Panel 3.2: Symbols in Material Culture

This panel was chaired by Maria Haley and included papers from Carrie Sawtell, Jane Ainsworth, and Will Leveritt, the abstracts, powerpoints, and handouts for which are shown below. Sadly, due to technical difficulties the audio for the papers in this panel were lost.

Carrie Sawtell, The University of Sheffield

Title: Representation and Symbolism in Athenian Decree Reliefs of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.: Greek Religion and Barbarian Royalty.

Foreign policy, like many other aspects of Greek society, was bound together with and dictated by religion, as demonstrated in a number of decree reliefs from Athens in the later fifth and the fourth century BC. The imagery that sat atop a sample of the preserved decrees gives life to the deeds of the Athenians and their allies and benefactors, often by using the gods and goddesses worshiped among the Greeks as metaphors, or proxies, for the Athenians and a number of their allies. Polis religion acts as a shared language across the Greek world and could be called upon in the context of foreign affairs to emphasize commonality and a shared feeling of divine legitimation. However, such symbolism is not coopted in all decree reliefs. In the mid-fourth century BC, a shift can be witnessed in decree relief iconography, with deities often taking a backseat or disappearing altogether in favour of the real-life rulers of foreign states, a shift that Carol Lawton (2003) has argued represents new threats to Athens at this time.

This paper will discuss the ways in which the symbolic vocabulary of Attic decree reliefs changed and developed, considering the move away from religious-centered imagery and how this shift serves as commentary on changing historical and political circumstances. This iconographic analysis will suggest that the political system of the represented allied state was often reflected in the way they were portrayed in a decree relief. Finally, the visual impact of such reliefs, their location and audience, will be considered in order to shed light on how this can impact on the interpretation of Athenian foreign policy.

Jane Ainsworth, The University of Leicester

Title: Herakles on the Edge: Artistic Choices in the Provincial Art of the Roman Empire.

The figure of Herakles or Hercules is found on objects from across the ancient world, and he can be seen as an ‘everyman’ symbol of not only Greek culture, but the study of Greek art.  His persona as a mortal who achieved divinity through his own efforts allows us to make sense of the aspirations and attitudes to power of the individuals who chose to use his image.  Although these images continued to be seen and used well into the Roman period, they are still considered to derive from classical Greek prototypes, and thus to represent the natural supremacy of a classical Greek art slavishly copied by Romans.  As a result, models of Hellenisation, Romanisation and cultural emulation seize upon the familiar aspects of such representations to demonstrate the dominance of colonial powers in the provinces of the Roman Empire.  I argue that by considering only what is familiar about an image, we ignore the evidence for discrepant experience of provincial life provided by such an aspirational figure of power.

Through the use of detailed case studies from Rome’s first overseas province, Sicily, I consider the evidence provided by the context and biography of objects bearing the figure of Herakles for the artistic choices available to and made by creators, traders, commissioners and buyers.  By investigating objects made or used during the period of a province’s integration within the Empire, I draw conclusions about the different identities sought, adapted or rejected by communities as Rome’s power became established.  By considering the different cultural inspirations and contexts for provincial art, traditionally dismissed as non-classical, emulative, or simply ‘bad art’, we can gain insights into whether or not communities at the edge of Empire remain on the edge.


Will Leveritt, The University of Nottingham

Title: Seeing through a Symbol: How to understand Late Severan clipeus Sarcophagi.

As a symbol, the clipeus, or shield, which appears as the central motif in a large series of Roman sarcophagi seems on first glance pretty concrete in its meaning. Placed centrally and raised aloft often by Victories, it alludes to the iconographic tradition of Nike inscribing successes on a shield, and was consciously redolent of the clipeus virtutis awarded to Augustus | and so it has been consistently taken by scholarship. But in the late Severan period, sensibilities in the funerary realm changed. Movements in societal ideology demanded symbols alter the mechanism of their function to support new meaning. Funerary iconography shifted from favouring outward-facing familial messages to an introspective focus on the deceased. By examining a sarcophagus from the 230s, this paper explores how the seemingly passive clipeus, normally thought of as an inert object inside the illusory world, was in fact a potent symbol which governed the whole relief. Traditionally in sarcophagi these shields bear inscriptions which communicate brief biographies of the deceased. Here, the inscription is replaced by a double-portrait of the deceased occupants of the sarcophagus peeping out of the boundary of the shield’s surface. I show that the symbol’s presentation by the sculptor was designed to dissolve the illusory integrity of the surrounding scene and drastically refocus its semantic content. Instead, I argue that the sculptors promoted understanding of the symbol of the shield as a metaphorical window permitting the intrusion of (or rather, the escape of) another illusory world, that of the idealised deceased within the sarcophagus. I explore the mechanism by which the shield reifies the portrait-world, and the effect of the complex interplay the symbol mediates between its contents and the surroundings which have lost illusory integrity, and the significance of this for the bereaved viewer paying respects to the real deceased.


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