Image and Empire: Jewish Diaspora and Visual Arts in the Late Antique Mediterranean

Diaspora is a phenomenon profoundly embedded Jewish history and, since the nineteenth century, excavations of Jewish synagogues, catacombs, and other sites across the Mediterranean have revealed a rich material record of diaspora Jewish life in late antiquity. The scope and diversity of this record offers us a unique opportunity to explore the role of diaspora in shaping the cultures and experiences of the late antique Mediterranean. It is also a past perspective that holds the potential to profoundly resonate in the present, in an era of mass displacements, exile and migration unfolding in the midst of crises, conflicts and globalization. For all its immediate relevance, the evidence of the late antique Jewish diaspora has yielded divergent readings, and not since the work of J. G. Barclay (1996) and R. Hachlili (1998) has there been a monograph treating material aspects of the diaspora. Moreover, none since E.R. Goodenough (1953-1968) have surveyed the visual evidence in any comprehensive, comparative way. A reevaluation of this evidence is in order. What role did visual culture play in the formation of communities in the late antique Mediterranean? How did Jews navigate the intensely visual world of the ancient Mediterranean? How did the relative tolerance and multicultural environment of the Mediterranean in late antiquity impact the development of Jewish visual culture and aesthetics? Guided by these questions, Image and Empire: Jewish Diaspora and Visual Culture in the Late Antique Mediterranean shed light on the possibilities of diaspora experience and the diversity of diaspora life for Jews (and others), in the late antique Mediterranean. Envisioned as an exploration of the visual and material record across five themes—collective myths and memories of homeland, cultural and religious learning, power and display, religious practice and representation, and death and commemoration. Evidence for this project comes from a variety of visual media—including monumental architecture and mosaics, sarcophagi, epitaphs, gold glass and frescoes—from late Roman and early Byzantine Jewish communities in Italy, Spain, Asia Minor, Greece, Africa, and the Near East, 250 C.E. – 550 C.E. This evidence spans the late antique Mediterranean and encompasses multiple spheres of activity—from synagogues to necropoleis, communal to individual—offering an unrivaled geographic and socio-cultural scope. Methodologically, Image and Empire thrives at the intersection of several disciplines—especially classical archaeology, visual culture and art history, Jewish studies, and cultural anthropology—which highlight the materiality of ancient art and architecture and the cultural practices they were embedded in.

        A running theme throughout the book is the creative tension of diaspora existence, namely the desire to create a new home ‘here’ while maintaining memories of and ongoing ties to an ancestral homeland ‘there.’ Discourses of ‘diaspora’ historically emphasize the latter by positioning the homeland as a geographical site around which diaspora consciousness coalesces. Since the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E., literary narratives of Jewish diaspora have similarly centered on exile and the traumatic loss of temple and home. Yet the relationship between late antique Jewish communities in the diaspora and Israel—real or imagined—is anything but clear. The sixth and final chapter will take up the central theme of ‘here’ and ‘there’ directly through two case studies: the Jewish communities of Rome and of Dura Europos, an important frontier city in the east from the Hellenistic to Late Roman periods. Looking at ubiquitous representations of Jewish ritual symbols and cult objects across several media from the Roman catacombs and the synagogue of Dura Europos—frescoes, stone sculpture, and gold glass—I will demonstrate that the diasporic culture from these two sites encapsulates the multilocal nature of Jewish communities in the late antique diaspora. Popular but ambiguous symbols like Torah shrines can be viewed either as reflections of rootedness in local institutions like the synagogue, or as visual metaphors which encode collective memories of trauma, uprootedness and nostalgia through allusions to a historical homeland and religious focal point. In line with more recent, ‘decentered’ theories of diaspora, I will argue that this ambiguity is a vital expression of a central facet of diasporic experiences in a diverse and multicultural late antique Mediterranean: not the centrality of home, but the tension between making a home ‘here’ and remembering a home ‘there.’


WIRE: Women in the Roman East seeks to provide resources and digital tools for the study of women’s lives in the Roman east. Within the project database, you will encounter a wide range of evidence that bears witness to women’s experiences, from epitaphs to coins. This collection is drawn from ancient texts, excavation reports, museum catalogs, and field records. The sources can be used to study any number of aspects of women’s lives in the Roman East, from women’s names to women’s roles in imperial politics and cult. The database is accessible to a range of users, including scholars completing research, instructors integrating WIRE into their classroom pedagogy, and interested members of the general public. WIRE is actively developed under the supervision of Sean P. Burrus and Robyn LeBlanc (U. Mich). 


My dissertation, Sarcophagus Sculpture and Jewish Patrons in the Roman World, examined the visual programs of over one hundred Jewish sarcophagi as a window on cultural interaction and the formation of Jewish identities in the late antique Mediterranean from 250 C.E. – 550 C.E. The necropolises that provide the data for this project, Beth She’arim in Israel and the Jewish catacombs of Rome, geographically bookend the Jewish experience in the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity. Each chapter dealt with a different group of Jewish sarcophagi that illustrate a sarcophagus style popular among Jewish patrons and contextualizes the Jewish use within the broader corpus of sarcophagus sculpture.

My analysis of the sculptural programs pushed beyond traditional, iconographical readings of Jewish art and revealed how the choices made by Jewish patrons demonstrate a significant degree of mastery and willingness to engage the visual koine of the Roman world. I also highlighted how the variety of visual programs seen on Jewish sarcophagi reveal previously unacknowledged agency with respect to cultural exchange based in the ongoing negotiation of Jewishness.


"Image as Intermediary: Jewish Art and Connectivity in the Late Antique Mediterranean Diaspora"
*Upcoming paper at Mediterranean Migrations Workshop 2018, Eugene, Oregon (The Mediterranean Seminar group)

“Searching for ‘Home’ in the Art of the Late Ancient Jewish Diaspora ” *Upcoming presentation at the 2018 Annual Conference of the College Art Association (CAA)

“‘Diaspora’ in the Visual and Material Culture of Late Antique Judaism,” Presented at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)

"What is Jewish about Jewish Art? Sarcophagi from the Jewish Catacombs of Rome", Presented at the 2017 Spring Colloquia of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Household Goods and Cultural Exchange at Roman Sepphoris”, Presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)

The Practice and Materiality of Jewish Death, Seminar Convener and Chair, 2013-2015 Association of Jewish Studies Annual Conferences

“Jewish Others: Visual Culture and Ethnic Identification at Beit Shearim”, Presented at the 2013 Association of Jewish Studies Annual Conference

“Resistant Representation: The Jewish Images from the Roman Catacombs”, Presented at the 2011 Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting

“The Jewish Sarcophagi of Rome: Towards an Interpretation”, Presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the North Carolina Religious Studies Association

“Jewish Images and Identity in Ancient Rome”, Presented at the 2015 Perilman Symposium, Duke University