Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Diana Y. Ng, Molly Swetnam-Burland (ed.), Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture: Functions, Aesthetics, Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. 350. ISBN 9781108473897. £75,00​.

Reviewed by Nicole Berlin, Johns Hopkins University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Objects, buildings, and monuments, with lifespans of centuries or even millennia, often outlast their creators. Yet in the field of Roman art and archaeology, scholars tend to focus specifically on the moment of creation for artworks and architecture, with two notable exceptions. The first is damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of someone's memory. The second is spoliation, or the plundering of material from an already-existing building or monument. As the authors in this volume note, these are only two of numerous ways that Roman material culture was reused and recycled over time. Objects and architecture benefit from a diachronic perspective that considers their origin as well as their many afterlives in the centuries that follow.

Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture developed out of a panel "Afterwards: Art and Architecture as Iterative Practice in the Roman World" at the 2014 annual meeting of College Art Association. The eight case studies explore "the long histories of use, appreciation and sometimes even destruction" of monuments, taking a particular interest in secondary interventions (p. 13). Although each author has his or her own methodological approach, the concepts of object biography (drawing on Igor Kopytoff) and collective memory (as outlined by Maurice Halbwachs) serve as the predominant theoretical underpinnings of the volume.1 The essays are divided chronologically into two sections —the first four authors are concerned with material from the first and second centuries CE. The second half of the volume focuses more specifically on spoliation and moves forward in time, with case studies that range from Late Antiquity to the Early Medieval period (fourth to twelfth centuries CE).

The introduction by Diana Ng and Molly Swetnam-Burland lays the groundwork for the entire volume through its discussion of central themes and concepts. Using Rome's Pantheon as an example, they suggest that monuments like it benefit from a diachronic approach to their history, which "nuances our understanding of the relationship between its past and present" (p. 4). Ng and Swetnam-Burland define the volume's key terms (reuse and renovation) and lay out the main bodies of evidence its authors will examine (sculpture and architecture). The editors argue that Roman viewers were accustomed to a changing visual environment and thereby challenge the reader to consider that ancient objects and monuments were never fully "complete," but constantly evolved over time (p.11). Ng and Swetnam-Burland establish the main goal of this volume, the contextualization and exploration of ancient reuse and renovation, in order to learn more about engagements with the past and identity formation in the Roman world.

The first and second chapters, by Brenda Longfellow and Margaret Laird respectively, focus on reused portrait statues and commemorative bases in the contexts of Pompeii and Ostia. This pair of case studies is complementary as both authors work to correct the bias that most sculptural re-carving was destructive or a result of damnatio memoriae. Instead, they reveal the complex and wide-ranging effects of reuse. Longfellow's article examines refashioned or "refreshed" honorific portrait statues at Pompeii. As an example, she considers a statue of the wealthy Pompeian benefactor Holconius Rufus that was re-carved from an imperial portrait. Longfellow convincingly argues that this decision was not the result of damnatio memoriae, and instead suggests that the connection between Holconius and a member of the imperial family would have been a desirable, intentional effect. This is especially probable given the statue's location within a tetrapylon honoring the Holconii family. Laird, on the other hand, examines inscribed honorific bases from the Caserma dei Vigili (Fireman's Barracks) at Ostia. The Augusteum within the complex contained shrines dedicated by the firemen to various members of the Antonine family in the second and third centuries CE. One such base, originally inscribed for Marcus Aurelius' co-emperor Lucius Verus, was re-dedicated in 195 CE to the recently-installed emperor Septimius Severus. Laird, like Longfellow, interprets this re-dedication in a positive light: the firemen honored the emperor by inserting him within the preceding Antonine dynasty, a narrative adopted by Severus himself.

Chapters three and four are concerned with conceptual examples of reuse rather than physical ones. In Chapter 3, Catherine Keesling explores the curious phenomenon of retrospective inscriptions, wherein the signatures of famous Classical and Hellenistic Greek sculptors appear on artworks created decades or centuries later. This is distinct from the appropriation of a sculptor's work through copies. Instead, "modern" Roman artworks were attributed by name to earlier Greek sculptors who could not have completed them. Keesling argues that it was not just the original Greek artworks that had value, but the names of the artists themselves, which were instantly recognizable. Keesling reveals that the use of a famous name like Praxiteles on a later sculpture lent prestige to the artwork through its ability to collapse the Greek past and Roman present for the viewer. In other words, retrospective inscriptions imbued the sculpture with a spurious historical pedigree. Adrian Ossi also deals with retrospection in Chapter 4, but in the context of monumental, commemorative architecture. He examines two honorific arches from the Hadrianic period, one from Pisidian Antioch and the other from Eleusis (the latter also connected to examples in Athens). Both arches conspicuously reference older gateways in the vicinity through the use of retrospective structure and iconography. Like Keesling, Ossi argues for what I would characterize as a 'collapsing of time,' noting that the emulation of earlier monuments allowed Hadrian to connect himself to each city's long and illustrious history.

Elisha Dumser's important essay (Chapter 5) focuses on the perceptibility of reuse in Roman architecture of the third and fourth centuries CE. She notes that Late Antique reuse and spoliation are often discussed in terms of their ideological resonances. However, these layers of meaning would have been lost on a viewer if s/he could not perceive the reused materials in the first place. Dumser suggests three different ways, each supported by a compelling example from Rome, in which renovated buildings and recycled architectural materials could convey meaning to the viewer. First, using the Audience Hall on the Sacra Via as an example, she illustrates how reuse was sometimes pragmatic: materials such as porphyry columns were recycled not because of some inherent meaning, but because of their availability and ability to lend prestige to a patron's project. Second, she discusses the Temple of Venus and Roma, which Hadrian dedicated in the second century CE as a visible symbol of Rome's imperial power. The temple was destroyed in a fire during the reign of Maxentius, who quickly ordered its reassembly using a significant portion of the original building materials. Maxentius' renovation of the celebrated temple in the early fourth century CE occurred in the public eye and allowed the emperor to present himself as a patron and defender of the Roman people. The Arch of Constantine serves as Dumser's third example, one in which contemporary viewers would be able to recognize reuse and connect the materials to their original context. The style of the earlier, repurposed panels set them apart from those of the fourth century, allowing the viewer to link Constantine to the rule of "good emperors," such as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

Esen Ogus' chapter (six) is a survey of reuse at Aphrodisias between the third and seventh centuries CE, with a particular focus on the relationship between destruction and preservation. She discusses a series of examples that range from the well-known Sebasteion to the city's gates and walls. Like Dumser, she moves beyond ideological approaches to reuse and considers its pragmatic side. Ogus argues that each example from Aphrodisias supports the thesis that there was a constant negotiation between the city's Classical past and Christian present.

Gregor Kalas and Sheila Bonde move the narrative of reuse forward into the Early Medieval period in chapters seven and eight. Both authors trace a single monument from its moment of creation and consider how its meaning changed throughout its use. Kalas examines the Santa Maria Antiqua complex in Rome, parts of which Domitian originally built as an annex to his Palatine Hill palace. It was dedicated as a church ca. 570 CE, then refurbished by Pope John VII in the eighth century CE. According to Kalas, John VII's decision to renovate the complex and incorporate it into his new papal palace established him as the city's leader whose primary concern was the well-being of his people, a legacy that built on Santa Maria Antiqua's long history. Meanwhile, Bonde examines how the meaning of the amphitheater at Tarragona changed throughout its lifetime, drawing on both Igor Kopytoff's theory of object biography and Maurice Halbwachs' conception of collective memory. Bonde reveals how the martyrdom of Tarragona's first bishop and two of his deacons in the amphitheater in 259 CE influenced the building's use and reuse throughout the centuries, continuing well into the modern era.

Although each author in Reuse and Renovation in Roman Material Culture takes an individual approach to the material, one theme is consistent: that reuse in the Roman world was a complex phenomenon, informed by both pragmatism and ideology. One of the most important contributions of this volume is that each author identifies and contextualizes specific decisions being made by an individual or group in regards to an object or monument. In other words, reuse and renovation allow for a precise, bottom-up approach to the archaeological material. As the editors note, this is the first book entirely dedicated to reuse and renovation in the Roman world; it is an invaluable contribution to the field and provides an important jumping off point for future studies.2

Authors and titles

Diana Y. Ng and Molly Swetnam-Burland, "Introduction: Reuse, Renovation, Reiteration"
1. Brenda Longfellow, "The Reuse and Redisplay of Honorific Statues in Pompeii"
2. Margaret L. Laird, "The Vigiles, Dynastic Succession and Symbolic Reappropriation in the Caserma dei Vigili at Ostia"
3. Catherine M. Keesling, "The Epigraphy of Appropriation: Retrospective Signatures of Greek Sculptors in the Roman World"
4. Adrian J. Ossi, "Gateways to the Past: The Hadrianic Architecture of Procession in Pisidian Antioch and Athens"
5. Elisha Ann Dumser, "Visual Literacy and Reuse in the Architecture of Late Imperial Rome"
6. Esen Ogus, "Urban Transformations at Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: Destruction or Intentional Preservation?"
7. Gregor Kalas, "Acquiring the Antique in Byzantine Rome: The Economics of Architectural Reuse at Santa Maria Antiqua"
8. Sheila Bonde, "The Afterlife of the Amphitheater: Cultural Biography and Social Memory at Tarragona"


1.   For collective and social memory, the book draws primarily on Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, edited and translated by L.A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Pierre Nora, Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Vol 1: The State, translated by M. Trouille under the direction of D. Jordan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). For object biography, see Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commodification as Process," in A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Social Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–91.
2.   There have also been articles that use renovation as a methodological framework. See, for example, Ann Marie Yasin, "Shaping the Memory of Early Christian Cult Sites: Conspicuous Antiquity and the Rhetoric of Renovation at Rome, Cimitile-Nola and Poreč," in K. Galinsky and K. Lapatin (eds.), Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015), 116–32; and Nicole Berlin, "Mixed-Media Domestic Ensembles in Roman Sicily: The House of Leda at Soluntum," in R. Gee and V. Rousseau (eds.), Arts, Ancient Mediterranean Painting Vol. 2 (Special Edition), 1–22. Renovation also plays an important role in articles such as Lauren Hackworth Petersen, "To Claim a Domus: The House of the Caecilii at Pompeii," in The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 163-184; and Lynley McAlpine, "Heirlooms on the Walls: Republican Paintings and Imperial Viewers," in S. Lepinski and S. McFadden (eds.), Beyond Iconography: Materials, Methods, and Meaning in Ancient Surface Decoration (Boston, MA: Archaeological Institute of America, 2006), 167–186. ​

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