Monday, July 6, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Rachel Meredith Kousser, Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xv, 208. ISBN 9780521877824. $85.00.
Reviewed by Olympia Bobou, Brasenose College, Oxford


[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical by Rachel Kousser is a short monograph tackling a phenomenon spanning several centuries: the emergence of classicizing statuary in the fourth century BCE and its uses and transformations in the changing and complex world of the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods.

Kousser's methodological weapon of choice in examining and assessing the ways a particular image was used, transmitted, and transformed from period to period and according to each context in which it was set up, is the theory of reception. Even though she acknowledges the contribution of recent studies on Roman statuary, and most notably of those scholars propagating the importance of emulation in Roman artistic circles, and those emphasising the originality of Roman statuary, she identifies two significant problems with modern approaches. First of all, statues are studied outside their specific historical context and, secondly, without any concern as to the particular needs and beliefs of local populations in the areas where the statues were placed. By focusing on the statue of the Aphrodite of Capua type and analysing its differing uses according to location and patron requirements, Kousser hopes to address these problems.

In the first chapter, Kousser looks at the information regarding the original statue of the Aphrodite of Capua, and its Hellenistic copies and variations. She incorporates the statue in a series of partially clothed Aphrodite images produced from the late fifth century BCE onwards, and acknowledges the spirit of emulation that governed the creation of the type. The original of the Aphrodite of Capua is accepted to have been that of the Armed Aphrodite (Aphrodite Hoplismene), a cult statue of the goddess placed in her sanctuary at Acrocorinth. Kousser examines the evidence for the existence of the statue in Corinth in the Hellenistic and Roman period, and then proceeds into a detailed discussion of the different meanings that variations of the type might have had. For that reason, she focuses on the 'Venus de Milo', found in the gymnasium of Melos, small-scale statuettes from houses, and terracotta figurines from tombs.

In the second chapter, Kousser examines the uses and functions of classical images in early imperial Roman art, by focusing on specific examples in large and small scale. These highlight the changes occurring in the visual language of the period, and the tensions between programmatic, classicizing images, and the meaning imbued in them. The Aphrodite of Capua type proves a flexible vehicle for images denoting both sensuality and valour, as can be shown by the use of the type for both Venus and Victoria statues. At the same time, the placement of different variations (in diverse public spaces such as the Forum Romanum, or that of Brescia, or the tomb of Zoilos in Aphrodisias, but also sword scabbards from Germany, as well as coinage), demonstrates the fluidity of meaning that the image has in the period under discussion, and the way that different signifiers still battle for supremacy over a single sign.

In the third chapter, Kousser discusses the role of classicizing sculpture as a tool used for the consolidation of the Roman Empire, and as means of mediation between elite classes and state. The images derivative of the Aphrodite of Capua type are shown to be used in imperial state art, especially in arches and coinage, in order to allude to imperial power, virtue and culture. The desirability of victory and power, which was part of the type's intrinsic meaning since the creation of the Aphrodite Hoplismene, is accentuated through the progressive, even aggressive, exposure of the goddess's flesh and becomes associated with the desirability of Roman rule and government, especially when it is used outside the capital. But, whereas Victory images still refer to victory, images of Aphrodite, especially in Asia Minor, allude to culture, erudition and Greek tradition.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the use of these idealistic and retrospective images in the shifting world of late antiquity, a world moving from paganism to Christianity. She examines them in 'three major contexts:... imperial triumphal monuments, houses and villa décor, and tombs' (112). Kousser argues that they are used selectively, and that their significance lies in disguising the sense of discord and change of period.

In the conclusions, Kousser first reiterates the basic principles of her approach, and how, instead of focusing either on the uniformity or the originality of Roman idealistic art, it shows classicizing art as a refined body of works whose significance and appreciation was dependent on the nuanced elaboration of well-known originals. She then proceeds to a review of the recent scholarship on Roman classicism that highlights the great number and variety of idealistic statues, and their equally varied placement and geographic distribution. Finally, she looks briefly at three statues (known from copies and originals) and examines them through the lens of her approach, in order to show how even seemingly unproblematic statues such as the Athena Parthenos or the so-called Herculaneum Women, could be ascribed a different meaning and importance depending on the period in which the copy was made, and the place where it was set up.

On the whole, the identification of the meaning of idealizing statuary in both the Hellenistic and Roman period is an ambitious project, even when attempted through the examination of a single statuary type. As a result, the chapters are unequal in length, and depth. Even though the difference in length can be explained by the relative abundance or lack of material evidence, the discrepancy in the treatment of the different copies is problematic. The discussions concerning Aphrodite statuettes, classicizing art in private contexts of the Early empire, sarcophagi and the entire fourth chapter offer tantalizing glimpses into the uses of idealistic art in general, and not just sculpture, and it would have been desirable to see more on these topics.

From a methodological point of view, there is one main problem. In several cases, the argumentation is based on hypotheses or personal interpretations, that take into account much later statuary and literary accounts. This is a traditional approach that continues the controversial argumentation that has existed concerning ideal statuary since the 19th century. One example of that can be seen in her analysis of the statue of Aphrodite Hoplismene .

The best evidence for the existence of the statue of the armed Aphrodite date from the Roman period. Kousser starts with previously studied Severan coins depicting the statue, and then proceeds to Antonine frescos, late antique statues and back to second century lamps (20-23, figs 8-11). The logic of the presentation is difficult to follow. Moreover, lamps and statuettes with such images of Aphrodite were not confined to Corinth, and testify rather to the popularity of the Aphrodite image than to the specificity of the meaning of the type in Corinth.

The evidence for the presence of a statue of the goddess in Acrocorinth is scant, and there are no Late Classical or Hellenistic literary sources to help us recognize or reconstruct the statue. For that reason, Kousser cites two terracotta statuettes from the Tile Works at Corinth (figs 12-13) that are identified as 'evidence ...for the early use of the ... type' (24). Yet, neither of the two figurines bears a close enough resemblance to be positively identified as a copy or even a variation of the Aphrodite of Capua type.1

Based on this evidence, Kousser proceeds to reconstruct a lost original that is identical to the one depicted in coins and frescos of the Roman period, and treat that hypothetical original, as the original of the type throughout her discussion of the variations and copies of the statue of the Aphrodite of Capua type.

Moreover, the argument is weakened further by incorrect citations of ancient Greek. The word used for shield is hoplon, not hoplos (23), and hoplismene is the past participle of the verb hoplizo, which means to make/be ready, or be armed. Therefore, the word itself does not '[draw] attention to the shield (the hoplos') held by the goddess' (23), but rather points out that the goddess is armed.

This kind of circular argumentation can be found in other instances in the book, and one must be especially attentive while reading, because a hypothesis, no matter how likely or plausible, is still a hypothesis and should be treated as such. This is especially important since, because of the title and subject matter, the book will be read by undergraduates.

Another problem when trying to understand the use of images based on the Aphrodite of Capua type, is that once the subject matter of an image changes, then so does its meaning. It is to be expected that an image of Aphrodite will have different connotations, functions and allusions than an image of Victory.

Finally, the aim of the book according to Kousser is to study 'the historical evolution of a major sculptural type ... [and to use] this as a case study through which to analyze a series of broader artistic receptions/transformations' (4). Furthermore, in the introduction Kousser insists on her use of reception theory as a methodological tool. For this reason, one is led to expect the history of the type's reception, rather than the history of the type. However, this is almost always the weakest aspect of each chapter.

In the first chapter, the emphasis is on the typology and the iconography of the Aphrodite of the Capua type. The use and reception of the image of the goddess takes a secondary place (seven pages out of eighteen in the discussion of Aphrodite Hoplismene and its variations), while the reception and use of terracotta figurines especially is summarily described as funerary.2

The situation is similar in the second chapter, with the focus again on the shifting iconographies of the figures. The Zoilos monument in Aphrodisias is well-published, and so could have been a good test case for the reception of idealistic images in an Eastern provincial city with ambitions of grandeur. The Victory of Brescia and the possible reception of an idealistic sculpture in a newly created civilian colony are similarly unexplored. Cameos and coins are discussed for their typology only.

In the third chapter, when discussing the Victory from the column of Trajan, Kousser focuses on the size and framing of the divine figures, but does not indicate the actual height and placement of the panel with the Victory, and how that would have impaired the highly nuanced view that she suggests. Kousser turns away from discussions of style and iconography when examining votive columns from Roman Germany, but returns to them when analyzing statues of Aphrodite from bath complexes.

In this respect, the fourth chapter offers the best examples on using reception theory in order to understand idealistic, classicizing images, such as figures of Victories in imperial monuments in Rome and Constantinople. Unfortunately, due to the brevity of this chapter, her analysis is neither detailed or in-depth.

Kousser also seems to be alternating between patrons and viewers when discussing uses and meanings. The Aphrodite Hoplismene is seen through the eyes of the worshippers, but not the commissioners, a Mars-Venus group found in the Forum Augusti is discussed in relation to its viewers, the Tomb of Zoilos is studied in connection to Zoilos, the Victory of Brescia is also seen through the eyes of the commissioners, and so on. Of course, we do not always have information about both, but either some consistency in her treatment or some acknowledgment of the possible patrons and viewers would have been welcome.

This also opens the question: which viewers are we talking about? Kousser only rarely makes some attempts to differentiate and identify her viewers, and even then, they tend to belong to the upper classes and be mostly male. To her credit, she is being cautious and most times her potential viewers can also be identified with the patrons of the works she discusses (as in the case of images on gems and swords). Nevertheless, recognizing the multiplicity of viewers may be a difficult task, but not an impossible one.3

But, Kousser's use of traditional approaches is masterful and proves to be the great strength of the book. Instead of an old-fashioned, staid methodology, Kousser demonstrates how careful iconographic analysis of the material can be insightful and help us understand better the importance of sculpture in specific contexts. Kousser's discussion of Aphrodite of Melos offers glimpses of the possible meanings of Aphrodite's attributes in an athletic-educational setting. Her analysis of gems and glass pastes of Victoria Romana is solid, perceptive and innovative in its conclusions. The same can be seen in her treatment of Aphrodite figures from baths in Asia Minor.

On the whole, the book presents an exciting topic. If treated with caution, it can offer valuable insight to the way idealistic sculpture was used in specific contexts and specific periods. When we have adequate information regarding the context and usage of particular statues, Kousser's stated approach can be fruitful and enrich our understanding of the past.


1. Creating the past: the origins of classicism in Hellenistic sculpture
2. From Greece to Rome: retrospective sculpture in the early empire
3. From metropolis to empire: retrospective sculpture in the high empire
4. From Roman to Christian: retrospection and transformation in late antique art


1.   Merker, in her publication of the statuette depicted on fig. 12, identifies it as a 'woman or goddess, probably arranging her hair,' G. S. Merker, The Greek Tile Works at Corinth: The Site and Finds (2006), 117, no. 252.
2.   An examination of the different finds and terracotta figurines from tombs shows that the figure of Aphrodite could have had a different meaning in the tomb of a young girl or a maiden from that of a married woman. For some insights on the potential and diverse uses (and users) of such statuettes, see D. Graepler, Tonfiguren im Grab: Fundkontexte hellenistischer Terrakotten aus der Nekropole von Tarent (1997), or U. Mrogenda, Die Terrakottafiguren von Myrina : eine Untersuchung ihrer möglichen Bedeutung und Funktion im Grabzusammenhang (1996).
3.   Caroline Vout's Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (2007), offers a good example of how we can plausibly identify and discuss different possible viewers, and shows one way of dealing with this problem.

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