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Scythopolis I: A Mutilated Statue of Venus 7 November 2005

Posted by Troels in : Case Studies, Thesis Rant , trackback

I have been looking for parallels to the mutilated sculptures at Perge, since they will be at the centre of a chapter on the body and society in late antiquity. One group of material comes from Scythopolis in modern Israel, where the excavations of the Eastern Bathhouse revealed a series of sculptures. I will be discussing this material and other pieces from Scythopolis today and over the next few days.

One of the most important things about the excavations of the Eastern Bathhouse is that the sculptures were found in a sealed layer, datable to 515/516 CE. This gives a terminus ante quem for the deposition of the statuary found in the baths. Among the finds was this nude statue of Venus, that had been mutilated before it was dumped in the hypocaust, when the baths were abandoned. The head has so far not been found.

The headless statue of Venus as found in the Eastern Batthouse, Scythopolis. From Tsafrir & Foerster 1997: fig. 37. The statue is now on view in the Israel Museum.

In the case of this mutilated and discarded statue of Venus, it is appropriate to consider an episode in the Life of Porphyry (Chapter 59). Porphyry became bishop of Gaza in the late 4th century, and one of his main tasks was to tackle the large pagan community that was active in the city. His biography tells us about his destruction of the great temple of Marnas in 402, but the same bout of violence also resulted in the destruction of a nude statue of Venus, that the attackers deemed to be unseemly. We can also remember Theodoret’s condemnation of Venus’ nudity as “more shameless than that of any prostitute standing in front of a brothel” (3.79-84).

I have also updated my outline to adjust for some recent changes.

Yoram Tsafrir. 2003. “The Christianization of Bet Shean (Scythopolis) and its Social-Cultural Influence on the City”, pp. 275-284, in: G. Brands & H.-G. Severin (eds.) Die spätantike Stadt und ihre Christianisierung. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag.
Yoram Tsafrir & Gideon Foerster. 1997. “Urbanism at Scythopolis-Bet Shean in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries”, DOP 51: 85-147.


1. Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm » Scythopolis II: A Mutilated Statue of Bacchus - 9 November 2005

[...] Excavations in 1990 in the Eastern Bathhouse at Scythopolis, introduced in yesterday’s post, revealed a statue of Dionysos. It was found in the same layer as the mutilated and discarded statue of Venus. Here it is again the genitalia that have been attacked, whereas the damage to the head is more characteristic of that of a fall (contra Foerster 2000). Selective destruction of nose and mouth is usually characteristic of Christian mutilation, but here it is also the chin and part of a cheek that has been battered, and as such it appears to be non-selective. [...]

2. Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm » A Mutilated Aphrodite in Istanbul - 24 May 2006

[...] Krischen also notes the mutilation of a statue group of Bacchus and a satyr, found in the same baths’ tepidarium. I have previously discussed similar material from Scythopolis. [...]

3. Iconoclasm » Ortwin Dally on Late Antique Sculpture - 15 January 2007

[...] 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. [...]

4. Alexander - 23 March 2007

Christianism and Islam are two religions imposed partially by force and violence. They destroyed the beautyfull pagan civilisation, so I condemn the way these religions where imposed.