On Fragmentation Theory and Some Recent Works on Iconoclasm

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.

Croxford’s own approach was outlined in his Britannia article. He is inspired by the work of John Chapman, and questions the interpretation of several sites that have been identified as victims of iconoclasm, e.g. the Walbrook mithraeum and the Uley shrine. These re-interpretations are very interesting, and no doubt sculpture was broken for all kinds of different reasons than iconoclasm, also for ritual purposes. This kind of interpretation is central to an archaeology of iconoclasm. However, while Chapman’s fragmentation theory is a real step forward in archaeological thinking, there are problems in applying it directly to the study of early Christian iconoclasm in the way that Croxford does. A major problem is that he only deals with the Romano-British material, and it is certainly not possible to generalize from such a marginal area of the Roman empire. Furthermore, it can be argued that Britain was never completely Christianised before the 7th century when Roman paganism had died out. The near-absence of literary sources from 4th and 5th century Britain is also convenient for Croxford’s purposes.

My starting point, on the other hand, is that iconoclasm was a very real phenomenon. From the Roman east, that will be the topic of my thesis, there is both literary and archaeological evidence for iconoclasm. In this blog alone I have so far dealt with archaeological examples from Perge, Athens, and there are more to come. However, all these examples need to put into a wider context, and it is needed to ask how widespread a phenomenon iconoclasm was, both in the east and west, and fragmentation theory is very useful for this purpose.

These are some of the thoughts that lie behind my thesis outline. In the first part of the thesis, I will present a sort of life-history of Roman sculpture, looking at the many different reasons that sculpture breaks as well as provide the general historical and social background. A critical reading and evaluation of the many literary sources will also be provided. I then move on in the second part to two or three archaeological case studies focused on the fate of the imperial cult shrines in the 4th century CE and the public buildings of Asia Minor. In the last part, I aim to contextualise the evidence, evaluate the role of religious violence and look at the agents and motives behind the phenomenon of iconoclasm.

J. Chapman. 2000. Fragmentation in Archaeology: People, places and broken objects in the prehistory of south-eastern Europe. London.
B. Croxford. 2003. “Iconoclasm in Roman Britain?”, Britannia 34: 81-95.
B. Croxford. 2005. Review of Sauer 2003. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 20.1: 141-145.
E. Sauer. 1996. The End of Paganism in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire: the example of the Mithras cult. Oxford.
E. Sauer. 2003. The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and early Medieval World. Stroud.

P.S. W.H.C. Frend has also reviewed Sauer’s book – his review from Antiquity is available online.

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