The GIS this term began with two papers from Sarah Sheard and Lea Niccolai, respectively talking about the iconography of Ariadne in Roman imperial times and religious identity in late antiquity.
In her presentation “saxea ut effigies bacchantis: a re-evaluation of Ariadne in Roman visual culture”, Sarah led us through the fascinating history of Ariadne’s reception in Roman times. Deserted by Theseus on the island of Naxos and discovered by Dionysus, the mythical figure of Ariadne was a popular subject in early imperial wall paintings at Pompeii. Yet (male) art historians have consistently reduced her to a passive, violated sexual object, by virtue of her representation as a sleeping, nude woman. Sarah pointed out, however, that this narrative is the result of selectively chosen material and lacks the necessary contextualisation of representations of Ariadne in funerary imagery, gems and literature in the Roman period and the visual tradition it drew upon. This contextualisation reasserts how traces of her previous marital iconography from Greek and Hellenistic visual culture were preserved into the Roman period, with Roman artists becoming interested in ‘transitional’ moments in Ariadne’s overall narrative of abandonment, discovery and marriage to Dionysus. This provides a compelling case for re-evaluating the common assumption that Ariadne is a passive sexual object. Sarah argued for the possibility of reading Ariadne’s imagery in the early imperial period as an instructional, conveying how to cope with loss, which dovetails with Augustus’ contemporary matrimonial policy, which encouraged the remarriage of divorced and widowed women. Even if one does not believe that Pompeian wall paintings were motivated by imperial social policy, however, it is imperative that scholarly prejudices of sexualised narratives about female subjects in art do not obscure the possible alternative avenues of interpretation.
In the second section of the seminar, Lea presented a paper entitled “Religious Identity in Late Antique Cyrenaica: Synesius the Bishop and the Case of the ‘House of Hesychios’. Scholars generally agree on the fact that Synesius of Cyrene (370 ca. – 413 CE), bishop and former pupil of the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, was born into an old and wealthy local family of the city of Cyrene. What remains controversial is the definition of the religious identity of this ‘old and wealthy’ local family. The issue has broader repercussions, as understanding whether Synesius came from a pagan or a Christian environment affects the interpretation of his adhesion to Neoplatonism and subsequent acceptance of the bishopric of the city of Ptolemais, and ultimately contributes to shedding light on the issue of religious self-identification in late antiquity. A. Cameron and J. Long’s monograph Barbarians and Politics at the court of Arcadius (1993) is widely regarded as having established that Synesius came from a Christian familiar environment, a conclusion that has been variously echoed. In her talk, Lea proposed a critical reappraisal of the archaeological evidence on which their theory is based, the Christian inscriptions from the patrician house of ‘Hesychios the Libyarch’, in Cyrene. Lea pointed out that the identification of the owner of this house with Synesius’ father is still open to question, depending as it does on a number of debatable hypothesis; a re-evaluation of the chronology of the layers of the house and of the evolution of the office of Libyarchy during the IV century would seem to show that alternative scenarios are available.