BMCR 2004.04.33

The Roman Gaze. Vision, Power and the Body

, The Roman gaze : vision, power, and the body. Arethusa books. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. x, 334 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801869617. $45.00.

‘Gaze’ is what Mieke Bal has rightly labelled a ‘travelling concept’. From the history of visual arts it wandered to literary studies and played a significant role in the birth of ‘cultural studies’. Film theory and feminism exerted principal impulses. Since theoretical writers of different disciplinary couleur, among them Bourdieu and Foucault, have interpreted ‘gaze’ and visibility in relation to power or surveillance, the analysis of ‘gaze’ is intimately connected with criticism of society and social practices. Today gaze and related (not identical) concepts such as ‘focalisation’, ‘theatricality’ and ‘image’ are an integral part of several discourses in the humanities.

The collection under review with its nine articles of Classical scholars from the United Kingdom and the United States is innovative in the field of Classics “since many of the visual and cultural theories … are comparatively new and have rarely or never been applied to Rome” (p. 24). Indeed the visual metaphor (gaze, view, focus etc.) is paradigmatically exploited in regard to heterogeneous cultural phenomena of Late Republic and Early Imperial Rome.

As the editor of this collection, David Fredrick, rightly shows in his insightful and engaging introduction “Invisible Rome” (1-30) that there is a lot more at stake than simple ‘application’ or transportation of ideas, concepts and theories of other disciplines (e.g. film theory) on to traditional objects of Roman Studies. Not only has Rome very rarely been an object of analysis in the context of ‘body’, ‘gaze’ etc. in its own right, but we also have to deal with forms of invisibility (or visibility) inherent in Classical scholarship to begin with. Fredrick very clearly maps the problems and limitations of Roman studies as part of traditional Classics, where the Classical (with a capital ‘C’) and absolute point of reference is normally Greek. The collection’s restriction to Rome may therefore seem unnecessary, even unnatural to some stern promoters of the superiority of Classical Greece, who will never stop seeing Rome only as its deteriorated aftermath. Yet the ‘invisibility’ of Rome and the re-creation of Greece as the ultimate paradigm is a reception phenomenon only of the last few centuries — a fact deserving a lot more scholarly attention. This invisibility of Rome (or, as I would like to add, the visibility only of certain aspects of Rome)1 deprives us of valuable insights into a pre-modern society, with the metropolis Rome showing uncanny similarities (and dissimilarities) to our modern functionally differentiated societies. Not all contributors of this volume subscribe or cling consistently to authoritatively directing the gaze to Rome, which is the best sign that the still prevailing ‘Greek’ fundamentalism is not simply substituted by another one of different colour.

1. Cindy Benton, Split Vision: The Politics of Gaze in Seneca’s Troades (31- 56)

Analysing Seneca’s Troades, Benton shows how staging women in distress and extreme situations could serve as a point of identification for the senatorial male class utterly deprived of their once powerful position. As other contributors to this volume, Benton takes her interpretative coordinates from modern film theory as represented by Kaja Silverman, Tania Modleski and Carol Clover. Though recognising that the various film theories have been too narrow in ascribing only certain emotions to the male viewer, Benton herself narrows the heuristic radius even further. This interpretative limitation has its origin in the fact that Benton’s interpretation is orientated too much towards the scholarship on Greek Tragedy (e.g. footnotes 1, 23, 25). But the multi-layered Roman society with its variety of public entertainment and political self-representation is not 5th-century Athens. Frame and social function of dramatic performances and gender-roles are not comparable or at least not easily transferable.

It is crucial for Benton’s interpretation that the tragedies were actually performed in the time of Emperor Nero. Whereas the supposition of an actual performance, prudently ignoring the cul de sac of Rezitationsdrama, generally has my sympathy, this is exactly the point where difficulties arise. Not only can Seneca’s tragedies not be dated with certainty, but, even if we concur with Benton’s hypothesis, there is no indicator that only the senatorial classes watched drama.2 Is there a reason that we should be interested only in their reaction? What about the spectators of other classes and their possible identifications? And what about women spectators? It is intriguing that though featured prominently on stage and in public life (e.g. at the Imperial Court), the women again vanish.3 Even if it were true that the senatorial male’s visual pleasure could “oscillate between sadism and masochism”, we should concede to art/literature the prerogative of counter-weighing conventional perspectives or at least creating ‘tension’ with them.4

2. Katherine Owen Eldred, This Ship of Fools: Vision in Lucan’s Vulteius Episode ( 57-85)

Eldred’s essay certainly is one of the highlights of the collection. It deals with the rather unsavoury suicide of the Caesarians in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (4. 402-581). With a moderate modifying reference to modern film theory Eldred succeeds in shifting the focus of former scholarship to a more balanced appreciation by analysing possible multiple, even contradicting identifications of the readers.

In interpreting the mass suicide of Vulteius and his men she takes Caesar’s gaze/look (or the imagined gaze of the absent Caesar exerting the same effect), a symbol for his political power, as point of reference rather than a Stoic ideal (or perversion of the Stoic ideal) of suicide. According to Eldred this is an analogy to the political climate in the time of the Caesares where everything is directed to the benefit of the One for whom many have to die. This is contrasted with Virgil’s Aeneid, where — as Philip Hardie argued in his seminal study [The Epic Successors of Virgil. A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition, Cambridge 1993] — repeatedly “Ones” (e.g. Creusa, Anchises, Palinurus) have to die for the “many”, i.e. for Rome. Lucan’s reversal/inversion of this highly problematic concept by means of blending the powerful ‘gaze’ and narrative focalisation is seen as mirroring Nero and other Caesares as rulers of gaze, vision and spectacle.

From my perspective two reservations remain: whenever the highly complex Bellum Civile is compared to the far from monochrome Aeneid, there is always the danger of Virgil-scholarship only warmed up. This fallacy could have been avoided by referring rather to the Roman devotio in general and its multifarious ‘use’ in the Bellum Civile. Furthermore the motif of the powerful and authoritative view is activated not only in regard to Caesar. Cato’s soldiers, too, humiliatingly dissolved by snake-bites, die for/in the gaze of their one leader and his questionable (Stoic or Republican) ideas of an honourable death (e.g. 9.884ff.).5 The other reservation, intimately connected to the first one, concerns the political outlook of Lucan. Eldred postulates that one cannot surmise from the anarchically ambiguous Bellum Civile whether he meant it to be pro-republican or not (or whatever). This is perfectly true. In spite of these reservations, — and this is a commonly observed trait of Lucan-scholarship, too — Lucan’s possible personal outlook has to sneak in in the end, and of course it can only be a politically correct one. Because the powerful controlling gaze is not restricted to Caesar alone, Eldred’s final conclusions develops a declivitous tendency.

3. Pamela Gordon, Some Unseen Monster: Rereading Lucretius on Sex (86-109):

In her innovative article Pamela Gordon brings together several loose threads in Lucretius-scholarship, and, after a detour to Tennyson’s Lucretius (1868), ends up in a “recuperative reading of Epicurean cultural history”. Her starting-point is the gendering of the Epicurean as “unmanly”, as a “preacher of effeminacy” or “pervert professor” (pp d. 86ff.), as for instance expressed in the bon mot of Arcesilaus (Diogenes Laertius 4, 43) that “men can become eunuchs, but eunuchs never men” (i.e. Epicurean philosophers cannot survive outside the Garden).

In the main part of her paper Gordon sketches the original Epicurean stance on pleasures and sexuality, which — having travelled “from a Hellenistic context to late Republican Rome” (p. 90) — come to a confrontation with “conventional notions not only of morality but of virility” (p.88). In the second part of her paper she shows that in Lucretius’ analysis of sexuality ( De rerum natura 4. 1030-1287) “erotic desire and image” are as inseparably intertwined as power and sexuality in Roman mentality. Erotic desire is interpreted as standing for the futile searching of and grasping for pleasure, which also manifests itself in participating in the turmoil of public life. In his scornful invective on sexuality Lucretius unmasks Roman vir-tus (idealized masculinity) in its darker dimensions of aggression and competition. By confirming rather than challenging “the dominant culture’s suspicion about the deficient virility of the Epicurean male”, he claims in the reverse the superiority of the culturally advanced Epicurean life-style.

4. Zahra Newby, Reading programs in Greco-Roman Art: Reflections on the Spada reliefs (110-148)

Zahra Newby’s article is concerned with the way pictures in a domestic surrounding of the Roman élite could be perceived. Her object of analysis is eight reliefs now to be seen in the Palazzo Spada, probably from the time of Hadrian, found near St. Agnese fuori le mura.

The coordinates of her interpretation are highly complex. The first interpretative step is the (forced) analogy of rhetorical mnemotechnics and the supposed perception of pictures. Tertium comparationis is the (imagined or real) well-furnished house with ornate rooms, serving as an aide-memoire in rhetorics. This is likened to reading or arranging pictures in rooms of a real house according to different coordinates (theme, formal aspects etc.). The second step is the linking of the attitude to luxury in general and rhetorical style. Whereas in the Late Republic there was a negative discourse on luxury and the praise of simple, unaffected style prevailed, in the time of the Second Sophistic both were well accepted. Because the Roman élite could not excel in political rhetorics any longer and was confined to the Konzertreden of the Second Sophistic, they used certain zones of their private houses for public display and performance of social prestige.

Because of this affinity of rhetorical practice and reading (or displaying) pictures, Newby does not draw on modern film theory but on two Greek treatises of the Second Sophistic, Lucian’s De domo and Philostratus’ Imagines. Both texts offer different modes of approaching pictures/images and explore their relation to ‘verbal’ images (either the viewer is being taken in by visual, especially erotic, representations or, in a conscious use of rationality, is referred back to literary versions of the mythological stories as interpretative frame). Several modes of juxtaposing, grouping and paralleling pictures according to thematic and formal criteria are discussed, together adding up to a sort of rhetoric of images.

Newby interprets the mythological Spada reliefs according to these parameters, grouping them into pairs or larger groups and highlighting their common formal and thematic elements. The alleged order and themes of the reliefs is seen as an expression of luxuria and social prestige of the Roman upper-class, indicating “their membership in an elite club whose badge was paideia” (i.e. Greek culture, especially mythology).

The fact that Newby takes her interpretative coordinates from ancient texts does not lend more plausibility to her interpretation. Because we don’t know with certainty where the reliefs actually came from, who the owner of the house or the commissioner or the artists were, the argument must remain hypothetical. Even if the display of Greek culture was a form of expressing self-identity, the question remains whether Greek mythology could be labelled still only Greek after the time of the Early Principate, where Roman adaptations such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses had lifted mythology to then new dimensions of interpretability. One can never be sure of the degree of ‘other-ness’ experienced by the viewer when ‘reading’ these pictures and whether he was not reminded of Roman (Latin) literary versions of the stories ‘told’ by the reliefs.

5. John R. Clarke, Look who is laughing at sex: Men and women viewers in the Apodyterium of the Suburban Baths at Pompeii (149-181)

Clarke, who has recently published a study in the same field,6 analyses a certain set of erotic, if pornographic, pictures in the Suburban baths of Pompeii. Because Clarke emphasises that in Roman Antiquity the confrontation with erotic images/pictures was an everyday-experience, his article is a healthy antidote against the mystification of erotic art as in the Museo Nazionale in Naples where stuff of this kind can only be viewed — with this crude mixture of imposed shame and hypocrisy — in the Gabinetto secreto.

According to Clarke the images in question, though of doubtful artistic value, accompanied the visitors, male or female, from entering the bath to taking off their clothes. The depicted scenes, a pornographic ars amatoria, form a sort of climax, from unusual man-woman-intercourse to ever more ‘perverse’ forms of sexual ‘behaviour’. Clarke maintains that these pictures are designed so that men and women alike could laugh at them, therefore relieving the embarrassment of taking off one’s clothes and of seeing and being seen naked.

The analysis has a dynamics of its own, holding the readers in expectation of how it will go on: Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Questions remain: is it really possible that a designer or commissioner in Ancient Rome could have undertaken reflections of this depth and differentiation concerning the sexes’ different perception of pornography? Who is the ideal viewer/spectator? Could there be and have there been other reactions to the pictures except laughing? And: What would the effect of these pictures be when seen more than once, even daily, whenever visiting the baths? Did the effect wear off? Did it change? Can we know?

6. Anthony Corbeill, Political Movement: Walking and Ideology in Republican Rome (182-215)

Of course, the inspiring muse of this brilliant article with its deliciously ambiguous title is the late Pierre Bourdieu, who by ethnologically looking at the social life of the Algerian Kabyles was able to develop his conceptual framework for the analysis of the society of contemporary France. Fundamental is Bourdieu’s idea that the decreasing difference in economic respects consequently leads to an increasing differentiation in behaviour, manners, predilections, dress etc., finally adding up to what he calls habitus with its fine distinctions.

Corbeill choses a time and a political situation congenial to Bourdieu’s conceptual framework and looks at the behaviour and self-fashioning of the populares in the Late Republic, who in contrast to the senate-oriented optimates were a less strictly defined group, though certainly nobiles were prominently among them, too. To stress and add ‘visibility’ to their political stance, especially the populares developed strategies of acting and performance vis à vis the public, setting them off from the constrained and refined masculine manners of the ‘conservative’ nobiles. Among others, Caesar is the paradigm for using body and behaviour, ‘fine distinctions’ — dress, hair-dressing, perfume, speech, excessive gestures, effeminate walk and a deliberate gender-blurring (i.e. confirming his enemies’ worst invective against him as homosexual and effeminate) — as a means of political propaganda and creation of group cohesion in the populares. On the other hand homines novi like Cicero imitated dress and behaviour of the conservative class whose acceptance they yearned for.

That Corbeill is not just superimposing modern sociology on Roman society and thereby re-projecting our contemporary society but is in harmony with observations from the interior of the Roman Society, can be inferred by Cicero’s bewildered complaint in a letter to his friend Atticus (15,5.3) that after Julius Caesar’s assassination “quis porro noster itus, reditus, vultus, incessus inter istos?”

7. Carlin Barton, Being in the Eyes: Shame and Sight in Ancient Rome (216-236)

Carlin Barton’s engaged article is a tour d’horizon of shame, honour, looking and gaze in Ancient Rome. The multifarious associations and parallels taken from modern contexts such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature, movies etc. do not only engage the readers’ attention, but also prompt them to contradict frequently in silent, creative interlocution.

Indeed one is left with the question whether the phenomena described by Barton can be labelled as typically Roman (even sensu definitionis given in footnote 13) or whether they can be observed in any given society, if only the focus is on the aspects in question. For example, the connection of looking and sadism, letting others watch things horrible to them crops up in military or para-military contexts and totalitarian regimes of any time. The over-all effect is — contrary to the authoress’s intention — that something like the notion of anthropological constants seems to emerge.

The Roman material on the other hand is taken from contexts too different either in historical or generic perspective: literary characters (preferably from Plautus’ comedies) appear next to ‘ real’ historical figures. This ‘zoom-effect’, levelling different stages of development in Roman society, certainly is due to the fact that this article is an abstract of Barton’s recently published study on the same topic.7

In spite of the above reservations, to my mind the relevance of this article lies in mapping the areas of Roman society in which gaze/view in the interplay of honor and pudor could play a significant rôle in self-definition or annihilation/disregard by others. This is but the first step of a differentiated analysis of who in Roman society were the masters of this discourse on visibility and whether everybody subscribed to their restrictions. Yet, the material does not provide enough evidence to allow statements about missing or not missing “integrated psychic whole” or a “stable notion of the self” in Rome or conclusions unnecessarily idealising certain mechanisms of the male-dominated Roman society: that women were not visible in public in the way men were, might have been also honoris causa and a sign of respect, but the aspect of not taking part in public life (and therefore not being in the position of decision and responsibility) certainly prevailed. This fact given, it would be much more interesting to trace the subtle changes in Late Republic and Early Empire when women indeed attained a certain visibility — e.g. started wearing make-up in public (not only prostitutes) and became object of funerary praise — and whether or how this sort of ‘shamelessness” was motor of social change and progress.

8. David Fredrick, Mapping Penetrability in Late Republic and Early Imperial Rome (236-264)

David Fredrick convincingly re-defines the term ‘penetration’ in a broader sense than “in Foucault’s model of ancient sexuality”8 by viewing it “as a concerted action of economics, politics, gender and sexuality” (p. 237), expressing itself in the “establishment of boundaries, access to privacy, the means to meet physical needs, and the ability to control the flow of information in one’s environment”.9 Certainly in Roman society (as perhaps in any economically advanced society) people at the bottom of the social scale were “more open to assault in physical and psychological aspects (even sexual ones)”, whereas the freedmen due to their change of class could develop creative, if subversive, positions in regard to power and sexuality.

“Penetration” — as tertium of all vectors on which power depended — is analysed in its spacial dimension viz. how space influenced and organised thinking, feeling and behaviour of people living and moving in the urban surrounding of Ancient Rome. Fredrick paradigmatically analyses areas and buildings with different grades of public access and functions (political-religious, leisure, private domus) such as the Forum Augusti and the theatre with its strict social order, representative of Augustus’ vision and order of society, which no longer allowed the splitting of optimates and populares, but referred women and the plebs to less visible ranks, and likewise the élite domus, especially the dining-room “with its overlap of gastronomic, sexual and visual pleasures”. In contrast to the results of modern film theory Fredrick stresses the remarkably high degree of gender-blurring as a specificum of Roman Society in the Late Republic and Early Empire.

9. Alison R. Sharrock, Looking at Looking: Can You Resist a Reading? (265-295)

The final article seems to call into doubt the approach of the entire collection, but at second glance, it is no more and no less than a general caveat for anybody interpreting works of art.

Sharrock rightly questions whether we can ever look objectively at anything, be it phenomena of our own time, or of past culture, because we will always be influenced by socio-culturally looking-habits, in this case the male mono-perspective. To her mind, this mono-perspective that dominates our sense-perception is the common denominator of Greece, Rome and our time. Indeed, it seems to be prescribed in the works of art themselves intentionally as a reading instruction. Seen against that interpretative background, the fragmentation of view conjured up in contemporary analysis would be just the modern (and vain) modus of abhorring the unavoidable mono-perspective. Do we miss the central message of a work of art if we avoid the male mono-perspective? As an illustration of these thoughts Sharrock re-reads the story of Pygmalion (and related tales) and discusses several works of Roman art such as the Portland vase, Pompeian wall-paintings (e.g. the sacrifice of Iphigeneia) as well as some modern pictures (Vermeer, Helmut Berger). Whereas the male mono-perspective seems to prevail, closer scrutiny brings to light other perspectives standing in tension to what Sharrock calls “authority”. The solution consequently does not consist in avoiding or denying the male mono-perspective but in consciously suspending pre-judice (which means reflection of one’s own implicit and explicit pre-suppositions) to allow those tensions in a work of art to emerge.

Whereas I can agree to the general outline of this article, I still would postulate with the editor of the collection that Rome — in spite of the prevailing male mono-perspective — was different from Greece.10 In the question of the distribution of gender-roles even small differences can be absolute differences. The social reality (e.g. forms of marriage and marriage contracts, laws of heritage, better rights for certain groups of women etc.) and the reality created by art and literature hint at a distinctive gender-blurring in the Rome of the Late Republic and the Empire.

The collection with its predilection for and distinguished flavour of feminism, film theory, Bourdieu and Foucault, has its obvious datum, being a sketch from the humanities/Classics at the beginning of the 21st century. In this ‘being dated’ lie undeniable advantages and discontents.

The turn to questions important to our time , which is nothing less than renouncing the former nucleus of Classical studies (this applies especially to Classical philology) certainly will be called ‘yielding to fashion’, passing and temporary or “as useless as … boring” by ‘traditionalist’ (senior?) scholars in our field. But it is the right (and duty) of every generation to define their own focus of interest. The modern thinkers and scholars who form the point of reference in this collection have developed their ideas in the context of modern class society with its fine distinctions and from a perspective of analysing, criticising and ameliorating contemporary society. In this very carefully edited (and published) collection, critique of our society is replaced by an analysis of a past society which — due to personal interest and engagement — leads to better understanding one’s own position.

Anyhow, given the right of choosing approaches due to present interest, this does not solve the problem of dealing with the ‘tradition’. Instead of an answer, I want to highlight — without commentary — one significant detail of the collection under review: Though the use of secondary literature is adequate for the genre ‘article’ (or contribution to a thematic volume), it is nonetheless remarkable that in a bibliography of 26 pages the number of articles and studies published before 1960 is under forty,11 whereas the bulk of (mostly anglophone) secondary literature dates from the 1980s and 1990s.

From the perspectives of present interest and future research-areas this thought-provoking collection is extremely valuable. Every author explicitly lays open her or his theoretical frame and reference, mainly taken from outside the Classics, just as the editor professes to the provisional and test-case nature of the volume, since the ‘gaze’ and other concepts of cultural studies have rarely been ‘applied’ to Roman Studies before (p. 24). The tension or even irreconcilability of phenomena of Roman culture and modern concepts and approaches is convincingly removed in some articles, less so in others. With every article a learning-effect ensues where and how the modern approaches could be modified to be ‘compatible’ with research-objects of Roman Antiquity.

In contrast to this high degree of theoretical reflection, hardly any of the authors betrays his or her position vis à vis the traditional disciplines of Classics and the reservoir of knowledge they provide. Consequently the readers are left with the question whether these former disciplines have to be seen as the orthodoxy hidden behind the modern approaches or whether, for the sake of the new paradigm ‘cultural studies’, they have been abolished silently and definitely.


1. The prevailing popular image of Rome as capitalistic imperium avant de la lettre as in political discourse about the USA, even mirrored in popular fiction as in R. Harris’ novel Pompeii or other products of popular culture, highlights only the negative traits of Rome as a culturally advanced society on the decline. The collection is sometimes in danger of subscribing to this ‘image’ (e.g. Fredrick’s or Benton’s statements that the Romans were fascinated with violence. Perhaps they were, but is this fascination really that distinctive to set the Romans off from other peoples and times?).

2. Cf. Nicholas Horsfall, The Culture of the Roman Plebs, London: Duckworth 2003 (index. s.v. theatre).

3. Along with the women, the theme of the Troades, the Trojan war, a myth central in the Roman imaginaire, vanishes, too. In his re-formulation of the myths, Seneca describes a war where winners and losers alike have lost. The ‘traumatic’ experience they share is expressed by several forms of visual experience (termini of visual experience abound in the Troades — as in other Senecan tragedies). Whereas the devastating traumatic impact on the surviving Trojans is mainly due to visual experience — they cannot not forget having witnessed the murder of their relatives — winners and losers alike are paralysed by the horror of the apparition/vision of the dead Achilles.

4. For a general caveat see Sharrock’s article discussed below.

5. On Cato, see now Charles Saylor, Vana species leti: Cato’s march in Lucan, Pharsalia IX, in: Hommage à C. Deroux, éd. par P. Defosse, tom. 1, Bruxelles 2002, 458-63.

6. John Clarke, Roman Sex 100 BC – AD 250, New York 2003.

7. Carlin Barton, Roman Honor. The Fire in the Bones. Berkeley 2001.

8. For an ample criticism of Foucauldianism in Classics, cf. p. 248ff. The political impulse is most visible in this article, if I am not totally wrong.

9. Perhaps a consequence of this very wide definition of “penetration” in a next step could be to replace it with “structural violence” (“strukturelle Gewalt”) in the sense of Johan Galtung.

10. That Rome and Greece again were different from our societies (in spite of similarities), is self-evident, though they differ not in the same way. Certainly the Roman society went through stages of development that can be seen as an incessant social progress.

11. Further analysis shows that these forty are mainly studies of general interest, belonging to fiction or scientific genres of longer ‘durability’, such as commentaries or works of reference.