Transfigurations of Hellenism: Aspects of Late Antique Art in Egypt, AD 250-700

By László Török | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
IMAGES OF THE GOOD LIFE:
DISPLAY AND STYLE

Wealth—Joy—Praise—

Abundance—Virtue—Progress1


1. Iconography of wealth

In his study of landholding and distribution of wealth in late Roman Egypt, Roger Bagnall speaks about

the absence of really great landed fortunes in the hands of the curial class, fortunes that might support a rise from municipial status to the aristocracy of the empire … Egypt contributed disproportionately few persons to that aristocracy, even in the fourth century and later. The lack of great fortunes underlying this state of affairs seems to have been deeply rooted in patterns of land ownership.2

Indeed, not many families or individuals rose from Egypt to the aristocracy of the Empire (Chapter IV.2.4, 5). It would be rash to conclude, however, that the villas and town houses of the Egyptian aristocracy were also, as a rule, less sumptuous than the villas and houses of the elite of other provinces. We can collect rich evidence to the contrary. Let me quote first of all a paradigmatic example of the cosmopolitan standards of patrician display in late antique Egypt. I refer to the cache of (partly?) imported marble sculpture found in what must have been the ruins of a seaside villa at Alexandria. The thirteen pieces of sculpture discovered at Sidi Bishr in modern Alexandria3

1 Names of the symbolic gifts offered to the personification of Hestia Polyolbos, the “Blessed Hearth”, in the tapestry Dumbarton Oaks Collection 29.1, Maguire 1999 244.

2 Bagnall 1992 143.

3 B. Gasowska: Depozyt rzezb z Sidi Bishr w Aleksandrii. in: Starozytna Aleksandria w badaniach polskich. Materialy Sesji Naukowej organizowanej prez Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Jagellonskiego Krakow 8–9 kwietnia 1975. Warszawa 1977 99–118; my description follows Hannestad 1994 123 f.

-217-

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