The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity by G. Kalas

Book Review by Ian Hughes

Recently, there has been a growth of interest in and publication of books about Late Antiquity. This has been stimulated to a large extent by a growth in the publication of many of the difficult primary sources concerning the period, usually with an accompanying commentary.

However, there is one small problem that lies at the core of any study of the period: the sources contain a limited amount of information and what little there is has been analysed and debated for a very long time. The net result is that there is little new that can be found with which to reassess the events of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E.

It may be possible to augment our knowledge with other evidence, and the most obvious alternative is archaeology. Yet there are problems with this, the most obvious and frustrating being that archaeology can rarely give dates within a small time frame, even less an exact year.

Recent archaeological excavations in the Roman Forum and its surrounds are different. The existence of inscriptions within the forum can give approximate dates for many of the statues, displays, and rebuilding programmes, often datable to within the lifetime of an individual, whether an emperor or a high-ranking official whose tenure is datable from other evidence. In this way, the Forum can be used to demonstrate changes in the ways that emperors and their officials wished to be perceived, or the way in which imperial policy was changed or enforced with regards to the erection of buildings and statues in Rome. In addition, modern graphics technology can be used to demonstrate clearly how these changes altered the face of the forum over the last c.150 years of its existence as a focus of display for Imperial ideology.

‘The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity: Transforming Public Space’ by Gregor Kalas (Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee) is a book aiming to describe how the Roman Forum changed in Late Antiquity, especially with regard to the erection and movement of statues and the continued existence and restoration of many associated buildings.

There are eight chapters, including the Introduction and Conclusion:

Introduction: The Late Antique Roman Forum under Restoration
1. Collective Identity and Renewed Time in the Tetrarchic Roman Forum
2. Constantine the Restorer
3. Statues in the Late Antique Roman Forum
4. Restored Basilicas and Statues on the Move
5. The Contested Eternity of Temples
6. Rome’s Senatorial Complex and the Late Antique Transformation of the Elite
Conclusion: Public Space in Late Antiquity

In addition to the text, the book includes accompanying and relevant photographs, plus electronic reconstructions of the Forum across the period using digital imaging to be found at The net result is a large number of valuable photographs of statue bases that are not usually found in other, non-specialist textbooks. Furthermore, probably due to the high number of diagrams, photographs and reconstructions, the text is in two columns per page, yet as the book is large this actually makes reading the book easier.

The contents are what could be expected from the title. The reader is taken on a chronological tour of the monuments in the Forum and surrounding areas, beginning with the Tetrarchy and finishing with a small assessment of the input from Theoderic I, the Gothic king who took over in Italy after his defeat of Odovacer in 493. The analysis of the installations in the Forum, plus the attending context of the reasons for the erection of statues or reconstruction of buildings is usually good and gives the reader a valuable insight into the machinations taking place in Rome. For this reason alone the book is a valuable addition to the corpus of material being published on Late Antiquity.

However, there are a few caveats to this endorsement. The first, and most obvious, is that the text is written in what can best be described as ‘high academic’. There is little attempt to make the information accessible to the lay reader, and this can be problematic for readers with a ‘casual’ interest in the period.

A second is that the author’s desire to make points often results in a high level of repetition of both description and theoretical argument that can leave the reader a little confused, since it may cause the reader to refer back to earlier in the book to ensure that this is indeed a repetition rather than a re-reading of the same piece of text.

A further (small) cause of irritation is that in at least one case, on page 76, a complex diagram showing the plan of the central Forum, where statues are referenced by numbers, has underneath the caption: ‘the numbers correspond to the catalogue … [at] Obviously, this makes understanding the map in the intended context of reading a book more than a little difficult.

A slight disappointment, rather than a criticism, is that the later parts of the book, especially that analysing the period after the death of Valentinian III (CE 455), has very little discussion of the fact that the vast majority of the emperors who ruled after 455 are absent from the statuary record in the forum. An assessment of why the later Emperors are missing from the archaeological record would have made a valuable contribution to what is usually a neglected period. Instead, the book focuses on the erection and re-erection of statues by the aristocracy. Yet again there is no analysis and the author makes no attempt to discuss the implications of the change from ‘Imperial’ to ‘Senatorial’ in the context of Late Imperial politics.

Despite these difficulties it is worth persevering with the book. It contains many insights into the working of the late-Roman political machinations as evidenced by the changing use of statuary erection and movement, as well as the repairing of old buildings. In addition, it shines new light on the manner in which Christian and non-Christian interacted in the fourth and fifth centuries, and demonstrates that the simplified accounts recorded in hagiographical, chronological and traditional literary works are usually the work of heavily biased individuals working within the milieu of a pro-Christian world view. In this context the book should definitely be read by those interested in either late-Roman or early-Christian history.

Ian Hughes has published several books on late antiquity.

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