Levels of Meaning in the Use of Spolia


We can frequently find perfectly good practical reasons for re-use, with no discernible rationale in either the aesthetic or the historical dimension. Foundations get re-used because they are convenient and strong; squared blocks because they are to hand or easily transportable to the site of the new works, being by the sea[1]; tombstones make good facing panels or paving slabs; column shafts make good tie-bars; marble veneer is easily re-locatable; and marble makes excellent lime[2]. Indeed, the use of classical blocks for quoins, with the remainder of tile, rubble and mortar, has been described as a rule-of-thumb building technique found all over Europe from the Tyne to the Tarygetus and extending chronologically from the late Roman to modern times.[3] Not that transport presented insuperable problems, if we are to believe a ninth-century account of using spolia from Estremadura and transporting them by river and sea to Santiago[4]. Similarly, the Muslims took spolia from Acre for Cairo, from Carthage to Damascus, and from the Dome of the Rock to Mecca.[5]


In any search for meaningful spolia, a major problem is that in our area using spolia is the norm not the exception, since it is only natural to use what is to hand. But does using a Greek relief, with inscription, as a scrubbing board for washing, have meaning[6]? Or a column shaft to keep an earth roof rolled flat[7]? What about those cases where antiquities are used for support or as containers, such as pagan altars as holding up Christan altars, columns for cannon, or capitals as Holy Water stoups ? Is such reuse triumphalist in some way, or merely practical[8]? For example, at Lepcis Magna, where a Roman triumphal arch is incorporated into the later enceinte[9]. Grouping and consistency of such varied uses in the West would suggest that they do indeed carry meaning.[10] None of this, of course, excludes an aesthetic appreciation of the past, and an impulse to use it, possibly for propaganda purposes with which we might identify. There are good, practical reasons why some antique sites were left alone, and equally good ones why others were robbed bare. But could it ever be shown in East or West that architectural antiquities (and sculpture) were left alone precisely because they were antique, and therefore in some way special? Survival and re-use always seems to have involved practicalities: usefulness as a conversion; strength as a fortification; certainly prestige in a new location – but never apparently the almost exclusively 19th and 20th century reaction of preserving the past in its original state just because of its age and just because it is numinous.


The reputation of marble continues in the widespread reworking of antique slabs and columns for tomb markers. The practice continued in North Africa into this century,[11] and is observable on many sites in Turkey, such as  the small cemetery amongst the Byzantine churches at Kanytelleis, where one uses an upturned Byzantine acanthus capital as headstone, and at least fifteen use parts of column shafts; the latest grave apparently dated 1965. The practice is also well documented by travellers. In 1800, a Frenchman reported  the use of column shafts, some 15 feet high, as well as capitals, friezes and architraves - all in use as grave markers near the Maeander at the village of Guzzel-Kissana.[12] A little later, Arundell came across a Greek stone-mason at Denizli reworking a frieze into a tombstone. It had come from Laodicea (which the Muslims had sacked in 1188, admiring its marbled porticoes and stone buildings, and carting off the material to Syria[13]): In fact, the immense quantities of stone which are daily brought from thence for building and other uses will very speedily destroy the remains, numerous as they are, which at present exist; and the demolition will be complete, as they have now begun to excavate, and are daily digging up and splitting the finest sculptured marbles.[14] On at least one occasion the Crusaders may have built a fort at Antioch of Turkish tombstones, perhaps as a deliberate insult[15] - although another source says that "pagan" sarcophagi were used.[16]


Much less casual is the gathering of spolia for large monuments such as gates and arches. Constantine may be the first emperor to export spolia from West to East, and possibly in the other direction  as well. Holloway contends, however, that there is no program, hence no real meaning,  in the spolia on the Arch of Constantine ,[17] many shipped, he believes, from Greece or Asia Minor.  For him, the spolia are simply a decorative but miscellaneous collection of sculpture, and hence no attempt to associate Constantine with the past grandeur of earlier Roman emperors. But is it likely that several cubic tons of marble, a long inscription, and so many reliefs, have been put together jigsaw-wise into a triumphal arch without plan, program or meaning? Or simply more likely that we can grasp the aesthetics but not specify the program? Without this apparently pioneering example of the application of spolia to political ends, can a specific rationale be found for later re-use of spolia beyond that of an appreciation of the beauty of the constituent materials (as in tombstones), or vague aesthetics?  But by Holloway’s own argument, shipping enormous panels back from the East must surely have some aim, otherwise why not use equally "meaningless" panels from Rome? To which we should add other scholarly opinion that at least some of the reliefs came from the Forum of Trajan - a conjunction which must have been meaningful, as might the use of Pentelic marble. [18]


So are there other instances of Constantine’s engagement with the past, which can help us? Yes: there is evidence at least of Constantine’s fondness for marbles and columns, because he insisted on high-quality materials, and on approving the objects selected for work on the sacred places of Jerusalem, which were to be gathered from various unspecified locations; and given the phraseology there is a high likelihood that he meant spolia[19]. Again, his adornment of Constantinople can surely be seen as an antiquarian act, and one continued by hjis successors[20]: pagan priests were ordered to bring statues out of wherever they had hidden them; precious metals were stripped from them and melted down for the public purse, and the bronzes were kept to adorn the City[21]. (The deliberate hiding of pagan antiquities continues right up to Late Antiquity[22].)


A Turkish story may reflect a folk-memory of Constantine's gathering of spolia: Constantinople was built by Solomon, who wanted a pompissimo palazzo. The steps taken to build it may reflect knowledge of spolia fortifications still extant in the Greek Islands, such as Paros: Solomon commanded the winds to built the palace, in search of the materials for which they went through Arabia, Persia, India, and so on, and finally arrived alli nobilissimi paesi della Grecia, ad un luogo vicino all’Archipelago, posto tra la Seruta e la Ionia, trouvorono un luogo molto ameno, chiamato li monti d’Aidingik, ove si trovano ancora li vestigi, e chiamato il luogo della circuittone, la fabricorono con grandissima diligenza la rocca e il Palazzo; mentre questi spiriti correvano per il mondo, trovorono in Berez e in Kaf  molte minere di marmore del quale, come anco de altri adobbamenti ne portorono seco, preparorono marmore di diversi colori, formorono diverse colonne, fre le quali n’erano ancora colonne porfiretiche, le quali havevano preparate nel paese di Kaf, e hoggi di si vedono in Constantinopoli nella Chiesa di Santa Sofia (dicono che il altri luoghi non si trova pietra Porfiretica) convenuti li spiriti, fabricarono una rocca e un Palazzo, al quale nissuno era simile nell’universo.[23] Other stories concern Arabic building to rival those of fabled antiquity[24], including the use of marble and glass.[25]


Such stories record effort, if not meaning. But we can record meaning in the accurate reuse of spolia in Turkish sites. At Ephesus, the Baths of Scolastica are of spolia, and we cannot determine a programme therein; however, the nearby Temple of Hadrian, the restoration of which can be precisely dated to 383, used spolia reliefs of the city's founding, together with representations of Theodosius and Arcadius, in order to underline the continuity of tradition.[26] This, at the very least, is the meaning of the Arch of Constantine, and the peopling of Constantinople with spolia from Rome, where the present is associated with the past. It is also the impulse for military use of spolia, as we shall see below.




[1] W. J. HAMILTON, Research in Asia Minor, Pontus and Armenia. With some account of their antiquities and geology, 2 vols London 1842, p. 99;

[2] Anonymous author of the de re strategica, ed. H. KOECHLY & W. RUESTOW, Griechischer Kriegsschriftsteller, II, Leipzig 1885 (cf. X.3) recommends the use of already-cut stone when it is available;

[3] P. LOCK, The medieval towers of Greece: a problem in chronology and function, in B. ARBEL et al., editors, Latins and Greeks in the Eastern Mediterranean after 1204, London 1989, pp.129-145; cf. p.130;

[4] J. E. LOPEZ PEREIRA, Marmoles romanos de la iglesia de Santiago de Alfonso III. Determinacion de su procedencia, MM 34, 1993, 275-81. Such use of spolia may have been as common in Spain as in Italy: cf. M. MAYER, A. ALVAREZ & I. RODA, Los materiales lapideos reaprovechados en construcciones medievales en Cataluna: La ciudad de Barcelona y su entorno, in  BARRAL I ALTET, Artistes, II, pp. 530-558;

[5] ENLART, Royaume de Jérusalem, cit., see I.37;

[6] J. M. KINNEAR, Journey through Asia Minor, Armenia and Kurdistan in the years 1813 and 1814, London 1818. p.39: At Kutayah, I found a woman washing linen on a handsome block of ash coloured marble, with an eagle in alto relievo admirably executed at the top, and underneath it the inscription No.4 (in Greek);

[7] HAMILTON, Research in Asia Minor, cit., p. 107, at Ghiediz, with mud houses;

[8] H. SARADI-MENDELOVICI, Christian attitudes toward Pagan monuments in late Antiquity and their legacy in later Byzantine centuries, in DOP, 44 (1990), pp. 47-61;

[9] R. G. GOODCHILD & J. B. WARD PERKINS, The roman and byzantine defences of Lepcis Magna, in PBSR, XXI (1953), pp. 42-73,. 51 & fig. 3: 62 & fig. 7: in the Severan Piazza, the foundations of a late gateway have been found, incorporating Roman columns laid horizontally. Authors reckon it could be Byzantine but, as there is no characteristic Byzantine mortar, it might be early Islamic;

[10] Catalogue of examples in L. CABALLERO ZOREDA & J. C. SANCHEZ SANTOS, Reutilizaciones de Material Romano en Edificios de Culto Cristiano, in Antiguedad Y Cristianismo, Murcia 1990 (Monografias Historicas sopre la Antiguedad Tardia, VII), pp. 431-485: cf. pp. 456ff. for groups of pagan altars reused, e.g. in Mactar, Tunisia;

[11] Aix-en-Provence, France, Centre des Archives d/Outre-Mer [hereafter CAOM], 54.S.1-2, liasse 9097: letter of 12 November 1910 from the administrator of the commune mixte of Ain-El-Ksar, Algeria, to the Prefect: les indigènes utilisent les dalles du mausolée berbère du Madracem pour leurs sépultures. So he will do his utmost to ensure à ce que les restes antiques soient respectés et qu’aucune pierre ne soit distraite des monuments berbères ou romains existants sur le térritoire. There is a good change that the marbles for this mausoleum were themselves spolia from roman sites;

[12] SHAT 39: March 1800 account of a voyage from Cyprus to Constantinople by M. Tromelin; cf. fol 16v;

[13] ACADEMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS, Croisades, cit., NOUR EL-DIN & SALAH EL'DIN, Livre des deux Jardins, on the capture of Laodicaea, IV, p. 361;

[14] F.V.J. ARUNDELL, A visit to the Seven Churches of Asia, with an excursion into Pisidia, London 1828, pp. 157-8; LEAKE, Journal, cit., p. 40, find similar reuse at Aksehir, including at the tomb of Nureddein Hoja an open colonnade … from some ancient Greek building;

[15] L. BREHIER, Histoire anonyme de la première Croisade, Paris 1924, p. 96: in front of Antioch, 8th March 1098, the Crusaders built a fort over a Turkish graveyard de lapidibus scilicet quos abstraximus de tumulis Turcorum;

[16] ACADEMIE DES INSCRIPTIONS, Croisades, cit., Guiberti Abbatis Gesta Dei per Francos, 181D: same 1098 fort building, and now its fractis sepulchris and lapidibus quos fractis gentilium sarcofagis tulerunt;

[17] R.R. HOLLOWAY, The spolia of the Arch of Constantine, in Quaderni ticinesi di Numismatica, XIV (1985), pp. 261-73; for a census of the spolia, P.PENSABENE & C. PANELLA, Reimpiego e progettazione architettonica nei monumenti tardo-antichi di Roma, in Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, LXVI (1993-1994), pp. 111-283; cf. pp. 174ff;

[18] L. LAZZARINI et al., Determination of the provenance of marbles used in some ancient monuments in Rome, in N. HERZ & M. WAELKENS, editors., Classical marble: geochemistry, technology, trade, Dordrecht 1988, pp. 399-407; see pp. 405-6. They also note spolia in a prominent position, with symbolic function, in the mid-3rd century rebuilding of the portico in summa cavea of the Colosseum, and on Diocletian's Arcus Novus and the  Temple of Romulus;

[19] L. TARTAGLIA, editor, Eusebio: Sulla Vita di Constantini, Naples 1984, iii.31, giving his instructions to Bishop Macarius for work at Jerusalem;

[20] SARADI, Kallos, cit., cf. p. 42, the reference in the CTh 15,1,16 for the year 365 to "ornamenta urbium ac decora marmorum" to the Emperor Zenon's instructions in CJ8,10,12,6b that structures set between columns of porticoes in Constantinople should be covered up with sheets of marble to give them beauty;

[21] TARTAGLIA, Eusebio, cit.,  iii.54;

[22] M. DONDERER, Irreversible Deponierung von Grossplastik bei Greichen, Etrusker und Roemern, in Jahresheft Oest. Arch. Inst in Wien, 61 (1991/2), pp. 192-275 - including an extensive catalog (pp. 234-75) by type;

[23] PODESTA, Annali, cit., pp. 101ff, Favolosi opinioni delle Turchi circa l’origine di Costantinopol;  cf. R. HENRY, editor, Photius: Bibliotheque, 8 vols, Paris 1959-1991, vol V. p. 184 for Philostratus’ description of the island at Gadees, at the end of Europe, where Les colonnes intérieures du temple sont faites d’or et d’argent fondus dans un alliage … leurs chapiteaux portent des inscriptions en caractères qui ne sont ni de l’égyptien ni de l’indien ni d’aucune autre langue à quoi on puisse les comparer;

[24] The Life of the renowned Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of Rhodes, London 1679 (according to the preface, written by William Caoursin), p.136: the Tower of S. Nicholas on Rhodes harbour (in fact Venetian in later 15th century) was built in the 15th century by Muhavias, a great Souldier … he built this tower so high, that the top of it touch’d the Heavens, and the foundations reached to the center of the Earth;

[25] J.M. CUOQ, Recueil des sources arabes concernant l’Afrique Occidentale du VIIIe au XVIe siècle (Bilad Al-Sudan), Paris 1985. p. 144: Ibn al-Djazzar (died c.400/1008), in his Livre des Merveilles, recounts that the Fortunate Islands to the extreme west of the Mahreb is an idol on the Island of Laghus and also un temple construit en marbre et avec des verres coloriés, as well as fantastic beasts;

[26] CHUVIN, Chronicle, cit., p. 55;