BMCR 2022.06.20

Art and archaeology of the Roman world

, Art and archaeology of the Roman world. London: Thames & Hudson, 2020. Pp. 408. ISBN 9780500051931 £45.00.

The history of art in the Roman world has been a subject of continuous study since the formation of the discipline of archaeology in the 18th century. From the initial, aesthetically-focused, and Romano-centric approaches of traditional studies, studies on Roman art have shifted towards a more theoretical focus in which the diverse nature of socio-political, cultural, economic, and geographic contexts have acquired a new predominance. Thus, initial art historical approaches have incorporated archaeology—and contexts—as essential aspects to understand the emergence and development of visual cultures in the Roman world. Within this book, Mark D. Fullerton, an expert on the art and archaeology of the ancient world, successfully fulfills his aim of providing a complete survey of the history of Roman art, from its very beginning in Etruscan art until the adoption of Christianity, presenting artworks and associated broader contexts. Overall, the author’s magisterial combination of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to create such a complete work is admirable.

The large regional area and vast chronological period covered by the author for the scope of this work appear consistently and are presented from the very beginning (p. 9). Furthermore, the author surpasses the Romano-centric narrative of traditional studies on Roman art by incorporating two chapters on the art of the Roman provinces. This is clearly articulated in the introduction, where Fullerton questions what is Roman about Roman art (pp. 11–17), therefore guiding the reader to the rich and complex visual world presented across the book. In addition, in this introduction, the author also states how this book aims to help students understand the fundamentals of the field and the intrinsic relationship between archaeology and art. In this regard, the book should be taken as a general manual about the art of Rome and its provinces, and complex theoretical applications or case studies to bring the Roman art debate forward should not be expected.

The argument is essentially divided into four major sections that are chronologically delimited: (i) Rome and Italy before the Empire (c. 800–27 BCE), (ii) the formation of the Roman Empire (27 BCE–96 CE), (iii) the High Empire (96–192 CE) and (iv) the art across the Later Roman Empire (193–337 CE). It is helpful for the reader that the structure of the book permits both a chronological and a thematic reading. Furthermore, as noted by the author in the introduction, this book also fulfills the aim of serving as a manual for students who intend to widen their knowledge of Roman art.

Building on previous scholarship, the book successfully presents an exhaustive and complete history of the art of the Roman world beyond its center, incorporating sections on recent studies on materials and techniques, or extracts from literary sources that facilitate the reader in fully understanding the social, political, and cultural contexts in which these artworks were commissioned designed, created and displayed. One of the aspects worth noting is how the author intertwines the variables of space and time to build a narrative of art where paintings, mosaics, and architecture are fully covered. Although the art of the provinces is presented both in Chapters 8 and 11, in my opinion, the use of the traditional top-down, traditional, ‘Romanization’ concept (p. 213) obscures the dynamic and complex nature of visual culture that the author indents to present in this book. In this regard, in the last thirty years, archaeologists have been seeking ways of moving beyond the concept of ‘Romanization’ to further understand Roman imperialism (see, e.g. Gardner 2013).[1] However, although this book does not explicitly deal with theoretical applications, further notes on why the author considers Romanization to — still — be a useful term to be applied to Roman art, or other brief theoretical considerations would have been extremely useful.

In this regard, perhaps more emphasis on recent theoretical terms used by studies on Roman art and archaeology to further understand the dynamics of visual culture in the provinces would have been helpful. Despite this minor criticism, the author’s effort to include provincial architecture/art such as Hadrian’s Wall on the edge of the Empire, or sculpture from the eastern Roman world, deserves recognition.

Overall, the book presents a numerous illustrations and maps in color and plans in black and white, as well as reconstructions of buildings. A minor criticism is the lack of essential information in some plans and maps, such as the north arrow (i.e., pp. 55, 105, 122, 153, 179) or the scale (i.e., pp. 57, 254, 271). This book substantially contributes to current scholarship on Roman art by intertwining literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to present a complete narrative. The active role attributed to the provinces in the creation and negotiation of visual cultures aligns this work with recent discourses on Roman art. To conclude, I must highlight that the book serves as a model for future manuals of this kind in antiquity, or further afield.

Notes

[1] Gardner, A. 2013. ‘Thinking about Roman Imperialism: Postcolonialism, Globalisation and Beyond?’, Britannia 44, pp. 1–2.