You are here

The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices

Edited by Troels Myrup Kristensen and Lea Margaret Stirling. Pp. vi + 424. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2016. $85. ISBN 978-0-47211-969-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The fate of sculpture in late antiquity has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. The creation of Late Antique sculptural collections and the preservation, reuse, and destruction of classical statues are now acknowledged as essential issues in the agendas of archaeologists and art historians alike. And yet, there is much to be done, as this stimulating book edited by Kristensen and Stirling shows. As the editors observe, scholars frequently overlook the long and rich history of statues, from their original context of display until their recovery and restoration by modern archaeologists. Between their original exhibition in a forum and their display as part of a modern collection, statues were moved, hidden, stored, broken, physically changed, and resignified. The period between the end of the third and the end of the sixth century C.E. played a pivotal role in this process, and this is what the chapters gathered in this volume analyze.

The book is divided into three parts, following an introduction that presents the issues discussed with admirable theoretical clarity. The life history of objects is the subject of intensive examination in other spheres of archaeology but is unjustifiably neglected by classical archaeologists. There is a general history of sculpture in late antiquity, from admiration and attempts at preservation in the fourth century to a growing lack of interest until the interruption of its production in the late sixth century, as Kristensen and Stirling point out. The first section is dedicated to different forms of deposition and reuse of statues, including the scrapping of bronze in Britain, the burning of marble in lime kilns in western villas (Munro, in one of the richest contributions to the volume), and the impact of earthquakes in eastern cities. These chapters sharpen our focus on the formation processes of the archaeological record that we frequently take for granted and on how much we accept uncritically from textual sources, especially with regard to earthquakes (Kristensen).

The second section, “Regional Perspectives,” presents aspects of the reuse of statues or their movement to new settings, providing sophisticated and up-to-date discussions of specific cases. The resulting picture is inevitably unequal: the quality of the evidence (and its publication) makes the chapters on Sagalassos, Athens, Corinth, and Ostia stand out. There is good information about the fate of earlier statues and the dedication of new monuments, especially honorific ones, in these cities. Statues continued to be valued until a late date, playing an important role in the cityscape. As the authors show, the history of sculpture in late antiquity is intimately connected to the physical and cultural evolutions of the cities and urban populations that commissioned and interacted with them. In the case of Sagalassos, for example, Jacobs convincingly suggests that statuary previously on display in large houses was moved to public contexts. Murer’s discussion of the reuse of funerary sculpture in Ostia argues for a movement in a different direction: with the abandonment of traditional funerary areas, commissioners of statues gained access to an important source of material, and they used it to embellish baths as well as houses. The evidence is much poorer for Sicily, Germany, and the Danube, but here, too, the authors manage to indicate the diversity of practices that determined the fate of ancient statuary in this period, from destruction to hoarding. Although the picture that emerges from these chapters is hardly surprising, such as a stronger continuity in more “classical” parts of the Mediterranean, the wealth of information and the variety of attitudes toward the sculpture inherited from earlier periods is fascinating.

Section 3, “Grand Narratives,” contains four ambitious takes on the general evolution of the statue habit in late antiquity. Stirling analyzes two specific contexts—baths and villas—showing how even within a city, statues could experience very different fates. Anderson analyzes the decline of imperial statues, suggesting that it was a societal change that led to their demise. This is an interesting idea that deserves proper investigation, but his reliance on Stichel’s 1982 catalogue of imperial images is problematic, and one wonders whether imperial images can really be treated in isolation from other honorific portraits. An exciting avenue for interpretation is opened by Liverani’s study “The Sunset of 3D,” which argues that the decline in the production of statues should be seen in the context of a renewed interest for “2D” representations, such as mosaics and frescoes. Although causation cannot be proved, the correlation between the two processes is too interesting to be ignored. The book ends with a discussion of later travelers’ accounts and what they reveal about the fate of ancient sculpture. This is an interesting read that, although it does not help explain why attitudes to statues changed in late antiquity and offers only partial insight into how these attitudes changed, effectively shows how this source material can enhance our picture of postclassical attitudes.

It would be impossible in this short space to do justice to the wealth of information and the exciting new perspectives offered by this rich and well-illustrated book. Equally, there are points with which one might disagree, and the evidence available is not uniformly adequate for the interpretations proposed. In some cases, such as in the introduction and Anderson’s chapter, it is unfortunate that the information made available in the Last Statues of Antiquity database was not incorporated, as this would have added to the complexity of the picture being discussed. And yet this book stands out from the competition in inviting its readers to rethink not only the role of statues in late antiquity but also how the archaeological record that informs this discussion was produced in the first place.

Carlos Machado
School of Classics
University of St Andrews

Book Review of The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture: Late Antique Responses and Practices, edited by Troels Myrup Kristensen and Lea Margaret Stirling

Reviewed by Carlos Machado

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.machado

Add new comment

Plain text

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