BMCR 2022.03.17

The social dynamics of Roman imperial imagery

, , The social dynamics of Roman imperial imagery. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBN 9781108835121. $99.99.


The eleven chapters of this stimulating volume are the result of a series of workshops held at the University of Durham between 2014 and 2017. In the introduction, the two editors explain that the volume treats from a number of differentiated perspectives, and in a somewhat experimental key, Roman imperial imagery, strictly understood as “imagery that makes reference to imperial power” (2). The main goal is to verify how this imagery, in its many possible expressions, was reworked at various levels of the social scale and in different territorial contexts, used for self-referential purposes and was perceived both by high ranking social groups and by individuals. Among the most relevant observations made by the work is that the images of imperial power were not controllable by the power itself, while one would be inclined to believe instinctively or by conviction that imperial ideology was able to spread and be approved. The other concept, or rather approach, that guide the editors and their authors is that of “social dynamics”. It could be more empirically defined, in our case, as the instrument to interpret the reactions, the interactions, the social mechanics aroused by the use of figurative representations (combined or not with writing) that recalled or represented the central power in the different social and chronological contexts. The guidelines that give cohesion to the book are evoked by the editors on p. 13: “Each author has contributed their own models and methods, but we have shared terminologies, materials and thoughts throughout the process”.

The first chapters focus on the Augustan and Julio-Claudian ages. The one by Amy Russell is dedicated to the iconography ‘from below’, ‘from the streets’, displayed in Rome on the altars of the Lares Augusti (18 altars have been identified, some on the basis of epigraphic evidence only), with in-depth investigations of some examples with scenes of sacrifice and auspices (e. g. altar of Vicus sandalarius, 40-42), and of the role of vicomagistri. Julia Wilker offers an effective and instructive treatment in “Modelling the Emperor. Representations of Power, Empire and Dynasty among Eastern Clients Kings”, in which Wilker develops the theme of the diffusion of imperial images by the client-kings, who had to render their service to the Roman state compatible with their own power, that is without disqualifying or diminishing their own political legitimacy at the regional level (cf. Fergus Millar’s “two-level sovereignty”). If we have a small reservation to make, it would be that insufficient documentary justification is given for the ‘perceptions’ attributed to the subjects of these kingdoms (e.g. 56, 65) with respect to the initiatives of these sovereigns linked to the imperial cult and to the figurative programs on public works or on coins and to the building activities connected with the domus Augusta. But the article remains rich in case studies and is well articulated, clearly highlighting how the tension between the two levels of authority and power did not result in contradiction and how traditional and local representations of power and imperial models interpenetrated.

Caillan Davenport, in “Roman Emperors, Conquest and Violence”, touches on the pertinent issue of the representations of the emperors as victors ‘filmed’ at the moment in which they perform gestures of violent subjugation of their opponents, a strong and symbolic exercise of unchallenged power (e.g. the calcatio). Davenport outlines the moments in which this type of imagery appears on coins and monuments visible to the public, both in the West and in the East, citing examples from Caligula, Claudius, Nero and then the Flavians, under whom coins with the legend capta and the depiction of the defeated provinces in female form began to be minted in Rome. At the beginning of the second century, a type of statuary with the emperors painted in the guise of conquerors became more widespread. An aspect opportunely recalled by Davenport is the social expectation that the emperors should personally lead the armies. I would add that this expectation was widespread in spite of the ideology of Victory established by Augustus: if leading armies in person was no longer an unavoidable necessity, by virtue of the political and religious position and the assumption of the supreme auspices reserved for emperors (“fundamental message: the emperor himself is the violent agent of conquest”, 121), dispensing with it altogether had political costs.

In “Epigraphic Evidence of Imperial Imagery in Meeting Places of Roman Professional ‘corpora'”, Nicholas Tran deals with the monuments in honor of the emperors and their families raised by corporati. Tran addresses how these associative groups saw and/or spread the ideology of the central power at the peripheral level or in smaller social circles, with different motivations and purposes.[1] The last, very good, chapter of historiographic and art-historical synthesis (with reference to the groundbreaking works of Paul Zanker, Tonio Hölscher, Jaś Elsner) is Olivier Hekster’s (“When was an Imperial Image? Some Reflections on Roman Art and Imagery”), which brilliantly sets up a series of debates: images and the use of the notion of propaganda, or similar concepts for heuristic purposes, ‘medialisation’ in the study of ancient history, i.e. whether images can be interpreted as media (279-280), and again the question of the relationship between images and “social dynamics” as a fil rouge of the volume. It is worth noting that, on the level of definition, the term ‘propaganda’ can neither be discarded (as eternally marked by the use made of it by the dictatorial, fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century) nor adopted a priori; it is evident that there are ancient and late antique contexts for which one can plausibly speak of propaganda and it would be reductive not to make use of the term—without considering that the verb propagare is already ancient.

Other contributions are Nandini Pandey, “Publica Numina. Conspicuously Consuming the Imperial Image at Tomis”, of historical-literary bent, on Ovid, Pont. 2, 8; Benjamin Kelly, “Court Politics and Imperial Imagery in the Roman Principate”, on the “social dynamics” of “Roman imperial imagery” related to the prince’s court circles, including the Senate; Monica Hellström, “Local Aspirations and Statues of Emperors in Roman North Africa”, on the surviving statues of emperors or simple bases of inscribed statues dedicated to them from Africa, with useful methodological remarks on the limits of mapping the areas or centers with the highest density of this type of dedication and with observations on the significance of bottom-up initiatives; Megan Goldman-Petri, “The Altar of P. Perelius Hedulus in Carthage and the Social Aspects of Provincial Image-Making”; Clare Rowan,”The Imperial Image in Media of Mechanical Reproduction. The Tokens of Rome, on tesserae and the reproduction of imperial images”.

Overall, this is an original and well-structured volume. There are a few errors in Latin and transliterated Greek (e. g. nudi dicti, municipiae, archierus) and there is a shortage of Italian scholars in the bibliographies at the end of the chapters, even though scholars such as Matteo Cadario or Paolo Liverani (to give just two examples) could have worthily found a place in it, by virtue of their work on themes similar to those examined in this book.


[1] For an analogy one can refer to the dedication of the collegium centonariorum studied in G. A. Cecconi-A. Hostein, “L’imperatore Decio, ‘Germanicus Maximus’. A proposito di un’iscrizione recentemente scoperta in Palazzo Vecchio a Firenze”, in “Cahiers du Centre Glotz” 29, 2018, 73-86, which I think may fit into the kind of dossier Tran deals with.