National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Lindsey Mazurek

Affiliation: Indiana University, Bloomington

Lindsey Mazurek is an Assisant Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research focuses on issues of race, ethnicity, identity, change, and materiality in the Roman Empire. She received a Ph.D. in Art History at Duke University, where she began to study cults of the Egyptian gods in non-Egyptian contexts. Dr. Mazurek wrote her dissertation on sculptures of Isis and Sarapis from Hellenistic and Roman Greece. Since then, she has held positions at the University of Oregon, Bucknell University, and the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research is inherently interdisciplinary, and draws on a wide array of evidence, methods, and approaches to reframe our understanding of the ancient world. She is a Tsakirgis lecturer for the AIA’s 2023-2024 National Lecture Program.


Portrait sculptures were an omnipresent feature of public space in the Greek world. Recent anthropologically-focused work on portrait sculptures in the Roman Empire has reconstructed the kinds of work that portraits can do: they can represent individuals, instantiate social networks, honor the gods, preserve memory, and complete transactions between humans and/or gods. But there are portraits that perform none of these functions, and in the Roman period, portraits begin to do new things that clash with earlier expectations. Why, then, are these portraits behaving so badly?

Placing these aberrations in their historical context, I argue that the rise of Roman power in Greece, accompanied by an influx of Italian migrants, created new and conflicting demands on portraiture. In particular, I focus on portraits in heröons at Messene in the Peloponnese and Palatiano in northern Macedonia, where funerary and honorific monuments became the focus of religious veneration and civic myth-making. The incoherence we see, I suggest, results from a complex and localized process of negotiation that produces new types of portrait work, from portraits serving as cult statues to ideal statues acting as portraits. By looking at these portraits that test and transcend traditional limits of what self-representation is supposed to do, I argue, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of what Greeks and Romans thought a portrait was and how it was meant to function in ancient culture.

There are 111 Roman-period grave reliefs from Athens that depict a woman dressed in the Egyptian goddess Isis’ costume, which comprises about one-fifth of all the Roman grave reliefs found in Athens. The unusual costume, which employed the goddess’ signature mantle knotted between the breasts, tightly curled hairstyle, and ritual attributes, deviated from the poses and dresses used in other female portraits in the Greek world. While funerary reliefs depicting women in Isis’s dress do appear on occasion at other sites around the Mediterranean, no other group seems to have used this dress in such high numbers and frequency. At the same time, no other Athenian cult group regularly depicted its adherents in the guise of their gods or goddesses. Why, then, was this type of self-representation so popular at Athens?

By comparing these examples with funerary portraits from Palmyra in Syria and Flavia Solva in Noricum, I argue that these reliefs are best understood as a local response to Roman imperialism. But previous work has treated them only in the context of the cults, not as a broader part of culture in Roman Athens or the Roman Empire as a whole. Scholars studying the Empire’s provinces have suggested that people used funerary monuments to navigate competing social and cultural needs, to mark themselves as participants in both local and Mediterranean-wide social hierarchies. In particular, the dress used in these reliefs marked belonging and helped define who the subject was by embedding them in meaningful groups, networks, and narratives. In the case of Isis devotees at Athens, I argue that their funerary reliefs follow Empire wide patterns of gender and dress while also referencing ritual practices that functioned within a local religious landscape.

Historian Edward Gibbons, who wrote History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, famously listed migration as one of main reasons for Rome’s fall. But, as Emma Dench argues, migration is at the heart of Rome’s own origin story, appearing as a key theme in myths like the story of Romulus and Remus and the rape of the Sabine women. Historical and archaeological studies also provide ample evidence that the Empire’s population was highly mobile: people traveled to seek education, visit famous sites, go to court, and most frequently, buy and sell goods, even as we struggle to identify individual migrants and their stories. How, then, do we find the people who moved across the Empire? In this talk, I examine the evidence for migrants and migration at two key ports in the Roman Empire: Delos and Ostia. During the Roman Republic, the Greek island of Delos drew traders from all over the Mediterranean world who established small resident communities alongside each other. From Syrians to Italians to Egyptians, these communities developed customs and cults that affirmed their origins while living and working in the city’s cosmopolitan Greek-speaking community. At Ostia, which served as Rome’s main port during the 1st-3rd centuries CE, we can observe similar group experiences in the commercial realm while religious spaces integrated more freely. I conclude with examples of forced migration, such as slavery and warfare, which also drove mass movements of people across the Empire. This overview highlights the importance of migration to our understanding of the Roman Empire and the many impacts, both positive and negative, that migrations had on everyday people in the ancient Mediterranean.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader): (“Memorializing Connectivity: Ostia Antica’s Piazza delle Corporazioni” )

When Isis first arrived on Greek shores in the 3rd century BCE, her new followers had to build sanctuaries appropriate to an Egyptian goddess. In the process of imagining a place for their Greek Isis to dwell, devotees came up with a wide range of eclectic solutions that intertwined local needs, imperialist fantasy, and fantastical chronology. These sanctuaries do not draw from contemporaneous Egyptian art and architecture, but rather from Greek stereotypes about Egypt and the Nile River. Isis’ Greek temples, I argue, allowed Greek devotees to imagine Egypt in a way that responded to their own experiences as provincial subjects of the Roman Empire. I begin with a brief overview of Isis’ and Sarapis cults’ arrival in Greece in the early Hellenistic period. Then, I turn to literary evidence, in which Greco-Roman authors from Herodotus to Pliny the Younger characterize Egypt as a timeless and strange place and highlight its unique flora and fauna. I next trace the popularity of these ideas in wall paintings and mosaics, where depictions of the Nile convey ideas of otherness and imperial control. I conclude by discussing the sanctuaries of the Egyptian gods at Marathon and Gortyna. The sanctuary at Marathon combines imaginative architecture that resembles Pharaonic Egyptian temples, archaizing sculpture that evoked a timeless Greco-Egyptian past, and a riverine setting that recalled the Nile Delta. At Gortyna, the sanctuary includes both an underground water crypt that echoed the Nilometers used to measure the river’s annual flood and cattle statuettes that personified the river’s waters. Taken together, this evidence suggests that Greek devotees used sanctuary spaces to explore Greek conceptions of Egypt as an imagined, far-off, and ancient place that they could control in much the same way that Rome controlled and imagined Greece.

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