Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.27

Sarah Scott, Art and Society in Fourth-Century Britain: Villa Mosaics in Context.   Oxford:  Oxford University School of Archaeology Monographs no. 53, 2000.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 0-947816-53-4 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jas' Elsner, Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Word count: 958 words

Romano-British mosaics have never quite featured at the top of anyone's wish-list of favourite objects in Roman art; and indeed Roman art in general figures lower than Greek. But for a topic where interesting objects can be placed in their archaeological and hence social and historical context better than most, these mosaics score rather high. Relatively good excavation, a long history of serious academic and antiquarian interest in Roman Britain and the application of modern archaeological methods and theories makes the Scott's theme a meaty one, generally well executed and handled. If I have a (professional art historian's) grumble, it is that these strengths (which may broadly be defined as archaeological rather than art-historical) have conspired to produce a book insufficiently art-historical in outlook--in particular in the matter of rather poor figures and illustrations which do not do full justice to the visual materials S discusses. In part, this is due to the publisher using less than adequate paper for the plates.

The book opens with a competent account of historiography including not just various problems in Roman art as a whole, but also its rich and complex range of provincialisms and the fraught issue of imperialist and post-colonial perspectives. S stresses the regionalism of artistic choices and even styles within Britain, an approach which might be useful for the assessment of Roman art in other peripheral contexts too (for instance in the Near East). Chapter 2 examines matters of style, dating and industry, very much from the social science perspective of archaeology rather than from that of art history. Style, not only for S but also for the majority of her forebears in Romano-British studies, is very much a tool to ascertain matters of chronology, the connections of 'schools' of artists, the possible organisation of an industry. It is a means to an end not in itself particularly interesting. This attitude certainly avoids the pitfalls of the German historiography of style as an almost an independent entity within art history, an approach of stylistic and formal analysis which has dominated the art-historical side of Roman studies for most of the last century and remains highly influential; but it misses out on some of the more intimate--one might almost say 'tactile'--descriptive qualities of Classical art history at its best.

Chapter 3 is an extremely full and substantial regional review of mosaics and mosaicists in fourth century Britain. S not only summarises a large array of archaeological literature, but adds some significant comments and critiques--for instance, of Martin Millett's correlation of symbols and social groups in his now standard discussion of romanization (pp.75-6). Chapter 4 maintains the regional focus, but takes the argument to architectural context and the place of mosaics in the domestic ambience of the late Roman villa. Here, S draws on the excellent work on Roman domestic and private art produced during the 1990s, most of it on Pompeii and Herculaneum. Again this is an admirable survey of materials, efficiently and elegantly presented. The narrowly British focus (with sections on 'The Cotswolds and the South West', 'The East Midlands' and so forth) is wisely extended to a discussion of the place of the British villa within villa culture elsewhere (for instance by contrast with the great fourth-century villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily).

Chapters 5-8 turn from this contextual perspective to discussions of the subject matter on Romano-British mosaics. Chapter 5 explores mythological subject-matter (including those striking mosaic floors whose iconography appears to refer to the works of Vergil), giving roughly equal weight to interpretations that emphasise religious meanings and those that foreground paideia (or the culture of elite education within the Roman empire). For my own taste, the emphasis should come firmly down on the paideia side, and S overstates the arguments for religious, neoplatonic and symbolic meanings in the context of elite domestic culture on the empire's periphery. Chapters 6 and 7 bring these more general considerations into specific focus around the theme of Orpheus (about which S has written elsewhere) and the Seasons. Here I am sure that her conclusions about the importance of paideia are right. As she notes, it is interesting that even in remote Britain, artists and patrons were keen on themes that were markedly popular in the period elsewhere. Chapter 8 surveys the interesting evidence for Christian iconography in the Roman British material (especially in the mosaics from Frampton and Hinton St Mary). Given their specifically visual focus, these chapters are in my view under-illustrated. Also, the mosaic evidence--which consists almost entirely of floor decorations--might have been compared with such other visual examples as the evidence from Britain will allow. Little survives of walls (though there is some wall-painting from Lullingstone for example), but there is some dining and toiletry ware and some sculpture (both indigenous and imported) which would help to flesh out the broad art-historical picture of Romano-British villa life offered by the mosaics.

The final chapter brings these various considerations together under the title 'Elite Power and Social Transition in Fourth-Century Britain'. The conclusion that the surviving mosaics are most obviously clustered around regional civitas capitals with competitive local elites is surely right, as is the emphasis on a standard repertoire of motifs incorporating quite a bit of leeway for creativity on the part of artists and patrons. As a whole, S has made a good case for the vibrancy of a local Roman culture in fourth-century Britain, full of regional variations to be sure, but also in touch in matters of subjects in vogue with what was being produced elsewhere in the empire. A few words to contextualise the specific British case within late antique visual and socio-cultural developments as a whole might have been helpful. But this is a strong, competent and eminently useful monograph.

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