BMCR 2017.02.27

Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire

, , Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016. xi, 296. ISBN 9781606064627. $85.00 (pb).


This handsomely produced collection is one of a trilogy of edited volumes to emerge from Karl Galinsky’s project, Memoria Romana.1 What distinguishes this book from the other two volumes is its heavy focus on the Roman Empire, where the term “Empire” is just as much (if not more) a geographical as a chronological designation. In turning its gaze [mostly] away from the city of Rome, the volume [mostly] details the manufacture of heterogenous, imperially inflected local memories and memory practices in the Empire. One main premise of the volume is that local memories were “never harnessed or superseded by a pan-imperial memory community” (1), though they did bear the signs of having accommodated themselves to something approaching such a community. Indeed, a recurrent theme among the chapters is, as Carlos Noreña puts it, the “intricacy of local memory within the broader imperial memoryscape” (93). One of the volume’s core questions, therefore, is how the many diverse communities swallowed up in the Roman Empire absorbed and adapted Roman cultural memory without completely ceding control over their own local memories or memory practices. In other words, how was Roman cultural memory received, revised, or elided by local and Roman communities in and during the Roman Empire, and what can this tell us about the different memory practices utilized by those communities?

The volume opens with a programmatic introduction by Karl Galinsky that includes, in addition to the expected theoretical and historical contextualizations, a brief analysis of Strabo’s and Pausanias’ respective uses of memory in their geographical writings.

Part One, “Concepts and Approaches,” contains three chapters with no clear thematic connection. The first, by Susan Alcock, cites three case studies (all of which Alcock has discussed at greater length elsewhere) aimed at illustrating the kaleidoscopic nature of memory, while also underscoring the importance of considering the “physical settings of remembrance” (25): the insertion of a shrine for imperial cult inside a tholos tomb at Orchomenos, memories of the Mithridatic massacre of Roman citizens at Ephesos, and contests of paideia in the triclinia of cities located in the eastern cities of the Roman Empire.

Following Alcock, Rachel Kousser tracks how Greek models influenced Roman public and private commemorative practices from the late Republic until the late Empire. In its chronological span and the variety of its evidence, the essay feels at times a bit overly ambitious, and a number of its points about Roman art’s invocation of Greek styles are reminiscent of Tonio Hölscher’s claims in Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (1987, trans. 2004). The chapter’s most compelling intervention comes in its analysis of how the Romans adopted and improved upon Greek-style memory sanctions in their deployment of damnatio memoriae.

Lastly, Tim Whitmarsh contrasts the ways that two travel writers of the second century CE, Pausanias and the periegete Dionysius of Alexandria, use cultural memory in their writings. For Pausanias, the spaces of the Greek mainland are deeply striated with memory—which Pausanias himself curates in the ways that he describes various monuments—while Dionysius presents a world marked rather by oblivion, or at least the absence of memory. The two authors, then, present two ways of understanding and incorporating the impact of Roman dominion on Greek memory cultures.

Part Two, “Imperial Memories and Local Identities,” consists of four chapters that examine the strategies deployed by local communities in their confrontations with Roman cultural memory. John Weisweiler contrasts representations of the senatorial elite in honorific statues at Rome and abroad in the Principate and late antiquity, arguing that such a comparison can offer insights into imperial memory policies (presuming the existence of such top-down policies). Weisweiler connects this commemorative practice to the Roman interest in exemplarity, proposing that the divergent representations of the senatorial elite at Rome and abroad can reveal to us not only the sorts of individual virtues the Roman state wished to cultivate among its subjects, but also the vision of government and imperial rule it wanted to propagate at different points in its history.

Carlos Noreña comes at the question of how memory practices legitimized Roman rule abroad from a different perspective, laying out the evidence (from an admittedly small data set) for the persistence of Hellenistic ruler cult in the Roman east. Noreña proposes that the ability of ruler cults to activate memories of communities’ local histories is ultimately a positive for the Roman Empire, as the celebration of local identities militated against the emergence of a broader, unified non-Roman identity that could challenge Roman hegemony. Not only that, but the existence of these ruler cults, and the precedent they set for monarchic worship, was perfectly congenial to the installation (and worship) of the Roman emperor as a new monarch.

Jaś Elsner shifts from the importance of remembering to the importance of forgetting, turning to Philostratus’ Imagines and a passage describing the foundation of a mystery cult of Melicertes- Palaemon at the Isthmus near Corinth (2.16). Ultimately, Elsner argues that Philostratus’ attempt to link the cult to the mythic period of early Corinth (and the figure of Sisyphus) is at odds with historical reality: surviving evidence suggests that Rome, which had conquered Corinth in 146 BCE, actually inaugurated the cult.

Ann Marie Yasin concludes by examining how late antique renovations and restorations of three early Christian churches—S. Paolo fuori le mura in Rome, the cathedral of Poreč, and the extramural shrine of Saint Felix at Cimitile outside Nola in Campania—shaped memories of those spaces. Yasin focuses specifically on how the materiality of the churches enshrines or abolishes continuity between the buildings’ past and present states. Central to her analysis are instances of “conspicuous antiquity”: fragments from the buildings’ early stages that have been repurposed and oftentimes repositioned to convey new meaning. Part Three, “Presence and Absence of Memory in the Roman East and West,” takes us geographically farther afield, touching on cultural memory and memory practices in Asia Minor, Roman Britain, and Spain. Brian Rose surveys the “Homeric reconfiguration of Ilion’s built and natural environment” (134) from the Bronze Age until the late twentieth century. In particular, Rose is interested in how each successive reconfiguration invoked the city’s Homeric past as a way of enhancing its present status. To this end, he highlights the different ways that Rome, Roman authors, and Roman emperors incorporated and capitalized on the cachet of Ilion’s Homeric resonances over time.

Zena Kamash looks to Roman Britain in a chapter that tries to recuperate the importance of individual memory in archaeology through three very different case studies. Her first focuses on two objects and their imagined owners from Marcham/Frilford (Oxfordshire): “Ms. Cattle Figurine” and “Mr. Adlocutio Brooch.” Kamash argues, based on speculative, hypothetical narratives that she has constructed for the objects, that they reflect two possible models for individuals striving to preserve their local memories while also assimilating to a new culture. The second case study considers sensual memory practices, particularly within Mithraism, and how these could have linked individuals and created a shared sense of community. The chapter concludes with a discussion of iconoclasm and the destruction of pagan objects by Christians.

Alicia Jiménez’s chapter visits the Roman west, examining a group of first- and second-century CE humanoid cippi found in necropoleis from Baelo Claudia in southern Iberia. Jiménez shows how the appearance and use of these cippi reflect the confluence of vernacular, Punic, and non-Roman Italic traditions. In other words, the cippi provide a valuable case study for the development of cultural memory in the Roman Empire that is not mediated through or colored by Rome, but rather emerges from the influence of other cultural networks engendered by Roman colonialism.

Felipe Rojas offers something completely different, investigating the cultural importance of the Lydian lakes to local Anatolian communities. Working backward from the Roman period to the time of the early Hittites, Rojas analyzes how local mythologies often elided the significance of the largest of the lakes, the Gygaean lake, and even ignored the major city of Sardis and its historical kings in an effort to trumpet local traditions and founders.

The final section, “The Transformation of Memory at Rome,” is the star of the volume. Greg Woolf starts by drawing us into the ideologically rich Forum Augustum and its Temple of Mars Ultor. In particular, Woolf examines the summi viri gallery encircling the Forum, querying for whom the various elogia may have been legible and whether/how the educated elite could have understood the messages embedded in them. Woolf approaches the question by thinking of the Forum Augustum as a sanctuary, turning to comparative evidence from Paleolithic caves (Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira) as a way of interrogating what he means by a “sanctuary” (a habitual site of ritual performance, a place of symbolic accumulation). Reconceptualizing the Forum Augustum as a sanctuary enables Woolf to ultimately change the question we ask of social memory: instead of focusing so much on what is learned, Woolf instead encourages us to ask how it is learned, suggesting that the “shared memory of how we learned” (206) is itself an important social memory.

Steven Rutledge comes at the question of class and memory. This is a valuable topic for the present volume since most other contributions have focused largely on memory practices and policies related to the elite. The effect of this elite focus is a rather top-down vision of memory production and curation that excludes resistance or challenges by the lower classes. Rutledge, by contrast, detects the presence of such competing memories in Rome’s topography and monuments. For examples of these, Rutledge notes first the competing spoils deposited in Aventine temples by the novus homo L. Mummius Achaicus and the aristocrat L. Licinius Lucullus. He ends by examining the emperor Tiberius’ renovations of the Temple of Concordia, a monument with a rich plebeian history, arguing that such renovations reflected an attempt by the emperor to appropriate and recast a plebeian symbol.

Elizabeth Marlowe concludes the volume with the Tetrarchy and the Vicennalia monument added to the Rostra in the Forum Romanum, proposing that the new Tetrarchic monument did not fundamentally alter the memories already attached to the monumental space of the Rostra. Marlowe begins by illuminating the ambiguous meanings attached to the Vicennalia monument and the space that it occupies, and she then explicates the value of that ambiguity for diplomacy among the senatorial elite. She ultimately suggests that the Roman aristocracy built the monument for the Tetrarchs, and that the aim of the monument was to celebrate the Tetrarchs in a mode legible to the local customs of Rome (e.g. by grafting the structure onto the Rostra, an important Augustan monument).

As tends to happen with conference volumes, there are a number of missed opportunities for constructive dialogues between the papers. The roles of cult and ritual—particularly the places, objects, and sensory experiences of ritual — dominate a number of contributions (Alcock, Elsner, Noreña, Yasin, Kamash, Jiménez, Woolf). Several essays describe an “accumulative or agglutinative strategy of memory production” (127): the accretion and co-mingling of old and new memories over time (Yasin, Rose, Marlowe). And the place of the emperor in local communities’ cultural memory repeatedly appears (Weisweiler, Noreña, Rose, Marlowe).

After reading through these essays, I am inclined to ask, with Alcock, whether it is time “to stop concentrating on [the workings of memory in the ancient world] as an exceptional, isolated topic” (31). Given the success of Galinsky’s project to elevate conversations about memory in Roman culture, I believe the answer is “yes.” Memoria Romana has patronized and encouraged a great amount of valuable research on cultural memory and memory practices in the ancient Roman world, and the field now seems more primed than ever to move forward with the next sets of questions.


1. First came Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory in 2014 (BMCR 2015.01.48), and the third volume, Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity, was published in 2016 (BMCR 2016.07.31).