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.

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Early Christians in the Attic Countryside: The Case of Marousi

Following up on the other day’s post on late antique countrysides and staying in the same geographical area as my earlier posts on Athens, this will be the last part of my ‘Attic trilogy’.

One of the problems of dealing with the late antique period, and especially when you try to work with social aspects of the late Roman empire, is how to evaluate the spread of Christianity and its impact on the landscape. The difficulties of doing so are well demonstrated by a paper in a recent publication of the Finnish Institute at Athens (whose title, The Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Antique and Early Byzantine Periods, is over-ambitious, if not misleading). In this volume, Georgios Pallis treats the evidence for early Christian buildings in Marousi, then an Attic deme, but now totally embedded in the urban sprawl of Athens. The evidence for Christians in the area comes from one inscription (now lost), dated to the 5th or 6th century CE, from the grave of a deaconess named Eufrosyne, and a series of architectural spolia incorporated into three later churches, one of which was demolished in 1973. Obviously, this is not a very good starting point for interpretation.

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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.

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The Parthenon

One of the most famous monuments of the ancient world is the Parthenon in Athens. Less well known, however, is the fact that this temple on the Acropolis was a victim of early Christian iconoclasm.

The Acropolis of Athens. Photo: TMK, March 2003.

During its conversion to the church of Agia Sophia in the 5th century CE, parts of the sculptural decoration were destroyed. The metopes, mainly on the western, eastern and northern sides of the temple, were especially targeted. As can be seen in the photo below, the figures have been chiselled away.

North metope no. 25. From Brommer 1967, tafel 105.

It is therefore lamentable that we know so frustratingly little about the Christianisation of the Acropolis because of the destruction of the post-classical layers in the 19th century (see the excellent article by McNeal in Antiquity 65 for an account of this sad story).

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The Afterlife of Roman Sculpture # 2: Treasure Hunters

Touring the museums of Turkey, the number of Roman sarcophagi on view cannot help but amaze. Of couse the great demand for them from collectors have led to widespread plundering, but even many of those in Turkish museums have been in the hands of treasure hunters. This is clear from the many sarcophagi with large holes in them, like this one in Konya:

A sarcophagus in the Konya Archaeological Museum. Photo: TMK, August 2003.

These holes were used for plundering the contents of sarcophagi, and are common sights in Turkish museums. The phenomenon can be compared to the practice in the Near East of digging holes around Roman milestones, since according to tradition they mark the location of a treasure!

Before the Fig Leaf: Christian Response to Nude Statuary

It’s about time that I give some archaeological examples of early Christian iconoclasm. I start with one of the less ferocious cases.

There were many different motives for Christians to smash pagan sculpture, and one of them was an aversion to nudity. This is clear from a series of sculptures, whose genitalia have been mutilated. A good example is this statue group of the Three Graces:

Three Graces
A statue group of the Three Graces, Antalya Museum. Photo: Niels Hannestad (scanned slide).

The group is from the Southern Baths at Perge. These baths seem to have been the scene of systematic attacks from iconoclasts, and there are several sculptures from this site, including a Marsyas, a Meleagros and a Horus, that all appear to have been mutilated in much the same way. The baths were excavated mainly in the 1980s, and are still awaiting full publication. Only when they are published, will it be possible to date these attacks more accurately.

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Late Antique Countrysides and Rural Iconoclasm

Although most studies of late antiquity have concentrated on urbanism, the recent upsurge of interest in landscapes and countrysides has also left its mark on late antique archaeology. The recent volumes edited by William Bowden et. al. and Neil Christie are good examples of this shift.

In the former there’s a really good paper by Béatrice Caseau of Sorbonne (“The Fate of Rural Temples in Late Antiquity and the Christianisation of the Countryside”). She uses the literary sources extensively, which is great, and I have been mining her notes for early Christian authors that I was not aware of. She also does a brilliant job of discussing the legal status of different kinds of cult. However, I feel that her usage of archaeology is unsatisfactory, and she fails to bring in the available evidence. This is a real shame.

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