Re-casting imperial images at Ephesus under Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus instruct not to re-cast silver for their representations, even if the old images were worn and not easily identifiable.
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Imperial letter
Original Location/Place: 
The blocks were found in the theatre of Ephesus, but they could have originally stood on one of the walls of the gerousia.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Blocks a, b, c are in Vienna (Austria), at the Ephesus Museum (inv. III 1081). Block d is in the British Museum, London.
162 CE to 163 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
The imperial letter was inscribed on five different blocks. Some parts of them are very damaged.

Block a) 59.5x134; b) 22x59.5; c) 59.5x134: d) 23x 63.5 (all in centimetres). Letters are between 3 and 1.5 cm tall. 

Roman, Greek
Die Inschriften von Ephesos I no. 25.

Soon after inaugurating their co-regency, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus appear fully involved in responding to issues affecting both the imperial administration and the local population. Through these early actions, we can explore the policy of the emperors regarding their visual representations and the provincial attitude towards the maintenance and re-use of these images.   

The imperial letter, discovered at Ephesus, was not directly addressed to the political institutions of the Asian city, but to an individual named Ulpius Eurycles. Thanks to the information contained in lines 5 and 6, we know that this man had been appointed by the proconsuls as λογιστής/logistês. This term – a rendering of the Latin title curator – refers to agents sent by the Roman administration to supervise local issues who became more frequent from the 2nd century CE (Dmitriev, City Government, p. 195-196). In order to perform their missions more effectively, the curatores were normally selected among provincial celebrities such as Iulius Severus who were well acquainted with the particularities of Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean. The appointment of Ulpius Eurycles follows this model as well because he belonged to the elite of Phrygia and was renowned for his virtues – including paideia – as extolled in letters sent by the council of the Panhellenion (IGRR IV.573-4), and even the emperor Antoninus Pius (IGRR IV.575). Another inscription found not far from the famous temple of Zeus in Aizanoi records the setting up of honours by Eurycles himself for Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus already in 161; so there should be no doubt about his alignment with the recent imperial accession.

In his Ephesian mission, Ulpius Eurycles was supervising the γερουσία/gerousia. This was the council of elders that Lysimachus instituted to control many aspects in the civic life after his Hellenistic re-foundation according to Strabo (Geography XIV.1.21). In the imperial period and on the basis of epigraphic evidence, the tasks of the gerousia seem more modest but still relevant. For example, it was the political entity receiving the third largest sum in the Salutaris’s Foundation. It also had the capacity to lend money and collect debts (see Rogers, Sacred Identity, p. 62-64), and was deeply involved in the cult of both Artemis and the Roman emperors for whom prayers were sung in 180 CE (I.Eph. 26. l. 8-12). On account of all these activities, the intervention of Ulpius Eurycles was deemed necessary by the provincial proconsuls. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus remark that the curator should have contacted first these immediate superiors concerning his complications (ἠπόρεις/êporeis). The emperors were therefore fearing that a negative precedent (παραδείγμα/paradeigma) would be created and, consequently, the number of similar petitions become unbearable. Nonetheless, they agree that the first issue communicated (ἐκοίνωσας/ekoinôsas) by Ulpius Eurycles was pertinent to their attention, above the other questions (ἐρωτήσεις/erôtêseis) attached. Even if the inscription records the response to all these enquiries over more than sixty lines, our edition and commentary focus on the difficulty primarily attracting this imperial reaction, namely “the silver images” (ἀργυραῖ εἰκόνες/argyrai eikones, l. 9).

These were old metal representations of the emperors (αὐτοκράτορες/autokratores, l. 11) stored in the building where the gerousia summoned: the συνέδριον/synedrion. The Ephesian proposal was to re-use the precious material for producing images befitting the features (χαρακτῆρες/charaktêres) of the new emperors. Ulpius Eurycles probably doubted the suitability of the action and, for this reason, contacted Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus directly. The imperial response rejected the re-casting (ἀναχώνευσις/anachôneusis) and urged to preserve “the names under which each of them came into existence (l. 12-13).” Both the local initiative and the Roman reaction show two important aspects. First, this kind of images was supposed to resemble the actual characteristics of the rulers and, hence, be recognisable. In other words, representations of the Roman emperors in the provinces were not abstract, but determined by the individuality of human nature. Indeed, conscious worries about sculptural realism could only arouse when the local population was well aware of the distinctive physical changes brought by each imperial accession. If sculptures did not comply with the visual consensus transmitted by other media such as coins, their inviolability might be endangered. This was precisely the case occurring at Ephesus as recorded between the fragmentary lines 15 and 23. In the petition of Ulpius Eurycles now lost, the curator most likely exposed the difficulty of providing identifications of each of the statues. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius, in return, insisted in the effort to use other methods available to him such as the registers (βιβλία/biblia) of the gerousia. But, how could the identification of solid silver images become so challenging? A related document mentioned above, the Salutaris’s foundation, helps us to answer this question. In this long inscription, not only distributions of money to civic institutions are established but also the preparation of five silver images of Trajan and Plotina weighting several pounds commanded. Additionally, the local decree enforcing the foundation instructs that these images were to be paraded in many local festivities of Ephesus. This frequent display is not unique to the Asian capital but, rather, endorsed by the emperors as confirmed by Marcus Aurelius himself when he recommended in Athens the production of busts that could be “more easily transported in public gatherings” (SEG 21.509). Constant use generates wear and the subsequent defacing observed by Ulpius Eurycles should now be better understood.

The second central element of the text is concerned with the apparent lack of readiness (πρόχειροι/procheiroi) to accept honours (τιμαί/timai) expressed by Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in lines 14 and 15. Considering that this communication occurred at the beginning of the their joint reign, this stance must be interpreted in the long imperial tradition to refuse excessive signs of provincial devotion upon accession. Tiberius, for example, did not accept divine honours after the death of Augustus as reported by the sacred law of Gytheion, and Claudius reacted negatively to a similar proposal of Thasos too. In the aforementioned case of Marcus Aurelius in Athens, the emperor proposed the use of bronze instead of expensive gold. The episode of Ephesus is even more interesting because the emperors opposed the idea of usurping material dedicated to rulers such as Trajan from which they claimed to be descendants (see Hekster, Emperors and Ancestors, p. 80-96). Instead, they advocated for the renovation (ἀνανεωθῆναι/ananeôthênai) of previous images as an honour which could also strengthen their imperial legitimacy. With their proposal, Ephesus had already demonstrated loyalty to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus so the emperors were more interested in setting their new policy regarding images. This policy appears to have finally been accepted as the setting up of the inscription would show. Likewise, the Ephesian favour for the Antonine dynasty cannot be doubted on the basis of the so-called “Parthian Monument” (see Oberleitner, Das Partherdenkmal), and the fact that Lucius Verus visited the city at least on two occasions  – one of which he would have married Lucilla – and his troops were hosted here for several months on their return from Persia. As for Ulpius Eurycles, he was equally successful because an inscription from Aphrodisias records another mission as curator on behalf of Rome in the reign of Commodus (I.Aph. 15.330).

In order to create these connections between ruling powers and provincial population, accurate images were considered fundamental. These were visual representations that could generate consensus and control fostered not only through military subjugation but also by impressive media such as coins and statues. The importance of these figurative devices is confirmed by our document illustrating a concrete issue in which Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus rejected the re-casting of worn silver depicting their ancestors in Ephesus. Considering the strong symbolism of such images, one might also easily understand the precautions that rabbinic sources such as Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3:1-2 placed regarding the re-use of old Roman idols, even if these were fragmentary.   

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Re-casting imperial images at Ephesus under Marcus Aurelius
Author(s) of this publication: Aitor Blanco Pérez
Publishing date: Sun, 01/21/2018 - 12:38
Visited: Fri, 04/19/2024 - 13:36

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