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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 31 Jul 2009 09:51:07 -0500
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Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture: The Allure of the Classical. By 
RACHEL MEREDITH KOUSSER. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University 
Press, 2008. Pp. xv + 208. Paper, $85.00. ISBN 978–0–521–87782–4.

Order this text for $85.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.07.06

This book is an in-depth examination of a widespread visual motif in 
ancient art, most famously represented by the Capua Venus and the Victory 
of Brescia. The work is divided into four chapters, chronologically ordered 
from the Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity. The title promises a much 
larger project, which it does not really deliver, and the jacket blurb 
announces that the work “draws on contemporary reception theory.” Most 
of the time, however, Kousser (K.) takes the bird’s-eye view of the art 
historian; she only occasionally touches on the concerns of reception 
theory, that is, on the question of how viewers influence the appearance of 
art and how they bring to it interpretations not emphasized or intended by 
artist or patron.

Chapter 1, which considers the Venus–Victory motif in the Hellenistic 
Period, has some of the finest moments in the book as well as some of the 
most problematic. K.’s discussion of the Aphrodite of Melos (pp. 30–4) 
is fine scholarship. The evidence for whether Aphrodite carried an apple in 
her left hand and for the sculpture’s architectural setting is laid out 
clearly, and scholarly differences are acknowledged with respect. By 
contrast, perhaps the most problematic feature of this chapter is K.’s 
tendency to import evidence from other periods into an argument about 
Hellenistic sculpture. The debate over whether the Capua Venus replicates 
the Armed Aphrodite of Acrocorinth has reached a sort of standoff, and most 
of the comparanda K. adduces have already been employed both for and 
against this theory. More importantly, much of this evidence is Roman in 
date, and since the rest of the book demonstrates handily that this visual 
motif can be found in every corner of the Roman empire over many centuries, 
the fact that a few examples were found in Roman Corinth does not, to my 
mind, advance the argument much. The Hellenistic terracottas K. considers 
do not—at least based on the photos and descriptions provided—seem 
closely related to her visual motif at all.

With the Roman chapters, K. is generally on firmer ground and tends to be 
less speculative, though I do not agree with all her conclusions. Chapter 2 
is devoted to instances of the visual motif in the Early Empire, and K. 
does touch on reception theory when she considers the famous Roman 
Mars–Venus groups based on the type (p. 52). When she wants to make sense 
of the pair that stood in the Augustan Forum, she points to lines from 
Ovid’s Tristia (2.295–6) that might suggest that a depiction of Mars 
and Venus in the “Temple of Mars” could be misunderstood as an 
adulterous couple. Leaving aside the possibility that this reference might 
not be to the sculptural group in question, Ovid’s point in this passage 
is that it is possible to misread just about anything, including his 
poetry, if one tries hard enough. Though the poem presents interpretive 
difficulties, to my mind it runs counter both to Ovid’s argument and to 
his self-interest to read these lines as proof that the adulterous reading 
“…was, in fact, common and indeed inevitable” (p. 54). If the 
representatives of Augustus thought that the sculptural group in his Forum 
was commonly read as a pair of adulterers rather than as the progenitors of 
the Roman people, they would never have permitted the sculptures to 
continue adorning a space with such great personal meaning to the emperor 
and his family. The fact that, a century and a half later, Marcus Aurelius 
and Faustina the Younger had themselves represented as this divine pair on 
coins only underscores the point.

Unlike K., I believe that these groups lack the eroticism necessary for the 
subversive, adulterous reading. In fact, in spite of their nudity (in the 
various extant groups, his is a constant and hers is relatively rare), most 
of the pairs project the image of the campaigning, male politician with his 
wife: she looks adoringly at him, while he looks out at the world; one of 
her arms is draped around him, the other usually lightly touches some 
symbol of his military virtus, like his baldric. The briefest glance at a 
Mars–Venus pair created by Antonio Canova, on display in Buckingham 
Palace, is enough to make the point. His group, which was inspired by one 
of the ancient pairs, is highly erotic: gestures, drapery, sinuous 
proportions and direct, searing eye contact between the two lovers all 
contribute to this sense—and, by contrast, reveal the ancient groups for 
the tame, political pairs they are.

One detail: In her discussion of these groups, K. refers to the Mars 
figures as “a late fifth century type known as the Ares Borghese.” She 
seems unaware that Kim Hartswick made a full frontal attack on that 
attribution some years ago, since she neither disagrees with his view 
explicitly nor footnotes it. [[1]]

Chapter 3 considers instances of the motif from 100–250 CE, especially in 
Victory figures on the German limes and Aphrodite figures in Asia Minor, 
and so K. invites us to see what happens to the motif far from the center 
of power. She suggests that the motif “meant something different to those 
who lived on the German frontier than it did elsewhere”(p. 100)—and, in 
particular, that the theme of military protection took on greater 
prominence in this context. By contrast, she reads the Aphrodite figures 
from Asia Minor as symbols of their patrons’ paideia and humanitas. One 
of her points in this chapter is that “private patrons freely and 
idiosyncratically adapted … imperial images with narrowly defined 
meanings” (p. 107). But it would seem from the examples provided that 
these adaptations rarely contradicted the imperial messages established for 
this visual motif; instead they merely emphasized particular nuances more 
useful to the local population.

Finally, Chapter 4 considers Late Antique instances of the motif, casting 
them as deliberately retrospective, intended to identify “the new 
Christian order with a venerable tradition” (p. 135). This chapter is, in 
part, a continuation of the previous one’s argument about aristocratic 
demonstrations of humanitas. It also offers some particularly Christian 
readings of the motif—on sarcophagi, for example—as emblematic of 
victory over death.

K. presents many intelligent and thought-provoking interpretations of 
individual works. Her argument proves less satisfying, however, when she 
attempts to broaden it from individual instances of one particular visual 
motif to a general consideration of the nature of imitation in Roman art. 
Especially in her clearly written but oddly combative introduction, K. 
exaggerates and at times misrepresents recent scholarship on imitation in 
Roman art, in an attempt to position herself as the moderate precisely in 
the center of two extremes. K. refers to the “absolutist positions” (p. 
5) of her scholarly predecessors, and incorrectly claims that recent 
detractors of Kopienkritik, myself included, are concerned with praising 
the “Roman original” (p. 149). But one would be hard-pressed to find 
anyone in the “new school” of Roman art history seriously arguing that 
originality was a preoccupation of Roman artists, patrons or viewers. Many 
of these scholars have actually put a great deal of effort into explaining 
the cultural context that enabled the formulaic qualities of Roman art.

Such misrepresentations seem grounded in an unfortunate rhetorical 
commonplace of our field, namely, that one’s own work is only useful or 
necessary if the scholarship of one’s predecessors is inadequate. The 
force of this trope sometimes leads scholars, wittingly or unwittingly, to 
create straw men with which they then tussle. Most of those who have 
expressed their discomfort with traditional Kopienkritik have not done so 
simply because they do not believe its conclusions about the origins of 
individual visual motifs. The larger problem is that Kopienkritik was a 
methodology whose practitioners often claimed to know what was not (though 
perhaps in some cases simply not yet) knowable; and because they passed 
down to later generations, in the guise of truth, what could only be a 
matter of speculation. The new school argues for a healthy skepticism that 
presents hypotheses as hypotheses, and does not transform them into 
received truth through the alchemy of a forceful personality. I believe 
that that healthy skepticism—that call to “show your work,” to borrow 
a phrase from mathematics—and not a correct position on the originality 
or repetitiveness of Roman art, is the real methodological revolution that 
has taken place in our field. And if that is what counts as absolutism, 
then sign me up.

College of the Holy Cross

[[1]] K. Hartswick, “The Ares Borghese Reconsidered,” RA (1990) 

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