Scholia Reviews ns 14 (2005) 5.

Peter Stewart, Roman Art: Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics, 34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. viii + 155, incl. twelve colour illustrations, forty halftones, a bibliography and index. ISSN 0017-3835; ISBN 0-19-852081-6. UK£7.95.

Robert Hannah,
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

This compact book is a very welcome addition to the series of New Surveys in the Classics, published under the aegis of Greece & Rome by the Classical Association of Great Britain. As Stewart himself acknowledges in his introduction (p. 2), it is thirteen years since the appearance of Brian Sparkes' excellent volume on Greek Art in the same series,[[1]] so on the basis of need alone, it was high time that a companion volume on Roman art should appear. But more than that, this new volume, like its Greek predecessor, manages to encapsulate within the span of just 130 pages the very wide range of issues and new approaches which are now current in the study of Roman art, a range which may not have been so obvious a couple of decades ago, when new approaches were just nascent and yet to become the norm.

A brief introduction (pp. 1-4) raises the central issue of Roman art -- where is its originality, its identity even, when so much of it looks Greek? The answers that Stewart is able to give now through the course of this book are certainly different from what might have been offered a generation ago, when many aspects of Roman art were still often seen through the prism of Greek art, and hence seen as inferior and/or derivative because so much seemed to have been borrowed from its neighbour. Nowadays we are more inclined to seek to understand Roman art in its own cultural terms rather than as an adjunct to or offshoot from Greek art. While Stewart commendably states his aims are 'not just to introduce Roman art . . . but also to introduce the state of Roman art in scholarship' (p. 4), and while this reviewer feels that these aims are achieved within the limitations that the scale of the New Surveys impose, it is nonetheless one of the outstanding achievements of this modest book that it also identifies many of the cultural parameters within which we should seek to comprehend this art.

It is to be expected that some aspects of Roman art will not be dealt with in detail, if at all, in a book of this scale. Architecture is the big loser in this regard, but understandably so, given the vast scope of the discipline in the Roman world and the sheer scale of recent scholarship. It is to be hoped that the New Surveys will ultimately have a book or books or Greek and Roman architecture added to the stable. More of a pity is the fact that coinage is not dealt with, especially as its value in helping us to understand larger-scale works of art is recognised by Stewart at certain points. Setting aside its intrinsic value as an art form through the Republic and especially under the Empire, one could still imagine its usefulness, for instance, in the discussion on portraiture at several junctures in the text. By the same token, it is good to be given the magnificent Gemma Claudia (pp. 17f., Fig. 6) in the discussion on portraits of Imperial women. The omission from discussion of other art forms, such as lamps, pottery, jewellery, textiles and furniture ornaments, is more understandable, but that very omission does warn us how much broader and deeper a context the more impressive monuments of art could be placed in.

There are six chapters to the book. The first (pp. 5-28) covers portraits, with sections on Republican portraits, Augustan portraits, family resemblance, Imperial women, period-faces, physiognomy, statues and contexts, and responses to portraits. There is much here that is sensible, in a field in which it is still possible to find scholars attempting to read Roman portraits as windows on to characters and mentalities which are more modern than ancient, or worse still as caricatures to which the Romans were somehow blind (in this regard, I miss here a reference to A. F. Stewart's ground-breaking and sensitive work on late Hellenistic/late Republican sculptors' output in portraiture).[[2]] With regard to the portraits of Augustus (pp. 11-14), I must admit to not seeing the Meroë portrait (Plate 1) as part of the Classicising Primaporta type, but as still a more emotive Hellenistic precursor. Even the Primaporta statue itself displays more late Classical/Hellenistic tendencies in its use of space than does the Classical Doryphorus that is usually regarded as its model since Zanker's popularisation of the idea. [[3]]

Chapter 2 (pp. 29-52) deals with public monuments, with an all-too-brief survey of public buildings and 'private' imperial palaces preceding sections on historical reliefs, which usefully compares the arches of Titus and Trajan -- an illustration of a detail of a panel from the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum would assist the discussion here. There follows a good survey of current views of the Ara Pacis, partly influenced by the forays of literary critics into the field, though I retain suspicions of over-interpretation.[[4]] Stewart then analyses the 'invisible stories' (that is, the reliefs of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, whose physical situations meant that most were unreadable by people walking around them. It would be worth adding something on the theory of the vertical organisation of, for example, the victory scenes on the column of Trajan, as an aid to reading the higher, 'invisible' spirals).[[5]] He concludes the chapter with a brief look at monumental art outside Rome, using monuments like the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias in Turkey to demonstrate regional responses to the commemorative impulses of the Empire.[[6]]

The third chapter (pp. 53-73) covers funerary art, through tombstones and funerary statues from Republican and early Imperial monuments; sarcophagi from the second century onwards (some readers will find it useful to have the predominantly German scholarship made more accessible here); and provincial funerary monuments. The history of interpretation might be touched on in this section, especially with regard to the sarcophagi from Italy, as the scenes on these were originally thought to be of Roman, not Greek, myths because of their provenance; the shift required of scholars in their understanding of what constitutes 'Greek' and 'Roman' art is instructive. [[7]]

The fourth and fifth chapters (pp. 74-92, 93-110) discuss aspects of domestic art, namely wall painting, mosaics and sculpture. The analysis of wall painting ranges from the taxonomy of Pompeian paintings organised in the traditional fashion according to the four architectural styles, to a critique of the problems and limitations inherent in this approach, and so to a survey of new ways of scrutinising wall paintings. Among these innovative approaches mention is made of the searches for possible programmes of decoration in certain rooms (pp. 85, 87, 91), but major emphasis is placed on the question of viewing these wall paintings as 'allusions' of wealth rather than 'illusions' of space, and re-placing them in their social context as decoration in houses which were both public and private in the Roman patron-client system (pp. 86-92). Stewart's caution is well made in this chapter, as elsewhere, that we do not 'genuinely know enough about the Romans' attitudes to be sure that our impressions resemble theirs' (p. 91). It would have been interesting to have looked back to Rome in this chapter, to see whether the similar paintings from, say, the House of Augustus and the Domus Aurea also reflect the 'allusive' mode, despite their belonging to the topmost stratum of Roman society, to whose dwellings Pompeian paintings are thought sometimes to allude. I wonder also to what extent the reading profferred here of any Roman house's overall decoration as 'unplanned, rather haphazard' (p. 91) is a misunderstanding of the dynamic nature of domestic decoration, a function of people actually living in these spaces on a daily basis and decorating them as needs, means, or desires arose.

Mosaics from both private houses in Pompeii and public baths in Ostia are analysed in Chapter 5, with special attention devoted to their functions in various contexts. It is good to see mention of Clarke's principle of 'spectator' or 'kinesthetic' address in relation to the large bath mosaics from Ostia (pp. 95f.).[[8]] Domestic sculpture is discussed in this chapter too, with emphasis on the central issue of what is Roman about such sculptures, which have traditionally been viewed as just 'copies' of lost and, by presumption, better Greek originals, and why such statues were made in profusion. Ridgway's pioneering work in this field, which is noted,[[9]] is still worth revisiting for the fundamental distinctions it draws between various types of 'copies', for the sophistication of its (rhetorical) terminology for these types, and for its awareness of the sometimes political nature of these statues (such as the tyrannicides, and various statues of defeated Gauls) -- all nuances more or less lacking here in an otherwise very good discussion.

The final chapter (pp. 111-31) deals with later Roman art. The discussion stems from an analysis of the various reliefs of the Arch of Constantine, a monument whose decoration and (more recently) whose very fabric has been considered to be largely reused from earlier monuments, and hence not only derivative but also characteristic of a decline in art and its production from the fourth century onwards. The issue of stylistic change -- from the Hellenising, naturalistic, spatially convincing art of the early Empire to the flattened, inorganic, iconic forms of the later Empire -- is usefully discussed in some depth. The opportunity is well taken here to note the existence of precursors to this late Imperial style not only in provincial Roman art (as had been noted in Chapter 3) but also in Italian art before the second century. The reading of this art as 'plebeian' is ultimately and rightly rejected as an oversimplification (pp. 119f.). Some mention could be made of this style's characterisation by others as 'Italic' art,[[10]] which was always present in the Republic and Empire but was swamped in public contexts by the Hellenising styles, and yet which gradually comes to resurface and even to dominate public art from the third century onwards. The art of Eastern cults like Mithraism (pp. 121f.) serves as a transition to a good discussion of Christian art as Roman art (pp. 122-27). Emphasis is nicely placed on the emblematic and symbolic character of early Christian art (the political ambiguity of the symbols chosen was probably also considered useful by early Christians facing persecution), and there is an interesting debate about the origins of the standard image of Christ (pp. 125-27). Stewart finally provides a discussion of 'late antique' silverware and mosaics which serve as a corrective to the view that the classicising tendencies of earlier Imperial art had disappeared: on the contrary, some art forms retained these Hellenising tendencies well into the period of the western empire's demise.

The text is almost entirely free of typographical errors.[[11]] Twelve colour illustrations set midway through the book, and forty halftones placed throughout the text illustrate almost all items discussed in detail. A list of illustrations (pp. iv-viii) details museums, provenances, dates, dimensions (usually), and sources. The illustrations are a mixed bag, with a number of the halftones proving either too small (for example, Fig. 9, the view of the Forum Romanum) or too murky (Fig. 37: 'Largitio' scene from the frieze of the Arch of Constantine) to support the relevant discussion. Perhaps Oxford University Press could investigate ways of improving the quality of these photographs, because the text deserves better.

A bibliography (pp.132-50) and index (pp.152-55) complete the book. The remarkable and welcome aspect of the bibliography is its inclusiveness, which caters to different levels of readership: from high school-level introductions (such as essays from Omnibus), to regular guide-books and catalogues (such as the cheap but academically sound series published by Electa in Milan, which tourists to Rome's sites and museums can usually acquire), and accessible academic works in English (extensive and judicious use is made, for instance, of the annual reports and review articles from the Journal of Roman Archaeology), to the top- rate scholarly articles and books in Italian and particularly German which underpin the lower-level works. Older works are noted, usually when these have become the seminal texts from which more recent scholarship has taken its cue (I have referred in my notes below to a few others of this kind).

This is a book which will serve not only high-school Classical Civilisation teachers well, but also university lecturers, who want to direct their students to a reliable, readable and well-researched account of the field of Roman art as it currently stands.


[[1]] B. A. Sparkes, Greek Art: Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics 22 (Oxford 1991).

[[2]] Andrew Stewart, Attika: Studies in Athenian Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age (London 1979).

[[3]] Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor 1988) 98-100.

[[4]] On the specific issue of the interpretation of the excavated remains of Augustus's 'sundial' (p. 42 and n. 38), see also E. Buchner, 'Neues zur Sonnenuhr des Augustus,' Nürnberger Blätter zur Archäologie 10 (1993-94) 77-84, for a reconsideration of the 'sundial' as a circle rather than a batwing design, and for a response to the trenchant criticisms in M. Schütz, 'Zur Sonnenuhr des Augusts auf dem Marsfeld,' Gymnasium 97 (1990) 432-57.

[[5]] See especially W. Gauer, Untersuchungen zur Trajanssäule (Berlin 1977).

[[6]] A rare error has crept into the text in the discussion of the Aphrodisias sculptures; it should be a naked Claudius, not Nero, who forces Britannia into submission in one of the panels. Nero subjugates Armenia in another panel.

[[7]] See Nikolaus Himmelmann, 'Winckelmann's Hermeneutic' in William Childs (ed.), Reading Greek Art (Princeton 1998) 217-36.

[[8]] J.R. Clarke, Roman Black-and-White Figural Mosaics (New York 1979).

[[9]] B. S. Ridgway, Roman Copies of Greek Sculpture: the Problem of the Originals (Ann Arbor 1984).

[[10]] See, for example, B.M. Felleti Maj, La tradizione italica nell'arte romana (Rome 1977).

[[11]] I found only: p. 78: replace 'prophesy' with 'prophecy'; p. 109: omit 'is' in 'but it is only reproduces the Spear-Bearer's head in bust form'; p. 133: the article by W. C. Archer appeared in AJA, not JRA.