Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.13

Kathleen M. Coleman (ed.), Images for Classicists. Loeb classical monographs, 15.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Department of the Classics, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 134; 76 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780674428362.  $20.00.  

Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University (

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This svelte, generously illustrated volume features color images and responds to clear needs, both for text-based scholars to employ the material remains of antiquity and for some assistance in figuring out the evolving arcana for beseeching “rights to publication.” The need is for both illustrative and contradicting witnesses (Cyclops Polyphemus and Medea on pots), but often one seeks our only witnesses (Athenian dedications, a Pompeian snack-stand, a Roman African sodality). Not only have many specialized scholars abandoned the difficult ideal of a comprehensive grasp of antiquity—written sources and topography, archaeological surveys, epigraphy, architecture, burials, numismatics, pottery, mosaics, frescoes, etc.—but this turn coincides with the “digital revolution” that has made images—“the nonverbal record from Antiquity” (xiii) —much more accessible. Understanding non-textual conventions of representation takes as much practice as textual ones, indeed. However, images in the largely illiterate world of the Greeks and Romans were the primary and sometimes sole communicative medium. The book originated in an APhA/ SCS panel (2012) organized by Coleman, the James Loeb Professor of Classics. The images are printed large, usually one to a page (except for the two faces of coins). Some, such as the Boscotrecase Polyphemus serenading Galatea, on the cover and inside, are needlessly murky. Coleman provides useful information such as a URL encompassing myriad downloadable digital images. Bookmark it now: Using Images in Teaching and Publications.

Kathleen Coleman gently reminds Classicists—a contemporary textually literate population studying widespread textually illiterate groups (1)—of their widespread visual illiteracy (regarding ancient objects). For the ancient passersby, when illiterate, even the form and layout of letters on an inscription (dedicatory, celebratory, funerary, civic legal, etc.) became an image. And bereft as we usually are of the context (even the specific find-spot) of ancient objects no longer in situ, but in museums, private collections, or simply displaced from a housing project, golf-course, or car-park, we experience severe disadvantages, an absence of clues, as to an object’s purpose or original effect. Similarly, with inscriptions, we read them in a standard typeface on a page without a photograph of all sides, and even with a photograph, without its three-dimensionality or reliefs and decorative architectural elements. Lacking knowledge of their original relationships to nearby objects and landscapes—buildings, streets, and monuments—we often fail to realize our handicaps (an A. E. Raubitschek lesson). Even an apparent bonanza for historians, such as Trajan’s “commemorative” column, has its own purposes and “visual language” that render it less than a reliable record of the Dacian Wars.

Luca Giuliani offers a novel theory of how one should understand the Greek translation of “traditional tales into images.” He discards the “myth–everyday life” binary categorization of Attic vase iconography (23) for another: standard situations and normative behaviors as opposed to the narrativized world of unique events in myth. For him, the Shield of Achilles describes the siege of any town, “how the world works,” while the siege of Troy provides “a younger variant,” a later development (25). His terms for this dichotomy are “descriptive” and “narrative.” It seems unlikely that these regrettably vague terms will oust the more traditional labels. Giuliani believes that the narrative images presuppose canonical stories. For example, a man wrestling a lion is not credible, not “how the world works,” unless that man is Heracles. Often the painter’s image deviates from the traditional mythic tale to enable a viewer to catch mythic plot-references. “A deviating surplus” informs the viewer, e.g., as when, contrary to the Homeric version, Hektor’s corpse lies under Achilles’ couch in his bivouac when Priam arrives (29-30). Giuliani ignores A. M. Snodgrass’s Homer and the Artists. Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (Cambridge 1998), a useful meditation on reading Homer, myth, and art “in the dark.” This chapter is the most speculative and theoretical.

Katherine Dunbabin applies her unrivaled knowledge of mosaics of the late Roman West to discuss the interplay of image and myth. She looks at the Piazza Armerina Ulysses mosaic, where Polyphemus holds a disemboweled ram—not a man yet not a mistake—only, she contends, a more suitable image to welcome civilized visitors inside a powerful man’s dwelling (46). Near Valladolid in Spain a rare image of Glaucus and Diomedes has emerged with (also rare) a Latin quotation. The scholar hesitates between a “bilingual lover of Homer and a “fourth-century Spanish Trimalchio” (50). Her third example, from a 2007 Portuguese excavation, shows Aeneas about to kill Turnus. To our surprise, illustrations of the Aeneid saga in mosaic are rare (cf. the illustrated codices), except for the escape from Troy. Images based on moments from the final six books are rarer still, and the moment before Aeneas kills surrendered Turnus appears only here, in mosaic. Executed in Lusitania, the tiled mystery deepens—which element appealed to the Romanized villa-owner? Dunbabin suggests that the pleasures of the essential text in standardized Roman education and the ethical controversy in the scene prompted this image of a notoriously doomed individual. Recall that Nero planned to dance Virgil’s Turnus (Suet. Nero 54, cited p. 56). Turnus was a “mythological exemplum,” but of what? Mythological images were all around ancient environments, public and private: the theater (including pantomime performances), baths, libraries, domestic settings, everyday utensils, decorative walls and floors, etc. The chapter intrigues for both the images chosen and the interpretations, but it will not obviously aid a neophyte in search of objects that offer a via nova into the minds and eyes of antiquity, or one who wishes to show her students typical rather than unique decor—unlike the final two images.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s essay on Roman floor and ceiling decoration exemplifies a successful exploration of laquearia as a topos of philosophical scorn, but it too is not a “how to” as much as a persuasive essay on how the material obsessions of gilded Romans enable an anxious condemnation of Roman ostentation in the earlier Empire. Coffered ceilings may be acceptable in Roman temples, divine territory, but not in the homes of individual Romans. Lucretius makes the point elegantly (DRN 2.20-33) comparing the rich man’s laqueata aurataque templa to the natural light of the open sky (78-9). Manilius, Pliny the Elder, and other authors concur in disapproval: such gilded ceilings indicate a Roman’s lack of suitable moderation and such “chintzy evocations” of the heavens overhead fail to bring mental comfort (citing Eleanor Leach, p. 72). O’Sullivan’s admirable essay, a philological model, illustrates a moralizing discourse but rather few antiquities (few ceilings survive). The stupefying flattery of Statius (Silv. 4.2, p. 76) makes Domitian’s palatial dining room ceiling into an image of the vault of heaven. Heaven itself by now is alleged to have coffers, and O’Sullivan invokes Manilius (Astr. 1.532-6) to prove it. Looking upwards, in the tradition of Thales and Socrates, might be dangerous, but it was the philosophical pose, the admired posture from Plato onwards. The wealthy homeowners who commissioned handsome floor mosaics and painted ceilings, O’Sullivan suggests, conceived them as facilitating philosophical thinking while they simultaneously served as symbols of moral decline (87). They succeeded in having and eating their cakes.

Andrew Burnett and Dominic Oldman (a specialist in “digital epistemology and representations of knowledge”) address “the most widely disseminated type of visual evidence surviving from Antiquity.” Representations combine with numismatic textual “legends” (especially on Roman coins). The evidence remains “sadly unexploited” (15), in part because many examples are unique and all, until recently, have been relatively unavailable, hoarded in vaults to prevent loss from prestidigitating antiquaries. Michael Grant’s charming basic booklet, Roman History from Coins (Cambridge 1958), proved so charming that my first copy, lent to a student, was never returned. A little piece of silver can and has overthrown historians’ elaborate edifices: Papier ist geduldig.

Burnett ably discusses Divus Augustus’ presentations of “restoring the Republic.” Many examples, relatively secure dates, and coin legends help, but what to make of RES PUB AUGUST (fig. 5.1)? The aureus of Cossus Lentulus issued in 12 BCE, years after the revised settlement of 28-27 BCE, shows the young conqueror raising up a kneeling female figure—an iconography well known for showing “who’s boss” to conquered provinces and boasting of it to the home audience. Gestures can be as polyvalent as words, but this candid arrogance seems to drop the Augustan veil of benevolence. Apologists see this propaganda as restoring a meretricious equality, but even flatterers would perceive the assertion that the dainty Republic could not stand on its own feet without manly Augustus’ agreement and assistance. While the coin has enriched a private collector, it has been published. Its genuineness doubted by few, the coin seems “too good to be true” (94). Earlier, however, in 28 BCE, primus inter pares Octavian on another aureus proclaimed, LEGES ET IVRA P R RESTITVIT (fig. 5.4; cf. RGDA 34)—contemporary with the reorganization itself, not subsequent coin evidence or posthumous self-justification from the god-like Restorer’s pen (cf. fig. 5.12, the onyx cameo Gemma Augustea in Vienna). Even more expressive to contemplate than the gold and silver coins is the once scandalous silver Warren Vase in Boston (5.13a-b), but the one page devoted to it solves none of its seductive, homoerotic mysteries.

Oldman offers a gorgeously reproduced page of computer-readable data facing a human-readable version (5.19a-b). Useful information includes website addresses for the vast collections of ancient coins digitized and now available on the web from the Bibliothèque national de France (120,000 Greek coins), the American Numismatic Society, and the British Museum (100,000 coins, 100,000 other ancient objects, p.100)—many with images. The BM allows open access but some institutions, having tried such liberality, have abandoned it. While the ordinary image is a “passive illustration,” hypertext can communicate “embedded knowledge” from the electronic page/data set—relationships, on condition that one knows how to use it (not herein explained), and if one further knows how to avoid redundant or irrelevant “hits.” Oldman writes of “pre-emptive collaboration,” “the semantic web,” and “semantic harmonization,” but these topics may leave novice readers behind (108). One pre-eminent inhibiting problem: owning organizations’ “proprietary pay walls and password systems” that imprison “knowledge assets.” The “digital Wunderkammer” remains a still distant dream.

Kathleen Coleman thankfully discusses the “practicalities” of presenting the Ancient Visual now in the sixth and final chapter. Your reviewer, in current attempts to procure illustration permissions for a volume, almost despaired of the minimal cooperation needed on this continent and in the olde countries. Publishers often (but not in this case) expect authors (the impecunious scriblerians) to front the money that many (not all) museums extort for their free publicity. More than a few museums do not even respond to requests when one wishes to pay for a photograph, and some that do respond, seem to take month-long coffee breaks before consenting to take money or grant free dissemination (if responding at all, blaming the delay on short-staffing, reduced computer access, ill health, etc., etc.). Anyone seeking to gain the right to reproduce an image of an object stolen from a desecrated pagan grave and perhaps passed through the hands of greedy tombaroli and greedier middle-men (ricettatori when Italian) in black-markets, has been shocked by the price that (some) profit-motivated museums extract for reproduction of a good, or mediocre, image in an academic publication. Perhaps being a person of great auctoritas or occupying endowed chairs in institutions of glamorous prestige greases the hierophants’ skids. Your reviewer would not know.

It may reflect the interests and specialties of the convener that only one chapter focuses on Greek material. Classicists utriusque linguae however can easily “translate” pari passu many of the issues—myth and history, “naturalism” and stylization, juxtapositions and disjunctions, e.g.—from one culture to another. Classicists (text-types) must not “succumb to the temptation” of looking at images merely to “illustrate” their literary sources, or, when they do so, they must first consider the many and considerable problems of possible mis-interpretation (14). Nonverbal behaviors, here gestures and postures frozen forever in images, can be as multivalent as slippery spoken or written words—often more so.

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