The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture # 3: Spolia

The term spolia is commonly used to refer to parts of monuments that have been re-used in later buildings. This kind of recycling was practised extensively in both the late antique and medieval periods, and has been the topic of a wide range of studies, including a recent doctoral dissertation by Maria Fabricius Hansen at the University of Aarhus, who deals primarily with the many cathedrals and churches in Rome that bear witness to the tradition of spolia, but they were used in many other parts of the Mediterranean, especially in areas where there was a tradition for monumental architecture. Often architectural elements, such as column drums (see photo), were recycled, because they had very little religious significance and were conveniently at hand.

Roman column drums reused as foundation blocks in the Cath├ędrale Notre Dame de Nazareth de Vaison-la-Romaine, France. Photo: TMK, September 2002.

A different use of spolia is exemplified by the Arch of Constantine. This monumental arch in the centre of Rome was adorned with reused sculpture from the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius as well as a few contemporary pieces. This kind of reuse has often been interpreted as a kind of literary quotation. In this case Constantine probably wanted to legimitize his rule by making connections to earlier emperors from Rome’s “golden age”.

Sculpture was also reused as building material in several buildings during the Roman period. A recent article by Robert Coates-Stephens shows how the construction of the Aurelianic wall around Rome in the 270s created a vast amount of spolia available for new building work. The much debated Esquiline group, now in Copenhagen, is one such cache of sculpture that had been destroyed and used as fill in a wall, dated to the early fourth century. This explains their extremely fragmented state.

Esquiline Group
Four of the sculptures in the Esquiline Group in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo: TMK, December 2002.

When looking at sculpture for examples of early Christian iconoclasm, spolia must be taken into consideration. The lesson from the Esquiline group and many other similar examples is (once again) that sculpture was broken up for many other reasons than religion or conflicting ideologies.

Robert Coates-Stephens. 2001. “Muri dei bassi secoli in Rome: Observations on the Re-use of Statuary in Walls Found on the Esquiline and the Caelian after 1870.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 14: 217-238.
Jas Elsner. 2000. “From the Culture of Spolia to the Cult of Relics: The Arch of Constantine and the Genesis of Late Antique Forms.” Papers of the British School at Rome 68: 149-184.
Maria Fabricius Hansen. 2003. The Eloquence of Appropriation: Prolegomena to an Understanding of Spolia in early Christian Rome. Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, Supplementum 33. Rome.
Dale Kinney. 2001. “Roman Architectural Spolia“. Proceedings of the American Philological Society 145.2. Available online.

Join the conversation


  1. nice work i wish i could do.
    sculpture like this it must
    take years to master.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *