found in the Agora form the essential source material of the work. The author has compiled a catalogue of 106 monuments; for most of them there is evidence of the demos as the initiator, the decision to erect public statuary resting primarily with the (committees of the) polis; but there is evidence of private funding for statues of important political figures, too. About ten marble portrait statues are included, because the location where they were found suggests that they were originally erected in the Agora. No bronze statues have survived. Sporadic finds such as marble portrait heads are excluded (but see cat. 53), since their identificationnot possible.

In his choice of methodology the author aligns himself with the core thesis of John Ma: namely that the polis, taking a leading role in the formulation of the honorary inscriptions, retains the (communicative) sovereignty over the memorials it commissions.[1] Moreover for Leone the statue monuments represent a visualisation of the ‘social relationship’ between the city and the honoree (see p. 11). This focus on the inscriptions takes insufficient account of political pressure, which often plays a part in the decision to commission monuments as a quid pro quo for benefits received (or punishments avoided), a vivid example being Athens’ honors for Sulla. Public perception was primarily influenced by the flattering image of the honoree, not so much the inscription. In other words: a (supposed) portrait statue of Sulla (see cat. 1) on the Agora of Athens will primarily have conveyed the powerful aura of the Roman general rather than the fraught “soziale Verhältnis” between the city and its conqueror (see p. 92). For which statues did the Athenians show more authentic sympathy: those they had erected for C. Julius Caesar (cat. 8 and 9), or those of his assassins Brutus and Cassius (cat. 10; see p. 93)? The monuments reflect primarily political (power) rather than social relations, on the Agora of Athens and elsewhere (cf. p. 84).

Leone devotes a whole chapter to Pausanias’ tour of the Agora, demonstrating that the portraits the periegete chose could serve as a starting point for (historical) excursus that enabled him to display his expertise (e. g. the statues of Attalos I and Ptolemaios III belonging to the Eponymous Heroes gives Pausanias reason to recall the story of the Diadochi). Note Leone’s commendable observation that the names of the individuals portrayed by Pausanias’ description of the Agora literally evoke their presence. This elicitation of ‘living history’ is precisely what made these honorary statues so desirable in the eyes of their honorees.

Before the author turns to a chronological description of the architectural design of the square and the arrangement of statues during four conventional time periods, he devotes a separate chapter to a detailed investigation of the scenario before and after the sacking of the city by Sulla. He concludes that destruction was limited and the Agora essentially retained the appearance it had in the late 2nd century BC, in agreement with other research. As the image on the book cover (drawing after Homer Thompson) very nicely shows the traditional arrangement of honorary statuary (mainly of the late Classical and early Hellenistic period)  was in groups at buildings and / or monuments with a political message— such as freedom, democracy, peace. The main question then is to what extent the choice of arrangement for statues during the Roman occupation tied in with these traditions or broke new ground. This is difficult to answer as evidence of location is largely unavailable except for the column of Q. Lutatius Catulus, the pillar monument of Attalos II, and two statues of the Emperor Hadrian in front of the Stoa of Zeus and as Eponymous Hero (cat. 2, 37, 72, 73).

A plausible case could be made that the statues for members of the Roman imperial family, associated with traditional political institutions, values and cults, e. g. statues of Livia as” Artemis Boulaia and Claudius as Apollon Patroos, were located near the corresponding buildings on the west side of the agora (see p. 63 fig. 6); however, the author is vague as to the intended aim of these epithets and does not explore how the portraits might be reconstructed from the preserved footprints.

For the statues of Roman magistrates, which may have begun with Sulla (cat. 1), Leone agrees with other authors that they were probably arranged in a paratactic composition in front of the Stoa of Attalos on both sides of the great Attalid pillar monument, which was later rededicated in favor of the Emperor Tiberius (cat. 37). Support for this is found in the frequent use of column monuments designed to reflect the height of the central monument and of the two-story hall in the background (see p. 63, fig. 6). Leone’s view that the statues of the Romans were turned into ‘spectators’ of the Panathenaia may or may not be shared; there is no strong support for this analysis based on communication theory. More illuminating is the insight that the representatives of Rome took on the inheritance of the Pergamene king in this position. Here the author would benefit from thinking outside the box: it was quite common on the Greek world to group portraits of Romans and those affiliated with Rome, not least in Olympia, where south of the Altis along the processional road a phalanx of the foreign (!) military was assembled.

For a group of statues in the shadow of the new buildings in the center of the Agora, the Ares Temple and the Odeion of Agrippa, the reason for the location remains uncertain: while the message of the portraits of Brutus and Cassius, which temporarily enjoyed the rare privilege of a position near the monument of the Tyrannicides, is clear, for the remaining statues (newly?) erected in this area, clues for the choice of location are unavailable. Leone expresses cautious skepticism about Riccardo di Cesare’s suggestion the group of statues represented members of the Ptolemaic family and were placed in front of the Odeion as part of the Augustan image propaganda, following the battle of Actium (p. 125 f.). The authorargues, with merit, that a group of statues found in the building’s vicinity could have belonged to an ensemble of portraits of intellectuals. The group consists of three seated and six standing men in the himation, without heads (see p. 77, fig. 8). This follows as the Odeion was converted into a lecture hall and meeting place for the sophists about 150 AD.

Leone starts his “Systematische Analyse” with the groups mentioned in the inscriptions (the numbers in brackets below give the honorees in each category). In the 1st century BC one predominantly finds Roman promagistrates (32 examples) among the honored. They continue the long line of Hellenistic kings, who were far more prevalent in the Agora of Athens than in the marketplaces of other cities. While the occasions of their being honored are mostly unknown, to my mind it can safely be assumed that the recipients were honoured for their beneficial contributions to Athens society, not just their position in representing the Roman state. In the imperial era the magistrates were increasingly displaced by the Roman emperor and his relatives (17). From the principate onwards, the Athenians returned to honorary statues to mark the achievements of their own citizens (18)—including women (2)—above all strategoi and other former officials, or benefactors from other cities (6). Merit earned by successful mediation between Rome and Athens seems to have played a decisive role. Other poleis (1) or koina (2) were only rarely given permission to erect statues of honor (of non-citizens!) in the Agora; there are three such instances: a Roman provincial administrator (cat. 12), a functionary of the Panhellenion (cat. 97) and a municipal magistrate (cat. 106).

The main source material for this volume, the statue bases, should have been studied in more detail. The general visualisation of statue base types (fig. 9 on p. 98) is merely schematic. The photographs of individual monuments give only limited information, mainly the inscribed elevations of the statue bases. Fragments are shown lying in shadow or are photographed at an unfavorable angle. Only a few drawings record the upper surface of a base with traces of the fixings for former statues. Detailed drawings of some of the small structures in better condition should have been included. Some bases are typologically either inaccurately or incorrectly recorded; for at least some of these (e. g. cat. 4, 7 and 12) it is probable that they were parts of equestrian monuments. Traces of former fixings on the upper surface (clamp and dowel holes) are incorrectly classified: considering human anatomy, the circular depression in the rear right corner of cat. 8 cannot come from a lance, but rather testifies to a dowel hole with pour channel; in the small indentation of cat. 65, analogous to cat. 68 (see fig. 95), only the heels of the bronze statue were mortised (see also cat. 92 fig. 119). Signs that some bases were re-used remain largely without comment: the numerous recesses to cat. 31 cannot possibly stem from a single equestrian statue, but point to repeated use; the crowning block of the base cat. 47 has an unusual variation in height in the centre, pointing to a subsequent alteration; the erasure below the inscription from cat. 60 is not recognized as such. Contrary to the opinion of the author (see p. 133), erased inscriptions could in individual cases indicate that the statues themselves have also been reused. An example is the statue base of the orator Theodoros from Gadara, teacher of Tiberius. Its original inscription has been replaced while there is no trace of more than one bronze statue on top of the crowning block. Finally, one can assume that the crowning blocks cat. 65–69 would, by type and inscription, generally fit to the shafts listed under cat. 74–80 (several Attic phylae honoring Tib. Cl. Atticus Herodes and his wife Vibullia Alcia), but the dimensions given are not sufficient to verify this in individual cases. These statue monuments did certainly not allude to the Eponymous Heroes as the author assumes (p. 117 f.).

A systematic comparison of honorary statuary in the Agora with other sites in Athens where statues were erected completes Leone’s comprehensive analysis. Especially the comparison with the better-documented arrangement of statues on the Acropolis in Athens, reveals that there are some significant differences: in the Agora, Roman portrait statues appear more than 30 years later, and are fewer in number. While the old statues and statue bases on the Acropolis are reused ostentatiously and family members of Roman senators and promagistrates are incorporated, the monuments in the Agora are designed to a contemporary aesthetic and conform to the stricter conventions of the political center. The two sites of remembrance are thus equal in status and yet pursue a different commemorative orientation, creating an archive of political relationships on the one hand and the cultivation of cultural-historical nostalgia on the other: fortunate were those who were able to be represented in both places!

The author ultimately concludes that the polis of Athens successfully used portrait statuary to integrate the representatives of the Roman Empire into their own memory landscape, preserving the recognition of their own great past. By subordinating the new rulers to traditional landmarks, gods and values, the city remained true to itself. Thus one gets the impression that the new recipients of honor, Roman as well as Greek, were not able to create a narrative of lasting importance.

One may ask at what cost was this diplomatic balancing act achieved: which references have been lost as a result? What was the effect on Athenian visitors to the Agora seeing Roman names on contemporary monuments, a foreign language (cat. 49 and 50) and foreign imagery (cat. 71)? Who in the end upheld the ‘dream of the great Athens’: the Athenians or the Romans? A satisfactory answer to these questions may not be possible, but they should at least be asked.

A closer examination of the iconography of the Roman portrait landscape in Athens would have been desirable, since it is key to understanding how the Romans were integrated into the memory landscape of Athens.[2] The study covers only monuments in an outdoor setting, a regrettable limitation, as other monuments influenced public perception, too. Pausanias regularly refers to sculptures inside buildings open to the public; covered spaces were desirable settings for public portraits (see pp. 61 and 91 f.) since the late Hellenistic. More tabular overviews would have been helpful, e.g. of the monument types or the various social categories of honorees.

On the whole, Leone has presented a thorough survey of the Roman statues/statue bases in the Athenian Agora. The relevant literature on the subject has been covered comprehensively, giving readers ready access to the relevant scientific debates and controversies. The author’s position is clear, if rather cautious, for example against the acceptance of an imperial cult in the Agora. The strength of the book is as a summary of the current research. More originality and more extensive development of the author’s own observations and results would have made for a more complete work.


[1] J. Ma, Statues and Cities. Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World (Oxford 2013) p. 45–63.

[2] See e. g. the current research of Thoralf Schröder, most recently ‘Grüppchenbildung oder homogene Selbstdarstellung? Zu den Porträts der städtischen Eliten im römischen Griechenland’, in D. Boschung & F. Queyrel (Ed.), Porträt und soziale Distinktion (Paderborn 2020) p. 307–332.