BMCR 2006.08.55

Representations of War in Ancient Rome

, , Representations of war in ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xiv, 365 pages : illustrations, map, plans ; 27 cm. ISBN 0521848172. $90.00.

Table of Contents

This collection of ten papers, linked by “the premise that the presentation of warfare…was instrumental in constructing the Romans’ beliefs about themselves,” derives from a 2001 session at the College Art Association meeting. Since the papers are not inter-referential, and since only a few treat similar subject matter, this review will take the form of ten mini-reviews, which follow this introduction.

One of the goals of the conference was to bring together historians and art historians, and while this collection includes interesting contributions from both, few of the articles draw heavily on the proprietary source materials of more than one discipline. Instead, there are several papers on Roman culture, studying either the portrayal of certain aspects of warfare in figural and/or literary sources, and several others that are focused more tightly on the art itself. While actual warfare looms large in a few of the papers (Roth, Lusnia, Harris and, to a certain extent, Dillon), it is the representations that are generally more central, while war looms in the background. This may be a bit of unnecessary niggling, but it seems worth noting that most of the papers deal with the historical or art-historical relevance of the representations without considering the strength or validity of their connection to war: the manner in which war actively charged certain coins and statuary for their Roman users and viewers is generally unexplored, and one is occasionally left wondering how exactly a victory coinage, for example, constitutes a “representation of war.” This is not necessarily a criticism of any of the papers—there are some fascinating bits of art history that the Roman historian should find to be of great use—only a warning to the potential reader who may be looking for commentary on the Romans’ representations of their own warfare rather than on the cultural applications of its results, namely victory and booty.

The book itself is handsome; the quality of the text, other than a few typos, is high, and there are many useful and well-produced photos (black and white). The index is quite good. The reader who seeks to add to their understanding of Roman culture by flipping through the book will be amply rewarded, and historians who might take a dim view of the usefulness of art as a tool for interpreting Roman culture will find themselves repeatedly corrected. Some of the work here demonstrates an ingenious use of art history to open a broad window on Roman society—a lot more of the history of Rome can be explained by the study of looted statues than one might think.

Katherine E. Welch’s introduction provides a broad sketch of the various influences of warfare on the visual culture of Rome, focusing on the Republic but including the Empire (as does the book as a whole). Welch demonstrates the near-ubiquity in Roman art and material culture of either warlike references or direct military connections. When she concludes with the alarming-but-familiar phrase “when Rome was at war, all was well” there is an effective sense of new resonance in a familiar chord. The introduction provides a very suitable backdrop for the book; the only question is whether warfare is merely a backdrop (and scaenae frons) or is actually involved in the dramatic action. An eleven-page section follows, summarizing each of the book’s ten chapters, and then a short conclusion in which Welch raises the question of the particular applicability of this book in light of current events.

“The Transformation of Victory into Power: From Event to Structure” (Hölscher)

Tonio Hölscher, the discussant of the session which produced these papers, is the author of the influential Victoria Romana,1 and his study of the representations of Victory forms the jumping-off point for several of the subsequent authors in this collection. Here, Hölscher’s chapter considers military victory as a ” momentary factual event” (his italics) that must be translated into monumental or participatory format in order to be converted into the currency of political power. Moving between Classical Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman (both Republican and Imperial) examples, Hölscher dwells on this theme of the transformation—transmutation may be a better word—of victory into power, seeing in such monuments both a message to the newly conquered and a prop to the internal political power of the victorious leaders. Examining both architectural/sculptural monuments and activities that involved the urban populace in the celebration or commemoration of distant victories (such as the triumph or the huge post-victory gladiatorial games given by the early emperors), Hölscher examines the way in which they not only translate military into political power but disseminate glory, itself both local and ephemeral, into a celebration of victory that binds the empire to its center. The rather theoretical tone of the article is amplified in a concluding discussion of Weber’s typology of Herrschaft that sets up the casting of various commemorations of Roman military victory as a form of ideological power exerted by the Roman emperors.

“Siege Narrative in Livy: Representation and Reality” (Roth)

Jonathan P. Roth argues carefully (and successfully) for a partial rehabilitation of Livy as a source for siege warfare. Livy’s faults and his habits of invention and embellishment are well-known, but Roth demonstrates that, where sieges are concerned, he consciously avoided gross anachronism, had a firm grasp of military terminology, and generally knew what he was talking about. Roth argues effectively that too much has been made of Livy’s occasional mistranslation or mishandling of his sources—the test of holding Livy up to his surviving sources (Polybius most of all) also shows that his Greek was “quite good,” that he generally used his sources well, and, except for a few technical details of mining, understood their siege narratives. Roth does not go so far as to declare that it is easier (trusting that Livy knew enough to distinguish the unlikely from the impossible) to spot “literary” embellishment and strip it off than it would be to spot occasional realities amidst a great deal of imagined history—yet this seems true, although he makes only the first part of that case for Livy. His conclusion, that “the lack of reliable information about sieges in Livy ought not to be exaggerated” is certainly correct, and perhaps too conservatively stated.

“Roman Aesthetics and the Spoils of Syracuse” (McDonnell)

Myles McDonnell’s article deals with the question of “Hellenism” in Roman art by considering the impact of Marcellus’ ovatio of 211, in which numerous Greek artworks plundered from Syracuse were exhibited to the Roman populace. Polybius, Plutarch, and Livy all emphasize the great impact of this sudden influx of Greek art and make much of its influence on subsequent Roman aesthetics, thus playing up Roman austerity (and hence, virtue) before the corrupting influence of Greece was felt. This rather obvious trope had been dismissed as a construction by Gruen,2 who noted the both the richness of early Roman aesthetics and the pre-211 influence of Greek models. McDonnell, however, wishes to restore some credibility to the ancient accounts, and argues, contra Gruen, that the ovatio and the subsequent display of the spoils of Syracuse in a temple built by Marcellus in fact constituted a watershed for Roman aesthetics.

Unfortunately, this interesting argument is assembled from elements that, rather than following one upon the other, appear to lie side by side: a discussion of the rivalry between Marcellus and Fabius provides context for the influx of art, but a discussion of the difference between 3rd century Roman sculpture and classical Greek statuary is confined to observation of the differences in size and material (small and terra cotta vs. life-size and marble). The evidence does not appear to allow more subtle considerations of style, and we are left with a combination of assumptions (logical, yet unsatisfying) about the novelty (i.e., of nudity) of Greek art and some very interesting but circumstantial claims about Marcellus’ unique influence and the possible place of his innovations within the familiar context of aristocratic competition. While this mixing of political history and the history of art is very enticing and could prove to be a profitable vantage point for either discipline, the thread of McDonnell’s argument can be somewhat difficult to follow. It seems that the complex question of Hellenizing influence should be at the center of his argument and should thus be explored in more depth, but it is disappointingly left aside in favor of continued discussion of the Marcellus-Fabius rivalry. When we return to the question of the spoils themselves, it as if a necessary “art history” discussion of what precisely differed about the Roman art produced soon after this new influence had been omitted.

Domi Militaeque : Roman Domestic Aesthetics and War Booty in the Republic” (Welch)

Katherine Welch’s lengthy and well-illustrated chapter demonstrates the effects of the great influx of Greek booty on Roman domestic decoration. Taking the period between Marcellus’ ovatio and the conquest of Corinth in 146, Welch aims to show that the some of the most characteristic elements of Roman townhouse decoration derive from the “booty mentality” which encouraged the display of a wide variety of objects in the small spaces of the traditional Roman domus. Beginning with a thorough demonstration of the importance of military conquest in decoration—both in wall-decoration themes and through the adorning of the facade of the domus with actual items of booty—Welch argues that the new Greek booty was displayed not in the atrium but in the hortus and dining rooms, where the practical matter of limited space and a diverse array of objects heavily influenced the development of an aesthetic of clutter. Welch plausibly suggests extending the “eclecticism” of Roman sculptural tastes back to the late 3rd century and the haphazard presentations of objects in the triumph and the cluttered displays of statuary in the Roman domus, neither of which seem to have observed any Greek standard of tasteful refinement or of organization by theme or subject matter. A more contentious and more demanding argument involves extending back the origins of the Second Style of wall painting (typified by “architectural illusionism”) to the same period and the same display of Greek booty, the innovations being driven by the desire to present the objects before a seemingly roomy and Greek-inspired backdrop. Altogether, the argumentation and the evidence convince, and the satisfying picture that is painted here of the middle Republican triumphator is much like that of an American novus homo in a novel of James or Howells, a rich industrialist driven to accumulate beautiful things European: each only begins to understand the culture he has plundered, but is keen to express his own success in tacky proliferations of valuable objets.

“The Origins of the Roman Scaenae Frons and the Architecture of Triumphal Games in the Second Century B.C.” (Klar)

Laura S. Klar traces yet another important aspect of Roman art to the display of Greek booty, in this case the uniquely Roman adaptation of Hellenistic theater design. Klar argues that the origins of the distinctive three-story Roman scaenae frons lie in the desire of the generals-cum-impresarios of the second century to display captured Greek statuary. Klar works hard to overcome an extreme dearth of source material, since both the literary and architectural record of theater development prior to the mid-first century are almost entirely non-existent. Her idea that the mature form of the scaenae frons is the “terminus of a long evolution” rooted in the now familiar period of the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic world (Klar proposes the slightly later initial point of Hannibal’s defeat in 202 but takes the same end-point for her period—the sack of Corinth in 146—as Welch) is built primarily upon the early second-century practice of holding votive games. These included elaborate theatrical spectacles at which the (essentially lost) fabulae praetextae were presented, possibly with plundered statuary in attendance. Later theaters were surrounded by a scaenae frons depicting many columns and entablatures, and some were decorated in the theme of military conquest. Thus the scaenae frons of temporary mid-second century theaters, built to present plays glorifying the same generals who we know (from Livy) were exhibiting Greek statues to the populace of Rome, may have begun to develop the columns and entablature in order to enhance the action of their stages by supporting the actual booty won during the plays’ action. This is ingenious and seems quite likely, but the lack of hard evidence placing plundered statues physically next to theatrical performances, as well as the apparent lack of a direct connection between actual booty and the scaenae frons of any period, is felt. The article’s closing pages involve a general discussion of tensions over aristocratic competition and their role in senatorial resistance to the establishment of permanent theaters, but it is rather too broad and does not add much to the argument.

“The Bringer of Victory: Imagery and Institutions at the Advent of Empire (Koortbojian)

Michael Koortbojian’s article lands the reader in the very different country of detailed numismatic exegesis. Koortbojian examines the presentation of Victory on the early coinage of Augustus, specifically the “daring,” “audacious,” and “exorbitant” claim (on a denarius of the years 31-29) of the young Octavian to be the “bringer of victory.” This coin echoes a Republican type, the victoriatus, and plugs Octavian into a complex of references to Jupiter, Victory, Venus, and the latter’s putative descendant, the recently deified Julius. The coin represents, in Koortbojian’s analysis, both a unique ideological overstepping into the realm of divine perquisites (although such imperial claims would become common later) and a missing piece in the development of the early imperial ideology of power and victory. This reviewer is not competent to judge the significance of the apparent assimilation of Octavian and Jupiter (or even the idea that the figure on the denarius, on which “Jupiter bears Octavian’s features,” is to be so interpreted; the omission of an image of the obverse of the coin in question does not help the case) or even the extent to which such precisely-calibrated ideological statements, referring, as Koortbojian argues that they do, to a nearly 200-year-old coin, would have been understood by those who made use of the money. Koortbojian’s complex argument involves a few other coins and several well-known artifacts of the period in a discussion of the technical boundaries of Augustan power that also touches on such diverse elements as imperium maius, tribunicia potestas, and the paraphernalia of the augurate.

While this article may be of great interest to specialists in numismatic ideologies, it involves so many discrete parts that it becomes difficult for the non-specialist to both follow the details and retain enough perspective to remember their place in the overall structure or, indeed, to conceptualize the entire argument. Koortbojian’s presentation of the awkward development of Octavian’s expression of his unique political position makes sense, but given my own troubles in following the argument it seems fair to ask if the “ordinary Roman” could have extracted anywhere near as much meaning from coinage and items of decorative art as he does. Despite a few lines at beginning and end reminding us of the connection between Victory and warfare, the subject matter of the article has no direct connection to warfare and, as such, is somewhat out of place in this collection.

“Conquest and Desire: Roman Victoria in Public and Provincial Sculpture” (Kousser)

Rachel Kousser’s contribution examines the role of divine images in Roman representations of war, specifically the popular depiction of Victoria in the alluring format of the Aphrodite of Capua, and most precisely the image of this seductive goddess that appears halfway up the Column of Marcus Aurelius, somewhat incongruous amidst the many gruesome images of war and conquest. Kousser reads the image of the goddess closely—especially the differences between it and its obvious “source” on Trajan’s Column—yet she avoids too-intense exegesis and retains a sensible appreciation of other factors, such as the likely interpretations of the Roman viewer and the practical demands on the sculptor, that would have influenced the image. Hence her interpretations, supported by excellent images, are persuasive: the highly sexualized goddess represents not only the imperial virtus and its rewards but “the seductions of civilization.” Trajanic martial accomplishment is softened into an Antonine image of the benefits of Roman conquest, in which the sexual openness of the divine figure refers to the effortless attainment of the elegance of Greece. The second section of the article examines several similar sculptural images from provincial Germany, and sees in the popularity of this type not merely derivative art but adaptations of the metropolitan representation of Victoria, interpretations of imperial ideology by the members of communities composed in significant part of the very soldiers who won the victories. While the citation of the Victoria type is clear, these provincial images lack the sophisticated and highly sexual aspects of the image on the Column, and focus instead on communicating the more basic point that hard-won victory alone permitted the benefits of civilized life.

“Women on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius and the Visual Language of Roman Victory” (Dillon)

Sheila Dillon’s chapter is also concerned with the two columns, and examines the portrayal of women, arguing that their inclusion in various scenes “was neither arbitrary nor anecdotal” and an important element of the monuments’ particular construction of the historical events they purported to record. As Dillon demonstrates through a meticulous analysis of the monuments, women on Trajan’s Column and are composed, modestly dressed, and not directly implicated in violence, while the women on the Column of Marcus Aurelius are “intensely expressive,” subject to violence and implied sexual violence, and generally involved in the much harsher depiction of warfare that represents the most significant programmatic difference between the two columns. Dillon rejects Zanker’s idea3 that these differences reflected new realities of warfare in the later second century—surely she is correct in this—and explains them rather by a different set of programmatic choices: Trajan’s Column prefers an ideology of discipline, control and efficiency while the Column of Marcus Aurelius takes a different route, showing the totality of Roman control through the totality of violence imposed on Rome’s enemies. Inserting scenes of the slaughter, rape, and enslavement of barbarian women uses their bodies, now dominated by victorious Roman men, as symbols of Rome’s imperial domination. This careful consideration of a single topic yields a sensible conclusion and generally constitutes a solid vote for reading such monuments via an analysis of the choices of the artists and the programmatic intent of the sponsors, and thus avoiding the pitfall of assuming that we are viewing relatively unvarnished “historical” scenes. Dillon’s chapter closes with a postscript that interprets the famous torture-by-women scene on Trajan’s Column (as others have done before her) as the humiliating torture not of Roman soldiers but of non-Roman prisoners. While she acknowledges that the uniqueness of the scene is an argument in favor of it depicting an actual event, her analysis also yields the idea that the image of women as torturers can be a “visual trope that was meant to portray graphically the humiliation and degradation” of the defeated Dacians. Neither possibility is weakened by Dillon’s adducing of a very recent parallel, the photographs from Abu Ghraib that featured female American soldiers participating in the humiliating torture of Iraqi males.

“Battle Imagery and Politics on the Severan Arch in the Roman Forum” (Lusnia)

Susann Lusnia proposes that the more realistic and vivid imagery on the Severan Arch in the Roman Forum was an innovation of Severan dynastic propaganda. A brief sketch of the history of Roman art commemorating military events brings us to the “ostensibly historic battle scenes” depicted in the series of reliefs on the Arch and the debate over the identification of their subject matter. Lusnia sides with Brilliant4 and against Rubin,5 who theorized that Herodian’s account of Severus’ Parthian campaigns depended upon a misreading of the reliefs themselves. Lusnia then expands upon the work of earlier scholars who had put forth the idea that the reliefs themselves depended upon triumphal paintings. Further surveys of the varying arguments about the influence on the reliefs of both monumental sculpture and painting lead Lusnia to conclude that the latter was greater. Returning at length to the original question of the preference for “historical” battle scenes instead of allegorical representations, Lusnia concludes that a particularly strong need to emphasize the military glory of the dynasty was felt, but that this emphasis on actual historical violence was consistent with a broad trend of increasingly warlike imperial art. This is well argued and seems likely, but this rather broad conclusion weighs heavily here on only a few monuments, essentially on a single arch. Each field has its own source limitations, of course, and interesting theories are the bread and butter of academia; but it might be the case that—given that only a handful of monuments, constructed over a fairly wide stretch of time, survive—art history cannot shed a sufficiently focused light on the warfare and politics of this particular period.

“Reading in the Narrative Literature of Roman Courage” (Harris)

Harris undertakes an examination of the literary portrayal of courage, focusing on three authors who knew war and who wrote about it at length: Polybius, Caesar, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Taking a “two tier” approach, Harris first studies the representation of courage in its literary contexts and then sets forth his own “imagination” of Roman courage. This somewhat surprising word is a sensibly conservative acknowledgment of the limitations of our understanding of the Roman world, safer than that bolder claim of “reality” which so often sits beside “representation” in scholarly titles. Harris’ article is interesting throughout, with incisive close-reading complimented by a flexible sort of exegesis that is well suited to the troublesome task of extracting psychology from historical narrative. The fact that he doesn’t force the sources to support tenuous or highly-constructed conclusions is a welcome relief, and when the discussion sensibly terminates in a list of eight concluding remarks—suggestions, summations, and guesses rather than proven points—one has an old-fashioned sense of pleasure at having been present for an informative conversation, a sensation which is altogether preferable to that of having been pulled along through a scholarly argument.

Harris begins by warily circling his subject, bringing in Horace and Plato and discussing several pitfalls (homogenizing different time periods, confusing physical and moral courage) before considering possible methods of approach, including lexicography and comparison with studies of modern war. His brief foray into the extremely diverse modern scholarly literature on issues of courage and morale has the effect of raising and quickly muscling-down the lid of Pandora’s box. One problem here is that while Harris points to the importance of small groups, it is without mention of the scholars (in modern military history) who have recently been making an effort to unseat the “primary group” as the most important locus of morale.6 When Harris turns to his three major historical sources it is with another note of warning, that courage “is often a matter of complex and elusive psychology—just the thing that most ancient historical narratives are worst at.” This is true, certainly, and since we cannot assume great objectivity in our sources we can hardly reconstruct the “reality” of Roman courage: this is why Harris’ excellent formulation of “imagining” is so useful. Yet he could have chosen to be more accepting of the sources, despite their departures from realistic and unvarnished reporting: if we are to imagine Roman courage without benefit of soldiers’ diaries or combat reminiscences, couldn’t we do so by embracing the dramatic distortions of Roman writers, even their flights of fancy?

Harris is particularly hard on Ammianus, whose broad use of traditional topoi and tendency to high drama do seem somehow untrustworthy, coming as they do hard upon the heels of the more sober Polybius and Caesar. Yet I do not think that Harris is right to argue this sort of style is “to the detriment of what (Ammianus) must have known as an active soldier.” It is possible to assert, for instance, that Wilfred Owen’s poetry or James Jones’ novels are more effective representations of the psychology of 20th century soldiers than any historical narrative. Even with massive amounts of historical source material, modern war can still sometimes be better understood through imagination than reality; Ammianus may be seeking to horrify, impress, or even to entertain his readers, but that does not constitute a subversion of the truth of his experience of warfare. To take one example that Harris mentions, the phrase velut in quodam theatrali spectaculo (Ammianus XVI.12.57—XV is a misprint), seems to me an apt analogy, a clever framing device (Josephus, another drama-loving historian, uses similar language at BJ 6.146), and just possibly a hint that ancient soldiers, too, distanced themselves from the horror of battle by imagining it as unreal, as an over-the-top theatrical or cinematic “show.” Harris is right to point to the many things that Ammianus does not tell us about courage that other authors do, but he may underestimate what we can glean from Ammianus’ scary and blood-drenched “face of battle” narratives.7 Elsewhere in Harris’ paper there are some very interesting observations on the narrative uses of enemy courage, the role of financial incentive in feats of great bravery, and on the nature of virtus, a popular topic in recent years.8 Courage is important both as a literary and a historical issue, and as a military problem and a cultural question; there is much food for thought in this deft and wide-ranging article.


1. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1967.

2. Gruen, E. Culture and Identity in Republican Rome. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.

3. Zanker, P. “Die Frauen und Kinder der Barbaren auf der Markussäule.” In J. Scheid and V. Huet, edd., Autour de la Colonne Aurélienne. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000.

4. Brilliant, R. The Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. MAAR 29. Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1967.

5. Rubin, Z. “Dio, Herodian, and Severus’ Second Parthian War.” Chiron 5, 1975.

6. Intersecting publication periods no doubt prevented Harris from consulting some of J.E. Lendon’s recent work. Lendon’s 2004 article, “The Roman Army Now,” Classical Journal 99, number 4, mentions several of the new approaches to morale that look askance at the primary group. Yet Harris is correct, I think, to both emphasize the moral effect of leadership and to remain agnostic on the location of any Roman “primary group.”

7. For other, generally more positive assessments of Ammianus as a source for battle narratives, see J. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus. London: Duckworth, 1989; and K. Kagan, The Eye of Command. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006.

8. Lendon and Harris have evidently been thinking in similar ways about virtus, i.e. the fact that it constitutes a behavior rather than a condition. Harris’ observation that one purpose of the Roman preservation of anachronistic stories of military heroism was for the “psychological conditioning” of their active soldiers agrees very well with Lendon’s views on cultural conditioning for warfare. See J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. On virtus, see also the just-published book by another contributor to this collection, M. McDonnell. Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.