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The Social History of Roman Art. By PETER STEWART. Cambridge and New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xvi + 200. Cloth, $99.95. ISBN 
978–0-521–81632–8. Paper, $34.99. ISBN 978–0–521–01659–9.

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CJ Online 2010.06.02

The study of Roman art has changed, says Stewart, in that it now deals more 
with the role of art in ancient society. From wall-paintings to statues, 
from coins to gravestones, this is a fresh look at Roman art. In five 
chapters S. explains how Roman art has moved from a marginal to a 
significant place that deserves serious attention. Chapter 1 deals with the 
making of art; Chapter 2 with the role of domestic and funerary art; 
Chapter 3 with portraiture and its role in social relationships; Chapter 4 
with the popular theme of “the power of images” in imperial and 
political representation and religion; Chapter 5 with the Hellenic heritage 
of Roman imperial art and with alternative, non-classical traditions. S. 
offers not only a survey but a discussion of some of the images and 
approaches in current thinking about art in Roman society.

The first chapter concerns the absence of information about individual 
artists and the nearly total lack of documentary evidence. Roman authors 
pay almost no attention to contemporary artists, but just as Roman works of 
art in all periods are modeled upon classical Greek models, so too Romans 
look to Greek artists of the past. Indeed, the evidence for the names of 
the artists of Roman art is chiefly Greek. Pliny the Elder virtually 
disregards Roman artists but does mention a few of them alongside their 
famous Greek predecessors. There are even inscriptions of Roman sculptors 
called Myron and Phidias. An inscribed marble statue base from the Campus 
Martius may belong to artists in imperial Rome called “Phidias and 
sons.” But the overall point is that the patron, not the creative artist, 
played the leading role in the development of art in Rome.

The chapter entitled “Identity and Status” examines why work on Roman 
art is increasingly interested in “identity” and 
“self-representation” with an emphasis on personal identity and social 
status. The most profound mark of identity in the world of the Roman elite 
was the private house and the art it contained. The Villa of the Papyri at 
Herculaneum with its huge collection of bronze and marble sculptures is a 
good example. But wall-paintings and other domestic decoration do not offer 
the best indications of social or economic standing. The “Second-Style” 
frescoes from the 40s BC from Oplontis offer fine examples of 
wall-paintings evoking self-conscious illusions of luxury. The evidence 
from Pompeii and Herculaneum is of such high quality that there has always 
been a temptation to “read” houses for more specific messages about the 
status, identity and personality of their owners. At the other end of the 
social spectrum, remains of monuments from imperial Italy represent lower 
social classes, including wealthy freedmen. Some of the “biographical 
sarcophagi,” which originated with the senatorial aristocracy and can be 
linked to the aristocratic equestrian order and wealthy freedmen from the 
2nd to the 4th centuries AD, have scenes that either constitute a sort of 
curriculum vitae of the deceased or depict Greek heroes as ideal models for 
the dead person. This allegorical use of myth on sarcophagi displays 
learning and a conspicuous nostalgia for the Greek past and the 
appreciation of Greek culture within the Roman empire.

“Portraits in society” offers a look at the most familiar and often 
misunderstood of Roman art-forms. Portraits, largely a Greek invention, 
were used by the republican nobility to preserve the images of their 
ancestors. The noblility also set up public, honorific statues to one other 
authorized by the senate and as self-promotion. Portraits came to be used 
by a broader social range in the imperial period. The most prestigious 
portraits in the Roman empire were set up in prominent places like the 
forum or agora, especially for public patronage or benefaction. Imperial 
portraits were used in all kinds of contexts, and in many parts of the 
empire (especially the eastern provinces) for the worship of the living 
ruler himself.

“The power of images” examines the power and prestige of religious and 
political images in Roman art. Both small- and large-scale imagery was 
important for disseminating messages about late republican statesmen or 
imperial rulers in the vast territories of the empire. The reliefs from the 
Arch of Trajan at Beneventum are a fine example of this “billboard” 
type of imperial advertisement; so too Trajan’s Column, relating his 
successful campaigns against the Dacians, presents a sustained visual 
commentary that was frequently emulated under subsequent rulers. The Ara 
Pacis Augustae has a similar purpose with its resonant political imagery 
found in Augustan public art and poetry. Such imagery focuses on the 
“real” martial achievements of the emperor and on his religious and 
civic deeds.

Art was used for a variety of religious purposes in the Roman world, and 
the use of statues to represent the gods in human form was of central 
importance. As cult images, statues stood for the absent gods and were not 
considered gods themselves. Schematic depictions of cult statues in their 
temples often appear on coins minted in Rome or in the Greek communities of 
the empire. One of the most widespread categories of Roman art comprised 
small votive reliefs with isolated images of gods with their regular 
attributes. The mystery cults of Isis and Mithras used strong religious 
iconography to promote their tenets. Christianity, however, is 
art-historically and archaeologically invisible before about 200 AD.
Artistic production in the Roman world was thoroughly shaped by Greek 
artistic traditions even if not actually by Greek artists. But Greek art 
evolved into something rather different in the context of Roman society. 
Mosaic, originally a Greek invention, demonstrates this well, since it 
ultimately spread to every part of the empire as a typical aspect of Roman 
artistic culture. So where and when does Greek art stop and Roman art 
begin? By the 1st century AD, Roman culture was already saturated with 
Greek art, with Pliny the Elder himself as our best source for ancient 
Greek art history. Pausanias later wrote an educated traveler’s guidebook 
to mainland Greece. The sanctuaries he surveyed are treated as religious 
sites, but he also comments on the subjects and the antiquity of works of 
art, their artists and the stories around them. In the Roman east, 
non-classical styles were popular and the conventions of Greek and Roman 
art made only slow headway. But art in Roman Britain often seems to be a 
poor imitation of a Roman tradition itself derived from Greece. The demand 
for artistic products (tombstones) from Britain and Germany may be a factor 
here. Many Romano-British votive reliefs may look simple because of their 
adherence to indigenous cult, not because they are failed attempts to 
imitate classical art. Italy could even be influenced by provincial art. 
For all the cultural diversity of the empire, its provinces and populations 
had much in common. Art provided a common language of empire, not only for 
those who made or bought the objects themselves but for those who used and 
viewed them. Decorated villas and the image of the emperor on coins or in 
statuary were familiar to the majority of the empire’s population.

The late empire saw the rise of a new elite. The art of the period could be 
seen as “plebian” in a new context—produced by and responsive to 
society. But the classical tradition of naturalistic art continued to 
thrive. Many of the finest and most naturalistic Roman mosaics, in areas 
such as North Africa, Cyprus and Syria, date to around the 4th century AD. 
We also look to certain centers of production for domestic sculpture, 
chiefly Aphrodisias. Hoards of late Roman silver and carved ivories also 
date from this period. Imagery of pagan mythology, including the world of 
Dionysus, often dominates Late Antique art. Even on a somewhat lower social 
level of artistic imagery, such as the decorated textiles surviving from 
Egypt, traditional mythical imagery is widespread. Such imagery remained 
popular among Roman Christians and ensured the survival of Roman artistic 
forms into the Middle Ages.

Though S.’s book is not a handbook or introduction, its social historical 
approach offers a unique perspective into the form, use and reception of 
Roman art. This is art not merely as it imitated classical Greek models but 
also as it captivated the mind and spirit of provincial practitioners of 
the less elite classes. The author has produced a valuable study that will 
challenge long-established views of the subject.

Boston Latin Academy

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