Online Review: Book

Nani in Festa: Iconografia, religion e politica a Ostia durante il secondo triumvirato

Genevieve S. Gessert

118.1

Edited by Christophe Bocheren (BibAr 26). Pp. 213, figs. 62. Edipuglia, Bari 2012. €50. ISBN 978-88-7228-616-3 (paper).

This volume is the latest publication of the excavation project directed by Jean-Marc Moret and Thomas Morard of the University of Lyon II, which for the last 12 years has focused on a Late Republican domus beneath the so-called Schola di Traiano, a collegial structure on the western Decumanus Maximus of Ostia Antica. The construction and destruction history of this domus, named by its excavators the Domus aux Bucranes, has been explicated elsewhere through meticulous stratigraphic and material analysis (most notably in B. Perrier, ed., Villas, maisons, sanctuaires et tombeaux tardo-republicains [Rome 2007] 13–109); this volume narrows its focus to the renovation and historically specific decoration of a single suite of rooms during the triumviral period. In a slender frieze 3 m above the ground, embedded within a sophisticated Second-Style framework, are the “Nani in Festa” of the title: little people occupied with celebrating traditional Roman festivals. Through detailed analysis of the content and iconography of this remarkable frieze, Moret et al. seek to reconstruct the role of Ostian aristocracy in the major events of the Late Republic and to bring to light episodes and themes of the triumviral period previously overlooked.

Following brief introductions by Moret and Bottini (the interim soprintendente of the site during much of the excavation), Bocherens provides a succinct summary of the history of the site, from foundation to excavation (ch. 1). Most notable here is a detailed analysis of the ownership history of the domus plot, which the excavation team and others (C. Bocherens and F. Zevi, “La ‘schola du Trajan’ et la domus du consul Caius Fabius Agrippinus à Ostie,” ArchCl 58 [2007] 257–71) see as the “family house” of the Fabii Agrippini, a consular gens established in Ostia during the triumviral period (a Gaius Fabius Longus was duovir in 39 B.C.E.) and effaced from the urban framework after falling afoul of Elagabalus in 218–219 C.E. Based on this endpoint, along with a Severan brickstamp discovered in the foundation (fig. 2), the excavators see the establishment of a collegium on the site as the work of Late Severan property seizure and patronage, a significant revision to the history of collegia in terms of both date and mechanism.

The rest of the volume is devoted to the description and analysis of the “Oecus dei Nani” (described as Room 101 or trench T in earlier publications). This likely triclinium and its antechamber were redecorated with wall painting and stucco ca. 40–30 B.C.E. and razed along with the rest of the structure some time between 20 and 10 B.C.E. to raise the ground level in a counter-flooding measure. Morard and Girard provide a detailed description of the decorative system of the oecus (ch. 2), with close analyses of both the Second-Style framework festooned with theatrical masks and the basic content of the nani frieze, along with a brief description of the room’s dizzying stucco decoration of ships’ prows, clubs, and lightning bolts (unfortunately not illustrated). Here are the first interpretations of specific historical allusion to the Battle of Ostia, fought against Sextus Pompey during Fabius Longus’ duovirate in 39 B.C.E. (the prows) and to the gens Fabii and their descent from Hercules (the clubs and thunderbolts). The remainder of Nani in Festa is Moret’s work (chs. 3–5 and the epilogue); these potential historical allusions are his springboard for interpreting the frieze within the specific political and cognitive context of the pre-Actium decade.

The core chapter lays out the project’s reconstruction and interpretation of the frieze, which survives in extremely fragmentary form with five apparent scenes on the long west wall and one scene each on the north and south (the remainder of the room’s decoration is lost). Using primarily literary evidence and a few visual comparanda, here Moret sees the enacting of several key traditional Roman festivals and legends by artfully rendered nani: on the east wall, the festivals of the Artificium Dies, Liberalia, Poplifugia, and Quinquatrus/Tubilustrum, along with a depiction of the intervention of the Sabine matrons, and on the south and north walls, respectively, the battle between Hercules and Cacus and the legend/festival of Anna Perenna. Moret observes several unifying themes that create an overall Martial atmosphere, such as the overwhelming concentration of March festivals, legends and festivals associated with Romulus, allusions to the Salii (via their Atellan counterparts, the fullers), and the apparent appearance of the deity himself in hyper-muscled form in the Anna Perenna scene. The presence of Hercules opposite Mars leads Moret to additional speculations (ch. 4) on the role of Hercules as defender against pirates (as Sextus Pompey was also categorized), which seemingly correlates both with the mythical lineage of the Fabii and the presence (albeit indirect) of the Salii, whom Moret views as the overseers of the cult of Hercules Victor at Tivoli and Rome. In chapter 5, Moret deals with the final burning issue: the presence of the nani as celebrants of traditional Roman festivals and characters of legend. Given the particular historical and cultural context reconstructed thus far, Moret has a specific historical explanation for this component of the frieze as well, seeing these nani as the actual ones brought by Antony from Syria to Rome sometime after 40 B.C.E. Mentioned in a single passage in the De signis of Philodemus, this overlooked event, according to Moret, was a potent symbol of Antony’s eastern tryphe and the source of Emperor Augustus’ later extreme abhorrence of physical anomalies (Suet. Aug. 83.2). Bringing all the decorative components of the room together, the “Oecus dei Nani” can be seen as a complex celebration of Fabius Longus’ ancestral, military, and political alignments following his duovirate of 39 B.C.E., which associated him strongly with Octavian and traditional Roman symbols in the face of Antony’s incontinent Hellenism. In a cathartic epilogue, Moret masterfully muses on the cognitive experience of the frieze both visually and culturally, which struggled between “popular” Romanitas and the increasingly ubiquitous Hellenistic tradition, thereby encapsulating the almost schizophrenic atmosphere of the triumviral period.

The approach taken by Moret, and by the project in general, is notably unconventional in Roman archaeology, and this volume was the subject of lively critical discussion at a recent international conference on Ostia at the École Française de Rome (www.ostia-antica.org/colloq/efr2013.pdf). Moret has elsewhere described his team as an “orchestra of soloists” (Perrier [2007] 7), each with essential and individual skills relevant to the success of the project as a whole, and this volume at last brings Moret himself into the spotlight. The interpretations he presents in Nani in Festa are certainly debatable and highly dependent on a very particular visual and historical reading of the frieze, and other scholars have already offered valid criticisms of both content and format in reviews (J. Henderson, BMCR 2012.11.55; M. Papini, Histara [21 February 2013] http://histara.sorbonne.fr/cr.php?cr=1672&lang=en). But the contentious nature of the imagery’s interpretation may be the whole point of the volume. The Schola di Traiano project has consistently published their findings for public consideration, charting the evolution of their interpretations and making this important discovery available for wider analysis. In advance of a comprehensive publication of the project mentioned several times in the volume, the presentation of a complex theory of interpretation could be seen as premature, but it may also encourage a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of this exceptional work.

Department of Art and Archaeology
Hood College
Frederick, Maryland 21701
gessert@hood.edu

Book Review of Nani in Festa: Iconografia, religion e politica a Ostia durante il secondo triumvirato, edited by Christophe Bocheren
Reviewed by Genevieve S. Gessert
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118 Number 1 (January 2014), published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/1735
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Gessert

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