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Politics and Religion in Late Antique Honorific Monuments: Portrait Heads, Statues, and Inscriptions of the Administrative Elite

  • Author(s): Wueste, Elizabeth Wueste
  • Advisor(s): Hallett, Christopher H
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the material evidence of honorific statue monuments of the administrative elite throughout the Roman world from the third through sixth centuries CE. This includes the extant portrait heads, statue bodies, and inscribed bases, and their significance as indicators of and participants in the larger socio-cultural conversation about the relationship between religion and politics during Late Antiquity. What was the effect of Christianity on local and imperial politics during this transitional period? Were members of the administrative elite pressured to convert to Christianity and advertise their conversion because of imperial pressure? What social benefits and/or liabilities were involved in publically proclaiming religious affiliation? How is material evidence involved in the projection of religious self identity, especially in public arenas and visual form? How were these visual messages communicated, understood, and received by the viewing audience? I argue that the honorific monuments of the late antique elite reveal a surprising tension between politics and Christianity, and while neither the honorands nor the honorers fully proclaim their religious affiliations, they are not entirely silent either. I argue we should adopt a more nuanced conception of Christianity’s role in the political landscape during this transitional period precisely because ambiguity, religious fluidity, and a broad, if vague, public appeal was politically and socially useful.

Previous scholarship has tended to isolate either the sculptures or the inscribed bases of honorific monuments and examine them separately, that is, art historically or epigraphically, respectively. Removed from the archaeological, spatial, and historical contexts, these approaches are fundamentally flawed in that they ignore at least half of the monuments as a whole, and therefore do not consider the most immediate display context. When components are found and studied in isolation, as is overwhelmingly the case, it may indeed appear that portrait heads are divinely inspired by a Christian god, statue bodies are wearing priestly costumes and holding attributes loaded with religious meaning, and honorific inscriptions are overrun with Christian crosses and direct appeals to God. However, the components of honorific monuments were deliberately combined by a single agent and were intended to be received as a single statement, and thus should be similarly studied together for full comprehension.

This project draws its dataset of portrait heads, statue bodies, and inscribed bases from the excellent database of the Last Statues of Antiquity project, directed by R.R.R. Smith and Bryan Ward-Perkins at Oxford University. My dataset includes evidence from across the Roman world, dating from 284 to 550 CE. This chronological range encompasses the primary core of the late antique statue habit. In order to more closely study the interactions between politics and religion, the identity of the honorands has been restricted to isolate the main players in late antique politics. Therefore, monuments honoring women, athletes, deities, personifications, and heroes, emperors, and the imperial family have been excluded.

My examination of the religious and political imperatives communicated by late antique honorific monuments is divided into three sections. In the first section, I examine the physical evidence independently by component: portrait heads (Chapter II), statue bodies (III), and inscribed bases (IV). This is appropriate as they are most often found alone and detached from the other parts of the honorific monument, and very few of them can be positively and reliably reattached to their constituent components. While similar studies have already been conducted on portraits and bodies, the compilation of the honorific inscriptions from this period is novel, and has yielded surprising insights into late antique administration, linguistics, and social structure. In the second section, I examine the only six monuments Empire-wide that can be reliably reconstructed with head, body, and base as test cases against the much larger corpus of disassembled pieces (V). The combination of complementary and contrasting identities, the mix of new and reused materials, and the varied historical and social contexts they represent produce complex and surprising composites. In the last section, I extend the results of the six test cases to the larger body of disarticulated elements in order that they might be understood and examined as a cohesive body of evidence, within their literary, archaeological, and especially historical and religious contexts (VI).

This dissertation reaches three main conclusions: 1) while the disparate components of honorific monuments are almost always found separately, sheer numbers indicate that they were all part of the same honorific dialogue and should therefore be studied as a cohesive whole; 2) when the components are recombined, the late antique honorific monument was overwhelmingly political in nature, and was not concerned with openly telegraphing religious affiliation, but rather tends to avoid the question; and 3) elite players may not have immediately chosen sides because they were not actively devoted to one religion over another, or more interestingly, because religious ambiguity was socially and politically useful. Contrary to the traditional scholarship that still posits religious extremism and the cultural crush of Christianity across all realms of life, I argue that the landscape was less polarized and more mediated, and that religious identity was more fluid than we once might have thought.

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