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6 September 2005

Ancient Monuments Built for Eternity

Heidelberg archaeologist Tonio Hölscher awarded the University of Heidelberg's generously endowed Lautenschläger Research Prize — Interview in the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper

On 23 September classical archaeologist Prof. Tonio Hölscher will be presented with the University of Heidelberg's Lautenschläger Research Prize, worth 250,000 euro. The award is in recognition of Prof. Hölscher's research on the political and social functions of pictorial art, sculpture and architecture in ancient Greece and Rome. Hölscher is the third recipient of the Prize. His predecessors were the physicist Johanna Stachel and the medical scientist Peter Krammer.

Professor Hölscher, are there any parallels between historical art and architecture and the present-day mass media?

At a time when there were no mass media on a day-to-day basis, monuments had the task of confronting the population with the political achievements and concepts of the rulers and the state. The difference is that these monuments were designed for eternity, an attempt to assure the posthumous glory of those who had them put up.

What kinds of art are you interested in?

I study all kinds of pictorial and representational art that are public in character — sculpture, architecture with reliefs and large-scale murals, most of which are only known from the references made to them in written sources. My interest also extends to artworks on a smaller scale, such as vases, to the extent that they have some kind of political significance.

The picture shows the Arch of Constantine in Rome (315 AD).
As the situation in the late Roman Empire became increasingly precarious the monuments emphasised the imperial role of the emperor. The picture shows the Arch of Constantine in Rome (315 AD).
Photo : private

What areas do your activities centre on?

I attempt to place the content of my research on as broad a basis as possible. In terms of periodicity it ranges from early Greek civilisation to the late Roman Empire, geographically it covers the entire Greek and Roman world. An overview of the whole range of the phenomena in question is essential in identifying the specific profiles of the individual monuments.

How do you distinguish the various functions of these artworks?

Political monuments aim at occupying the public spaces of cities by the symbolic representation of the ideologies and intentions of powerholders or states. They take different forms at different periods, from the early aristocratic communities to the democratic cities, the great kingdoms of Hellenism and the Roman Empire.

Can you give us some examples?

In Athenian democracy there were monuments commemorating both leading statesmen and collective achievements. The erection of these monuments was sensitively geared to the balance of power in the democratic state and subject to firmly established rules. In the Roman Empire, by contrast, the major monuments to the emperors expressed a general acceptance of established power. In Athens there were power struggles connected with these monuments, whereas in Rome they were instrumental in the stabilisation of political rule.

What was the situation in Athens?

One monument put up on the agora, the market-place in Athens, was dedicated to two political assassins, the so-called tyrant-slayers, members of the aristocracy who had staged an attack on the ruling family and were later celebrated as the founder figures of the democratic state. There were also very large murals, one of them commemorating the battle of Marathon in which the attack by the Persians was beaten back. This mural was an incunabulum of the political identity of Athens as the leading power in Greece.

What was the role of the community in Rome?

The emperor figures very prominently in the monuments, interacting with certain groups like the senators, the Roman people, representatives of other cities in Italy and of course the army and Rome's enemies. The monuments display the virtues of the emperor and the guiding principles of political behaviour, such as harmony between the emperor and different groups of subjects or the role of the emperor in linking the community of the Empire with the gods.

Prof. Tonio Hölscher
Prof. Tonio Hölscher
Photo : Vögele

Did this change in the course of time?

In the early imperial age Augustus was very concerned to display consensus. After the civil wars the emphasis was not so much on the emperor's role as commander of the army as on his status as a champion of peace. Later the imperial role of the emperor as warrior and commander-in-chief became much more prominent. As the situation became progressively more precarious in the later stages of the Empire, there was much more insistence on the position of the emperor. Unlike today these monuments were more than just accoutrements for public places. They occupied these places, in the fullest sense of the word, and this occupation sparked off political conflicts. In the late Roman republic there were genuine "monument wars."

What status did religion and mythology have in these ancient monuments?

They were extremely important and were bound up indissolubly with politics. Religion imbued Greek and Roman life in all its aspects. Roman triumphal processions were religious rituals in honour of Jupiter as god of the state. Mythology is all-pervasive in antiquity because it commemorates the great figures of pre-history. These great figures were the exemplars for the present. Mythology is extremely prominent in the political monuments too. The founding heroes of Rome were at the same time representatives of the most important virtues of the rulers as statesmen. Aeneas was a representative of piety, Romulus the protagonist of military prowess and glory. In Greece it was much the same. The battles of the gods against the giants and those of the mythic Greeks against the Amazons, the Centaurs and Troy were seen and displayed as forerunners of the wars of the Greeks against the Persians.

What are your major research interests at the moment?

The first is a comprehensive handbook on Greek, Etruscan and Roman political monuments. I am also working on a book about early Greek mythical imagery from the perspective of its significance for social and political life. Another plan I have in mind is a broad-ranging investigation of the general functions of these artworks in the lives and the physical environment of the Greeks. Closely bound up with the physical environment is the question of urban history, notably in Athens.

With its 250,000 euro, the Lautenschläger Research Prize is very generously endowed. Do you have ideas about how you are going to use the money?

The Prize is exclusively designed for research purposes. Essentially I shall be using it to work on the book about political monuments with a small group of young scholars.

Interviewer: Heribert Vogt

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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