Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.09

Catharine Edwards, Greg Woolf, Rome the Cosmopolis.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xv, 249.  ISBN 0-521-80005-6.  $65.00.  

Contributors: Mary Beard, Catharine Edwards, Jas' Elsner, Willem Jongman, Richard Miles, Neville Morley, Walter Scheidel, Caroline Vout, Greg Woolf

Reviewed by Jennifer Trimble, Stanford University (
Word count: 2045 words

Rome matters. Imperial capital, crucible of political, religious and cultural change, largest urban population known until the Industrial Revolution, it is also the focus of a range of scholarly questions and methods not normally found in the same volume. Catharine Edwards and Greg Woolf here set out explicitly cross-disciplinary aims, building on the recent turn toward Cultural Studies. Their volume will be about the interweaving of city and empire -- not in a globalizing attempt, but through select explorations of often paradoxical ideas about imperial centrality. The empire beautifies the city but also infects it: the empire weaves through the capital's monuments, but migration makes the same city alien; the audience celebrating imperial conquests is a product of those conquests. Rome matters methodologically too: the volume includes textual as well as art historical analysis, social science modeling next to studies of contested meaning. Edwards and Woolf do not prescribe what is to be done with these sometimes sharp-edged juxtapositions, but, by virtue of making them, leave the reader with fresh ideas about what can be investigated and understood.

Fittingly, this is a stealth festschrift for Keith Hopkins -- not in the formal and unmarketable sense but in its explicit tributes to his range of subjects and methods. The book quickly pulverizes any musty expectations (the grandeur that was Rome, the honor due to Hopkins), offering more apt and interesting substance instead: Hopkins as polymath and far-reaching intellectual influence, Rome as cosmopolis and rich zone of interdisciplinary study. The contributors' biographies at the start are dense with mentions of thesis supervisions by Hopkins; he is thanked passim for prodigious and sometimes terrifying pedagogical gifts concerning stylistic improvement, attention to readers, trenchant criticism, and, throughout, intellectual curiosity and influence. Most vivid an exemplum is the Hopkins of Jas' Elsner's final footnote (99, n. 90), who kicks a window frame while lamenting, "I want to be seduced by your prose, not bored by it!"

Rome seduces. In Chapter 1, "Cosmopolis: Rome as World City," Catharine Edwards and Greg Woolf set out their editorial agenda and define their terms. "Cosmopolis" was not an ancient term for Rome but is useful here to interweave city and empire, to make central the city's global reach in people, goods, spectacles, foodstuffs, disease, cultural artifacts. Ancient writers' characterizations of city-empire relationships touch on themes of world citizenship, conceptions of space, law and security, legitimizing monumentality, and Rome as synecdoche, metonymy, or epitome for the world and its representation. These threads move along pathways of trade, religion, textual culture, work, and possibility. Focusing on the city will therefore mean not studying pieces of its architectural fabric or events in its political history, but examining the force and power of the cosmopolis to shape lives and ways of thinking about the world.

Representation is key; Mary Beard introduces it in Chapter 2, "The triumph of the absurd: Roman street theatre." Her focus is the centrality of mimesis and mimetic strategies in written accounts of Roman triumphal processions. Accounts of model landscapes, artfully piled weapons, and re-enactments of destructions or famous suicides make central the spectacle, the spectators, and the limits of representation. This matters because of the way themes of triumphal fakery and sham representation operate in ancient discussions of imperial power, especially that of despotic emperors. In this light, the triumphator returns as one representational element among many, forced to compete for attention and open to the same politics of interpretation and critique. Beard explores these tensions with a reading of Plautus' Amphitruo; in the treatment of the play's eponymous triumphant general she sees a gleeful, inversive play of the triumph's mimetic problems and tricks.

Representation is, differently, at the core of Catharine Edwards' "Incorporating the alien: the art of conquest" in Chapter 3. She focuses on the reception of sculptural depictions of "un-Roman bodies" (44), especially among city dwellers from all over the known world. The rules of honorific statuary and its reception provide a starting counterpoint; for the non-Roman sculptural bodies, there is evidence for multiple receptions ranging from emblematic visions of imperial power, to interventions into contemporary cultural and social debates, to constructions of political power through visual association. Edwards adds evidence for more personal responses to the figured subjects, including the emotion-laden reference to places far away and circumstances lost. Images of enemies could be viewed as emblems of the alien or of awesome Roman victory, as worthy adversaries or subjects of empathy in their terrible defeat. Representations of the conquered are integral and illuminating elements of conquest and its experiences.

Jas' Elsner's excellent Chapter 4, "Inventing Christian Rome: the role of early Christian art," examines Christianity's Rome-based transformation into a "master-manipulator of material culture" (71). He shows that the 4th c. re-visualization of Rome as a unified Christian cosmopolis meant not only responding to pagan culture but also unifying competing Christian factions within the city. The solution was to layer Christian spatial and temporal association -- almost all martyriological -- onto longstanding pagan ones in an appropriation of pagan strategies of localism. The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (d. 359) illustrate how this worked; in different ways, each maps deep linear time and cyclical ritual time onto the urban landscape. These developments in the 4th c. foreshadow the workings of the cult of relics and the successful program of Pope Damasus. Inter alia, the past is here usefully cast as a practice, what people see, read or do.

Understanding the cosmopolis' population becomes crucial; in Chapter 5, Willem Jongman offers an analysis of "Slavery and the growth of Rome: the transformation of Italy in the second and first centuries BCE." The processes through which Rome's population boomed from ca. 250,000 in 225 BCE to approximately 1,000,000 by 28 BCE are not entirely understood. Jongman criticizes the accepted model by which a cycle of distant wars, dispossession of Italian soldier-farmers, and the rise of slave-worked latifundia led to the mass migration of the peasantry to the city. For him, Rome's growth was due more to the city's attractions than to rural expulsions, and rural change was not nearly this sweeping. Also, high urban mortality rates will have required ongoing immigration long after this initial growth period. He ultimately argues that urban slavery was the key factor in both the growth and maintenance of the city's massive population. These ideas are provocative but not entirely easy to accept.1

The cosmopolis existed also because of its hold on the ancient imagination. In Chapter 6, "Rivalling Rome: Carthage," Richard Miles traces the way in which ancient authors employed the idea of Carthage to help define Rome. Its Punic history and rivalry with Rome remained present throughout imperial-period writings, in contrast to the city's economic prosperity and fairly typical provincial urbanism by the 2nd c. CE. Interesting light on these dynamics is shed by differences of tone and emphasis in two accounts of the Carthage-based revolt of Gordian in 238 CE. In the Historia Augusta, a product of the Latin West, Gordian is a sympathetic figure in contrast to the barbarian Maximinus because of his aristocratic Roman origins and cultural knowledge; he is ultimately brought down by the ancient perfidy of the Carthaginians. Herodian's account, written in the Greek East, treats the revolt quite differently. In sum, Rome requires other places for its formulation: the cosmopolis incorporates a world of cities.

Neville Morley offers a striking counterpart to Jongman's article on this topic in Chapter 7, "Migration and the Metropolis." This chapter takes the (initially jarring) form of a screenplay for a PBS-style documentary that presents migration to Rome through the experience of individuals of distinct origins, circumstances, and aspirations. And, like a PBS-style documentary, anecdotal and authoritative narratives of 'the way things were' replace complex exposition, problem-driven presentation, or the push to new knowledge. But that is exactly the point, as a series of self-reflexive and very funny gestures promptly shows. The character of the Historian offers inside scholarly jokes ("the importance of ancient evidence can often be overestimated," p. 150), takes positions footnoted as contra Morley, and questions the screenplay's key authorial decisions. And it is she -- from the cutting-room floor, according to the stage directions! -- who ultimately articulates the chapter's central questions about substance, presentation and authority, here citing Hopkins' own recent work of imaginative reconstruction.2

Walter Scheidel's compelling "Germs for Rome" in Chapter 8 shows how underlying models can fundamentally reshape any reconstruction of individual experiences. Combining comparative evidence from the recent past with an epidemiological reading of ancient medical writings and epigraphic data, Scheidel demonstrates the existence of endemic malaria at Rome. He then assesses its interaction with other diseases in the cosmopolis; this adds up to a sobering picture of Crude Death Rates at Rome on the order of 60 per 1,000 and a mean life expectancy at birth of less than twenty (175). Rome thus required massive immigration to a degree not yet adequately understood. This population instability and huge turnover have important implications in turn for the analysis of social life, community formation, and the transmission of behavioral norms and ideological constructs.

Chapter 9 is problematic. In "Embracing Egypt", Caroline Vout takes up the phenomenon of Egyptianizing themes in Roman visual culture, calling for a more complex and nuanced approach to this material. She illustrates this with three case studies: the 2nd c. CE "Tomb of the Egyptians", or Tomb Z, in the necropolis below St. Peter's at the Vatican; the 1st c. CE paintings in the "Aula Isiaca" on the Palatine; and the 4th c. CE opus sectile panels from the "Basilica" of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline. Unfortunately, a reductive approach to motivation and audience and a lack of knowledge of the material and recent scholarship hampers the article and keeps Vout from answering her own call.3 This is unfortunate, as the subject of cultural adaptation and appropriation in the cosmopolis is enormous and important.

Greg Woolf has the last word in Chapter 10, "The City of Letters," focusing on literary Rome and its construction and perception through texts. Following the sociological approach inspired by Thomas Habinek and others, Woolf reviews the ways in which Latin literature marked out cultural distance. Esoteric allusions, implicit thematic and generic conventions, and deliberately difficult language meant that most readers of Latin literature were put into a position of literary inadequacy and incompetence. He argues that this distance helped counterbalance the social inequality between writers and their aristocratic patrons and readers. Those aristocrats had alternative means of self-fashioning, including warfare and hunting; Woolf understands the textual construction of Rome as an aristocratic literary center as a response to this competition. The resulting literary centrality of Rome left ancient provincials -- like modern scholars -- in an alienated position of reading about Rome often without experiencing it firsthand. The solidity of this argument will best be assessed by experts on literary culture; here, it is worth appreciating this volume's presentation of yet another way to think about the relations of city and empire.

The volume's papers thus trade and interweave themes of time, place, representation and movement. Time depth and its complex practices (Elsner) stand in evocative relation to historical imaginaries (Miles) and to themes of continuity and change (Scheidel). Place forms another intersecting axis, in the tensions of locality reshaped over time (Elsner, Miles) as in the shifting dynamics of city vs. empire (Edwards, Woolf). Representation becomes a crucial vector for both time and place, whether in the dynamics of visuality and reception in a highly constructed here and now (Beard) or in the representation of resolutions of time and place (Elsner), or in the contemporary representation of a certain kind of past (Morley). Movement underlies each of these, not only in the constant human movement to the city (Jongman, Morley, Scheidel) and the turnover of the population once there (Jongman, Scheidel), but in the movement of objects and ideas into the city (Edwards, Beard, Vout), within it (Elsner), outward from the city (Woolf), or outside the city altogether while focusing on it (Miles). The interaction of these themes can stand here for the real interest and potential represented in this volume, exemplifying as it does a final and best paradox about Rome: the eternal city is ever changing, then and now.


1.   The central arguments are difficult to evaluate, as they rely on estimates of population levels, agricultural production and the like whose generation necessarily requires a great degree of guesswork and assumption. A minor point: the South Etruria field survey does indeed attest to continued small farming during the Late Republic, but that does not tell us about what is at stake here, the relative impact of villa agriculture over time (111-112). More importantly, Jongman's ultimate argument about the importance of urban slavery rests in part on his rejection (117) of the standard caveats about the unreliability of surviving epigraphic attestations as indicators of the city's actual population numbers or proportions.
2.   Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999).
3.   I note only a few issues here. The article's driving questions are framed somewhat reductively in terms of the motivations behind Egyptianizing imagery, the latter treated as a single cultural category and the former attributed to a monolithic Roman audience, despite the initial mention of varying Roman ideas about Egypt and Egyptian culture. Outdated approaches and scholars specializing in far distant fields are made to exemplify the state of research on Egyptianizing art in the Roman period. There is no mention of the long and complex history of Rome's involvement with Egypt and Egyptian culture over time; perhaps most seriously for Vout's stated purposes here, no attention is paid to the very different historical and cultural contexts in which each of her three case studies took form and meaning. So, for example, she concludes that the Vatican tomb painting of Horus was not an attempt to transport the viewer to an authentic and actual Egypt but an evocation of "an Egypt of the Roman mind" (186), but, in a 2nd c. CE cosmopolis characterized by vital and ethnically diverse communities of Isis worship as well as multiple other engagements with Egyptianizing imagery, this would mark a better starting point than a conclusion. Similarly, the very different social and cultural context of her third case study is disregarded, but the opus sectile panels from the Esquiline actually work compellingly within the dynamics of elite male self-representation in the 4th c. CE, as illuminated most recently for visual culture by Susanne Muth. This disregard keeps the interpretations superficial; the panels' Egyptianizing elements are ultimately explained as "a useful mechanism for referring to the afterlife" (200), and a way to "lift [the panels] out of the sway of everyday drama into the hermeneutic sphere of a world beyond" (201), but their material, placement, iconography and social associations already lift them out of the everyday world, and the Hellenizing motifs and myths ubiquitous in Roman funerary art could be said to work in exactly the same way.

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