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Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture: Functions, Aesthetics, Interpretations

Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture: Functions, Aesthetics, Interpretations

Edited by Diana Y. Ng and Molly Swetnam-Burland, eds. Pp. xv + 275. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $105. ISBN 978-1-108-47389-7 (cloth).

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This volume explores diachronic histories of Roman material culture, engaging the evolution of select works of art and architecture in the years, even centuries, after their creation. The book presents eight analyses of reuse and renovation, drawn from a range of media, from both the eastern and western Mediterranean, and from both public and private contexts. The essays are grouped into two chronologically ordered sections. Longfellow, Laird, Keesling, and Ossi examine material from the first and second centuries CE. Dumser, Ogus, Kalas, and Bonde address appropriations from across the early fourth to 12th centuries. All essays take a broad view to reveal changes to works’ symbolism and function over time.

The chapters by Longfellow and Laird engage with reused portrait statues and their display contexts, in Pompeii and Ostia, respectively. Both authors note that while many discussions of such reuse focus on examples tied to damnatio memoriae, those portraits damaged or destroyed to erase one’s memory are a small subcategory of a larger body of works that were refashioned for other reasons (30). Longfellow’s essay, therefore, problematizes the negative connotations attributed to a reused honorific statue or its inscription and instead highlights the positive associative value that can be recognized. A case in point is the imperial statue repurposed and transformed into Marcus Holconius Rufus, a prominent Pompeian magistrate. The statue’s reuse, Longfellow suggests, might have enhanced its symbolism and visual power, so much so that the very fact of the statue’s former identity as an imperial portrait would have been an honor for the Holconii family (35–40).

Laird examines the iterative statue assemblages at the Caserma dei Vigili at Ostia, where 13 pedestals honored second- and third-century CE emperors and their families. She explains that by deliberately appropriating one of the last pedestals of the group (originally dedicated to an individual whose identity is no longer known but whom Laird identifies as Lucius Verus) and repurposing it to honor Septimius Severus, the vigiles successfully integrated Severus into the previous line of “good” Antonine emperors (58–74). Like Longfellow, Laird offers a critique of scholarship that explains such reuse as the outcome of damnatio memoriae, emphasizing that erasure of memory was not the guiding consideration when choosing a particular statue base for Severus’ statue. Instead, Laird argues that it was the base’s symbolic meaning and its positive associations that made it well suited for reuse (56). The base, in her view, was selected because of its expressive ability to physically and conceptually stress Severus’ retrospective adoption into the Antonine dynasty.

Keesling’s study of four different epigraphies associated with the appropriation of Greek sculptors’ works and names in the Roman period illustrates the myriad ways in which a Greek statue could be reinterpreted over time. In Rome and the West, a famous artist’s signature (say of Myron or Polykleitos) could be used to refer either to Greek originals of the Classical period or later productions in a classical style (94–99). In the Greek East, meanwhile, reinscribed portraits on the Athenian Acropolis suggest to Keesling that such practices encouraged Athenian viewers to consider analogies between the past and present when viewing a portrait statue of an earlier period and seeing the name of a contemporary Roman inscribed on the base (101).

Such links between past and present are the focus of Ossi’s chapter, which proposes that retrospective elements in the design and decoration of Hadrianic arches at Pisidian Antioch and Eleusis collapsed time by establishing links between the second century CE and deliberate points of reference in the past. Ossi notes that these Hadrianic borrowings are conceptual rather than literal. At Pisidian Antioch, for instance, the various decorative components of the new arch evoked those of the Augustan one nearby, while not actually using building materials from the latter (114–23). One is reminded here of Keesling’s contribution and the notional rather than real links between some famous Greek archetypes and their appropriations by Rome. Like other examples of reuse cited in the volume, then, such borrowings are interpreted to bridge a temporal gap, in this case establishing favorable comparisons between Hadrian and earlier rulers such as Augustus.

Contra Ossi’s view of calculated ties between present and past, Dumser challenges the idea that architectural reuse was intended in every case to create and communicate messages of continuity, endurance, or imperial legitimacy, given the “dauntingly high” (146) level of visual literacy such messages would have required of the Roman viewer. Dumser examines the reuse of cut stone elements in three case studies in Late Imperial Rome, noting that the practice of such reuse dates back to the Late Republic and demonstrates the high value Romans of all periods placed on prized materials (140). She argues that pragmatic reasons could drive the reuse of materials in even imperial and senatorial commissions like the Arch of Constantine, which was constructed almost entirely of repurposed architectural and decorative elements. Dumser questions whether such reuse would have been intended to connect Constantine with a cast of “good” emperors and suggests that while such ideological readings may be a credible consequence of an architectural practice that used the best available materials for their secondary context, ideological interpretations were not the main motivation of such a practice of reuse (148). In so doing, Dumser offers a new interpretive framework that expands on previous studies of spolia.

Ogus examines Christian engagement with pagan imagery at Aphrodisias and the conflicting impulses to destroy and preserve aspects of the city’s classical culture. Her analysis of select urban transformations, for instance of the Temple of Aphrodite and Tetrapylon, shows that interventions were planned to uphold a balance between Christian authority and pagan tradition. There are echoes of Dumser’s practical thinking, as for example when Ogus notes that economic factors may explain why Christians built a new church on the same spot as, and with the materials from, a pagan temple (173; cf. 180 on the city walls). Most of her essay, however, is concerned with the paradox of a classical legacy that was both threatening and valuable.

The “ambiguous attitude” (161)—simultaneously aggressive in its impulse to modify and conservative in its desire to maintain classical heritage—identified by Ogus foreshadows some of the themes of Kalas’ chapter on Santa Maria Antiqua at the base of the Palatine hill. Kalas argues that the site reveals Pope John VII’s (705–707 CE) dual interests in historical topography and contemporary theological positions. As he demonstrates, the pope’s renovation of Santa Maria Antiqua and reoccupation of the nearby Domus Tiberiana effectively co-opted associations of imperial power and shifted them to John himself, even as he reconciled the Church with Constantinopolitan policies (203). Santa Maria Antiqua, therefore, reveals how Church leaders drew on ancient symbolism when converting monuments and spaces to new purposes.

With Bonde’s essay, the emphasis remains the afterlives of certain spaces, in this case the amphitheater at Tarragona, today also home to the remains of a Christian church. Bonde explores the amphitheater’s rich history and later appropriations and shows that at Tarragona the past was deliberately and continuously remembered, so much so that the amphitheater became an essential part of the community’s evolving social memory (209). For successive generations, the Roman structure came to be valued less as a venue for spectacle and more as the locus of martyrdom of a local saint, Fructuosus (225). As such, the amphitheater was absorbed into new social and functional contexts as a Christian church where past and present poignantly elide.

All the contributors to this volume elucidate various ways in which the past—its art, its architecture, its topography, its connotations—can be pluralized. Reused and renovated objects and spaces can be understood not as erasures of an ancient or pagan history but rather as opportunities: opportunities for fictive continuity, for peaceful coexistence, or for nuanced redefinition. Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture, therefore, offers a useful reminder that there is much to be gained by looking past the single, original phase of a given monument and considering instead its multiple iterations and meanings.

Not all information being presented in the book is new. To a reader familiar with Aphrodisias, for instance, many of Ogus’ case studies are well known; Christian interventions to the Sebasteion complex, for instance, have been documented by R.R.R. Smith (“Defacing the Gods at Aphrodisias,” in B. Dignas and R.R.R. Smith, eds., Historical and Religious Memory in the Ancient World [Oxford 2012] 283–326). Yet, all the chapters synthesize previous scholarship with new material or methodologies in order to present the authors’ conclusions in a readily accessible manner for the advanced undergraduate or graduate student. Together, the case studies in this volume enrich our understanding of the ways in which imperial Romans and early Christians could express their contemporary cultural, social, and religious identities through a strategic reuse, and refashioning, of their past.

Maryl B. Gensheimer
Department of Art History and Archaeology
University of Maryland

Book Review of Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture: Functions, Aesthetics, Interpretations, edited by Diana Y. Ng and Molly Swetnam-Burland
Reviewed by Maryl B. Gensheimer
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Gensheimer

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