BMCR 2016.04.17

Homer in Stone: The ‘Tabulae Iliacae’ in their Roman Context. Greek culture in the Roman world

, Homer in Stone: The 'Tabulae Iliacae' in their Roman Context. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xiii, 260. ISBN 9781107029811. $99.00.


Cambridge University Press’s ongoing series Greek Culture in the Roman World has produced several fine contributions to the study of cross-cultural interaction in antiquity, and David Petrain’s Homer in Stone is a worthy addition to the list. An exceptionally learned and intelligent book, it should persuade even the most hardened skeptics that the so-called “Tabulae Iliacae” deserve to be taken seriously as artistic productions and historical documents.

As Petrain himself acknowledges, there has been a recent wave of scholarship on the Tabulae. He neatly carves out a niche for his monograph by offering, not detailed iconographic studies of the friezes the Tabulae bear, but a comprehensive examination of the cultural and historical context in which they can be placed, coupled with a novel approach to “reading” the friezes that takes into account recent developments in narratology and theories of viewing. Throughout, he acknowledges his debts to the work of others, while offering perceptive and thoughtful critiques of his predecessors’ shortcomings. His prose, while sometimes dry, is clear and informative; and if the book sometimes feels as though it lacks a clear central argument, this is not so much the author’s fault as it is a product of the immense interpretive difficulties that surround the Tabulae.

The book’s six chapters, as Petrain himself points out in the Introduction (p. 16), can be viewed as three two-chapter units. In the first two, he lays the theoretical groundwork for approaching the Tabulae in a lengthy discussion of various ways to “read” multi-scenic visual narratives. The first chapter is perhaps the weakest; Petrain, drawing upon his previously published work, discusses ecphrases of imagined visual narratives in Hellenistic and Roman literature (Moschus, Theocritus, and Virgil). While he is surely right to conclude that these authors’ careful play with the tension between the internal order of narrative and the order of viewing (what he terms [p. 32] fabula and sjuzhet, respectively) influenced the artist Theodorus’ approach to designing the Tabulae, the chapter nonetheless feels a bit detached from the rest of the monograph.

The second chapter, however, is more engaging. Here Petrain brilliantly elucidates the “magic squares” found on the verso of many of the Tabulae, treating them as guides to “reading” the imagery on the recto that deliberately stress both the multidirectional possibilities open to the viewer and the centrality (both literal and figurative) of panel-scenes such as the fall of Troy on the Tabula Capitolina. For those interested in ancient viewing habits, there is much of value here. His reading of Theodorus’ programmatic epigram on the Tabula Capitolina is also perceptive; as he notes (p. 61), Theodorus’ reference to “the taxis of Homer” carries a double meaning, referring both to the Tabula’s reproduction of the structure of the Iliad and Theodorus’ own art in arranging his depictions of scenes from that work.

Chapters 3 and 4, the heart of the monograph, are a bold attempt on Petrain’s part to liberate discussion of the Tabulae’s imagery from the endless iconographic Quellenforschung that has hitherto loomed large in scholarship. For Petrain, the neatly organized friezes depicting the Epic Cycle, often with accompanying inscriptions that sometimes give not only the titles of their literary inspirations but book numbers as well, constitute a claim by the artist Theodorus to have encompassed and thus “mastered” Greek literature in visual form (p. 110); at the same time, he persuasively argues (p. 118), Theodorus has given his material a uniquely Roman cast by foregrounding the flight of Aeneas, making the future founder of the Roman people into the most important figure in the Epic Cycle. To bolster his conclusions, Petrain deploys an impressive array of evidence, introducing as comparanda both other examples of Greek and Roman narrative art and ancient maps (whose approach to the depiction of space, he argues, has strongly influenced Theodorus’ depiction of Troy in the central panel of the Tabula Capitolina). One could perhaps argue that Petrain’s analysis in these chapters gives too much weight to the Tabula Capitolina at the expense of the other Tabulae (though, as he points out on p. 127, this is arguably inevitable given the poor state of preservation of many of the Tabulae); be that as it may, it is very hard to find any fault with his principal conclusions.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Petrain considers the evidence for the display context and use of the Tabulae. Wisely, he acknowledges the severe limitations of the archaeological evidence surrounding the Tabulae’s findspots, and concentrates instead on developing what he terms (p. 146) an “interpretive background” that would have influenced viewers’ reading of the Tabulae regardless of where they were physically displayed; he finds this context in Roman libraries. While Petrain is not the first to note such a possible connection, he does a superb job of thinking through its implications; in particular, he is surely right to see a spiritual kinship between the Roman emperors’ project to “tame” Greek literature, by collecting and storing it alongside Roman literary production in specially constructed libraries, and the project in which Theodorus was engaged in the Tabulae (pp. 156ff). His contention that we should understand the aesthetic appeal of the Tabulae within the context of Roman fascination with the miniature (Ch. 6) is also compelling.

The book is handsomely produced and well-illustrated, with few typographical errors; the two appendices provide an invaluable conspectus of the iconography and inscriptions on all the known Tabulae. Petrain has done a great deal to advance the study of these perplexing and intriguing objects, and all scholars of the Roman reception of Greek culture will learn much from his superb monograph.