A Late Antique Statuary Collection at Ostia's Sanctuary of Magna Mater: A Case Study on the Visibility of Late Roman Religion
of the British School at Rome 81 (2013) Forthcoming
Article Abstract: Throughout the Mediterranean the study of
the destruction, reuse, moving, and preservation of statues
has provided a window onto social and cultural
transformation during a time of ascendant Christianity. The
preservation of statuary collections is increasingly
important in this regard. Archival research has revealed the
discovery of one such collection from Ostia's Sanctuary of
Magna Mater. Excavated by C.L. and P.E. Visconti in 1867-69,
the sanctuary was a treasure trove of sculptures, reliefs,
and at least one bronze statue, many of which pertained to
the cult of Cybele and Attis. All were well preserved;
several were found in the open spaces of the sanctuary.
These pieces, the last of which is a dedication dated to the
late fourth century, span 500 years of history.
Unfortunately, the collection as whole was soon dispersed,
and the Late Antique significance of the finds was lost.
This article reassembles that group and situates it within
the social world of Late Antique Ostia. Analysis confirms
that many statues of both sacred and non-sacred subjects
remained on display throughout the Late Antique town. The
late fourth-century dedication, in particular, set alongside
many earlier pieces, shows that the "mood and motivations"
of traditional Roman religion, in Clifford Geertz's terms,
also remained highly visible. The significance of this
accumulated tradition, a hallmark of Roman religion, can be
appreciated without appealing to Late Antique "pagan
revivalism." It testifies to a continued interest in and
reinvention of one of Ostia's most historic sites, even
during an increasingly Christian age.