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Refashioning the East in the Roman Provinces: The Relief of Nero and Armenia at Aphrodisias’ Sebasteion

Timothy Clark

The University of Chicago

How local elites, especially those who governed cities in the Hellenized eastern provinces of the Roman empire, constructed their identities despite owing ultimate allegiance to Rome has been the subject of much scholarship (Price 1984; Alcock 2002; Raja 2012). The Sebasteion from Aphrodisias in southern Asia Minor represents an ideal case for this question. This sanctuary to Aphrodisias’ principle deity, Aphrodite Prometer, and to the Julio-Claudian emperors was built by two elite Aphrodisian families between 20 and 60 C.E. who boasted close ties to the imperial cult and local civic life. In my paper, I relate the Sebasteion’s sculptural program to an area of Roman ideology that research on the sanctuary has largely ignored. In the complex’s South Building, Nero is shown supporting an Amazonian representation of Armenia, whom he has just defeated. I explain how the differences between this representation of an Eastern “Other” sponsored by the local Aphrodisian aristocracy and those produced at Rome under the Julio-Claudian emperors explicates our understanding of the Sebasteion as a symbol of Aphrodisian civic identity within the Roman empire.

The image of Nero and Armenia formed part of a series of reliefs on the third floor of the South Building along with other scenes of emperors conquering foreign nations. Armenia sags, defeated and demoralized, in Nero’s arms. Her slouched head and deadened expression signify her death or complete dejection. Her exposed breasts, Phrygian cap, and bow marked her as an exotic Eastern Other. Nero is shown naked, with a Corinthian Helmet, like a Greek hero. By contrast, imagery during Augustus’ reign never showed a Roman explicitly subduing either Armenia or Parthia, the empire’s two principal Eastern enemies, but showed them kneeling before or hailing the emperor (Rose 2005; Lerouge 2007). Augustus’ regime thus never explicitly declared that Parthia or Armenia had been conquered and were now part of the empire per se.  Under Nero, however, images of the two states disappeared from Roman material and visual culture entirely. By contrast, Armenia’s deadened expression and feeble form testify to Nero’s violent subjugation of her.

My paper first examines the relief in the context of the Sebasteion’s sculptural program. R.R.R. Smith (1987) has argued that Nero delicately cradles Armenia and that he will soon gently bring her into the Roman fold. However, building on Caroline Vout’s analysis of the relief (2007), I argue that this scene actually implies Nero’s sexualized and forceful incorporation of Armenia into the Sebasteion’s Hellenized vision of the Roman empire. The second story of the South Building tied the images of conquering emperors to Greek myths, such as Aeneas or Herakles and Nessos. The combination of the two floors recast Nero’s defeat of Armenia as the act of a Greek hero or god who has subdued a threat to the order of the cosmos that the Olympian deities maintained.

In the second part of my paper, I go beyond Smith and Vout and draw conclusions about how this depiction of Armenia elucidates Aphrodisian political identities.  I relate this relief to the Parthian Arch of Augustus, the Prima Porta statue of Augustus, Nero’s Parthian Arch, and numismatic representations of the Parthia and Armenia created under Augustus and Nero. These comparisons show how the Sebasteion relief marks one of if not the earliest representations of actual Eastern conquest. Armenia here is not simply deferential to Roman rule but has been forced to become a full new member of the Roman oikumene. This view of Armenia suggests that the Sebasteion’s aristocratic benefactors constructed its vision of the Roman empire using ideologies that departed sharply from views in vogue at the imperial metropole. As my paper demonstrates, the relief signifies the important autonomy of the elites in the Greek East, who could create their own conception of who the emperor was and what kind of empire he led. 

Session/Panel Title

Monumental Expressions of Political Identity

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