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A mosaic of memories – monuments and public space in Roman Greece (c.200 BC to c. 200 AD)

Final Report Summary - MMRG (A mosaic of memories – monuments and public space in Roman Greece (c.200 BC to c. 200 AD))

Under the Roman Empire the marketplaces, streets, gymnasia and theatres of the cities of Greece were full of monuments such as tombs, inscribed stelai and - most numerous of all - statues. There were statues of bronze and of marble, portraying gods, heroes, emperors, kings and local dignitaries. Some of these monuments had already stood for centuries; others were fairly recent. Arguably no urban culture in history, with the possible exception of Rome itself, has set up such vast numbers of monuments in its public spaces. The nearest modern analogy for the amount of cultural material on display in the Roman period polis would be the museum. Yet the analogy falls short – the settings where these monuments stood were not places designed primarily for the passive viewing of works of art, they were vibrant public spaces, alive with the tumult and commotion of the city. If we are to understand the society and culture of these cities it is vital that we understand the impact of public monuments on the people who moved about them in their daily lives.

The aim of the project “Monuments of Roman Greece” was to explore the various ways in which the setting of public monuments contributed to giving them meaning, for instance, by looking at how certain types of monuments were positioned in relation to spaces used for certain activities in order to target particular audiences and at how monuments were positioned in relation to each other to create meaningful connections. This investigation has cast new light on questions such as the nature of power within the polis community and how local identity was defined in the face of imperial rule. The project has resulted in three articles, one already published in a leading journal, two to appear later this year in conference proceedings.

The first article "Contested Bones: the Politics of Intra-Urban Burial in Roman Greece" explored the interplay of meaning between two types of tomb monument to be found in the public spaces of Roman period Greek cities: tombs of legendary heroes and tombs of Roman period elite benefactors. The article makes the case that both types of tombs increased under the Roman Empire - public burial was more frequently awarded as an honour in this period, while at the same time Greek communities 'invented' tomb monuments for legendary and mythical heroes of the distant past. These invented tomb monuments served as focal points for communal identity in the face of the traumatic upheaval of loss of freedom and incorporation into the Roman Empire while at the same time the power of a local oligarchic elite class, which legitimated itself by purported ties to famous ancestors, was further bolstered through drawing parallels between their tombs and those of the illustrious dead of centuries past.

The second article "Spaces of Remembrance – Statues in the Urban Landscape of Roman Messene" explores the ways in which various types of portrait statues - honorific statues, votive statues and emperor portraits - drew on their surroundings for meaning at a city for which the survival of contextual evidence is particularly good. The article makes the case that there was considerable overlap of meaning between these different types of statues and that through juxtaposing different types of statues and through sculptural allusions to particular types of monument the Roman period Greeks were able to exploit the ambiguities that thereby arose in order to give make their statues carry extremely sophisticated messages. Thinking contextually about the meaning of statues within their spatial setting deepens our understanding of how local elites used statues in their competition for local influence and how cities like Messene came to terms with the realities of imperial power. The final article widens the focus to look at these issues for three very different Roman period Greek cities - Corinth, Athens and Messene set up statues in public spaces to define their urban image.

At the heart of the project is a database of monuments known from archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence to have stood in the cities of Greece in Roman times which is now available as an online searchable catalogue: I have also maintained a blog on the research at :
To arrive at new perspectives for thinking about the use of public statues in Roman period Greek culture the fellow also organised an international conference on the theme of 'Public Statues Across Time and Cultures'. Over the course of two days expert art historians, historians and archaeologists from Europe, Turkey and the United States presented papers on the use of public statues in cultures ranging from Qing China to Georgian England. The conference gave rise to much fruitful discussion. The fellow wrote a summary of the event for the online sculpture magazine 3rd Dimension: The fellow is now working on producing an edited volume of the papers.