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The Last Statues of Antiquity

The Last Statues of Antiquity

Edited by R.R.R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins. Pp. xxxiii + 410. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016. $165. ISBN 978-0-19-875332-2 (cloth).

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The book under review comes out of the Oxford-based research project Last Statues of Antiquity (LSA), directed by the two editors between 2009 and 2012. It accompanies a freely accessible online database in which the project team meticulously compiled all evidence for the dedication or rededication between ca. 280 and 650 C.E. of about 2,800 statues. This large corpus of Late Antique statuary constitutes the book’s backbone. Indeed, as references are directly to LSA numbers in the database (where readers will find additional images, full transcriptions and translations of inscriptions, and basic but very useful discussions of individual pieces), the reader should always be connected to the Internet when consulting the book. Although the database compiles an impressive amount of material, it also has limitations. While it includes all forms of public statuary, statues of a more private or a religious nature are not systematically covered, such as mythological sculpture (including cult images) and statuettes, let alone sarcophagi, all of which of course were important representational media in late antiquity. Together, the book and database thus present a closely documented, quantifiable history of the decline and fall of that particular Roman institution of erecting honorific portraits in prominent public locations. They will surely serve as stepping-stones for all future work on this topic.

The opening two chapters constitute the book’s first part. Smith and Ward-Perkins offer introductions to Late Antique statues and their inscribed bases, respectively, including useful overviews of regional distribution, formats, main chronological developments, changes in costumes and style, and more. They should work well as introductory texts for those making their way into the topics.

The second part turns to more detailed study of individual statue regions. Its seven chapters present the extensive material collected in the LSA database, discussing inscribed statue bases and surviving statuary side by side. Since these have often been studied in isolation and require different qualifications, the juxtaposition of epigraphic and archaeological evidence is one of the chief merits of the book. Broad geographic and chronological trends in statue use are effectively illustrated by means of graphs and maps. There are large variations among the provinces as to the extent and persistence of what has been called the “statue habit.” Perhaps most surprising is the very limited evidence for Late Antique honorific sculpture in southern Gaul, a region close to Italy, including the complete absence of statuary from Arles, otherwise an important, affluent Late Antique city. Even within individual regions, such as North Africa, one finds considerable differences in statue use in late antiquity.

The third part studies individual cities where there is more ample evidence for Late Antique statuary. All are imperial or provincial capitals, except for Athens, which was always a special case because of its illustrious history. Here, graphs play a lesser role than in the previous part, as discussion proceeds to contextual analysis of individual statues within the cityscape, best documented in the statue-rich city of Aphrodisias. A case such as the so-called Asclepiodotus cycle in Gortyna on Crete demonstrates the extent to which individual agency shaped the evidence that we have from particular cities. Overall, it is clear that the statue habit could survive in conservative cities (such as Lepcis Magna), but in many parts of the Late Roman world, it quickly lost ground after the fourth century C.E.

Whereas the preceding parts of the book are clearly structured and follow a set format, the fourth and final part is more of a mixed bag, offering a selection of studies of different aspects of Late Antique sculpture, such as reuse, and focusing on particular topics (e.g., women, cultural heroes). A chapter on third-century portraiture, in which discussion of sarcophagi would have added greater nuance beyond the traditional focus on the imperial family, even extends the chronological coverage of the book as a whole. It also includes a concluding discussion of when and why statues finally fell out of fashion.

Comprehensive review of a book that offers such rich data and covers so much ground is not an easy task. By way of conclusion, I instead offer two takeaways from my reading. First, although it is generally meaningful to compare and contrast the persistence of the statue habit in different cities and regions, there are some important differences in the way that individual data sets have been assembled, not least in the case of the two imperial capitals. With its long history of antiquarian and archaeological exploration, Rome has plentiful surviving Late Antique statuary. In contrast, Constantinople, situated today beneath the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul, has only 26 statues, a very low number indeed when compared with the 160 textual references to Constantinopolitan statues compiled by LSA. This circumstance poses important methodological questions, which are acknowledged by the authors but which merit further discussion. Different traditions of publication have also shaped the corpus as presented here. In Lepcis Magna, for example, Late Antique inscriptions have been published in full, whereas the statuary itself has so far not attracted similar levels of interest (in fact, the authors note that more Late Antique sculpture here is unpublished and thus not included). Second, there is still work to do when it comes to placing the contribution of LSA within the wider history and development of Late Antique art and aesthetics (the bibliography by necessity omits much recent scholarship on this topic). Occasionally, the authors criticize long-held assumptions concerning Late Antique styles and their meanings, but they generally hold back in terms of providing a new systematic narrative. What is clear, however, is that reuse was rampant in all regions and cities. Statue bases (indeed any suitable block of marble), as well as statue heads and bodies, could be reused and provided with new identities, often repeatedly. The editors and the contributing authors are to be lauded for making it possible to perceive this and other significant trends in Late Antique statue culture at a much higher resolution than ever before.

Troels Myrup Kristensen
Aarhus University

Book Review of The Last Statues of Antiquity, edited by R.R.R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins

Reviewed by Troels Myrup Kristensen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.kristensen

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