Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 1999
Jaś Elsner Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire AD 100–450 New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 320 pp.; 68 color ills.; 79 b/w ills. Paper $16.95 (0192842013)

In his influential Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art, first published in 1953, Otto Brendel gave a masterful survey of prior accountings of the subject. He noted how Roman art has been the creation of the many presents from Ghiberti’s notion that Roman art ended in the reign of Constantine through Winckelmann’s privileging of ancient Greece to the detriment of Rome, to the early 20th-century nationalism/racism and formalism/structuralism of Strzygowski and Kaschnitz-Weinberg, respectively. The process continues with the French structuralism or European Marxism that have prevailed since Brendel wrote. This general state of affairs applies, of course, to the study of any historical phenomenon. But Brendel argues that Roman art is a special case, because a Roman interpretation of its visual culture “remains almost wholly unknown to us, nor is it likely that we shall ever know much about it.” This condition “must be accepted as inevitable,” since the Romans did not write about their art and artists in the manner of the Greeks. “There is no Roman theory of art.”

It is our good fortune that Jas Elsner, while citing an essay that was so formative for prior generations of students, has paid it no heed in the present book nor in his last, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge, 1995). Indeed, he argues that the visual per se was theorized more intensely in the periods surveyed, second to 5th century A.D., than in any other time in antiquity. Elsner succeeds admirably in providing Roman interpretations of the artifacts and visual environments of the elite, a highly useful project, even if his is not the history of artists, artistic problems, or aesthetics that Brendel and the art historians of his generation had in mind, nor is it an account that follows the disciplinary allegiances of recent histories of Roman art. With a relatively small number of examples, each accompanied by a usefully discursive caption, Elsner manages to suggest the many worlds of Roman society. The objective is to assess how art “both reflected and contributed to social construction, as well as how it functioned as a marker for different kinds of personal identity—social, provincial, religious” (p. x).

Primary sources are important for this history, and they appear often and unexpectedly, which ought to maintain the interest of seasoned experts as well as beginning students. Unlike most every other book on Roman art, Elsner’s begins not with the Republic, but in the second century, when the Empire is fully operational and at its maximum power and during the literary period known as the Second Sophistic. He ends not with what also has become traditional in art history handbooks, the reign of Constantine, but with the mid-5th century, near the traditional date of the fall of the Roman Empire, although he never once mentions 476 A.D. It is planned that the prior volume in the Oxford series will discuss the Republic and early Empire with the Hellenistic period. The writing of grand survey books and handbooks “covering” specific fields is a highly conservative process. Having explored that matter elsewhere, I was pleased for once to encounter innovation in the genre.

But the author’s new chronological arrangement is more than mere novelty, for it serves a central premise of the book. He sees early Christian art as part of late antiquity and both as having been prepared by earlier developments, especially the Second Sophistic. While accepting that change took place, Elsner emphatically rejects the notion of the decline of ancient art in the time of Constantine, the paradigm that was so convenient for the Renaissance and its intellectual progeny. Consequently, he ignores the great historiographic divide between late antiquity and the early medieval ages, what he rightly calls “virtually a wall of non-communication . . . between those who write about ‘late-antique art’ from the point of view of the Classical heritage and those who write about ‘early Christian art’ from the stance of its medieval and Byzantine inheritance” (p. 23). The book ends with the ringing declaration that this division is “a modern rhetorical fantasy” (p. 259).

Like all dualisms, Elsner’s analysis is heuristically useful, but in his reviewer’s opinion, the approach taken is the emergent one, the new orthodoxy in the field. At times, the author seems to be beating a dying, if not completely dead, horse. The book is ordered topically, not chronologically, an arrangement that may be jarring to those accustomed to art history’s teleology and to medievalists, who privilege early Christian art as the origins of their subject. Besides the preface and afterword, the book has nine chapters divided into three parts, as well as a detailed time line, concise bibliographies, references to the most recent scholarship, clear and attractive maps, and excellent illustrations, including objects rarely reproduced in color (e.g. the British Museum apotheosis ivory). In sum, the book is well produced. After an introduction that sets out at the premises of the book, Part I, “Images and Power,” focuses on art in imperial ceremonies and in the lives of aristocrats. In these contexts, images portray patrons as they wish to be seen, so that change over time is due to social, political, and ideological factors.

The first chapter in Part II, “Images and Society,” treats “Art and Social Life” and discusses the artifacts and conventions of aristocratic dining. Chapter 5, “Centre and Periphery,” opens with the comparison of two female portraits from Egypt and Palmyra as an introduction to the processes of Romanization in the empire. It concludes with the rise of the periphery and the transition from Romanization to Christianization during the late Empire. The latter process is also treated in the following chapter on “Art and Death,” from the introduction of the Greek practice of inhumation in the second century to catacomb imagery in the 4th and 5th centuries. Part III, “Images and Transformation,” concerns yet more general attitudes to art. One the finest chapters in the book is the seventh, “Art and the Past: Antiquarian Eclecticism.” It argues that “the transfiguration of culture in late antiquity was the product not of rejecting the past in favour of something new, but of constantly reworking the past in a spirit of reverential respect until the new emerged from the process” (p. 169). During the Second Sophistic, this re-examination of the classical past led to the incorporation of Greek style and Greek, rather than Roman mythology. The eclecticism and reverence for a certain version of the Greek past continues into late antiquity and, as he explains briefly in the epilogue, passes to Byzantium. Because Elsner addresses “Art and Religion,” the preceding chapters provide a rich context for what medievalists see as the central issue for the period. He usefully characterizes the practices and beliefs of traditional religions in which cults were defined through their images and associated temples. While Christianity was similar to other mystery religions in that it used images to proclaim sacred myths, it, like Judaism, was monotheistic and could not tolerate Roman syncretism. Moreover, since the Judeo-Christian tradition was scripturally based, its art was secondary to texts, even if it illustrated their narratives and spread their messages to the illiterate majority.

The concluding epilogue does more than conclude. It inquires into the economic cost and symbolic value of art. From Diocletian’s edict and other evidence, it can be shown that most art was not expensive for the elite and that artists were paid modestly. On the other hand, ekphraseis of the period testify to the high social and cultural prestige of possessing and understanding art. From this, may we infer that demand was comparatively weak, perhaps due to the limited extent of Roman aristocracy? The Italian Renaissance provides an instructive contrast. As Richard Goldthwaite has discussed, then the status of artists rose, and the demand for art increased, thanks to a great expansion of the art-loving elite and especially their pocketbooks.

The book’s afterword, “Some Futures of Christian Art,” restates central themes on the subject and attempts to look forward to the Middle Ages. Here this medievalist finds the book less useful, but perhaps for classicists and their students the discussion will serve to open up the traditional terminus of the ancient world. The book is most successfully in charting the many ties between the art of late antiquity and the high empire. While the author acknowledges that architecture, technique, and style are slighted in his history, the rich contextual frame he establishes more than compensates, writes art history into classics and vice-versa, shifts the whole from an ordinary handbook into a fine, thoughtful, richly textured cultural history. Above all, Elsner convincingly demonstrates that it is possible to write a Roman history of Roman art.

Robert S. Nelson
University of Chicago