Roman Statuary in the Near East: An Interdisciplinary Project in Material Culture

In 2002, three members of the University of Michigan community, experts in three distinct scholarly fields, came together to study one facet of the ancient world, that of sculpture. Two were current Michigan professors, Yaron Eliav, Associate (at the time, Assistant) Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Jewish History of Late Antiquity, and Sharon Herbert, Professor of Classical Archaeology and Greek (and at the time, Director of the university’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology). The third member was Elise Friedland, an art historian and past graduate of the Michigan IPCAA program (Inter-Departmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology), who has since become a professor at other institutions, first at Rollins College and then at George Washington University (GWU). The idea was to study Roman sculpture outside of its natural setting, not in Rome or in Greece (or Asia Minor) but rather in the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, and to look at this sculpture as embodiments of culture and the instigators of cultural interaction. Read more about the methodological and conceptual underpinnings of this project in the introduction to our companion volume of essays: Sculptural Environment Introduction.


Between 2002-2008, Eliav and Friedland have led teams of students at the University of Michigan and at Rollins College, including undergraduates, MAs and PhDs, in the collection and study of literary references to statues, in particular (but not exclusively) those in the Roman Near East. Those references have been indexed and catalogued in a database developed for this project, which is now open for public use here.

Student Projects

Numerous student projects have evolved from this endeavor. Some of the participating undergraduates in Michigan came from the university’s nationally renowned Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) and they showcased their findings in the various conferences and exhibits carried out by that program. One UROP student, Renee O’Neill, presented a paper about her work (“Creation of a Sourcebook on Roman Sculpture in the Roman Near East”) at the 21st National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR 21) at the Dominican University of California (April 12-14, 2007). Ilana Gaba, an MA student at the university’s Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, wrote her thesis on “Rabbinic Readings of the Second Commandment: From Theory to Practice, and Back Again.” Finally, Jason von Ehernkrook, currently an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, began work on the statuary project as a graduate student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and decided to devote his PhD dissertation to the topic. The result was published as a monograph, Sculpting Idolatry in Flavian Rome: (An)Iconic Rhetoric in the Writings of Flavius Josephus (Early Judaism and its Literature 33; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011).

International Conference and Essay Volume

On November 7-10, 2004, Eliav, Friedland, and Herbert hosted an international conference in Ann Arbor, MI: “The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East: Reflections on Culture, Ideology, and Power.” See the schedule of the conference and list of participants here. The papers were eventually published in Yaron Z. Eliav, Elise Friedland, and Sharon Herbert, eds., The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East: Reflections on Culture, Ideology, and Power (Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 9; Leuven: Peeters, 2008). See the Sculptural Environment Table of Contents.


Eliav has presented his research on statues in the following venues: at a Princeton University conference on the Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman culture (November 2000); at the 12th International Conference of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem (August 2001); at a symposium on translation and culture at Washington University in St. Louis (October 2002); at a conference on context and intertext at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (November 2003); and in a public lecture at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (February 2008). The Getty Museum lecture could be viewed here; see also a newspaper article and interview that was published about it here.


Eliav’s research stemming from the statuary project has been published in the following:

Viewing the Sculptural Environment; Shaping the Second Commandment,” in P. Schäfer (ed.), The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture III (Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum 93; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 411-433.

On Idolatry in the Roman Bath House – Two Comments,” Cathedra, 110 (2003), pp. 173-180 (Heb.).

Roman Statues, Rabbis, and Graeco-Roman Culture,” in: A. Norich and Y.Z. Eliav (eds.), Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Context and Intertext (Brown Judaic Studies 349; Providence RI, 2008), pp. 99-115.

The Desolating Sacrilege: A Jewish Christian Discourse on Statuary, Space, and Power,” in: Y.Z. Eliav et al. (eds.), The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East: Reflections on Culture, Ideology, and Power (Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 9; Leuven: Peeters, 2008), pp. 605-627.

Also based on this project is a chapter,  “The Naked Rabbi and the Beautiful Goddess: Engaging Sculpture in the Public Bathhouse,” in the forthcoming monograph, A Jew in the Roman Bathhouse: The Poetics of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Mediterranean.