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Ortwin Dally on Late Antique Sculpture 15 January 2007

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Getty Villa i Malibu
The Peristyle garden of the Getty Villa, Malibu. Photo: TMK, January 2007.

On Thursday night, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Ortwin Dally of the DAI at the Getty Villa. It was a great experience to see the villa at night as it’s actually quite rare to consider how buildings and monuments would have appeared in darkness illuminated by only torches and oil lamps. And the setting of the Getty Villa is incredibly apt. Perched in a small valley between two hilltops and with a view of the (Pacific) ocean on the horizon, it truly brings to mind a Roman villa by the Mediterranean.

Dally’s talk “Pagan Sculptures in Late Antiquity: Between Destruction and Preservation” was also interesting. He mainly discussed preservation and restoration of earlier statues and only very briefly the production and installation of new works. He focused on the statuary from baths and public buildings in Miletus, Ephesus and Aizanoi – some of which I’ve discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) and also talked about in San Diego. Several (nude) statues from these sites were moved to baths and nymphaea in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, but not before their genitalia had been mutilated. To the right, you see an example of a mutilated Venus from the Baths of Faustina at Miletus and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. From Dally’s discussion, these ‘castrations’ may seem like a phenomenon limited to Asia Minor, but there are also comparanda to the practice outside this region, e.g. on Cyprus (Salamis) and in the Levant (Scythopolis). A few examples are also found in Italy, so it’s not an exclusively eastern practice either.

My perspective on these statue castrations is rather different than Dally’s but to a large extent, we’re saying the same things. We agree that they are evidence of new viewing habits, influenced by Christian theology and perhaps enforced by bishops or other clerics. We also agree that there was a shift in euergetism and public benefaction. Whereas wealthy citizens previously donated statues for civic structures, in late antiquity their focus turned to churches.

Where we disagree is perhaps how wide the spectrum of attitudes towards statuary in late antiquity really was (on this, see e.g. Lea Stirling’s brilliant “The Learned Collector” and Niels Hannestad’s work). I don’t subscribe to the view that production ceased – the statues produced were now generally smaller, but there are many of them from different parts of the empire. At the same time, we see a large production of sarcophagi and minor arts. In short, the study of pagan sculpture in late antiquity goes much further than preservation and conservation.

Late Antique Art and Archaeology in Aarhus 27 December 2006

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I have neglected to announce the wonderful news that the Danish Research Council recently offered a generous grant to the establishment of a collective research project based in the Department of Classical Archaeology at the University of Aarhus – “Art and Social Identities in Late Antiquity” of which I am a member. Our project’s website will soon be relaunched but already there are some working papers available on late antique sculpture.

Contemporary Conceptions of Early Christianity 9 November 2006

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Interesting post from Mary Beard on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, “Humphrys in Search of God“. Here’s what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, had to say about early Christianity:

It’s what happened at the very beginning of the church’s life. The church didn’t simply blaze out into the Greco-Roman world saying “Here’s the truth. You must believe it”. They said, “Look — this is what you say, and that’s very interesting as it echoes with what we say; and, if we talk this through, you might find that what you’re saying has a much fuller expression in what we’re saying.

For contrast, here’s what Libanius tells us about the destructive behaviour of early Christian monks (Oratio 30.8):

…this black-robed tribe…hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues, and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die.

However, in the context of scholarship on early Christianity, Williams’ view is not as unusual as one would think. It is paralleled by the romantic and triumphalist writings of several authors, for example here the papyrologist H. I. Bell in his Forwood Lectures for 1952 (Bell 1953: 105, quoted from Frankfurter 2006: 546):

Later paganism…died with a kind of mellow splendour, like a beautiful sunset, but dying it was. It had been conquered by the truer and finer religion, for which it had itself prepared the way, a religion which at last brought the solution of problems which paganism had posed but to which it had found no answer.


Mutilated and Re-Used Inscriptions in Gerasa 7 November 2006

Posted by Troels in : Case Studies, Late Antiquity , 2 comments

I have previously mentioned a couple of inscriptions that were desecrated by early Christians. A recent article in Journal of Early Christian Studies by Jason Moralee now presents some further examples from Gerasa (modern Jerash in Jordan – where a Danish-Jordanian project has been excavating an early mosque for a couple of years), especifically the church of St. Theodore, built in 464-466 CE. We don’t know if this particular church was built on top of a pagan sanctuary, although many others were. However, an inscription over the central doorway to the atrium tells us what a horrid place it was before the church’s construction. Note here how the church building itself talks in the first person (quoted from Moralee 2006: 192f):

…formerly so many four-footed toiling beasts fell down here that a stomach-turning stench arose. And often someone nearby pinched his nose and gave up the desire of breathing to avoid the bad smell. But now those passing over the fragrant ground carry [their] right hand to their brow, making the sign of the honorable cross. And if you wish to learn in order that you might know [it] well, Aineias gave this desirable beauty to me, the all-wise priest practiced in piety.

This inscription is a good example of Christian triumphalism. The construction of the church marked the Christian victory over the old pagan topography and its sacrifices (this is perhaps what ’stench’ and ‘beasts’ refer to in the inscription). In the eyes of the church builders, it was, as Moralee points out, a transition from ‘impurity’ to ‘purity’.

Moralee interprets the mutilated inscriptions in the Gerasa churches as a similar form of Christian triumphalism over the pagan past. The mutilated inscriptions were re-used just as other spolia in occasionally very prominent places in the churches. An inscription, set up a priest of Dionysos asks for the salvation of the emperors, had been defaced and re-used in the Shrine of Holy Mary. Another had been cut into oblong pieces and re-used as paving, so that the church-goers were literally walking on their past.

Parts of another inscription had been re-carved to form a cross. The Christian cross was often used to nullify what was to perceived to be the demonic powers of pagan objects. Moralee quotes a very interesting inscription from Ephesus that points to the power of the Cross in this respect. The inscription commemorates the destruction of a statue of Artemis by a certain Demeas. It is placed on the base of the very statue he had destroyed (quoted from Moralee 2006: 206).

Having put down [the] deceitful form of [the] demon Artemis, Demeas raised this sign of truth, honoring God, who drives away idols, [that is], the cross, the victory-bearing, immortal symbol of Christ.

The Christian triumphalism embedded in the mutilation of inscriptions and their re-use as spolia at Gerasa is a rather late phenomenon, characteristic of the fifth century CE. It is interesting from an archaeological perspective because it tells us how pagan ‘relics’ could function in Christian contexts in spite of the fierce anti-pagan rhetorics of e.g. the Theodosian Code and writers such as Theodoret.


Seminar on Roman Egypt 31 October 2006

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If you’re in Denmark, then this seminar may be of interest. I’ll be talking about the destruction of images in late antique Egypt.


Achaemenid and Late Antique Sardis 1 October 2006

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology, Late Antiquity , 3 comments

Sardis is a fantastic site in western Turkey, beautifully situated and with a magnificent acropolis. I have recently uploaded my photos from there to the Stoa gallery. My trip there inspired me to read Elspeth Dusinberre’s book on the city’s time as a Persian satrapal capital (559-330 BC). She asks all the right questions, but the main problem is that there simply isn’t much evidence for satrapal palaces, gardens (‘paradeisoi’) or, basically, anything that can be related to the achaemenid period in Sardis except for a relatively large number of graves that were summarily excavated in the early 20th century and a few other, very isolated finds. The “cosmopolitan” city of Sardis thus remains somewhat elusive. Apart from that, it’s an interesting book that looks at western Turkey from the often neglected eastern perspective.

Artemistemplet i Sardis
The Temple of Artemis at Sardis. Necropolis in the background. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

My main reason to visit Sardis, however, was its late antique archaeology. The synagogue is especially famous. It is exceptionally large – 80 metres long, taking up an entire wing of the so-called Bath-Gymnasium complex. It was built in the 2nd century AD, but did not come to serve the city’s Jewish community until the last half of the 3rd century. The standing remains, however, date to the 4th century, although a large part has been reconstructed. In the atrium stood a large marble basin for washing before entry to the synagogue proper (see photo below). The floors were decorated with mosaics, several of which have inscriptions. The epigraphic material is in itself extremely important, as it gives us information about the attendants and donors to this Jewish meeting place.

Synagogen i Sardis
The atrium in the Sardis Synagogue. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

There are also new photos from Pergamon, recently featured on my top 10 of Mediterranean archaeological sites, and Side. (more…)

Late Antiquity on Flickr 2 September 2006

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A great place to find photos of late antique art, especially ivories such as the one below, is Antiquité Tardive on Flickr. The photos are licensed through Creative Commons.

Photo: Antiquité Tardive.

This is a detail from an ivory diptych in the Musée National du Moyen-Âge (Cluny). It shows the consul Areobindus presiding over the games in Constantinople. Like the inscriptions from the Colosseum that I discussed the other day, the diptych can be dated by consular date. Flavius Areobindus Dagalaiphus Areobindus was consul in AD 506.

Civic Continuity at Rome: An Example from the Colosseum 30 August 2006

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Most people visiting the Colosseum are rightly preoccupied with the magnificent building itself, and the gruesome stories that have made it so famous. Some of the arena’s other sights are easily overlooked, but just as interesting, however. Contemporary exhibits from the vast collections of the Italian archaeological superintendencies are housed on the upper levels (the next one will be on the Iliad), and there is a small museum with finds (several are late antique) that relate to the site and its surroundings.

My favourites are two rather crude, identical inscriptions placed by the main entry point to the arena proper. A third one was also found in the 16th century, but has since been lost. The statue bases commemorate restorations paid for by Decius Marius Venantius Basilius, who is known to have been consul in AD 484. It is thus a very interesting example of civic continuity at Rome, even after the traditional date of the fall of the western Roman Empire (476).

Colosseum inscription dated AD 484
Inscription set up in AD 484 in the Colosseum. Photo: TMK, March 2006.

The inscription can be translated as follows:

Decius Marius Venantius Basilius, high-ranking senator, prefect of Rome, patrician, ordinary consul, restored at his own expenses the arena and the podium which had been destroyed by a terrible earthquake.

On the other side of the stone is an earlier inscription commemorating the emperor Carinus (AD 283-285). Such re-use is typical of late antiquity. Even so, this consul definitely wanted to make an impression. With originally four such inscriptions with accompanying statues, one by each main entrace to the Colosseum, he would have been hard to miss.

Colosseum inscription dated AD 484
The second (identical) statue base. Photo: TMK, March 2006.

Late Antique Mosaics in Brussels 13 July 2006

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During a visit to Brussels this weekend, I visited the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Historie, located in the Parc du Cinquantenaire. The museums hold a marvellous collection of late antique art as well as an reconstructed section of Apamea’s colonnaded street.

Apamea mosaic
The Great Hunt Mosaic from Apamea, now in the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Historie, Brussels. Photo: TMK, July 2006.

One of the museum’s star pieces is this hunt mosaic from what is believed to be the governor’s palace at Apamea. It was discovered in 1935, and subsequently moved to Brussels, where it has been restored several times, most recently in the 1960s. An inscription gives both the function of the room it decorated (triklinos, i.e. dining room) and the date of the room’s late antique restoration (September 535). Janine Balty notes the uniqueness of this mosaic in Syria and compares it to the mosaics from the 6th century palace at Constantinople that similarly have hunting themes. For that reason, she also proposes that the mosaic could have been made in Constantinople.


The Beauty of Numbers 12 October 2005

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There is nothing quike like the magnificence of ancient Rome as expressed in numbers. We are lucky enough to have preserved such accounts in the so-called regionary catalogues that cover the city district by district. Two of these, the Notitia regionum and the Curiosum urbis Romae (henceforth N and C respectively) are especially far-reaching in their detail. Curiously, a version of this catalogue is preserved in Zachariah of Mytilene’s late 5th/early 6th century Church History in a list of ‘objects and buildings in the city of Rome’ (book 10, chapter 16), only preserved in Syriac and presented here in summary form:

24 churches of the blessed Apostles
2 great basilicae
324 spacious streets
2 great capitols
80 golden gods
64 ivory gods [TMK: N & C have 74 - this number must be an error of the copier]
46,603 insulae [TMK: N & C mention only 46,602!]
1797 houses of magnates [TMK: N and C have 1790 domus]
1352 reservoirs
274 bakers [TMK: N and C give 254 - undoutedly, another error of the copy process]
5000 cemeteries
31 great marble pedistals (baseis)
3785 bronze statues of kings and magistrates
25 bronze statues of Abraham, Sarah and other biblical kings
2 colossal statues (colossi)
2 ‘columns of shells’ (columnae coclides) [Hamilton & Brooks comment that this must be a misunderstanding, N & C have columns with spiral reliefs]
2 circuses
2 + 1 theatres
4 ‘beth ulde’ = ludi [TMK: gladiatorial training camps]
11 ‘imfiya’ = nymphaea [TMK: 15 in N and C]
22 great and mighty bronze horses
926 baths [TMK: N & C have 856]
4 ‘orbilikon’ = cohortes vigilum [TMK: fire stations]
14 ‘tinon enkofitoriyon’
2 ‘parenamabole’ of special bronze horses
45 ’sistre’
2300 public oil warehouses
291 prisons or aspoke [TMK: this could be another misunderstanding, N & C mention 290 horrea, i.e. warehouses]
673 ‘emparkhe’ = vicomagistri, 7 commanders [TMK: police force]
37 gates
Circumference of the city: 216.036 feet = 40 miles
Diameter from east to west: 12 miles
Diameter from north to south: 12 miles

It is a curious list. Some parts are clearly taken directly from the N and C, while others must have been added from another source. Sloppy copying is also evident throughout. A few things have been ‘edited’ out, e.g. brothels (45 in N & C), latrines (144 in N & C) and public baths (11 in N & C), which is understandable from the viewpoint that it was copied by a Christian. Temples are not mentioned either, which again can be explained by the fact that all forms of public cult were outlawed in 395. However, some of the temples are likely to still have been in use, more or less clandestinely. They were under all circumstances still part of the cityscape.