Theses Doctoral

The Gods of Hellenistic Central Italy: Theology, Representation, and Response

Ekserdjian, Alexander

This dissertation concerns the sculptural representation of divinity in Hellenistic Central Italy, ca. 200 BCE-100 BCE. In so doing, it tackles the question of the role images played in Roman religion as well as the question of the relationship between Aegean Greek and Central Italian sculpture. Recent publications related to Roman divine images have respectively: a) suggested that the form of images was incidental to their functioning as sacred sculpture; b) proposed that images were not a necessary part of Roman religion; and c) considered the divine images themselves primarily significant as ideological statements on the part of their patrons. Furthermore, most scholarly treatments of sculpted images in Hellenistic Central Italy have to-date siloed architectural from freestanding sculpture, impoverishing the study of both categories of material. Most of these sculptures play little to no role in anglophone histories of ancient art.

This project analyses the divine images of Hellenistic Central Italy through the lenses of scale, materiality, and body language. These analytical frames are used to show how the representation of the gods in freestanding and architectural sculpture was meaningfully differentiated from the appearance of sculpted images of mortal people. These differences, as well as the similarities, are highlighted in order to suggest patterns of response, and thereby to propose ways in which the category of ‘the divine’ was constructed in image form. The three lenses of scale, materiality, and body language likewise allow the significant differences, as well as the frequent points of similarity, between ‘Roman’ representations of the gods and the divine images of the Greek world to be elucidated.

Chapter 1 presents the evidence from certain key sanctuaries, offering new reconstructions of fragmentary evidence and showing the interrelation between divine images of different kinds in these spaces. Chapter 2 compares divine images with sculpted representations of people through the lens of scale, showing that sculpted images of the gods were crafted at an intentionally ‘inhuman’ scale in Hellenistic Central Italy. Chapter 3 tackles the materiality of divine images, charting the new materials used to embody the gods in the second century BCE and, at the same time, stressing the ways that the use of materials differentiated divine from mortal images. A major theme, across media, is the production of composite, multi-material sculptures of the gods. Chapter 4 assesses the body language of divine images, showing the modifications made to existing sculptural types to make the bodies of the gods more dynamic and interactive to their viewers. The three key elements of divine body language exhibited by the sculpted representations of the gods are grandeur, ease, and engagement with a viewer.

The results of this study demonstrate that images of the gods in Italy were constructed so as to differ significantly from the images of mortals. Through these means, images are shown to have embodied a ‘visual theology’, allowing conclusions to be drawn by their viewers about the nature and workings of the divine. In this way, images played an essential role in Roman religion, despite their non-appearance in ritual prescriptions. Further, Roman divine images are revealed to have been significantly different from the images of the gods in the Greek world.

This project re-orients the study of the Central Italian images of the gods, focusing on the viewers of sculpture as well as the patrons. The conclusions reached reveal the central role of images in Roman religion in the Hellenistic Period and the value of visual evidence for anthropological approaches to the Roman world. These results regarding divine images provide as yet under-exploited evidence for the relationship between Greek and Roman sculpture.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-06-23.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
De Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2023