It’s been quite a week for polychromy (the multicoloured painting of ancient sculpture). First I got into something of an initially heated, but in the end rather good-natured debate, when I suggested on Twitter that maybe some people were perhaps jumping the gun a bit in now assuming that all Greek and Roman sculptures must have been painted. Ok we now know that they weren’t all gleaming white marble but how much do we really know about how often statues were painted? Then just a few days later an interesting article appeared in the New Yorker, which dealt with the subject in quite some depth and has been deservedly widely shared on social media.
It’s been a while since I found any time to write a blog post. I left off weeks ago after having delivered just one of my promised series of posts on interesting things I saw in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (in August!!!). So, to return to where I left off and to serve as a prelude to a piece (or pieces) I’m now planning to write with some thoughts I’ve had this week on the issue of ancient polychromy here’s a short piece about a rather curious piece of modern sculpture I saw in the museum – a grave monument from the early 19th Century.
The museum label reads: “Tomb monument to Otto Westengaard. Painted plaster cast after coloured drawing by Hermann Ernst Freund. 1837.” I confess I hadn’t previously heard of Freund but he was a disciple of Thorvaldsen’s and quite a famous painter in his day. Some of his statues are on display in the Glyptotek, including an impressive seated Thor, and I’d seen those before I arrived at this piece. My internet searches have failed, however, to find out any information at all about who Otto Westengaard was. He’s presumably the one listed on this genealogy site as living 1763-1835 (though that does make it hard to explain why his date of birth on the side of the monument is given as 1764!) but I’ve got no idea how important he was or why Freund was commissioned to make his gravestone. What caught my eye, however, was what the monument looks like.
It’s clearly inspired by grave monuments from Classical Athens like the one above: the shape of the stelai, the delicate relief of the girl, who seems to be filling an oil lamp, the two rosettes. I’ve seen sphinxes in the round topping grave monuments in the Kerameikos Museum in Athens. The usually stand sideways atop the monument. The two-bodied one still strikes me as a bit fanciful but today I at least found a fairly close parallel for a sphinx carved in relief looking directly forward on a 4th century grave monument.
Coming from the high point of Neoclassicism the form of the monument is therefore not surprising. What did surprise me about it, however, were the vivid colours.
Although, as the New Yorker piece points out people have known about traces of pigment on ancient sculpture for centuries but tended to downplay it’s significance. It’s only very recently that opinion has begun to tip in favour of the idea that painting statues was common in antiquity – perhaps too far but that’s something I want to come back to in my next piece. Neoclassical sculptors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists like Freund, Thorvaldsen and, perhaps most famous of all, Canova are strongly associated with a belief in the pure whiteness of Greek and Roman statues. They sought to emulate this ideal in their own Classically inspired works, which in turn played a role in reinforcing the idea that ancient artwork was devoid of culture.
So what made Freund decide to paint Westengaard’s grave monument?
I’d be curious to know whether this was the decision of the artist or the patron. Perhaps even more interesting would be to know where he got the idea that a Classical Greek gravestone could be painted. All of the pieces of ancient sculpture for which I’ve heard pigment was known about before the twentieth century were statues not relief sculpture but this piece suggests some awareness that Classical grave stelai could be painted, something for which concrete evidence is now known. The vividness – to put it less kindly – the gaudiness of the colours comes close to some of the fairly recent and now quite famous reconstructions of ancient sculpture by Vinzenz Brinkmann, seen in the travelling “Gods in Colour” exhibition which I’ve been lucky enough to catch in both Athens and Oxford. (It’s certainly far less subtle than John Gibson’s so-called “Tinted Venus“, mentioned by the New Yorker piece and which generated so much controversy in the 1850s as one of the first Neoclassical sculptures to attempt to replicate ancient polychromy.)
Yet, if we compare Freunds’ grave monument with a reconstruction of a Classical grave stele that featured in Brinkman’s exhibition (see above) the palette is completely different. The red background against which the girl is set is reminiscent of some of the famous wall paintings from Pompeii which I suspect could have been an inspiration here but where did the idea for all that yellow come from? Had Freund perhaps seen an ancient tomb marker that preserved traces of that colour? And if so, where had he seen it? Although some Classical grave monuments had made their way to Italy in the time of the Roman Empire they weren’t copied like statues in the round and therefore don’t exist in the country in anything like the same numbers. Greece at the time Freund made Westengaard’s gravestone had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire so although excavations wouldn’t begin in the Kerameikos for another three and a half decades it is conceivable that Freund might have seen or known about a coloured stele discovered at around that time somewhere in Greece. On the other hand, perhaps it was nothing more than a fantasy.
Another interesting question is what did people make of this grave stone when they saw it in the 1830s? It’s unclear from the museum display whether the monument itself was ever actually completed and, if so, where it is or whether it retained the colours of the plaster cast and drawing. Was Otto Westengaard really buried beneath a gravestone that looked like this? And if so, does the real monument still exist anywhere? (And these aren’t just rhetorical questions. If anyone knows I’d be very glad to know!)
This piece of sculpture raises more questions than I can answer here but intriguingly it hints that knowledge of ancient polychromy and attitudes toward the possibility of ancient sculpture being painted were more complex in the early 19th century than we generally now tend to suppose.
One of the highlights of the visit was coming face to face with the famous bust of Pompey (or Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to give him his full name), one of Rome’s leading generals in the declining years of the Republic and the arch enemy of Julius Caesar. I later found out (through Twitter) that without knowing it I’d chosen a very appropriate day to see the bust because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Pharsalos (in 48 BC, in Thessaly, Greece) when Caesar definitively defeated Pompey and he fled to Egypt where he was murdered by an Egyptian faction seeking to curry favour with Caesar. That led to Caesar becoming sole ruler of Rome only to end up being brutally murdered himself a few years later by group of senatorial conspirators seeking to defend the Republic. Caesar received his fatal wounds at a meeting of the Senate in the theatre that Pompey had built. Ironically, so the sources tell us, he died beneath a statue of Pompey, perhaps the very one that served as the model for the bust in the Glyptotek.
Photos of the bust are widely reproduced and I’ve seen them countless times over the years in textbooks and lectures; I once had a job where there was a full-sized copy of the bust on the shelf in my office. There was then some peculiar satisfaction in seeing it up close for real. The most striking thing about seeing the sculpture in the museum was the way that it is displayed together with twelve other busts of men and women said to have been found in the so-called Tomb of the Licinii, an aristocratic Roman family.
The tomb (if it really existed – see below!) was in use for many generations and the family decorated the tomb with representations of themselves and their illustrious ancestors. Pompey was one of the most famous of these. Seen in isolation, as it is typically shown in books, it is easy to forget the context in which the bust was originally displayed. Assuming the bust has been identified correctly (again, see below!) it is interesting to think about how ancestry was so important to noble Roman dynasties living under the Empire and how sculpture was used to advertise dynastic links. It is particularly striking to think of how this family could draw such pride from their familial links to Pompey, a man who once been the figurehead for Republican resistance to tyranny, when they lived at a time when the system of one-man-rule had become firmly established in Rome. On grounds of carving technique the bust has been dated to between 30-50 AD, so a good century or so after Pompey died and sometime in the reign of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula or Claudius.
The thing that’s prompted me to choose this item as the first of my Glyptotek blog posts, however, is not simply that it made an impression but because the week after seeing it I was sitting in the meeting room of my department at Aarhus University, scanning the bookshelves when I caught sight of a book with the title “The Licinian Tomb: Fact or Fiction”.* It seemed that perhaps all was not as it seemed with the Licinian Tomb. Intrigued, I took the book down and began to browse….
The bust ended up in Denmark in the late 19th century when it was acquired, together with the other twelve, for the Danish collector Carl Jacobsen by a German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig, who was based in Rome. Seven sarcophagi from the tomb ended up at the same time in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Carl Jacobsen’s father had founded the Carlsberg brewery and Jacobsen’s collection forms the heart of the collection of the museum that still bears the name of the beer. It turns out, however, that a cloud of doubt hangs over whether the busts all came from the tomb at all. There is no concrete documentation to prove where the sculpture came from and Helbig is known to have not always acted scrupulously in acquiring objects for collectors. The puzzle of the sculptures’ origins was the mystery that a group of Danish scholars set out to explore in the book I had in my hands.
I only had time to browse the book and have now added it to my ever-growing and increasingly unachievable list of things I’d like to read properly but the authors seemed to conclude that there is nothing to securely tie the sculptures to the tomb after all. There’s a good review of the book in the online journal Bryn Mawr Classical Review in which the reviewer argues that the evidence is such that it the matter cannot be settled decisively but that there’s still every possibility that the sculpture’s reported findspot is genuine after all. The controversy will no doubt continue and may never be resolved.
I did manage to read a short section on the bust of Pompey, which caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it turns out- surprisingly since it is hard to find a book or website that talks about Pompey without a picture of the sculpture as an illustration – that the grounds for identifying it as him are rather more flimsy that I would have thought. There are basically three reasons: (i) it bears a striking resemblance to his portrait on coins, (ii) the fringe of the sculpture is brushed back in a manner that resembles portraits of Alexander the Great; Plutarch, who wrote in the late first century AD and had seen statues of Pompey, tells us that Pompey wore his hair like Alexander. Pompey’s nickname, Magnus, “the Great”, was also taken in emulation of his hero and (iii) the known familial connection with the Licinii. Point three, of course, cannot be taken as conclusive since we don’t know for sure where the bust came from; and as for point two I’ve always thought that the fringe of the Pompey bust looks distinctly unimpressive compared to the lion’s mane effect of Alexander’s portraits (see the picture below). As for point one I’m no numismatist and I don’t know the coin portraits of Pompey but I’m not sure I’m completely convinced that matching rather crude relief images in profile on the backs of coins to much more detailed sculpture in the round can ever be a fool proof way of identifying statues. Still, since no expert has ever challenged the identification let us accept that it really is Pompey.
Something that I found even more striking in the book chapter was a truly bizarre assessment of the sculpture by Helbig that it quoted in full. It is impossible to imagine anyone writing something like this today:
Normally good portraits supplement the idea we have formed of famous persons from the historical tradition. For the memory of Pompey it would certainly have been preferable that his portrait had remained unknown, because it confirms and completes in an evident way the unfavourable judgement of him pronounced by modern critics. Even the condemnation thrown upon him by Mommsen seems too mild before this head.
The broad but low forehead indicates a mediocre intelligence. His weakness in character is not only revealed by the softness of the face, but also in the small eyes which look out in an insecure and, in fact, nearly embarrassed way. It is easy to understand from this look that Pompey, in civil life, was very shy and blushed when he was faced with a crowd. The skin of his forehead raised together with the eyelids and crossed by three deep furrows is especially significant. May people move the skin of the forehead in this way, when they think, If this movement is fixated in marble we may suppose that this, in the face of Pompey, was something usual, and deduct that he pondered and reflected a lot and therefore had difficulty reaching a decision…the head presents a true philistine, not particularly good, and not particularly bad, of mediocre intelligence, weak character and whose most conspicuous quality is vanity.
Helbig was clearly not a man who held any store by the King Duncan’s famous maxim in Macbeth: “There’s no art to find the man’s construction in the face”. For Helbig Pompey’s face was an open book in which it was easy to read weakness of character, stupidity, insecurity, embarrassment, indecision, a lack of culture, and vanity! And this single image of Pompey was enough to count against all the literary evidence we have of Pompey’s vast achievements – tremendous military victories, ridding the eastern Mediterranean of pirates, giving Caesar a good run for his money. Just imagine a defendant in a criminal trial faced with a juror like Helbig!
But even if our real faces were as reliable a guide to our character as Helbig believed it is even stranger that he talks as if he had actually seen Pompey’s face and not merely a stone likeness of it. Nowadays scholars of sculpture are well attuned to the nuanced choices that Roman patrons faced in deciding what their statues should look like. They could draw on a history of Greek portraiture stretching back half a millennium and which included styles ranging from Classical idealism to psychological realism to baroque emotional intensity.
Even the, to our eyes, grotesquely realistic portraits, which were popular among the Romans from around the middle of the second century BC represents a choice to accentuate particular qualities of the individual. The art historical name for this style is ‘veristic’ after the Latin word ‘verus’ which means ‘true’ (think of the English words ‘verity’ or ‘verily’). Yet we have no way of knowing just how true to life such portraits really were. We might think that these sculptures must show their patrons as they really looked simply because they are so unflattering, and it certainly is possible that there was an aspect of vanity to the style with Roman patrons wanting their statues to be accurate likenesses, but at the same time we can never rule out that the features we assume to have been taken from life, even if we find them ugly, might not have been deliberate distortions introduced by patrons or artists to create a desired effect.
Deeply wrinkled brows, unshapely noses and squinting eyes served to advertise age, experience and a rugged militarism, thereby emphasising that the men portrayed in this way had accrued a certain authority, influence and gravitas. Pompey’s bust with its podgy cheeks, squinting eyes and bulbous nose has more than a few hints of the veristic style about it. So, strange as it might seem to us, the features that Helbig so despised in Pompey’s portrait might have been deliberately insisted on by Pompey to convey a particular effect.
Nowadays nobody would try to use the statue as evidence for Pompey’s character. Rather we would take it as evidence for how Pompey wished to be portrayed, think about the choices he could have made and discuss why he wanted to look like this. From a historical point of view these are surely far more interesting questions.
As I stood before the bust in the gallery of the Glytpotek I will admit, however, that, just for a moment, I did allow myself to indulge the fantasy that I really was standing face-to-face, not with a lump of cold marble but with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus himself. Unlike when Helbig had held the bust over a century ago Pompey stared vacantly back at me, giving not the slightest twitch of expression to hint at what kind of man he really was.
* Kragelund, P., Moltesen, M., & Østergaard, J. S. (2003). The Licinian tomb: fact or fiction? (No. 5). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
Last week I finally managed to visit Copenhagen for the first time. I didn’t have much time to experience the city – though I really liked what I saw of it – because I only had two days and was determined to squeeze in as much museum time as possible. The plan was to visit the Ny Carslberg Glytpotek (how many times have I seen that name in a picture credit below a photo of an ancient statue?), the National Museum of Denmark and the Thorvaldsen Museum. This was a lot to do in so short a visit and by the second afternoon I was feeling a bit museum fatigued as I drifted through the National Museum’s medieval galleries without the patience to read any of the labels. But I saw a great deal and found plenty of things that gave me food for thought (which is always good). One of the only disappointments is that I’d really been looking forward to seeing the famous statue of Demosthenes in the Glyptotek but could only see it from a distance because the room was closed for repainting. At least it didn’t yet have a plastic bag over it!
As I always do when I visit museums with ancient sculpture I left with an enormous number of photos on the memory card of my camera – well over 400. With my last blog post I failed miserably– as I usually do – to keep things brief (I’m always reminded of whoever it was that said “I apologies for sending you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one”. Who was that?) So I’ve promised myself to now write a series of short posts with some thoughts about some of the things I photographed, partly to do something with those ideas while they’re still fresh in my mind, partly I suppose to justify taking so many photos.
I suppose there are three main reasons why I take so many photos. The first is to remind me of things I’ve seen that I find interesting. And since so many statues and other objects display features that in some way depart from the norm, prompt comparisons with other things I’ve seen elsewhere or make me think of questions about ancient society that I realise I’ve never given much thought – that means that I end up taking an awful lot of photos. The other reason is that I like having a big catalogue of images that I can draw on for my teaching so I’m not dependent on using the standard examples that are readily available on the internet. The third reason, in the case of statues, is that the medium itself invites taking large number of pictures because of the infinite angles and perspectives from which sculpture in the round can be viewed. Taking multiple photos, even of well known pieces, means getting away from the standard full-frontal view typically reproduced in text books (an idea that I know generated a lot of interest recently on Twitter with the #reversenotobverse hashtag started by Sarah Bond) and, I feel at least, can help to get a sense of how ancient viewers might have experienced these objects.
Going around taking all these photos I was reminded of my last really intensive museum trip when I visited Italy two years ago and how then I’d found myself getting a little bit irritated and rather perplexed by the extent to which other people were taking photos and by the types of photos they were taking.
Firstly there were all the people posing for other people to take their photos or taking selfies beside all the most famous works of art. I will never forget the mother and daughter I saw going around the Capitoline Museum seemingly taking it in turns to compete to strike the most Vogue-like pose in front of each and every statue, not reading a single label, not even looking at the sculpture itself. I’ve never posted a selfie to social media and I’ve only ever taken a handful and then as a joke but I’ve got absolutely nothing against people wanting mementos of seeing famous works of art to show their friends and family. I certainly am not a fan of the Greek policy of not allowing photos of people next to museum objects because it is seen as a sign of ‘disrespecting the antiquities’. What I just don’t understand however is taking a photo of yourself posing beside something that you haven’t even bothered to look at.
Two occasions have made a lasting impression on me in that respect – the first in Naples, the second in the National Gallery in London when I saw people march into a room, snap a photo of a friend in front of the Alexander Mosaic and Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and then march straight out again barely even glancing at the works in question. Now to be fair I might have been jumping to conclusions. These people might have spent hours of their lives standing entranced before these masterpieces and simply made a quick return visit because they’d forgotten to get a photo before. My suspicion, however, is that this is simply a case that they’d read in the guidebook that these were the must-see works of art and it was just a case of getting proof of been there, done that.
An occasion that I found even more bizarre – and a good deal more frustrating – occurred in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. I had read in my own guidebook that one of the most famous baroque paintings in the collection was Carravagio’s John the Baptist. When I got to the canvas I found myself waiting for a good five minutes to be able to take a proper look at it because someone was struggling to capture the perfect shot of it on their phone. They must have tried at least ten times to get it quite right and I don’t know how long they’d been there before I got there. Of course it’s going to be impossible to take a good photo of a painting in those conditions – the angle will never be perfect, the lighting is going to be next to useless, to say nothing of the quality of the camera itself. There’s also far less point than there is with a piece of sculpture because only a perfect full on frontal shot is going to do the work justice.
More than anything, the reason it seems pointless to me to photograph paintings is that almost any work of art that you see in a museum is going to have been photographed professionally already and you are going to be able to find a copy on the internet in perfect high definition. The excellent photo of Carravagio’s painting shown here is in the public domain on Wikipedia but there are plenty of other reproductions online and an extremely high definition one in Google Art that is under copyright. I’m sure they also sold postcards and posters of it in the museum shop. What can possibly be the point of having a second rate photo that you took yourself of something that is readily available at your fingertips in detail so crisp that you can zoom in and literally see the cracks in the paint? At least with a selfie you’re going to get an image that no one else has!
Maybe as I snapped my way around the Glyptothek or Thorvaldsen museum there were other visitors supressing irritation and asking themselves “Why’s he taking so many photos?” but I think at least I didn’t get in anybody’s way too much and I did at least spend time actually looking at the things I was photographing.
Since I realise I’m in danger of sounding like I’m auditioning for an episode of “Grumpy Old Men” and since I’ve again gone over the word limit I set myself on starting this piece I’ll leave it here. Over the next few posts you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether at least some of my reasons for taking photos were good ones. And I really will do my best to keep things short.
This is something that I have been meaning to write a post about ever since I tweeted about it well over a month ago (work and a holiday got in the way). I’ve been working on an article to do with what happened to the cities of Greece in Late Antiquity and was reading the thought-provoking book by Hedrik Dey, The Afterlife of the Roman City. There I came across an intriguing reference to an image of the god Apollo with four hands, by Libanius. The fourth century AD Greek writer is describing his home city of Antioch, in what is now southern Turkey near the east coast of the Mediterranean, and to explain the arrangement of its principal roads he says:
“From four arches which are joined to each other in the form of a rectangle, four pairs of stoas proceed as from an omphalos, stetched out toward each quarter of the heavens, as in a statue of the four handed Apollo”
Dey was discussing this passage of Libanius’ fairly lengthy description of the city in order to try to reconstruct the Roman period layout of Antioch and, as such, gives the Apollo reference no thought but as soon as I read it I was immediately intrigued – and rather distracted from what I was supposed to be working on – by the puzzle of what on earth Libanius might have meant here.
Anybody who’s ever even picked up a book on Greek or Roman Art, or visited any museum with even a modest collection of ancient sculpture has almost certainly come face to face with a statue of Apollo, Greek god of, among other things, music, oracular predictions and healing. Representations of Apollo are some of the most common of all ancient religious sculpture, particularly for the Roman period which is when the bulk of surviving ancient sculpture dates to. Apollo is always shown as an idealized youthful man, usually naked except for a cloak about the shoulders and typically with one his two favourite attributes, the lyre or, as in the case of the famous Apollo Belvedere, his bow and arrow (well the Apollo Belvedere has lost his bow but it’s clear from his pose that he was originally holding one). Of all the statues of Apollo I have ever seen – or for that matter, for all of the statues of any Greek or Roman gods, men or women – I have never, however, seen one that had four arms.
Intrigued I did a bit of quick internet searching to see if I could find anybody commenting on what Libanius might have been talking about. I also put the question to my followers on Twitter. The combined results of my own search and my request to the Twittersphere (thanks @pythika and @lacuscurtius) were a couple of interesting references in some quite old scholarship, which I’ll come back to in a minute. Llewellyn Morgan (@llewelyn_morgan) quipped that with four arms Apollo could have held both his lyre and his weapon of choice at the same time! Whether he’d have been able to play the instrument and fire off arrows without getting his arms in a tangle or doing himself some damage is another matter….
Since then, in between continuing working on my article and other things I’ve done a little bit more digging and have given this a bit more thought but I have as many questions now as I did when I started and am posting this partly just to share my fascination for the mystery, partly in the hope that somebody out there might be able to clear some of it up for me.
My initial thought on hearing about this four-armed god was of the representations of deities with multiple limbs known from Hindu art. It’s well known that Hellenistic sculpture had made inroads into Asia by the period in question, in particular having a marked, though still not fully understood, influence on the art of Gandhara, in what is now northwest Pakistan/east Afghanistan, between the 1st to 5th centuries AD (see the excellent project at Oxford on Gandharan Art led by Peter Stewart). I know very little about Gandharan art but I happened to have recently read an article that mentioned that at least one Gandharan goddess was sometimes shown with four arms and was wondering if somehow the influence might have gone in two directions and that somewhere on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire by Libanius’ day Greek-speaking people had started imagining their gods as looking like Vishnu or Shiva or had imported some eastern cult and called the exotic god Apollo to make him more familiar.
However, I was perhaps letting my imagination run away with me there. For one thing Peter Stewart (@PeterCNStewart) tweeted that Gandharan gods weren’t usually shown with four arms; and as I understand it the representations of Hindu gods I had in mind were all much, much later – Gandhara was a Buddhist and not a Hindu region – and much further removed geographically from the Greek and Roman world. Perhaps an even bigger problem, however, is that Libanius seems to be describing four arms set in a crossroads arrangement, rather than two arms on each sides of a figure as in the Indian images I had in mind. So what are the other possibilities?
In my online searches I found quite a few scholars citing the Libanius passage but all because they were interested in the city of Antioch and none of them seemed to find the Apollo reference interesting or odd. I did, however, find some references that seem to point in a very different direction as the possible origin of the mysterious image; not to the orient but far west of Antioch to the heartland of old Greece, to Lakonia, the region of the Peloponnese dominated in antiquity by that most anomalous of Greek city-states, Sparta.
An early reference and the first one that Google Books showed up was in an early 19th century book by Karl Ottfried Müller, The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race(the Spartan’s were Dorian Greeks), the first edition of which was published in 1824. Müller wrote of an “Apollo with four hands and four ears at Amyclae”, a small town within Spartan territory. In his footnote for his source Müller gave Hesychios (a 5th or 6th C AD compiler of a sort of dictionary of unusual Greek words) and Zenobius (a rhetorician of the time of Hadrian, early 2nd century AD), who was citing an older source, a Spartan scholar of the 3rd Century BC called Sosibius. It turns out by coincidence that Karl Ottfried Müller also wrote a pioneering monograph on the history and topography of Antioch (published in 1839) which drew heavily on Libanius’ description of the city so by that time he must have also come across Libanius’ Apollo reference. He doesn’t mention it in his earlier book and I haven’t been able to see a copy of the later volume so I’m not sure whether he ever made a connection between Libanius and these other sources.
Hesychios, Sosibius and Zenobius are all relatively obscure authors who I haven’t had much dealing with to put it mildly. It is a testimony to Müller’s scholarship, and indeed to all Classical philologists working in that age, that he was able to gather such abstruse material for his work. Nowadays an extremely comprehensive and searchable database of Greek texts is available online – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. There in a matter of minutes I was able to find a second Hesychios reference to the four-handed Apollo that Müller doesn’t seem to have known about. Müller presumably had to spend years pouring over manuscripts in a library.
The three passages are all extremely brief – Sosibius tells us that the Spartans had set up an Apollo with four arms and ears at Amyclae, Hesychios that this Apollo had the epithet “kouridios” (wedded) and, in the new reference I found, that there was a word “kunaktas” which was used for leather straps made of hides from bulls that had been sacrificed to the four-handed Apollo given to athletes as prizes. Presumably the athletes had competed at a contest in the god’s honour.
The dates of the sources are perhaps more interesting. We can be sure that the four-armed Apollo of Amyclae dated back at least to the 3rd century BC (time of Sosibius) and was still known about, at least to specialized scholars, in the 6th century AD (time of Hesychios) so well after Libanius’ time.
But a number of intriguing questions remain: Why did the people of Amyklae have an Apollo with four arms? What might the image have looked like? And could this be the image that inspired Libanius’ comment? To address the last question first, it is known from Libanius’ writings that he spent time in Greece and had definitely visited Sparta so he may well have seen the statue at Amyclae even though he doesn’t actually say so. Angeliki Petropoulou in a recent article about the Apollo of Amyclae takes it for granted that this was the statue Libanius meant (she also incidentally also picked up on my “new” Hesyhcios reference and added an extra piece of evidence from Sparta – a 2nd century AD inscription that mentions a four-handed Apollo).
At this point it is useful to bring in another ancient author, the considerably less obscure 2nd century travel writer Pausanias who’s featured in my work quite a bit. Pausanias came from Asia Minor. He travelled around Greece in the 2nd century AD and wrote a description of the country that he saw, focusing mainly on old monuments and sacred places. One of the places he visited was Amyclae, an insignificant village by then, and he describes seeing there a cult place of Apollo complete with statue. One 19th century author, Lloyd Watkiss, in an article I came across suggests this statue might have been the four-armed Apollo.
The statue of Apollo that Pausanias describes does indeed sound very strange. It stood on a structure that Pausanias calls a throne, which was large enough for a man to walk underneath it and decorated with what sound like a series of relief sculptures of various myths. The mythical hero Hyakinthos – lover of Apollo killed by the jealous wind god Zephyros and then turned into the flower that bears his name – was believed to be buried beneath the platform where there was a bronze door through which offerings could be made to him. The statue itself Pausanias describes as about thirty cubits, or about 14m tall. Pausanias says that the statue cannot have been by the 6th Century BC artist Bathycles who made the throne because of the statue’s rather odd, and rather un-Greek sounding appearance. He describes it as essentially a bronze pillar but with a head, feet and hands carrying a spear and a bow.
Tthere has been much speculation about what this statue and the “throne” might have looked like. Excavations at Amyclae have revealed something of the sanctuary but haven’t solved the mystery. There are plenty of interesting reconstruction drawings of this statue online which imagine it to have been some kind of pillar deity dating to Archaic times before the Greeks had started to imagine their gods with the idealized human bodies we are so familiar with from their art. I wonder, however, if there might be a different explanation for the strange form of the statue that Pausanias reported seeing. It was of comparable size to the famous 5th century Chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statues of Zeus at Olympia and Athena in the Parthenon at Athens by Pheidias. It is known that Pheidias’ giant statues were constructed around a wooden core and there are stories that the Athenians in later periods of crisis stripped the Athena Parthenos of its gold. Is it not possible that the statue at Amyclae too had once been adorned with gold but around a bronze instead of a wooden core and that it was the loss of this material that had given it is distinctly incongruous appearance? This would explain both the odd appearance and why the people of Amyclae thought that Bathycles had made it.
More relevant for our purposes, however, is whether Pausanias’ Apollo at Amyclae was the four-handed Apollo reported by our other sources. Most scholars have tended to disagree with Watkiss and assume that this was a different representation of the god and in fairness to Watkiss even he makes his suggestion tentatively and with reservations. Petropoulou doesn’t even consider the possibility. Lewis Richard Farnell in his 1907 Cults of the Greek City Statesargues that there must have been two images of Apollo at Amyclae and that Pausanias didn’t see the four handed one. The main objection to the interpretation that he did is that it would be odd for Pausanias not to have mentioned the statue had four arms if it did simply because that would have been so unusual. On the other hand Pausanias does report that the statue he saw held a bow and a spear and it is hard to see how this Apollo could have been imagined to fire his bow if he was also holding another weapon so perhaps the statue did have four arms after all. I did stumble across one online restoration of the statue as a pillar god and with four arms but now, frustratingly I’ve not been able to find it again!
Whether the different sources for these strange Apollos at Amyclae concern one or more statue they at least serve to remind us that Greek religious imagery was often far stranger than the images of athletic looking nude gods that we’re now so familiar with. The fact that this is what the vast majority of surviving ancient statues look like is arguably largely a reflection of tastes in Roman times when most of these statues – “copies of Greek originals”, as museum labels usually put it – were made.
But all this started with Libanius’ description of Antioch and it is to Libanius that we should now return because even if this was the Apollo that he was thinking of the puzzle that we are still faced with is why exactly he chose to mention it.
For a start, the street arrangement he is referring to sounds simply like a crossroads, two avenues meeting at right angles. Why would he have needed to use a reference to a statue of Apollo to make that image clear to his readers? A cross roads isn’t that unusual is it? Of course we don’t know for sure how the arms of the statue at Amyclae – if that was the statue Libanius was thinking of – were arranged so perhaps the reference did serve to make something clear about the street arrangement that is now just lost to us.
Another possibility is that Libanius, a pagan at a time when Christianity was strengthening its hold over the Roman Empire and well on its way to becoming the official religion, simply liked using a pagan image to illustrate his point. He refers to the cross-roads where the roads met as an “omphalos”, a word strongly associated with Delphi, Apollo’s most important sanctuary in Greece, where the “omphalos” stone was held to exist and mark the very centre of the world. Perhaps the reference to the statue was simply a way of building on the Apollo metaphor. Libanius actually delivered his description of Antioch at an oration at the local Olympic Games in 360 AD. (There were lots of festivals in Asia Minor in Roman times that emulated the old Olympic games in Greece). This festival was held just outside Antioch so most of his original audience would have either lived there or would have visited the city and so seen what the streets looked like for themselves. It is therefore possible that more than simply describing the city Libanius was trying to suggest its very layout was imbued with the power of the old pagan gods.
The biggest puzzle, to come back to why I got interested in this in the first place, however, is how Libanius’ audience and readers could possibly have known what he was talking about. As I said at the beginning, no image of a four-armed Apollo seems to have survived from antiquity, at least not to my knowledge. And yet, Libanius’ reference would only work as a way of explaining the street layout at Antioch if his readers had either seen the image or at least heard about. It seems unlikely that Amyclae in the fourth century AD was somewhere that large numbers of either his audience at the local Olympics (who presumably mainly came from Asia Minor or the Near East) or his readers (members of the broader Roman elite) would have visited and it seems unlikely that they would have all read the same obscure sources that the scholars Zenobius and Hesychios consulted.
So could they perhaps have known the Amyclae statue through copies?
Many images of ancient statues did circulate in small-scale copies as marble or bronze statuettes and figurines. For what it is worth Libanius’ Greek refers to a rather than the statue of a four-handed Apollo “ ἐν Ἀπόλλωνος τετράχειρος ἀγάλματι.” which does seem to suggest the image was not unique. But if copies of such as a statue were widespread it is surprising that not one of them seems to have survived. It is, I suppose, just possible that such objects were common enough to have been widely known but existed in far lower numbers than the other types of figurines that have survived in their hundreds. The other possibility is that Libanius was making a deliberately obscure reference in order to show off his erudition, or to shame his, no doubt at least partially Christian, audience at their lack of knowledge of pagan cults. Neither of these explanations, however, seems completely satisfying.
As I said at the outset the passage has led me to more questions than answers: What exactly did Libanius’ four-handed Apollo look like? Was he really thinking of the statue at Amyclae mentioned by Hesychios, Sosibius and Zenobius? Was this statue at Amyclae the same as the pillar statue that Pausanias saw there? To my mind the most intriguing question of all is how widely known were images of four-handed Apollos in the Roman Empire?
From the fact that most of the scholarship I’ve cited is very old it might seem that this is an arcane sort of problem of little relevance to the current interests of ancient historians or Classical archaeologists. I think, however, that the case brings into sharp focus just how much we still don’t understand about the ancient world which, sobering though that is, is just as important as what we do know. I find the idea that the image of a four-armed Apollo was once familiar throughout the eastern Mediterranean an alluring one. That what it looked like and what it meant have both been lost to us reminds us how much there is still to discover about the Greek and Roman worlds.
And since I’m still lacking answers to much of this if anybody has any further thoughts or comments I’d be glad to hear from you.
The place where monuments are set up matters. In the fifth century BC the Athenians set up the famous statues of the so-called tyrant-killers – men who’d actually murdered the brother of a local autocratic ruler and thereby played a role in ushering in their celebrated democracy – in the middle of their agora, the city’s main public square. Next month Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Newton and Darwin in order to acknowledge his place among the great names of British science. And that much-mocked bust of Ronaldo that did the rounds on social media last year was set up at Madeira’s airport to greet visitors and remind them that the island was the footballer’s birthplace. Monuments take a large part of their meaning from their spatial setting. At the same time monuments can reshape the meaning of their setting in a kind of conversation.
Over the last two weeks I’ve been writing an article exploring the relationship between statues and their public setting both in the ancient world and in modern culture. To illustrate some of the key issues I’ve discuss the statues of Parliament Square in London. In the process I came across some features about the way in which certain statues are labeled on Google Maps, which I found interesting and which I think have important implications. In particular these observations concern the recently unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first woman to be granted a statue on the square or “the suffragette” as Google called her.
The unveiling of the new statue just over a month ago on 24th April this year was celebrated nationally and attended by a number of high profile politicians including the PM and the Mayor of London. But the monument has not been without its detractors. A rival group of campaigners has argued – and is still arguing – that Emmeline Pankhurst would be a more fitting recipient of the honour of being the first woman to get a statue in the square. Pankhurst already has a statue in London and not so far from Parliament Square at the southwest end of the Palace of Westminster. It was set up in 1930 and moved to its present location in 1958. I wanted to use this controversy to discuss the way that location matters. Pankhurst’s advocates don’t just care that she has a statue. They care about where she has a statue. Parliament Square with its bronze likenesses of Churchill, Lloyd George, Disraeli, Gandhi, Mandela and six other exclusively male statesmen is seen as the more prestigious, the more symbolically charged location.
To make my point more precisely I thought I’d check with Google Maps just how long a walk it is between Parliament Square and the Pankhurst memorial (about 500 m) and that’s when I became interested in the way that the website subtly ranks the importance of the various statues on the square. Most of the statues aren’t shown at all – only those of Churchill, Peel, Palmerston, Gandhi and the new statue of Fawcett are marked. However, while the men were all given names, Fawcett’s monument, as already mentioned was labeled “the suffragette statue”. The implication was that this wasn’t a statue of any particular campaigner for votes for women but rather a generic representation of an anonymous suffragette. There was also something striking about the order in which the statues appeared as I zoomed in and out of the map. Zoomed right out the only statue that was marked was that of Churchill. Zooming in slightly further Peel, Gandhi and Palmerston appeared but it was only when I zoomed right in that the “statue of sufraggette” was shown at all. As mentioned the other statues weren’t marked at all but in the hierarchy of monuments that are shown Fawcett’s was the one deemed least important. Finally, while the others were all marked with symbols suggesting some kind of monument the Fawcett statue had the icon of a camera suggesting it was something someone happened to have snapped a picture of but not a real monument in the same sense as the others.
So why is any of this important?
The meanings of statues and other monuments are not fixed in stone – or bronze. Statues mean different things to different people. Their importance for a society as a whole can wax or wane over time. We can forget who they represent or we can decide that the people who were granted statues in the past don’t actually deserve them. Within a generation or two of setting up their statues of the tyrant killers the Athenians were already debating whether the murder they had committed had in fact been a public service – a political assassination – or whether it was actually the result of a lovers’ quarrel. Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square is the one shown when you zoom out furthest on Google Maps because Churchill, voted as “the Greatest Britain” of all time in 2002, is arguably our most famous leader. But he owes that status to the importance we now attach to the Second World War and there is nothing to say that with the passing of time he will continue to enjoy the same significance. Even now his statue has periodically been defaced. Whether the vandals’ grudge is actually against Churchill himself or whether his fame simply makes the statue an obvious target for venting anger is a different question. The point is that not everyone reveres the statue – its importance is contested.
The meaning of the statuary assemblage of Parliament Square as a whole is also continually changing and being redefined as new statues are added. Where once it was the preserve of statues of Britain’s most illustrious political leaders, with statues of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela it has now become a commemorative space that transcends national boundaries and is somewhere for celebrating universal human aspirations toward equality, dignity and peace. The addition of Fawcett’s statue makes sense in this context. As the first statue of a woman in the square it is a powerful challenge to the previously exclusive maleness of the square. That was the whole point of erecting it. Labelling all the male statues on the map while referring to Fawcett simply as “the suffragette” rather undermines that point, to put it mildly.
Fawcett’s statue didn’t just happen to appear in the square. It was the end result of a campaign started by activist Caroline Criado-Perez who was frustrated that all the other statues in Parliament Square were of men. She started an online petition, which gathered nearly 85,000 signatures and the support of several high profile celebrities and politicians. Decisions were made about who the recipient of this first female statue should be, about the artist commissioned to make the work, about how the statue should be portrayed and where exactly it should stand.
The choice of Fawcett, one of the early pioneers of the cause for female suffrage in Britain, was made by Criado-Perez and the statue’s unveiling was timed to coincide with the centenary of women – or at least women over 30 – being granted the vote in 1918. The message of the statue – like all statues – is a complex one in which most of the details are significant. Above all, however, the statue is there to remind us that political equality for women was hard fought and that the struggle against discrimination is by no means over. The banner the statue holds before it proclaims “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere” – words written by Fawcett herself – and is a call to us to remain vigilant.
The importance of Fawcett’s statue will undoubtedly change over time. As the newness wears off and it becomes part of the furniture of the square it will be absorbed into the national consciousness. It will undoubtedly be joined by new statues, some of them probably – hopefully – also of women. The people honoured by statues and the things they are honoured for will create a conversation between these monuments through which their meaning will be subtly altered.
But such conversations don’t just take place within the settings where monuments stand and between the monuments themselves. They also take place in the real world – in the pages of newspapers, between families and friends and, increasingly, online. How much importance we attach to Fawcett’s statue and the meanings we attribute to it will be determined by these conversations. The way that Google Maps portrayed the monument was a contribution – albeit perhaps a small one – to this conversation and one that definitely downplayed the statue’s significance by neglecting to name her and by presenting her statue as somehow less important than those of the men.
The plinth on which Fawcett’s statue stands is intended to challenge the vision of history, suggested by the other monuments in the square, in one more important way. On it are inscribed the names and likenesses of 55 women and 4 men who also made a significant contribution to the cause of female suffrage. This is an argument against the all too common view that history is shaped by great men, which galleries of statues usually end up reinforcing. The base of Fawcett’s statue reminds us that the struggle to obtain the vote for women was not achieved solely through the efforts of one individual. One of the names inscribed there is that of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette.
Nonetheless the figure atop the base has been chosen for a reason. This is not meant to be an anonymous statue.
There might be those who disagree with the choice but Criado-Perez chose Millicent Fawcett as the one to be immortalized in bronze because she was one of the earliest campaigners for votes for women, because of the energy she put into the cause throughout her life, and because she hadn’t previously been honored with a statue. Labeling her monument simply ‘statue of suffragette’ dismisses all of that as irrelevant and does a disservice not only to Fawcett herself but also to those who worked to have her statue erected. It also plays footloose with the facts and manages to get the history wrong, which is quite remarkable considering the label was just three words long. Fawcett, unlike Pankhurst, wasn’t a suffragette at all. She was a suffragist.
The two groups distinguished themselves primarily by the methods they used to try to achieve their aims, the suffragists pursuing a purely peaceful course, the suffragettes willing to resort to more radical methods and sometimes violence. Which group played a greater role in achieving the vote for women and their attitudes toward one another are issues that continue to be hotly debated. Such complexity is brushed aside if all of those women are simply thrown under the umbrella term “suffragette”.
It’s probably clear from the above that I’m already a fan of the new statue of Fawcett even though, living in Denmark, I haven’t yet been to see it. I think it matters that the message the statue is meant to convey does get through. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of how we think about this particular statue at a more academic level I think this case says something interesting about how public statues are represented online through tools like Google Maps.
I’m not suggesting that Google deliberately attempts to control the way we think about these things. Far from it – much of the information in Google Maps has been entered by anonymous volunteers and the importance given to different monuments is, I assume at least in part, a factor of the interest shown in them. Nonetheless representations of monuments on such tools can feed into the conversation we have about their significance, not only reflecting the public attitude toward such monuments but also subtly shaping those attitudes.
It would be interesting to look at other cities and spaces of commemoration and consider the choices that have been made there. But first back to my article,
A coda: you might have noticed that throughout this piece in talking about Google Maps’ representation of Parliament Square I am using the past tense. When I noticed the label ‘Statue of Suffragette’ last week I posted about it on Twitter and drew it to the attention of Caroline Criado-Perez . One of her followers took it up with Google and a few days later I received this tweet from Criado-Perez: “Twitter delivers. Statue now renamed on @GoogleMaps”. And so the conversation about the meaning of our monuments goes on…
This is something I’ve been asking myself for a few weeks now, ever since I read something someone I am following on Twitter – a university lecturer – had posted about the instructions they give their students concerning searching for reading for assignments: is new scholarship always (to be fair to the tweeter I should probably say ‘usually’ but that would make a less punchy title) better than old?
I’ve lost the original tweet so I am paraphrasing but it was something along the lines of: students are allowed to use only one title from before I (the lecturer) was born, one from between the year I was born and the year they were born and everything else must have been published more recently. The idea, of course, is to encourage students not to dredge up old work that has now become redundant. That certainly sounds like a good thing and, sure enough, the post had received lots of approving replies, retweets and “likes”.
In my own work, however, I’ve often felt that the very opposite problem exists – that we are far too often inclined to assume that the most recent opinion on any given subject must be the best and that anything written decades ago might as well be left on the shelf to gather dust. Or worse. I recently saw another tweet in which an archaeologist was defending his decision not to take the repeated advice of his colleagues and throw out all his old theory books.
In my own research I’ve encountered countless instances where negative assumptions about old research were definitely misplaced but let me give a concrete example:
My PhD was about changes in the uses of Greek agoras (public squares) in Hellenistic and Roman times – roughly the 500 years or so after the heyday of Greek culture in the Classical period. A lot of the literature I read was about how the buildings that have been excavated on the agoras of various cities had been interpreted. Because the evidence is often so patchy questions of interpretation are often highly contentious: was building X a theatre or a council house? was such and such a temple dedicated to Apollo or Poseidon? And so on…….
Often the debate revolves around trying to match references to particular buildings in surviving literary sources or inscriptions to the remains unearthed by archaeologists. This is especially true for the city of Athens where a relative abundance of literary sources survive even if for the post-Classical periods this evidence is still in truth rather limited. Athenian topography – working out how the city fitted together and where different monuments were to be found – has produced so much scholarship it might almost be thought of as a subdiscipline of Classical studies. It’s certainly an issue that plenty of people have any opinion on.
A particular controversy relating to my own work is the interpretation of the so-called South Square on the Agora. Around the middle of the 2nd Century BC a large stoa that lined the south of the square since the late 5th century BC (called South Stoa I because we don’t know its ancient name) was demolished and replaced with an (almost – see the picture) enclosed square created by the new South Stoa II, the East Building and the Middle Stoa (the names again are an indication of how uncertain we are about many public buildings even for one of the most well-known ancient Greek cities).
Since it was excavated in the first half of the twentieth century various theories have been proposed as to what the function of the “South Square” might have been: a gymnasium (the 2nd century travel writer Pausanias mentions a gymnasium near the agora – might he have been talking about this complex?), a commercial marketplace (lots of cities by this time had two agoras, one for politics, one for commerce, was this an attempt to bring the centre of Athens up to date?) or an administrative complex housing, among other things, the city’s law courts (an older building on the north of the agora thought to have housed the courts was demolished around the same time the South Square was built and the way access to the complex was tightly controlled would have suited that function).
This is probably not an issue ever can be resolved conclusively. However recent opinion has tended toward the ‘commercial market’ interpretation. This is the view of the current director of the Agora excavations Professor John Camp. From my reading and from talking to other scholars this view now seems to have become something of a consensus. If anybody needs a citation to back it up they can always refer to Camp’s fairly recent and excellent book The Archaeology of Athens published in 2004. It would be easy to think that there’s little point in considering anything written about the subject before that time. However, although Professor Camp has put that opinion in print he’s never systematically set out a case for that interpretation of the square and neither has anybody else. So even if his interpretation is right there isn’t really much to explain why this interpretation has now become the preferred one except that it’s probably the most recent thing that most people have read on the subject or heard about from colleagues.
In my research I went back and read the various older theories that had been put proposed and decided on balance that I feel that the interpretation that the complex housed the law courts was the most convincing one. The case that had been set out by Richard Earnest Wycherley and Homer Thompson (a former director of the excavations) in a publication of 1972 consisted of an intricately detailed argument which I found consistent with the impression I’d gained from various other pieces of evidence that in the second century BC the main agora remained a heart of politics and administration while commerce, or at least trade in foodstuffs, was concentrated about 80m to the east where the so-called Roman Agora would later be built.
I don’t want to go into any more depth here but the point is that in this case far from being redundant I found this piece of scholarship, published near half a century ago to be extremely useful. Anybody wanting to decide on the function of the square now should at least take account of Thompson and Wycherley’s arguments and cannot afford to assume that they must have got things wrong just because somebody else has argued something different more recently.
So where does this idea that the most recent scholarship is the only thing worth reading come from? On the one hand I suspect it is an assumption that has filtered through to the humanities from the hard sciences where new discoveries really can make old knowledge redundant. At the same time it surely has to do with the exponential increase in the number of people working in the humanities. I’ve written elsewhere about the impossibility of staying-up-to date with everything published to do with the ancient world. With thousands of people publishing on relevant subjects we’re forced to take it on trust that the most recent research has got something right that older works got wrong.
At the same time it is probably also has to do with our modern culture’s impossible race to keep up with everything that’s new – whether it’s people constantly upgrading perfectly functioning smartphones, social media awash with uncontrolled excitement at the release of the latest Marvel superheroes film or those infuriating “best of the year” lists of films, books, TV-series that appear in the national newspapers every December. For the record I bought my first and only smartphone last year, haven’t yet made it past Iron Man 2 and feel woefully unqualified to say which books etc. of 2017 were best because at most I must have watched/read two or three that came out then. I console myself with the sneaking suspicion that the same is true for most of the people contributing to the lists.
But what’s wrong with thinking that the newest scholarship must be superior to the old? Well, for one thing, as my example was meant to illustrate, it means that valid and useful contributions to particularly thorny scholarly problems can end up unfairly brushed aside. For another it creates the very real risk that as each scholarly generation succeeds the next we are going to lose sight of where some of the ideas that we all take for granted originate. It is now all to easy – particularly with resources like Google Scholar permanently at our finger tips, particularly for students who’ve never known a world without superfast internet – to cite the very latest article on, for example, how hoplite warfare might have been laid the foundations for the development of Greek democracy without even asking who it was who first came up with the idea many decades ago. As generations of scholars pass if each one only cites the work of the preceding one there’s a very real danger of thinking that we’re continually reinventing the wheel actually all we’re really doing is just spinning it around.
I’m curious now how other people working in the humanities, whether in Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology or unrelated disciplines feel about this. The limited amount of evidence we have to work with in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology is both a curse and a blessing – on the negative side it means there are things about the ancient world we sadly will never know but on the positive side it also means we have the luxury of being able to debate and reconsider every piece of that evidence and every interpretation of it in minute detail. The tweet that sparked off my thoughts on all this was by a historian of the 19th C and I can well imagine that in that field literature may well age faster than it does in mine. I still wonder, however, whether even for more recent subjects it might not be just as big a problem that people are ignoring older literature than that they’re reading too much of it.
But whether you agree or disagree with me or are able to offer another perspective from a different field I would be really keen to hear how other people think about this. To return to the question “Is new scholarship always better?” I’d love to hear your answer…
Most of us, I’m sure, if we were asked to conjure up an image of life in a Roman town would think first of public spaces like the forum, the amphitheatre, or bathhouses, possibly lined with marble columns and statues. Anybody who has visited an ancient Roman city whether in the eastern Mediterranean, in Italy, North Africa or Britain will have seen the remains of such buildings that have been unearthed by archaeologists.
Public spaces have been excavated at hundreds of sites for well over a century and a half so it would be a reasonable assumption that we by now understand almost as much as we possibly can about what they were used for and what public life in Roman towns was like. You might then be surprised to hear that I think that the nature of Roman public space is actually something that is very poorly understood and that my new research project is all about trying to find ways of using archaeology to understand it better.
To illustrate some of the things that I think we have got wrong both in thinking about ancient public spaces I’d like to talk a bit here about one of the better known Roman period public buildings to have survived at Athens – the so-called Roman agora. To put in a shameless plug, this is a much condensed version of an argument I’ve made in my book about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times that was published last year.
The Roman Agora was constructed about 80m to the east of the old Classical agora, which had served as the heart of Athenian public life since at least the fifth century BC. We know that the Roman Agora was paid for by funds given to the city by Julius Caesar and then, presumably because the money had run out, by the first Roman emperor Augustus, because an inscription on the still standing western gateway tells us so. This was a period in which Rome was consolidating its hold on the Greek world and was itself undergoing a political crisis as the Republic came to an end and one man took up a position of supreme power. Bestowing benefactions on a city like Athens, which was famous for its illustrious and rich cultural heritage, was one way of assuring Greek loyalty to the new regime.
The Roman agora consisted of a fully-enclosed courtyard surrounded on all four sides by Ionic columns, with rows of shops and a second entrance on the eastern side. We can be fairly confident that the building served as a food market for various reasons: a decree inscribed just inside the east entrance from the time of Hadrian (2nd Century AD) had to do with the sale of olive oil, weights and measures for ensuring fair trade were found within the building, a number of inscriptions set up by “agoranomoi” (market inspectors) were found nearby. Graffiti has also been found scratched into parts of the colonnade which have been interpreted as ancient traders staking a claim to particular spots where they were allowed to ply their wares. Part of the complex lies underneath modern buildings but substantial areas have been excavated in the course of various campaigns since the late 19th century.
When it comes to interpretations about the building’s impact on the public life of the city some large leaps of reasoning have been made. It has been widely accepted that the creation of the Roman Agora meant that the old Classical agora now lost its commercial function. The development has been linked to a supposed infilling of the old square by various new buildings at around the same time and has been presented as evidence of the civic decline of Athens under the Roman Empire. Calling the building the ‘Roman Agora’ reinforces the idea that this new building in some way took over something of the function of the old agora. Indeed I’ve often heard people – visitors to Athens, but also historians and archaeologists – talk as though the agora in Roman times had moved to a new location.
I see some serious problems with this way of looking at things.
For a start we don’t know at all what the Roman Agora was called in antiquity. I think it probably was thought of as an agora but it is highly unlikely anybody called it the ‘ROMAN agora’. Both squares continued in use so there is no reason to think that the Roman period Athenians thought of it as taking over as the main public square of the city. It was quite common by this time for cities to have more than one agora and although one usually had a more political, the other a more commercial function, the distinction between the two was rarely absolute.
There is also actually very little evidence that the Roman Agora took away any trading activity from the old square let alone that it took away all commerce. There was still plenty of room on the Classical Agora, in among the new buildings, for a crowd of tens of thousands of people to have gathered so there’s no reason to think that temporary market stalls couldn’t have been erected there. The magnificent Stoa of Attalos constructed to line the eastern side of that square in the mid 2nd century BC was most likely a grand shopping arcade and it carried on being used in Roman times. Admittedly it probably wasn’t where lowly goods like grain, meat and vegetables were sold – it was more likely for luxury products that needed to be stored behind lock and key within its shops – but it was a commercial premises nonetheless.
Even more importantly there are some very good reasons for thinking that the place where the Roman Agora was built was already the location for a commercial market before that time. A row of butcher’s shops, or taverns that predated the Roman agora were found just to the west of it. In addition, the famous Tower of the Winds, like the Stoa of Attalos constructed in the mid 2nd Century BC, stood just to the east of where the Roman Agora was built, was a public clock and weather station. The obvious place to have set up such a building would have been in a public market space. So, far from taking commerce away from the old Classical agora it seems rather more likely that what the construction of the Roman Agora actually did was to provide grander premises for a function that was taking place on exactly the same spot, for at least the preceding century, perhaps for much, much longer.
The consensus view of the impact of the Roman Agora on Athenian life turns out then to depend on some rather bold assumptions that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. It is certainly far too simplistic to see the building as evidence of civic decline.
For cities throughout the Roman Empire conclusions about the nature of public space often rest on similar ‘common sense’ assumptions and archaeological evidence is often used in a similar way to reinforce preconceived ideas about social and cultural life. The Roman Agora at Athens is just the tip of a very large iceberg of things about Roman public space that we don’t understand as well as we think we do.
I some upcoming posts I’m planning to pursue this subject further, to cast more darkness over things we thought we already knew and, hopefully, to offer some light in the form of suggestions for new directions might take in investigating the subject.
In the meantime if you have any comments on what you’ve read here I’d be glad to hear them.