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Roman Portrait Statuary from Aphrodisias

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

Roman Portrait Statuary from Aphrodisias

By R.R.R. Smith. Pp. xiii + 393, figs. 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006. $100. ISBN 0-521-85692-2 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The impressive sculptural finds of the city of Aphrodisias in Caria will already be familiar to readers of the archaeological reports in the AJA. This small city in Asia Minor has yielded a wealth of statuary illustrating the vibrant political and cultural life of a Greek city in the Roman empire. This well-illustrated volume publishes the marble portrait statues manufactured and displayed in Aphrodisias during the Roman period. Yet this is far more than just a catalogue; it is a manifesto for a new way of studying Roman portraiture, a plea to move away from an obsession with dating and categorization dominated by central Roman models and to look instead at how such statues worked within their civic context and reflected local politics and choices (4–9). To this end, the volume is divided into two sections. While a conventional catalogue of statues makes up the bulk of the book in part 2, part 1 (written by Smith) draws from the detailed entries on individual statues to trace the different contexts in which portrait statues functioned in Aphrodisias (ch. 1) and the picture they give of the city’s honorific statue habit from the late first century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. (ch. 2).

A major concern of the book is to set the surviving statues into their full range of contexts. Past studies of portraiture have often focused on stylistic development, relating provincial pieces to portraits produced in Rome. However, Smith argues that this offers only partial explanations for the statuary produced outside Italy. Close examination of the statues reveals that they were often influenced by other, local concerns—limiting the conclusions that can be drawn from their similarity to, or difference from, central models. While some statues do show “period styles,” such as the elaborate coiffures of hair and beard characteristic of the Antonine period or female hairstyles influenced by those of the Roman court, others maintain “old-fashioned” styles that had particular, valued resonances in their local context (6–7, 52–4, 65–8). What makes this argument particularly powerful is that the book as a whole shows a close engagement with the scholarship on Roman portraiture. Individual catalogue entries are exemplary in their detailed discussions of style and technique as well as findspots and possible contexts. This is not a rejection of stylistic art history per se but a call to move beyond it to a fuller understanding of the roles portrait statues played in their ancient contexts.

One reason such a plea is possible is that the sculptures from Aphrodisias have, for the most part, reliable provenances, although some are the result of reuse in late antiquity. This allows the possibility of detailed and plausible reconstructions of ancient statuary displays (information that is sadly lacking for many of the portraits in western museums). Part 1 gives an account of the archaeological contexts (9–19) as well as reconstructions of the displays in particular buildings, well supported by drawings and plans (figs. 12, 16–18). The displays of the theater, baths, agora gate, and bouleuterion are analyzed in detail, revealing the ways in which portraits were integrated into the statuary displays of public buildings.

The form of the catalogue imposes a necessary difficulty, in that the statues are divided according to type, with male and female statues from the same findspot treated separately. The analysis of major displays in chapter 2 helps to counter this, though one still has to refer to separate parts of the catalogue for fuller discussion. It can also be frustrating that the ideal statues, which were displayed alongside portrait statues in places like the theater and bouleuterion, are not treated in any depth here; presumably constraints of size and the fact that these complexes are published elsewhere prevented this.

An excellent aspect of the volume is the discussion of the evidence of statue bases (19–28), collected in a useful appendix (75–97). These show the patterns of honorific dedication that lay behind the statues; in a few cases, surviving bases can even be paired with individual surviving statues. It is a timely reminder that the epigraphic texts and sculptural remains that we tend to study separately were, in antiquity, two parts of a composite monument. The inscriptions also reveal that while a statue was usually paid for by the city, bases were often funded by the honorand’s family or friends. The concerns of elite self-representation were clearly accommodated within the honorific statue habit.

Each catalogue entry is preceded by a brief but informative essay. These give useful overviews of different costumes that are clear and accessible to students and draw out some of the implications of the statuary types. One interesting theme that emerges is the relationship between the qualities praised in honorific inscriptions and those implied by particular statue types (briefly treated on pp. 68, 159, and 196). While definite matches of base and statue are relatively few, the material here could be the basis for further exploration of the values esteemed in elite Roman culture.

Indeed, reading the volume raises a number of questions for historians of the eastern Roman empire. Over recent decades much excellent work has been done on the literary and intellectual culture of the empire’s Greek provinces, particularly in the light of the so-called Second Sophistic. Recently, scholars have also begun to explore the roles that visual and material culture played in expressions of cultural identity. This volume contributes to the debate through its detailed exploration of the roles statues played in the civic life of Aphrodisias. Still, some areas beg for further exploration. How typical was the statue habit at Aphrodisias—of Asia Minor, or the eastern Greek provinces as a whole? There is passing mention of comparisons with other sites (117, 131, 134) but no detailed treatment.

The work raises a number of other historical issues. The relatively high numbers of female statues underline the importance of female benefactresses in Asia Minor (6, 194–96). Also, the role played by members of particular families in setting up statues to the members of other prominent families (e.g., Dometeinos and Tatiana [218–19]) illuminates complex relationships among the elite. The volume does not discuss these aspects in detail, but proof of the success of its overall message is that we are left wanting more. Historians of Roman cultural life, as well as art historians and archaeologists, will find much to stimulate them in this volume, while the painstaking collection of visual and epigraphic evidence will provide a useful resource for further research.

Zahra Newby
Department of Classics and Ancient History
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL
United Kingdom

Book Review of Roman Portrait Statuary from Aphrodisias, by R.R.R. Smith

Reviewed by Zahra Newby

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Newby

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