BMCR 2005.09.38

Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation. From the “Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion” series

Frilingos, Christopher A., Spectacles of empire : monsters, martyrs, and the book of Revelation. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 1 online resource (184 pages).. ISBN 9780812201970 $35.00.

The sometimes bizarre monsters that inhabit the Book of Revelation have long been a source of intrigue for readers of the New Testament. Much recent interpretation sees in the visions of John of Patmos a clear critique of the dominant Roman imperial order by a marginalized group and seeks to understand the book in the light of the specific circumstances of composition. In this welcome volume Christopher A. Frilingos proposes an approach to Revelation that does not grant such clear lines of separation: “Rather than posit Rome and Revelation as distinct, stable entities, this book presents Revelation as an expression of Roman culture, possessed of the same ambiguities and ambivalence to which a variety of contemporaneous cultural products — the Greek Romance, the Roman arena, and even the imperial cult — attest” (12). He argues that the appeal of Revelation lies, at least in part, in the use of the language, imagery and rhetoric of viewing spectacles, which would have been familiar to a Roman audience and were a central part of the way in which identity was constructed in the Roman world. Clearly written and well-documented, Frilingos does not offer a comprehensive treatment of the entire book of Revelation; rather, he singles out distinctive passages suggestively reading them alongside other non-Christian texts and cultural products of the Roman imperial period. The result is an insightful, suggestive book that will reward students of Revelation as well as readers interested more generally in the literature and culture of imperial Rome.

This relatively slight volume is organized into six chapters, five of which are substantial, while the sixth contains a brief epilogue. The book’s main argument is followed by a section of endnotes, a selected bibliography that separates primary and secondary sources, and a concise but helpful index. The volume is blemished by only a handful of minor typographical errors.

In Chapter 1 (“Gods, Monsters and Martyrs”) Frilingos justifies his study by juxtaposing his approach to much of recent scholarship on Revelation. Much of the language and analytical approach of the study, Frilingos notes in the final section of this chapter, is part of the “legacy of Michel Foucault” and what might fall under the rubric of postcolonial studies (9). Two other authors also get special mention here: Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, whose work on the “production of knowledge [and] ambivalence of imperial discourse” (11) is notably present throughout the study. Frilingos is careful to emphasize, however, that he does not intend for his study to be the application of a postcolonial theory; rather, the “use of postcolonial theory amounts to an ‘internalized’ appropriation that is meant to sharpen the focus of what are largely historical and literary interests” (12).

In Chapter 2 (“Merely Players”) Frilingos introduces the world of Roman spectacles and the complex dynamics of viewing relations into which he will place Revelation in the subsequent chapters. The centrality of theatricality in Roman imperial culture is explored in such monuments as the Ara Pacis, whose images portray a carefully designed message advertising Roman imperial control and also reveal the emperor’s awareness of being on display himself. It is this complex dynamic of viewing relations that creates the context for Frilingos’ study of Revelation: with viewing comes being viewed, and, in witnessing a spectacle, one runs the risk of becoming a part of it. Frilingos focuses on two institutions where the convergence of power, identity and spectacle are clearly in evidence: imperial cult in Asia Minor and Roman spectacles. In discussing imperial cult, Frilingos notes the way in which Roman identity is constructed in the reliefs of “barbarian” peoples recently defeated by the emperor’s forces in the north portico of the imperial complex at Aphrodisias. While most of the peoples would have been unknown and largely irrelevant to inhabitants of Asia Minor, the representations “used the boundaries of civilization to impress upon its audience, subjects of the Roman Empire, a sense of themselves” (26). Furthermore, as a phenomenon whose impetus came largely from the cities of Asia Minor, it is the subjugated cities themselves which are appropriating Roman imperial modes of self-understanding. Frilingos then turns to the peculiar world of spectacles. More than mindless entertainment for the masses, Rome’s violent spectacles also played a significant role in the production of knowledge. Shows in which wild and exotic animals were either hunted or exhibited served as a symbol of Rome’s domination of the natural world. Public executions, possibly carried out in the form of reenactments of mythological scenes, blurred “the line between theater and reality” (32). And gladiatorial shows provided an ideal site in which to display and contest masculine identities the old fashioned way.

In Chapter 3 (“As if Slain”) Frilingos turns to situating Revelation in this world of spectacle by reading it alongside two literary examples of “imperial viewing” (42). The first is Phlegon’s Book of Marvels, whose parade of the exotic and the monstrous organizes knowledge of the world by turning it into an exhibition in which the foreign, dangerous and eccentric is domesticated (45). Frilingos’ second example of “textual viewing” is the practice of narrative description ( ekphrasis), which under the Roman Empire was made popular by ancient Greek romance, and into which is built a “call for audience participation [that] highlights the active character of spectatorship, something that ancient narrative spectacles shared with Roman institutions of viewing” (47). Like Phlegon’s Book of Marvels, extant novels reveal distant places to their readers. Novels also call on viewers, both inside and outside of the text, to interpret the spectacle and respond accordingly. Frilingos then looks at Revelation’s description of inhabitants of a great city who witness the murder of “two witnesses” by a beast and incorrectly interpret the scene, rejoicing at the events. Being taken in by the spectacle, the city experiences great losses, highlighting the risk associated with viewing (Rev. 11:1-13). In another spectacle, the great city Babylon — a monstrous stand-in for Rome — is destroyed before multiple narrative viewers, some of whom mourn and some of whom rejoice. By means of this gruesome account, Frilingos argues, “Revelation seeks to establish authority by putting Rome on display as other. Revelation presents the Roman empire as ‘a vast spectacle'” (42).

In Chapter 4 (“Wherever the Lamb Goes”) Frilingos continues to explore the dynamics of viewing in the Greco-Roman world, but now focuses on how visual and narrative representations participate in the construction of sexual identities. Frilingos focuses on representations of masculinity and “conventional notions of gender and sexuality,” which he explains as “a traditional grid [that] informed Roman imperial society, dividing sexual roles according to ‘active’ and ‘passive’ positions” (70). In this grid active behaviors (such as penetration) were associated with masculinity, while passive behaviors (such as being penetrated) were associated with femininity. While the male body is inviolable according to this notion, Frilingos provides examples of texts that destabilize the grid, allowing female characters to display masculinity and male characters to succumb to a penetrating gaze or to exhibit lack of self-mastery. Frilingos then turns to instances in Revelation that participate in similar viewing relations, both drawing on and challenging the “penetration grid” (71). The first is the complex figure of the Slain Lamb (Rev. 5:6), which, while suggesting “passivity and femininity,” is also accompanied by typically masculine “expressions of mastery and self-control” (77). In ways similar to other Roman imperial texts the figure of the Slain Lamb capitalizes “on the capacity of viewing relations to problematize masculinity” (77). But the Lamb appears again in Revelation, this time without any signs of suffering, and this time overseeing the torture of those who had accepted the mark of the beast (Rev. 14:9-10). Here, Frilingos argues, it is the beast’s followers who are feminized, seeing in their marking (or branding) and punishment with sulfur connotations of penetration. Typically masculine characteristics are also found in the figures of “one like the son of Man” (Rev. 1:12-16) and the “rider on the white horse” (Rev. 19:11-16), both of whom represent active destruction (85).

Chapter 5 (“Wherever the Lamb Goes”) continues to explore imperial and sexual viewing beginning with a treatment of the “woman clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1-17) that places it alongside a description of a painting of the myths of Andromeda and Prometheus in Leukippe and Kleitophon. While acknowledging earlier arguments that see in the woman of Rev. 12 the outlines of the combat myth, Frilingos uses the similarities between the description of the woman and the painting of Andromeda and Prometheus to suggest that both make similar demands on the audience, both present female bodies that are exposed to the threat of penetration, and, perhaps more importantly, both participate in similar dynamics of viewing and gender construction (91). Frilingos then draws on the works of David M. Halperin, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, Peter Brown and Maud Gleason to highlight the rhetorical and literary function of the female and the feminine in ancient literature: namely, the feminine is a device in the service of constructions of masculinity. This is explored through readings of the torture of Blandina in the Martyrs of Lyons and the martyrdoms in 4 Maccabees. Both narratives play on the traditional understandings of sexuality, destabilizing and subverting conventional notions of masculinity. In 4 Maccabees, for example, an elderly couple and their seven sons match wits with the powerful ruler, revealing the latter as a weak man controlled by his emotions. Even the unnamed mother proves more “manly” than the out-of-control king (101). Similar dynamics are at work, Frilingos argues, in descriptions of opponents in Revelation. The seemingly invincible city of Babylon (representing Rome) and its allies are feminized through their lack of self-control and “penetrative injuries” (103). The seer’s other opponents, rival Christian groups, are similarly feminized. The “woman Jezebel’s” punishment, for example, involves being thrown onto a bed, which represents “a tapestry of humiliation” that includes the obvious sexual connotations (109). Through this and other descriptions of opponents, Revelation is “textually taming them in short order through representations that ‘orientalize’ and feminize” (110). Frilingos concludes this chapter by noting that it is the image of the passive Slain Lamb from Revelation that is evoked in later Christian texts such as the Martyrs of Lyons, thus exploiting the ambiguity of Roman discourses on sexuality. In a brief epilogue Frilingos notes the importance of martyrdom in self-presentation and self-understanding of developing early Christianity.

This intriguing volume is a valuable contribution on several fronts. Frilingos’ nuanced reading of Revelation alongside a wide range of Greco-Roman texts and cultural products — including Greek novels, monumental structures, Jewish and Christian martyrological literature — opens new and profitable lines of inquiry that should be pursued further. Also welcome is the fact that Frilingos doesn’t try to overturn many of the insights into Revelation and it’s world gained in recent scholarship; rather, he adds an important dimension to conversations about Revelation by successfully showing some of the ways in which it participates in the various worlds of imperial Rome.

Occasionally the great breadth of material and subject areas Frilingos draws on becomes problematic, as he too briefly treats insights of other scholars on which he builds. More detailed discussions of the works of Said and Bhabha, who heavily influence Frilingos’ approach, would have been helpful. Similarly brief (and selective) is the treatment of passages of Revelation, which sometimes appeared to overemphasize the importance of the particular lenses through which Frilingos is reading Revelation. That the mark of the beast (Rev. 14:9-10), for example, should be seen as a sign of feminizing penetration is suggestive, but not entirely convincing, especially considering the importance of Christians having God’s seal in Revelation (Rev. 7:2-3) — something Frilingos addresses only briefly in a footnote (80, 151). Also missing from Frilingos’ study is extensive consideration of the ways in which some of Revelation’s imagery also clearly belong to the genres of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. I would be interested to know if similar evocations of the “penetration grid” appear in other apocalyptic texts of the period.

Nonetheless, that Revelation can and should be seen as a “cultural product of the Roman Empire, a book that shared with contemporaneous texts and institutions specific techniques for defining world and self” is persuasively argued (5).