Comfort Classics: Rachel Stott

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Rachel Stott

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

I’m absolutely fascinated by the material remains at the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias in what is now modern Turkey.

When did you first come across this site?

I first heard about the site when watching a Mary Beard documentary a few years ago. In the programme, she focused on the relief of the Emperor Claudius subduing Britannia. This really caught my eye as Claudius is depicted as a strong, muscular and agile warrior who has easily overcome the weak and helpless Britons. Clearly it was a piece of propaganda as the physical disabilities of Claudius are well attested to, the only part of the military campaign he took part in was riding an elephant into the already subdued city of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester) and it was many years before it could be said that Britannia was conquered, if at all in some regions. It is however a great piece of art and sparked my interest in the site. 

Can you tell me a bit about the site and its context?

The Sebasteion at Aphrodisias started to be built under Tiberius and was completed whilst Nero was emperor by two Aphrodisian families who were loyal to the Julio-Claudian family, possibly linked to one of Augustus’ freedmen who had settled in the town. Along its walls it had a series of imperial panels, some representing members of the Julio-Claudian family, including Livia, Augustus’ wife, Emperor Tiberius, Agrippina the Younger and Nero, as well as other panels showing scenes from mythology. Not all the panels have survived, and some are in better condition than others; however the site gives us an amazing, contemporary insight into the depiction of these well known figures from the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

What is it about the panels that appeals to you most?

My MA dissertation last year in part focused on how Agrippina the Younger was depicted by contemporary artworks, and it is the two panels which depict her which really appeal to me. The first of these is a relief of Agrippina, in the guise of Demeter (Ceres), holding her husband, Claudius’, hand. 

This was a common image in Roman art and it represented equality and alliance and although Claudius is wearing the crown, Agrippina is depicted as an equal partner, with equal power in his reign, although there is a counter argument that, as this was also the symbol of marital concordia, perhaps this was the message this artwork was displaying. However, I have come to the conclusion that when you evaluate the panel alongside other material remains and the surviving literary evidence, it represents the power she held at this time.

The second relief of Agrippina shows her carrying a cornucopia and crowning Nero who is wearing military costume.

Agrippina is portrayed as being slightly taller, and is therefore the senior partner in this relationship at this time. The imagery here is really clear: it is telling the viewer that it is as a result of Agrippina’s influence, ambition and power that Nero has become emperor and the action of Agrippina placing the wreath on his head is showing this to the world. These images of Agrippina expressed her power and authority as an individual holder of power in her own merit.

I love these images of Agrippina, as they display her strength of character and willingness to push her culture’s boundaries as a woman striving to hold and use some real, practical political power. She’s a woman with attitude and ambition, and these reliefs at Aphrodisias show this beautifully!

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I love travelling, particularly to Italy, dragging my family around historical sites, which I’m missing under the current circumstances. I live by the coast near Bristol, so I really love being by the beach and walking on the headlands. I also enjoy getting out on my bike and spending time with my husband and two fabulous teenagers!

Rachel finished her MA in Classical Studies with the Open University a year ago. Academically since then she has been independently researching the material remains on the Palatine and Roman Forum and has also tried to keep up to date with the Imperial woman of the early Empire. Her day job is working part time as a Senior Occupational Therapist with her local council, which pays the bills!  

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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