BMCR 2020.11.28

The phantom image: seeing the dead in ancient Rome

, The phantom image: seeing the dead in ancient Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 308. ISBN 9780226648293 $60.00.

The idea of a time or art or a scholarly discipline being haunted by some traumatic residue that is neither squarely in the past nor properly in the present has gained traction in recent years.[1] This idea takes its cues from the ghostly hauntology of Jacques Derrida’s 1994 Specters of Marx (published in French in 1993). For Derrida, the past recurs as a ghost, one that haunts in a complex manner. The ghost is historical but not dated and hence it is a ghost. It manifests an ethical injunction that our experience prevents us from coming to terms with. Crowley returns us to actual ghosts—if one can say such a thing—in this ambitious book on images of undead visitants from antiquity.

For Crowley, the ghost is a topos wherein haunting provokes thought about vision and its relation to knowledge. He argues that for ancients, especially for those living in the time called here “the Second Sophistic,” to depict a ghost was an opportunity to probe the conditions of possibility of representation more broadly. The book wanders freely, unified by method. A formal analysis of artworks, foremost sarcophagi, ends up yielding a stimulating set of perspectives on matters ranging from the perceptual basis of knowledge in Stoic and other schools of thought to anachronism in the Roman empire to the reuse of mythological motifs in early Christian depictions of the Apostle Thomas and the wounds of Christ. Crowley discerns a tendency towards recursion in ghost art (“imagistic relays of syncopes and ruptures” and “strategies of redundancy and tautology”) and links this tendency to an emergent historical self-consciousness in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE (p. 29).

Although Derrida is referenced throughout, The phantom image is not exactly a set of Derridean readings, nor is it really a book about the Second Sophistic. The introduction previews the many ways we will discover for viewing questions surrounding belief, doubt, embodiment, gender, and subjectivity through an art-historical lens, although this book frequently engages with literary sources as well, and language games are not incidental to its argument. Indeed, the notion that ancient depictions of ghosts reflexively depict “the challenge of depiction and even of seeing itself” finds itself in a resonance between the key terms “spectral” and “specular” (p. 2). At the outset Crowley sets aside the question of whether ancients in fact believed in ghosts. Ghostly phenomena are more than “mirrors of belief” (p. 228). As ever, paranormalists will hardly find the definitive piece of proof here. This is rather a book about “the diverse and competing strategies of persuasion and standards of proof that were necessary to arrive at and hold” convictions about the afterlife, and how these standards were theorized in the use especially of solid stone to display the wispy, diaphanous stuff of phantasms (p. 8).

Chapter 1 (“A Grammar of Ghosts”) makes it clear that not all of the artifacts collected here belong to imperial Rome. Beginning from the premise that ghosts and images partake in overlapping vocabularies in Greek, Latin, and Etruscan, Crowley insists on the central place of ghosts in ancient visual cultures. We move briskly from an obsidian mirror in the House of the Gilded Cupids in Pompeii to the correspondence of Cicero on sense impressions to Athenian white-ground lekythoi to Kant on ghosts and Vernant on the psychological category of the double, all in the chapter’s first section alone, organized by a conceptual framework derived from Panofsky and Whitney Davis’ distinction between images and pictures. In grappling with terminological uncertainties such as the semantics of larva and lemures, Crowley is plainly aware of the “diverse threads” of his treatment (p. 44). Eventually we settle into a longer meditation on two sarcophagi, one in the Vatican Museum and one from Santa Chiara in Naples, both of which depict the stories of Protesilaus and Laodamia. These two objects feature in Chapter 3 as well.

As with subsequent chapters, Crowley’s exposition of artworks and the scholarship surrounding them is often lucid and masterful, even as the overarching argument becomes superseded to a degree by so many smaller contentions. We sometimes encounter a cryptic reticence or an underdeveloped relevance with potentially very interesting points. It is hard to sync up with the rest of the chapter the observation that “the cremated materiality of blackened, ghostly bodies” was conflated with “the materiality of black bodies in flesh and blood” (p. 51). Also, the brief suggestion that for Seneca “the larva embodies the ghostly logic of the supplement” instead of “a body reduced to nothing” cries out for further articulation, since that logic is central to the book (p. 50).

Chapter 2 (“The Chthonic Sublime”) takes us to the margins between the upper and lower worlds and the paradoxical visibility of Hades. Crowley argues that “ancient attempts to conceptualize, depict, and even construct the spaces of the Underworld, particularly in the cramped space of the tomb, were achieved by establishing the limits of the field of vision itself – limits that were constituted reflexively by their capacity to be exceeded or transgressed” (p. 86). Recent work by James I. Porter on the sublime unsurprisingly looms large here, as do the Odyssey “landscapes” found on the Esquiline hill and attempts by Louis Joseph Le Lorrain, Goethe, and the Riepenhausen brothers to reconstruct Polygnotus’ fresco cycle of the Iliupersis and Nekyia. More focused, this chapter builds from an understanding of the sublime as “a mind-shattering clash of scale and perspective” to arrive at, among other things, a fascinating reading of an archway in one of the extant images (p. 86). A “visual chiasmus” occurs as we peer into Hades from outside while simultaneously seeing a sublime view of what lies beyond it (p. 106). In the chapter’s conclusion we journey into tombs, the built environment of which evokes the underworld itself, pondering the visual matrices of the katabasis and anabasis performed by mourners in real life.

Chapter 3 (“Spectral Subjectivities”) deploys a synthesis of Derrida and Laura Mulvey to get at the perspective of the specter in addition to that of the observer of ghosts. The specters are chiefly Agamemnon, Alcestis, the revenant Protesilaus, and, ever delightfully, Propertius’ Cynthia. Crowley examines the iconography of the shroud or veil or chlamys in an ancient “scoptic regime of shame,” demonstrating how the fabrics worn by ghosts participate in a broader visual discourse that includes the bridal veil and other traditional iconographies of marriage (p. 164). Crowley brings to the fore questions of gender and the embodiment of experience. For most, smaller observations about the de-sexualization of Protesilaus or the feminization of Admetus in Euripides and Pompeian wall painting will outshine the big argument of the chapter, which risks dissolving in summations such as the following: “the shrouded ghost resists any fixed or delimited categories of interpretation. It is semiotically labile in the fullest possible sense, hovering or wavering between the assumed polarities of male and female, active and passive, visible and invisible” (p. 183).

Chapter 4 (“Phantoms in the Flesh”), the expansion of an article published in Art History in 2018, moves to the Christian context of the 5th century CE for early depictions of Doubting Thomas on sarcophagi in Milan and Brescia. Now, the iconography in stone makes tangible theological debates surrounding incarnation, sense perception, and absorptive states of attention. Despite the shift to the Christian world, its emphasis on the iterability of forms throughout different cultural contexts – more traces of earlier eras that haunt the visual media of later ones – makes it a neat pairing with the previous chapter, which had introduced the theme via Judith Butler’s concept of resignification. One of the most rewarding readings argues for Christ on the sarcophagi in question as a citation of the wounded Amazon known as the Sciarra type attributed to Polyclitus. Crowley notes the irony that Polyclitus was faulted by critics for not having given due expression to the authority of the gods.

This book will probably be of interest to readers of BMCR less for its argument than for its impressive body of research into the phenomenology of the ghost in ancient literary and visual cultures, and for its forays into the histories of epistemology and even, ultimately, of belief. While its skeleton is brittle, many will also feel in this book the presence of a phantasmatic supplement that keeps the manifold layers of meaty exposition from growing rotten. Crowley is quite good at bringing out the conceptual eeriness of a subject matter that is already spooky. For all its vagaries, the writing can be enjoyable, such as when Crowley says of Agamemnon on a red-figure calyx-krater by the Dokimasia painter that his robes stick to him “as though he were trapped in a mass of glue or tar” (p. 143). Translations from Latin and Greek, especially in the earlier chapters, can be obfuscating, but there are many wonderfully chosen pictures and very few typos (“liver mortis” for livor mortis on p. 201 is good fun). And perhaps Crowley’s habit of mixing the bold with the qualified (e.g. “I’d like to suggest that the shrouded ghost is in many ways the visual manifestation of shame par excellence”) is precisely the point (p. 135). What can we really know with certainty about life after death?


[1] e.g. The lecture given on 03/05/2020 at Barnard College by Dan-el Padilla Peralta of Princeton entitled “The Haunted House of Classics,” which drew on Avery Gordon’s 1997 Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.