Sunday, September 21, 2014


Roland R. R. Smith, The Marble Reliefs from the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion. Aphrodisias, 6. Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2013. Pp. xv, 376; 175 p. of plates. ISBN 9783805346054. €89.90.

Reviewed by Björn C. Ewald, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a comprehensive, heavyweight documentation and interpretation of a key archaeological monument, handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated. The volume represents the culmination of decades of on-site research on the Sebasteion and its reliefs in Aphrodisias (Caria) by the author and his collaborators; it comprises hundreds of photographs, drawings, maps and reconstructions, including a long fold-out reconstruction of the Sebasteion's south building (pl. 176). Although the focus of the book is firmly on the iconography and interpretation of the marble reliefs that once graced the two porticos of the Julio-Claudian structure in Aphrodisias, Smith's opus magnum offers a wealth of insights on other issues: from a useful synopsis of the history and urbanism of Aphrodisias in the introductory chapter to minute details of the architectural process, and from the circulation of iconographic patterns in the Roman empire to the intricacies of the defacing of pagan sculpture in late antiquity (pp. 45-49).

The book is loosely organized around the four distinct parts that constitute the Sebasteion complex; these, also clearly distinguished in the dedicatory inscriptions, are as follows: 1) A propylon that not only provided access but also mediated between the different orientations of the Sebasteion and the city grid to the west of it. This was less of a gate than a "columnar screen" (p. 26) that provided effective views of the two porticos and the processional road. It also set the tone for what the viewer was going to find inside: The propylon was richly decorated with honorific statues of the Julio-Claudian family, including Aphrodite Prometor (Venus Genetrix), Aineas, and even Augustus' mother Atia.

2) and 3) Two (north and south) porticos flanking the processional road, each of them three storeys high and decorated with 100 or more reliefs in the upper two storeys. The north building displayed 50 ethnos reliefs ("nations of empire") in the second storey ("B-series"), and the same number of reliefs with "imperial subjects…divinities...and universal allegories of time and place" (p. 86) in the third storey ("A-series"). The south building housed 52 reliefs depicting "gods and emperors" in the third storey ("C-series") and 51 reliefs with "myths and heroes" in the second storey ("D-series"); the differing number of reliefs in the two stories result from a second floor window on the building's east end. About 80 of the 203 original reliefs, and fragments of ca. 20 more, remain, most of them from the better preserved south building.

4) The (heavily spoliated) temple at the east end of the complex, a hexastyle Corinthian prostylos which was elevated above the rest by several meters; it was dedicated to Tiberius, Livia (as "new Demeter") and Aphrodite, very likely also to "Augustus Zeus Patroos" (p. 21).

Treatment of these different elements of the Sebasteion complex is necessarily uneven, due to the varying degrees of preservation. The propylon and the north building are discussed in chapters two and three, while treatment of the south building, which provides the bulk of the reliefs, is spread out over chapters four and five. A brief presentation of the temple is embedded in the long introductory first chapter (pp. 28-30).

The building of the Sebasteion complex was sponsored by two families from the local aristocracy "who divided the project between them" (p. 309) and who also oversaw its later restoration and maintenance (pp. 13-23, on dedicatory inscriptions and patrons). This was a real division of planning and labour which can be traced into the details of the architecture and carving: The brothers Eusebes and Menandros, and Eusebes' wife Apphias, were responsible for the north portico and the propylon; the brothers Attalos and Diogenes, as well as Attalos' wife Attalis Apphion (a priestess of Aphrodite and the imperial cult), oversaw the building of the south portico and the temple. The complex was dedicated (in this order) to Aphrodite (the city goddess), the Theoi Sebastoi (i.e., the Roman emperors, a designation that was at once broader and more inclusive than the Latin Divi Augusti), as well as the demos; over time, the association with the imperial cult appears to have become the dominant aspect (p. 1). Smith recognizes clearly the broader historical framework of the imperial cult, its flexible nature and local adaptability, as well as its role as a generator of new forms of material culture and of innovative and hybrid iconographies.

The planning and construction of the Sebasteion complex can be dated with some certainty to the time from the early reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, with much of the work being carried out in the period of Claudius and during the first years of Nero's reign. Smith plausibly hypothesizes two possible key factors behind the conception of the complex in the early Tiberian period (pp. 7-9): 1) An acute "anxiety" on the part of the city which had successfully capitalized on its association with Venus/Aphrodite and been showered with privileges under Caesar and Augustus, but whose future around the time of Augustus' death was less certain; and 2) The renewal of its privileges in 22 AD when, in a memorable spectacle reported by Tacitus (Ann. 3.60-63), the Roman senate reviewed the asylum rights of Greek poleis after reported abuse (p. 8-9). In either case, the building of the Sebasteion would have been an expression of gratitude for past Roman privileges and favours, and a 'deposit' on future ones. It is unsurprising, then, that Roman myth-history gets its fair share in the Sebasteion reliefs (unusual in the Greek East), that they depict personifications of the Roman senate and the Roman people, and that there are structural parallels between the visual language of the reliefs and the praise of emperors (and, one could add, of gods and cities) in epideictic rhetoric (pp. 312-313).

The Roman orientation of the monument is readily apparent in many aspects of its design. Models for the ethnos reliefs of the North Building likely originated in Rome, in a monument akin to the elusive Porticus ad Nationes (pp. 113-121); the Roman prototypes probably found their way to Aphrodisias in the form of drawings on wood or papyrus, and likely as part of the luggage of the frequent embassies that travelled between homeland and capital (p. 310). The focal point of the complex was a "Roman-style podium temple" (p. 28), and the cutting-edge architecture of the Fora of Caesar and Augustus in Rome clearly inspired the layout of the complex (pp. 11-13; 36-38). The analogy, however, only extends to the general arrangement as well as the spatial effect produced by the architecture — its inward orientation and the sense of total enclosure caused by the porticos and their embellishment—, not to the function of the porticos, or their interior decoration. While the Roman Imperial Fora and their porticos served a wide array of judicial, ceremonial and educational purposes, the practical function of the Sebasteion porticos is anything but clear. The rooms inside appear to have been rather simple and characterized by a striking lack of décor; the floors were of plain earth, and interior access to the upper storeys, as well as lighting, was very limited.

The Sebasteion reliefs represent, as Smith puts it, "the city's relationship to Roman imperial power and to its own local and Hellenic traditions as they had evolved by the first century AD" (p. 1). The reliefs of the north building illustrate the extent, permanence, and pacifying power of Roman rule. They do so by juxtaposing cosmic allegories and members of the imperial family in the third storey ("A-series") to a series of ethnos reliefs in the second storey ("B-series"). The reliefs of the south building, by contrast, combine "scenes of imperial conquest and world dominion in a grand Hellenistic style in the third storey" with a "long sequence of scenes from heroic mythology" in the storey below. In doing so, they visually express the concept that Roman emperors were indeed "Theoi Sebastoi Olympioi". They moreover imply that Roman military achievements and Roman history were a "natural continuation of Greek myth-history" (p. 314).

Modes and strategies of representation vary accordingly between the different series of reliefs: In the ethnos panels of the north building, the allegorical content is much more prominent and more programmatic than in the reliefs from the south building. While the north portico offers a "purely Roman vision of empire as a verifiable set of concrete conquests" (p. 314), the reliefs of the south one interpret Roman imperial power through the Hellenistic categories and iconographies of ruler worship. They were an attempt to make sense of Roman power by translating it into a pre-existing local idiom that would have been easily understood: Roman emperors, just like the Hellenistic rulers before them, are directly compared to Greek heroes and strongmen such as Herakles and Meleager; in accordance with old conventions of Greek art, their victory requires dynamic effort and an athletic physique. Unlike the ethnos figures, the mythological characters in the reliefs are not named: their recognisability was taken for granted because viewers would have been familiar with the iconographic tradition in which they stood.

What was the reasoning behind the arrangement of the reliefs? Smith notes that the panels were grouped together in a rather "loose and flexible sequence with some shorter sequences within it of more directed thematic coherence" (p. 298). The placement of the reliefs, in other words, was by no means arbitrary, but neither was it strictly dictated by a single overarching theme or allegorical message . Mythological figures and scenes carried an irreducible interest and value in themselves, and their semantic richness was never entirely eclipsed by the secondary meanings that resulted from their placement within a larger series or program. Meaningful (and not always predictable) interferences and cross connections between the reliefs would have proliferated on different levels: formal, genealogical, local and thematic.

Smith's opus magnum is an essential and outstanding addition to our bibliography on myth and identity in the Greek east, on "the local and the global" (Tim Whitmarsh) in the Roman empire, and more generally on iconography, sculpture and architecture in the early Imperial period. While this is not a book to carry along on one's next visit to Aphrodisias (it weighs in at over 3 kg), one can only hope that its sheer mass will not intimidate potential readers: It is eminently readable, and the clear organization of the evidence in combination with short summaries and lists of the main points (as well as the many plans and drawings) make it easy to follow the author's argument when the archaeological situation gets complicated. Smith's discussion of the individual panels is meticulous, balanced and convincing; each relief is presented against the wider background of the iconographic tradition in East and West. Where reconstructions and attributions are uncertain, or the evidence is inconclusive, this is duly noted. The dedicatory inscriptions are properly presented, with transcription, translation and detailed commentary. Some readers may have appreciated a brief discussion of the original polychromy of the reliefs, even more so since the author himself notes the parallels between the "architecturally framed marble pictures" (p. 32) of the Sebasteion porticos and picture galleries attested in ancient art and literature, including the pinakes used in Hellenistic theatre architecture (p. 32-36: "Reliefs as framed pictures"). But any such discussion would have had to be entirely speculative, since no traces of color appear to be preserved.

The Sebasteion reliefs put our modern sensibilities about the relation between art and politics to the test. We cannot but look at this unashamed glorification of Roman imperial might in the guise of Greek myth with unease, or at least with a combination of repulsion and attraction. For us, the blunt aestheticisation of Roman politics and its elevation to the order of myth smack of propaganda and ideology. It is no surprise that the Sebasteion reliefs have elicited such strong scholarly responses (e.g., Iain Ferris: "pornography of conquest", as cited by Smith p. 1 note 4). Our problems with such monuments stem from the fact that (in simple terms) critical art historians and archaeologists like art that challenges, resists or subverts power, not art that glorifies it. While there may be no methodologically sound way to reconstruct the perspective of a 'subaltern' viewer of the Sebasteion reliefs (or even that of the patron's fellow aristocrats), it is perhaps not merely futile or romantic to ask, as Smith does at the end of his book, "what contemporaries made of such a display" (p. 314). The irony of Roman emperors as Greek heroes in athletic nudity, of the somewhat forced attempt to amalgamate heterogeneous mythospheres, or of the representation of personifications of pacified peoples in a Roman province will not have been lost on everyone.

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