Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.18

M.J. Versluys, Aegyptiaca Romana. Nilotic Scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 144.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. 509; illus. 171.  ISBN 90-04-12440-3.  $149.00.  

Reviewed by Prudence J. Jones, Rutgers University (
Word count: 1155 words

In Aegyptiaca Romana. Nilotic Scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt, M.J. Versluys (V.) presents an impressive collection of Nilotic scenes and other Aegyptiaca (Egyptian and Egyptianizing monuments and artifacts). Through the classification and analysis of this body of evidence, V. aims to uncover "the meaning of Egyptian and Egyptianising monuments and artefacts in Italy and other parts of the Imperium Romanum" and to shed light on "underexposed" aspects of the influence of Egypt on Rome (3). The book consists predominantly of two catalogues, one of Nilotic scenes and the other of various artifacts and monuments. These collections of evidence form the basis for V.'s argument that only by considering material culture alongside historical and literary sources can we hope to obtain a complete and accurate picture of the Roman view of Egypt. He also contends that the evidence from material culture moderates the negative portrayal of Egypt found in some texts.

V. begins his study with introductory material on the history of contact between Egypt and Rome, the history of scholarship on that topic, and Nilotic landscapes as a genre. The two scholarly trends with which V. takes issue in this book are the tendency to classify all Egyptianizing décor as religious and the tradition of classifying Nilotic scenes not as a separate genre but within various other types, including erotic scenes or waterscapes. V. defines Nilotic scenes or landscapes (the terms are used interchangeably in this book) as "images of the (flooded) Nile and the banks of the river with the flora, fauna, structures, and activities of the population." (28) As V. convincingly shows, Nilotic scenes do indeed comprise a coherent genre and, when seen as such, necessitate a re-evaluation of Roman attitudes toward Egypt. When Nilotic scenes are considered along with literary and historical sources, a greater diversity of perspectives is evident.

The catalogue of Nilotic scenes consists of 131 examples. They range in time from the second century BC to the sixth century AD and come from various parts of the Roman Empire, though most are from Italy. Entries are grouped topographically and each entry lists genre (e.g. mosaic, painting), original context, details of size and appearance, current location, and date. Following these details are a description of the scene, a brief comment on the context and select bibliography (or the designation "unpublished"). High-quality black and white photographs or drawings accompany most of the entries.1 These images are numbered to correspond to the List of Figures included in the book's back matter.

This catalogue alone makes V.'s work a useful contribution. The collection of scenes is impressive in scope and the comments highlight important iconographical features as well as providing the details of each scene's archaeological context, information that forms the basis for V.'s reinterpretation of Roman attitudes toward Egypt. The following section, "Interpretation and Contextualisation," analyzes the data presented in the catalogue to discern the function of Nilotic scenes. This interpretive work insures that V.'s book represents more than a collection. His emphasis on meaning and significance makes for a more coherent and satisfying book than would an exhaustive cataloguing of scenes. The author recognizes the virtue of selectivity: "As soon as the collection of material could reasonably be called representative, I have opted for an emphasis on the interpretation rather than an expansion of the material, with all the attendant dangers. Therefore, also in the presentation of the catalogue no comprehensiveness was aimed for" (39). Perhaps at an earlier stage of the project the goal was different, as the above statement appears to contradict a description of the catalogue that came just a few pages earlier: "It should be emphasised that the Nilotic scenes form the core of this study; comprehensiveness has been attempted in their discussion" (35).

The interpretation V. offers involves the topographical and chronological distributions, context and iconography of the scenes. In discussing topographical and chronological distributions, V. provides several tables and graphs. This analysis represents a helpful synthesis of the data, although, as V. notes, the characteristics of his sample, particularly the overrepresentation of examples from Pompeii, limit the conclusions that can be drawn. The discussion of the contextual distribution of Nilotic scenes produces more fruitful results: V. argues convincingly that the religious dimension of these scenes has been exaggerated. Many Nilotic scenes reflect the themes of recreation and relaxation often associated with gardens and relate to the vegetative abundance and flowing water found in a garden.

In order to support further his contention that the interpretation of Nilotic scenes is more context-dependent than had been thought, V. next catalogues a selection of other Egyptian or Egyptianizing artifacts and monuments in Rome. Items include the Pyramid of Cestius, Isaea, obelisks and Egyptianizing statuettes. This catalogue, however, is less comprehensive and less formal than the catalogue of Nilotic scenes. Here, V. simply gives the name of the monument or artifact, select bibliography and a brief discussion. Based on the examples he considers, V. concludes that Roman Aegyptiaca come from three contexts: religious, non-religious (decorative), and political. He finds that that their meanings often depend as much upon those contexts as on the specific content of the images.

The book concludes with a discussion of the Roman discourse on Egypt. After some background on the notion of the Other, V. surveys the evidence from Roman written sources and concludes that this discourse had a number of influences, including colonialism, economics, the Isis cult and Roman exoticism. He sees in this complex system, however, a common understanding of Egypt shared by Roman authors. Often Egypt epitomizes the exotic. A certain hostility, however, also tends to occur, most likely motivated by the awkward relations between Rome and Ptolemy XII as well as the conflict with Cleopatra. The extent to which Egyptianizing motifs occur in decorative contexts, however, suggests the coexistence of admiration for Egypt and its culture. This final section of the book relies heavily on a survey of authors both ancient and modern, a strategy that may be unavoidable in relating the evidence that has been examined closely to a wider cultural context. V.'s contention that Nilotic scenes and other Aegyptiaca represent an essential component of the Roman discourse on Egypt, however, is a point well taken.

Aegyptiaca Romana brings together a large amount of important material, but both the book and the catalogues it contains are well organized and easy to navigate. V. has provided not only a convenient repository of Nilotic scenes but also a new perspective on Egypt in Rome.

The volume itself is elegantly produced and largely free of errors. I noted only two typographical errors: "focuss" (42) and "blissfull" (261). An even more minor quibble: in a number of instances, awkward phrasing occurs: "The following references are used, in general for studies to which is referred more than twice" (478); "the information from Campania does count but distorts less (at least less so)" (247); "a, not preserved, Greek novel" (432); "the, Egyptian, other" (435).


1.   Image quality is less than ideal in only two cases (figure 63 on p. 119 and figure 143 on p. 221). Figure 63, as the List of Figures notes, is "after Meyboom 1995" (P.G.P. Meyboom, The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina. Early Evidence of Egyptian Religion in Italy. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World Vol. 121 [New York 1995] Plate 51). The reproduction is better in Meyboom's book, however.

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