The Artifice of Eternity - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Artifice of Eternity
Interior of Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (JIPEN/

Apreciar lo antiguo, o lo moderno, es fácil;
pero apreciar lo obsoleto es el triunfo del gusto auténtico.

[To appreciate the ancient, or the modern, is easy;
but to appreciate the obsolete is the triumph of authentic taste.]

– Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito


On July 24, 2020, the Turkish General Directorates Anti-Smuggling Branch carried out an operation in Nazilli, a town in the Aydın Province of western Turkey’s Aegean region, culminating in the successful arrest of an individual, identified only by the initials “N.A.,” on suspicion of trafficking in stolen antiquities. Even better, a search of N.A.’s residence yielded a veritable hoard of illicitly acquired artifacts from the Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including sculptures, oil lamps, jewelry, and around 2,300 ancient coins. From this treasure trove some 155 specimens were chosen to be exhibited at the nearby Aphrodisias Museum, allowing visitors to appreciate the delicately curved oil lamps, intricately cast bronze figurines, and rare numismatic specimens that had been rescued at the 11th hour from the ravenous gullet of the black market, and thereby restored to their rightful status as part of the Republic of Turkey’s, and indeed the world’s, collective cultural patrimony.

The ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, an officially inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Site, has long been beset by grave-robbers. During a 1994 archaeological investigation of the nearby Maltepe tumulus, researchers were disturbed to find that tomb raiders had already undertaken an ambitious excavation of their own, leaving behind a massive trench some 40 meters long, eight meters wide, and four meters deep, as well as a few tell-tale bits of marble bearing power-drill marks. (It was thought that the overeager thieves had broken apart a stone funereal phallic marker, thinking for some incomprehensible reason, possibly Freudian in origin, that it would be full of hidden riches.) Looting has only continued apace in recent years, despite the best efforts of Turkish authorities to enforce their robust Law No. 2863 on Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property. Back in the spring of 2018, an ancient sepulcher was found at the site of an illegal exhumation, and quite recently, on November 8, 2020, it was reported that a member of Aydın’s gendarmerie had stumbled upon a half-exposed sarcophagus where yet another illegal dig had taken place, with a second surreptitiously unearthed tomb discovered a short distance away. The sheer weight of these marble coffins must have stymied the criminals, but any movable cultural property associated with them was no doubt spirited away in the dead of night and conveyed to black marketeers like N.A.

Upon hearing news of the successful July 2020 bust, I was heartened not only by the occurrence of a rare victory over antiquities smuggling networks, but also by all the fuss being made over these bits of Hellenistic and Byzantine bric-à-brac, indicative of a laudable commitment on Turkey’s part to safeguarding its cultural property. There have been some (by no means inconsequential) missteps arising from this resolve, though Turks naturally would not think of them as such, including the controversial conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a working mosque, or the “cultural war” Turkey has been waging in recent years, as it threatens “to bar foreign archaeologists from excavation sites in the country by not renewing their digging permits if governments refuse to return artefacts that Ankara says were unlawfully removed from Turkish soil.” Whether, say, Berlin’s Pergamon Museum ought to return the wonderfully veristic marble torso of an elderly fisherman to Turkey so that it may be reunited with its equally marvelous head — which remained in Asia Minor and is on display at the Aphrodisias Museum — is beyond our ambit here. We may simply note in passing that such demands, while occasionally rising to the level of cultural blackmail, are nevertheless based upon a colorable argument, namely that, to paraphrase Sen. Goldwater, extremism in the defense of cultural heritage is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of its preservation is no virtue. For my part, I rather welcome the existence of a debate predicated on the invaluable and indispensable nature of the material vestiges of the past, and not over some perceived moral obligation to destroy them wholesale, as we have seen elsewhere in recent months and years. It is rather like a bidding war, one involving sovereign nations, museums, private collectors, and even smugglers like N.A. and his clientele, in which the value of cultural property can only go up — so much better than going up in flames.


Our collective preoccupation with ruins like those found at Aphrodisias, our need to explore them, to excavate the treasures and trinkets concealed therein (with or without permission), to exhibit the finds publicly, or to hoard them privately, emanates only partly from aesthetic considerations about the picturesque and the sublime. There is, naturally, a profit motive involved when antiquities get caught up in the cash nexus, but just as important is that deep-seated desire to recover and piece back together the flotsam and jetsam strewn about by what Francis Bacon called “time’s shipwreck.” Other metaphors for this impulse abound. The novelist George Gissing, after viewing the ruined Temple of Juno Lacinia in Calabria, wrote of how “that gate of dreams was closed, but I shall always feel that for an hour it was granted me to see the vanished life so dear to my imagination…. [T]ell me who can by what power I reconstructed, to the last perfection of intimacy, a world known to me only in ruined fragments.” The French archaeologist Antoine Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy conceived of ruins not as the remains of a shipwreck, or a lychgate opened just enough for a tentative peek, but rather as a battered, tattered manuscript: What is the antique in Rome if not a great book whose pages have been destroyed or ripped out by time, it being left to modern research to fill in the blanks, to bridge the gaps?”

We cannot help but wonder, though, whether this task has been made impossible by the damage inflicted by man and by the vagaries of nature. As Michel de Montaigne (or, more accurately, his unnamed secretary) wistfully observed in his posthumously published Diary of the Journey to Italy,

These little signs of its [Rome’s] ruin that still appear above the bier had been preserved by fortune as testimony to that infinite greatness which so many centuries, so many conflagrations, and all the many conspiracies of the world to ruin it had not been able to extinguish completely. But it was likely that these disfigured limbs that remained were the least worthy, and that the fury of the enemies of that immortal glory had impelled them to destroy first of all what was most beautiful and most worthy; and the buildings of this bastard Rome which they are now attaching to these ancient ruins, although fully adequate to carry away the present age with admiration, reminded him precisely of the nests which sparrows and crows in France suspend from the arches and walls of the churches that the Huguenots have recently demolished.

When looking at the recently seized antiquities on display at Aphrodisias, that mishmash of curios and bibelots that N.A. had been planning on hawking to collectors abroad, it is hard to shake the nagging sense that we are only catching the barest glimpse of what has been lost along the way, and that every day that “gate of dreams” conjured up by Gissing closes a little more, whether it is through willful destruction, neglect, or the inexorable ravages of time.

We should be thankful all the same for the bequest we have received, however meager at times. Aphrodisias has been more generous than most in this respect, as evidenced by the contents of the Aphrodisias Museum, with its vast hall lined with scores of figured marble reliefs recovered from excavations at the marvelous Sebasteion temple complex. Even more impressive is a sculpture known as the Blue Horse, carved from a unique variety of marble, blue-grey and streaked with veins and whorls of white and brown, its leaping, straining form making it one of the only sculptures from all of antiquity that can match the Elgin Marbles’ renowned Horse of Selene in naturalism and finesse. But perhaps the most sensational products of the Aphrodisias School of Sculpture are not to be found in the Aphrodisias Museum itself, or in the Pergamon Museum, but in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, located a stone’s throw from the lush Gülhane Park and the world-famous Topkapı Palace. There one can stand in the presence of what I would consider to be both the apogée and the final flourish of classical art: a pair of statues from the early fifth century A.D., both given the appellation “Chlamydatus,” meaning “wearing a long military cloak or chlamys,” but typically distinguished as the “elder magistrate” and the “younger magistrate,” though in all likelihood they are portraits of provincial governors as opposed to judges.

In his haunting 1997 documentary Byzantium: The Lost Empire, which made quite an impression on me at the time, the English archaeologist John Romer memorably described these two masterpieces from Aphrodisias as

probably the last classical figures ever made. They were made actually in the generations just before Justinian. Now at first glance you might think they’re just part of the usual old classical things you see hanging around museums…. [but] they’re new, they’re different, something’s going on. It’s very simple work, very realistic in a way, little light cut lines, and a day-old beard chiseled on the hard marble as if to emphasize its transience, its insubstantiality. These people are pensive, sad, and rather wise. After all, hadn’t the saints and bishops told them that this life, this material world, was only an illusion…. They are not heroic descriptions of skin and bone and straining muscle. Each man stands inside his own mysterious inner space that each one of us must occupy, and from that space they look outwards from the soul, towards the heavens. As you might expect, if you should move around them, the solid bulk of marble and humanity is seen to be nothing more than an illusion.

The unreal effect Romer relates comes from the meditative expressions of the magistrates, but also from the curiously flat backs of the sculptures, out of which the figures project into three-dimensionality, a spectacular effect that makes them seem as if they are entering our reality from another world altogether. A Byzantinist once told me that the statues were probably just designed to be installed flat up against a wall, but I must admit I prefer Romer’s more romantic interpretation.

These terrific marble likenesses, their wide-open, deeply drilled eyes gazing upwards, in turn put me in mind of a passage from Boëthius’s The Consolation of Philosophy:

How various, how rich are the kinds of living creatures
That wander the earth, dragging their length along in the dust …
But all these creatures with their diverse forms and habits
Turn their faces downward, their senses confirmed and dull,
While only the race of men can hold their heads up high
And stand with upright bodies, lords of the earth they look down on.
Unless you, too, are drawn downward by the lures of earth
And flesh, you may turn your face above and gaze at heaven
As your body’s posture allows and even commands you to do,
Letting your mind soar high, free of the earth’s mire
To the depths of which you can at any moment sink back.

De consolatione philosophiae, Book V, tr. David Slavitt

We are thus afforded a glimpse of what the Byzantinist Norman Baynes called a late antique world “filled with the spirit of δεισιδαιμονία [deisidaimonía] — religion, superstition, translate the world how you will,” in which “this world is not enough: man is no longer ‘at home in the body.’ ” The paired magistrates, existing in the world but not entirely of it, are triumphs of late antique art, deserving of a fame equal to that of the celebrated fifth-century male portrait sculpture from Ephesus, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which to Ernst Kitzinger conveyed “with great power the consuming intensity of one man’s awareness of the supernatural world,” or that of the even better-known porphyry tetrarchs displayed in Venice’s Piazzetta, of whom László Földényi has written:

In their gaze, it is not the individual but the metaphysical self that is reflected — and on their foreheads lies the seal of the invisible spirit…. Their unity is closed, like that of the cosmos; their collective existence is rendered deeply human by its trans-humanness, by its roots in the nonhuman. A deep sense of mystery flows out from within them — the secret of that which is inconceivable, that which is beyond intellect and reason; it lends to this group of statues its deeply fatal gravity.

It is that grounded, all-consuming intensity, together with that mysterious seal of the invisible spirit, that likewise marks those two magistrates from Aphrodisias, who in their earthly life straddled the epochal border between antiquity and the Middle Ages, between barbarians and angels, between the earth’s mire and the coruscation of the heavenly spheres, and who have managed against all odds, after all these centuries, to remain firmly ensconced within their mysterious inner space, while projecting out into our own.


The charms of these masterpieces from the so-called Dark Ages are admittedly subtle, easily lost amidst the pretentious fog of our so-called Enlightenment. “The modern tragedy,” Nicolás Gómez Dávila maintained, “is not the tragedy of reason defeated, but of reason triumphant,” and reason has no time for mysterious, holy, incense-cloaked Byzantium. It was W. E. H. Lecky, in his 1869 History of European Morals, who notoriously derided the Byzantine Empire as “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed,” adding that “the history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides,” which doesn’t actually sound monotonous at all, even if we were to accept the premise of the Irishman’s contemptuous historical bigotry. Lecky was far from alone in his overall assessment, however; Napoleon called the Eastern Roman Empire the “laughing-stock of posterity,” Hegel sneered that its “general aspect presents a disgusting picture of imbecility,” and Gibbon lamented the “triumph of barbarism and religion” that put paid to the classical world. All of this is nonsense, of course, and today we recognize that, as Colin Wells detailed so brilliantly in Sailing from Byzantium (2007), scholars from Constantinople and Mystras, extraordinary figures like Theodore Metochites and Gemistus Pletho, “literally saved ancient Greek literature from destruction at the hands of the conquering Turks. The Byzantine contribution of the Greek classics allowed the promise of Renaissance humanism to be fulfilled, by letting the West reclaim the body of literature that makes up the foundation of Western civilization.”

Yet Byzantium was more than a mere conduit from ancient Greece to Renaissance Italy. The writers of the late-19th-century Decadent movement, with their distaste for modernity and skepticism of a world wholly governed by the cash nexus, understood the appeal of late antique and Byzantine aesthetics in a way their Enlightenment and Victorian forebears never could. Oscar Wilde, musing on the incomparable city of Ravenna, with its churches and mausolea bedecked with the most stunning arrays of Byzantine mosaics, recounted how he

watched the day till, marked with wounds of flame,
The turquoise sky to burnished gold was turned.

O how my heart with boyish passion burned,
When far away across the sedge and mere
I saw that Holy City rising clear,
Crowned with her crown of towers! — On and on
I galloped, racing with the setting sun,
And ere the crimson after-glow was passed,
I stood within Ravenna’s walls at last!

My own approach to Ravenna, similarly spurred on some years ago by a boyish passion for all things Byzantine, was rather different than Wilde’s. It was not a horse that brought me there, naturally, but a tempest-tossed ferry full of seasick, vomiting Italian tourists returning from their Croatian holidays that conveyed me from Split across the Adriatic to Ancona, and then a series of crowded trains that took me to Rimini and then on to Ravenna, where at last I could take in all the glories of that Holy City, bearing in mind all the while how

Thy ruined palaces are but a pall
That hides thy fallen greatness! and thy name
Burns like a grey and flickering candle-flame
Beneath the noonday splendour of the sun.

William Butler Yeats, who spoke with Wilde at length about Ravenna’s glories over the Christmas holidays in 1888, and who eventually made it to the city two decades later, once ventured that if “I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia.” There he “could find in some little wine shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even.” Quite so. One of his greatest poems, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), tells of an artist whose heart is “sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal,” and who longs to be gathered into the “artifice of eternity.” Yeats yearned to be one of those “sages standing in God’s holy fire/ As in the gold mosaic of a wall,” or alternatively one of the famous Byzantine musical automata of

such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

In his 1900 essay “The Symbolism of Poetry,” Yeats had called for a “return to the way of our fathers … a return to imagination,” for how else “can the arts overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men’s heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?” Yeats returned to these themes again and again, most notably in “Sailing to Byzantium,” and then in his 1933 poem “Byzantium,” which proclaimed, incontrovertibly to my mind, that

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

It is only by figuratively sailing back to Byzantium that we can, as Boëthius urged, remain free of the earths mire” and avoid being “drawn downward by the lures of earth.”

From our own particular vantage point in history, looking down on the convulsions of the late republic and the many absurdities and distortions of late capitalism, we can appreciate all the better the late antique preoccupation with transience and insubstantiality on the one hand and eternity on the other. In a world in which, as James Poulos recently summarized it, “The ruling class is offering (assigning) young voters a downwardly mobile life[,] not just economically but spiritually,” Yeats’s warning about the “slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world” rings ever truer. The artificers of eternity — the Grecian goldsmiths, the mosaicists of Ravenna and Constantinople, the sculptors and artisans of Aphrodisias, to name only a few — offer a precious lifeline in this all-too-often hideous, plastic age, reminding us how much we have inherited, how much remains to be discovered, and how much has been lost over the years. When Oscar Wilde visited Ravenna in 1878, he could only see the “fallen greatness,” the ruined palaces where “noisome weeds have split the marble floor,” the crumbling tombs that prove that “king and clown to ashen dust must fall.” To Wilde, the ruins of Ravenna were a melancholy sight, just “a grey and flickering candle-flame.” As far as I am concerned, at this historical juncture, it is enough to know that the flame has not been snuffed out, and can still be passed on, so that it might continue to illuminate “what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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