Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.03

J. Elsner (ed.), Art and Text in Roman Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 391. £45.00. ISBN 0-521-43030-5.

Reviewed by Christina S. Kraus,, Department of Greek and Latin, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT.

This handsomely produced volume bills itself as a "sequel" to Goldhill's and Osborne's Art and text in Greek culture (Cambridge 1994: not reviewed in BMCR, but cf. JHS 115 [1995] and CQ 45 [1995]). Labelling it as such (rather than, e.g., a companion volume) invites questions of originality, mirroring, re-presentation, and the reader's expectations -- all of which are issues raised continually by the ten essays collected here. (It would be possible to write a review juxtaposing the two volumes, taking up the challenge Elsner issues with that "sequel" -- is ATRC an "Empire Strikes Back" or merely a "Return of the Killer Tomatoes"? -- though that is not in fact what I have done.) Elsner introduces this collection as aimed at the "debate on how Roman art history should proceed" now that the "gospel of Form" has fallen apart (3-4); what interests me is how his contributors, many of whom are literary scholars, have suggested ways in which Roman literary history might proceed. In a sense, there is not much new here: as in the seemingly endless debate between "philology" and "theory," art historians, archaeologists, historians, and literary critics have all known for some time that each field is essential to the other. But to see scholars actually engaging in interdisciplinary dialogue without polemic or artificiality ("pick a theory and illustrate it") is welcome.

The book's tricolon crescens structure moves from two pieces on the modern reception of ancient monuments to three on ecphrasis and related issues of the relationship of words and their objects; five papers on subjects ranging from Apuleius to ancient painting are collected in the final section under the rubric "Art and the text of culture: identity, meaning and interpretation." The authors limit their focus to Roman (not Greco-Roman) culture in the late Republic and early Empire (4); the limitation produces a greater impression of a coherent whole, and offers more possibilities for cross-readings, than might have been available had the net been cast wider.

Despite the lavish production, the book contains a high percentage of typographical and other errors, too many of them in the Latin. (Since translators are rarely identified, I assume that most translations are the contributors' own; Morales has used Winterbottom's Elder Seneca, but that was the only apparently uncredited version that I recognized.) On p.22, the plural of volumen is not volumines; pp.78-9, the translation of this passage from Servius masks an essential correlation between conectere ("tie up") and expedire ("untie"), nor do I see how narrationis celeritas potuisse conecti can mean "the pace of narration could have been drawn out" (neither TLL nor L&S offers any parallels for this use of conecto); p.84, Prop. 2.31.14 funera Tantalidos must mean not "the death of" but the "deaths connected with Tantalus' daughter" (i.e., those of Niobe's children); p.85, femina turba = "the woman multitude" is odd: femina here means "female" (OLD 3, quoting this passage); p.135, et motus does not belong with the preceding picturae but with the following omnibus (omitted in the translation): "and all lack motion, which depicts [NB the singular repraesentat] likeness with excellent faithfulness" -- for Apuleius' concern with motus cf. the end of this paragraph (ritu cadaveris unum vultum et immobilem possidet) and its middle, quoted on p.142 (ita mobilis) and p.150 on protective "mobility and mutability"; p.138, according to normal convention the brackets on cana[m] should be angle, not square, and delete gratiam eam (actually from Flor. 16.32); p.139 for sudor read sudoro; p.141, sciet is future; p.142, ut ita are correlatives; p.149, for sedenim read sed enim; p.150 middle, for contar read conitar; p.162, for DACIO read DACICO; p.225, last line, cognoscas in this inscription (text in fn. 55) looks like a parallel to the imperative vive -- in any case it is not a future, while despicies is (incidentally, the last section of the inscription is not translated); p.228, "you whose" masks the indefinite quicumque. In the notes, p.290 n.34, for "third" read "fourth pentad"; p.299, n.50 for "it is worth nothing" read "worth noting" (?); p.306, n.24, cur should be included in the excerpt (as its first word: it triggers videantur, whose mood is otherwise unexplained), and for duos read duo, and cava is confusingly translated differently the two times it appears in this extract (as "hollow" and "deep"), and each time differently from the paraphrase on p.143 ("concave"); p.308, n.44, for the first locus read lucus, and in the translation read "as when some grove or holy place"; p.311 n.39, Plin. Pan. 22.3 should be translated "the greatest joy in their fertility came over women when they realized for what sort of leader they had borne citizens, and for what sort of general, soldiers"; p.317, n.70, the Prometheus reference is mysterious: for "1.36" read "110-11"?; p.324, n.64, last line, for deder read dedere. While most of these are easily spotted and corrected, it would be unfortunate if they stood in the way of the broader audience that this volume deserves.

And so to the individual papers. Valerie Huet's exposition of the effects that reproduction has had on the ways we see ancient art ("Stories one might tell of Roman art: reading Trajan's column and the Tiberius cup") makes some important points, though I felt she tended to over-advertise its novelty (do we really need to have it "suggested" that "taste and fashion play a consequent role in the study of monuments" [19]? surely this is something we know pretty well by now). But, if we are to try to read the column "by taking into account the ancient viewer" (20), then how are we to do that when the ancient viewer -- as H. stresses (12) -- probably could not see much of the reliefs? The later reproductions, whose history she traces in such detail, are precisely what has made the reliefs legible in the first place, and so they have not only interfered with but have also supplemented/replaced the ancient experience in ways that H. doesn't seem to allow for. She draws a fruitful parallel between the column as burial chamber and res gestae and Augustus' mausoleum with the adjoining Res gestae1 (though we are not told how she knows [23] that "it was certainly clear to the ancient viewer" that Trajan was imitating Augustus' monument). The story that the column marks the height of the hill that was destroyed to build Trajan's forum further suggests that there exists as well an inverse relationship between the two commemorative structures: the Augusteum an artificially constructed mound, Trajan's column and surrounding complex an artificially constructed void, each crowned -- as H. says -- by a statue of the deified emperor (24). Her second section, on the Boscoreale cup, I found more engaging than the first, perhaps because it contained more close reading; it is a pity that she was not able to respond to Kuttner's extraordinary study of the cups (Dynasty and empire in the age of Augustus, Berkeley 1995). Jas Elsner ("Inventing imperium: texts and the propaganda of monuments in Augustan Rome") considers the significance and deployment of topography in the Res gestae and the way in which the inscription and its monumental contexts served as a "signature of empire" (52). E. is particularly good on the way Augustus arranged Roman space in his description, which he contrasts with the simple list of buildings appended to the Ankara inscription (47-8). One element that E. does not comment on, but which is brought out by the sections of the RG that he quotes, is the extent to which Augustus claims not to have signed many of these buildings (the Porticus Octavia; the Basilica Julia, dedicated "in the name of my sons"; the Theater of Marcellus): this reticence is in tension with the "discourse of inscriptional repetition" with which Augustus multiplied his title of Pater patriae (49). One could well compare E.'s analysis of this monumental and monumentalizing text with the striking preoccupation of other Augustan authors, especially Livy (but cf. also the prologue to Georgics 3), with city space and the space of empire.

Don Fowler, Andrew Laird, and Alison Sharrock tackle more philosophical issues; I found their essays the most difficult in the volume, to some extent because of my own unfamiliarity with the theoretical material. Fowler's impressive teasing out of Silius' intertexts ("Even better than the real thing: a tale of two cities") is triggered by the question: if meaning and interpretation are constructed in the critic's head, why do we need either literary or fine art? (62) While I do not follow him all the way down the Rortyite path, I agree that debate about art and literature is essential to the construction and contestation -- rather than the recovery -- of meaning (73-4). In "Vt figura poesis: writing art and the art of writing in Augustan poetry," Laird discusses with admirable clarity the pros and cons, in ancient theory, of making a parallel between visual and verbal art; after showing that the ancient material can allow arguments both for and against a commensurability between the media, he argues that we should be more conscious of the degree to which a verbal ecphrasis is a narrative providing "a version, inscribed viewing or interpretation of the art-work" (100), not a faithful description of a "real" object. Sharrock takes up some of the same issues in "Representing metamorphosis," arriving at times at what appear to be opposite conclusions. (Reading the two pieces back to back was disorienting, especially since I found S.'s writing much more opaque than L.'s; it would have been helpful, though perhaps not practicable, if the two had actively engaged with each other.) Her main, and to me somewhat self-evident, contention is that metamorphosis, hybridization, and metaphor -- which she conflates, on ancient precedent, with simile -- participate in the same conceptual framework (here I was surprised not to see a reference to Denis Feeney on the capacity of similes to transform/slip/defer experience, in Woodman & Powell, edd., Author and audience in Latin literature). She then investigates the ways in which hybrids, in particular, in ancient descriptions of art may be seen to explore issues of identity, desire, and stability.

Yun Lee Too takes up the question of an intellectual's self-representation, an issue she explored in her 1995 CUP book on Isocrates, and argues in "Statues, mirrors, gods" that these objects figure as both positive and negative reflectors in Apuleius' construction of himself. I thought she pushed things too far at the end (seeing Apuleius as "the deity of the Apuleian corpus," 152), though I liked much of her analysis of the models with which his readers are presented as possible -- but always cancelled? -- ways of seeing the philosopher himself. Again, it would be interesting to see how Too responds to Zanker's Masks of Socrates (1995); and it is a pity that the paper is compromised by a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the quoted and translated Latin text. Sarah Currie ("The empire of adults") shows how children's bodies in imperial art are metaphors for both positive and negative aspects of empire. She assumes too easily -- especially in the wake of Huet's piece that opens this volume! -- that ancient viewers/spectators could see the reliefs on Trajan's column (159 and 161); but the scenes on his triumphal arch at Beneventum, her main focus, are legible. C. demonstrates that on this arch the liminal bodies of children explore issues of national identity and status, of the holy, of time, and of the contrast between city and country. Michael Koortbojian ("In commemorationem mortuorum: text and image along the 'streets of tombs'") reads Roman and Pompeian funerary reliefs and their inscriptions, showing how literary and artistic convention were deployed to construct images of Romanness, and inviting us to consider the conjunction between the cities of the living and those of the dead that lined their entrances. Like Huet, K. is concerned with art as an aide-mémoire (29); for him, memory insures the future: "on these 'streets of tombs' the dead conspired with the living, the past with the present, so that they might bind themselves by the evocation of common history" (233).

I've saved the best for last. Helen Morales ("The torturer's apprentice: Parrhasius and the limits of art") analyses Seneca, Contr. 10.5 on the artist who tortured a model to death in order to capture the figure of Prometheus. Weaving together traditional and modern scholarship and approaches, she produces a convincing reading of a still relatively unknown text that raises issues about the proper limits of art, the place and possibility of realism, and the ethical responsibilities of spectators both in early imperial Rome and in our own time (she makes a telling comparison between Parrhasius' Prometheus and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ). Finally, in "Footnote: representation in the Villa of the Mysteries," John Henderson reads the "Mysteriensaal" with the density and detail that he normally reads a text. (Though this is in general less demanding on the reader than many of H.'s literary pieces, far less dependent on our being already on the inside [an initiate?] of the text in question, it did seem that the degree of difficulty, and the amount of untranslated/unglossed material, increased as the article progressed and we got closer to the answer/refusal.) The only annoyance came from having constantly to turn back to the drawing on p.236 (and to keep flipping the damned thing around to see all the designs right-side up!). H starts his exploration of the way we see/are shown the frieze with a catalogue of its appearances on dust jackets (do judge a book ?) and in reproductions inside books and films (237-40). The point? That these paintings were already always appropriated in different ways by different viewers, cut up, sewn together, juxtaposed, ignored, seen in a dazzling multiplicity of ways yielding an equally dazzling and destabilizing multiplicity of possible meanings, from the very start (240). H. then takes us round the room, watching the friezes with one eye on their other readers and one on their own, encoded directions. Art historians, literary critics, philosophers, and the figures in the paintings serve as guides to putting together (and taking apart) the "meaning" of the mysteries. At the last, H. zooms in on the single, empty sandal lying precariously before Ariadne's (?) throne for a discussion of shoes as slippery emblems simultaneously of detachment and ownership, of grounding and absence. Lacing up Derrida with Renaissance perspective theory with ritual monosandalism with Cinderella, this "Footnote" leaves us with "difficulty, and the desirous defiance within visual interpretation" (276).

Others will see other things in this collection, find different aspects with which to agree or disagree. I came to it as an interested but ill-informed reader, one who knows something about Roman culture but has very little specialized knowledge about any of the objects or texts treated here; having dipped my toes in, I come away from it eager for more.


1. The parallel between the two sets of res gestae has certainly been made earlier, e.g., by W. Gauer, Untersuchungen zur Trajanssaeule (Berlin 1977) 71.