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Rhetoric and the Display of Art: Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides, and Libanius

Janet Atwill, University of Tennessee, Summer Fellow 2014

This project examines the relationship between material culture (statues, temples, and public buildings) and Greek rhetoric in the East Roman Empire. Rhetoric of this period has long been identified with the genre of epideictic, the “display” discourse of praise and blame. However, the genre itself has been cited as evidence of the erosion of meaningful political discourse and the trivialization of the classical rhetorical tradition under the empire. Scholarship on early imperial rhetoric has paid relatively little attention to the subjects of praise and blame, which were often important elements of Greek material culture. For example, Dio Chrysostom’s “Olympic Oration” is a panegyric of both Pheidias’s statue of Zeus and of imperial rule. With the turbulent transition from pagan to Christian empire, however, these relationships are more difficult to ignore. In the late fourth century, Libanius was forced to appeal to Theodosius, on the one hand, for the protection of pagan temples and, on the other, for mercy to citizens of Antioch who defaced statues of the emperor and his family. The library of Dumbarton Oaks was an invaluable resource for tracing laws relating to public buildings and statues, which shed light on many of these orators’ arguments. Most important was the image collection from the excavation of Antioch and nearby Harbiye, in which Dumbarton Oaks played a critical role. Statues, mosaics, and other artifacts from this excavation are on display at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, the Hatay Archaeology Museum in modern Antakya, and elsewhere. These archives offer an invaluable opportunity to see material culture in situ. Statues and representations of orators are included in the archive, alongside pagan and Christian images. Taken together, these images create a rich portrait of the complex culture that shaped the Byzantine world.