Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Gregor Kalas, The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming Public Space. Ashley and Peter Larkin series in Greek and Roman culture. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 228. ISBN 9780292760783. $60.00.

Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, Hunter College, CUNY (

Version at BMCR home site


Gregor Kalas' new volume joins a burgeoning cohort of projects dedicated to the systematic analysis and modeling of the late-Roman incarnation of the Forum, which for Kalas comprises the two centuries between Diocletian and the Tetrarchy and the deposition of the last western emperor in 476. Much of the most exciting recent work has come in the form of various digital mapping and modeling initiatives, which Kalas knows well and which have shaped his approach to the Forum as lived (and three-dimensional) space, a place whose architectural backdrops and collections of statues and honorary monuments were carefully curated for maximum visual and symbolic effect. 1 He describes his book as having been "developed in tandem with" a new initiative of the UCLA Digital Humanities Center called "Visualizing Statues in the Late Roman Forum," a collaborative project between the author, C. Johnson, and D. Favro. The large-format volume is attractively-produced and copiously illustrated with plans, photographs, and 3-D digital reconstructions, many more of which are accessible on the digital platforms Kalas draws on.

Kalas' study departs from the premise that the physical environment of the Forum, and the dynamics of power and patronage encoded therein, entered a new and distinct phase beginning with the accession of Diocletian, and the more authoritarian paradigm of emperorship and imperial administration that prevailed thereafter. Like local notables across the empire from the later third century on, members of the senatorial order at Rome were encouraged to turn their attention to the maintenance and restoration of old buildings and monuments rather than the construction of new ones, the latter a privilege increasingly reserved for the emperors themselves and their designated subordinates. Kalas is keen to explore how Roman senatorial aristocrats adapted to the changing political climate and the constraints imposed by usually distant emperors on their traditional prerogatives as civic benefactors, and contends that senators found new ways to commemorate themselves, negotiate status and honors, and assert their continuing patronage over the most symbolically-charged of Rome's public spaces: "This book addresses a fundamental question about the preservation of the Roman Forum as a built environment: How did sponsors and imperial authorities revise urban experiences through the subtle changes—the restoration of buildings and the renewal of monumental installations—that reactivated important memories?" (p. 11).

Kalas engages both with architecture and with freestanding sculpture and commemorative monuments (honorary columns and the like). Most of what he has to say about architecture comes in Chapters 1 and 2, on Diocletian/the Tetrarchy and Constantine, respectively, in large part because the most substantial and well-documented building-projects occurred between the accession of Diocletian in 284/85 and the early part of Constantine's reign (the twin Tetrarchic rostra with their five-column monuments, the reconstructed Senate-house, Maxentius' basilica and rotunda on the Via Sacra, and the Constantinian appropriations of and alterations to Maxentian projects). For Kalas, the Tetrarchs turned the Forum's central plaza into a monument to themselves and their new system of collegiate autocracy, bracketing it with towering five-column monuments on the old western and new eastern rostra, and in the process marginalizing the senatorial aristocracy, which saw the Forum transformed into a space for the exaltation of distant sovereigns who rarely appeared in Rome and whose relations with the Senate remained distant and chilly.

So far, I think, so good; but Kalas evidently considers Maxentius to have operated in a similarly peremptory manner (at p. 55 he cites the probably Maxentian standards recovered on the north slopes of the Palatine in 2006 as an indication of Maxentius' regal haughtiness), again monopolizing the built space of the forum with larger-than-life statues of himself, along with his basilica and rotunda, and leaving it for "Constantine the Restorer" (the title of Chapter 2) to free the Senate and people of Rome from the yoke of tyranny and return senators to active participation in the governance of the city and the stewardship of the Forum's monuments. "Constantine further returned to a rhythm of life that encouraged senators to join administrative positions and invited the people to participate in civic rituals" (p. 48; as if Maxentius had done otherwise) and "Constantine … reestablished justice by granting liberty and restoring properties to Christians and other religious minorities" (p. 50; the question of whose "justice" aside, Maxentius was hardly a persecutor of Christians, and indeed allowed for the election of a new bishop of Rome) seem to me uncomfortably close to the line taken by Constantine's Christian apologists, notably Lactantius.2 My own view is that Maxentius had considerable support from Senate and people alike, a fortiori for much the same reasons Kalas gives in relation to Constantine: Maxentius made Rome a true imperial residence again, dealt closely with the Senate, distributed patronage and favors, commissioned large and costly building-projects, and—additionally—courted the favor of the city's garrison. Surely, as many have noted, Constantine's abolition of the Praetorian Guard and the equites singulares upon his defeat of Maxentius suggests that the latter enjoyed more than tepid support from the army.

Kalas seems to believe that most Romans also believed, that Constantine was a "legitimate" emperor and Maxentius a "usurper"; he thus contends (p. 47) that "Roman elites" happily supported him, displayed their support by dedicating new or reworked monuments and statues to him, and thereby "forged his reputation as a restorer." My own, perhaps more cynical, view is that senators who had recently and often eagerly acquiesced in and benefited from Maxentius' rule in Rome did everything possible to ensure their self-preservation by mollifying the victor of the Milvian Bridge. What other choice, save incurring Constantine's wrath, did they have? In the end, Constantine and the Senate made a public show of concord and reconciliation. Senators hastened to purge themselves, and the monumental center of Rome, of any taint of association with the defeated "tyrant," while Constantine made a show of restoring "liberty" to the Senate, though I imagine that no senator as an individual, nor the Senate as a body, undertook any initiative of consequence without the victor's consent, and often his active intervention.

The deeper underlying issue is that of the tension between imperial volition and senatorial participation, which is latent in much of Kalas' discussion of, for example, the Constantinian modifications, or appropriations—Kalas prefers Charles Hedrick, Jr.'s metaphor of literary "revisions"—of Maxentius' basilica and rotunda in the Forum, and later on in the book of the senatorial sponsors of statues honoring emperors and generalissimos such as Stilicho and Aetius.3 Did Constantine order the installation of his giant statue in the basilica of Maxentius, and the modifications to the fa├žade of the adjacent rotunda? Were these senatorial initiatives? Kalas does not explicitly confront the problem of how we might decide who did what, but implies that the Senate had a larger and more autonomous role in the process of honoring Constantine and "editing" Maxentius's legacy out of the built environment of the Forum than I think it did.4 But it should be frankly stated that the written sources provide no definitive answers; and the question remains open.

The heart of the book lies in Chapters 3 and 4, where Kalas draws on the results of his collaborative "Visualizing Statues in the Late Roman Forum" project to address the dedication and display of statuary in the fourth and early fifth centuries. In Chapter 3, he effectively makes the case that the most central and politically significant areas of the Forum, the open space in front of the Senate-house and the main plaza between the two rostra, were reserved almost exclusively for statues of the emperors and their favorites. Senators nonetheless had a role to play here, by sponsoring such statues and including their names and titles with the dedications. A show of collegiality between senators and the imperial authorities ensued: the emperors were suitably honored and flattered, while leading senators could assert their complicity with the regime and appear in their traditional guise as bestowers of honors. But in more peripheral and less politically-charged areas, notably the porticoes of the Basilicas Aemilia and Julia, senatorial patrons seem to have had considerable freedom to curate displays of ornamental statuary. As Kalas shows in Ch. 4, works taken from elsewhere in the city, including statues by famous Greek sculptors, were rededicated in these locations, by senators who thereby proclaimed themselves cultivated and eminent renovators of Rome's cultural patrimony.

Roman senators thus enjoyed more opportunities to engage in displays of euergetism than did local elites across most of the empire in late antiquity, a prerogative that extended also into the realm of architecture. While Roman senators too were prohibited by law from erecting new buildings, still in the later fourth century they restored many of the Forum's most ancient and conspicuous monuments, especially temples (Castor and Pollux, Saturn, the porticus deorum consentium, etc.), which Kalas discusses in Ch. 5. At a time when traditional religion was subject to creeping strictures imposed by Christian emperors, these buildings could be recast as civic adornments, restored to preserve the monumental grandeur of the city-center. Kalas here engages with much recent work on spolia, and subscribes firmly to the idea that their use and conspicuous display were intended to call attention to the act of restoration and the revalorization of the past. While I am sympathetic to this approach, I would nonetheless suggest that more practical constraints played a role in the recycling of the granite monoliths installed in the porch of the Temple of Saturn in the 360s, for example. While their employment was undoubtedly costly and difficult, as Kalas says, surely the sourcing of new monolithic columns would have placed considerably greater, perhaps prohibitive, strain on the resources of a senatorial patron. The Senate-house and the nearby atrium libertatis and secretarium Senatus constituted the other focus of senatorially-sponsored restructuring and embellishment in the fourth and fifth centuries, discussed in Ch. 6.

Kalas devotes half of his brief conclusion to a "Postscript on Ostrogothic Rome," a subject I wish he had treated in greater depth. I don't think his suggestion on p. 170 that "the system by which senators believed they mediated the goals of the emperors on behalf of the people had fallen apart" by Theoderic's reign justifies the decision to exclude the half-century after 476 from his purview. I would say, rather, that relations between the Senate and the Ostrogothic king presumed the latter to be a close surrogate for late-antique emperors, and further that Theoderic's reign probably witnessed more restoration-projects in the Forum than had occurred in any period of similar length since the early fifth century, at the latest. It may be that the Forum in its 'final' ancient form, as it has come down to us, is as much a product of the early sixth century as of the preceding two centuries. More consideration of the considerable evidence for architectural restoration and honorary dedications in the Forum under Theoderic would, I think, have shed further light on those dynamics of senatorial patronage in the fourth and fifth centuries about which Kalas' book provides much food for thought. ​


1.   The Oxford Last Statues of Antiquity project; the UCLA Digital Roman Forum project; the Rome Reborn project; the Hypercities collaboration between UCLA and USC.
2.   For the line quoted on p. 50, Kalas in fact gives (only) Lactantius as his source.
3.   C. W. Hedrick, Jr. History and Silence: Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (Austin, 2000).
4.   With regard to statue-dedications, Kalas' statement on p. 79 that "senatorial decree was needed to grant the emperor a portrait statue in the Forum" seems to me to miss the point that the Senate was hardly in a position to oppose the erection of imperial statues; and indeed, as Kalas says, every emperor from Diocletian through Honorius, with the lone and understandable exception of Jovian, is known to have been so honored. Senatorial decree was, at best, a formality.

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