Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 2.

Ilona Skupinska-LÝvset, Portraiture in Roman Syria: A Study in Social and Regional Differentiation within the Art of Portraiture. Lůdz: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Lůdzkiego, 1999. Pp. 280, incl. 28 black-and-white photographs and 1 map. ISBN 83-7171- 279-0. PLN25.00 (=US$6.00).[[1]]

Alexandra Retzleff
Department of Classics, McMaster University

This is a most welcome contribution to the study of Roman provincial sculpture, bringing together a sizeable corpus of portraits from museums and private collections throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Of the two topics suggested in the title, it is the second -- regional differentiation -- that forms the focus of this book. As the subject of Romanization becomes increasingly refined,[[2]] detailed studies on the regional level become all the more important.

Syria is defined broadly by Skupinska-LÝvset as the territory extending from the Mediterranean coast to the Euphrates River, and from the Taurus mountains of Commagene to the Jordan River valley. The treatise involves two principal parts: 'Portraits of Great Tradition' (pp. 37-130), and 'Regional Art Expressions in the Popularist Style' (pp. 131-250). Part III, 'Paintings and Mosaics' (pp. 251-57), is very brief.

Part I presents in chronological sequence the portraits that bear a connection to art from the city of Rome or to Greek types. Discussion includes stele, official portraits, private portraits, and sarcophagi. First century portraits in this group originate primarily from the Phoenician and Palestinian coast, with funerary stele and private portraits featuring prominently. The possibility of a connection to Neo-Assyrian art is raised with regards to relief sculpture on stele (p. 41). Second and third century portraits are more geographically widespread. Discussion concentrates on portraiture of the imperial family and private portraiture that is stylistically related to the official tradition. Skupinska-LÝvset proposes that the X-shaped facial structure, usually associated with Caracalla, in fact begins with Marcus Aurelius, as supported by a portrait from Gerasa now in Jerusalem (pp. 69f.).

Included in Skupinska-LÝvset's corpus is a relief, now in Warsaw, depicting Julia Domna as Victory crowning Caracalla, considered on the basis of stylistic criteria to originate from Antioch (pp. 107f.). If this origin is correctly postulated, the Warsaw relief is the only known narrative relief from Syria depicting imperial figures.

To denote the portraits that relate primarily to local artistic traditions, Skupinska-LÝvset has chosen the term 'popularist' over 'vernacular' or 'plebeian', thus avoiding social connotations which may not be appropriate to a provincial setting (pp. 22-25). Part II, which covers the popularist portraits, is the most important contribution of this book. The corpus is treated in five sub-regions: (1) northern Syria, (2) mid-Syria, (3) Palmyra, (4) southern Syria, and (5) Syria-Palaestina. Each region has a distinctive sculptural character resulting from the eclectic adoption of foreign stylistic elements and the interaction of these features with the pre- existing sculptural traditions.

The sculpture from northern Syria includes several funerary portraits from Epiphanea (Hama), Hierapolis (Menbidj), Seleukeia-on-the-Euphrates (Zeugma), and Edessa (Urfa). Skupinska-LÝvset identifies Hierapolis as a leading centre for sculptural production (p. 167). Mid-Syria is treated as a whole, with special attention paid to two monuments in the Beq‚a Valley: a grave column from Qartaba, now in the National Museum in Beirut, and a stele from Niha, now in Paris. The continuity of Phoenician stylistic traditions in mid-Syria is stressed (p. 196). The sculpture from Palmyra has been the most studied in Syria, and it is not treated in detail in this book. Skupinska-LÝvset suggests an influence from the Orontes Valley (Emesa) in the early development of the Palmyrene style, and a later influence from northern Syria (p. 203). The portraits from southern Syria are mostly made of basalt and originate from the villages of the Hauran. It is suggested on the basis of iconography that most of the surviving portraits from the Hauran postdate Trajan's annexation of Nabataea in AD 106 (p. 214). The portraits from Syria-Palaestina are primarily funerary busts, several of which originate from Sebaste and Scythopolis (pp. 235-38).

Skupinska-LÝvset's approach is art-historical, following the German tradition of comparing copies (Umbildung) to prototypes (Urbildung) (pp. 18-25). The goal of dividing the material between part I (classical, cosmopolitan) and part II (domestic, popularist) is to isolate the foreign or international stylistic influences from the local sculptural traditions. But several works prove difficult to treat within this conceptual framework. In particular, portraits from Syria-Palaestina of the Artemisia Type and the Pudicitia Type (pp. 246f.) would have been treated better in part I than in part II. The inevitable ambiguity between the two categories is illustrated well in Skupinska-LÝvset's outline of local features identifiable in items of the cosmopolitan style (p. 260).

One of the interesting outcomes of this study is the very lack of clarity underlying the two categories, which is indicative of the complex cultural dialogue in Roman Syria. But the confinement of the material to such a strict division proves disruptive to the study's larger goal of regional analysis. It is difficult to gain a sense of the complete spectrum of artistic output from a single region.

Together with Skupinska-LÝvset's earlier work,[[3]] the present study is a useful starting-point for further exploration of eastern provincial portraiture. Source analysis will help to isolate provenience and identify workshops with more precision. Closer consideration of the context of sculpture will deepen our understanding of the cultural interaction between Rome and Syria, and between Syria and the East.[[4]]


[[1]] Some Polish alphabetic characters are not represented properly in this electronic review. The review editor apologises for this shortcoming.

[[2]] See E. Fentress (ed.), Romanization and the City. JRA Supplement 38 (Portsmouth, Rhode Island 2000).

[[3]] Ilona Skupinska-LÝvset, Funerary Portraiture of Roman Palestine (Gothenburg 1983).

[[4]] See W. Ball, Rome and the East (London and New York 2000).