You are here

The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming Public Space

The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming Public Space

By Gregor Kalas (The Ashley and Peter Larkin Series in Greek and Roman Culture). Pp. xv + 228, figs. 101. University of Texas Press, Austin 2015. $60. ISBN 978-0-292-76078-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

No area embodies the greatness of the city of Rome and the Roman empire more than the Forum Romanum. Yet, millions of modern visitors every year are often left disappointed, as its densely packed but badly preserved remains are extremely difficult to comprehend. The problem is the greatest for the period under consideration in Kalas’ book, since the effects of time have been compounded by the particular research goals of many of its vigorous excavators, for whom the reconstruction of Rome’s Romulean and Augustan ages took precedence over understanding its functions and importance in the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods.

The last 15 years have seen a multitude of projects aiming to rectify this situation, among them the UCLA Digital Roman Forum project and its spin-off Visualizing Statues, created by the author of this monograph. Indeed, chapters 3 and 4 of the book are ideally read in conjunction with the website, which offers additional illustrations as well as an alternative presentation of Kalas’ research results. In the book itself, the Late Antique interventions to the forum are presented both chronologically and thematically. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss, respectively, all Tetrarchic and Constantinian interventions in the forum. The third chapter examines interventions from Constantius to the year 476 C.E., whereas the fourth focuses on the creation of open-air museums along the facades of the Basilica Aemilia and Basilica Julia by the senators of Rome. Chapter 5 deals with the restoration of temples in the Forum Romanum (the Porticus Deorum Consentium, Temple of Saturn, Temple of Vesta), and chapter 6 with changes made to the Senate House in late antiquity and how these reflect relations between pagan and Christian elites.

Many of the monuments and hypotheses discussed in this monograph have already featured in earlier publications. Thus, Bauer’s Stadt, Platz und Denkmal in der Spätantike (Mainz 1996) and Machado’s “Building the Past: Monuments and Memory in the Forum Romanum” (in W. Bowden, A. Gutteridge, and C. Machado, eds., Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity. Late Antique Archaeology 3.1 [Leiden 2006] 157–92) have been important sources of inspiration. Kalas succeeds in bringing everything together in a coherent whole, making much scholarship available in English for the first time. One of his major contributions unsurprisingly is the careful and lively manner in which the separate Late Antique building operations and statuary dedications in the forum are reconstructed. Identifying the original locations of statuary bases is no easy task. Kalas masterfully intertwines physical remains still visible today, records of older excavations, and literary sources to both locate and explain interventions. His discussion of how the relations between imperial rulers and the senate of Rome, as well as among the emperors themselves, were eternalized in stone is insightful and at the very least provocative. Constantine’s appearance as sole ruler on the Arch of Constantine when he in fact was still co-ruling the empire is a splendid example, as are the less than impressive monuments for members of the Valentinian dynasty that resulted from poor imperial-senatorial relations.

Kalas’ introduction of the metaphor of literary “revision”—to envision how emperors and senators altered, updated, added to, or even partially erased achievements of predecessors but never made them disappear entirely—is most useful in explaining how the past was received in late antiquity. The related discussion of the different perceptions of time propagated by rulers—cyclical renewal under the Tetrarchs, the present as an addendum to the past under Constantine—is equally intriguing, though this line of thought is not explored in consistent depth throughout the book. In Kalas’ mind there is little doubt that restoration was considered more important and more prestigious than new building. The trend was set by emperors, who are perceived to be restorers of peaceful and calm times, and quickly picked up by senators. Consequently, the reuse of older building materials is not only entirely acceptable but also unavoidably ideologically charged. In some cases, such as the monument dedicated to Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius I by an urban prefect of Rome, there is no denying this. The simple reused epistyle block carrying the statues could easily have been substituted with a more magnificent carrier. At other times, the ideological argument is less convincing. It is difficult to believe, for instance, that reusing granite columns available at or near the Temple of Saturn was not simply an attractive cheap alternative to ordering a very expensive new porch. Furthermore, the color difference between the gray and flanking pink monoliths is not so obvious that one can justifiably say that it “reinforces the expression of recomposition” (135).

There is no denying that the major drive behind Late Antique interventions on the Forum Romanum was imperial and senatorial self-representation. Senators could purchase prestige by relocating artworks to the forum, which did not require a dedication to the emperor and thus could proudly display their name alone. They also attached their names to the restoration of the forum’s temples. Kalas’ fascinating observations on the poorly understood transitional phases of temples in late antiquity, such as the outdoor display of cult statues in front of their original cellae in the fourth century, will have wider resonance in temple research elsewhere in the empire. The grandest Late Antique interventions on the Forum Romanum were, however, dedicated to imperial rulers. Written records on how exactly the decision-making process behind such “imperial” interventions came about have not been preserved, so the issue remains open to speculation. Kalas argues that only in rare cases, such as with the statues of Stilicho, were explicit orders sent out from the imperial court to be endorsed by the senate; normally, senators would take the initiative. Therefore, in his view, the Arch of Constantine was also conceived by the senate of Rome.

At times, a broader perspective, integrating comparisons to contemporary interventions in capitals other than Rome, would have been desirable. That this approach can be very illuminating is proven by the examination of the original dedication of the column of Phocas, which is compared to those on the imperial fora in Constantinople. Likewise, one would have expected more references to related research projects such as Oxford’s Last Statues of Antiquity. Nonetheless, this book is a major achievement, well constructed and richly illustrated. It offers much for students and scholars interested in the eternal city. In addition, it will be of importance to diverse research fields, including the study of honorific statuary, spolia and their meaning, the appearance and placement of Late Antique statuary, Late Antique temple usage, pagan-Christian elite relations, and so on.

Ine Jacobs
The Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies
Oxford University

Book Review of The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming Public Space, by Gregor Kalas

Reviewed by Ine Jacobs

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Jacobs

Add new comment

Plain text

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