Research Objectives

Statue base to the governor Vitianus
Statue-base (re-used) to the governor
Vitianus, c.AD 500 from Aphrodisias

The aim of the ‘Last Statues’ project is to document and discuss the remarkable changes in the way statues were used in Late Antiquity, in the context of contemporary historical and cultural developments. Changes in the statue-habit provide one very effective way of charting and envisaging the broader transformations that created first ‘Late Antiquity’, and eventually the ‘End of Antiquity’ itself.

The project-team has systematically collected all the published evidence, empire-wide, for the dedication, or re-dedication, of statues, between about 284 and 650 AD. This evidence comes in three forms: inscribed statue-bases (some 1600, which constitute the greater part of our data); fragmentary and complete statues (around 800 pieces, some being wholly new, but many being reworked older pieces); and, finally, scattered references to new dedications in historical and literary texts. The project has, necessarily, been focused on new, or newly dedicated, statuary, because this is the aspect of the evidence that can readily be collected and compared empire-wide; but this does not, of course, represent the whole history of statuary in Late Antiquity. New statues were fitted into the landscape of older statuary, and that landscape was continually being altered, through the movement and adaptation of earlier monuments. This important aspect of the statue-habit will be an issue for discussion in the print volume, using above all the evidence of sites that are particularly well preserved and well studied (such as Aphrodisias and Ephesus).

The end date for the project was defined by the total disappearance of new statuary. The starting date of c. 284 (the accession of Diocletian) is primarily pragmatic. Ideally, it would have been good to investigate statues systematically back into at least the Severan period, in order to see what happened in the third century and to examine the beginnings of ‘late-antique’ political and cultural developments. However, there are insuperable problems blocking this as an empire-wide project: in particular, a lack of epigraphic and stylistic criteria for differentiating between second-century and earlier third-century material, and consequently an excessive mass of poorly-datable material from this earlier period.

We found evidence for some 2600 new, 0r newly re-worked, statues from this period, distributed across the Roman world very unevenly, both geographically and chronologically. For instance, by the fourth century new statues seem already to have been very rare in the northern provinces (which is interesting but not unexpected, given the early decline of traditional civic culture in these regions), but they also appear to be uncommon in the Levant, despite the flourishing urban life of this area. By contrast the statue-habit was alive and well in North Africa, the Aegean world, southern Italy, and, above all, Rome. However, in all these regions the pattern of who was dedicating and who receiving statues varied, as did the speed with which the statue-habit declined.

A principal objective of the project is to chart accurately these differences and these processes of change and contraction, looking not only at the distribution of statues, but also at the type of person erecting them, and at the type of honorand. This will produce results, that have never been examined in a comparative way, empire-wide; and, crucially, it will provide the relevant data for an intelligent analysis of why statues persisted in some areas, but disappeared in others. Some of the most obvious variables to be explored are the decline of traditional civic politics and civic identity, the arrival of new barbarian rulers, the impact of christianization (with its hostility to ‘idols’), the emergence of new artistic forms (such as mosaics in churches), and the continuity or loss of craftsmanship skills.

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