A tale of two traditions – portrait statues in Rome and Greece

In the piece before last I talked about the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums, inspired by the book I was reading at the time – “Ancient Rome as a Museum” by Steven Rutledge. I announced that “next time” I’d discuss an issue that the book had made me think about which is of relevance to my own research. Then a sacred pig ran across my path (metaphorically in the form of a blog post by Mary Beard) just as the poor animal had run across the path (literally) of a group of cart pulling donkeys, leading to its commemoration by its bereaved owner on one of the more bizarre grave monuments to survive from antiquity. I ended up writing about that instead. So now to return to the issue I was planning to discuss: the possibility that both Greek and Roman culture might have  independently developed the tradition of erecting honorific statues to reward service to the state.

Rutledge’s book considers a wealth of (mainly literary) evidence for the vast array of “cultural property” (statues, paintings, weapons, tapestries, silverware etc.) on display in ancient Rome. Most of the evidence he talks about clusters in the period of the late Republic/early Empire (1st century BC/1st century AD). In and among all the artwork looted from conquered cities, much of which consisted of Greek statues, were a number of genuinely Roman monuments that had originally been set up in the city over more than half a millennium of history. Although I knew about some of these monuments already, what struck me on seeing them discussed together , was just how many supposedly early commemorative portrait statues there were in the city, and just how old these monuments were believed to be. The writers who tell us about them believed that some were set up right back at the beginning of the Republic some half a millennium ago, or even before that.

Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge  by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)
Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)

Livy and Pliny the Elder, writing respectively in the late 1st century BC and mid first century AD, both mention the statue of Horatius Cocles that had been erected on the Forum to commemorate his heroic one-man defence of a bridge against an entire invading Etruscan army. The war in question – whether the battle itself took place is another matter – is now thought to have taken place around the year 509 BC. Pliny also tells us about a statue of a magistrate erected in the mid 5th century as a reward for reducing the price of grain in the city.

Among only four statues of women known to have been set up in the city in the pre-Imperial period, one was believed to have been even older than the statues of these great men. It portrayed Gaia Caecilia the virtuous wife of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of the seven kings believed to have ruled Rome before the founding of the Republic. The early history of Rome is extremely hazy and Tarquinius Priscus may have been nothing more than a legend but if there was any grain of truth to his, or his wife’s, existence then they would have to have lived in the late 7th or early 6th century BC.

Now there’s nothing particularly incredible about the Romans having portrait statues at such an early date. The Greeks were setting up statues of men and women in archaic times and began sculpting lifelike portrait statues in both stone and bronze in the fifth century BC. Around the same time Rome’s immediate neighbours the Etruscans, quite likely under Greek influence, were producing (fairly) realistic human statues, mainly in terracotta, to represent the dead on their tombs and to portray the gods in their temples. The Romans may therefore have been influenced by Etruscan culture to develop their own portrait statuary around the same time. What makes the Roman statues I’ve just mentioned so intriguing is that they were apparently believed to be commemorative statues, erected by the community as rewards for exceptional service to the state.

Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/the-etruscans-7/early-etruscan-art-68/archaic-art-356-5528/
Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy
(Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/art-history/textbooks/boundless-art-history-textbook/the-etruscans-7/early-etruscan-art-68/archaic-art-356-5528/

There is no evidence, so far as I know, for honorific public statues in Etruscan culture. The habit of erecting such monuments in Greek culture – a habit that would spread throughout the Greek world and persist into well into the period of Roman rule – according to the current scholarly consensus didn’t take off until the 4th century BC. It wasn’t until the Romans began to expand their political influence in the eastern Mediterranean in the late 3rd century BC that the well-known and profound transformation of Roman culture under Greek influence took place. The reports of these statues therefore raise the possibility that the Romans and Greeks developed their own, largely independent traditions, of erecting honorific statues. For my purposes this would raise all sorts of questions about how these two traditions then became intertwined once Greece became a part of the Roman Empire.

Of course we should be extremely sceptical as to whether the early statues attested in fairly late sources were really as old as those authors claimed. I’ve already discussed the way that in the Roman period the Greeks seem to have made up stories about having ancient tomb monuments in their cities and there’s every reason to suppose that the Romans too would have made up such stories about statuary monuments to create tangible links with legendary heroes from their distant past. Still it is hard to imagine that such statues were complete fabrications and that they had actually been set up near to the time that Livy and Pliny were writing. It is rather more likely that that they were either statues that had been standing for some time and which had become misinterpreted or that they did indeed represent the subjects that they were believed to but that they had been set up posthumously, perhaps centuries after their deaths and not during their lifetimes.

The so-called "Capitoline Brutus"
The so-called “Capitoline Brutus”

There is a rather famous bronze portrait bust found in Rome and known as the Capitoline Brutus, because it was once believed to portray the late 6th century founder of the Republic. There are actually no grounds whatsoever to think that the bust does represent Brutus. In any case it seems to date stylistically to the 4th century BC at the earliest and more likely to the 3rd. It therefore clearly cannot have been a contemporary portrait of the man. Whether it was intended to represent an historical figure like Brutus or somebody from the period in which it was made the statue at least shows that the Romans were erecting lifelike portrait statues around the time when portrait statues were really taking off in the Greek world.

Perhaps the statues of Horatius Cocles and Gaia Caecilia were also monuments of the 4th or 3rd centuries. Maybe the Romans of that time had erected them in a similar spirit of antiquarianism to that in which the Victorians erected the statue of Richard the Lionheart that still stands outside the Palace of Westminister. By the late Republic/early Empire the circumstances in which such statues were set up could easily have become forgotten so that people mistakenly thought they were much older.59935465

All in all I would say it looks likely that the supposedly ancient statues at Rome, like those mentioned by Livy and Pliny were already at least a few hundred years old by the time they were writing. Even if these monuments had been set up as late as the 3rd century BC that would still make them old enough to have been set up without much direct influence by contemporary developments in the Greek world.

Whether the Romans really did develop the custom of setting up honorific statues in parallel to the Greeks, rather than in direct emulation of them, however, what is perhaps most interesting about the reports of these statues is that this seems to be what the Romans themselves (and presumably the Greeks) believed had happened. While Roman literature from the late Republic and early Empire demonstrates a keen awareness of many areas in which interactions with the Greeks had influenced (or corrupted as many of the sources would have it) Roman culture, the Romans apparently thought that they had been setting up honorific monuments since their earliest history and for at least as long as the Greeks, if not longer.

The existence of these two traditions of erecting honorific monuments raises some very important questions for my own research into the public monuments of Greece in the Roman period. In the centuries I am looking at Greek cities set up statues not only for their leading citizens but also for powerful Romans. Romans from Italy moved to Greece and were among the people who would have seen these monuments. At the same time the Greeks, and especially local elites themselves fell increasingly under Roman influence, were made Roman citizens and can be thought of as “becoming Roman”. Against this background it is worth thinking about the various intentions of different groups and individuals in erecting such monuments and the response of different kinds of viewers to seeing them.

Would a citizen of Rome given a statue in Athens see the honour as carrying connotations of heroic valour as exemplified by Horatius Cocles’ statue? Or would he be more sensitive to local traditions of honorific portraits where statues were, in contrast to Rome, more often awarded to politicians, orators or philosophers than to conquering generals?

When a Greek community honoured an emperor with a statue was the implication that he was being equated the semi-divine heroes whose statues had adorned Greek public spaces since time immemorial yet who had no direct equivalent at Rome? Or would they have been aware of Roman statuary traditions and have been aiming to flatter the emperor that he shared something of the Republican virtues of the first consul Brutus?

And would the wife of a Roman governor honoured with a statue at a small town in Greece know or care that the tradition of erecting statues for women had a much longer history in that part of the world than it did at Rome but that women there typically received statues to honour their role as representatives of their family rather than to exalt them for their own perceived virtues?

It is a particularly thorny problem to try to disentangle the strands of cultural interplay that took place when the Romans, themselves profoundly influenced by Greek culture, conquered Greece and began to coerce and entice the Greeks into their own way of life. I am hopeful that by looking at the types of monuments that were erected in different types of public setting, by considering their intended audience and how the drew on other monuments in the same setting for meaning, it is going to be possible to offer answers to at least some of these questions.


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