Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.02

Sarah Scott, Jane Webster, Roman Imperialism and Provincial Art.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xvi, 256.  ISBN 0-521-80592-9.  $75.00.  

Contributors: Sarah Scott, Catherine Johns, Jane Webster, Iain Ferris, René Rodgers, Miranda Aldhouse Green, Martin Henig, Greg Woolf, David J. Mattingly, Shelley Hales, Zahra Newby

Reviewed by Natalie Boymel Kampen, Barnard College (
Word count: 1692 words

This collection of papers1 began as a session on art and imperialism held in 1997 at the Roman Archaeology Conference in Britain. The essays focus both on provincial art and on representations of "barbarians" in provincial and metropolitan Roman art. In the usual way of such things, papers were added to the original group, and the session grew into an anthology. The editors' goal is, as they tell us, to understand the development of provincial art in new ways, ways that go beyond the tradition of seeing the provincial as a generally failed emulation of the ideas of the Center. The point is to get at what provincial artifacts "can tell us about the nature of life under an imperial regime" (xiv). As part of a larger move in the study of Roman art and culture away from hostile judgments and taxonomic (typological, chronological, etc.) projects toward an analysis of the discursive structures, ideological programs, and reception of art, this book offers a set of case studies for methods as well as for objects of study.

With a very few exceptions, the contributors all work in British academic or museum contexts and most are well-known for their on-going efforts to deepen our study of the art of the Roman provinces. The usual caveat about uneven quality applies here, but each of the papers has something interesting to offer when seen in the company of the others.

The anthology opens with a set of three historiographic and methodological papers that set the agenda. Scott and Johns consider the way the history of provincial (especially western and Romano-British) art was written in the specific intellectual and political contexts of imperialism, anti-fascist sentiment, and decolonization. Although no one looks at the impact of Cold War ideologies on the study of provincial art, this last could be a most interesting area of investigation given the new configurations of "empire" post-World War II. Like Webster, Scott and Johns argue for the expansion of definitions of art history that permit the study of objects usually considered in some way lowly or incompetent, and at the same time they, and Webster especially, ask us to look at comparative material and anthropological methods in order to discover models for rethinking the non-metropolitan.

The debates about the legitimacy of visual culture studies that wheeze along in the U.S. are nowhere visible in the volume, probably because the archaeological interests of the contributors make the concept of material culture fundamental. Not that visual culture and material culture are by any means coterminous, but the problems that plague visual culture seem to be more about policing the boundaries of art history, a field in which many U.K. trained classical archaeologists have little or no stake.

The conceptual section of the book, its exempla drawn in large part from "Celtic" western regions of the Roman empire, is preceded by two papers that look at art, both provincial and metropolitan, for depictions of "provincial Others." Ferris continues his work on this subject with a paper on the three canonical Trajanic loci: the Column of Trajan, the Arch at Benevento, and the Adamklissi monument, and the way each presents the barbarian, whereas Rodgers examines the problem of "feminization" of the barbarian in a paper that reviews the standard binaries of structuralist gender analysis. Not too much is new in either paper, although readers coming to the revisionist discussion of provincial art will surely find both helpful in their presentation of fundamental problems. Frankly, I suspect that more work with the argument made earlier by Webster (ch. 3) about the use of post-classical ethnographic comparison might free us from the grasp of structuralist models of self-and-other, especially if one were to read current post-structuralist anthropology. To move into the more nuanced and complicated world of people who live on the frontiers and are not, quite, barbarians, the world of the auxiliaries or of town-dwellers on the Column of Trajan, for example, might be a useful next step, now that we have seen the Other so often. We might well build on Americanist and Africanist studies of creolization (e.g., From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and its Futures, ed. B. K. Axel, 2002) or transculturation (Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar, 1995) as well as discussions of comprador identities (e.g., Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance, ed. J. Esherick and M. B. Rankin, 1990).

Three essays on the western provinces, one on North Africa, and two on the East then follow and provide concrete examples of how artistic production and reception of the many forms of provincial art operated in the various regions of the Empire. In the paper by Green, as in Webster's, there is experimentation with ideas of resistance to normative metropolitan standards and conventions; in neither case can we say that the case is closed and the verdict in, but this kind of volume is precisely the place for such experiments with different kinds of conceptual models. Rather than positing resistance, Henig's contribution argues that the forces of "Romanization" were largely internal to Roman Britain in the sense that the local elites provided "the dynamic for change" in the province rather than governors and armies. And a third perspective comes from Woolf's essay on the uses of Apollo imagery in the western provinces. He suggests, I think quite rightly, that small local shrines of deities had a greater and more regular impact on local people (although we still aren't sure just how to describe such people) and the gods present at those shrines had more a regional character than an imperial one. In a sense, this may be the necessary supplement to Price's description of the imperial cult of metropolitan centers in Asia Minor; for Woolf presents the cult of Apollo Grannus as a merging of imperial and local identities into the possibility of a personal religious identity (S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power, 1984). A comparable point of view appears in Mattingly's fascinating paper on Ghirza, a Libyan site with Roman-period tombs which the author characterizes as part of an important dialectic. As he says, "I am interested in ways in which the adoption of Romanised style also facilitated the continuation of indigenous traditions" (154). He explores this dialectic through study of the use of imagery and style to maintain and enhance personal power among local elite families in the region. This whole section on the western provinces and Africa argues usefully in favor of the necessity for multiple methods and approaches in the study of provincial art. At the same time, it reveals how central to this group of authors are questions of personal identity and power among local populations; they write an art history that does not look from the bottom up so much as from peripheries that do not recognize themselves as such.

The next-to-last section of the book offers two papers on Asia Minor, one concerning the domestic mosaics of Antioch by Hales, the other on the reliefs from the theaters of Hierapolis and Nysa by Newby. Both papers make us aware that an art history of peripheries that don't recognize themselves as such, is not the only possible art history for the study of imperial power. Both authors demonstrate the specific ways in which Asia Minor saw itself as outside the center and then made that an article of pride. In the first paper, Hales, relying rather heavily on the old publication of the mosaics by Doro Levi, explores the notion of cultural assimilation through domestic architecture and iconography. The point is perhaps related to discussions earlier in the collection on resistance because Hales suggests that Antioch's wealthy residents used local references in their mythological mosaics to stress their difference, and distance, from Rome. For Newby, the theater reliefs likewise use local mythological reference to distinguish Hierapolis and Nysa both from Athens and from Rome; the setting is temporal rather than geographical perhaps. Stressing the Hellenic past, the cities of Asia Minor use local references to build a civic identity on mythic histories in which the crucial events take place far from both the Greek mainland and the center of contemporary power in Rome. The two papers in this section work well together, although Newby's is in some ways the more exciting because of its sense that time must be mediated by space and vice versa in our thinking about local identities.

The final paper in the collection is a charming autobiographical essay by Martin Henig, the man to whom the editors offer special thanks for his encouragement of experimentation in the field of Roman art. The essay's intimacy and modesty are utterly engaging, as is the author's openness to new work and to the study of neglected areas from luxury goods to Roman Britain. His contribution seems to pull the essays together, to show them as a coherent effort and to reveal the cultural conditions in which they could come to be produced. It is quite evident, on reading this collection, that U.K. scholars have given to imperialism the kind of thought that comes from the generations born AFTER the empire has fallen. Trying to come to terms with the legacy of empire is something that all scholars have difficulty with; nevertheless, it seems to me that collections such as this one, and there are more coming out all the time, set up the conditions for a broader international engagement with the issues of imperialism and its impact on diverse populations, including the imperializers. Here I would mention, among others, the excellent set of supplement volumes issued by the Journal of Roman Archaeology (especially number 23, Dialogues in Roman Imperialism, edited by D. Mattingly), as well as the papers produced under the editorship of Lynn Meskell (Archaeology under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, 1998) and of Claire Lyons and John Papadopoulos (The Archaeology of Colonialism, 2002) about the impact on archaeology of current forms of colonization, imperialism and globalization. The conversation between these two kinds of efforts has still to take place, but one looks forward to it in the wake of the Iraq occupation, at the very least.


1.   The essays: Sarah Scott, "Provincial Art and Roman Imperialism: an Overview"; Catherine Johns, "Art, Romanisation, and Competence"; Jane Webster, "Art as Resistance and Negotiation"; Iain Ferris, "The Hanged Men Dance: Barbarians in Trajanic Art"; René Rodgers, "Female Representation in Roman Art: Feminising the Provincial 'Other'"; Miranda Aldhouse Green, "Poles Apart? Perceptions of Gender in Gallo-British Cult-Iconography"; Martin Henig, "THe Captains and the Kings Depart"; Greg Woolf, "Seeing Apollo in Roman Gaul and Germany"; David J.Mattingly, " Family Values: Art and Power at Ghirza in the Libyan Pre-Desert"; Shelley Hales, "The Houses of Antioch: A Study of the Domestic Sphere in the Imperial Near East"; Zahra Newby, "Art and Identity in Asia Minor"; Martin Henig, "Art and Aesthetics: A Personal View".

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:58, Friday, 03 April 2009