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Using Images in Late Antiquity

Using Images in Late Antiquity

Edited by Stine Birk, Troels Myrup Kristensen, and Birte Poulsen. Pp. viii + 312, figs. 65, color pls. 32, tables 4. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2014. $65. ISBN 978-1-78297-261-7 (paper).

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The volume under review presents the third and final part of the research program “Art and Social Identities in Late Antiquity” (, hosted by the Department of Classical Archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark. The organizers invited 14 scholars to contribute to the conference and discuss different perspectives and perceptions of representation and images in late antiquity. Topics on visual media include epigraphy, mosaics, sculpture, sarcophagi, and architecture, covering topographical regions from the eastern part of the empire (Levant and Jordan) to the west (Spain). All contributions are written in English, except for the articles by Liverani and Marcone, which are written in Italian.

The first paper (Liverani [3–32]) deals with aspects of frontality in visual art. Taking examples of monumental epigraphy, the author elaborates two different classifications for using frontal images: the function of a type of deictic and consulting or catechizing (“interpellante” [3–4]), sampling the figure of Christ who addresses the people. He establishes a typology (“tipologia enunciazionale” [11]) referring to the iconographic scheme and discusses several epigraphic samples in detail.

Birk (33–47) analyzes images on Roman sarcophagi in the context of self-representation. She elaborates two main topics concerning the knowledge of the deceased “through sarcophagus imagery” and “the use of images in construction of identity” (44). Birk discusses images of mythological figures with portraits and highlights the intended construction of postmortem identities to commemorate individuals in a very personal way by using stock motives (e.g., Endymion, Dionysos, Penthesilea, Ariadne), whereas individuals on Christian sarcophagi prefer, for example, the orans type. The erection of Roman sarcophagi mainly in tombs underlines the private character of images (see K. Meinecke, Sarcophagum posuit: Römische Steinsarkophage im Kontext [Ruhpolding 2014]).

Varner (48–77), too, discusses the question of pagan and Christian, in terms of the representation of imperial identity. The author emphasizes images of Maxentius and Constantine. Both emperors have been discussed by scholars as rivals in terms of pagan vs. Christian and in characteristic forms of rulership. Varner elaborates the reusing of several monuments and portraits of Constantine’s predecessors in establishing his own imperial identity, which is most distinct in the reliefs of the Arch of Constantine.

Bassett (78–95) addresses honorific sculptures in Constantinople, including statues and portraits of honorable persons as well as identified imperial images and unidentified portraits. The author cites a number of images—togati, chlamydati, and portraits—in the context of representation of urban history in Late Roman Constantinople.

Stirling (96–114) examines the long life of sculptures in late antiquity. She focuses on statuary assemblages in Late Antique villas in Constantinople and approaches the complexity of the study by examining written sources, original statues, and the sculptural evidence in Late Antique baths and villas. We learn that the “long life” of statues in public places applies also to ideal sculpture in late antiquity (see also R.R.R. Smith and B. Ward-Perkins, Last Statues of Antiquity [Oxford (forthcoming)]).

Basarrate (115–31) presents the evidence of Late Antique sculpture in the western province of Hispania with a focus on Augusta Emerita. The author gives an overview of the preserved material of Late Roman sculpture from different sites and findspots. Portraits, sculptures (ideal sculpture and statues), a fragment of a relief featuring a victory over barbarians, and a well parapet represent various pieces of sculptural material in an official and (mostly) domestic context.

Jacobs (132–49) undertakes a broader approach to the pagan vs. Christian evidence in the Theodosian period. She examines how Christians handled pagan architecture, including Roman temples in Constantinople and Asia Minor. As scholars already know from the evidence of excavation results, some of the pagan temples fell into ruin or have been destroyed (e.g., by hand or by earthquake). Yet, as the author points out, several temples were reused and converted and secularized, and lots of temple buildings remained intact because of their location.

Malmberg (150–89) observes the context of architecture—especially gates—as a medium of victorious imperial representation and military might on various kinds of imageries in Constantinople and Italy (mainly Ravenna and Rome). The author cites archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographical evidence as well as written sources to highlight the power of representation and paths of connecting cities and hinterland.

Dey (190–208) focuses on the visualization of Late Antique metropolises on mosaics in the Levant, which are important historical documents of city imagery. He discusses samples from the sixth century—for example, the well-known mosaics in the church of St. John in Gerasa and the so-called Madaba Mosaic Map from St. George’s Church in Madaba.

Poulsen (209–26) analyzes images of personified cities in late antiquity. She stresses the heterogeneous iconography of city personifications, which in most cases cannot be identified without inscriptions. The author also gives an overview of multiple city personifications and various kinds of images of the main cities (e.g., Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria). Comparative studies on images of representation of cities lead to the result that a kind of iconographic hierarchy among the images of city personifications indicates a tributary to Rome. New images were created in late antiquity and often placed in a medallion. In addition to all the efforts regarding the selection of the cities that lead to “individual possibilities” of interpretation, we should also consider an alternative, such as contacts or trade links to specific cities that motivated a patron to present a certain city personification.

Dunbabin (227–52) covers mythological scenes on mosaic pavements in Antioch and the context of myths and theater. She emphasizes the role of Euripidean tragedies as inspiring patterns for more or less direct illustrations of the texts. The author concludes that some mythological figures (e.g., Meleager, Atalante, Achilles) are depicted as role models and refer to a persistent cultural system.

Marcone (253–67) debates the classical tradition of images and Christian iconography and the nexus of identity presented on mosaics and silver plates. The author discusses mythological and divine figures, genre scenes, and waterscapes—striking samples of classical iconography.

Kristensen (268–82) approaches images in late antiquity by focusing on column monuments. He addresses the columns as a “topos” of idolatry and brings in various samples such as sculptural images, paintings, and the monumental funerary column at Yaat. The combination of Christian images and pagan monuments and the enduring tradition of column monuments as such are remarkable.

Finally, Meinecke (283–300) presents the very fine ornaments and figures on the fragile cut-stone facade of Qasr al-Mshatta in Jordan. She points to the iconographic tradition of Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian ornaments and depictions on the facade of the Umayyad Winter Palace, which are visible, for example, in the inhabited scrolls and tendrils. Furthermore, Meinecke points out the uniqueness of the Mshatta facade regarding the combination of iconographic patterns from Roman architectural ornaments and Sasanian stucco decoration.

A geographical index and indices of individual names and sources are placed at the end of the written text. Black-and-white figures appear in the main content, whereas color plates are found at the end of the book.

The title of the conference “Using Images in Late Antiquity” opens up a wide range of topics from different points of view. Overall, the volume can be defined as a substantial publication providing insight into the imagery and the long life of ancient traditions of topics and monuments in late antiquity. This volume will attract not only scholars with a focus on late antiquity but also an academic audience specializing in Graeco-Roman periods.

Alice Landskron
University of Vienna

Book Review of Using Images in Late Antiquity, edited by Stine Birk, Troels Myrup Kristensen, and Birte Poulsen

Reviewed by Alice Landskron

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Landskron

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