BMCR 2019.09.32

Visual Power in Ancient Greece and Rome: Between Art and Social Reality. Sather classical lectures, 73

, Visual Power in Ancient Greece and Rome: Between Art and Social Reality. Sather classical lectures, 73. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018. xviii, 395. ISBN9780520294936 $49.95.


This highly sophisticated, surprising book, which started life as the 2007 Sather Lectures, sprawls across Greek and Roman culture to re-approach the mechanics of visual power on the ground. It is both of the moment, and out on a limb, replacing scholarship’s ongoing emphasis on viewing with something more visceral –– with the power of images to make people and other entities present, and present in ways that make these images not merely agents but protagonists in Greek and Roman social life and social interaction. In this way, art and reality are no longer conceived of as opposites, any more than the worlds of human and superhuman beings are conceived of as opposite sides of a representational divide. All perception is “culturally stamped”, and interplay is everything. For Hölscher, “art”, as it is now defined, is an unhelpful term — bound up with the distance that comes of contemplation. There is a world of difference between how antiquities are seen today, cleansed of their context in a museum, and how these same objects (or, better (?), “subjects”) occupied antiquity, as participants that defined the space around them, as much as the space defined them. “The ancient Greeks and Romans lived with images perhaps more than any other societies in world history” writes Hölscher (254). It is this sense of living, indeed communing, with images that is important, in six chapters that seek to work out how.

Hölscher’s approach should be read in the context of archaeology’s increasing emphasis on material presence, object agency, embodiment, and human-thing entanglement.1 It should also be read in the context of what is happening elsewhere in the Academy, especially in studies of Greek and Roman religion, where scholars have become keen on experiential approaches to the past which in turn intersect with recent work on the senses, and on the cognitive. One need only think of Jörg Rüpke’s “Lived Ancient Religion” project with its emphasis on the material evidence that shaped the “practices, expressions, and interactions” of religion as people experienced it in the past.2 But Hölscher chooses, for the most part, not to draw attention to this context, wearing his engagement with classical and other scholarship lightly and ditching the jargon for a mode that lets spaces, statues and paintings speak for themselves, not through explicit modern theory but in dialogue with each other and with other aspects of their shared environment. In the process, he develops a jargon of his own: the thickness of his description is slow to read, and some of his insights are initially gnomic (there is, on this note, no overall conclusion). But this is a book that repays close reading, and reading in its entirety. For anyone unable to read it from cover to cover, it still has plenty to say about individual phenomena (for example, Delphi’s Sikyonian Treasury or “historical relief”), and about big questions central to (classical) art history, questions of art and text, the openness of images, “art” and identity, the “Greek Revolution”. Undergraduates will find it tough going, but even they should enjoy the chapter on portraiture.

After an introduction that sets itself apart from prevailing phenomenologies of viewing to underwrite a less “meta”, earthier3 account of visuality (not just what any image is or does, but what it is needed for) that acknowledges “life as an image and images as agents of life”, Hölscher’s first two chapters work to plot the key co-ordinates of space and time –– space as “the basic dimension of visuality”, a concept “constituted by the interrelation and interaction of beings and things” on stages such as sanctuaries and market places and in ritual activity, and time as what is encoded when images body forth beings and events from the past. With these dimensions plotted, the book proceeds to populate the field with (and this is the portraiture chapter) an excellent exploration of the “persona” as it is cultivated through self-stylisation in life and in visual media, and of the ways in which the individual comes up against, and is constructed by, collective norms, expectations, and constraints. With the actors installed on stage, Hölscher continues, in his fourth and fifth chapters, to put useful pressure on “mimesis” and the interrelation of “art” and reality, and to lend flesh to the ‘practice of living with images’ in Greece and Rome. A final chapter tackles the ancient concept of “décor” so as to situate the visibility of these images within a kosmos or world-order contemporary with them.

Hölscher has a knack for reframing the familiar in ways that make even the most seasoned specialist pause, often because one never thought to put it quite like that: consider, for example, in a section of the book that builds on his influential Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System,4 his vision of Augustan classicism as decidedly presentist in the cultural knowledge it advocated. What does he mean by this? That rather than necessarily interpret fifth-century BCE style as referencing a particular past and its values (e.g. the Ara Pacis’s debt to the Parthenon frieze as a carrier of democratic politics), most Romans would have understood it as an element of their own visual language, a language that expressed the Roman values of dignitas, maiestas, and sanctitas in a new Augustan accent — that “only as presentic knowledge could these styles become a medium of empirewide communication” (109). Or consider his correction of all of those who maintain that the imitation of reality only became a fundamental objective in the figural arts in the Classical period, that Archaic art dramatically deviated from reality, and that Classical and Hellenistic art, in different ways, transcended it. This is to conceive of reality as objectivity (210), explains Hölscher, a concept that originated in the nineteenth century, and to tie oneself in knots over the ancient insistence on the mimetic quality of art, of art’s rootedness in reality. Think instead of an artist translating the meaningful forms of reality into meaningful forms of art, or one mental construct into another one, and even kouroi and korai are real, concretizing motifs crucial for visually expressing their character as youths and maidens. “As soon as perceptual reality is transformed into art, it becomes conceptual”. Just as all realism is conceptual, so too “reality is to some degree an image” (217). Seen like this, mimesis becomes less problematic, and even the nude body in Greek art is not an ideal but the “underlying reality [my emphasis] of struggle and bravery” (230-1). This knack is, in part, because of Hölscher’s ability (rare even for those trained in the German tradition) to range in one book across Greece and Rome (embracing, where appropriate, post-antique phenomena from the Princess of Wales to George W. Bush to Giorgio de Chirico), never homogenising, but letting the possibilities and peculiarities of one society illuminate the other.

Inevitably, a book this ambitious and compacted will leave one dissatisfied in places. In addition to drawing attention to its scant subject index that fails abysmally to do justice to its rich contents, I make just two observations, first, its attention to chronology, and second, its use of ancient texts. As far as the former is concerned, this is a book that refreshingly, especially in its early chapters, draws attention to the dynamics of change over time, not only at key moments such as the end of the sixth century BCE, when Kleisthenic reforms brought the men of Attica together in the city in ways that transformed the appearance of the Agora as the civic centre (both its built environment and the dramas played out there), or, in fifth-century Athens when rapid population growth made the workings of a traditionally face-to-face society more difficult to maintain, but also, from day to day, hour to hour, as the sun rose and set, and business ebbed and flowed, varying the Agora’s visual aspect. But elsewhere, when discussing, for example, the interaction between images of real performances and the reality of image-like statecraft in Rome, chronological specificity wanes and one is left to wonder whether this played out differently as the empire lurched towards the Tetrarchy, when there was, it has been argued, a greater ceremonial distance between ruler and ruled, an alertness to the emperor as deus praesens rather than as primus inter pares.5

Imperial panegyric is obviously crucial to any such argument as indeed is Ammianus Marcellinus’ famous ecphrasis of Constantius II’s arrival in Rome in 357 CE, turning “his head neither right nor left, as though an image of a man”.6 Although Homer’s shield of Achilles gets a mention, Hölscher has little time for ecphrasis (it presumably belongs, like the phenomenology of viewing more broadly, “to a metalevel of (self)-reflection”), even though an ancient novel such as Heliodorus’s Aethiopika might, in its evocation of the procession at Delphi at which its hero and heroine fall in love, give a richer impression of the bells and whistles of a religious ritual than almost anything else.7 Instead, and in contrast to Paul Zanker’s The Power of Images, with which one feels Hölscher is in conversation throughout,8 he tends not to cite chunks of ancient text. Sometimes, he treats what others might call “anecdotes” in authors such as Suetonius and Cassius Dio as fact (e.g. 56), underestimating the “rules” of the interplay of representation and reality in text. Sometimes, it is simply that there are additional historical sources that he might have mined — I mention only Herodian, whose highly visual prose includes, for example, Septimius Severus’s funeral.9

Of a piece with this is Hölscher’s insistence that the Lindian Chronicle, an inscription from Lindos dated to 99 BCE, is not testimony to the concept of the ancient museum on the basis that there is “no indication whatsoever that in the temple these objects were ordered according to a historical concept” (288).10 On the one hand, I agree with him. On the other, it is surely important that it is not the objects in the temple, but their presence in texts, their “virtual life”, that is recorded, a bearing witness that is indicative of a change in the Hellenistic period of what objects mean, a change that made them more than votives, and gave them an agency that transcended the space of the sanctuary to stake Rhodes’s claim as a centre of the world. Admittedly, this is about a subjectivity of viewing that is not his primary subject, but the question of how statues and paintings affected their interlocutors (where religious viewing stopped and other modes of viewing started) and, ultimately, under Rome, what constituted too close a relationship with (especially Greek) objects, is surely part of his compelling story.


1. See e.g. A. Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford 1998, R. Osborne and J. Tanner, Art’s Agency and Art History, Oxford 2007, A. Van Oyen and M. Pitts (eds.), Materialising Roman Histories, Oxford 2017, I. Hodder, “Human-Thing Entanglement: Towards an Integrated Archaeological Perspective”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(1), 2011: 154-177, G. Hainge (ed.) Art Matters: Philosophy, Art History and Art’s Material. Culture, Theory and Critique 57(2), 2016, and M. Gaifman, V. Platt, M. Squire (eds.), The Embodied Object in Classical Antiquity. Art History 41(3), 2018.

2. BMCR 2016.11.30.

3. P. 9: “This book is…rooted in the soil of social life”.

4. First published in January 1987, trans. A. Snodgrass and A. Künzl-Snodgrass, with an important foreward by J. Elsner, as The Language of Images in Roman Art, Cambridge 2004.

5. Still seminal is S. G. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, Berkeley 1981.

6. Ammianus Marcellinus16.10.10.

7. P. Hardie, “A Reading of Heliodorus Aithiopika 3.4.1–5.2”, in R. Hunter (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus, Cambridge 1998: 19-39.

8. P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Michigan 1988, trans. A. Shapiro from Augustus und die Macht der Bilder, Munich 1987.

9. Herodian 4.1.3-4.2. See D. Favro and C. Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 69(1), 2010: 12-37.

10. Contra Josephine Shaya’s work in particular.