Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.41

Björn C. Ewald, Carlos F. Noreňa (ed.), The Emperor and Rome: Space, Representation, and Ritual. Yale Classical Studies 35.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xviii, 365.  ISBN 9780521519533.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Dickenson, University of Groningen (


The themes of this book are well chosen for exploring the complex and changing relationship of the Roman Emperor with the Imperial city. The themes of course overlap: ritual and representation both have a spatial dimension, and buildings through which urban space was transformed were often decorated with representational sculpture and intended to accommodate public rituals. In tune with recent developments in ancient history and archaeology, the themes invite approaches that cross the barriers between these disciplines and combine literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence. Interdisciplinarity indeed characterises many of the papers here, which cast important new light on the realities of imperial power and the ancient urban experience. The focus is on the period from the reign of Augustus to that of Constantine. The majority of the articles began as papers presented at a conference at Yale University in 2005. The exceptions are Paul Zanker’s contribution, which is a translation of an article previously published in German with a revised and updated bibliography, and the article by Klaus Fittschen, who did not participate in the conference but was invited by the editors to contribute to the publication. The list of authors gathered here is a roll call of eminent scholars in Roman history and archaeology. The standard of scholarship throughout is as high as would be expected and the papers all connect well with the themes and provide much food for thought.

The introductory chapter by the editors is a tour de force. It makes a strong case for the importance of the lines of enquiry pursued here and provides a sophisticated and up-to-date survey of scholarship in these areas, with extensive references. It also lucidly charts the theoretical terrain that has informed this research. More than simply an introduction to this book, it is a useful introduction to the current state of scholarship on Roman urbanism, art, ritual and imperial power. These issues have broader relevance for students of other parts of the Roman Empire and other periods of ancient history and the chapter, as such, deserves to be widely read.

The four papers by Zanker, James Packer, Mary Boatwright and Elizabeth Marlowe focus most directly on physical space and the built environment of the city. All are concerned, from different perspectives, with the impact that Imperial building policy and patronage had in transforming Rome’s urban image. Zanker’s article is the most wide- ranging. He treats the Imperial period as a whole, and explores the role that Imperial patronage played in shaping relations between the ruler and the masses; his vision that the emperors’ main goals were to transform daily life into a festival experience and to give the plebs access to much prized leisure time are persuasive; his considerations of how the Roman situation differed from other pre-Industrial monarchies are insightful. Boatwright provides an overview of the monuments associated with the Antonine dynasty with attention to architectural remains, questions of topography and the iconography of their sculptural programmes. Her chapter is very useful in shining the spotlight on a dynasty that is often overlooked in discussions of changes to Rome’s urban landscape, and for which the evidence is rather fragmentary. Packer considers the various levels of significance of Pompey’s theatre and Tiberius’ new Temple of Concord (on which see below). Marlowe’s paper critically examines a trend in recent scholarship to question the influence of Constantine on the city’s urban landscape and to attribute buildings once thought of as his benefactions to his predecessor and rival, Maxentius. She argues that Constantine’s appropriation of projects begun by his enemy, and the degree to which he styled himself as a benefactor in the mould of Maxentius, are important elements in how Constantine used the city to consolidate his position.

When it comes to the question of how the people of Rome experienced their buildings, where hard evidence is lacking these authors do not always resist the temptation to fall back on conjecture. For instance, Zanker’s idea that Greek-style architecture was still symbolically associated with Hellenism at the time of the high Empire and that access to high cultural facilities was primarily an expression of Greek paideia are plausible but rather speculative. Similarly, Boatwright’s belief that the confidence and exuberance of Antonine monuments still betrays something of the crises brought by the plague and costly foreign wars is also a reading based more on prior knowledge of the historical context than on the works of art themselves . This is, however, a common pitfall in trying to “read” building projects as evidence for social or cultural history and the interpretations these authors put forward, even if they are not watertight, certainly deserve further consideration.

Werner Eck examines the reduced possibilities for senators to advertise their power and status in the public space of the city under the emperors. He considers statues, houses and tombs and contrasts the restricted freedom senators had for display in these areas with the greater potential for self-aggrandizement in the provinces. By examining the awkward position in which senators now found themselves and by exposing their limited potential to affect the development of the city where they were compelled to reside, Eck highlights the supreme power held by the emperor. One of his arguments – highlighted as of key importance in the introductory chapter - is that one response to the curtailment of their power was to turn to the private sphere and to the erection of a new type of monument there-- less than life size equestrian statues. Eck only provides two examples, however, which somewhat undermines his suggestion that this was a trend.

James Packer’s article strays somewhat beyond the chronological parameters of the volume. It ostensibly considers two buildings – Pompey's Theatre and the Temple of Concord as rebuilt by Tiberius – but the former gets far more than the lion’s share of attention. Packer’s argument that the theatre set a precedent for later Imperial benefactions is a good one but is not really central to the article. Pompey’s theatre was no more a precedent for Tiberius’ building than it was for the Fora built by Caesar, Augustus or his successors, and Pompey’s influence in this respect could better have been explored by focussing on these projects, which made more impact on the ancient city and have enjoyed a higher profile in modern scholarship. In reality this article consists of two separate discussions tied together only loosely. Nonetheless these discussions are highly perceptive and use the archaeological and literary evidence to good effect to explore the architectural remains, the intention behind these building projects and their impact on the city. The discussion of the Temple of Concord is particularly welcome, precisely because it has received relatively little attention. .

Michael Koortbojian’s discussion of the abandonment of the age-old taboo against the presence of armed troops within Rome’s pomerium neatly intertwines the themes of this book by addressing: (a) the changing nature of imperium on either side of this boundary, (b) the rituals connected with crossing it, (c) the connection between actual armed individuals within the city and sculptural representations of them. The evidence in terms of surviving statuary is scant, but Koortbojian makes a convincing attempt to reconstruct the historical context behind the erection of a cuirassed statue of Julius Caesar (known from a marble copy but originally erected in bronze) and the famous Prima Porta statue of Augustus. He argues that Caesar’s statue set the precedent for this mode of Imperial representation and argues that in both cases the intention was to portray the subject in a military yet non-triumphal guise; in Augustus’ case the message was that the ruler was so powerful that a triumph could do nothing to further enhance his status. The fact that emperors felt no qualms about being portrayed in armour within the pomerium was a striking statement of the new political reality. When Emperors did defer to the old convention of disarming on crossing the boundary, as Vitellius did in 69 AD, this was little more than a symbolic nod to tradition.

Egon Flaig’s consideration of how Nero fell from power is aimed at exposing the pillars on which imperial power was based through looking at how that power might collapse. The approach is heavily sociological and, thereby, pays rather too little attention to the importance of contingency and the role played by the various actors involved. After all, Nero’s removal from power was the first time a Roman Imperial dynasty had come to an end. It was thus uncharted territory for the city and there must have been a great deal of improvisation in how events played out. Flaig’s premise that this crisis provides a window into the fundamental realities of imperial power in times of stability is therefore questionable. Flaig also goes rather too far in insisting that the dynastic principle was unimportant in legitimising imperial power. It was, after all, only his membership in the Julio-Claudian family which led to Claudius, a far from obvious candidate for the position, becoming emperor. Flaig’s conclusion that imperial power was based on acceptance by the people and the army is, however, a solid one.

The articles by Emanuel Mayer and Klaus Fittschen both have to do with sculptural monuments erected by and for Roman emperors. Mayer’s illuminating discussion considers the various ways in which Imperial power was articulated through such representations and puts forward the arguments that: (i) there was a marked discrepancy between the way the emperor was portrayed as a primus inter pares on officially sanctioned monuments (e.g. the Ara Pacis) and as a super-human being in more popular honorific monuments, and (ii) that the highly conservative and formal literary genre of the panegyric provides a useful parallel for thinking about the restricted visual repertoire used to portray emperors in sculpture.

Fittschen’s article is a plea for the importance of identification and classification in studying imperial portraits. The discussion is largely a polemic against recent scholarship that has moved away from these concerns to address questions such as identity and viewer responses to ancient portraits. Fittschen is undoubtedly right that identification and classification are vitally important in constructing the essential framework within which all interpretations of the social, cultural and political significance of sculpture must be placed. Unfortunately, however, he writes as if his case is self-evident and nowhere explicitly states what he believes can be gained by a return to this type of scholarship. His discussions of the problems inherent in identifying various statues (e.g. why a certain statue thought to be of Lucius Verus is really of his father), provided as examples to support his argument, are, furthermore, hard to follow, even with reference to the accompanying photographs, for a reader who does not share his level of expertise.

The last two articles are the closest in subject matter of any in the volume and are among the highlights of this book. Both have to do with the significance of imperial funerals. Here we move away from the (semi) permanent impact of buildings and statues in shaping space and representing power and into the ephemeral world of pyres (Eve D’Ambra) and effigies (Javier Arce). Such temporary structures and monuments are shown to have had a powerful effect in shaping the experience of the crowds who gathered at Imperial funerals. The one-off use of pyres and effigies in these highly charged public ritual events is persuasively argued to have played an important role in cementing and reproducing cultural values and imperial power. Ephemeral architecture and monuments, as argued in these chapters and in the introduction, are a promising area for further research.

The book is lavishly provided with illustrations, photographs and plans which are mostly used to good effect to support the discussions. Unfortunately figure 7.4 referred to by Marlowe is missing. The map accompanying Boatwright’s article (fig 6.1) is also at rather too small a scale to be read easily, and the Antonine monuments, which are indicated by shading in grey, are hard to distinguish. These, however, are fairly minor quibbles and the production values of the book are otherwise extremely high.

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