BMCR 2005.04.68

Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: visual representation and non-elite viewers in Italy, 100 B.C. – A.D. 315

, Art in the lives of ordinary Romans : visual representation and non-elite viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. xi, 383 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0520219767. $65.00.

The volume under review is a wide-ranging and provocative survey of how non-elite Romans engaged (or might have engaged) with art, as viewers and as patrons. In tone, scale, and ambition, it is comparable to C(larke)’s previous (1998) scholarly monograph, Looking at Lovemaking. That work achieved the unusual distinction of becoming a must-read for all Romanists interested in ancient sexuality. Its success was due to C.’s ability to formulate questions about visual representations that connect with the questions asked by historians and literary critics who work primarily with texts and thus to bridge the persistent and troubling gap in our discipline between text-based and image-based scholarship. With Art in the lives of ordinary Romans he has done it again: the accessible style, range of material covered, and timeliness of such a concerted study of non-elites (more on this at the end) should by rights gain this book an audience not just among Roman art historians, but also among Romanists of every persuasion who are interested in the culture and mentalité of non-elites.

The difficulties of recovering the subjectivity of any ancient Romans other than elite males — the principal producers and intended consumers of surviving literary texts — is well known and has been underscored especially by the work of the past generation on the puella of Roman elegy: the supposition that these figures might somehow ventriloquize authentic women’s voices has given way to the analysis of (male) literary and poetic constructions of the female. Representations of non-elites in literary texts are no less “constructed.” But if we slip the bonds of textuality, the situation is more hopeful: the enormous quantity of visual and epigraphic material produced by and for them, and recovered archaeologically, has long been recognized as an independent source of information about the values and preoccupations of non-elites. Landmark studies of non-elite visual representation by Zanker, Kampen, and Fröhlich have shown some of the potential of this approach.1 C.’s work is less focused but much broader, in the manner of a survey covering not just funerary monuments and Campanian painting but a wide range of artistic production over a broad chronological and geographical span (though always within Italy). The objects he examines share the characteristic that they were intended to be viewed by, and in many cases were also paid for by, non-elites. In any case it is non-elite perspectives and modes of engagement that C. seeks to illuminate.

In the “Introduction” C. opens with a brief history of the history of non-elite Roman art. He describes how a scholarly preoccupation with the so-called Stilwandel, which amounted to a “trickle-up” theory of Roman iconography (i.e., that characteristic features of “high” late antique art could be found in earlier non-elite art, and must have derived from there), gave way in the latter part of the twentieth century to a “new” Roman art history concerned with how visual representation functioned as a mode of communication under specific social circumstances. Correspondingly, scholarly concern with form and style gave way to new questions about producers and viewers. C. locates his own work firmly in the latter category. While he insists that he has “no general theories to offer about non-elite visual representation” (p. 7), he presents his scholarly contribution as residing in the diversity of the case studies he pursues. To this reviewer, the most striking innovation is C.’s systematic effort to imagine the diversity of ways in which non-elites might experience art — ways of experiencing conditioned by the gender, age, and status of the viewers confronting any particular object. While acknowledging that these imagined responses are speculative (“out on a limb I go!”, p. 12), C. argues plausibly that this exercise offers a useful corrective to a scholarly tendency to project a single viewer, usually a highly educated elite male with a broad and deep knowledge of the iconographic tradition and a tendency to analyze the art he views just as a modern scholar would — hardly the “ordinary” Roman of C.’s title.

Part One, “Imperial representation of non-elites,” comprises two chapters: the first examining the images of non-elites on the Ara Pacis Augustae and on Trajan’s forum and column and speculating about how non-elite viewers might experience these images; the second performing the same operation for the column of Marcus Aurelius and the arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine. Here, in contrast to later chapters, it is not non-elites who pay for the art under examination but the emperor himself, who thus is constructing a careful — perhaps wishful — image of the place of non-elites in society. Thus, on Trajan’s column we find auxiliary soldiers fighting under Roman standards and Dacians being “processed” in various ways from barbarian raw material into proto-Romans. On Marcus Aurelius’ column the monolithic blocs of Roman soldiers and dehumanized enemies urge the non-elite viewer to play his proper role as a cog in the imperial machine in order to defend the empire against grim threats. And the ordered ranks of non-elites looking up to the emperor in the reliefs on the arch of Constantine present a similar message of discharging one’s designated social function and remaining in one’s proper relation to one’s betters. C.’s own understanding of how non-elite viewership works becomes clear in these analyses. In general he seems to assume that non-elite viewers would see themselves in, and identify with (whether positively or negatively), the non-elites represented in these reliefs. Of course these imperial images need not represent the actual views and beliefs of any non-elites, and C. indeed imagines the possibility (e.g., p. 41) of non-elite interpretations entirely at odds with the Imperial “message.” Still, one may wonder whether the dynamics of identification — observing non-elites represented in art and saying “that’s me,” or “that’s not me,” or “that’s supposed to be me” — are the only or principal ways non-elite viewers would have experienced these monuments. For example, perhaps some non-elites could spin out learned or pseudo-learned ekphrastic narratives about the art they view, just as Ovid ( Ars Am. 1.219-28, which C. quotes on p. 10) and Philostratus ( Imagines, passim) represent elites as doing.

In Part Two, “Non-elites in the public sphere,” C. turns to art paid for by non-elites. Such art would seem to represent the views and desires of at least one actual non-elite person, the patron her- or himself. The five chapters constituting this section take up a variety of objects not only commissioned by, but actually depicting, non-elites engaged in various activities in the civic sphere. Chapter 3 discusses a variety of images related to cult practice: two Lararia from Pompeii, an altar associated with Vicomagistri from Rome, and the paintings of the carpenters’ procession and Cybele procession also from Pompeii. Chapter 4 turns to scenes of work, including a series of paintings from Pompeii — scenes of shopkeepers, fullers, marketplaces, and the famous Cupid-craftsmen from the House of the Vettii, as well as funerary monuments and mosaics from Ostia and elsewhere that show scenes of everyday work. In both chapters C. interprets these scenes as celebrating and elevating the everyday activities, sacred and profane, of non-elite Romans. He rightly stresses that such scenes do not “document” such activities as they actually happened, but that in every case the patrons or artists either singled out particular elements, or juxtaposed scenes in certain ways, or created idealizations, to meet a variety of context-specific needs.

Chapter 5, entitled “Spectacle,” begins by noting how the status-marked seating arrangements in Roman theaters and amphitheaters put the audience on display to itself. Major sections of this chapter examine scaenae frons wall-paintings from Rome and Pompeii that show human figures (whether statues or “live”) among the aediculae and pilasters; the tomb of Lusius Storax with its throng of surrounding figures; and the famous Pompeian painting of the amphitheater riot. Probably my favorite piece of analysis in the book occurs in this latter section: C. masterfully illuminates the distinctive features of this unique commission by comparing it to a Flavian coin showing the Colosseum filled with an orderly crowd (pp. 152-58). Conversely, some of the least compelling analysis, in my view, occurs in the discussion of the scaenae frons paintings: C. does not convince me that the infamia suffered by actors had much to do with what non-elite viewers might have made of the human figures that sometimes appear in these paintings.

Chapter 6 turns to cauponae and their painted decorations, commissioned by non-elite proprietors for the pleasure of their non-elite clienteles. Here C. discusses a sequence of four cartoon-like panel paintings of barroom activities from the Caupona of Salvius at Pompeii and then the Caupona of the Seven Sages in Ostia, where the walls are painted to show human figures seated in a latrine and presided over by the sages themselves, who give advice on defecation. C. considers the social function of the laughter that these paintings must have raised: he suggests, for example, that these scenes depict carnivalesque social inversions that enable certain non-elites to assert power (e.g., p. 168). The prominent painted words that are integral to these scenes enable C. to make some nice observations about the social range and functioning of literacy, observations that refine and nuance the results of recent studies of ancient literacy.2

C. examines tombs in chapter 7. He begins by discussing how certain funerary monuments on the “street of the tombs” at the Herculaneum gate in Pompeii might have addressed themselves to non-elite wayfarers. A lengthy analysis of Vestorius Priscus’ tomb forms the core of the chapter.3 C. goes on to examine a pair of Ostian tombs with Nilotic decoration in paint or mosaic, developing a fascinating and to my mind convincing account of why the antics of Pygmies “belong” in funerary and also convivial contexts (apotropaic laughter is a large part of it). Throughout this chapter C. is refreshingly clear, and firm, about identifying funerary imagery with the pleasures of life as it is (or was) lived, insisting that it should not in general be seen as picturing an afterlife (e.g., p. 181).

Part Three, “Non-elites in the domestic sphere,” moves inside the house to find still more art created by and for “ordinary” Romans. C. treats such art in two chapters. The first, chapter 8, considers conviviality: it opens with a brief description and sociology of Roman domestic dining and then examines three dining rooms in non-elite Pompeian houses whose decoration also relates to conviviality. These are (1) the triclinium of the recently excavated Casa dei Casti Amanti, with three central panel-paintings of convivial scenes that C. considers to be derived from pattern-books of Hellenistic painting; (2) the similarly decorated triclinium of the Casa del Triclinio, whose paintings C. sees as uniquely “Roman” commissions; and (3) the triclinium of the Casa del Moralista, where elegiac couplets that prescribe proper convivial behavior take the place of central panel paintings. C. considers what responses non-elite viewers (of diverse ages, sexes, and statuses) might have had to such decoration in these self-reflexive dining/viewing situations. Here again he works with an “identity” model of viewer engagement, which assumes that the actual diners have a “that’s me/us” or “that’s not me/us” response to the decoration. This model is reasonable, but (again) need not be the only way non-elite viewers might experience such art.4

Chapter 9, the last, considers other self-representational strategies within the house, particularly art that seems to depict the proprietor himself and/or members of his family. The principal sections examine the capitals of the House of the Figured Capitals in Pompeii, which are sculpted to show the owner and his wife (what kind of greeting did these reliefs provide to visitors?); the painted portraits of children in the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto (how might children, as opposed to adults, experience a confrontation with these images?); the famous bread-dole scene from the house at VII.3.30 that graces this book’s dustjacket (“Making the most of your magistracy” is C.’s title for this section); and the equally famous portrait of “Terentius Neo” and his wife from the house at VII.2.6 (what would this image communicate to a visitor to the house, as opposed to a patron of the bakery next door, who could see the painting down a narrow corridor?).

The book wraps up with five pages of “Conclusions,” which reprise some of the major arguments. Chief among these is that, in C.’s view, there is no monolithic or easily definable category of “folk” or “plebeian” or “freedman” art, but rather a huge diversity of forms of expression at the service of non-elites. Also, neither “trickle-down” nor “trickle-up” theories account adequately for the relationship between “standard” or elite forms and the non-elite forms explored in this book. Yet Roman art of every form reveals and embodies one impulse shared by Romans of every status: the desire for self-expression and self-assertion in both the civic and domestic spheres.

The views and interests of non-elites have played a role in several high-profile scholarly discussions in recent years. In particular consider the “democracy debate” stirred up by Fergus Millar’s articles in JRS in the 1980s, gathered and reworked in his 1998 monograph.5 Roman constitutional history may seem rather distant from the art-historical inquiry C. has undertaken here. But the arguments over the extent to which non-elites really had a voice — and if so, what kind of voice — in the republican government (or indeed in the imperial regime) require at least the occasional conjecture about what the interests and concerns of such people were. Elite Roman authors promulgated stereotyped representations of the concerns of “the people” collectively: the grain dole, abolition of debts, agrarian laws, bread and circuses. The kind of analysis C. offers here, which discovers the pleasures, anxieties, worries, and interests of non-elites from the material they themselves directly produced, and from their self-representation in this material, usefully supplements and corrects these stereotypes. Thus this accessible book should be read by historians and literary critics, as well as by art historians, who are interested in the mentalité of non-elite Romans. Nobody will agree with every one of C.’s conjectural scenarios or find all the analysis cogent (some of my own disagreements are noted here). But every reader will come away with an altered view of the subjectivity of non-elite Romans and of what we can learn about it through studying visual representation.6


1. Paul Zanker, “Grabreliefs römischer Freigelassener.” JDAI 90 (1975) 267-315. Natalie Boymel Kampen, Image and Status: Roman working women in Ostia. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1981. Thomas Fröhlich, Lararien- und Fassadenbilder in den Vesuvstädten: Untersuchungen zur “volkstümlichen” pompejanischen Malerei. Mainz: Von Zabern, 1991.

2. This chapter provides a glimpse of how C.’s own thought develops. Much of this material was published in “Look who’s laughing: humor in tavern painting as index of class and acculturation,” MAAR 43/44, 1998-99. In that article he argued that the first of the Salvius scenes shows two women kissing (pp. 28-30); in the work under review he asserts rather that it is a mixed-sex couple (162-63), as restoration work completed in 2000 made clear. In the article he further suggested, in a footnote (p. 34), that some of the men in the Salvius scenes might be interpreted as cinaedi. In the current work this interpretation is promoted to the main text and incorporated into a thorough reworking of the argument (165-67). I myself am not persuaded by this interpretation. But the point here is that C. has reexamined and rethought everything between the “article” version and the “book” version; the updated analysis is necessary (re)reading for anyone who profited from the earlier work.

3. But should a small-town aedile and his family (who would have viewed the paintings in the tomb) really be considered “non-elite,” as C. argues on p. 189? On one understanding of what constitutes “elite” status in traditional societies, the very act of competing for and holding a magistracy defines the elite as such, since one must have a threshold level of wealth and acculturation even to enter the competition. In general see John Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1982); for specifically Roman considerations, see Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), pp. 44-45, 110-11, and Paul Weaver, “Social mobility in the early Roman empire,” Past & Present 37 (1967): 3-20.

4. Full disclosure: in 2001 C. graciously sent me a pre-publication draft of this chapter, to assist my own work on a book about Roman dining posture (to appear in 2006 from Princeton University Press). While C.’s work aided my thinking a great deal, I developed a somewhat different interpretation of how diners/viewers in these spaces may have experienced the surrounding decoration, and of the cultural character (i.e., the relative “Greekness” or “Romanness”) of that decoration. I lay out my views in that monograph, and will not rehearse them here.

5. “Democracy debate”: e.g., Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998); Alexander Yakobson, Elections and Electioneering in Rome: a study in the political system of the late republic (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1999); Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the late Roman Republic (Cambridge U. Press, 2001).

6. University of California Press has done a beautiful job with layout and printing, and I caught hardly any typographical errors. A minor cavil is that some of the color plates are quite dark and hence less legible than they might be (plates 18-22, for example, are not only dark, but considerably darker than the actual paintings). A less minor cavil is that the binding should be more robust given the weight of the pages and the price of the book; my copy is already pulling apart after moderate use.