Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.53

Michael Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xxvi, 516.  ISBN 9780521756013.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Trimble, Stanford University (

This book is a major contribution to our understanding of image-text interactions in antiquity. In it, Michael Squire does two main things. First, he argues that Reformation theology and its modern academic legacy have subordinated the image to the word in ways that are misleading and anachronistic for the Greco-Roman world. Second, he builds on this critique by exploring complex interplays of text and image in Roman culture. The intellectual ambition and range of the book make it difficult to do justice to it in the short space of a review, and I apologize deeply for the lateness of this one.

The first two chapters lay out Squire’s argument. He begins with Martin Luther, a watershed figure here because of the way Luther prioritized the Word over the image on theological grounds. This relationship was then institutionalized and routinized in religious teachings, church decoration, and children’s books, inter alia.1 Images were treated as easy to understand but also alluring and deceitful, and therefore important to control. This would not matter for the study of antiquity except that Luther’s legacy has profoundly shaped modern scholarship on the relationship of image and text.

Squire explores these “Lutheran debts” in an impressive sweep that includes Winckelmann, Kant, Hegel, nineteenth- century German philology, twentieth-century art historical theory, and recent critiques of classical archaeology. Countertrends existed, not least statements on the impossibility of reducing an image to verbal terms (Squire brings in Derrida, Barthes and Foucault here, as well as Schapiro, Gombrich, Steinberg and Bal). However, even these positions were shaped in important ways by a post-Lutheran legacy, notably in the ongoing separation of content and form and in the perennial deferral of the actual meaning and impact of the image.

All this is deeply anachronistic for ancient art, and in Chapter 2, Squire looks more deeply into how this legacy has shaped the study of classical antiquity. He offers an extended critique of G. E. Lessing’s famous 1766 essay on the Laocoon; Lessing’s subjugation of the visual in favor of the textual, and his formulation of the spatiality of painting vs. the temporality of poetry, are here contextualized within post-Reformation thinking and contemporaneous European cultural politics. This then allows Squire to explore just how different things were in the Greco-Roman world.

Crucial for the developing argument is Squire’s deconstruction of illustration and ecphrasis, the dominant frameworks within which modern classicists have analyzed text and image relationships. Illustration presumes the image’s direct dependence on the text (Weitzmann is a key figure here). Methodologically, this has often been a literalist concept, in which scholars look for direct correspondences and compare “telltale minutiae” (121) to make judgments about how well images and texts agree. Squire argues that we should not expect images to closely align with a text; instead, differences can open up interpretive possibilities.

The recent interest in ecphrasis arose partly in rejection of these constraints (140-46). But here, too, Squire sees a post-Lutheran inheritance in the tendency to treat ecphrasis as an entirely literary phenomenon, isolated from visual culture. Squire stresses that practices of viewing shaped these texts and their receptions, just as textual practices shaped viewing. Numerous examples then let him demonstrate more complex interplays of visual and verbal, from Phrasikleia’s funerary epigram and Athenian symposium pottery through the Tavern of the Seven Sages at Ostia and a fourth-century CE mosaic from Lullingstone. For Squire, all of these items ultimately raised questions for their viewers about interactions of image and text and about representation itself.

It is one thing to critique an existing situation. It is another, more valuable thing also to offer a better way forward, as Squire does in parts 2 and 3. The first part of the book creates a baseline for four case studies intended to show how images and texts interacted in the Roman world and how our interpretations can change with this expanded approach. All four are Roman in date and Italian in location. Chapter 3 is about Sperlonga, where Squire argues intriguingly that a fourth-century ecphrastic inscription placed on the rear wall of the cave reshaped the viewing of the sculptures even as the sculptures shaped the reading of the text. I did wonder here about the role of materiality and accessibility; by comparison to the dominant visual and physical presence of the sculptures from all parts of the space, the small inscription installed on the back wall would have been much harder to access and read.

Chapter 4 then discusses the first-century CE wall-paintings and Greek epigrams found together in the “House of Propertius” at Assisi, a tour de force I will return to below. These first two case studies are the most text-heavy, and some reviewers have chided Squire for prioritizing the textual over the visual. At Sperlonga, however, Squire’s stated focus was the inscription; at Assisi the paintings are very badly preserved and difficult to treat in detail. The next two case studies work much more fully with the visual material. Chapter 5 looks at verbal and visual depictions of the myth of Polyphemus and Galatea—not only individual texts and images, but also the interactions of literary and visual traditions (more below). Chapter 6 then considers Roman “still life” paintings. For Squire, this modern art historical category is anachronistic, and instead he offers a very different—and convincing—interpretation relating these images to broader Roman discourses about food, luxuria and resemblance.

Among these case studies, to my mind chapters 4 and 5 offer the fullest demonstrations of Squire’s approach. I want to highlight two strengths. The first is the richness of Squire’s interpretations. In part 1, he argued that we should not expect text and image to align. In the epigrams and paintings at Assisi, he builds on this premise to show that a “disjuncture” (277) between text and image could be deliberate and meaningful. For example, epigram 4 quotes Iliad 7.264, in which Hector throws a huge rock at Ajax; the heroes eventually exchange gifts. The wall- painting here is badly preserved but clearly does not depict this event. Instead, it shows two white goats or sheep and traces of a human figure, and has been interpreted as a scene of the madness of Ajax. In that case, notes Squire, we have a juxtaposition in text and image of the heroism and madness of Ajax. There is a literary lineage for this juxtaposition, down to the same sword appearing in both scenes; to make this connection here, viewers had to look at both the image and the epigram, which played with exactly these interpretive possibilities.

A second strength is Squire’s commitment to open and multi-layered interpretations. In part 1, he asserted the need to move beyond illustration and ecphrasis; in the case studies, the material and its viewers are treated as playful, mutually challenging, and interested in slippages between text and image. For example, recent scholarship has shown how, by means of textual puns and allusions to the Homeric episode, Theocritus’ Idyll 11 plays with Polyphemus’ lack of awareness of his future fatal encounter with Odysseus. Squire shows that the visual imagery engaged with similar themes, by means of iconographic allusions, gazes and visual focalization. He highlights their “’interpictorial’ resonance…the dynamic ways in which visual schemata work as a collective system that might bring to mind, through a process of complementation, expansion and fulfilment, related images, stories and responses” (325).

The major question I am left chewing on is this. How are we to contextualize these erudite viewers within ancient viewing and visual culture more broadly? Squire’s interpretations depend on the viewer’s knowledge of an array of textual and visual referents conjured up by a given iconotext, and on the viewer’s readiness to perform an intricate exegesis (e.g., 168-69, 230, 248). Did all viewers see and respond to these iconotexts in this way? What about everyone else? Addressing these questions was by no means Squire’s goal or theme in this book. At the same time, in a book so committed to viewing and reception—and so productive in illuminating them—they inevitably arise.

A related question is whether this sophisticated model of viewing is applicable to all kinds of Roman iconotexts. Honorific portrait statuary, for instance, combined figural sculpture with inscribed texts for a wide range of viewers in public space. I have argued elsewhere that this imagery worked hard to limit exactly the kind of interpretive play that Squire’s material revels in, for reasons having to do with the functions of honorific portraiture.2 Squire makes tremendously productive use of concepts of play, playfulness, and games played (e.g., 189-90), and I am persuaded by his approach to the private world of the cultivated viewer. I remain curious about how this approach would work in situations with different audiences and differently constructed relationships between image-makers, patrons, images, and viewers.3

These questions touch on a broader tension within the study of Greco-Roman visual culture between historical/contextual and aesthetic/formalist approaches to viewing and reception, and a first answer may come from the observation that Squire engages productively with both.4 On the one hand, Squire’s erudite viewers are historical, and historically substantiated. For example, the Assisi chapter opens with a discussion of the Roman cultural context for erudite viewing and the importance of displaying one’s knowledge by responding eloquently to artworks seen; this was a “socially divisive phenomenon” (242). Most tangibly, the epigrams at Assisi were inscribed onto the paintings by actual persons, as were further emendations. From this perspective, the gain is a fuller, more nuanced understanding of erudite Roman viewing practices.

On the other hand, Squire’s work also recalls the emphasis of reception aesthetics on the ways in which an artwork shapes its own viewing. This approach allows the formal structure and details of an artwork to be analyzed to reconstruct the artwork’s implied viewer.5 From this perspective, Squire’s interpretation brings out the richness of the material, without ever requiring that all actual viewers were this erudite or all responded to the material in the same way.6 Here, the gain is a more sophisticated understanding of the interplays between art and text.

A closing comment on the book’s own reception. One of Squire’s goals was to contribute to current art historical debates well beyond antiquity (12). To my knowledge, the book’s reviews have all been within classical journals,7 but its citations point to a broader impact. The book is cited in recent work not only on Greco-Roman image and text interactions but also on Augustine and intermediality,8 visual aspects of early Christian texts,9 and visual and print cultures in the nineteenth-century United States.10 An important reception of the book is Squire’s own subsequent monograph on the Tabulae Iliacae,11 which builds on these ideas and methods to explore what it means to miniaturize a massive epic. There, Squire traces the sophisticated games of scale, medium, narrative and response played by the tablets’ images and texts with their readers/viewers. Ultimately at stake, there and here, is the question of how ancient audiences found meaning in what they read and saw, and how image and text interacted both to produce representations and to question them. Squire’s exploration of how this worked for antiquity, and why that matters, is a substantial achievement.


1.   Influential here is the work of J. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, Chicago, 2004. Throughout the book, Squire acknowledges his debts to previous work on art-text relationships and ways of viewing, notably by W.J.T. Mitchell, Jas’ Elsner, and others.
2.   J. Trimble, Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. Cambridge, 2011.
3.   A brilliant answer to this question is now V. Platt’s Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco- Roman Art, Literature and Religion, Cambridge, 2011.
4.   R.R.R. Smith, “The Use of Images: Visual History and Ancient History,” in T.P. Wiseman, ed., Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome, London, 2002: 59-102.
5.   On these trends and how they have played out in art history, M. Holly, “Reciprocity and Reception Theory,” in Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, eds., A Companion to Art Theory, Blackwell, 2008: 448-457.
6.   To my mind, this counters E. Mayer’s concerns that Squire awards too much sophistication to images seen in relatively humble contexts: The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE, Harvard, 2012, 284 and 286.
7.   N. Spivey in Greece and Rome 58.1 (2011) 136-37; E. Moignard, The Classical Review 61.1 (2011) 267-68; Z. Newby, Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011) 309-11; A. Pappas, Classical World 104.4 (2011) 513-15.
8.   K. Pollmann and M. Gill, Augustine beyond the Book: Intermediality, Transmediality and Reception, Brill, 2012.
9.   Jane Heath, “Nomina sacra and sacra memoria before the monastic age,” Journal Of Theological Studies, NS, 61.2 (2010) 516-549.
10.   M.J. Dinius, The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of the Daguerrotype, University of Pennsylvania, 2012.
11.   Michael Squire, The Iliad in a Nutshell: Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae, Oxford, 2011.

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