The Romans as collectors of Greek art

As well as imitating their predecessors with new works of art and architecture in old styles, the Romans also sought to possess actual examples of earlier work, which could command very high prices in Rome. Works of art were therefore carted away in large quantities (Pape 1975) to beautify temples, squares and also private collections in Italy. Just as the treasuries of the various Greek states at Delphi or Olympia were veritable art museums in an age when the museum as such had not been invented, so the same function was transferred to Rome as victorious generals and conniving governors brought shiploads of material home. Verres' rape of Sicily is infamous, thanks partly to Cicero. Sometimes this was done almost wholesale, as when the pedimental sculptures of an Eritrean temple were brought to Rome (as La Rocca 1985 suggests), to decorate the Temple of Apollo Sosiano.

In addition, of course, the copying of popular statues prospered, so that one might find several replicas and/or adaptations of Greek bronze originals that once decorated Roman settings (Vermeule 1977; Bieber 1977). Indeed, it is often only through copies that we can reconstruct the Greek originals, long since disappeared and, in the case of bronzes, perhaps often melted down for their metal. Copies could of course be in any material and could be of any size, thanks to the "pointing machine", a device perhaps invented in the first century BC which allowed easy reductions (or increases) in scale (Vermeule 1977, 12-17).

A good example of such a reconstruction of an original concerns the bronze group in the centre of the precinct of Athena at Pergamum celebrating the triumph of the Attalids over the Gauls - a motif which translates easily into the larger theme of the triumph of civilization over barbarism. Best-known amongst the statues which made up the group are the two marble copies in the Musei Capitolini, Rome, of The Dying Gaul and A Gaul, having killed his wife, killing himself. Eumenes augments the value of his victories by sensitively representing these Gauls as noble beings full of pathos, rather than as brutish, uncivilized barbarians.

Indeed, perhaps to think solely in terms of Romans and Greeks is misleading - for what about the earlier inhabitants of these areas such as Carians, Pergamenes or Lycians? Respect for their past is also in evidence and, in general, earlier monuments seems to have been incorporated when they were deemed of value. At Cyaneae, for example, the Lycian tombs are apparently of Roman date, demonstrating the survival of "historic" styles. At Xanthos, conspicuously, the 2nd century AD theatre, and the Roman forum/agora as well, have been built so as to accommodate the Lycian funerary monuments then seven centuries old: there is a cluster of three to the west of the theatre, another to the east of the agora, and a large inscribed pillar to its north. There seems no doubt that the Roman planners who took over the city after Brutus' conquest in 42 BC wanted these ancient monuments - including two mighty monoliths - as part of their city. We should also be aware of the longevity of styles in some regions of Turkey - witness the Lycian-style rock-cut tombs within the north- west corner of the Hellenistic and Roman walls at Xanthos, or those at Cyaneae. At both places, the tombs are arguably Roman in date. At Tlos also, the Lycian necropolis is within both the Lycian and Roman acropolis defences - arguing a different attitude to intramural burial (which would not have been countenanced either in Greece or Italy). Once again, the prestige of such monuments is a possible argument for their retention within the city walls.

The Byzantines and the Splendour of the Romans

During the 3rd century AD and, surely not coincidentally, following some massive projects, there is a noticeable drop in building activity in Rome itself. Now the focus of imperial activity, along with the control of an Empire now more secure in the East than in the West, shifts to Constantinople. Although the Romans had often demonstrated little regard for earlier monuments, despoiling them for their own creations, an interest in the re-use of the past grew from the fourth century onwards. To help the antique aura, Constantinople was decorated by its first emperor with a host of statues, many of them pagan; and it is thought that about one hundred survived into the 8th century (Cameron 1984, 46ff. for lists). This is not necessarily an index either of the onset of inferior workmanship or of a general decline in standards, although Berenson, in his indictment of the "jigsaw puzzle" make-up of the Arch of Constantine takes this as self-evident; rather, it reflects an increased consciousness of the splendid achievements of the past - what we might call an enhanced sense of history.

Justinian's rebuilding of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (completed in AD 548) is a case in point. This is one of the most beautiful and daring buildings anywhere. Justinian sought rich materials for its embellishment, and used prestigious spolia - but it would be nonsense to suggest that this reflects a decline in contemporary skill. Rather, it indicates Justinian's sense of history - as does his use of the current lingua franca in the first church (SB4.5) - a language familiar to us from Ephesus or Aphrodisias. Just as the Greeks considered that a sculpture of the "ideal woman" must necessarily be constructed from the best sections of individual human beings, so perhaps for similar reasons Justinian took for his great church columns from Athens, Delos, Kyzikos and Rome, as well as eight green breccia columns from Ephesus, perhaps from the Artemesion itself. Little wonder that according to tradition he exclaimed when he entered the new building in triumph, Oh Solomon, I have out-distanced thee! True, but few other of the splendours of Byzantine Constantinople, except for her walls, cisterns and fragments of her palaces, remain above ground.

Examples of Byzantine reuse of earlier monuments, both their ideas and their materials, are common. The phenomenon is but mentioned here to indicate the continuing importance of splendour in the complexion of antique and antique-influenced architecture.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey