Imagine we could travel back in time to visit Greece in the mid 2nd century AD. We would find a country that had already been part of the Roman Empire, for over two hundred years and was enjoying something of an urban renaissance. The famous cities, or poleis, of old Greece – Athens, Sparta, Corinth and the rest – might have lost their independence but their city centres had never before looked so splendid. Partly thanks to imperial benefactions by philhellene emperors such as Hadrian they were full of grand new buildings. If we were to walk around one of these cities we would be struck by the large number of statues and other monuments standing in public spaces. The agora (market place), theatre, streets, bathhouses and gymnasia would all be cluttered with statues made of bronze and stone – statues of gods, heroes, emperors, local politicians and benefactors, athletes and even animals. There would also probably be several large public tombs. Some of these monuments would already be hundreds of years old, many of them would have been erected much more recently.
The only places where we might see such concentrations of monuments today are museums, or museum-like spaces such as old cathedrals. Perhaps unsurprisingly a lot of people have talked of Greek cities becoming like museums under Roman rule. This reinforces a once popular view that the culture of the Greek cities declined and stagnated once they became part of the Empire. It implies that the past had become more important than the present in the lives of these cities, that the display of statues was more important than day-to-day life.
Nowadays more and more scholars have begun to question the idea of Roman period decline and are recognising that at the time of the Empire the Greek polis enjoyed a lively and dynamic culture and a remarkably high level of popular involvement in local politics. The Greek city in the Roman period wasn’t a museum. The public spaces where monuments stood were still home to the hustle and bustle of daily life – the business of buying and selling, political meetings, sport, religion and meeting with friends. In my PhD thesis I made this argument for the Roman period agora. As in most Mediterranean cultures, particularly in pre-Industrial times, the Roman period Greeks spent a good deal of their time outside in public spaces. I believe that thinking about what it must have been like to spend so much time surrounded by so many monuments brings us to the heart of what made life in these cities so different from our modern urban experience. I am fascinated by thinking about the impact that statues, tombs and inscriptions must have had on the people who moved among them and want to understand the role that monuments played in shaping the society and culture of the Roman period Greek polis.
From 2014-2017 I worked as a Marie Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford combining archaeological, literary and epigraphic (from inscriptions) evidence to investigate these issues. My central concern was to investigate the various ways in which the setting of public monuments worked to give them meaning – how they were positioned in relation to other monuments, what types of activity were going on around them, how visible they were and what type of audience might they have had. This approach makes it possible to explore how monuments were used to reinforce or challenge positions of power in the local community and how the meaning of monuments that might on first consideration seem very different, for example sacred and civic, might have overlapped. The project resulted in an online searchable database of public monuments in Roman Greek cities, an article on the meaning of public tombs for heroes and benefactors and two other articles that are awaiting publication.
Although my time as a Marie Curie Fellow has finished and my current project is focussed in a different, though related, area my interest in the monuments of Roman Greece is far from exhausted. I have further ideas for future research in this area and am planning to continue to expand the database. Because the database is supposed to be a useful resource not only for myself but also for others I would welcome feedback. A form can be found on the database website by clicking the link above.