Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.59

Sinclair Bell, Inge Lyse Hansen (ed.), Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation. Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volume 7.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, for the American Academy in Rome, 2008.  Pp. xi, 316.  ISBN 978-0-472-11589-1.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by John Jacobs, Loyola College in Maryland (
Word count: 3344 words

Table of Contents

The volume under review includes sixteen papers, all but one of which (that by Suzanne Dixon) was originally delivered at a conference, "Role Models: Identity and Assimilation in the Roman World and Early Modern Italy," jointly held at the American Academy in Rome and the British School at Rome in 2003. The five-year gap between conference and proceedings has not had any serious detrimental impact on the quality of the contributions, however, and the Editors are to be commended for bringing together a wide breadth of scholarly perspectives. The result is a timely and thought-provoking exploration into the nature and scope of exemplarity in Roman culture.

In his programmatic introduction "Role models in the Roman world" (pp. 1-39), Bell provides a panoramic view of the scholarly terrain, as well as a full summary of the contents of the volume. He himself best explains the purpose of the collection: "The papers collected here seek out the exemplum across a broad range of genres, contexts, and periods and in this way probe the catholicity of its understanding within Roman culture. In so doing, this volume's central aim is not to push for a new orthodoxy in the study of exemplarity but rather to lay claim to a wider evidentiary base and diversity of approach than scholars have traditionally attempted" (p. 2). In laying the conceptual foundation for the collection, Bell concentrates on the relationship between Merton's theory of the "role model" and Roller's four-part "model of exemplary discourse" (i.e., "actions, audiences, values and memory"). He continues with a brief survey of the vast body of evidence for exemplarity in Roman culture (including art, text, and ritual) and considers the role which the productive tension between past and present plays in this dynamic process. Consistent with the aims of the volume, Bell advocates a broader definition of exemplarity which incorporates more visual (and not just textual) evidence, and which also recognizes non-elite males, women, children, and slaves (and not just elite males) as participants in exemplary discourse. At the same time, Bell challenges the validity of the associated concept of "identity" as a useful hermeneutical construct, although he does acknowledge that not all of the contributors to the volume agree with that assessment. After this theoretical orientation, Bell explains how the chapters are arranged by theme and provides an ample summary for each: for the sake of both clarity and simplicity, I will explicitly structure the remainder of this review according to that thematic arrangement.

Tonio Hölscher, "The concept of roles and the malaise of 'identity': Ancient Rome and the modern world" (pp. 41-56)

Suzanne Dixon, "Gracious patrons and vulgar success stories in Roman public media" (pp. 57-68)

Chapters 1 and 2 address the concept of "role modeling" in general in Roman culture. In chapter 1, Hölscher explores the multiplicity of (often conflicting) roles which Roman emperors, among others, had to perform, and how that multiplicity of roles destabilizes the concept of identity. He begins with a comparison between the scenes of Trajan delivering an adlocutio on the column of Trajan and various images of former President George Bush delivering speeches during the buildup to the Iraq War. Hölscher notes that the adlocutio serves as one of a limited number of stock roles which the Roman emperor performs on his monuments, but that this stereotyped representation of the emperor also reflects a complex mediation between ideology and reality. He discerns corresponding ambivalences in the statuary types of Roman emperors, as well as in the availability of imperial roles for other elements of Roman society. In response to the notion that "roles are said to create and confirm 'identity'" (p. 52), Hölscher rejects the idea outright. In chapter 2, Dixon shifts the focus from the emperor to the general public. In particular, she considers the examples, all from Roman Italy, of Septimia Stratonice of Ostia (CIL 9.568 + 487 [see now Supplementa Italica n.s. 20 (2003): 71 and 88] and 14 suppl. 4698), Vergilius Eurysaces (CIL 12.1203-1204 and 6.1958), Eumachia of Pompeii (CIL 10.810-813), and Pliny the Younger, in his role as benefactor of his native Como (CIL 5.5262, cf. Plin. ep. 1.8, 4.13, and 7.18). After a brief survey of these inscribed monuments, Dixon examines the relationship between iconography and epigraphy, but her analysis does not produce much beyond the platitude that "each of these records expresses something about the identity of the individual celebrated and of certain actions or aspects of their lives [sic]" (p. 66).1

Roberta Stewart, "Who's tricked: Models of slave behavior in Plautus's Pseudolus" (pp. 69-96)

Charles Brian Rose, "Forging identity in the Roman Republic: Trojan ancestry and veristic portraiture" (pp. 97-131)

Efrossini Spentzou, "Eluding Romanitas: Heroes and antiheroes in Silius Italicus's Roman history" (pp. 133-145)

Richard Alston, "History and memory in the construction of identity in early second-century Rome" (pp. 147-159)

Chapters 3-6 consider various aspects of exemplarity in the literature and art of the Republic and early Empire. In chapter 3, Stewart ventures a reading of the Pseudolus as a trickster tale in the historical context of the emergent slave society of Plautine Rome. She acknowledges the inherent difficulty of teasing out any reliable "historical" data from comedy, but nevertheless concludes (in a slight tautology) that "Plautine drama, as a comedy of manners, provides representations of slave behavior that reflect the slave's agency because the slave acts and actions reflect conceptions of the individual as an agent" (p. 73, emphasis in the original). Stewart pursues this line of analysis in a close reading of the Pseudolus.2 Thereafter, she fruitfully compares slave behavior in the Pseudolous with that in the Life of Aesop: the comparison between the slave society of Rome and those of the Caribbean and the American South, however, remains too vague and imprecise. Ultimately, Stewart concludes that "in Plautus's staging the Roman trickster emerges as a role model and an anti-model" (p. 93). In chapter 4, Rose moves from literature to art in Republican Rome. In the rather shorter first section, he summarizes the arguments and conclusions of an earlier piece on changes in Roman attitudes toward the city's purported Trojan ancestry. In particular, Rose identifies a shift from the positive significance of those eastern origins during the early centuries of the Republic to the more complicated significance of Troy during the subsequent centuries of the Republic and early Empire. In the rather longer second section, he turns from Trojan ancestry to veristic portraiture. In particular, Rose interestingly traces the development of the art form back to "changes in the commemoration of foreign triumphs and triumphatores" (p. 111) during the Middle Republic, as well as to the production of the imagines. Finally, Rose complements his discussion about veristic portraiture with a discussion about the accompanying statuary types.

In chapter 5, Spentzou moves from art back to literature, and from Republican on to Imperial Rome. In a concise reading of "heroes and antiheroes" in Silius Italicus' Punica, she takes note of the many differences between Livy and Silius in their respective accounts of the Second Punic War, and argues that, "rather than simply being a disengaged philological pastime, [Silius'] erudite antagonism can have a sharp political point" (p. 133). For Spentzou, this "erudite antagonism" embraces such features of the epic as the destabilization of the apparent boundaries between Carthage and Rome, and between Hannibal and Scipio, as well as the conceptual distance between the single virum of Aeneid 1.1 and the many viros of Punica 1.5. She reads Hannibal as both "hero" and "antihero" in his capacity as an alter Aeneas from Saguntum to Rome, but overlooks perhaps the best evidence (Pun. 17.149-290 ~ Aen. 1.34-222) and adopts a highly dubious interpretation of the action during the single combat between Hannibal and Murrus (Pun. 1.487-491).3 In chapter 6, Alston brings the quartet of papers on Republican and Imperial literature and art to a close with a complementary study on "history and memory in the construction of identity in early second-century [A. D.] Rome." He emphasizes the complex nature of the relationship between the concepts of "self" and "identity," and, in the body of the paper, examines how Tacitus and Pliny adopt differing strategies in their respective attempts at coping with the traumatic impact of the transition from Republican past to Imperial present. First, Alston reflects on the potential implications of Tacitus' use of the annalistic form and manipulation of closure, as well as the famous digression on historiography, followed by the account of the trial and death of Cremutius Cordus, in Annales 4.32-35.4 Then, he (perhaps too) briefly considers the treatment of fama and exempla in selected passages from Pliny's correspondence (9.2, 2.1, 9.19, 1.17, and 8.12).5

Margaret Imber, "Life without father: Declamation and the construction of paternity in the Roman empire" (pp. 161-169)

Eve D'Ambra, "Daughters as Diana: Mythological models in Roman portraiture" (pp. 171-183)

Eric R. Varner, "Transcending gender: Assimilation, identity, and Roman Imperial portraits" (pp. 185-205)

Glenys Davies, "Portrait statues as models for gender roles in Roman society" (pp. 207-220)

Chapters 7-10 investigate the function of exemplarity in the formation, deformation, and even transcendence of gender roles. In chapter 7, Imber ponders the irony that, while "Roman society was patriarchal," "at least among the male elite, Roman fathers frequently were absent from the daily lives of their sons" (p. 161). In this environment, she contends, young elite males learned how to negotiate the ins and outs of Roman society, and prepare themselves for their future roles as both patres and cives, through the practice of declamation. Imber accordingly stresses the importance of the all-encompassing patria potestas (e.g., in the exemplum of T. Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus and his son in Liv. 7.4-5), before turning to a discussion about the inculcation of often competing values through the practice of composing controversiae. Thereafter, she surveys the extant declamatory material for evidence for the treatment of fathers, and especially absent fathers, in the classroom (e.g., DMin 291, 300, and 306, as well as DMaj 18-19). In chapter 8, D'Ambra again shifts the focus from literature to art. In particular, she studies the various depictions of girls and young women as the goddess Diana in a group of Roman funerary portraits, statues, and reliefs, all dating from the first through the third centuries A.D. Moving beyond the standard dichotomy between idealized bodies and realistic heads, D'Ambra ventures a more holistic interpretation of these commemorative works with due attention to their cultural contexts. These works include, among others, the funerary altar of Aelia Procula (cf. CIL 6.10958), the altar of Aebutia Amerina, and the funerary altar of Aelia Tyche (cf. CIL 6.6826). D'Ambra associates this depiction of girls and young women as Diana (on the cusp of maturity, marriage, and, thus, motherhood) with the rites of passage celebrated in honor of Artemis at Brauron and in honor of Diana at Nemi (where the goddess appears to preside over rites for both boys and girls).6

In chapter 9, Varner sustains the focus on art with a further piece on the interchangeability of gender identities, in Roman Imperial portraiture. First, he illustrates the assimilation of masculine and feminine features in a series of images in which the emperor is likened to a patron goddess (e.g., Augustus as Diana and Domitian as Minerva). Then, he turns to the conflation of gender characteristics in portrayals of the Imperial couple (e.g., Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Octavia, and Augustus and Livia)--all explicitly intended "to encode and reinforce imperial notions of concordia" (p. 193). Finally, he moves on to the permeability of gender categories in the depiction of "feminine men and masculine women" (through, e.g., transvestism) in non-Imperial portraiture. Varner links this destabilization of gender (in Imperial portraiture) with contemporary debates about the nature and scope of the emperor's masculinity. In chapter 10, Davies brings the quartet of papers on gender to a close with a study of the use of body language in the construction of femininity in Roman statuary. In particular, she focuses on four pieces, two male and two female, dating to the first and second centuries A.D., from the Munich Glyptothek (inv. nos. 540, 394, 427, and 377). While Davies acknowledges the derivate nature of the statue types themselves (e.g., the large and small Herculaneum women types, the Pudicitia type, and the Ceres type) as Roman adaptations of Greek models, she objects to the notion that the Roman "copies" offer little more than evidence for the Greek "originals." Instead, she highlights the inherent tension in putting private values on public display. Like Varner, Davies also connects the negotiation between masculinity and femininity in the statuary with the negotiation between power and sex.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, "Spartan women among the Romans: Adapting models, forging identities" (pp. 221-234)

Shelley Hales, "Aphrodite and Dionysus: Greek role models for Roman homes?" (pp. 235-255)

Henner von Hesberg, "The image of the family on sepulchral monuments in the northwest provinces" (pp. 257-272)

Chapters 11-13 broaden the purview of the study in order to explore the dynamics of exemplarity not only in Rome and Roman Italy, but also elsewhere in the provinces. In chapter 11, Pomeroy applies postcolonial theory to the interactions between Roman and Spartan (as well as to those between Greek and Spartan) in Roman Sparta, just as she had applied the same theory to the interactions between Greek and Egyptian in Ptolemaic Egypt in Women in Hellenistic Egypt (1984). She begins with a brief survey of images of Spartan women in Imperial literature and notes the contrast between the focus on Helen in poetry and that on Spartan women in general in prose. Pomeroy locates Roman interest in Sparta in the shared values of motherhood, Stoicism, and patriotism. Beyond the literary evidence, she also considers the revival of Spartan identity under the Roman Empire and the consequent redefinition of that Spartan identity vis-à-vis Greek identity as part of the postcolonial experience (e.g., IG 5.1.540 = SEG 11.797). In chapter 12, Hales ranges far and wide across the imperium Romanum in her search for images of Aphrodite and Dionysus in domestic decoration. Taking her cue from Zanker 1998, she explains how "their [i.e., Aphrodite and Dionysus'] popularity demonstrates the continuation of a love of tryphe as a living ideology in Roman domestic life, providing a long-running theme that, through the iconography of the putto and the vine, even manages to reinvent itself for a Christian audience" (p. 235). In the body of the paper, Hales concentrates on the use of Dionysus' mask and Aphrodite's mirror in this environment (e.g., in the House of Lucretius Fronto at Pompeii, in the Theater Room at Ephesus, and in the House of the Tragic Actor at Sabratha, as well as the Venus mosaics in the Maison de l'Âne at Cuicul [mod. Djémila] and in the villa at Rudston). In Chapter 13, von Hesberg returns to funerary commemoration in an inquiry into "the image of the family on sepulchral monuments in the northwest provinces." Following an initial comparison between the monument of L. Poblicius in Cologne (c. A.D. 40) and the monument of the Secundini in Igel (near Treves) (c. A.D. 220-230), he examines a variety of other materials as evidence for the influence of Roman culture on depictions of the family, especially women and children (e.g., the monument of Blussus and Menimane in Mainz). All of these materials attest to a relatively stable process: "As far as the images allow such interpretation, roles--as represented in Roman culture within the field of the family--are not impaired by the integration of the local population, at least not with regard to the roles of women and children in the first century A.D." (p. 268).

Inge Lyse Hansen, "Muses as models: Learning and the complicity of authority" (pp. 273-285)

Janet Huskinson, "Degrees of differentiation: Role models on early Christian sarcophagi" (pp. 287-299)

John R. Clarke, "The philological, the folkloric, and the site-specific: Three models for decoding Classical visual representation" (pp. 301-316)

Chapters 14-16 bring the collection to a close with two papers on sarcophagi and a final paper on methodology. In chapter 14, Hansen studies sarcophagi from the period between the mid-third and early fourth century A.D. for their depictions of learned couples as Muses and philosophers. As she explains, her focus on the Muses complements that on the philosophers in Ewald 1999. First, Hansen considers the relationship between the Muse and the philosopher in these images, as well as their function as "role models" for the learned couple. Then, Hansen considers the role of auctoritas in the depiction of the learned couple: the connections, however, between the learned couple and the depictions of Ariadne and Dionysus, and of Virtus and the rider on the hunt, are tenuous at best. Furthermore, expressions of concepts such as pietas and concordia can be seen in funerary depictions not only of this period, but also of much earlier periods, too (e.g., the late 6th c. B.C. Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco). In chapter 15, Huskinson sustains the focus on sarcophagi with a complementary study on the intermingling of secular and Biblical role models on early Christian sarcophagi. On the one hand, images of a Good Shepherd or an orans often replace images of a philosopher or a Muse on (especially, strigillated) sarcophagi. On the other hand, Biblical scenes, especially from Old Testament stories of God's saving grace or from New Testament Gospel accounts of Christ's miracles, also begin to appear on these funerary monuments. (Interestingly, however, whereas the images of a Good Shepherd or an orans could be given individual portrait features, the images of Biblical figures apparently could not.) Ultimately, Huskinson concludes that the combination of secular and Biblical images on these sarcophagi heralds the rise "of a distinct Christian material culture" (p. 298) during the third century.

In chapter 16, Clarke embarks on a broader inquiry into the various methodologies which scholars have applied in their research on exempla. In particular, he traces the history of three models ("the philological, the folkloric, and the site-specific") and their utility in working towards a better understanding of the famous fresco in Pompeii (VII, 6, 34-35) of the goddess Victory crowning an ithyphallic ass as it mounts a lion from behind. First, the philological (or historical) model (1860-1950) interpreted the image as an allegory for Octavian's (~ ass) victory over Antony (~ lion) at the battle of Actium in light of an omen which Octavian had reportedly seen on the day of the battle (Suet. Aug. 96 and Plut. Ant. 65). Then, the folkloric (or structural) model (1950-1980) interpreted the image as a reversal of the natural world, as in a similar image of an ass mounting a lion in a mold from Magdalensberg. Finally, after pointing out the irremediable flaws in these two approaches, Clarke advocates the site-specific (or contextual) model (1980-present), according to which he examines the image in situ (e.g., in light of the inscriptional evidence, CIL 4.1626-1649). He argues that, together with the images of Mercury and Dionysus which flank it, the image under discussion marked the tavern as a gaming establishment. While Clarke certainly does arrive at an interesting and intriguing interpretation of the admittedly difficult and scanty evidence, he also somewhat oversimplifies things by framing the discussion of methodology according to an evolutionary pattern. Furthermore, rejecting even the partial utility of earlier approaches does not cohere with an avowed devotion to polysemy and to the idea that every viewer would have interpreted the images (at least slightly) differently.

The physical book itself is a work of art: a lavishly illustrated large-format volume with glossy pages, a sturdy spine, and an elegantly designed cover, graced with a side view of the Barberini togatus. The presence of ample cross-references alleviates the potential problems caused by the lack of any sort of index. Unfortunately, the text is marred by several typographical errors, in Greek,7 Latin,8 and other languages,9 as well as a few misplaced references.10 Altogether, this gathering of papers makes an important contribution to the study of exemplarity, especially in broadening the horizons of inquiry beyond elite male Roman literary culture.


1.   D. also overlooks some essential bibliography, e.g., Han P. Mollenhauer, Das Grabmal des Eurysaces: Aus der Geschichte der Brotindustrie (Bad Godesberg, 1997) and John Henderson, Pliny's statue: The letters, self-portraiture and classical art (Exeter, 2002).
2.   S. might have strengthened this argument even further by discussing the etymology of the name. L&S explain "Pseudolus" as "= ψευδής (lying)," while the OLD clarifies this explanation by describing the form as a "hybrid from Gk. ψευδής": perhaps the name derives by haplography from *Pseudodolus, with elements of both "falsehood" (cf. Greek ψευδής) and "trickery" (Latin dolus)?
3.   For Punica 17.149-290, see Joaquín Villalba Álvarez, "Ecos virgilianos en una tempestad épica de Silio Itálico (Punica XVII, 236-290)," Humanitas(Coimbra) 56: 365-382. In Punica 1.487-491, S. adopts a reading first proposed by Duff in his Loeb but subsequently (and correctly) rejected by Spaltenstein in his commentary on the passage.
4.   Here, however, A. misses John Moles, "Cry freedom: Tacitus Annals 4.32-35," Histos 2 (1998), available online in the journal archives.
5.   Here, however, A. misses Stanley E. Hoffer, The anxieties of Pliny the Younger (Atlanta, 1999). Also, see now Ilaria Marchesi, The art of Pliny's letters: A poetics of allusion in the private correspondence (Cambridge and New York, 2008).
6.   Unfortunately, D'A. overlooks C. M. C. Green, Roman religion and the cult of Diana at Aricia (Cambridge and New York, 2006)--although this work may have appeared too late for her to have been able to incorporate it into her analysis.
7.   Read ἀθανατίζεται for αθανατιζεται (p. 10 n. 78), plasin for plavsiss and hupographen for upographen (p. 113), ἐγὼ for ἐγώ (p. 201), and thoinarmostriai for thoinomostriai (p. 231 n. 78).
8.   Most of the dozen or so errors are relatively minor: the goddess mentioned on p. 187, however, is named Pax Augusta Claudiana, and not Pax Augustana Claudiana.
9.   Most of these are also relatively minor (although more numerous): the most egregious are "Gn." for "Cn." (p. 114), "Verrus's" for "Verres'" (p. 120, bis), "Dominianic" for "Domitianic" (p. 133), "Gaspar" for "Gestar" (p. 143), "Merimane's" for "Menimane's" (p. 267), "Anthony" for "Antony" and "Pharsalis" for "Pharsalus" (p. 303), and "Fig. 4. Lion on top of ass" for "Fig. 4. Ass on top of lion" (p. 306). The adjective "sartorial" is used incorrectly (p. 199), and I cannot find a noun "chiatus" (p. 133) in the OED.
10.   Read "Hor. Carm. 2.12.17-21" for "Hor. Carm. Saec. 2.12.17-21" (p. 180) and "Stat. Theb. 8.436-37" for "Stat. Theb. 8436-37" (p. 225).

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