BMCR 2010.05.11

The Social History of Roman Art. Key Themes in Ancient History

, The Social History of Roman Art. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xvi, 200. ISBN 9780521016599. $31.99 (pb).

Among the textbooks on Roman art and culture that have come out in recent years, Peter Stewart’s Social History of Roman Art stands out as an excellent introduction not merely to Roman art as such but to current thinking on the topic. Not only will it enrich and stimulate classroom discussion, but for scholars only peripherally interested in the subject it will serve as a highly accessible summary of recent debates on Roman art.

Stewart wants his book to “be read partly as a critical commentary on and complement to other studies of the subject (4).” As a meta-textbook, “it does not in itself provide a general introduction to the full range of material concerned (4).” Instead, it follows the lead of current research, most importantly, the shift towards a social history of Roman art, “which has to come to dominate the field over the last thirty years or so (5).” In this vein, this book is primarily about what Roman art was for, who made it for whom and why (4).

Stewart writes on the role of artists in the making of Roman Art (chapter 1: Who made Roman art?), discusses issues of identity and status posed by houses and tombs (chapter 2), and raises questions of agency and reception in his treatment of political and religious imagery (chapter 3 Portraits in Society; chapter 4 The Power of Images). The fifth and final chapter (Art of the Empire) introduces—somewhat cursorily—regional artistic traditions. Stewart links this (very large) topic to the Hellenic tradition of Roman art, which, finally, opens up into a (very brief) discussion of late antique art. A three page “bibliographical essay” concludes the book.

One great strength of Stewart’s book is his conception of the field of Roman art as a “broad church (6).” This allows him to bring together scholarship from across disciplines. But the book most clearly shines in its careful, intelligent and original commentary on current research. Some will disagree with positions Stewart takes, but his critiques consistently identify the most vexing and interesting problems in the field.

Roman art is notoriously hard to define. What exactly does “Roman” encompass, and is “art” an appropriate term for describing the richly decorated monuments, houses, tombs and objects of daily life that were commonplace in the Roman world? Stewart acknowledges that there was no Greek or Latin word for art in the modern sense and that no sharp division existed between what we would nowadays consider high and low art. But he sticks to “art” and “artists,” because he dislikes the alternatives “material” and “visual culture” respectively (2-3).

Somewhat paradoxically, most of what we consider Roman art was produced by artists with predominantly Greek names, who may or may not have been of Greek origin (16). Stewart briefly refers to the old question whether the use of a Greek stylistic vernacular in Rome and her provinces means that Roman art is simply a continuation of Greek art (12-15), but quickly turns to the ethnic identity and social status of the artists themselves. Here, the limitations of the term artist quickly become clear. Stewart elegantly argues that status is relative (21). The low opinion of artists expressed in Greek and Latin literature did not prevent painters, sculptors and architects from (often successfully) aspiring to an elevated rank within their own local communities (21-28). But what is true of ‘artists’ is true of all craftsmen and other ‘professionals,’ who had to work for a living, as Stewart acknowledges himself (28).

The status of artists is of little consequence for the rest of the book. But Stewart’s discussion of the artists’ training and the relationship with their customers sets the stage for the following chapters. Just as in the Classical Greek period or the Renaissance, Roman arts were acquired and learned like any other trade (31). As a result, Roman artists mostly operated with well-tried, standardized motifs (36-37). The patrons or rather the “buyers” and “customers” of Roman art only rarely made specific demands and were, typically, satisfied with the available repertoire. Because of this, Stewart argues, ancient art probably says more about the society that produced it than about the specific intentions of a patron (37-38).

This “demystification of production” (38), allows Stewart to discuss the art of Roman houses and tombs as a cultural phenomenon (39-62). Stewart builds on Wallace-Hadrill’s and Zanker’s social analysis of Campanian houses as a stage for public business and “self-representation.”1 But he is refreshingly careful about using houses to reconstruct the social identity of their owners or tenants and resists “reading” domestic décor accordingly (53-54). As elsewhere in the book, Stewart insists that Roman society was much more fluid than the deceptively rigid rank-based Roman legal system seems to suggest. Our literary image of Roman society only imperfectly reflects the social complexity of the available archaeological evidence. Indeed, many of the largest houses in Campania cannot be matched up with the “very apex of Roman society,” the social stratum that our written sources on Roman housing are concerned with (46). It is equally problematic to look for a specific freedman taste based on Petronius’ fictional Trimalchio (53-62).

Still, there is some remarkable overlap between ancient literature and the archaeological evidence. For Stewart, the parallels between Petronius’ Satyrica and the domestic art of Campania make him wonder if what “to a large extent encapsulates [Roman] art for us, …the art of middle orders in Roman society” is “the norm rather than a rather laughable exception” (62). This is a challenging thought. It calls into question methodologies that use overarching and sometimes overly subtle intellectual programs to weave together disparate elements of the décor of Roman houses. Stewart rejects such Bildprogramme for the notion of conventional and haphazardly acquired domestic décor, which was considered appropriate for its setting (42-45).

Nonetheless, Stewart’s treatment of wall painting and statuary is sometimes too conventional. He assumes that mythological wall painting implies “an educated familiarity with literary and artistic renderings of Greek myths, which cannot but be a comment on the patron’s social status (56).” Stewart further assumes that mythological wall painting stimulated the owner of the house and his guests to “engage in erudite discussion of these stories.” But would there have been that much to say about conventional and well-tried motifs?

Stewart uses Statius’ famous poem on the Sorrentine villa of his friend Pollius Felix (Silvae 2, 2) to show that “art was conceived as having a more serious, active role in the intellectual and cultural formation of the patron. Suitable artistic ornaments do not only reflect the cultivation and sophistication of their owner; they make the man (42-43).” But Pollius Felix unquestionably belonged to the very apex of Roman society that Stewart only rarely sees represented in the archaeological evidence. Further, Statius mentions the statues, paintings and the portraits of “chiefs, bards and wise men ( ora ducum ac vatum sapientumque ora priorum)” as a matter of course. He only devotes four lines (Silvae 2, 2 69-72) to Felix’ conventional villa décor, but dwells at length on what makes the villa stand out: its commanding position of the Gulf of Sorrento and a single diaeta decorated with precious opus sectile.

For a man in Felix’s circles, it (almost) went without saying that he was a cultured man. What people did talk about were truly exceptional rooms like Felix’s palatial diaeta, or storied collector’s items like the Herakles Epitrapezius of Novius Vindex, to which both Statius and Martial devoted poems (Silvae 4, 6; Epigrams 9, 43 and 44). Vindex showed off his statue at dinner parties, just like Trimalchio boasted about his silver cups in Petronius’ fictional Satyrica. But there seems to be no conclusive evidence that diners talked about wall painting. Instead, we know that the guests at Pompeian dinner parties frequently scratched graffiti of gladiators and venationes into the elegantly painted walls of large entertainment rooms.2 And indeed, the pleasures of the arena seem a far more likely conversation topic among the “middle orders” of Roman society than high-pitched debates about Greek art and poetry. Also, mythological wall painting was by no means restricted to entertainment rooms. In the workshops on the Magdalensberg in Carinthia/Austria, mythological wall painting served as the backdrop for weighing and selling tons of steel objects. That said, it is, of course, entirely possible that mythological wall painting could become the subject of learned discussion. But to focus its meaning on a display of culture is too narrow, as recent work on Pompeian wall painting and Roman mosaics has shown.3

A related objection confronts Stewart’s view on mythological imagery in Roman funerary art (62-76). After discussing the role of tombs in the construction of the social persona of the deceased, he deals with sarcophagi. These mostly stood locked in private mausolea, accessible only to a limited audience. Again, Stewart assumes customers’ familiarity with the myths represented and argues that they talked about the deceased in “erudite terms.” On this view, standardization implies that “apparently familiar stories” became important “paradigms,” along the lines of biblical stories in Christian catacombs (75). But there is little evidence that popular sarcophagus myths were allegorical. If the Romans wanted allegory, they had a host of personifications to make a statement about the deceased. Further, the professionals who were the primary customers for these sarcophagi tweaked the standardized themes to express their personal feelings. This resulted in anything but erudite (or paradigmatic) commentary on the life of the deceased.

For example, when a Paeus Myron commissioned a sarcophagus for his wife and family, he chose the myth of Achilles and Penthesilea to express his conjugal love. He had the portraits of himself and his wife put on the bodies of Achilles and the Amazon queen, respectively. Of course, it is possible that buyers of higher social rank (and presumably higher education) saw myths in the way Stewart suggests, but so far only a handful of mythological sarcophagi can be ascribed to senators and knights with any certainty, while several dozen others are associated with artisans and other professionals.4 If these “middle classes” knew the myths they did not care about their literary representations.

Stewart’s intriguing theme of the relationship between conventionality and specificity returns in chapters three and four. Here, Stewart offers a subtle and modern interpretation of political and religious art. His analysis of the artistic process effectively demystifies the role of the patron. His careful discussion of agency in the commissioning of public art challenges the widespread notion that portraits and political monuments were propaganda. Unlike tombs, public portraits and monuments were not commissioned by the people whom they commemorated. Instead, they were part of a political exchange between a benefactor and her/his beneficiaries. Stewart takes this ritual of public praise seriously and explains the typology of portraits accordingly. Portraits were not an attempt to capture an individual’s personality but to express her/his public persona (91-92). Portraiture combined personal likeness with formulaic iconographic features. This allowed viewers to place a portrait within its political, social and cultural context. The same applied to the highly conventional bodies of portrait statues (94-101).

Stewart uses a similar model for public monuments in praise of Roman emperors. They were commissioned as a matter of course, in particular by the Roman Senate (112-116), and made use of standardized imagery. This focus on conventionality is in line with more recent work on political art but, at times, minimizes the differences between individual monuments. For instance, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius do not just differ in “style and composition” (119) but also in narrative. Trajan’s column emphasizes the ‘civilizing’ effects of Roman conquest on a wild and yet untamed land. Marcus Aurelius’s column glorifies Roman brutality in punishing the unruly Marcomanni.5 It is, of course, unclear whether an ancient audience would have perceived the difference. From a vantage point on the ground, the narrative on the helical frieze of Trajan’ column would have been impossible to follow and that of Marcus Aurelius’s column only marginally easier. This leads to questions about reception, which Stewart treats elegantly and effectively at the close of the chapter (123-142).

The book ends with a discussion of the relationship between naturalistic Greek art and other styles that used to be subsumed under arte popolare (143-166). Stewart briefly engages Hölscher’s argument in “Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System,” which attributes meaning to different stylistic choices, the idea of “Romanization,” and issues of cultural identity. But this brevity raises difficult questions in his final section on Late Antiquity, which mostly deals with the Arch of Constantine. Stewart is interested in the style of the Constantinian frieze which he sees as paradigmatic of the period (167-172). But one might ask: is the ‘un-classical’ representation of Maxentius’s soldiers on the Arch of Constantine more ‘typical’ of Late Antiquity than the classicizing reliefs of the Column of Theodosius of Constantinople? Here one wishes that Stewart had been as “selective” as in the previous chapters and provided the kind of in-depth analysis that makes this book a pleasure to read.

Overall, Stewart has provided far more than an excellent summary of current debates in Roman art and archaeology. His incisive and persuasive critique of popular concepts like “propaganda” will stimulate debate for years to come.


1. Wallace-Hadrill, A. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton (1994), Zanker, P. Pompeii. Public and Private Life. Cambridge, Mass. (1998)

2. Langner M. Antike Graffitizeichnungen. Wiesbaden (2001) 100-108.

3. Most importantly Muth S. Erleben von Raum—Leben im Raum: Zur Funktion mythologischer Mosaikbilder in der römisch-kaiserzeitlichen Wohnarchitektur. Heidelberg. (2008) and Lorenz, K. Bilder machen Räume. Mythenbilder in pompeianischen Häusern. Berlin. (2008).

4. Wrede, H. Senatorische Sarkophage Roms: der Beitrag des Senatorenstandes zur römischen Kunst der hohen und späten Kaiserzeitv. Mainz. (2001) 15-16.

5. Pirson, F. Style and message on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. PBSR 64 (1996) 139-179.