You are here

The Ceremonial Sculptures of the Roman Gods

The Ceremonial Sculptures of the Roman Gods

By Brian Madigan (Monumenta Graeca et Romana 20). Pp. xxviii + 120, figs. 58. Brill, Leiden 2012. $153. ISBN 978-90-04-22723-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Classical archaeologists generally acknowledge that statues played a major role in ancient religion, but this awareness seldom goes beyond the cult statues of temples, votive images, and state reliefs that depict religious ceremonies. Madigan’s book goes a long way to advance our understanding of how sculpture was actually used by describing a little-known and poorly understood group that he terms “ceremonial sculptures” (xxvii). Madigan refers to movable statues and images that were employed in processions and rituals held away from temples but where “the presence of the gods was ceremonially required” (xxvii). A brief preface avoids, perhaps wisely, any discussion of the nature of the divinity of ancient statues, and simply introduces the four categories of ceremonial sculpture to be discussed: processional statuettes, litter statues, capita deorum, and exuviae. Each of these categories is dealt with in separate chapters that form the body of the book and are followed by an epilogue, appendix, and index. Apart from textual sources, the author relies mainly on Roman artworks that depict these ceremonial sculptures in use.

The first chapter deals with handheld statuettes that were carried in religious processions. In Madigan’s view, these statuettes originate in Roman domestic religion (i.e., the cult of the lares). They are first attested in various reliefs of the Julio-Claudian period, including the Altar of the Vicomagistri and a relief fragment in the Villa Medici (controversially connected to the Ara Pietatis Augusti), both of which show male youths carrying statuettes in their left hands. These processional scenes are paralleled by scenes in which statuettes are presented by the emperor to groups of men, which include the Belvedere altar and a Julio-Claudian altar dedicated by the ministri of the collegium fabrum tignariorum. Madigan argues that the latter monument shows the presentation of a so-called type statue (apeikonisma) that copied a larger cult statue on a smaller scale. In this case, the statuette is possibly a copy of the Minerva Capta of the Caelian Hill and was intended for use in processions. Later examples of movable statuettes include a painting from the Domus Aurea (now known only from an 18th-century copy) that illustrates the use of handheld statuettes in a Dionysian procession.

Madigan finds details for the use of these processional statuettes in a number of texts, papyri, and inscriptions, the most prominent of which is the endowment of Salutaris of Ephesos from 103/4 C.E. The endowment makes provisions for the parading of small-scale images in precious metals from the Temple of Artemis to the city’s theater. Just as the image bearers in the reliefs in Rome seem to be elite Roman youths, the Salutaris endowment requires statues to be carried by the city’s ephebes. The chapter concludes with some examples of processional statuette use in late antiquity, including a painted depiction of Constantius II in the Domus Faustae and one of the lower panels on the Arch of Galerius in Thessalonike. An appendix to the first chapter briefly discusses the depiction of comparable statuette-sized objects in mythological scenes.

The second chapter deals with statues of divinities carried on litters (fercula) in Roman processions. Though the ferculum seems to have originated in the military triumph, most depictions in which a ferculum bears a statue of a divinity appear in other types of Roman processions, notably those held prior to circus races, games, and at the inauguration of magistrates. The monuments discussed include various third- and fourth-century sarcophagi in Rome, a terracotta relief in the Louvre, a funerary relief from Amiternum, and two Pompeian wall paintings. The fragmentary relief from Amiternum dates to the first century C.E. and seems to represent a processus consularis that included fercula with statues of the Capitoline triad. A wall painting from the Bottega del Profumiere in Pompeii shows a quite different use of the fercula, and it depicts woodworkers carrying a litter with a complicated diorama-like scene in which two carpenters saw a plank in front of a statue of Minerva and behind a figure who may represent Daedalus. As with the processional statuettes, it seems that the use of such litters with depictions of divinities must have been widespread for a variety of ceremonial processions.

Much of the second chapter is dedicated to discussions of which processions, inaugurations, and games are referred to by individual artworks and whether the objects on the litters really represent statues of divinities or actors portraying them. Madigan also includes interesting observations on the details and function of the litters. Unlike the bearers of small portable statues, the individuals tasked with carrying such fercula seem to come from the working classes of Roman society and are deemphasized in most artistic representations. Whereas the bodies of the youths with small statuettes actually framed the images, putting the young men very much in the eyes of the crowd, the litter bearers would have been largely obscured by the litter they carried and on which the audience’s eyes were focused. As ceremonial tools, the function of the litters was obvious—they allowed larger and heavier statues to be displayed to bigger audiences and could convey more detailed messages to the viewers than the simple handheld statuettes.

The third chapter concerns the busts of Roman gods (capita deorum) that were used at both regular and supplicatory lectisternia, rituals in which statues were placed on banqueting couches. Visual representations of the capita deorum include a bust of Liber in a painting in a small shrine on the Via del’Abbondanza in Pompeii, a marble statue showing half-length depictions of the twin Fortunae on a litter from Praeneste, an inlaid vessel from Caesarea Maritima, and a series of terracotta money boxes and lamps from Egypt that show couches with busts of Serapis, Harpokrates, Isis, Demeter, and Hermanubis. Madigan views the scenes on the last objects as depictions of a syncretic Romano-Egyptian rite that incorporated the Roman concept of a lectisternium, and he briefly discusses the evidence for banqueting societies that played an important role in the cult of Serapis in particular.

Exuviae, the subject of Madigan’s final chapter, are the attributes of gods that were carried in processions and placed on cushioned and draped thrones (pulvinaria) at the circus or theater in a ritual identified as the sellisternium. They include the primary symbols of divinities, such as Minerva’s helmet, Jupiter’s lightning bolts, Juno’s peacock, and Neptune’s trident. Unlike the other ceremonial sculptures discussed in this book, the exuviae were kept carefully hidden in baskets and special carts as they were being transported from the temples where they were stored to their place of display. They can be seen sitting on thrones in a series of wall paintings from the Casa dei Cervi in Herculaneum and in a series of sculpted reliefs from the same monument that are now in Ravenna, Paris, and Venice. In both instances, the exuviae are handled by cupids who place them on the pulvinaria. A series of Flavian coins showing thrones bearing divine attributes may refer to the display of exuviae at the opening of the Flavian amphitheater.

The three-page epilogue concludes that it is largely the element of human agency and their performative functions that characterize ceremonial sculptures and distinguish them from static cult images. The book ends with a select catalogue of inscriptions and papyri relating to the processional statuettes discussed in chapter 1 and comprehensive indices of names, places, subjects, and ancient texts.

This book is clearly of interest to art historians, social historians, and scholars of Roman religion, and Madigan has successfully combined very diverse textual and visual evidence to define his subject. The book suffers from one major drawback, which was clearly beyond the author’s control: many of the illustrations are of very poor quality or were printed in too small a size to be useful. Fortunately, Madigan’s good descriptive writing makes up for this shortcoming. He opens numerous lines of inquiry on the social and interactive nature of Roman sculpture in general. For example, this reviewer found himself continuously pondering the relationship between the large central cult images of Roman temples and ceremonial sculpture, especially given Madigan’s convincing assertion that ceremonial sculptures essentially stood in for divinities at ceremonies held outside of temples. Doubtless other readers will find similar interesting avenues for further exploration in this work.

Philip Kiernan
Department of Classics
The University at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York 14260-1660

Book Review of The Ceremonial Sculptures of the Roman Gods, by Brian Madigan

Reviewed by Philip Kiernan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Kiernan

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.