BMCR 2023.05.19

The Oxford handbook of Roman imagery and iconography

, , The Oxford handbook of Roman imagery and iconography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 592. ISBN 9780190850326.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


The timespan of the book is the Roman world between ca. 300 BC and 600 AD. It opens with a brief descriptive introduction. In Part I, ‘Method and Theory’, Annette Haug looks to the role of images from the perspective of the patron, the viewer and the images themselves—I miss here that of the maker (artist or artisan)—and distinguishes various functions of images, both as agents and as clients. From around 100 BC an explosive production of images takes place. Haug explains this boom by increase of luxury due to economic growth. Mosaic emblemata and mural decoration are increasingly figural, in contrast to the First-Style murals of the preceding period. Among the new categories are religion and magic, which had specific functions to protect the possessor against evil. Haug distinguishes between the private and public sphere where decor should convey messages about the patrons of these public buildings, while at the same time they have to fit with their functions. When Rome turns into an empire, the Emperor and his family influence the public domain and use portraits as well as other sculptures to justify their position and create connections with the past. She is right to warn of the risks of overestimation of the symbolism in design (p. 23).

Clare Rowan investigates various theories on imagery, to begin with Kopytoff’s cultural biography of things and Panofsky’s iconology.[1] Representations of objects have different meanings in different contexts, while those in frequently used media (e.g. coins) exert a great power. An important issue concerns images including elements from what seem different ‘cultures’ combined as ‘creolization’ or ‘hybrids’: apart from the negative image of an impure ‘creole’ these differences occur within the same Roman society, for which she takes over the term ‘entanglement’, whereas she can only point to globalization. Like Haug, Rowan stresses the importance of agency of objects, e.g. portraits of the deceased that keep them alive, but I also think of the representation of the emperor in the many places he cannot be in.

Michael Squire systematically explores images in tandem with texts and starts with Latin and Greek authors showing ‘engagement’ (p. 53) with the figural world. Both Greek and Roman authors mainly describe Roman art. If they write about Greek art, these works act within a Roman context. According to Squire, ekphrasis provides a lot of information about the way the ancient Greeks and Roans looked  at art and how their views changed in the run of time. The second section is devoted to inscriptions and texts featuring in or next to images as well as texts that are shaped in the form of images (e.g. the poetry of Simmias and Optatianus), all fields Squire has worked upon extensively. The possibilities of composition and the deictic forces of these peculiar texts are multiple, from simple explanations to in-depth commentaries and riddles. Squire rightly stresses the value of inscriptions as images themselves, especially in view of the limited literacy of Roman society.[2]

Elizabeth Marlowe discusses values put onto objects in scholarship without archaeological context (often unknown, as in the case of the superb portraits of Maximinus Thrax discussed as examples). She wrongly suggests that art historians in particular tend to forget context, although many of them– to begin with the pioneer iconologist Panofsky – do take into account the original contexts. But of course, I am happy to follow Marlowe when she warns against psychological deduction of meaning, often based on coloured historical sources rather than objective looking at the figures. The soldier emperors’ miens might rather be expressions of energeia and zeal as military leaders than of wicked characters and low social status, as they are sometimes interpreted. After all, would such an emperor have wanted to represent himself as a bad ruler? As a contrast, Marlowe presents the cultural biography of two portraits (Pertinax and P. Helvius Successus, identified by the Dutch [not German, p. 106] scholar Richard de Kind), found in the ‘Deep Room’ of the Roman villa in Lullingstone and arranged there in a third-century cult setting. The example should make clear that, if possible, we should always take into account the context and not attribute meaning to an object we know almost nothing about.

Stephan Faust explores the imperial authority expressed by iconographic devices. He makes clear to which degree the emperor himself, the Senate and other political groups played a role in displaying authority.[3] The Ara Pacis Augustae is a fine and well analyzed example of the involvement of various players in its choice of location, set of images, and function. The essay is descriptive and gives few tools to researchers less familiar with the topic how to explore this kind of monument. A good element is his discussion of ‘provincial’ art, with sites like Mérida, Orange, and Aphrodisias, where local elites were involved in embracing Augustan messages—and in later decades, merging Romanocentric and local narratives and iconography into a new language.[4] Faust also addresses minor arts like silverware and cameos (for which see also Jörn Lang’s chapter 15). It is a pity that Faust limits his considerations on Rome to the extremely well studied Julio-Claudian dynasty: what would this model convey, if applied to other examples like those in Marlowe’s contribution?

Anna Anguissola explores the impact of ‘non-iconic’ elements in figural contexts. A striking example is the statue of Polykleitos’ diadoumenos depicted on the funerary altar of a certain Diadumenus, where it forms the visualization (or logo?) of that man’s identity.

At the beginning of Part II, ‘Image and Semantics’, Dominik Maschek discusses iconography and style in the period 200 BC-AD 14. An ‘artistic revival’, as observed in many studies, should be connected with an intellectual interest in matters of art rather than politics. Maschek observes a strong eclecticism stimulated by local as well as external influences rather than more or less defined trends like Neoatticism and Rhodian artistic trends. For many genres of art we see mixtures of stylistic devices creating Tonio Hölscher’s “semantic system”: each genre (portraits, reliefs, paintings, minor arts etc.) had its own rules and sometimes we observe ‘code-switching’, that is a change of objects’ meanings depending on the context (p. 189).

Susanna McFadden turns to iconography and style in Late Antiquity and warns against notions like ‘end’ or ‘beginning’ of an artistic era (in tandem with Christianization or not). She concentrates on the domus under SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, where the paintings in the various rooms touch upon demands of the house owners regarding prestige and content, just like contemporary sarcophagi. McFadden is right in saying that scholars should not necessarily apply religious attitudes towards the choices made. Both style and content reflect the paideia and concentration on otium of the house owner. Late antique Ostia, Ephesos, and Zeugma show similar developments in their domestic decoration, as is shown by Sarah Lepinski and Vanessa Rousseau. In my view however, Ostia is like neighboring Rome, and not as provincial as the other sites discussed. Lepinski and Rousseau argue that Ostia has links to Ephesos thanks to their harbors and show similar Roman-style decorations, whereas remote Zeugma is more Greek. The contribution unfortunately focuses less on iconography, but rather on composition and style of the wall and floor decorations.

Part III brings the reader to iconography in “social practice” and “context”. According to Riccardo Di Cesare, the representation of individual politicians and military commanders in the late Republic stimulated the development of new shapes and motifs in sculpture, painting as well as architecture in order to make their achievements public (cf. Maschek). He stresses the “iconology of materials”, of traditional bronze and terracotta next to new marble, with special attention paid to temple decorations. Elisabeth Wolfram Thill explores the response of viewers to reliefs adorning public monuments like honorary arches in imperial Rome. They had to recognize the scenes with the aid of fixed iconographic motifs like imperial portraits, mythical figures, and setting. Unfortunately ancient sources are silent and Wolfram Thill’s brief examination of possibilities lacks a solution (which, in fact, cannot exist).

Silvana Costa interrogates ‘social practice’ in the private realm, especially the houses of Pompeii and their rich imagery (cf. Haug). One point is the coherence (or not?) of figural elements within the décor of a particular room. Costa concentrates on still-lives in mural decorations that conveyed a touch of luxury to the life within these rooms and underlined the patron’s hospitality. After the earthquake of AD 62, the good fortune evoked would correspond with the demands of the nouveaux riches rather than the old patrician families who had left the town. However, such a focus on one single motif, still-lives as an explanation of socio-economic developments, might blur the entire context. What is more, this assumption, traditionally connected with the old assumptions of Amedeo Maiuri, is out of date.[5]

Two contributions are devoted to coins and their imagery. Bernhard E. Woytek studies the Republic, and Fleur Kemmers the imperial era. Coinage started around 300 BC, in imitation of Greek practice, and became a new means of state communication, with a “bewildering variety” (p. 321) of figural motifs, often difficult to interpret. They represented the specific demands of particular families, all aiming at promoting their prestige and agenda. Portraits, first of deceased ancestors of the patrons, later of living political and military protagonists, appear in the first century BC, with Caesar constituting the example for imperial imagery. As to the ‘audience’ of this new medium, Woytek argues that their images formed “Insider-Kunst” (p. 333). In contrast, Kemmers shows how imperial coinage was “the most pervasive mass medium”, with standardized imperial portraits on the obverses. As to the reverses, people around the emperor conceived the topics, which tended to correspond with the demands of the particular ruler. The public throughout the empire apparently recognized the portraits as well as the motifs on coin reverses, but could interpret the motifs s according to their own associations. Other contributions are on similar categories of small objects like worked stones (Jörn Lang) and vessels (Manuel Flecker) and address similar question on the imagery in the context of mass consumption.

Lisa Trentin and Sinclair W. Bell explore the visualization of “the other” in social as well as ethnic sense like enslaved people and ‘barbarians’, who form the counterpart of ‘us’, Romans. Trentin observes the iconographic motifs used (deformity, nudity, dress, humiliating poses etc.) to underline the superior Roman approach, for instance when we look at the violence against barbarians depicted on victory monuments and sarcophagi (not mentioned). Aethiops and Pygmies, often taken as one category, maybe should be seen as grylloi.[6] Bell’s paper shows, once again, the view Romans had of Aethiopes (he uses this term for good reasons rather than black Africans, p. 429). Most frequently represented as slave-made workers and servants, they are “ethnocentric constructions” (p. 428). Many such representations adorn or shape utensils, which I think might correspond with the dire status of these people. Maybe this is too simplistic a view, since Bell explains various meanings within different contexts (if known) and stresses their Romanocentrism: they are no ‘real’ depictions, warning against the concept of social equality of these persons.

In his rather brief chapter on early Christian art, Sean V. Leatherbury sees independent, thoughtful inventions rather than simple adaptations by Christians from the third century onwards who, at the same time continue to use existing motifs and forms. He rightly points at the salvific function of images in funerary and sacral contexts, providing the worshippers with positive prospects towards afterlife. This chapter would have fitted well into part IV, dedicated to imagery in religious contexts. K.A. Rask gives an overview of iconography as a source to reconstruct Roman religion. Next to images of the gods (also in private contexts), there are sacred instruments themselves as well as representation of them in temple decorations. Regina Gee analyzes the imagery of the world of death, addressing commemoration next to the notion of afterlife and the want of representation of the family. Her article discusses the wide array of funerary art from the late Republic up to the late Empire. With the final chapter by Matthew J. Grey and Mark D. Ellison we return to the Christians, but now Jewish matters are included as well. The destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 constitutes a watershed between aniconic art before, following the second commandment, and the use of imagery after. The authors see an increasing integration of the Jews into Roman society in tandem with adaptations of their imaginary customs. Imagery would serve to display the glorious past as an example for the present.[7]

This book is not to be read from cover to cover and students and researchers may rather consult specific chapters, all informative and full of references to further literature (each chapter has its own bibliography). Sometimes, however, a stronger coherence might have been evidenced by the editors by inserting more cross references. Fortunately, there is a fine helpful index. The illustrations are greyish, not always of good quality and there is no color plate at all.  The online version of the book, however, does have color images that can also be downloaded as powerpoint slides. We may congratulate the editors and the authors – both junior and senior researchers – with this fine book and hope that it will get its appreciation in the coming decades.


Authors and Titles

Introduction, Lea Cline and Nathan T. Elkins

Method and Theory
1 The Creation of an Image, Annette Haug
2 Theoretical Approaches to Roman Imagery and Iconography, Clare Rowan
3 Relationship between Image and Text, Michael Squire
4 Iconography and Archaeology, Elizabeth Marlowe
5 Image and Authority, Stephan Faust
6 Iconography of the Non-iconic, Anna Anguissola

Image and Semantics
7 Iconography and Style in Republican and Early Imperial Art, Dominik Maschek
8 Iconography and Style in the Late Roman Empire, Susanna McFadden
9 Iconography and Style between Rome and the Provinces, Vanessa Rousseau and Sarah Lepinski

Image and Social Practice/Image and Context
10 Public Sculpture and Social Practice in the Roman Republic, Riccardo DiCesare
11 Public Sculpture and Social Practice in the Roman Empire, Elizabeth Wolfram-Thill
12 Iconography and Social Practice in the Domestic Sphere, Silvana Costa
13 Coin Iconography and Social Practice in the Roman Republic, Bernhard Woytek
14 Coin Iconography and Social Practice in the Roman Empire, Fleur Kemmers
15 Gems, Cameos, and Social Practice, Jörn Lang
16 Glass, Pottery, and Social Practice, Manuel Flecker
17 Images and Interpretation of ‘the Other’ in Roman Social Practice, Lisa Trentin
18 Images and Interpretation of Africans in Roman Art and Social Practice, Sinclair Bell
19 Iconography of Early Christian Roman Art, Sean Leatherbury

Imagery in Ritual Use
20 Religion and Iconography, Katherine Rask
21 Funerary Imagery and Iconography, Regina Gee
22 Judaism and Christianity, Matthew Grey and Mark Ellison



[1] Much more clearly explained by Squire at p. 51.

[2] A small flaw: the Res gestae divi Augusti were not inscribed on the doors of Augustus’ mausoleum (p. 61), but on square pillars flanking the entrance (Suet. Aug. 101; Dio 56.33). Each of their eight sides contained a determined section of the text, so that there was a certain degree of articulation of the contents into paragraphs. Cf. V. Huet, Stories one might tell of Roman art. Reading Trajan’s Column and the Tiberius cup, in J. Elsner (ed.), Art and Text in Roman Culture, Cambridge 1996, 9-31 (with my criticism in Mnemosyne 52, 1999, 249-252).

[3] See on representation also O. Hekster, Caesar Rules. The Emperor in the Changing Roman World (ca. 50 BC – AD 565), Cambridge 2023.

[4] A good case of the first half of the second century is provided by K. Iannantuono: Artemis, Trajan and the demos in parade. A reinterpretation of the reliefs at the so-called ‘temple of Hadrian’ at Ephesus, Österreichische Jahreshefte 90, 2021, 245-272.

[5] See, for instance F. Pesando and M.P. Guidobaldi, Pompei, Oplontis, Ercolano, Stabia, Rome and Bari 2006, 12-13;  R. Ling, Development of Pompeii’s Public Landscape in the Roman Period, in J.J. Dobbins, P.W. Foss (eds.), The World of Pompeii, London, New York 2007, 119-128, esp. 125-126; D. Robinson, Wealthy Entrepreneurs and the Urban Economy : Insula VI 1 in its Wider Economic Contexts, in M. Flohr and A. Wilson (eds), The Economy of Pompeii, New York 2016, 243-262; F. Pesando, Distruzione e ricostruzione della città, in M. Torelli (ed.), Pompei 79 d.C. Una storia romana, Milan 2020, 252-261. I thank Domenico Esposito for discussing this topic with me.

[6] See now Volker Michael Strocka, Pygmäen in Ägypten? Die Widerlegung eines alten Irrtums. Bevölkerte Nillandschaften in der antiken Kunst. Darmstadt 2021 (Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie – Sonderbände der Antiken Welt).

[7] For a similar reading of the Dura Europos Synagogue, see my The Murals of the Synagogue at Dura Europos as an Expression of Roman Koine, in A. Haug, M.T. Lauritsen (ed.), Décor 2. Principles of Decoration in the Roman World, Berlin, Boston 2021, 141-161 (online).