Sculpture and Society in Roman Greece: Political, economic and religious context

The study of Roman sculpture has always required a knowledge of Ancient Greek sculpture and above all that of the Classical period. In other words it depended on familiarity with the famous works by great artists, which have been lost and are mainly known to us through Roman copies. This has meant that it has taken a long time to see works of Roman sculpture as creations of their own time. It was mainly in the last thirty years of the twentieth century that questions were posed relating to the function and meaning of these sculptures in the context of the period that created them. The time-lag in reaching this stage of research was even greater in Greece on account of certain national prejudices. Nevertheless in the last twenty years a gradual increase in interest in the study of Roman sculpture is noticeable in Greece too, because these works constitute a numerous and particularly interesting group which can be studied in a variety of ways.

The delayed interest in this area has resulted in a lack of systematic and large-scale publications, through which the material could become known. One such enterprise, a unique achievement to date as far as Greece is concerned, is represented by the three volumes of the Catalogue of Sculpture of the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum, edited by G. Despinis, T. Stefanidou-Tiveriou and E. Voutiras in 1997, 2003 and 2010 respectively (see review by K. Fittschen, Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 257.3/4, 2005: "es handelt sich um den ersten wissenschaftlichen Katalog eines griechischen Museums, der diesen Namen verdient").

Progress in the study of sculpture of the Roman period in Greece was marked by an international congress held in 2009 in Thessaloniki, the proceedings of which were published very recently. This was the first conference solely devoted to this subject. One of its main aims was to pose questions relating to the survival of the classical tradition in the sculpture production of Greek cities and at the same time to trace the emergence of newer elements of Western provenance in these works.

In the past the general lack of archaeological interest in Roman sculpture has had a correspondingly negative impact on the scholarly studies investigating provenance and movement of marble in Roman Greece. Recently, however, the necessary scientific know-how to tackle this important issue and how it relates to other archaeological and art-historical questions has been acquired. The techniques and methodologies, involving combinations of spectroscopic, isotopic, microscopic and qualitative parameters for characterizing and discriminating ancient marble sources have made considerable progress internationally with the Laboratory of Archaeometry of NCSR “Demokritos” holding a leading position in the development of new techniques and methodologies. At the same time very extensive databases and sample banks from ancient quarries all over the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, Italy, Portugal, Morocco,  etc)  have been created as a result of the Laboratory’s continuous research over a period of more than 25 years. This technology and know-how has been effectively applied to solving a large number of provenance problems in the last 20 years, including a recent study on a selection of Roman sarcophagi from Thessaloniki. Knowledge has also been acquired about the major quarries that intensively produced and traded marble in the Roman period and this information is stored in the large database. There are nonetheless a few quarries known to have been working in Roman times but not yet studied, as well as some characteristics found in Roman sculptures in the past (e.g. fine grained Dolomitic marble), that are of unknown origin and still need to be identified. Hence, the basic scientific know-how exists but needs to be adjusted and applied systematically to the Roman sculpture of Greece. A further challenge to be met in this project is the development of a non- invasive optical methodology for the in-situ examination of sculptures, a vitally important approach in this project which involves a very large number of objects.


Basic objectives

This research project proposes to assemble and study works of sculpture from Greece dating to the Roman period (146 BCE – late 4th c. CE) in order to: a) provide full documentation of a large number of sculptures,

b)  identify  workshops  and  study  the  ways  in  which  the  sculpture  was  produced  and  marketed  and c)

investigate how the sculptures functioned within their social and historical context.

The objectives will be achieved through innovative approaches and methods, which can be specified as follows:

  1. Creation of a bilingual database containing works of sculpture from Greece dated to the Roman period. The database will store detailed evidence (texts and images) relating to both published and unpublished works and constitute the greater part of all sculpture from Roman Greece.
  2. Study of the sculpture from an economic, social and religious point of view. Besides traditional archaeological research methods archaeometry will be used to examine: i) the process of production, from the quarrying of the marble to the finished product; ii) the organization of workshops; iii) the trade and transportation of marble and its products. Furthermore techniques of statistical analysis and modern software systems will be used in order to ascertain the links between patrons, sculptors and the original location of the

sculptures. The results will help in determining the meaning and function of the sculptures as: i) as a means of self-definition and self-promotion; ii) works reflecting the propaganda of the local elites and  the emperors; iii) funerary markers and personal dedications; iv) works which actively help to construct a particular local cultural memory and collective identity; v) objects of great financial and commercial value and thus symbols of wealth and prosperity; vi) examples of contemporary views of the divine.


Anticipated results- Innovation and originality

1. Creation of an expandable database able to store a large volume of data on sculpture, in order to  facilitate a holistic approach to sculpture. The database comply with the models provided by international archaeological databases, so as to ensure maximum compatibility. 2. The database present as many Roman sculptures from Greece as possible, and certainly the most typical examples in a systematic and consistent fashion. 3. Using archaeometric and statistical methodologies is expected to give new information relevant to archaeological and historical analysis and interpretation. 4. Αn international conference (http://castmuseum.web.auth.gr/el/conference) created the necessary conditions for academic debate and cooperation with other groups of researchers in Greece and abroad in respect of similar scholarly issues. Special emphasis will be laid on the legal status of individual ancient cities and on the extent to which that affected the choice of particular types of sculpture. 6. The university courses in Roman Archaeology, into whose syllabi the results of the study are incorporated, help to spread the knowledge thus generated in a direct way.