The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture #1: The Lime Kiln

The first post in a continuing series on the fate of ancient sculpture.

One of the reasons why so much ancient sculpture is lost to us today is the widespread medieval practice of burning marble into lime. This was done in kilns, that have been archaeologically documented on a number of sites. Here’s an example from Velia in southern Italy:

Lime-kiln in the ‘Augusteum’, Velia. The exact function of this monument has not been established, officially it’s known as ‘Complesso Romano dell’Insula II’. Personally, I interpret its function as related to the imperial cult, due to architectural comparisons with the Eumachia building in Pompeii, and the find of a series of imperial portraits. Photo: TMK, May 2005.

One of the best documented lime kilns has been found at the site of Crypta Balbi in Rome. This kiln was particularly large, and must have worked on a massive scale (even giving its name to the district of the city ‘Calcarario’ in the medieval period). The site is now an excellent museum, in fact it’s one of the few ‘proper’ archaeological museums in Rome. It’s also one of the few sites that have prioritized all periods, and not just the Augustan or imperial phases, as is so often the case. The (preliminary) publication has some excellent illustrations too, including this one of the operation of the lime kiln:

Crypta Balbi
An illustration of the lime kiln at Crypta Balbi. From Manacorda 2001, p. 52.

Luckily, not all sculpture suffered this cruel fate, as is apparent from any visit to a museum in Rome or elsewhere. A lot of (fragmented) sculpture in fact comes from kiln sites, since the marble pieces would be broken into smaller pieces to fit in the kiln. This procedure is illustrated here by the person in the background, who is having a go at the marble column. Such fragments and marble ‘chips’, who for some reason did not make it into the fire, are clear evidence of kiln activity.

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Bush in Denmark and the Fall of the Roman Empire

Comparisons between the US and the Roman Empire are very common these days. In fact, RogueClassicism is tracking them pretty much on a daily basis.

Just now, George W. Bush has arrived in Denmark for a 2-day official visit. In antipication of his visit, the Copenhagen-based Politiken newspaper interviewed a broad spectrum of political commentators, journalists, writers, business people, etc. about what they would tell Bush if they were his hosts (2 July, frontpage and p. 2 of the Culture section). Unsurprisingly, the answers ranged from hostile to fairly enthusiastic, but everyone had a piece of advice for him. I noted some of the advice of Imam Abu Laban from Islamisk Trossamfund (‘Islamic Faith Community’) – in my translation:

Q. What present would you like to give him to take home?
A. I would give him any book on the greatness and fall of the Roman Empire – as a reminder that no condition is ever permanent. If everyone read such a book, humanity would be better off.

To be fair to Bush, I read somewhere that he quite likes Cicero! Anyway, Politiken also has a detailed description of his plans for the visit as well a dedicated page with related news on their website.

Iconoclasm and Damnatio Memoriae

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.

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The Imaginative Power of Iconoclasm

Images of iconoclasm have a particular impact on people. Thus, the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad was captured in that one photo of the toppling of Saddam’s statue – on TV, newspaper frontpages and in cartoons:

A take on the toppling of one of Saddam’s statues in Baghdad from the Cartoonist Group by Kirk Anderson.

When I tell people about my thesis project, they are usually reminded of a few more recent examples. These are often quite interesting, and I thought that I would use this blog to present some of them (as well as some of my own). Saddam’s statue is the first one. See also my post the other day for the ancient connection.

A Depiction of Iconoclasm in the Via Paisiello Hypogeum

I better start off by explaining the photo at the top of this page. Here’s the full version:

Via Paisiello Hypogeum

Actually, there’s another person, who is not shown here, on the left side of the statue throwing rocks. But what is shown here is a statue, identifiable by its base and a staff (Jupiter has been suggested), with a rope around its neck. The rope is being pulled by the figure on the right. The phrase used by Juvenal in his description of an act of damnatio memoriae is “descendunt statuae restemque secuntur” (10.58-59) or “down come the statues in obedience to the rope” (in Peter Stewart’s translation). Placing a rope around the neck is probably the easiest way to tear down a statue. In fact, we have seen the same procedure being carried out in Iraq recently when the citizens of Baghdad tore down Saddam’s statues (although this time with a little help from American tanks).

It’s one of the few (if not only) ancient depictions of iconoclasm. There are medieval depictions, but this example can be dated to the 4th century CE, and is therefore especially noteworthy.

The scene is from the Via Paisiello hypogeum in Rome, that was explored as early as 1865 by G.B. De Rossi. In the same hypogeum there’s a series of very interesting wall-paintings that mix pagan and Christian themes. I might write about them in the future.

Image source: P. Stewart. 2003. Statues in Roman Society. Oxford. Fig. 48, p. 293.

Welcome to

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.