Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.10

Martin Henig, The Art of Roman Britain. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. 224. $64.50. ISBN 047210813.

Reviewed by Tracy Furlonger, Elizabeth College (Hobart, Tasmania) (

Martin Henig has already contributed greatly to the study of Roman Britain. His latest book, The Art of Roman Britain, deals in eight chapters with Romano-British art and its influences on society, as well as the significance of Celtic and Romano-Celtic art in general (the introduction and first chapter have a short overview of Celtic art prior to the conquest of Britain). H. reinforces the importance of art as a social determinant, and his declaration that 'Roman art has for too long been underrated and that the art of Roman Britain ... [reached] surprising heights of excellence' (p. 10) reflects the importance he places, correctly so, on art as part of the social fabric of Roman Britain. H.'s book, then, may be seen as an important and much-needed addition to Romano-British studies, and his intention that it 'will occasion debate and encourage visitors to museums to use their eyes and aesthetic senses in the same way in the archaeology gallery as they do when confronted by paintings' (p. 11) will probably remain true.

However, I have some criticisms, mostly concerning the book's style and content. The bulk of the narrative presupposes a detailed level of knowledge by the reader, which may make it inaccessible to general readers, and at the same time it is repetitious -- particularly in chapters 6, 7 and 8. Also, though the book has an admirable selection of colour and black and white plates, greater use and critical analysis could have been made of the illustrations in the text. Another drawback is that H. often offers hypotheses on the significance of art in Roman Britain without really giving evidence in support of his claims (e.g. chapter 3, the role of art on the army, and chapter 4, the use of art in Roman Britain).

I now consider each chapter individually. The first, 'The Art of the Celts', considers the role of Celtic art in pre-conquest Britain. H.'s strong point here lies in his ascribing the importance of Celtic art chiefly to the influence of patterning and design rather than production, given that the Celts of Britain had no need for large scale casting or sculpture. Mention is also made of Celtic metal work (sword scabbards, armour, mirrors) in grave and other votive contexts, reinforcing the fact that such objects had both practical and non-practical functions. That Celtic art influenced later artistic development both in the province and further afield is not disputed. However, H.'s comment that Celtic art offered little beyond aesthetic influence (e.g. p. 22: 'It would be surprising if such a tribal and pre-urban society had given birth to a major art'), though a widely accepted viewpoint, is perhaps going too far. As H. himself comments, we are still unable to interpret the religious (or otherwise) significance of Celtic art (cf. pp. 21, 23).

In chapter 2, 'Art in the Era of the Conquest', H. begins his discussion of art in Roman Britain proper with an analysis of the use and purposes of art in the Roman world, correctly stating that art was more than aesthetics but was used as a social determinant, propagandising values and social norms and was representative of the standard of living of wealthy patrons and individual communities. H. begins his investigation with the realisation that art, naturally imported from the Mediterranean, was representative of Romanisation in Roman Britain and the blending of native influences, as shown by the bucket from Aylesford in Kent (plate 7, p. 22). However, it is when H. begins to discuss the nature and extent of smaller, portable, evidence of Romanisation that the true nature of this merging becomes obvious. Using the examples of gold and jewellery working which existed in native form prior to the conquest, H. shows that the development of such art forms was more than the copying of ideas or styles but a genuine merging of Roman and Celtic natures, blending method and decoration (p. 34).

The third chapter, 'Art and the Roman Army', discusses a topic which more than deserves a chapter by itself. H. makes the point (p. 44) that Celtic motifs and techniques were used alongside Roman, and he highlights the link between the location of nearby settlements or sources of material and legionary forts such as at Caerleon and the nearby limestone belt. The correlation between availability of material and artists, as at Caerleon and York, is contrasted with the lack of both at Chester, which led to more provincial sculpture, characterised by ill-proportioned figures and a lack of extensive decoration (pp. 47-49).

Especially good in this chapter is the discussion of art from Hadrian's Wall. Here, auxiliary and cavalry units, particularly from Housesteads, produced an interesting range of sculpture, although H. questions whether this was only because of the 'temporary presence of a trained sculptor or two' (p. 117) at Housesteads. This chapter is ably supported by a number of plates of significant sculptures which reinforce the quality (or lack thereof) of art produced in the Wall area, and the role of religious piety demonstrated by the highly skilled and probably expensive Mithraic sculpture commissioned by the officer class. H. gives justice to the use of smaller art by the army in the form of studs, belt buckles and belt plates with repoussé decoration and niello inlay, quintessentially Celtic enamel work (pp. 55-57 and 72). This topic is again raised at the end of chapter 5 where H. uses the example of enamel work to show the co-existence of Celtic methodology and Roman content (p. 104), and is further mentioned in the context of a possible Celtic revival and jewellery work in the fourth century in chapter 7 (p. 172), despite H.'s own questioning in chapter 8 of there being a revival or mere survival of native art forms (p. 174). Although cross-referencing is expected and essential in a book of this nature, such large scale repetition detracts from the book.

In chapter 4, 'The Uses of Art in Roman Britain', H. makes the important point that art in Roman Britain tended to be commissioned rather than mass-produced and of possible importance or significance to the purchaser or patron (p. 59). Comparatively, one may note the relationship between art and decoration and the expression of community attitudes as reflected by Christian iconography at Lullingstone and Hinton St Mary villas (also discussed in chapter 7). H. also highlights the role of art as a form of self-gratification and competition in an effort to prove one's house as more successful than another by way of extensive mosaics and other forms of decoration in public areas such as dining rooms or baths (p. 63), or through funerary sculpture where individuals were honoured with impressive armour and clothes and the recording of occupations or achievements (p. 65). However, while only the most wealthy could afford mosaic floors, extensive frescoes or impressive stone or bronze statuary, jewellery such as rings, mirrors and brooches, as well as glassware and other ornamental and portable objects, reflect the effect of romanitas throughout the province. Clearly, while Celtic influences such as scroll work on bronze mirrors and enamelled brooches (see p. 72) and vegetal decoration on wall paintings and mosaics as at Verulamium (p. 68) remained, romanitas was a strong influence in Britain. Here, therefore lies a very important point in H.'s book: while Roman influences are easily recognised in Romano-British art, art and native culture did not die with it as Haverfield suggests, but continued to develop in conjunction with Roman (cf. pp. 9 ff., 104).

H. ends his discussion of chapter 4 with a brief commentary on the role played by religion in art from Roman Britain. He questions the existence of religious art as being a true reflection of the patron's faith or a passing fad, although the cost involved in producing some of the larger religious/mythological pieces could suggest a stronger correlation between ownership and faith (cf. pp. 120, 122-124, 126). H. finishes with a discussion of the role of temples and other votives and public sponsorship of art in Roman Britain, especially in the case of Bath and Cirencester where patrons' health and well-being were promoted (p. 77).

The fifth chapter, 'Natives and Strangers in Roman Britain', questions the origin of the art discussed in the previous chapters. H. discusses the role of native and immigrant artists in terms of the development of art in the province, arguing that the Roman conquest of Britain did not, and could not, have resulted in the immediate demise of native artists, or their methods and designs. He offers a re-classification of art in Roman Britain, away from that given by Toynbee (p. 80), but then he qualifies these categories by admitting that the closely linked nature of all but the first and last means in reality that one should really consider only two categories, Roman and Romano-Celtic art. Although H. explains that the remainder of the chapter deals with categories two, three and four, one wonders why he should go to the trouble of re-definition, if only to refute his earlier observations concerning art in the province and Romano-Celtic decoration and production.

H. freely admits that the nature of highly portable and easily copied work such as coins, rings and gemstones could be evidence for immigrant artists whose tools were equally as portable, claiming that such craftsmen could well have come from Aquileia, a leading gem centre in northern Italy (p. 80). However, he offers little conclusive proof of the origin of such artists, whether sons of skilled Gauls resident in Roman Britain, illiterate natives, or immigrants themselves. It is highly probable that native artists did not have the skill necessary to produce high quality work so soon after the conquest, although there is nothing to say whether these artists were natives who had been taught these skills or immigrants who already possessed them.

Clearly, however, some art work was imported, such as better quality marble and high quality silver (cf. p. 116), and H. makes use of bronze statuettes and figurines to indicate both native and imported production by comparing quality and materials (p. 81). While the fact that native artists, though skilled in the use of bronze and metalwork, did not have experience in large scale casting and lacked a classical training, suggests that small and ill-proportioned figurines such as the Apollo from London (figure 51) were made in Britain, it still does not assign production to a native artist or an immigrant of poor skill. H. himself realises the uncertainty of this area by admitting the difficulty of ascribing nationality, although in chapter 6 he does spend some time discussing the stylistic traits of a Palmyrene sculptor (p. 117), something which really would have been better suited to this chapter.

This chapter is one of the weakest in the book as H. labours to provide the evidence for some of his conclusions. He repeatedly attempts to prove a point without offering valid conclusions; for example, on p. 84 he says that 'despite the close reliance on a Roman model, the head of Hadrian found in the Thames at London (see 35) seems to me to exhibit local features and thus was most certainly made in Britain' without any evidence why this was so. Moreover, in his discussion of the use of wall painting and mosaics as further evidence of foreign artists' work, one cannot help but wonder at the extent of local workshop based training, especially in the second and third centuries. Surely, H. cannot realistically hold that native and second-generation artists would have been removed totally from the influences of Romanisation and the development of Romano-Celtic art? Indeed, H. alludes to this problem of identification on p. 91 when he says that generally there was some sign 'such as the influence of local Gaulish or British style which differentiates provincial Roman from the products of continental craftsmen', but he fails to offer any explanation of the signs referred to here.

Chapter 6, 'Artists and their Patrons', is overly repetitious: the 'human' relationship between artists and their work and the patrons who requested such work, and the role of wealthy individual patrons and larger scale art and dedications, were already addressed in chapters 3 and 4. By p. 116 things are improving: H. offers a good discussion of the continental influences on Romano-British art and the likelihood of immigrant artists from Belgica and the Trier region, together with a discussion of the existence of high quality art in rural settings and the use of artists from different areas in the larger studios such as at London (pp. 115-116). H. reinforces this relationship with the point that artists would have carved larger work in situ and more portable work could have been produced closer to the patron's residence to allow for consultation by way of local offices or offinae (cf. p. 45). After sculpture, H. moves to wall-painting and mosaics (repetition again from chapters 3 and 4 where he already established the role of wealth in commissioned art of this nature and the existence of workshops). What H. does reinforce in this chapter, however, is the nature of such art as reflecting the implied or real interests and status of British gentry, given the extent of Romanisation and the use of larger scale art for self-glorification and promotion of the individual and/or the community. Still, H. would have been better to incorporate the bulk of this chapter in chapter 4 when he discussed the uses of art in Roman Britain.

In chapter 7, 'Art in Late Roman Britain', H. discusses Romano-British art in its own right. Given the problems associated with dating individual artwork, as well as the prevalence of mosaic art and the general rebirth of Romano-British culture and society in the fourth century, this chapter by nature offers the hope of a thorough discussion. The chapter's focus lies entirely on discussing the symbolism of mosaics, silver plate and wall-paintings of the fourth century which served to reinforce the power and strength of the Roman Empire and romanitas (p. 141). H. goes on to use the example of mosaics and wall-paintings as being the permanent reinforcers, while the silver-plate and high quality glassware are the 'movable components' (p. 143), particularly in the case of religious/mythological presentations. Of course, the degree to which such art was pagan or traditional in the form of mythological scenes is one which H. remains aware. He is correct in stating that pagan influence remained quite strong in Roman Britain and was 'publicised' in mosaics and wall-paintings of the time. Although Christianity was a substantial influence in the fourth century in the Roman world, H. rightly believes that most Christian art in Roman Britain was small and portable in nature (excluding larger art such as at Lullingstone villa) and private in purpose (p. 148). Indeed, H. quite categorically states that 'as far as the art of Late Roman Britain is concerned, and with a few major exceptions (Lullingstone; Hinton St Mary), its history could be written without mentioning the State religion of the Empire' (p. 157).

The latter part of this chapter is also repetitious when H. begins discussing literary references to Late Roman Britain -- deluxe editions of Ovid and the like on illuminated manuscripts, for example, were mentioned in chapter 6 (cf. pp. 157 ff.). Another example of H.'s unsubstantiated conclusions is found in this chapter when he says, with reference to the Lullingstone villa mosaics, that because Bellerophon/Chimera are literary themes rather than religious, 'it certainly should not be assumed that these pavements are of the same date or executed for the same owner as the Christian frescoes of the house-church upstairs' (p. 157). Again, the reader is left asking: why not?

H. concludes the book (chapter 8, 'Attitudes to the Art of Roman Britain') with a discussion of the overall importance of, and attitudes towards, art in Roman Britain by reflecting on the viewpoints and work of 'historians' over the last three centuries. While these have given way to a new understanding of Roman Britain (p. 189), it is unfortunate that this chapter does not have a summation of the material which preceded it (and which one would expect in a final chapter), and indeed much of the material on the course of this scholarship would have been better collapsed and included in an introduction.

Clearly there has been a renewal of interest in Roman Britain, particularly given the demise of theories such as those advanced by Collingwood and Haverfield, something that H. also has sought to amend in his book. While it is inevitable that some topics and information be repeated and/or cross-referenced in the text, I feel there is too much of this and that this detracts from the overall effectiveness of the book. Even so, H.'s treatment of the important topic of art in Roman Britain, drawing as it does on iconographic, numismatic and archaeological evidence, means that students and scholars of Roman Britain will need to use this book.