Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.43

Felix Mundt (ed.), Kommunikationsräume im kaiserzeitlichen Rom. Topoi: Berlin studies of the ancient world, 6​.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. xviii, 278.  ISBN 9783110265934.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Bettina Reitz-Joosse, Leiden University (

Table of Contents

This is an edited volume of a 2010 conference on spaces of communication in imperial Rome. 1 The editor and his contributors set out to explore an interesting and well chosen question: how do the urban spaces of the imperial city of Rome relate to and influence communicative processes taking place within them and around them? The book aims to investigate, in short, “die urbanen Voraussetzungen des Sozialen” (ix). The collection of papers is divided into three parts, dealing with (1) communication through monuments, (2) urban space as a condition of private and public communication, and (3) literary constructions of urban spaces of communication (x).

The contributions are concerned with a clearly defined space that is both physical and literary: the city of Rome from the foundation of the principate to late antiquity (ix). According to Mundt, every city has an “Eigenlogik” and thus offers a specific set of conditions for communication (viii). The palimpsestic nature of Rome’s urban spaces renders them a very specific and complex communicative venue, while literary engagements with the city (the theme of part three of the volume) further add to this complexity. Although, like many conference proceedings, the work under review contains papers of varying quality and depth, an investigation of the specific relation between Rome’s meaningful spaces and communication is a very worthwhile undertaking.

“Communication” is used in the broadest possible sense, as Mundt himself points out: “Sehr vielfältig sind ... die Formen der Kommunikation, die hier untersucht werden. Kommuniziert wird in der Stadt, über sie und durch sie” (ix).

The combination of investigations of very different types of communication in, about and through the city renders this collection both exciting and problematic. The advantage of Mundt’s broad conception of communication lies in the range of different types of evidence and the variety of approaches that the volume brings together. In combination, the contributions can show how different kinds of communicative acts (architectural, literary, iconographic, body language, etc.) can combine, overlap and impede or reinforce each other. For example, the chapters by Schmitzer, Stenger, and Fuhrer analyse different types of communicative acts all taking place within the Forum Iulium, as well as the literary techniques of the authors who present them, resulting in a multi-faceted picture of the Forum Iulium as a ‘Kommunikationsraum’. 2

At times, however, the volume appears to lose focus. In several chapters, communication is not explicitly addressed at all, featuring only as the (implicit) assumption that the author of a text, monument, or architectural ensemble is somehow attempting (through these media) to communicate with readers or viewers. Furthermore, while I highly commend the interdisciplinary inclusiveness of the volume, I feel that epigraphy is underrepresented (absent except for Voegtle’s fine contribution on non-verbal graffiti and a number of remarks about elogia in Schmitzer’s chapter on the Forum of Augustus). This is problematic not only because it is a missed opportunity for further interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, but also and especially because among epigraphists (perhaps more than any other group within Classics) the question of the interrelation between space and communication has been the subject of sophisticated analysis and discussion for many years now. 3 Notwithstanding these objections, however, many of the individual contributions are not only worth reading in their own right but also engage in fruitful dialogue with each other.

The first part of the volume on ‘communication through monuments’ consists of three articles on Roman fora and communication in relation to their architecture. Susanne Muth presents a convincing and well-documented analysis of the reconfiguration of memorials of the past in the Forum Romanum in the Augustan period. Charting the disappearance and rearrangement of republican honorific statues and monuments (especially in the area of the comitium), Muth demonstrates how the visual programme of the Augustan period represents a shift in emphasis from the commemoration of one past to another, from competitive republican politics to the more remote, mythical past. Muth largely limits herself to communication through monuments while her remarks about the forum as a space of communication itself remain very general (she speaks of architecture influencing the ‘diskursives Klima’, but we do not learn how such influence might actually function in practice).

Klaus Stefan Freyberger, who recently completed a large-scale survey of the Basilica Aemilia, offers an analysis of sacred spaces surrounding it. 4 Of special interest are eleven sacella, located between the facade of the Basilica and the Via Sacra, which Freyberger attempts to identify by drawing on a range of archaeological, numismatic and literary evidence. He argues that these sancturies (among them Venus Cloacina and the famous shrine of Janus) bear a special relation to the early history of Rome and especially to the legendary conflict between Romans and Sabines. Although it does not address the topic of communication, this is an accessible presentation of important new research on the Forum Romanum.

Ulrich Schmitzer analyses a range of literary (and some epigraphic) evidence regarding the widely different functions of the Forum Augustum as a space of imperial communication. As far as the ruler’s communication through architecture is concerned, Schmitzer may be pressing our sources a little too hard regarding the personal involvement of the emperor. 5 Schmitzer’s readings of literary depictions of the Forum, however, connect well with the third part of the volume on literary constructions of space. He stresses the fact that complex literary texts such as Ovid’s Ars, Fasti or Tristia are suitable for archaeological reconstructions only to a very limited extent since they do not so much describe as manipulate the space they depict according to their own specific communicative purposes.

The three contributions included in the second part of the book (urban space as a condition of communication) address communication and its actors, media and mechanisms more directly. Simone Voegtle’s chapter deals with graffiti and the effects of space and (written) communication on each other. She stresses that graffiti are not distributed randomly but concentrated in particular spaces: the amount and type of (verbal and non-verbal) graffiti can serve as indicators of these spaces’ significance. In a second step, Voegtle argues that graffiti use different kinds of communicative strategies depending on their specific placement, and she investigates the cumulative nature of this communicative medium: one graffito on a wall attracts further comments, allowing for an open form of communication with largely anonymous senders and recipients.

Joachim Knape provides a theoretisation of the ‘dual perfomativity’ of rhetoric in Rome, charting the differences between the ‘biblioscriptural’ and ‘scaenocorporal’ performance of speeches and the requirements of these different communicative situations. A welcome addition to this theoretical framework would have been an analysis of the ways in which a specific venue of rhetorical performance (rostra, basilica, temple, curia) affects communicative strategies.

Jan Stenger’s chapter addresses the interrelation between space and communication explicitly, and is in my view one of the strongest of the volume. It focusses on an inconspicuous passage in several Caesarian vitae: the dictator offended a group of approaching senators by not rising from his chair to greet them. Stenger analyses this act of nonverbal communication in detail, investigating the physical setting, the respective expectations of the dictator and the senators, and the reasons for the ultimate failure of the communicative act. Beyond this specific case, Stenger’s investigation also highlights rulers’ nonverbal communication in Rome as an extremely worthwhile object of further investigation.

The third part of the volume deals with literary creations of urban spaces. It opens with a chapter by Felix Mundt in which he analyses the literary techniques that govern the representation of the imperial city of Rome in Cassius Dio, Herodian und the Historia Augusta. Mundt argues that the authors’ visually evocative, creative depictions of the city imitate, in a literary manner, the emperors’ own creative interventions in the urban fabric. He also offers some theoretical reflections on textual elements which evoke visual images (the “Bildlichkeit” and “Theatralität” (177) of texts), which might also have benefitted from reference to the ancient concept of enargeia and its extensive modern literature. 6

His chapter is followed by two pieces on Ovid’s Fasti and their special blend of mythical past and Augustan present. Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser’s excellent contribution focusses on the Anna Perenna episode, but it should be of interest to anyone working on the Fasti. She applies Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotopos to the Fasti, convincingly demonstrating its usefulness in analysing the special interconnectedness of space and time in Ovid’s calendar poem. Anna Perenna’s suburban grove and its structural pendant, the grove of Fors Fortuna, function as topographic and chronological ‘Grenzräume’ for the poem, with programmatic significance for the relationship between space and time in the Fasti as a whole.

In a second piece on the Fasti, Mario Labate argues for a strategic inclusiveness and plurality of both the Fasti and of Augustan Rome. He analyses violent and ‘primitive’ foundation myths and the festivals connected with them (especially the sacra of Pan/Faunus associated with the Arcadian Evander), and shows how these ‘chaotic’ foundations are subsumed into the Roman religious oikoumene and controlled by the specific Augustan revivals and reconfigurations of festivals such as the Lupercalia.

In her discussion of spaces for philosophical discussion, Therese Fuhrer compares the literary settings for the philosophical discussions of Roman aristocrats in the works of Cicero and Tacitus. She argues that Tacitus’ portrayal of these settings especially shows the lack of ‘space’ (both physical and intellectual) for philosophical discussions of ethical values under a morally incapable emperor.

Finally, Maria Bettetini’s chapter analyses the narrative function of different types of literary space (garden, theatre, road, church) in serving the larger communicative purpose of Augustine’s Confessiones. This chapter also contrasts Augustine’s narrative uses of three different cities (Carthage, Rome, Milan), offering several points of contact with Fuhrer’s volume in the same series on Rome and Milan in Late Antiquity. 7

The papers collected here address the topic of the volume to varying degrees, but the collection as a whole is nevertheless a welcome contribution on the city of Rome as a ‘lived space’, altered and altering all the time, physically and in meaning, as communication takes place within it. The book is beautifully produced, richly illustrated and carefully edited. There are few typographical errors, none of which obscure the sense. ​


1.   The conference was organised by an interdisciplinary group of the Berlin-based Cluster of Excellence ‘Topoi’ working on representations and functions of cities in ancient art, literature and architecture. For a conference report, including summaries of papers not included in this volume, see Judith Esders, Christoph Klose, Felix Mundt (2010), Bollettino di Studi Latini 40, 649-53.
2.   The extensive and accurate indices have an important function in helping the reader to locate such communicative nexus throughout the book.
3.   One example is the long-standing debate about levels of literacy in the ancient world and the impact of (different types of) literacy on the communicative value of an inscription, but one may think also of the explorations of the topographical contexts of inscriptions and the relation between those contexts and the content of the inscriptions (on the city of Rome see, e.g., M. Corbier, (2006), Donner à voir, donner à lire: mémoire et communication dans la Rome ancienne, Paris (especially the introduction and parts 1 and 2); A. E. Cooley, ‘Inscribing History in Rome’, in Cooley (ed.) (2000), The Afterlife of Inscriptions, London, 7-20; and, on the communicative aspects of funerary inscriptions in the suburbium, W. Eck, ‘Römische Grabinschriften: Aussageabsicht und Aussagefähigkeit im funerären Kontext’, in H. von Hesberg und P. Zanker (1987), Römische Gräberstraßen, München, 61-83).
4.   The final results of the project will be published in C. Ertel, K. S. Freyberger, K. Tacke und T. Bitterer, Die Basilica Aemilia auf dem Forum Romanum in Rom, Rom.
5.   For example, I do not quite see how Pliny’s comment on an elogium, ‘Quod ... Divus Augustus inscripsit’ in nat.hist. 22.6.13, proves that Augustus “sich ... persönlich um die Inschrift kümmerte” (81), rather than refers to Augustus’ overall responsibility for the complex as a whole.
6.   On enargeia as a rhetorical term in antiquity, see, e.g., R. Webb (2009), Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice, Aldershot, 87-106. On enargeia and visual presence in ancient historical writing see e.g. A. D. Walker, (1993), ‘Enargeia and the spectator in Greek historiography’, TAPhA 123, 353-77; and C. Damon, (2010), ‘The Historian’s Presence, or, There and Back Again’ in C. S. Kraus, J. Marincola, and C. Pelling (eds.), Ancient Historiography and its Contexts: Studies in Honour of A. J. Woodman, Berkeley, 353-63.
7.   T. Fuhrer (2012) (ed.), Rom und Mailand in der Spätantike: Repräsentationen städtischer Räume in Literatur, Architektur und Kunst, Berlin/Boston, see BMCR 2012.08.27. ​

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