Art in the Roman Empire

Review by C.V. Walthew

University College

Art in the Roman Empire by Michael Grant, London: Routledge, 1995. Pp. xxii + 146; 37 figs., 5 maps. Hb. [[sterling]]25. ISBN 0-415-12031-4.

'Michael Grant is one of the world's greatest writers on ancient history ... He has published over forty books' proclaims the dust-jacket on this volume and herein, perhaps, lie some of its strengths and weaknesses. Without question Professor Grant has been one of the leading popularizers (in the best sense) of ancient history and archaeology in recent decades and the reviewer gladly acknowledges a debt to the Cities of Vesuvius (1971) and The Etruscans (1980). The problem is, though, that Grant is not an authority on all the aspects of classical art and architecture covered in this book, and it shows. It is sad, but necessary to report that Art in the Roman Empire contains so many misconceptions, misleading statements and plain errors of fact, together with other short-comings, that the book cannot be safely recommended to first-year students of Roman art, let alone to that mythical being 'the interested general reader.'

In his Introduction Grant sets himself the toughest possible agenda. After a brief historical sketch (in which it is surprising to be told that Hadrian rather than Domitian created the separate provinces of Upper and Lower Germany), he proposes to assess Roman artistic influences on the provinces and vice versa, Rome's artistic debt to Greece, the role of the artist in Roman society, the legacy of Roman art to the modern world, art as a product of imperialism and, finally, the 'Romanness' of Roman art, defined as the question whether there was a common artistic language throughout the empire, despite the impact of local influences. And all this on the basis of no more than thirty or forty works of art and architecture! The trouble with an approach of this sort is that, admirable though it may be in not wishing to overwhelm the reader with detail, it requires the combination of a sensitive and acute analysis of individual items with a linking commentary imbued with the widest and deepest possible knowledge and understanding of Roman art and architecture as a whole, attributes which on the evidence of this book Professor Grant does not seem to possess.

Grant divides his book into three sections:

  1. portraiture and relief sculpture.
  2. architecture, by far the longest part of the book at 57 pages, covering pagan temples, houses and palaces, 'places of entertainment' (libraries(!), baths, theatres and amphitheatres), arches, bridges and aqueducts, pagan and Christian basilicas.
  3. 'other arts' (principally paintings, mosaics and coins).
Let it be said at once that there are good things in the book. Chapter 1 on Imperial Portraits is easily the most impressive (as might be expected from the author of From Imperium to Auctoritas, 1946), confident in its handling of the role of portraiture in Imperial propaganda and its dissemination throughout the empire, convincing in its analyses of the Meroe Augustus and the Vatican portrait of Philip the Arabian and satisfying in coming to grips with issues raised in the Introduction such as the Greek contribution to Roman portraiture and the emergence of regional styles and variations from Gaul or Britain on the one hand to Aphrodisias in Caria on the other.

Useful, too, is Chapter 13 (Coins and Medallions) in highlighting Hadrian's coin series devoted to the provinces and in stressing the importance of local bronze issues, especially in the eastern empire. But on closer inspection the five pages on coins prove to consist almost exclusively of quotations from Grant's earlier works plus one each from Sutherland and Vermeule, and we shall find this to be all too characteristic of the book as a whole. It is perfectly reasonable to emphasize variations in style amongst the local bronze coinages, but the point loses much of its impact when we are not shown a single example. The same criticism may be levelled at Chapter 2 on private portraiture, which rightly focuses on the development of realistic (or veristic) portraits and the Greek artists from centres like Delos who produced them for their Roman patrons. 'The result', we are told (p. 15) 'was one of the principal glories of Roman civilization ... and it was a glory that spread throughout the Roman empire.' Again, no illustration. What we are shown instead (Fig. 4) is a thoroughly stylized, rigidly frontal portrait of a woman from Palmyra for whom jewellery, hairstyle and headdress were clearly more important than a record of her facial features. This may tell us something about variations in style throughout the empire, but it can only leave the uninitiated with a strangely unbalanced view of portraiture as a whole.

It is, though, in the long central section on architecture (31-88) that most problems arise and Professor Grant seems least confident in handling his material. Let us start with some basic points. Not a single plan appears in the whole section, which is unacceptable. Reconstructed models are no substitute, since nothing is said about their reliability and especially since Grant's architectural analyses are not always easy to follow. Diocletian's palace at Split is a case in point (p.47). In quoting (without correction) from an earlier work of his own, he first throws the reader by referring to the site as Salonae and then discusses the Golden Gate (Porta Aurea) without making it clear that it was the north gate of the palace (a failing which recurs in the last paragraph of the same page), before, finally, muddling the Porta Aurea with the Porta Aenea, the Brazen or sea gate, on the south side of the palace! One clearly labelled plan would have avoided the confusion inevitably left in the reader's mind.

The text of the architectural section is itself littered with misleading statements and unfortunate emphases which will inevitably trap the unwary. Grant is, of course, perfectly correct to stress concrete as a vital structural component of Roman imperial architecture. But why emphasize its use in temples (caption to Fig.7) and triumphal arches (p.60 and caption to Fig.18), in which its role was relatively minor, and yet virtually ignore its crucial significance in the development of Ostian insulae (p.40) and in the construction of vaults to support the seating in largely free-standing theatres (53f.; 129, n. 10)? We are told (p.130, note 1 on Ch.9) that 'the roofs of basilicas were habitually flat, and supported by timber trusses.' This statement (partially repeated on p.71 and in the caption to Fig.22) is not only untrue, but structurally impossible, and reveals a serious misunderstanding of ancient architecture. For the real situation we need only to glance at Grant's own Fig.24 which reproduces the well-known medieval fresco depicting Constantine's basilica of St. Peter's with its sloping roofs and timber truss. Whilst on this subject it is worth noting that Grant's claim (caption to Fig.22) that the concrete cross-vaulting of the early-fourth century Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum was 'a new departure' is also invalid, since this method of roofing may be seen in the great central hall of the Baths of Caracalla a century earlier. Finally, on what grounds can he possibly assert (p.57) that the Arles and Nīmes amphitheatres were built by the same architect, and why does the information on Nīmes in the Notes (p.129, Ch.7, n. 15) contradict that conveyed in the text (not the only instance of a lack of co-ordination between text and notes: compare Ch.5, n. 1 and Ch. 11, n. 9)?

As already noted, one of the major problems underlying this book and contributing to the weaknesses outlined above is Grant's tendency to quote extensively from his earlier works. This would not matter so much if the quotations were fully integrated into the new text, harmonized with each other and updated, but, unfortunately, they are not. At best, this leads to needless repetition, e.g. on the atrium in the section on the Pompeian house (36-38), some two-thirds of which is taken from The World of Rome (1960) and Cities of Vesuvius (1971). At worst, the practice seriously misleads, as can be seen in the book's final section ('Other Arts'), especially in Chapter 11 on wall-paintings, again heavily indebted to Cities of Vesuvius, in which we are told that 'absolutely no Greek wall-paintings at all have come down to us' (p.91). It is interesting to speculate what the excavator of Vergina would have made of that statement!

The trouble with such prolixity is that it results in excessive compression elsewhere, most apparent in Chapter 12 on Mosaics which barely runs to three pages (101-104). Here we are told of 'seven major stylistic groups ... in different geographical parts of the Roman world,' that mosaic art 'evolved enormously', that 'regional diversities were marked' and that mosaics 'deserve special investigation.' Special investigation is, of course, precisely what they do not get here, nor are the broad generalizations just listed discussed and illustrated. Such perfunctoriness can only serve to frustrate and alienate the reader.

Harsh judgements have been expressed in this review, but there really was no alternative, given the readership at which the book seems to be directed. Indeed, much more might have been added in the same vein (for example, Grant's tendency to introduce new material in lengthy notes which might to better effect have been incorporated in what is a fairly meagre text). In conclusion let me repeat that Professor Grant does justice to imperial portraits and is good up to a point on coins and medallions. He does succeed in conveying something of the range and diversity of art and architecture throughout the Roman empire and we would probably agree with him that many of the works of higher quality were produced by Greek or Greek-trained artists. But as for the other demanding questions raised in the Introduction, it cannot be said that they receive satisfactory answers and it is hard to see how they ever could be by a book of this scope and style. In short, Art in the Roman Empire is not a work to which I would turn for enlightenment and inspiration on the subject. Much more reliable and stimulating are the following:-

  • I.M. Barton (Ed.), Roman Public Buildings (1989)
  • Martin Henig (Ed.), A Handbook of Roman Art (1983)
  • Diana Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (1992)
  • Frank Sear, Roman Architecture (rev. ed. 1989)
  • Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988)
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