Sarah Scott, Art and Society in Fourth-Century Britain. Villa Mosaics in Context. Oxford University School of Archaeology, Monograph No. 53. Oxford, Institute of Archaeology, 2000. Pp. 346, incl. 75 figures. ISBN 0-947816-53-4. UK£28.00.
Anthony A. Barrett
University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Romano-British mosaics have attracted considerable scholarly interest in the last forty years or so and their bibliography has become correspondingly daunting. A succinct overview of the subject, laying out its highlights and the major areas of study and research is an evident desideratum. From this perspective, Scott's book succeeds admirably and has much to recommend it. She knows her subject well, presents her material comprehensibly and coherently, and has produced a volume that can be safely recommended to serious students at the graduate or senior undergraduate level.
It must be said, however, that Scott intended much more than an introduction to the subject. She maintains the thesis that art can be understood only in context, that 'any attempt to understand the significance of Fourth-Century Romano-British villa mosaics must take account of the contexts for which they were commissioned, and also the context in which they were viewed' (p. 77). Whether she has succeeded in this particular mission is debatable, not because of any shortcomings on the her part, but rather because the task is perhaps inherently impossible, since the 'the specific circumstances in which the art was created and viewed' (p. 13) are essentially elusive. We may have to recognize that a sophisticated recreation of the relationship between art and society for those areas of the ancient world for which there is scant literary evidence could well be something of an academic mare's nest.
This tone is established at the outset, in the introduction (Chapter 1, pp. 9-17), where we are warned of the dangers of an imperialist approach to art that focuses on the achievements of great centres like Rome at the cost of outlying provinces like Britain. This is a worthy battle but one that surely has been fought and won some time ago -- the plethora of books on Roman Britain in the last decade or so is a vivid demonstration that this is a dead horse no longer worth flogging. Moreover, Scott argues the limitations of trying to understand art as seen in museum and galleries. It should be seen in its context. There may indeed be a case to be made for this argument when applied to mosaics, since mosaics were intended to fit the floors of buildings. As a general proposition, however, her claim is open to challenge. I remain unconvinced that her argument applies to the portable objects like silver- and glassware, which often would not have had topographical contexts.
In Chapter 2, 'Chronology, Style and Industry' (pp. 19-28) and Chapter 3, 'Mosaics and Mosaicists in Fourth-Century Britain' (pp. 29-76), Scott draws heavily on the works of D. J. Smith, which began in earnest in the sixties and have done much to establish regional schools of mosaicists in Britain.[] These chapters are valuable in providing a nice review of the subject, setting out the complex issue of regional workshops and styles and the criteria that can legitimately be used to establish them. The summaries are made intelligently and are enriched by a number of Scott's own insights. It might be argued that while these two chapters, which take up almost a third of the narrative text, do not break any new ground, they do lay the foundations for the central theme of the book. The next chapter applies the principle of regionalism to mosaics as found in the context of the Roman villa. This section is, again, extremely useful, providing a clear and intelligible survey of the villas. The first thirty pages are essentially descriptive, with good informative line drawings, although not really throwing much light on the main thesis.
Chapter 5, 'Mythological Subjects of Romano-British Mosaics' (pp. 113-130), tackles the issue of mythological subjects on mosaics, emphasizing what Scott sees as the 'significance' of the subjects, and in particular their relationship to religious and philosophical beliefs of the fourth century. Much of this chapter is both highly interesting and at the same time often disappointingly indecisive. Nor should we wonder at the indecision. The 'meaning' of mosaics from villas like Brading has been much debated -- and, as Scott concedes, the debate is likely to go on for much longer -- between those who see the scenes as allegorical and those who see in them simply the incorporation of stock subjects from throughout the empire.[] Along with the religious sensitivities of the owner, the choice of mosaics could depend on his paideia, the possession of a cultural and social sophistication. Scott claims that the 'representation of a mythological scene or subject must reflect some kind of knowledge or interest on the part of the villa owner' (p. 127). This is an unprovable assertion and one that seems to me to be counter-intuitive, since it downplays aesthetics and style as potent elements in the process that makes certain types of artistic creations appealing at any given time.
Scott pays particular attention to the Orpheus motif. In this connection the villa at Woodchester is striking because of its symmetry and plan, and the culmination of that plan in the inner core of highly- decorated rooms. The famous Orpheus mosaic, which occupied the 'architectural and symbolic focus' (p. 138), may have impressed villa owners in the area to commission pavements with a similar theme. Scott goes on to consider Christian symbols in the mosaics and to try to determine whether the rooms they decorated were used as places of worship. The evidence is imprecise but seems to speak against the notion. The final chapter brings the various threads together, with a picture of villas owned by networks of elite figures, a situation characterised by considerable regional variation. The chapter is of much interest, but illustrates the frustration that the social-scientific approach can engender when applied to this subject. Page 168, for instance, contains 14 sentences in total. Of these only two provide what might be considered factual statements. The remain 12 are essentially speculative: 'villas must have formed the focus; It is also likely that . . . villa owners . . . must have formed . . . networked groups, who probably entertained . . .; These elites must have played a key role . . .; we must envisage closely networked groups/ Later evidence suggests; . . . a colonate system in Britain may have served; The visual impact must have served; The largest villas must have had a great deal in common; The owner of the villa at Woodchester was probably socially networked; This may also have been the case . . .; . . . medium-sized villas probably represent the homes . . .; . . . the 'Thruxton group' of villas may be seen as representing successful farmers'. Granted that dogmatic assertions are generally to be avoided in scholarship, Scott's tentative approach does, at times, provoke a nostalgia for the simpler art-historical approach, which seeks to inform and instruct, and avoids excessive speculation.
In sum, a useful, informative and reliable book. It will serve to introduce scholars and students to a rewarding area of study. Those already familiar with the subject will be presented with a way of looking at the villas that they may find unfamiliar and perhaps unconvincing. But they will benefit by being provoked and challenged by someone who has demonstrated such expertise.
[] Smith contributed a chapter on mosaics in P. Corder, The Roman Town and Villa at Great Casterton: 2nd Interim Report for the Years 1951- 1953 (Nottingham 1954) 35-39, but his earliest major contribution to the issue of the schools was 'Three Fourth Century Schools of Mosaic in Roman Britain' in H. Stern and D. Picard, La Mosaique gréco-romaine (Paris 1965) 95-116.
[] See E.W. Black , Christian and Pagan Hopes of Salvation in Romano-British Mosaics in M. Henig and A. King, Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire (Oxford 1986) 147-57; M. Henig, Ita intellexit numine inductus tuo: some Personal Interpretations of Deity in Roman Religion, in Henig and King, 159-69 for allegorical interpretations; R. Ling, 'Brading, Brantingham and York: A New Look at some Fourth-Century Mosaics,' Britannia 22 (1991) 147-57, P. Witts, 'Interpreting the Brading "Abraxas" Mosaic,' Britannia 25 (1994) 111-17 for the notion of stock repertoires.