CLASSICAL REVIVALS AND “PAGAN” ART
Scholars have long sought evidence for a pagan reaction in the art as well as the literature of the late fourth century. Alföldi saw the classicizing silver plate and ivory carving of the age as part of a concerted campaign of pagan propaganda sponsored by the aristocracy of Rome. Despite the fact that he did no more than sketch out this thesis in the course of expounding his theory about the contorniates, it has been enormously influential. The reprinting of his brilliant 1943 chapter unchanged in the 1990 revision of his famous book has given the theory a perhaps undeserved fresh lease of life.1 While conceding that Alföldi’s formulation went too far, many scholars nonetheless cling to a modified version, assuming that the artifacts he discussed do at any rate reflect lingering pagan sympathies. Even this goes too far.
First, the contorniates. Contorniates, so called from their turned-up edges, are bronze medallions produced in the city of Rome from the mid-fourth to the late fifth century (figure 1)? A high proportion carry representations of the games and their stars, and most are also decorated with symbols of victory (palms, crowns, etc.). Alföldi thought they were distributed to the plebs by aristocratic families at the new year festival games each year. He distinguished three main series, two struck and a third cast.3 The two struck series seem to have been produced at the Roman mint. There is a dielink between one of the earliest contorniate types and a coin produced at the mint between 354 and 360,4 and many of the second series bear the bust of the reigning emperor. On Alföldi’s view, the first series closed in 394, and the second began in 410. The cast series he placed in the gap between these two groups (394–410).
Unfortunately, there is no independent evidence for any of these dates. They are not only conjectural, they are entirely based on the theory they are supposed to be proving. The year 394 derives from Alföldi’s assumption that pagan propaganda “must
1. Alföldi and Alföldi 1976–90 The Alföldi thesis is stated without reservation on the basis of the 1990 edition (25–63) by Lançon 1995, 98–100, ignoring the reservations in my own accompanying supplement (ib. 63–74).
2. For an excellent brief characterization, Toynbee 1986, 234–36; also Mazzarino’s entry “Contorniati” in Enc. Arte Antica 11 (1959), 784–91; Mittag 1999.
3. Contorniates of the second series are now included along with regular coins and medallions in RIC x.
4. D. G. Wigg, JRA 8 (1995), 527.