BMCR 2022.01.21

The triumph and trade of Egyptian objects in Rome: collecting art in the ancient Mediterranean

, The triumph and trade of Egyptian objects in Rome: collecting art in the ancient Mediterranean. Image & context, 20. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. viii, 264. ISBN 9783110700404. $114.99.


From imported obelisks to pharaonic scenes painted on Pompeiian walls, the Roman reception of Egyptian objects and imagery gave rise to centuries of fascination with Egypt and an ensuing scholarly fascination with that fascination. Almost as persistent as western engagement with Egyptian images has been the term Egyptomania, which first appeared in publication in 1809 and which is alive and well in the 21st century.[1] Stephanie Pearson’s excellent book, The triumph and trade of Egyptian objects in Rome: collecting art in the ancient Mediterranean, invites us to reassess not only the term, but indeed the entire approach to Egyptian art in Rome that it represents. Pearson argues that just as we now see more in Roman works that engage with Greek art than Roman copies of Greek originals, we should see Roman interaction with Egyptian objects and motifs as more than political, religious, or fashion statements. Pearson’s thorough examination of artistic genres and detailed case studies demonstrate that the Romans regarded Egyptian art as art and that they appreciated it in the same ways they appreciated Greek art.

In her Introduction (Part I, “Egyptian Art in Rome as Art”), Pearson identifies three approaches to art and to Egypt that are problematic: the valuing of originality over imitation, the “hierarchy of genres” in which decorative arts are not considered serious art, and the philological origins of Classical Archaeology, which mean that the negative attitudes Roman texts express toward Egypt color the interpretation of Egyptian art in Roman spaces (8). From these approaches have come three traditional readings of Egyptian art in Roman contexts: that Egyptian objects “represent religious devotion, political allegiance, or aspirations to high fashion” (20). Next, Pearson proposes some changes in terminology. Along with “Egyptomania,” the term “Egyptianizing” is out, since, as Pearson observes, the Romans did not make a distinction between Egyptian and Egyptianizing art, but used a single term, aegyptius, for both—evidence that items “both locally-made and imported … occupy a single conceptual category” (9). Instead, Pearson uses “Egyptian” to denote both imports and locally crafted works. In place of distinctions based on place of origin, Pearson uses several terms to categorize images in terms of style and content. “Pharaonic” describes art with the style and iconography of Egypt under the pharaohs. “Alexandrian” applies art that is a hybrid of pharaonic and Hellenistic styles. “Nilotic” describes river scenes with or without “specifically Egyptian flora and fauna” (13).

In investigating the Roman relationship to Egyptian art, Pearson takes as her starting point “the mechanisms by which Egyptian objects were acquired and displayed.” Four sections follow the introduction. Each “focuses on one mechanism and one or two genres of object” (25). The sections strike a good balance between breadth and depth. The number of pieces covered is impressive and periodic case studies provide the kind of deep dives that not only support Pearson’s argument, but also represent important contributions to scholarship on these works.

Part II, “The Lure of Egyptian Treasures,” covers the mechanism of collecting and the genre of wall painting. This section also includes a case study of the Upper Cubiculum of the House of Augustus. Pearson connects collecting culture to wall painting through the concept of display. Her evidence consists of scholarship connecting Greek objects in wall paintings with the practice of collecting, passages from Pliny on collections, and careful analysis of individual wall paintings.

In Part III, “Triumphal Splendor,” Pearson examines military triumphs as a mechanism for introducing Egyptian objects into Rome and analyzes the genres of precious vessels and tables. The most relevant triumph here is Octavian’s Triple Triumph of 29 BC, specifically its final day celebrating the victory over Cleopatra. Again, evidence comes from both visual and textual sources, including comparisons to other Roman triumphs involving Africa as well as to Ptolemaic processions. Additionally, Pearson examines chronology as a way of connecting mechanism and genre: depictions of these precious vessels appear suddenly in Roman art around the time of the Triple Triumph. The Mensa Isiaca provides a case study.

Part IV, “Trading in Luxury,” treats the mechanism of trade. Placing this section following the treatment of triumphs makes sense because Rome’s annexation of Egypt influenced trade, especially in luxury goods. The genre considered is textiles, for which wall paintings provide the majority of evidence, although textile fragments from Vergina and Palmyra illustrate materials and techniques. Again, the House of Augustus provides material for a deep dive, this time on triangle borders in weaving and painting.

The final content section before the conclusion (Part V, “Sculptures for Cult and Collecting”) follows the mechanism/genre(s) format less precisely. This section treats sculpture, which, as Pearson notes, is less problematic in terms of its status as art than other objects she has discussed. If there is a mechanism in this section, it is largely implied (perhaps the spread of Egyptian religion throughout the Mediterranean world) and the genre is only partly re-interpreted, since some statues had cultic significance. For other sculptures, however, the context of the finds as well as the Romans’ diverse tastes in art suggest various meanings. While Egyptian statues or statuettes placed in household shrines may well have a specifically religious purpose, Pearson contends that those placed in gardens have a looser connection to a sense of divinity by association with beliefs in animism. Egyptian sculpture also may function in a way similar to Archaic Greek art in Roman contexts: it lends an aura of religious solemnity.

Part VI, “Conclusion: Why Egypt?” notes that Roman collectors and appreciators of art seem to have sought out Egyptian art over that of other places to which they also had access, such as India. Pearson suggests that perhaps Roman viewers regarded Egyptian art as less foreign than scholars had thought and that “connotations of abundance and archaism” may have appealed to Roman sensibilities (193). Ultimately, it is likely that Roman collectors had various reasons for favoring Egyptian art; the commonality Pearson sees is that the Romans approached these objects as art and that their appreciation was not limited to the objects’ religious, political, or decorative functions.

The “Summary” that follows the conclusion sheds some light on the perception, when reading the parts in order, that the sculpture section fits less than perfectly into the book’s organizing principle of mechanism and genre. While the Introduction refers to Parts II-V as each focusing on “one mechanism and one or two genres of object” (25), the Summary identifies Parts II-IV as each focusing on an acquisition mechanism and describes Part V as building on the previous sections to argue that statues were likewise valuable collectibles as opposed to “having a primarily religious or political function” (199).

The triumph and trade of Egyptian objects in Rome is a beautifully produced volume with copious color images as well as helpful maps and graphics. The text is free of mistakes, although there may be a minor glitch in endnote formatting. Notes pertaining to the introduction of Part III are not numbered starting at 1, as is the case in all other sections, but continue the numbering from the previous section and appear as notes 14-20 under “Egyptian Gods as Lamp Stands.”

Pearson’s book adds a great deal to our understanding of Egyptian art in Rome. It brings much needed attention to the high quality of Egyptian objects in Roman collections and the value placed upon those objects. Pearson argues convincingly that Egyptian art deserves the same respect shown to Greek art acquired by Roman collectors. Integrating textiles into the discussion is particularly welcome and, as the author notes, may lead to a better understanding of how women were involved in creating and collecting art.


[1] N. Doyle (2016). “The Earliest Known Uses of ‘l’égyptomanie’/’Egyptomania’ in French and English.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 8: 122-125; R.H. Fritze (2021). Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy. London: Reaktion Books.