Online Review: Book

The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History

Monika Trümper


By Lauren Hackworth Petersen. Pp. xviii + 294, b&w figs. 140, color pls. 8. Cambridge University Press, New York 2006. $96. ISBN 978-0-521-85889-2 (cloth).

The aim of this book, which is the revised version of a doctoral dissertation written under John R. Clarke, is to “explode [sic] the category of freedman art” (12), a goal the author successfully achieves through a series of case studies. Given this aim, and also because Petersen discusses the freedman in art history rather than in art, the title is slightly misleading. The book is divided into two parts, each of which includes three case studies from public and private life, respectively (chs. 1–6). The case studies focus mostly on single monuments from Pompeii (the Temple of Isis, monuments of the Augustales, the House of Octavius Quartio [II 2.2], the House of the Caecilii [V 1.26], and some other houses [chs. 1–2, 4–5]), Rome (the Tomb of Eurysaces [ch. 3]), and Ostia (the Isola Sacra Necropolis [ch. 6]). These choices were motivated first by the excellent preservation of the archaeological evidence and availability of written sources, and second by the attempt to restrict the number of “monuments in the funerary realm so as not to perpetuate the tendency to focus on freed slaves and their tombs” (13). The case studies are framed by an introduction discussing the history of research and the author’s own goals and methods, an epilogue, an appendix with freedmen’s epitaphs found at the Isola Sacra in Ostia, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

The case-study approach is intriguing, as it allows for a close reading and extensive contextualization of individual monuments and prevents the author from dealing with vast amounts of material and “making unnecessary generalizations and perpetuating stereotypes” (13). It is, however, also one of the shortcomings of this study because no general conclusion or summary is offered, and the reader is instead left with a short epilogue of barely three pages of text that does not attempt to integrate the case studies into a larger context. Since the book will be appreciated mostly by specialists of Roman art, some lengthy descriptions and general introductions (e.g., to Pompeii, 20–2) could have been avoided in favor of a more detailed discussion of the underlying analytical concept, the theoretical issues involved in the study of this material, and far-reaching consequences. This would have been particularly welcome because the topic of “nonelite” art has recently recaptured scholarly interest in monographs (e.g., J. Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans [Berkeley 2003]) and conferences (e.g., Kunst von unten? Stil und Gesellschaft in der antiken Welt von der ‘arte plebea’ bis heute [Rome 2007], in honor of Paul Zanker’s 70th birthday).

Petersen’s general methodological approach is excellent in assessing the art of freedmen from their own perspective and not through the lens of elite-authored texts, particularly Petronius’ Satyricon with its “classical” stereotypical freedman-protagonist Trimalchio. Instead of searching for the manifestation of a specific freedman mentality and taste in artistic commissions, she attempts to reconstruct for every single monument discussed what its (freed) owner wanted to communicate about his social and cultural identity and how the audience might have reacted to this. Petersen considers as safely identified freedmen only those who are named as such in written texts; all others, whom we only presume to have been ex-slaves, are regarded as “incerti.” The key theme, or rather, result, of her studies is that ex-slaves strove for assimilation into Roman society instead of imitation—a term potentially fraught with modern negative connotations such as tastelessness, exaggeration, and a lack of education and etiquette. This approach is, of course, well established, particularly in scholarship on funerary monuments with portraits, which Petersen deliberately does not discuss.

Petersen is most convincing in her reassessment of a single, unique monument: the tomb of Eurysaces in Rome (ch. 3, already published in slightly different form in ArtB [2003] 230–57). Apart from a challenging new reconstruction, which omits the commonly accepted main facade of the tomb with its portrait relief and epitaph, the author rightly emphasizes that Eurysaces’ legal status (libertus or ingenuus?) is nowhere documented and was therefore obviously not considered important in his self-representation. The primary aim of the tomb rather was to immortalize its owner by maintaining a delicate balance between ordinary, commonly known features (a multistory tomb with epitaph) and extraordinary elements (kneading basins, organized differently in the second and third stories) that would catch the viewer’s particular attention. One might still question, however, whether Eurysaces did not precisely omit a reference to his legal status in order to conceal his past.

When examining the Temple of Isis in Pompeii (ch. 1) and its most generous donors, the Popidii family, Petersen compellingly defeats two basic assumptions that have dominated (and blurred) the study of this monument. First, that in rebuilding this temple after the earthquake of 62 C.E., a status-hungry freedman was just seeking to improve the status of his freeborn son; instead, he would have promoted his whole family just like other wealthy benefactors of the city, cleverly choosing a highly popular yet comparatively small and manageable building. Second, that the religion of Isis primarily attracted worshippers of lower social strata, a notion already severely challenged in several other recent studies. Both the reconstruction of the Isis temple as an essentially Roman sanctuary with comparatively few exotic Egyptianizing features and even fewer truly Egyptian features, and the reassessment of the sociocultural importance of the religion of Isis and its adherents in the Roman empire would have benefited, however, from a wider perspective beyond Pompeii, as was successfully accomplished by Egelhaaf-Gaiser (Kulträume im römischen Alltag [Stuttgart 2000] 109–223 [missing from Petersen’s bibliography]). This applies also to the discussion of the Augustales (ch. 2), who seem so curiously invisible at Pompeii that one wonders why this city was chosen for a case study at all. Comparison with at least one or two other sites, such as Ostia, Herculaneum, or Misenum, would have provided a more comprehensive image of the forms of self-representation of the “Augustales,” which Mouritsen has recently critically reassessed as highly diverse institutions, differing locally in “their titles, internal structures, public profiles, as well as in the social composition of their membership” (Hephaistos 24 [2006] 237–48, citation on 237). One would have liked to know whether this locally defined variety is also reflected in monuments that can be attributed to the various Augustales groups in Italy.

In chapter 4, Peterson challenges the manifestation of a particular freedman “taste” in Pompeian domestic culture, especially the idea of the elite-villa as a model for (freed) house owners after the earthquake of 62 C.E. She argues that houses like that of Octavius Quartio (II 2.2), which seemed like an “overcrowded, tasteless Disney World” and a cheap imitation villa to some modern scholars, cannot be safely ascribed to freed owners and would not stand out in Pompeii. Its owner (and many of his Pompeian peers) would not have just imitated villa culture when designing and decorating the rooms and garden but rather would have participated in a “shared cultural language” (161). This is neither new nor entirely convincing. Already Dickmann, whose book Domus frequentata. Anspruchsvolles Wohnen im pompejanischen Stadthaus (Munich 1999) is cited but never really explored, has shown that typical villa elements were introduced in Pompeian domestic architecture long before 62 C.E., and in houses of all different sizes and ranks. Moreover, one does not understand why participation in a common cultural language (or assimilation and acculturation) should exclude the (popular) imitation of villa elements. These phenomena are not necessarily mutually exclusive; the one can easily include the other.

Critical remarks notwithstanding, this book is an important and inspiring contribution to the study of Roman art and will certainly become a standard reference book for a much debated topic. Its main merits are, first, to make readers constantly aware of modern constructions and assumptions that seriously encumber(ed) the assessment of well-known monuments, and, second, the final and convincing plea to integrate “more fully artistic commissions by former slaves, and even ingenui and incerti, in the history of Roman art” (229), not just as entertaining curiosa but as important testimonies of Roman culture.

Monika Trümper
Department of Classics
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3145

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1124.Truemper

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