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Religious Violence and the Fall of Rome 7 September 2005

Posted by Troels in : Late Antiquity,Thesis Rant , add a comment

Bryan Ward-Perkins has a new book out on The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. I got it just before I came over from Denmark and finally had time to finish it last night.


He uses an empire-wide perspective to show that the 4th-6th centuries CE were indeed periods of decline that resulted in a return to pre-Iron Age living standards in certain parts of Europe. In this respect, the book is a reaction against the ‘new school’ view of late antiquity as a period of change, continuity and transformation more than a time of crisis. His argument is primarily based on archaeological evidence that shows a decline in degree of specialisation (e.g. in pottery production and agriculture), level of social complexity (e.g. urbanism, public literacy, trade and coinage) and general living standards as well as a fall in population numbers. The presence of “barbarians” inside the empire further stirred things up. All these negative aspects of ‘transformation’ have been downplayed in the last 20-30 years by scholars such as Peter Brown and Glen Bowersock, and Ward-Perkins takes on their ‘peaceful’ perception of late antiquity. Instead, he argues that Roman civilization did indeed meet a violent end.


The Problem of Dating 18 August 2005

Posted by Troels in : Case Studies,Thesis Rant , 2 comments

Dating is esential for an archaeological study of iconoclasm. Statues were destroyed for many different reasons both before and after the fourth century CE, and just how tricky this issue can be is well illustrated by a monument known as the Charonion in Antioch, modern Antakya. It’s usually dated to the Hellenistic period and related to a story in the Chronographia of John Malalas, who himself was born in Antioch and writing in the sixth century. The story tells of certain seer, Leios, who in response to a plague in the city demands that a prosopeion (‘mask’) was to be carved on the face of the mountain (205.8-13). Excavations at the site were carried out in the 1930s along with many other sites in Antioch that produced a huge number of mosaics for museums around the world. In his classic history of Antioch, Glanville Downey notes that “the face of the bust has been badly battered” (p. 104). If this monument found just outside Antioch and above the Grotto of St Peter is the Charonion mentioned by Malalas, it has been out in the open for nearly 2500 years, exposed not only to the elements, but also random acts of vandalism and other kinds of destruction. The damage to the small statue is probably due to weathering, but it does seem to me that the head of the main figure has been struck by a sharp instrument. While this certainly could be classed as an act of iconoclasm, the lack of a precise date for this violence makes it difficult to blame early Christians.

The Charonion outside Antioch, and just above the Grotto of St Peter. Photo: TMK, August 2003.


Peter Stewart on Iconoclasm 17 August 2005

Posted by Troels in : Thesis Rant , 1 comment so far

Peter Stewart’s Statues in Roman Society is one of the most interesting recent art historical syntheses of Roman sculpture, and my work on the thesis would have been a lot more difficult without it. He has also written a good, short introduction to Roman art in general for the New Surveys in the Classics series. While away, I read an earlier article of his on “the destruction of statues in late antiquity”. The title was very promising, although as it turned out a lot of the material in the article was the same as that covered in his later book’s chapter on iconoclasm. However, there was more space in the article to go deeper into some of the material, and that alone made it a worthwhile read.

He sees the religious iconoclasm of the 4th century CE as a continuation of the secular iconoclasm seen in the centuries before. According to Stewart, “the destruction of pagan cult statues and the demise of pagan emperors, with their honorific statues, are part of the same process: the fall of the tyranny of Evil, and the rise of the kingdom of God” (1999: 181). It is an interesting point, although I won’t make my final judgment at this fairly early stage in the process. I will deal with this issue in my chapter on ‘Agents and Motives’, as well as the chapter on the literary sources. But my take on the relationship between damnatio memoriae and Christian iconoclasm is a little different. In fact, religious iconoclasm is a far older phenomenon than damnatio memoriae (see e.g. one of my earlier posts with an example of this), and the destruction of statues in Roman society goes further back that Stewart believes. This will be one of the key arguments in my attempt to contextualise early Christian iconoclasm.


On Fragmentation Theory and Some Recent Works on Iconoclasm 15 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Making of the Archaeological Record,Thesis Rant , add a comment

Two interesting works on iconoclasm appeared in 2003. One was a book-length study on The Archaeology of Religious Hatred by Eberhard Sauer, now in Edinburgh. The other was a short article in Britannia entitled ‘Iconoclasm in Roman Britain?’ by Ben Croxford, a PhD student at Cambridge.


Reading Sauer’s book when it came out was actually what drove me towards iconoclasm as a thesis topic. The book was a logical follow-up to his earlier work, The End of Paganism in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, and covered some interesting ground. He did a very good job of interpreting some archaeological cases of iconoclasm as well as including a few of the contemporary literary sources. Dating the destruction is a central concern to a study of this kind, and one that Sauer handles very well. The book’s main problem, however, is that Sauer’s survey approach is much too loose a framework for a contextual study. As I have said before, it is not a problem to find broken sculpture here and there, and then claim that it was broken by Christians. In fact, iconoclasm has often been cited as one of the main reasons why so much sculpture is lost to us today. In this way iconoclasm becomes a very convenient, loosely-defined ‘black hole’ (to borrow a phrase from Finley) in the archaeological record. So while Sauer must be applauded for writing an inspiring book, I do not believe that his approach is the way forward for the further study of ‘religious hatred’.

Ben Croxford has recently reviewed Sauer’s book, and I agree with his critique on several points, especially these (p. 142):

[Sauer] selects sites from across the Roman Empire perhaps without any real justification or deep consideration of the unique situation in each area. This is indicative of the main flaw that I would highlight about this work; it seems to be riddled with monolithic constructions, be they the phenomena of religious hatred or the identities of the image-breakers across the empire.

These are key issues when dealing with iconoclasm: Who were the image-breakers? In what contexts does iconoclasm occur? What role did religious violence play in late Roman/early Christian society? What is the larger picture? etc. To answer these questions it is needed to locate the agents and motives behind the actions that are anything but ‘monolithic’. It is here that the literary evidence comes in quite handy, although Croxford is right to point out that the accounts of early Christian authors should not be taken at face value. However, the quantity and variety of texts makes it impossible to dispose the reality of iconoclasm altogether.


Late Antique Countrysides and Rural Iconoclasm 7 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Late Antiquity,Thesis Rant , 1 comment so far

Although most studies of late antiquity have concentrated on urbanism, the recent upsurge of interest in landscapes and countrysides has also left its mark on late antique archaeology. The recent volumes edited by William Bowden et. al. and Neil Christie are good examples of this shift.

In the former there’s a really good paper by Béatrice Caseau of Sorbonne (“The Fate of Rural Temples in Late Antiquity and the Christianisation of the Countryside”). She uses the literary sources extensively, which is great, and I have been mining her notes for early Christian authors that I was not aware of. She also does a brilliant job of discussing the legal status of different kinds of cult. However, I feel that her usage of archaeology is unsatisfactory, and she fails to bring in the available evidence. This is a real shame.


Iconoclasm and Damnatio Memoriae 5 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Thesis Rant , comments closed

During the Roman empire there were two different kinds of iconoclasm. Broadly speaking, these can be termed secular and religious iconoclasm, but the spheres of religion and politics were closely intertwined in antiquity. For that reason, the separation between the two cannot be made so easily, and must be treated with some caution. I will, however, in my thesis be focusing on what can be termed religious iconoclasm, and specifically early Christian iconoclasm, i.e. the destruction of pagan images by Christians.

The best known form of (‘secular’) iconoclasm is probably the practice of damnatio memoriae (although it was never called that by the Romans), meaning the action of destroying a person’s likeness to erase his memory from history. There is both good literary and archaeological evidence for this, which Eric R. Varner has compiled in an exhaustive catalogue (see reference). Many ‘bad’ emperors suffered this fate, including Caligula (37-41 CE), who was the first one. Sometimes portraits were altered rather than destroyed, such as the example below, a portrait of Gaius Caligula that has been transformed into the Forbes type of Augustus:

A portrait of Augustus in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: TMK, 2002.

And then there’s religious iconoclasm, the main topic of my thesis. The earliest archaeologically documented example (from the Roman period) that I’ve found so far goes back to the time of the persecutions against the Bacchus cult in the 2nd century BCE. A terracotta throne found in Volsinii with bacchic motives was probably the victim of such an iconoclastic attack. This was one of several cults that were targeted in the Republican period. The Isis cult, for example, was outlawed and its priests exiled several times because of its ‘foreign’ elements.

This also goes to show that the idea that Christians were especially targeted is a myth. In the 2nd and 3rd century CE, they were targeted because of their number and refusal to recognize the imperial powers.


Welcome to iconoclasm.dk 2 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : General,Thesis Rant , comments closed

Welcome. This blog tracks work on my thesis that investigates the phenomenon of iconoclasm in the late antique period, mainly 4th century CE. I’ll cover topics that are related to the study of iconoclasm as well as give some case studies. My main area is Roman sculpture, but all kinds of media were victims of iconoclasm. For the next 5-6 months or so, I’ll be going through a wide range of ancient literary sources describing the phenomenon, so there will be a fair bit about late antique/early Christian authors as well. Broader topics, such as the religion, history and art of the period, will be covered too, when I have the time.

Iconoclasm raises a range of questions related to the role of violence in Roman society, the nature of Roman polytheism, the change in perception of art over time, and conflict and co-existence between pagans and Christians.

However, if you start to look for iconoclasm uncritically, you could find it everywhere, since virtually no piece of sculpture from antiquity has survived to this day unscarred. Most ‘complete’ pieces that we see today are the result of restoration works dating from the Renaissance onwards. Thus, a holistic approach with focus on interpretation and context is essential. One of the big questions is how an archaeological study of iconoclasm should be carried out? Discussion of this question will constitute the majority of the thesis’ methodological and theoretical part.

The deadline is September 1, 2006, so there is plenty of time to cover as many aspects of the topic as possible. Comments are, of course, welcome.

By the way, I also maintain a much more eclectic blog in Danish here.