The ‘Arts and Humanities Research Council’ funded a major project in Oxford on ‘The Last Statues of Antiquity’, directed by Professor R.R.R. Smith and Dr Bryan Ward-Perkins. The Project began in January 2009 and ran for three years, employing two Research Assistants, and incorporating the work of a doctoral student.
Ancient towns were filled with life-size bronze and marble figures – by the third century important cities of the empire could have over a thousand such statues. The habit of erecting statues in public to rulers, and to other dignitaries and benefactors, was a defining characteristic of the ancient world. The dedication of statues expressed the relationship between rulers and ruled and articulated the benefaction-and-honour system of city politics. Statues also played a significant role in defining civic identity, and in forming and perpetuating a city’s collective memory.
In the fourth to sixth centuries AD, statues continued to be erected in many parts of the empire – but already the uniform practices of earlier imperial times had broken down and become attenuated. By the mid-seventh century, the statue-habit, once ubiquitous, had completely disappeared from the Roman world. Not even in Constantinople were new statues set up.
The ‘Last Statues of Antiquity’ investigated evidence for new statuary of the period circa 280–650, as well as the slow decline (and eventual death) of the ancient statue-habit.
The aim of the ‘Last Statues’ project was to document and examine the remarkable changes in the way statues were used in Late Antiquity, in the context of contemporary historical and cultural developments. Changes in the statue-habit indeed provide a very effective way of charting and envisaging the broader transformations that created first ‘Late Antiquity’, and eventually the ‘End of Antiquity’ itself.