The Silk and the Blood

Sculpture in the East

Public Portrait Sculpture in the East (AD 300-600) as Images of Authority

Apart from the image of the emperor, images of authority in Late Antiquity refer to Roman imperial officials and wealthy leading local aristocrats (including intellectuals). New iconographic features (clothes, hairstyles, attributes), technique and execution details, as well as style distinguish the public portrait statuary of Late Antiquity from that of the Middle Empire.

Late antique statues are smaller, they are often stood on re-used bases which are bearing verse epigrams of elevated, allusive style, giving few details of the subject’s identity and deeds. They wear a new-style toga and a new-style long chlamys. In terms of style (dress and hairstyle) and ideology they are now oriented toward the imperial court of Constantinople. However, the most marked characteristics of Late Antique portraits are the emphatic, wide-opened, intensive eyes and furrowed brows.

Chlamydatus statues in the provinces normally represented provincial governors, as documented by two fine examples of the famous workshop of Aphrodisias (Caria).

The new Late Antique toga was the dress of senatorial-ranking notables and when combined with a scepter, of consuls, proconsuls, and consulares. Interesting examples are from Athens.

An example from Ephesus probably depicts Stephanus, proconsul of Asia, who holds a mappa (handkerchief) in his right hand. This attribute, carried in hand or raised, mostly associated with the chariot races, enjoyed a wider application as part of the Late Antique urban and civilian dress code.

The portrait styles do not follow the imperial portraits in hairstyle and physiognomy. They usually have strikingly observed, realistic, solemn, elder faces and bear contemporary fashion hairstyles. Some examples reproduce a characteristic fifth-century fashion hairstyle, known as “wreath-style” (i.e. hair brushed forward and into some form of wreath around the head). It appears with the magistrate's portraits on the obelisk-base in Constantinople (dates 390/2) and it has been applied throughout the 5th century to magistrate's portraits from Asia Minor and Greece.

The portrait head found in Salamis, now in Nicosia, is of special interest as the person depicted can be identified on physiognomical grounds with a certain Oecumenius, whose statue monument is found intact in Aphrodisias. Oecumenius was an imperial governor (praeses) of Caria and may have been awarded a statue on Cyprus because it was his native city or because he was a governor of Cyprus.

The Oecumenius’ statue of Aphrodisias wears a long chlamys and soft boots, holds a scroll and is supported by a bundle of scrolls on the plinth. The inscribed epigram on the statue base praises the governor for his knowledge of the laws, for his cultural attainments and knowledge of both Greek and Latin (“have blended the Italian Muse with the sweet-voiced honey of Attic”) and being “pure in mind and in hand”.

In similar terms the governor of Achaia, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a highly cultivated Roman senator and ardent pagan, was praised for his outstanding virtues of justice and culture on an honorific statue set up by the Thespians at the sanctuary of the Muses in Thespiae:

Who nourishes all Muses and all kind of justice, the proconsul of the age-old land of Achaea, the wall of Achaea, crown of Rome, glory of his blood, he has reached the full climax in all virtues, the excellent Agorius.

As a gesture of honour the statue of the governor Anatolius was once set up next to that of the legendary law-giver Lycurgus at Sparta.

The most striking feature of the Late Antique portraits are the staring, wide-opened eyes. It is often believed to convey a new kind of spirituality. Yet this interpretation cannot be applied to this category of portraiture. It should be rather sought out in the ideals of the Late Antique aristocracy and the new political ideology of the late Roman state: as an attempt to put emphasis on old public virtues (personal austerity, dignity and justice) and as part of a trend towards hyperbole and pleonasm, visually echoing the bombastic language of the verse inscriptions. Likewise, the frontal and rigid posture and mannered gestures of these statues convey unbending strength, sublime authority and moral austerity.

Along with the ‘dignitary type’ (imperial officials, local figures of eminence, priests, professionals, etc.) another category of non-imperial portraits is the philosopher/sage-type; yet, these categories often overlapped in real life. High-quality examples of the philosopher/sage type are preserved in Athens and Livadeia (Boeotia).