BMCR 2004.09.25

Rome New Surveys in the Classics, no. 34.

, , Roman art. Greece & Rome. New surveys in the classics ; no. 34. Oxford: Published for the Classical Association [by] Oxford University Press, 2004. viii, 155 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0198520816 $12.99 (pb).

In this new addition to the Greece & Rome series New Surveys in the Classics Peter Stewart (henceforth S.) states that his intention is not just to introduce Roman art but also to introduce the state of Roman art in scholarship (p.4). To accomplish this task in just 131 pages of text is surely daunting, but in this short volume S. has succeeded in providing a concise overview of the state and direction of current scholarship in the field. While this work does not address the need for a good introductory text for an undergraduate course in Roman art (that is not its intention), for students it will serve as an excellent supplement to the standard works. Post-graduate students and scholars interested in a good summary of developments in the field will also find it a valuable resource for bringing them up to date on current trends and controversies. The work is divided into six chapters: Portraits, Public Monuments, Funerary Art, Domestic Art I: painting, Domestic Art II: mosaics and sculptures, and the Later Roman Empire. As S. notes in his introduction the nature of his survey makes it necessary to exclude much material, but by concentrating on these general categories S. is able to emphasize two important themes, the function and context of a work of art.

In his brief introduction S. addresses the problem of the originality and identity of Roman art. He traces the progression of its study as inferior Greek art to the more recent approach of looking at it on its own terms, and sets out the goals of this work: not only to explain Roman art, but also to explore some of the questions that it raises and possible answers that scholars have proposed.

Chapter 1 on portraiture deals with a wide range of issues. It begins with a discussion of Republican portraiture, including a summary of the contentious issue of the origins of verism and the purpose of the Roman portrait. An overview of portraiture during the imperial period follows, under the headings Augustan portraits, family resemblance, imperial women, period-faces and physiognomy. In this discussion S. deals with both imperial and private portraiture, pointing out the problems of conventional chronologies and traditional approaches to Roman portraiture and making the important observation that its development is neither simple, linear, nor consistent. The last sections, dealing with statues and context and responses to portraiture, contain perhaps the most insightful material, stemming from S.’s own research on Roman statues.1 S. addresses the important question of function and context: who set up these portraits, what type of body were they attached to and how was it dressed, what sort of material was used, where was the statue placed, and what sort of responses did these works elicit from the viewer. Chapter 2 begins with a very brief review of public monuments at Rome. As S. notes in his introduction architecture has had to recede to the background of this survey, and this section serves mostly to provide a context for the focus of this chapter, relief sculpture. S restricts his discussion here to monuments that have provoked the most discussion. Under the heading ‘historical reliefs’ he compares the arches of Titus at Rome and Trajan at Beneventum as examples of historical commemoration and ‘propaganda’. Next is a good survey of current scholarly views of the Ara Pacis, with a warning about the complexities of interpreting the imagery; and then comes an examination of the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius under the heading ‘invisible stories’, referring to the fact that most of the relief was unreadable to the viewer on the ground. This last discussion underscores again the strength of S.’s work, the fact that the context of the monument is taken into account. A brief look at how public monuments outside Rome, such as the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, reflected regional responses to the artistic influences of Rome concludes the chapter.

Chapter 3 deals with funerary art and begins with Roman funerary practices, providing a social context for these works that is often neglected. A brief discussion of funerary monuments of the Republic and early Empire follows, including imperial monuments and those of private citizens. Under the section called ‘self representation’ S. considers the complexity of the images used by freedmen in tombstones and funerary statues. Next, sarcophagi from the second century onwards are considered, and S. presents an excellent overview of new insights about the imagery and social and cultural context of these works offered by recent scholarship. In the final part of this chapter S. turns to examples of non-classical and non-Greek influences on the edges of the Roman empire. This section also includes a good discussion about the current state of the study of provincial art and future directions.

Chapter 4 discusses wall paintings. Recognizing the influence of Mau’s work, S. begins with a good summary of the traditional four Pompeian styles, but follows this with a discussion of the limitations of such a structured classification. He then presents a survey of alternative approaches to studying these wall paintings, in particular the effect that they had on the ancient viewers and why they appealed to Romans as ‘allusions’ to wealth. The investigation then turns to placing these paintings in the physical and social context of the Roman house by exploring the relationship between the type of painting and the function of the room as a public or more private space. While arguing for the importance of studying these paintings in context, S. is cautionary about seeing the art and paintings of a house as a reflection of the social status and identity of the owners, or how they wished to be perceived, since we often do not know who the owners were nor do we know enough about Roman attitudes to draw such conclusion with certainty. S. emphasizes the importance of considering the whole effect of Roman interior decoration such as ceiling paintings and stucco and includes in his discussion more ‘humble’ wall paintings found in areas such as kitchens and service corridors, making the strong argument that the artificial boundaries established by scholars of what is and what is not art prevents a full understanding of Roman art on its own terms.

Mosaics and sculpture used to decorate domestic settings are the subject of Chapter 5. The section on mosaics presents a summary of the various types, focusing on examples from Pompeii and Ostia, but with reference to the diversity of forms found throughout the Roman world, and concludes with a brief consideration of their function and meaning in context. In this chapter S. also discusses sculpture used to decorate Roman domestic space, objects that are often not included in general books on Roman art because of their dependency on Greek models. S. suggests that these works should be considered in their Roman environment and examines what types of subjects were favoured, particularly the fondness for Dionysus, and the relationship of the image used to the setting in which it was placed. S. also considers why the Romans chose to decorate their homes with statues based on Greek subjects and style, particularly Hellenistic artistic models, in their desire to create a cultured ambiance. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Roman copies of Greek originals and the need to understand their purpose in the context of Roman art. The final chapter deals with later Roman art. S. uses the Arch of Constantine to illustrate the use of spolia during this period as well as the radically different style seen in the fourth century elements of this monument. This leads to a discussion about the so-called decline in Roman art at this time. S. points out that the tendency in the past to judge this work simply from an aesthetic perspective has been unfruitful, underlining that it is more important to try and understand why the art changed. What follows is an analysis in some depth of the various explanations put forth by scholars for this stylistic change, including the more recent attempts by scholars such as Elsner to place late Roman art in a broader context and examine the ways in which it was viewed by the ancient observer. In the next section S. turns to Christian art, emphasizing the necessity of placing it in the context of Roman art. He examines the symbolic nature of early Christian art, and how Christian artists adapted the Roman repertoire for their purposes as well as the development of more complex and varied Christian iconography over time. In the final section of the chapter, S. demonstrates that although radical changes took place in late antique art, the classical style continued to be used, particularly for domestic luxury goods as well as in mosaic production, and considers how this domestic art reflects the trend among the upper classes to use their villas for self-promotion as they retreated from public life.

The book is well written, with a clear and engaging style, and there are very few typographical errors.2 An attempt has been made to illustrate all of the works discussed in detail with twelve colour and forty black and white photographs. One criticism is the varied quality of these photographs; some are either too small or too dark for adequate illustration, and it is unfortunate that the press was not able to provide better reproduction. One could also quibble about subjects that have not been included, like the relationship of wall paintings from the House of Augustus and the Domus Aurea at Rome to those at Pompeii, or periods that have not received much attention, such as the Severan emperors and the later third century. And one could lament the exclusion of the so-called minor arts such as lamps, pottery and coins. However, a survey of this nature has to be selective, and one of the strengths of S.’s approach is his attempt to include examples outside the mainstream, such as provincial art, decorative statues, and the more rudimentary types of wall painting. The book is distinctive as well in its aim of looking at the social and cultural context. S.’s emphasis on a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of Roman art that breaks down the barriers between art history, archaeology, history, and epigraphy is commendable.

In this short book S. is able to provide an good introduction to the study of Roman art as well as a summary of new directions and current debates in the field. It contains extensive references to important recent approaches and theories and a wide-ranging, current bibliography that provides sources for further reading. This work is a useful resource for students of Roman art, but scholars will also find it a valuable addition to the literature on the subject.


1. Statues in Roman Society: Representation and Response (Oxford 2003).

2. One major mistake does appears on page 51 where the naked figure forcing Britannia into submission on the relief from the Sebasteion is erroneously identified as Nero rather than Claudius.