Wednesday, September 12, 2018


R. R. R. Smith, Bryan Ward-Perkins (ed.), The Last Statues of Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxxiii, 410. ISBN 9780198753322. $165.00.

Reviewed by Valentina Di Napoli, Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece and University of Patras (

Version at BMCR home site

[The authors and titles are listed below.]

This collection of essays presentssome results of the research project "The Last Statues of Antiquity" (LSA), whose aim (Preface, p. v), "was to collect the full range of evidence for new, or newly erected, statues in the late Roman period, to examine the nature of these statues and how they were used, and to consider why they slowly disappeared from the urban landscape." This ambitious goal has an empire-wide character and therefore deals with an enormous wealth of material: more than 2,800 statues and inscribed statue bases set up after the accession of Diocletian in AD 284 and before the end of the statue habit in the early 7th century. The volume is the companion to the Last Statues of Antiquity (LSA) Database created between 2009 and 2012. This database is searchable in several different ways: according to chronology, region of provenance, awarder and honorand, and many other criteria. The volume largely enhances the LSA database by discussing the material critically and in detail—, something impossible to achieve in the short individual entries of the database itself.

The book is divided into three sections, of which the first two are "designed to proceed from a wide macro-picture of empire-wide statue use, to discrete provincial groups, east and west, to particular city contexts" (p. vii), while the last one offers some thematic readings of the material. The first two chapters (by Smith and Ward-Perkins respectively) function as an introduction, exploring issues related to the purposes and habits behind erecting statues in the late Roman empire, and to the epigraphic evidence. The first section is dedicated to the regions, the second focuses on the cities – all of them provincial or imperial capitals, with the sole exception of Athens –, and the third deals with matters of chronology, types of honorands, and style. A useful list of concordance with the LSA database and a long bibliography complete the volume. 1 The material discussed includes only honorific portrait statues and inscribed statue bases erected in public locations (as the editors declare in the preface, they purposely omitted mythological sculpture, statuettes, and sarcophagi ) yet it constitutes a huge amount of evidence. This fact as well as the variety of approaches and the broad geographical scope make a detailed review of the book a difficult undertaking. I therefore highlight only some interesting aspects of this interesting work.

One of the key themes throughout the book is the importance of recycling and reusing statues and statue bases in late antiquity. It is a matter of fact that many Greek and Roman statues would have not survived, had they not enjoyed a late antique reuse. Sculptures were restored, relocated, rededicated, and thanks to this continuous process many of them have endured. Recycling was more systematically undertaken from the tetrarchic period onwards: virtually all the bases were re-inscribed with new texts, and more than half of the statuary was reused (Smith, p. 4). This practice, already known to specialists, is the core of the interesting chapter by Julia Lenaghan (pp. 267-279). on 17 portrait sculptures from both the eastern and the western empire. These are externally dated to the fourth century, thus offering a significant dataset which extensively broadens our knowledge on this problematic period in portrait sculpture. Lenaghan concludes that until the Theodosian period reuse was the norm for such statues, and that "in terms of broader statue practice and costume choice, the reign of Constantine was less pivotal than has often been suggested" (p. 279). Since epigraphists and sculptural experts rarely publish jointly the results of their studies, the inclusive coverage of this book (plus the LSA database) greatly enhances its value. Another key theme constantly highlighted throughout this book regards innovations in statue costumes. Both chlamys (the austere costume for office-holders in the imperial service) and the new-style toga (worn by men of senatorial rank and above) represent a novelty in late antique portrait sculpture. We can now affirm that the chlamys was widely adopted in the Greek east during the later fourth and fifth centuries, although it was probably commonly worn before that period. The new-style toga appeared in the late fourth century, gained favour in the following one, and was primarily adopted in the eastern empire. At the same time, however, more traditional attires—such as the old toga, a symbol of Roman citizenship, and the himation, strongly associated with the concept of well-disciplined citizen and preferred in the eastern part of the empire— continued in use and retained their semantic strength and popularity throughout the late antique period.

A welcome feature of this book is that authors constantly consider questions not only about the viewers' perceptions of the material, but also about the commissioners' choices. For instance, chronology and distribution patterns reveal that the new-style toga was chosen as a strong statement of power and status, while the chlamys "carried a strong, generalized, but concrete effect of military-style power" (Smith, p. 18). Or, to cite another example, the practice of reuse and recycling emerges much more as a clear marker of continuity and the appeal of tradition, than as a sign of laziness and economy. This attitude towards the LSA material allows ideas embodied in costumes and attitudes to be construed in a new and more precise way and with more force than before. Finally, similarly welcome are the constant comparisons and contrasts with earlier periods, from which emerges a clearer picture of the whole phenomenon. For instance, while regional distribution reveals very few changes from previous centuries, a shift in honorands shows an increase in number of emperors and governors at the expense of local benefactors, women and athletes.

The chapters of this volume explore in detail the last phase of what the authors call "the statue habit", that is, the practice of displaying honorific statues in public places, which endured no fewer than 1,000 years. Issues that are traditionally familiar to specialists in the field are here examined through an imposing set of data. The editors and authors are mindful of the limitations of their study: that one can rely on published material only, and that there exist inconsistencies in the transmission of ancient data and evidence. These limitations can pose methodological questions, if those proposing a new study are unaware of the shortcomings. The empire-wide perspective and wide chronological span of this book add much to our understanding of the late antique statue habit, as do the strict methodology and approach pursued by the authors, allowing even experts in the field to improve their knowledge on this topic. The whole phenomenon is explored in a fresh and more precise way in this book which will undoubtedly become a reference work in future bibliographies.

Authors and titles

1. Statue Practice in the late Roman Empire: Numbers, Costumes, and Style, R. R. R. Smith
2. Statues at the End of Antiquity: The Evidence of the Inscribed Bases, Bryan Ward-Perkins
3. Italy, Carlos Machado
4. North Africa, Gabriel de Bruyn and Carlos Machado
5. Hispania, Gallia, and Raetia, Christian Witschel
6. Danube Provinces and North Balkans, Ulrich Gehn and Bryan Ward-Perkins
7. Greek Mainland and Islands, Ulrich Gehn
8. Asia Minor, Julia Lenaghan
9. Egypt, Near East, and Cyprus, Ulrich Gehn and Bryan Ward-Perkins
10. Rome, Carlos Machado with Julia Lenaghan
11. Constantinople, Ulrich Gehn and Bryan Ward-Perkins
12. Aphrodisias, R. R. R. Smith
13. Ephesus, Joanna Auinger and Alexander Sokolicek
14. Corinth, Amelia Brown
15. Athens, Ulrich Gehn
16. Lepcis Magna, Francesca Bigi and Ignazio Tantillo
17. Gortyn, Francesca Bigi and Ignazio Tantillo
18. Third Century, from Alexander Severus to Carinus, Silja Spranger
19. Provincial Governors and Senatorial Office-holders, Marietta Horster
20. Women, Kathrin Schade
21. Cultural Heroes, Julia Lenaghan
22. Fourth-century Portrait Sculpture and Re-use, Julia Lenaghan
23. Portrait Style, Marianne Bergmann and Martin Kovacs
24. The End of the Statue Habit, AD 284-620, Bryan Ward-Perkins


1.   Although the book was published in 2016, it was apparently submitted for print in late 2013. Therefore, it could not take into account more recent publications on the topic, for instance, the volume edited by T.M. Kristensen and L. Stirling, The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture. Late Antique Responses and Practices, University of Michigan Press 2016.

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