Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.26

Stuart J. Fleming, Roman Glass. Reflections on Cultural Change.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1999.  Pp. xii + 208, 71 fig..  ISBN 0-924171-72-3.  $50.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-924171-73-1.  $30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Birgitta Hoffmann, University College Dublin
Word count: 2328 words

It is a well-known saying amongst archaeologists that glass specialists have it easier than most to produce beautiful books -- all they have to do is to select the right pictures of the objects they want to talk about. As with so many of these sayings, there is a grain of truth in this, but only so much.

Past exhibition catalogues have shown how difficult it is to say something about ancient glass that would be of interest to the general public and go beyond pure art appreciation. Stuart Fleming's 'book accompanying the exhibition' is one such attempt, in that it tries to put glass into the context of Roman history and society. His model for discussion is a 'tension triangle'. He sees the finished glass vessels as the product of the influences of historic events, changes in fashion and taste and -- finally -- advances in glass technology. The result is the presentation of eight centuries of glass production and Roman cultural history, presented for an audience with very little familiarity with the material.

As a consequence, the order of presentation that is familiar from so many other glass catalogues, i.e., by manufacturing technique (cast, mold-blown and free-blown glass in various decorative techniques (cf. Harden et al., Glass of the Caesars (1987)) is abandoned, and instead a series of chronological groups is presented and put into context. Interspersed with these chronological chapters are a few discussions on more thematic aspects (e.g. E.10 Cultic connections, E.16 Burial customs in the Eastern Provinces and E.18 Motifs and Motivations).

The story itself is told in three strands: the running text, giving the main story; 118 end notes, which present various asides on facts briefly mentioned in the text; and hundreds of annotated colour photographs and line drawings illustrating not only glass vessels but comparative objects in other materials as well as portraits of emperors and views of sites of particular interest for the reader. All of this is backed up with a substantial bibliography, an extremely readable appendix on glass chemistry and a selection of ancient quotes mentioning glass and social attitudes to glass use.

So, what is the verdict on a book like this? My initial reaction to the book, when I saw it advertised in a catalogue, was delight at the possibility of an introductory student handbook for the study of ancient glass: not too dry, and going beyond the traditional approach of discussing vessel shape and production, an easy read that would get first year students interested in material culture.

When the book arrived on my desk, I was very positively impressed by the wonderful presentation of the material with its very appealing graphics that would be the envy of any lecturer.

The problem is really the text. The remarks on the glass itself are generally clear and lucid and easy to follow, and the chapters on the late Roman glass from the East are particularly well argued. The links between glass ware and historical/cultural comments are not always so successful, but this is unfortunately inherent in the material. It sometimes seems that the worse the historical record gets the more interesting and innovative Roman glass becomes, and it is hard to see how Fleming could have done better using the material available, especially as he is sticking to his aim of viewing the products of the glass industry as a result of his tension triangle, rather than offering methodological compromises, which may have been more entertaining, but less informative.

Fleming has basically set himself the task of writing a brief cultural history of the Roman world in less than 100 pages of text, of which a large part of necessity had to be devoted to its impact on the glass industry in particular. The result is a historical commentary that is sometimes trying to compile so much information in such a rapid succession that confusion of the reader is unavoidable, but is difficult to remedy. Some of the details are, however, problematic: describing Mithras as a god with a primarily military following is now somewhat dated (cf. Sauer, The end of Paganism in the North Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (1996)), but the view is still prevalent and should not cause too much of a raised eyebrow. The depiction of the Via Sacra as a shopping street in the first century AD and running from the Capitoline to the city walls at San Giovanni in Laterano (Map. 1.1) is unusual; most maps of Rome have this street stop at the Colosseum after being lined with public monuments for most of its way (eg. T.Cornell and J.Matthews, An Atlas of the Roman World (London 1982) p.88-90).

Fleming's assessment of the impact of the devaluation of the silver currency on the general economy in the third century AD, as not causing inflation (p.85) goes against most current historical writing on antiquity and against the evidence in the Diocletianic edict of prices. On p.89 Constantine's vision before the battle at the Milvian bridge is translated as 'Conquer all this' instead of the more common "By this, conquer", a small change in the wording, but quite a difference in meaning. The description of the 31-year-old Nero in 68 AD as ageing (Plate E.58), caused mild consternation. At 31, the reviewer does not consider herself as ageing but concedes willingly that opinions may differ. Similar differences in attitude may explain differences in the perception of the process of Romanisation and the culture of the Roman provinces described by Fleming on p. 49-51. But elsewhere one is occasionally reminded of descriptions of the impact of Rome on her provinces that were written during the height of the French and British colonial empires rather than at the end of the twentieth century.

Generally speaking, the only glass-making traditions recognised in this book are the Egyptian, Near-Eastern/Hellenistic and Roman ones. Other glass producing areas (e.g. the Celtic world) are not even mentioned. This may be due to the fact that Fleming limits himself mostly to the development of vessel glass and spends very little time on glass jewellery or other uses of glass in antiquity. However, LaTene glass jewellery, which had been operating for hundred of years before the arrival of the Romans, may have been worth mentioning when discussing the spread of glass-working in Gaul. Fleming seems to see this diffusion mainly as a matter of Roman/Mediterranean workshops spreading their skills further abroad in the wake of the arrival of Roman settlers (p.51), and here as with the spread of specific decoration techniques (e.g.. snake-thread (p.76)) one is left with the impression that Fleming's view of the development of glass techniques tends to be mainly diffusionist.

Similarly, it seems that in his view the use of strong colours on third and fourth century glass in the West is an influence of invading Germanic tribes (p.78). Given the polychrome nature of the first century millefiori vessels, a thriving tradition of polychrome enamel decoration on Western bronze work as well as colourful Eastern textiles and the long recognised remains of very colourful pigments on ancient sculpture, one is left to wonder why glass of all substances should have needed a specific Germanic influence to (re-)acquire a polychrome look.

No glass specialist would deny the fact that in the late fourth and fifth century it becomes hard to tell Germanic and late Roman influences apart (as described by Fleming), especially as the same glass workshops appear to have been involved in their manufacture (cf. the production remains from the late Roman villas sites in the Hambacher Forst just east of Cologne). However, in this case the influence can be felt more often in the shape (e.g. drinking horns) than the decoration, and as it stands, I would treat the question of polychrome glass as a Germanic influence in the late second/early third century as at best not proven.

This detail leads us towards a general problem of the book. The main text is only referenced when ancient authors are cited. This means that interesting details as well as research results of eminent scholars are not credited to their original authors. A case in point would be D. Barag's studies of the sixth-century pilgrim jugs. Both studies are quoted in the bibliography, but there is no mention of him when these vessels are discussed on pp. 128-130. D. Barag's results stand with little alteration after 30 years and so glass specialists easily recognise the source of the research (although this is impossible to assume from beginners).

In some other cases this is more than a question of acknowledging academic achievement: Fleming claims on p. 76 that snake-thread was developed in the Eastern Mediterranean 'from there to be transmitted somehow or other to the Rhineland within the space of just a decade or so'. This statement would require some very closely dated contexts both for Western and Eastern snake-thread glass. It should perhaps be mentioned in this context that very little archaeological material is understood well enough to provide a reliable dating to within 20 years, let alone a decade. It would therefore have been desirable to have this statement backed up with references to specific finds or studies arguing this point in detail.

The list of similar cases could be extended as there is a general tendency to state issues that are still debated as well established fact.

It could be argued that references should have no place in a book for the general public, so as to not distract the reader from the contents, and perhaps that is what is behind the lack of references in the running text. Given the fact that such references are included in the plate and figure captions as well as the endnotes and the fact that most chapters end up with between half a page and a page of empty space at the end, other obvious reasons like space restraints seem unlikely. The result is unfortunately very unsatisfactory. What could be an interesting text introducing newcomers to the problems and ideas in modern glass research turns into a dead end, as there is no link between the very detailed bibliography and the text.

Where references are given they appear to use -- to the European eye at least -- a fairly idiosyncratic system. The reference in the endnote or caption offers only author's surname and year, while the entry in the bibliography, gives page references -- before the place of publication. This does cause occasional problems, when a book is referred to more than once, as in the case of Cool & Price's Colchester glass catalogue (1995), where the pages mentioned refer to the section on bottles, but not to the section on inkwells, which are discussed with reference to the report in endnote 42 (p. 173). Why the page numbers unlike the plate and figure numbers are not included with the reference in the text, as it is usually done in both archaeological and historical books, remains unexplained; once again space requirements seem unlikely.

Another quirk of the book is the fact that the chapters, the maps, figures and plates are all counted by the same code (E. followed by a number), but in separate sequences. This is not a big problem in the case of the chapter numbering, but figures, maps and plates do alternate throughout the book, and finding the correct picture, especially when it is not immediately above the text, is time-consuming and annoying; a continous counting system may have been a better idea.

On a more general level of production it seems that this book was not given the benefit of a final proofreading: for example Map E.4 Hadrian's second journey is dated to AD 138 while his third journey apparently took place during AD 128-132

The text of endnote 44 appears to have very little bearing on the text on p.61, which it presumably expands on, while endnote 31 is missing, but this might have been included in the running text. There are very few English spelling mistakes, but there are a number of misspellings in foreign names or terms (e.g. Haervernick instead of Haevernick and the Roemisch- Germanisches Museum, Cologne is also represented as Rheinisches or Roemanisch- Germanisches Museum) as well as a some numbers being obviously exchanged (Is it Ferrua 1990 or 1991? -- In Sook Lee 1993 or 1997? -- Sear 1997 or 1977? -- Casson 1979 or 1989?) . These mistakes tend to be telltale signs of the belief in the efficiency of computer spell-checkers. There is also a series of references which appear to have no corresponding entries in the bibliography (Isings 1971 (p.77); Blanchard et al. 1992 (p.106) Scullard & Hammond 1970 (p.171); Caruana 1992, Duncan-Jones 1980 (p.174), McNeil1977 (p.177), MacMullen 1997 (p.182); Foss & Magalino (1977) p.185; Elton (1997) p.123).

To sum up, the writer started reviewing this book as a possible student textbook. As such it proved unsatisfactory due to the lack of sufficient referencing. But then Fleming could rightly argue that this is not the stated use for the book but that it was written to accompany an exhibition. Books like that are meant on the whole for the interested general public (this does usually include fellow scholars, who also visit exhibitions, but the reviewer does freely admit that there is a difference of expectations). Given the general appearance, the majority of visitors to the University of Pennsylvania Museum will find it a beautiful memento of their visit. It remains a shame, however, that the information they were given could not have been more carefully checked in places.

As for myself, I am still enamoured by the beautiful design of the book and the huge wealth of pictures provided and I will recommend that my students read the chapters on Eastern late Roman glass and the glass chemistry, which have a lot to offer, but they will also have to consult other works which are quoted in the bibliography as part of their introductory reading.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:58, Friday, 03 April 2009