BMCR 2010.02.60

Family Fictions in Roman Art

, Family Fictions in Roman Art: Essays on the Representation of Powerful People. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xviii, 208; 20 p. of plates. ISBN 9780521584470. $85.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

Family Fictions in Roman Art examines family representation in elite Roman art from the Augustan age to late antiquity. In this monograph, Natalie Boymel Kampen selects a series of intriguing and complex test cases to explore this larger theme, including a cameo of Livia, portraits of Herodes Atticus’ trophimos, Polydeukion, the column of Trajan, the Severan arch at Leptis Magna, porphyry statue groups of the Tetrarchs, and the ivory diptych of Stilicho. These images are all in some way idiosyncratic instances of familial representation in the history of Roman art. Selecting this sample group is essential, however, to Kampen’s thesis and methodology. Each chapter explores a different case study to illuminate how familial relations, among imperial elites especially, could be variously articulated visually. In so doing, Kampen aims to avoid a problematic notion of progression or decline in Roman art or a rigid definition of what constituted Roman family in the empire. What emerges is a rich analysis of how familial imagery proved at once stable and flexible, allowing Roman elites to utilize it to establish their social stability (however fictive some of those claims proved to be historically).

In Chapter One, Kampen looks at the representation of Livia on a sardonyx cameo on which the empress is portrayed as the priestess of her deified husband’s cult (26). According to Kampen the gem comprises a “syncretic conflation of elements.” Iconographic references to Cybele and Ceres signify maternity and fecundity, while Venus points to Livia’s adoption into the Julian gens. These divine referents coupled with sartorial indicators of Livia’s matronly virtue and her demonstration of piety to her deceased husband render the empress a figure ensuring continuity between the new emperor and the divus Augustus. Even her proportionally large forearms and hands are part of the iconographic program, Kampen explains, because they signal her centrality in sustaining Augustus’ “political and ritual project” (37). This image of Livia, so central to the establishment of continuity and lineage, however, could have also been seen as “double-edged,” at once insuring Livia’s authority as heir of her husband, but also revealing a woman with “too much ambition” (36).

Kampen’s consideration of the Column of Trajan in Chapter Two discusses the conspicuous presence of barbarian families, non-Romans, in the column’s friezes. She notes that the column distinguishes groups of people through sartorial, physiognomic, as well as geographic markers—something rare in comparable friezes, like the Severan arch at Leptis Magna, discussed in Chapter Four. Repeated throughout male and female captives, who cart infants on the backs or at their breasts and drag small children by their arms, look to the emperor and his troops as the source of clemency and refuge rather than as a source of defeat and domination. Placed in conversation with Pliny the Younger’s encomium to the emperor, Kampen reads this column and another Trajanic monument the Benevento Arch as attempts to align this childless emperor with the positive traits of paternity. Though the father of no biological son, Trajan emerges as the consummate father of all people (63).

The following chapter finds Kampen leaving behind imperial imagery to consider the infamous patron, statesman, and rhetor, Herodes Atticus, both known for his building projects—including apparently elaborate commemorations to his “beloved boys,” most especially one Polydeukion (66). Her analysis of Herodes gives Kampen additional opportunity to trouble later literary reports of his effusive and even inappropriate mourning over his boy lovers. Further, this chapter gives her the chance to consider more systemically the methods available to male elites for recording grief and loss of the youth to whom they were devoted in a context in which paideia and eros were discursively fused. Kampen indicates that Herodes’ commemoration, rather than overly effusive, fell within the protocols of this eroticized culture of the elite male sophist (79). A survey of portraiture and inscriptions commissioned by Herodes or found on his estates reveals a certain method to the commemorations of the young boy, Polydeukion. The portraiture constitutes the subject of rhetor’s grief in highly flattering terms to be sure (in one case the youth is memorialized as hero, and the only other member of Herodes’ family commemorated as such is his wife, Regilla), but does so within a culture where demonstration of affiliation with and affection for one’s trophimos was anticipated.

The Severan arch at Leptis Magna is the subject of Chapter Four. As with the sardonyx cameo considered in Chapter One, Kampen’s analysis reveals how potent imperial women’s imagery could be in matters of establishing lineage and dynasty, and how carefully calibrated it might be as well (84). Septimius Severus came to the throne in the midst of civil war, his succession the result neither of birth nor adoption. Establishing links to the Antonines as well as demonstrating the future of his own line were politically paramount, and the Leptis Magna arch is an important statement about the pedigree and dynastic future of this native son—a statement that depended on representations of his empress, Julia Domna. Kampen concludes that the key to understanding the logic of Julia Domna’s representation on this triumphal program is to consider her link to the visual doubling of the triumphal entry scene on the arch. The doubling connects this arch to that of its Antonine predecessors, at Oea and establishes connections between the Severans and the Antonines (into whose family Septimius Severus adopted himself!). At the same time, it foregrounds Julia Domna’s own fecundity by reminding its viewer that she is a mother of two sons who “doubly” guarantees her subjects of a successful dynasty. This claim, of course, turned out to be tragically fictional in fact (103).

Chapter Five considers two porphyry statue groups of the tetrarchs, in which the four men, visually aligned and indistinguishable (Kampen suggests beards were added later to two of the figures), grasp each other’s hands in a show of affection. What differentiates this test case from others in Kampen’s study is that the image constructs familial piety in a context where generational or biological links could not be counted on (105). The tetrarchs undertook a novel form of co-governance that demanded a novel presentation of their relationship to one another. The marble statues, which sat on columns, do just that, veering from artistic convention in which the emperor is visually distinguished in various ways from others featured with him on a monument. Here the firm-embrace of the tetrarchs and similarity of their appearance has an important rhetorical purpose to indicate that these emperors are totally indistinguishable, “not just of one mind but of one being.”

In her final chapter, Kampen considers a well known ivory diptych of the late fourth century C.E. Attributed to Stilicho (an ascription that continues to be debated), a magister militum and guardian of the emperor, the piece displays Stilcho on one panel in his military garb and on the other panel his wife, Serena, and their son, Eucheris. The diptych was made at a time when familial imagery, particularly imagery of elite women, seized to be a theme in elite and imperial portraiture that dominated it from Livia to Julia Domna (133-134). Why then, she inquires, do we have a lovely instance of just that? A Roman immigrant, born of a Vandal father, Kampen argues that Stilicho used the diptych to show elaborate his connections to the imperial regime. His wife, Serena, was especially integral to Stilicho’s career designs because not only was she mother of his son, but she was also the adopted daughter of the emperor Theodosius. Serena’s iconography recalls imagery of the personified Spes, used under Constantine, to establish the promise of his new imperial dynasty (136). Serena also stands with Stilicho’s male child beside her, indicating the promise of his lineage. Stilicho appears in the diptych as deeply ensconced in the imperial court—despite the fact that he clamored with other non-Roman men for a stake in Rome’s politic power (137). Images, however, only tell us how Stilicho may have wanted to be seen. Ultimately, as with the Severan arch, this family fiction has little connection to Stilicho’s fate.

On the whole Kampen’s monograph can be placed with recent studies of Roman art that read it as a visual language aimed to communicate with and persuade its viewers through the appropriation of certain visual “tropes.”1 To that general view, however, Kampen’s study makes two important contributions, first, that familial connection was an important part of Roman artistic vocabulary (and could be signaled in a number of ways), and second, that though reliant on common modes of expression, patrons and artists often innovated and experimented with them to suit their particular rhetorical interests. Teasing out those underlying interests in these artistic “fictions” of family provides the heart of this study. Thus the sources of Kampen’s analysis are visual experiments in the appropriation of familial imagery in Roman art, idiosyncratic examples that indicate “a splendid combination of the fluid and rigid” in elite representations of family in order to sustain political and social stability “the elite required” (139-140).

Certainly those interested in Roman art history would benefit from Kampen’s monograph. Her conclusions about constructions of Roman family structure and self-representation, particularly as it relates to gender, however, have broader appeal. A number of her chapters draw attention to how Roman discourses of sex and gender were manifest and put to work in material culture (her discussion of Herodes Atticus is notable in this regard). Further, Kampen’s analysis might offer an interesting point of inquiry for the study of late antique Christian art. She implies that with the rise of Christian iconography came the gradual end of familial portraiture (140). This provocative point opens up the question to what degree did Christians’ appropriate visual tropes of “family” in their artistic representations of the saints or the holy family, and to what ends?


1. The classic study of Roman imperial imagery is Paul Zanker The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Michigan, 1988). For a treatment of Roman art as language, see Tonio Hölscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art (English Translation, Cambridge, 2004). More recent studies focus especially on the role and agency of the viewer and include, John Clarke Art in the Life of Ordinary Romans (Berkeley, 2003), Jás Elsner Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph (Oxford, 1998) and Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton, 2007) as well as Caroline Vout Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (Paperback, Cambridge, 2009) among many others.