Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.35

Peter Stewart, Statues in Roman Society. Representation and Response.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. 333; ills. 48.  ISBN 0-19-924094-9.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Gretchen Kreahling McKay, McDaniel College (
Word count: 1584 words

In this interesting study, Stewart takes on a massive topic. From the first pages of his introduction the author demonstrates that Roman statuary was everywhere and existed in all types of contexts -- from private homes, gardens, and lararia to public fora, temples, and roads. The author's purpose in this book is to examine the role of statuary in the Roman world. Unlike a typical art history text, which would examine specific sculptures by period or imperial dynasty, Stewart seeks to uncover the reception of statuary by the Roman public. Specifically, Stewart wants to avoid the use of the word 'sculpture,' suggesting that it promotes an aesthetically based interpretation of personal expression that moves away from the social context of art. Instead, Stewart favors the term 'statuary,' noting that it has a public and social function quite distinct from our more modern notions of the word sculpture. Using primary texts as well as the statues themselves, Stewart reveals the complexities of the use of statues in Rome. The book is not overly illustrated. The relative lack of illustrations is understandable in that the book seeks to inform the reader of the role of statuary across the entire Empire in all of its stages of development. The illustrations which are included reflect well the ideas Stewart asserts in his text. However, the lack of illustrations may make this work less valuable for undergraduates; though his translations of Latin texts would be of benefit to students of that level. The book in its entirety presents an interesting and important discussion for graduate students and scholars by building on recent sociological and conceptual studies on ancient Rome.

In his introduction, Stewart describes the scene in Rome, practically bursting with statues, and various types of representations of them. Unlike other sections of his book, this vivid evocation is well illustrated with examples of the different types of statues that a Roman would encounter. The rest of the introduction defines terms that he will use, and also gives an overview of the theoretical issues related to understanding statues in the context of the Roman world.

Through his use of primary texts, one of the book's strongest aspects, Stewart successfully shows in chapter one the nuances of meaning in the different words used by Romans in their descriptions of statues. In his search for the context in which one finds statuary, Stewart is not seeking a single definition of the statue. Instead, he explores the more abstract concepts of what a Roman would expect to see in a statue. Stewart exposes an existing dichotomy in the Roman world between lifelike representations and lifeless forms. One way that this manifests itself most clearly is through other artists' representations of statuary. This is an important theme in much of Stewart's book. He introduces the idea in chapter one, "Defining Statues in Word and Image," in which he examines a painted representation of a statue of Mars from Pompeii.

Chapter 2, "The Appearance of Statues," describes and discusses the appearance of statues, noting that the head, or more specifically the face, was an important identity marker in the Roman world. According to Stewart, the 'success' of a Roman statue was based upon the separate conception of head and body. The ancient sources provided in this chapter support Stewart's assertion that the head or face provided the best means for personal identity. Building off of the previous chapter, in chapter 3, "Portrait Statues and the Statuesque," Stewart further analyses the use of the portrait statue. Romans conceived of the portrait as a true likeness. While there were of course differing degrees of likenesses, the essence of individual identity was in the portrait. Noting that the idea of realism shifts from Republic to Late Empire, Stewart asserts that the statue had other messages to communicate beyond mirrored facial features. Indeed, the focus of the chapter is not on portraiture itself but rather on the uses and meanings of Roman portrait statues. Stewart demonstrates that likeness was not the only measure of a powerful -- and successful -- portrait. An additionally important issue that he successfully navigates in this chapter is the representations of statues in Roman art, and, specifically, how we can identify a representation of a portrait from an actual portrait statue. Stewart proposes that the Romans had adopted a visual language in which the distinctions between these two types of representations would be understood. A good example is the famous Vatican circus funerary relief (fig. 20 in Stewart's book). In it, a togate man stands to the left of the circus that he presumably oversees. On the far left is another individual, a woman who is usually interpreted as his wife. However, Stewart notes that this relief is depicting two different levels of visual perception -- we see a portrait of the man and a statue of the circus director's wife, who most likely pre-deceased him. While other scholars have noted the depiction of the wife as a statue, Stewart builds on such a nuanced difference of visual perception of statue, likeness, and representation.

The "stone and bronze crowd" (p. 118) of Rome is the subject of Stewart's fourth chapter, "The Other Population of Rome." Specifically, Stewart examines how self-conscious the Romans were of the statues that surrounded them. According to the sources that the author presents, there was an abundance of statues in Rome. From all the evidence presented in this chapter, Stewart convincingly demonstrates that statues served very specific commemorative functions that were considered part of the norm and even desirable in Roman cities.

Picking up on the theme of the previous chapter, Stewart devotes chapter 5 to an examination of "Statues in the Empire." While not a survey of statues in the provinces, the author attempts in this chapter to address the question of diversity in statues throughout the Empire. While Rome remains a focus for his study in its entirety, eastern and western provincial examples are offered to help further explicate the role of the Roman statue. While all of the provinces cannot be served in one chapter, Stewart focuses in the east on Asia Minor and explores both Spain and Britain in his treatment of the west. He concludes that Rome itself acted as a large-scale model for smaller Roman communities throughout the Empire, with both eastern and western groups demonstrating through statuary their adherence to Roman ideals of power and honor. While demonstrating cultural and societal differences in the way that statues were erected in these areas, Stewart notes that overall there was a high degree of commonality and conformity that should be considered within the specific contexts of the provinces.

Chapter 6, "Simulacra and Signa," considers the conception of religious images. Stewart presents the reader with important Roman descriptors for religious cult images, including statua, simulacrum, and signum. Each word describes a particular way of expressing and representing the god or goddess. Stewart's interest is in how these different words were used to describe the way that statues or other works of art portray the divine. Rather than focusing on statues themselves, Stewart looks at the representation of statues on lamps, coins and in wall painting. Some lamps have been found that have actual small statues affixed to them; others have relief carvings of altars and gods near them. Coins likewise are often used to reconstruct lost buildings and religious centers. The author notes that on coins the statues of the gods or goddesses themselves are often small and less emphasized than the geographic place of the specific cult. On the other hand, wall paintings represent statues of gods and goddesses, without specific adherence to an actual place or cultic ritual practice. Instead, these wall paintings reflect the Romans' internalization of an understanding of the role of the statue in society. These paintings, often found in private homes, lead Stewart directly to his next chapter.

In chapter 7, "The Private Sphere," the author surveys Roman attitudes to statues as works of art. The collecting of statues by Romans does reflect in large measure the modern art world today. Stewart examines and interprets many texts that deal with the art of the Greeks and the Romans. As in his other chapters, Stewart conveys the complexities of the Roman world by using an inclusive method of textual reading; the more he adds to the discussion the more complex the situation is shown to be.

In his final chapter, "Touching Statues," Stewart demonstrates the power of images through a discussion of the different reactions and responses that the Roman people had to the statues around them. Toppling, mutilating, and dragging statues are some of the examples provided here of how citizens' reactions to statues reflect the power imbedded in them. In his final statement of the chapter, the author notes that the Roman historical or archaeological record reflects a universal relevance to people's responses to statues. One thinks here most recently of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein and the responses of the Iraqis who hit the face of it with their shoes. Such 'modern-day' actions do appear to reflect the similar attitudes and responses recorded in the Roman world.

In his brief conclusion, Stewart recaps the main ideas presented in the book, dealing with representations, ideas of the statues, and the social significance of the statues in the Roman world. In all this is a successful study in that it places statues within the complex contexts of the Roman world with various meanings and responses carefully presented.

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