Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.51

Giulia Caneva, Il codice botanico di Augusto: Roma, Ara Pacis: parlare al popolo attraverso le immagini della natura = The Augustus botanical code: Rome, Ara Pacis: speaking to the people through the images of nature.   Roma:  Gangemi editore, 2010.  Pp. 223.  ISBN 9788849219333.  € 30.00.  

Reviewed by Alain Touwaide, Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions; Smithsonian Institution (;

This large (12 x 8.5 inches) and lavishly illustrated volume (with Italian and English text in facing columns on the pages) is devoted to the floral decoration adorning the lower panels of the Augustean Ara Pacis in Rome, made of vegetal elements intertwined in the circumvolutions of an acanthus. Caneva intuitively perceived that there is “a precise order in the representation of the plants and a hierarchy in the composition”. The resulting system is more complex than “the simple divine reference associated to several plants of greater importance” and results from “a model of communication entrusted to the images” (p. 16), with a message political in nature. Such an answer raised the question of whether “a complex message would have been understood by the Roman people” (p. 16). As a consequence of this intuitive approach, Caneva divided the work into two parts: an analysis (pp. 19-112) under the title "The Botanical Alphabet", and a synthesis (pp. 113-216), entitled "The Augustean Message".

In the analysis, Caneva presents first a brief summary of the circumstances of the construction of the Ara Pacis, its factual/political explicit meaning, and its location, followed by a short overview of available historiography (pp. 21- 29). She then offers a first reading of the decoration on the lower panels. It is made of a central acanthus on the eastern and western sides (fig. 7), which expands its branches toward the northern and southern sides in a “vegetation procession” (p. 29, between quotation marks in the work) (fig. 8). In a constant back and forth between explanations of her method(s), statements about her intentions and presentation of her results, Caneva reports an initial “prevailing feeling ... of imaginary representations only loosely inspired by reality” (p. 31). She then decomposes the whole decoration into hundreds of botanical elements (chalices, corollas, leaves, pistils, berries, etc.). Even though elements are represented without other morphological structures allowing for botanical identification, Caneva believes it is possible to identify 90 botanical species, genera or families (listed in a synoptic table pp. 42-43, where the species are grouped according to their “similarity in the meaning” instead of by botanical families and genera [p. 40]). This number is much inferior to the original one, since the Ara Pacis has lost many fragments of its whole decorative apparatus (see p. 40).

For each botanical species (genus or family) Caneva offers a short monograph with the following standardized data: etymology of the name (current or scientific); botanical description; element represented on the monument (Caneva’s smaller units); possible confusions; habitat; iconographic significance, that is, meaning(s) of the plant in the ancient world; illustrations (grouped in tables on separate pages). All illustrations are in color, on a black background. Each table has a caption for the entire page, referring to the meaning of the plants on the page, and a caption for each plant. The images include the plant in nature, and its element supposedly represented on the Ara Pacis.

The plants are studied in four groups (with some divided into sub-groups) “based on analogies of symbolical meaning” (p. 54). The degree of certainty in the identification is expressed by means of the color of the ink: black (certain) and grey (probable). Group 1 alludes to the “harshness of the earth” represented by thorny plants (pp. 54- 56), immediately followed by a sub-group of plants with similar visual characteristics (thorniness), but with a “gentle” (the word is mine) nature, “to demonstrate a loss of harsh characteristics” (pp. 57-58). Group 2 is of “warding-off and auspicious elements of prosperity and fecundity” (p. 58), with 5 sub-groups (pp. 58-76). Group 3 is about vegetative force (symbolized by Dionysus) (pp. 77-81). Group 4 alludes to “rebirth and to the solar divinities” (p. 82), with seven sub-groups (pp. 82-112).

Caneva notes that only about 15 botanical species appear on all panels and only 6 are recurrent (p. 40). All others are represented only one or a few times, thus suggesting a notion of “richness” and “great diversity” (with quotation marks in the text, p. 40). Represented species show “a clear dominance of perennial herbaceous with underground buds ... or, to a lesser extent, buds at ground level ... and even more rarely buds protected from water ... Ephemeral plants ... as well as the perennial woody plants ... are less frequently represented” (p. 44). These data indicate a precise choice in the selection of botanical species, which are typical of meadows/pasture land. The exactness of details hints at “the intention of collecting the extensive variety of forms existing in nature” (p. 37).

The synthesis (pp. 113-216) goes according to a sinuous path to be followed almost step by step at the risk of being lost. It is based on a linguistic comparison using the notions of lexicon (the range of plants) and grammar (the principles of composition aiming to convey a message). Starting with the idea of “supermodels” (p. 115), the author distinguishes a vertical axis (in fact the stem growing from the heart of acanthus well emphasized in the illustration). Between the volutes of this “supermodel” acanthus, Caneva identifies what she calls “vegetation chimeras” (p. 118), that is, creations that assemble in an unrealistic way the realistic minimal elements of plants distinguished in the analysis. One such chimera is the fern: the morphological structure of the fully grown fern resembles the eagle with its opened wings when flying (fig. 53, beside an image of the Roman imperial symbol, that is, the heraldic eagle with the letters S.P.Q.R.). Two other recurrent motives in the (re)composition of the elements are “serpentine propagation” and “homologous structures” (p. 123), whose models are the squash, and snake-like stems and heads. Their meaning is magic and fertility (p. 124), particularly with the snake eating its tail, which visualizes the eternal return (pp. 126-127). This part on structures ends with three other motives rapidly treated: the candelabra, particularly illustrated by mullein (p. 127 and fig. 56) as a symbol of light; the dragon (in fact Dracunculus vulgaris Schott), symbol of fertility (ibid.); and the lyre, which brings together Apollo and music, and also the “return to the simplicity of the pastoral world of ancient Arcadia” in 17th-century Rome (p. 128).

The following segment of this part (pp. 131-140) is devoted to the vexata quaestio of coloring ancient monuments and is approached with the idea that the monument “had to be coloured” (p. 131). Caneva assumes that red (life) and black (beginning, regeneration) were used, that blue and green were not very probable, and that gold was used only for the acanthus as an image of Nature (with a majuscule initial).

A short paragraph on the signatura rerum (pp. 142-143), leads to a reading of the structures used to organize the elements on the Ara Pacis. Caneva identifies two such structures: a vertical axis (p. 146), which gives their structure to branches and thus has the valence of “generating”, and a spiral (p. 147), which represents the plants in their phase of growth and also appears in mature floral structures (p. 148). This reading of the organizational structures includes on pp. 149-150 a synoptic table of the “iconographic role” of the plants represented on the Ara Pacis.

Numbers, measures and proportions, together with forms and spatial directions—including the numbers 2 (dichotomy) and 3 (Trinity, with majuscule initial)—are examined with some detail (pp. 153-162). Mirror images, differences (that is, unexpected elements) and affinities are combined and create an effect of three-dimensionality (with the “Cartesian” binary oppositions of right/left, down/up, and front/back illustrated by the representations of the water lily on the Ara Pacis [fig. 75]). The image of the Ara Pacis is more complex, however, as it introduces a 4th dimension, that of time, through the presence of different moments of the vegetal cycle of the same botanical species (p. 166, with a reference to fig. 80 which is misleading, since figure 80 provides, according to its caption, representations of “Spiralling branches associated to the goddess of fecundity ...”).

I skip the brief paragraph on the animals represented on the frieze (pp. 169-172), to pass to the conclusion(s): “The beginning of a new age: the Aurea aetas of Augustus” (p. 175). Caneva sees plants as primordial elements of organization of life out of formless matter. The terminal spirals of acanthus are a visual expression of rebirth, which in turn means immortality. In this view, Rome is like the acanthus on the Ara Pacis, and the acanthus is like Rome: it is central and connects (and holds together) all the elements represented on the Ara Pacis. Caneva then links this message to the figurative panels in the upper part of the Ara Pacis, and builds a narrative about Diva Roma (pp. 187-189). The meaning is “the project of an empire” (p. 193), which expresses harmony and perfection, a process of propagation by repetition from the center (that is, the colonization of the world), “in a choral afflatus to the rhythm of a sweet music” (pp. 197-198).This project is guided by the imperial family, particularly Augustus (pp. 206-210), situated in the frieze at a point corresponding to “the unrolling” of the two principal stems that branch from the generating element” (that is, the acanthus) (p. 210).

The most important part of this book is the first, on the plants supposedly represented on the Ara Pacis. Although Caneva recognizes that some identifications (actually 14%) are uncertain, more may be so.1 In many cases, the elements on the Ara Pacis are too generic or not unambiguous enough to be significant from a botanical viewpoint. It is striking that Caneva did not take into consideration the representations of plants in the manuscripts of Dioscorides, De materia medica. The examination of such images shows that realism was not necessarily the principle guiding plant representations in antiquity and, once this idea of realism has been put aside, that there is a system behind such representations (or a code if we want to adopt this term). This omission by Caneva goes together with the absence of the whole body of literature devoted to the identification of plants in classical literature by scientists and scholars after the adoption of Linnaeus’ system of classification in botany. In spite of these and other problems, this part has the merit to make archaeological representations of plants available (with numerous color illustrations) for a possible analysis of the relationships between people and the natural world in Antiquity, something that has rarely been done.

The second part is an association of superficial and unsubstantiated ideas, images and notions on the model of the kaleidoscopic metamorphosis of nature advocated by Caneva, without any firm and deep root in the ground of a fully mastered classical culture. Here too there is a systematic absence of references to the primary sources in the analysis, from Theophrastus to Dioscorides and Pliny, including Theocritus, Virgil, the Eclogues and Georgics, or Horace, apart from furtive mentions of their names (see for example p. 142 where the names of Pliny, Dioscorides and Theophrastus appear, quoted in this sequence). Because of this lack of references, many–if not most–of Caneva’s affirmations are unfounded statements often suggesting a simple approach to fundamental, and sometimes much-debated, anthropological questions. This general absence of classical background goes together with incorrect and mistaken information and interpretations of all kinds. Among the many cases, I could mention the etymology of plant names (in the monographs pp. 54-112), which are not necessarily correct and, in any case, are not substantiated by any reference to etymological dictionaries. The meaning of black is based on a medieval interpretation not otherwise specified (p. 138). And, to mention just a few, the only textual reference in the discussion of the elements (p. 122, Herodotus II.73 about the phoenix) does not relate to the phrase it follows. More generally, there is an imbalance and a lack of cohesion between the two parts of the work, which gives the impression that the interpretation is dominated from the very beginning by a major initial idea (rebirth) not necessarily supported by the mass of information (correct or not) amassed in the first part.

Finally, the English translation has been poorly edited (e.g. p. 53 “principle classical sources” ), and the bibliography (121 items) is inconsistent, misleading and mistaken in many cases, besides being largely lacunose.2 This is so much so that the reader wonders whether the author consulted the references she mentions.3


1.   We cannot always agree, indeed, on the proposed identifications (see, for example, fig. 22 p. 59], Carthamus or Scabiosa; fig. 22 [p. 61] Sonchus seems rather to be a Dracunculus; fig. 24, Cyclamen, Crocus, and Phyllitis; fig. 25, Mandragora, to mention a few).
2.   To quote just a few, references include sometimes the place of publication and sometimes the name of the publisher; the mention of “Dioscoride, De Materia Medica” does not include any other detail (an edition, an author of such edition, or anything like a reference); and reference to Pliny, Natural History, is to the volume of an edition (Einaudi, 1985), without any mention of a book number, scholarly editor and/or translator, and place of publication.
3.   The title of the erudite Etudes de botanique antique by Suzanne Amigues is followed by the word “Broché”, as if this were the place of publication or the publisher of the volume, whereas it means that the volume is “soft cover” or “paperback”.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010