A Late Antique Statuary Collection at Ostia's Sanctuary of Magna Mater: A Case Study on the Visibility of Late Roman Religion

Papers 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.