The Portrait as a Ritual Actor in Roman Thessaloniki’s Sacred Quarter


Assistant Professor, Department of Classical Studies

Indiana University Bloomington


In this talk, I explore the religious agency of freestanding portrait sculpture in the Roman world. Recent work on portraiture in context has emphasized the agency of statues in Hellenistic and Roman societies. In his book on portraiture in Hellenistic cities, John Ma sees portraits as an instantiation of relationships (civic, political, societal, and familial) within a spatial context. Ma’s work emphasizes portraits as agents in civic culture; that is, he sees these statues as participating in the creation of a city’s society. This argument, and other recent research highlighting the power and agency of sculpture by scholars like Sheila Dillon, Philip Kiernan, and Peter Stewart, advance in our understanding of statues as part of public culture in Greek cities. But this emphasis on their political function flattens the dynamism of statues in other realms of ancient life. Scholars have been especially reluctant to see these images as religious, despite the fact that many freestanding portraits in the Greek and Roman world were set up in sanctuaries, often in ways that intersected with religious practices.

I suggest that religious context, when paired with the iconography of ritual found in many portrait statues, could inflect these images with a new, more practical meaning. Taking the portraits of Roman Thessaloniki as a case study, I focus on object agency to explore how portrait sculptures accomplished religious goals in sanctuary contexts. I focus on two temples from the city’s northwest quarter, often called the “Sacred Quarter” in scholarly literature. In the city’s Sarapeum, a significant portion of the portraits depict the subject in the guise of a god or goddess, often called theomorphic portraiture in the scholarly literature. Since epigraphic and visual evidence attests to rites that involved dressing in divine costumes in the sanctuary, I argue that these images preserve and repeat the subject’s practice of this ritual. Turning to the nearby reused Ionic temple that housed the imperial cult, I apply a similar lens to more canonical forms of honorific portraiture. Togate images of magistrates in this context, I argue, turned the day-to-day functions of empire into part of the emperors’ worship. These examples suggest that display context could introduce new forms of religious meaning, and that in turn, the portraits could extend the life of a pious act into the future.


Meeting with the Speaker: Lindsey A Mazurek signup

Thu February 16th 2023, 5:00 - 6:30pm
Lindsey Mazurek