Jaś Elsner
Oxford University
Press, £19.99
ISBN 978-0198768630
Review Edward Biddulph

This is the second edition of what has become a standard work on Roman art, and covers the period described as the Second Sophistic – a time that saw a seismic transformation in the art and architecture of the empire. Some of the illustrations and a chapter examining the influence of Roman art beyond the empire are new, but the older material has lost none of its relevance and power.

As one would expect from a book about art, the volume is sumptuously illustrated, and there are many images to keep readers from turning the page: images of stunning mosaics from Ravenna, jaw-dropping glass ‘cage-cups’ of the 4th century AD, and Constantius Chlorus’ magnificent basilica in Trier among them. The book is, however, less a catalogue of treasures than a history of the late empire, as Jaś Elsner skilfully puts Roman art into context. If the book carries one overarching message, it is that the author rejects the notion of artistic decline, instead arguing that art during the period was expressed within a continuum, both reflecting and influencing its cultural, religious, and political environments.

Art served to unify and give direction to the diverse cultures of the empire, whether that was through religious iconography, symbols of political power, or even the depiction of the beard. Hadrian started the trend for facial hair, and, as the author reveals, the fashion ‘caught the mood of the times’. But art was not created just from the top down. Provincial influence remained strong and was strengthened further as the centre of imperial power shifted from Rome to cities on the edge of empire. Art and architecture incorporated the styles of the East, which became increasingly significant with the rise of Eastern mystery religions, in particular Christianity.

Indeed, the book is a must-read for students of the history of Christianity. The siting of churches on top of martyrs’ graves in cemeteries outside the city walls led to the decline of the urban centre, but inspiration in how the religion was expressed came from existing forms. Churches adopted the shape of the basilica and round buildings like the Pantheon, and pagan art was reinterpreted to fi t the scriptural canon: the image of the Virgin and Child may trace its roots to earlier Egyptian depictions of Isis and the infant Horus. Examples like this are key to the book’s central argument. The author describes the process that transformed the cultural landscape of the period as one of repetition, reconfiguration, and appropriation of artistic concepts, or the reworking of the past until the new emerged – a case of evolution, not revolution.

Reading the book, one would be forgiven for wondering where the ‘ordinary’ people are. There is, unfortunately, little room in the book for art produced outside the urban centres and grand villas, as the material described seems to be very much of the elite. The objects of everyday – pottery and personal ornament – are absent. Does, say, a decorated Samian bowl or a barbotine-decorated colour-coated beaker, as recovered from many sites in Roman Britain, make no artistic claims? Curiously, Elsner describes stone sarcophagi as belonging to a ‘much less elevated social level’. If so, where does that put the inhabitants of late Roman Britain who were buried in wooden coffins?

Despite this oversight, Jaś Elsner’s volume is a triumph. It is timely, too. The description of material from Syria, such as the funerary relief of a woman called Tibnan, which expresses both her Roman and Syrian identity, reminds us of what has been lost through cultural vandalism in recent years. The book challenges traditional perceptions of the development of Roman art and presents a convincing argument for continuity and the cultural melting-pot. In aspects of late Roman art, it is hard not to see the seeds of medieval culture, but, as Elsner writes, the break between late antiquity and the ‘Dark Ages’ – or Roman and Christian art – is modern rhetorical fantasy.

This review appeared in CA 341.

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