You are here

The Marble Reliefs from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion

July 2014 (118.3)

Book Review

The Marble Reliefs from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion

By R.R.R. Smith (Aphrodisias 6). Pp. xvi + 373, figs. 275, b&w pls. 176. Philipp von Zabern, Darmstadt 2013. €89.90. ISBN 978-3-805-346054 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This magnificent volume publishes the largest corpus of Early Imperial sculpture from the Greek East, discovered mostly between 1979 and 1988. A splendid successor to Smith’s pioneering The Monument of C. Julius Zoilos (Aphrodisias 1 [Mainz 1993]), illustrated by numerous superb drawings, photomontages, and high-quality black-and-white photographs, it qualifies as a masterpiece in every respect. Even more than its immediate predecessor, Roman Portraits (Aphrodisias 2 [Mainz 2006]), it is a must for any library or serious student of Late Hellenistic and Roman art and culture, and its price is a steal.

Following a brief author’s preface, chapter 1 discusses the history of the complex from inception to rediscovery and excavation. After treating its context, function, donors, design, and execution, Smith examines its Late Antique commercial repurposing, Christian defacement, bouts of seismic and other damage, and eventual destruction in the seventh century C.E. Chapter 2 then introduces its sculptural program proper, focusing on its bifacial screen-like propylon, with its inscribed bases for portraits of the imperial family and their ancestors and surviving marble sculptures. Chapters 3–5 represent the heart of the book, treating respectively the reliefs of the North Building (series A and B, featuring Nero, the gods, and the nations of the empire); those of the South Building’s third story (series C: gods and emperors); and those of its second story (series D: heroes and their exploits). The main text concludes with chapter 6, which summarizes the project, its tendentious juxtaposition of Roman emperors and Greek heroes, and its standing as a provincial “take” on the ideology of empire. An appendix of minor fragments, a bibliography, and indexes ensue, followed by almost 200 excellent black-and-white plates.

This veritable cornucopia of riches raises far more issues and questions than can be addressed in a brief review. I touch on only a few that I consider key, omitting most points of disagreement.

  1. Context: As a thought experiment, what if some of these panels had appeared on the antiquities market, singly, minus their inscribed bases, unprovenanced, and totally without the findspot information recorded (for the most part) when they were dug up? From the “ethnic” and mythological ones alone (series B, D), or even from some of these and an imperial one or two (series A, C), what building type would we have assigned them to, and where? How would we reconstruct it? How many subjects could we identify (e.g., B1: the ethnos of the Pirousti, brilliantly discussed on p. 87; C8: Nero, headless, and Armenia; D5: Poseidon and Aineias)? How many sequences could we put together (e.g., B2–B4: Dacians, Bessi, and Krētē, reunited with their inscribed bases via trial mountings [89]; C28–C30: Asklepios, Claudius, Ruler of Land and Sea, Hygieia)? How many panels would we instinctively date well outside the Julio-Claudian era (e.g., the very “Severan”-looking C9 Neikē Sebastōn [144])? And finally, how many building periods for this mysterious lost monument would we conjecture? Enough said.
  2. Evidence, exposition, and integration: In this era of theoretical and methodological sophistication, it is sometimes forgotten that the first duty of the historian and the archaeologist is to display the evidence. Smith publishes the Sebasteion’s architecture, inscriptions, and sculptures together (though not its pottery, coins, and small finds, which would have created a monster, and in any case they pertain to its use phases, not its construction and reconstruction); documents every significant fragment with full descriptions, drawings, and photographs; and writes in clear, lucid prose. With all the evidence properly displayed in checkable form (e.g., B2–B4, noted above), we can assess his conclusions and reconstructions rationally and objectively. He produces no rabbits from his vast stock of hats and hides none either.
  3. Technique: Smith devotes a dense section of chapter 1 to the processes of carving, lifting, and fitting the reliefs (37–41, fig. 14 [a superb exploded drawing]) and includes thorough technical descriptions with the catalogue entries for each inscription, panel, and fragment. Many details of interest to specialists, however, such as the faceting of Claudius’ torso (C29 [39]), unfortunately are not illustrated, presumably for economy’s sake (pls. 88 and 89 show only the full panel and the heads). The number of carvers, workshop size(s), and apportionment of the work are touched on in a few short paragraphs (revisited 310–11) that may provoke others to dive in where Smith has preferred to paddle. Possible optical corrections (e.g., C29’s torso [171, 193, pl. 88]; cf. C24: Roma) and paint traces are not discussed at all here, and paint only rarely in the catalogue (e.g., D41: Atalante [259–60]).
  4. Iconography: The Nero and pantheon reliefs (series A), peoples and places (series B), imperial family (series C), and mythological scenes (series D) each expand our knowledge of these genres and their histories, often in unexpected ways. Thus, for example, A1 (Nero and Agrippina/Fortuna/Agathē Tychē) reworks the iconography of imperial succession for a Greek provincial audience; and A2 (Hēmera) appropriates the cascading “waterfall” drapery of the Pheidian Aphrodite Ourania and its successors—an allusion that Smith uncharacteristically misses but Aphrodisians probably would have caught through its wide diffusion via Rhodes (see A. Stewart, “Hellenistic Freestanding Sculpture from the Athenian Agora, Part 1: Aphrodite,” Hesperia 81 [2012] 272–73, 288–98). B1 (ethnos of the Pirousti) is a hapax; B2 (Dacians) may share a common source with the famous Hadrianic series in Rome; and B3 (Bessi) doubles our examples of this obscure subject. The C series greatly enhances our knowledge of the second, Julio-Claudian, stage in the syncretism of Early Imperial and heroic/divine iconography. Thus, C8 (Nero-Armenia) and C10 (Claudius-Britannia) both ingeniously rework the Late Hellenistic Achilles-Penthesileia group, which surely stood somewhere in Asia Minor (pace 146: in both cases, Achilles wears a pseudo-heroic Attic helmet, not a Corinthian one); the emperor in C18 combines an Alexander type, Ofellius or his ilk, and (the Andros-Farnese) Hermes—and his sidekick provokes a brief but rewarding discussion on distinguishing Dēmos, Synklētos, and Genius (158); and C29 (Claudius, Ruler of Land and Sea) is simply breathtaking. Finally, some mythological scenes (series D) are standard, such as D4 (flight of Aeneas, but surely with Kreousa’s ghost, not Aphrodite [205], since she has no feet, rests her right hand on Iulus’ shoulder, and makes the bridal anakalypsis gesture with her left hand [misunderstood in the text and fig. 164]). Others are completely new. They include D1 (Ninos?; note his barbarian-style chiton-himation combination, shaggy beard, and heroic circlet—not “a flat fillet or diadem” [100]); D3 (young Anchises and Aphrodite); and D5 (Poseidon and Aeneas, who [contra 207] suggestively wears a priest’s ankle-length sleeved chiton; so is the Poseidon a statue, as the dolphin on the ship [a support?] would suggest?). Others are compositionally novel (e.g., D12, D14: Deianeira, goddess [Atē?], centaurs); and several evoke the lost glories of Hellenistic painting (D21: Agon; D28: Polyphemos-Galateia; D29: Io-Argos; D31: Apollo; D34: Orestes at Delphi; D37: Herakles-Antaios [cf. Philostr., Imag. 2.21]; D40, D41: Meleager; D43: Herakles-Prometheus; D44: nymphs and child Dionysos; D45: Achilles-Penthesileia, not derived from the Hellenistic sculptural group; D46: Herakles-Telephos). Were D3–D5 (the Aeneas cycle) borrowed from Roman painting?
  5. Interpretation: The three central chapters all include lengthy (but not prolix) synopses of the comparanda and interpretive discussions that should be required reading for every serious student of Late Hellenistic and Roman art. They include “Peoples of Empire at Aphrodisias and Rome” (120–31), which subtly distinguishes eastern from western perspectives on this theme—a leitmotif of this book; “Gods and Emperors” (189–95)—though “allegories” (in a standard dictionary definition, “figurative treatments of one subject under the guise of another,” i.e., riddles) these scenes are not; “pageants” might be a better term. As for their more stridently encomiastic character than Early Imperial metropolitan relief, the comparison with engraved gems and cameos such as the Augustus-Neptune in Boston, the Gemma Augustea, and the Grand Camée (193) is apt and invites further pursuit, for both are quintessentially Hellenistic. “Myths and Heroes” (291–307) and “Roman Emperors and Greek Heroes” (309–14) together convincingly stress the polyvalence of the themes chosen; renounce the usual hunt for overarching iconographic programs; and substitute a more flexible (and historically plausible) strategy of situating the emperors firmly and comprehensively in the rich and diverse world of Hellenism, its traditions, cults, and culture.
  6. Style: The Sebasteion’s dazzling array of classical and Hellenistic sculptural styles is unparalleled in the Greek East. This is partly due to its huge size (originally it included no fewer than 206 panels, of which 94 survive) and partly to its chronological and cultural position on the cusp between “Hellenistic” and “Roman.” Many reliefs, however, evidence a certain loss of fluency and display even a stiltedness that Smith recognizes particularly in the “imperial” reliefs (series A–C [192–93, 298]) but also seems to infiltrate some of the mythological ones (e.g., D8: Hero and Apollo; D37: Herakles and Antaios). So is this phenomenon merely genre-bound? Is it a result of needing to hire so many carvers so quickly? Or is it a creeping side effect of the dominance of imperial neoclassicism—a growing taste for monumentality and formality across the board? Regardless, Smith’s exploration of this transitional moment between Greek/Hellenistic and Roman imperial art is truly a monumentum aere perennius.

Andrew Stewart
Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology
Departments of History of Art and Classics
University of California Berkeley
Berkeley, California 94720

Book Review of The Marble Reliefs from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion, by R.R.R. Smith

Reviewed by Andrew Stewart

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Stewart

Add new comment

Plain text

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