Iconoclasm in the Athenian Agora?

Keeping the spotlight on Athens after yesterday’s post on the Parthenon, there are some interesting cases of possible iconoclasm in the Areopagus houses just south of the Agora. Especially the material from house C presents some very intriguing questions. This house was constructed in the second half of the fourth century CE and has been interpreted by Camp as the kind of philosopher’s school that Athens was well known for in the Roman period. They presumably continued to function all the way into the 6th century CE, when the emperor Justinian ordered them to close in 529.

An overview of the Athenian Agora. Photo: TMK, October 2004.

The excavation of the Areopagus houses in the 1970s unearthed a large quantity of sculpture. The best preserved material, including a bust of Antoninus Pius, was found in wells, two of which were inside house C. The deposition of sculpture in wells is itself a very interesting phenomenon, especially when we consider the great preservation of these examples. It is also noteworthy that at least one of the wells seems to have deliberately sealed with a marble slab. Frantz has suggested that they were buried by the previous pagan owners of the house before leaving town. This is indeed a possibility, since Christian objects, such as a Sigma table, have also been found in house C, presumably from the last phase of occupation, when the house is thought to have been Christianised.

Mutilated 4th century BCE relief of Hermes and Dionysos with the Nymphs. From Shear 1973a, plate 35.

More likely as victims of iconoclasm, however, are two pieces of sculpture that were left above ground in house C. One is a mutilated 4th century BCE relief of Hermes and Dionysos with the Nymphs (dated by an inscription that mentions Neoptolemos, a contemporary of the orators Demosthenes and Lykourgos), and the other is a headless statue of Athena that had been re-used as a step block. A thing that strikes me is the fact that it was only mythological sculpture that was attacked, while the portraits found in the well were all in a fairly good condition, but it is difficult to generalize from such a relatively small group of material. Part of a mosaic floor in the house had also been replaced, which some has suggested was done because it depicted pagan motifs. There are other reasons for changing a floor, however, the most obvious being wear. It was replaced by marble slabs, which could also be explained by a change in fashion or even an overall upgrade of the room.

Another very interesting late antique find from the Agora is a Herm head that was found in a pit in room 4 of the Stoa on the Panathenaic Way. Shear has offered the interpretation that it was buried there after the destruction of Alaric in 396 CE.An alternative interpretation could be that it was part of a ritual deposition, indeed its good preservation makes it a very attractive theory. The traces of burning around it were not necessarily caused by the barbarian attack, but could represent the remains of a form of ritual killing.

J. Camp. 1986. The Athenian Agora. London.
A. Frantz. 1988. The Athenian Agora XXIV. Late Antiquity: A.D. 267-700. Princeton, NJ.
T. Leslie Shear, Jr. 1973a. “The Athenian Agora: Excavations of 1971”, Hesperia 42: 121-179.
T. Leslie Shear, Jr. 1973b. “The Athenian Agora: Excavations of 1972”, Hesperia 42: 359-407.

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