BMCR 2005.05.28

Roman Sculpture from the North West Midlands. Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani, Great Britain, Vol. I, Fasc. 9

, , , Roman sculpture from the North West Midlands. Corpus signorum imperii Romani = Corpus of sculpture of the Roman World. Great Britain ; v. 1, fasc. 9. Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2004. xxv, 66 pages, 52 pages plates : illustrations ; 29 cm.. ISBN 0197262902 $135.00.

One difficulty with regional surveys of material from the ancient world is the lack of congruence between modern and ancient boundaries. This is the case here, where the “North West Midlands” covers modern Cheshire, Shropshire, and Staffordshire, an area which has no relation to ancient tribal boundaries. It is therefore unsurprising that Henig detects an “incoherence” in the area surveyed. This leads him to divide his corpus into two distinct parts, the first dealing with the material found at Chester while the second considers the remaining items, mainly from Wroxeter in Shropshire and Wall in Staffordshire. A brief introduction of 25 pages leads to a corpus of 66 pages with 200 entries. Pieces still extant, the vast majority, are illustrated by high-quality black and white photographs at the rear of the volume. Entries list provenance as well as location and give a brief bibliography and reference to epigraphical corpora, where appropriate, a transcription, though no English translation, of any inscription found on the stone, and a brief description and comments on individual items.

Henig believes that there is no artistic link between the sculptures of the various sites covered by the volume and surmises that there was no “North-West Midlands school” of Romano-British sculptors. This is partially ascribed to the poor quality of the stone in the area, but Henig also suggests that this peripheral area of Roman Britain, “the end of the line”, was devoid of rich patrons who would have allowed the formation of such a school. While this is indeed a persuasive argument for the military site of Chester, it seems less likely as regards Wroxeter, a large civilian civitas capital. Nevertheless, Henig is to be thanked for underlining the problem, which is a useful note on cultural life in Britannia. Sadly, there is little discussion of whether cultural reasons could also have played a part in determining the nature of the work. It could be argued that the crudity in style of many of the pieces owes something to the persistence of indigenous, more abstract Celtic sentiments as regards the plastic arts. It is a pity such issues are not raised, as Henig does note the persistence of Celtic religious belief at Wall (xix), and many of the Chester stones, for example those depicting Hercules and Hesione (91) and Actaeon (92), do have Celtic facial features.

The interpretation of art is notoriously difficult. Henig is eager to see religion as an important key in this process, and such arguments are found frequently through the work. Often the discussion is eminently sensible, such as that on the carved Celtic heads found at Wall, and Henig is probably also right to see fragments of an equestrian statue at Wroxeter as the remains of a Jupiter column. Perhaps at other times, though, he is too eager to pursue this line of thought. Persuasive adverbs such as “surely” and “certainly” occur frequently in the text, and at times some readers will be keen to resist their implications. Stars (see nos. 25 & 26, if such they be) could represent the heavens to which it is hoped the deceased have passed, but placed in the corners of a tombstone may equally be evidence of a horror vacui (the two are not, of course, mutually exclusive). Tritons too may conceivably have a funerary context, but the possibility that they are purely decorative ought not to be neglected.

In short, this is a solid work of reference with a suggestive introduction and as such forms a useful addition not just to the study of Roman Art but to that of Roman Britain in general.