Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.53

Matthew Loar, Carolyn MacDonald, Dan-el Padilla Peralta (ed.), Rome, Empire of Plunder: The Dynamics of Cultural Appropriation.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xii, 325.  ISBN 9781108418423.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Samuel Agbamu, King’s College London (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In recent years, conversations about cultural appropriation have attained prominence in mainstream discourse. The implications of processes of appropriation in contexts of global networks of power and histories of imperialism are often foregrounded in such discussions. As a very recent example, an advertisement for the Dior perfume ‘Sauvage’, starring Johnny Depp, has been widely castigated for participating in the perpetuation of the stereotype of Native Americans as mysterious savages, while plundering Native American cultures for symbols to be commodified.1 The prominence of such discussions may give the impression that processes of cultural appropriation are recent phenomena. While the vocabulary to describe these processes may be of recent coinage, at least in widespread usage, the mechanisms at work are not. Rome, Empire of Plunder makes an important intervention in historicising such processes of cultural intervention and in nuancing how we think about ‘appropriation’ in the Roman world, who its agents were, and the directions of cultural exchange. In so doing, the contributions to this volume craft a fascinating, multi-faceted picture of ancient Roman culture, echoes of which resonate in our contemporary world.

The volume takes ‘cargo’ as an organising concept to bring together two strands of scholarship: studies of Roman appropriation of Greek literary culture, on the one hand, and of the plunder and display of material culture, on the other. The use of ‘cargo’ as a shorthand for these interconnected mechanisms encompasses the web of contingences, exchanges, and interactions which saw Rome attain cultural hegemony, and also decentralises the city of Rome from discussion. In this way, the editors of the volume build on Catherine Edwards’ and Greg Woolf’s 2001 edited volume Rome the Cosmopolis by emphasising the agency of peripheries in shaping the centre. In the volume’s project of ‘locating culture’, contributions draw on important works of postcolonial theory, with the volume’s introduction explicitly naming Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. Bhabha’s presence is more strongly felt than Said’s throughout the volume, not only in complicating representations of unambiguous imperial agency, but also in looking to the ‘in-between’ spaces as the sites in which culture is produced, highlighting movement and hybridity and looking at non-elite classes as cultural agents.

Echoes of Bhabha’s emphasis on liminality and hybridity are played out in the dazzling interdisciplinarity of the volume’s contributions, which perhaps goes without saying given the expansiveness of the concept of cargo. All of the contributions engage in some way with the interaction between text and object. Disciplinary perspectives range from the archaeological and epigraphic to the numismatic and literary, succeeding in addressing the ‘many heads of this hydra’ (p.5) of cargo culture. The volume’s introduction acknowledges the temporal and geographical limitations in scope, and it is true that despite the volume’s project in decentralising Rome, the majority of contributions are centred on the Italian peninsula. This seems inescapable given Rome’s status as imperial metropolis; while it may not be true that all roads lead to Rome, Rome at least remains a central point of reference.

The volume’s contributions are organised into three parts: Interaction, Distortion, Circulation. Each part is concluded by a short intervention by one of the volume’s editors, reflecting upon the main themes drawn out by the section’s contributions. Overall, the organisation of the volume works very well, but naturally, some contributions would have been equally at home in another section. For example, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov’s richly argued chapter on Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita as a work ‘mimetic of the physical city’ and a ‘museum… of pillage sources’ (p.31) would have sat excellently with Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols’ discussion of the textual plunder of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Both contributions deal with the ancient authors’ handling of source material and both draw links between the authors’ literary projects and the imperial cultural politics of plunder. Both also highlight the parallelism between constructing texts from plundered sources and building cityscapes from plundered material. While Haimson Lushkov’s contribution is grouped with chapters on ‘Interaction’, Fitzpatrick Nichols’ chapter is included under the sign of ‘Distortion’, a distinction which at times, and especially with reference to these contributions, seems forced. The intertwining processes of interaction, distortion, and circulation underpin mechanisms of appropriation, so to divide contributions between these categories at times risks detracting from the volume’s highlighting of the rhizomatic interplay of cultural signifiers otherwise so well conveyed. At the same time, edited volumes need an organising structure, and this volume’s arrangement of contributions generally guides the reader’s attention very persuasively.

The contributions in the first part of the volume engage with the theme of interaction. Basil Dufallo’s chapter looks at the way in which trade, as a vector of interaction, is conceived in Plautus’ Menaechmi. The discussion hinges on the lines of the play in which (one) Menaechmus disguises himself with a palla, a Greek cloak from which comoedia palliata takes its name. When Menaechmus compares himself in this dress to Ganymede or Adonis, a complex web of cultural interactions comes into play: Roman tastes for Greek art, aristocratic disdain for the trade which furnishes the Roman elite with exotic goods, and the military success which makes this trade possible. These layers of inter-regional and inter-class interactions are woven together in the fabric of the palla and Dufallo’s deft discussion of Plautus’ palliata. The play between textuality and materiality remains a salient theme in the other chapters of Part I. Haimson Lushkov’s above mentioned exploration of Livy’s history as a literary monument, cannibalising literary sources as Roman triumphal architecture plundered the material spoils of the vanquished, segues fluently into Thomas Biggs’ discussion of the Monumenta Duilii, built to display the rostra of captured Carthaginian ships after the Battle of Mylae (260 BCE).2 The rich, overlapping histories of this monument and its Augustan successors neatly demonstrate that meanings of texts and monuments remain unfixed and can change according to ideological vicissitudes. This insight is shared by Stefano Rebeggiani’s chapter which turns to the multifarious meanings attached to the Pergamene Gaul sculptures of the Temple of Athena Nikephoros on Pergamon’s acropolis. Originally built to celebrate Attalus’ victory over a Celtic raid on Delphi in the third century BCE, these sculptures, once brought to Rome, were conveniently amenable to the commemoration of the Gallic raid on Rome in 390 BCE, at the same time as facilitating Flavian identifications with Hellenistic kingship. These latter two chapters of Part I deal with the distortion of original meanings of monuments, which allows for a seamless transition into Part II of the volume, which explicitly centres distortion through appropriation.

As already noted, Nichols’ contribution on Vitruvius excellently complements Haimson Lushkov’s chapter, while Jennifer Trimble and Grant Parker’s respective contributions serve as monumentally Egyptianising centrepieces to Part II (perhaps even the entire volume). Trimble’s contribution is the only one which devotes space to a focused discussion of a modern appropriation of an ancient Roman appropriation: that of Fascist Italy’s reassembly and relocation of the fragments of the Ara Pacis. Trimble argues that the hitherto unremarked appropriation of New Kingdom Egyptian peripteral chapel forms for the Ara Pacis constitutes a sort of double appropriation. Augustus’ erection of a Heliopolis obelisk as a gnomon in the Campus Martius, in conjunction with the Ara Pacis’ placement, represented an appropriation of Egyptian and Egyptianising objects as components of an appropriation of Greek scientific knowledge, harnessed to measure time. Rome’s ‘colonisation of time’ is explicitly articulated in Parker’s compelling contribution on appropriations of obelisks, with a focus on the Lateran obelisk. Constantius’ one-upmanship over his father, in succeeding where Constantine had faltered in the transportation of an obelisk to Rome, plugs into the wider symbolic power of obelisks, the appropriation of which announces mastery over deep time, given the association of obelisks and extreme antiquity.

It is the third part of the volume, themed around circulation, which most decisively decentres Rome from networks of cultural interaction and where the peripheries of Rome’s empire take centre stage, ranging from a papyrus of Gallus’ poetry from Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia in Michah Y. Myer’s chapter to coins showing Hercules-Melqart from Hispania in Megan Daniels’. Amy Richlin’s chapter, which opens this third part, focuses on mid-Republican comedians as human cargo, pointing to Terence’s servile origins and compellingly linking the circulation of comedia palliata to that of enslaved humans. In this way, Richlin argues, comedians were commodities who produced commodities, namely comedy. To illustrate this conundrum, Richlin makes the strange analogy between mid-Republican comedians and Sonderkommando (p.170), a transhistorical juxtaposition which requires justification, especially given the suggestion that Sonderkommando were silent, which denies the uniqueness of their testimonies and documentation of Nazism’s genocidal atrocities. She compares the circulation of comedy in the Roman world with the vaudeville circuit in the first half of the twentieth century, arguing that the circulation of comedians also circulated comedic conventions and jargon. While the comparison is illuminating, given the chapter’s focus on the connection between ancient slavery and ancient comedy, shaped, as Dan-el Padilla Peralta phrases it in his summing-up, ‘on the backs of the unfree’, discussion of American minstrelsy and its relation to the enslavement of people of African descent could have bolstered the chapter’s exploration of the tension between freedom and slavery.2

As a whole, the volume admirably succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the hybridity, dynamism, and multifaceted nature of Roman ‘cargo’ culture. Yet it also has a lot to say for our contemporary, globalised culture. Grant Parker warns that the concept of appropriation risks reifying cultural boundaries, paying service to Romantic, nationalist ideas of cultures as discrete entities. Failing to take account of the complex nexus of agencies and power-knowledge in processes of appropriation runs the danger of seeing culture as fixed. No such shortcomings emerge from the contributions to this volume which remain alert to Bhabha’s suggestion that the location of culture is in exchange and liminality. I look forward to seeing if Padilla Peralta’s parting remark bears fruit. Echoing Lacan’s aphorism that ‘the State is the Sewer’, Padilla Peralta looks to another sort of circulation from which cargo culture cannot be extricated: ‘Rome was its spoils – the Cloaca Maxima’ (p.270).

Table of Contents

Introduction. 1

1. “The Comedy of Plunder: Art and Appropriation in Plautus’ Menaechmi”, Basil Dufallo. 15
2. “Citation, Spoliation, and Literary Appropriation in Livy’s AUC”, Ayelet Haimson Lushkov. 30
3. “A Second First Punic War: Re-Spoliation of Republican Naval Monuments in the Urban and Poetic Landscapes of Augustan Rome”, Thomas Biggs. 47
4. “Buried Treasures, Hidden Verses: (Re)Appropriating the Gauls of Pergamon in Flavian Rome”, Stefano Rebeggiani. 69
5. “Interactions: Microhistory as Cultural History”, Matthew P. Loar. 82

6. “Plunder, Knowledge, and Authorship in Vitruvius’ De Architectura”, Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols. 93
7. “Appropriating Egypt for the Ara Pacis Augustae”, Jennifer Trimble. 109
8. “Monolithic Appropriation? The Lateran Obelisk Compared”, Grant Parker. 137
9. “Distortion on Parade: Rethinking Successful Appropriation in Rome”, Carolyn MacDonald. 160

10. “The Traffic in Shtick”, Amy Richlin. 169
11. “Agents of Appropriation: Shipwrecks, Cargoes, and Entangled Networks in the Late Republic”, Carrie Fulton 194.
12. “Import/Export: Empire and Appropriation in the Gallus Papyrus from Qasr Ibrim”, Micah Y. Myers. 214
13. “Annexing a Shared Past: Roman Appropriations of Hercules-Melqart in the Conquest of Hispania”, Megan Daniels. 237
14. “Circulation’s Thousand Connectivities”, Dan-el Padilla Peralta. 261


1.   See this article by Joy Porter for the complexity of this controversy The Conversation
2.   On Mylae as part of the wider discourse of Roman ‘firsts’ during the First Punic War, see Biggs’ earlier article: Biggs, T. (2017) “Primus Romanorum: Origin Stories, Fictions of Primacy, and the First Punic War”, Classical Philology 112 (3), 332-349.
3.   As discussed, for example, in Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) Scenes of Subjection (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

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