You are here

Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture

Edited by Jaś Elsner and Michel Meyer. Pp. xxii + 504, figs. 129. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $115. ISBN 978-1-107-00071-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

It has long been recognized that ancient rhetorical theory frequently deployed examples drawn from visual material, a point that has led to numerous explorations of the value of classical rhetoric for understanding art produced in different periods, including several rhetorically inflected interpretations of Greek and Roman art, such as those by Stewart (“Narration and Allusion in the Hellenistic Baroque,” in P.J. Holliday, ed., Narrative and Event in Ancient Art [Cambridge 1993] 183–205) and Pollini (From Republic to Empire: Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome [Norman, Okla. 2012]), respectively. In his introductory essay, Elsner states that Roman art is no different from any other area of Roman culture in its pervasive rhetorical distinctions and meanings, themselves not only theorized within the culture but also regularly compared to and applied to visual examples in surviving texts and handbooks. Elsner describes how rhetoric offers a singular approach for understanding Roman art, in all its inventive diversity, by focusing on Aristotle’s discussion of rhetoric, which posits a tripartite structure consisting of speaker, subject, and person addressed (Ars Rhetorica 1.3.1, 1358ab). Following Aristotle (1.2.3–6, 1356a1), he further distinguishes these three fundamental elements as ethos (personal character of the speaker), logos (speech itself), and pathos (emotions stirred in the hearers). Elsner suggests that this tripartite structure provides a particularly worthwhile model for analyzing works of art, since it offers the opportunity to emphasize any one of the three entities within the whole—maker/patron, object, or viewer—depending on one’s line of reasoning, and since “it implies a variety of signifying, identity-making or communicative strategies embodied in objects that depend on the specific relations of the patron/artist and the audience” (4). Thus to understand the work of visual art as an act of rhetoric (logos) is to recognize its discursive function as a mediating tool between a series of addressers—commissioners, patrons, and artists, who in their distinct and diverse ways constitute an ethos—and an audience of viewers, a pathos.

Despite their distance from ordinary usage, Elsner contends that there is value in keeping the Greek words to define the main components of the rhetorical relationship. The ethos-logos-pathos formulation helps guide us away from models of communication that are too specifically linguistic or political (usually informed by modern theoretical concerns), and instead toward a rhetorical model that will nevertheless include discursive, political, and ethical overtones, but intermingled and with an emphasis that is clearly located in classical culture. Accordingly Elsner finds Hölscher’s model of Roman art as a “semantic system” (The Language of Images in Roman Art [Cambridge 2004], with an introduction by Elsner) too linguistic, indebted to Eco’s poststructuralism and thus insufficiently discursive or rhetorical. The more flexible Aristotelian structure thus functions as a corrective to the frequent attempts to compare the visual with the verbal, particularly those modern models that see Roman art as a kind of self-contained language or system of communication; rather it understands art as one genre or mode of argument within the much wider world of specifically Roman rhetorical culture that includes education, literature, and the legal system, as well as what we more narrowly mean by “rhetoric” today.

Since in a brief review it is impossible to critique each paper, my goal here is to situate the larger project within the field. By drawing a model from within Graeco-Roman culture Elsner and his colleagues suggest a method to grasp the complex nexus of relations embedded in the work of art in terms of the affective connection between its producers and viewers, and one that offers the potential to combine accounts of visual communication within a given social context with the material specificity of style, artistic handling, and archaeological context. This serves as a corrective also to the possible anachronisms in Zanker’s model of propaganda (e.g., The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus [Ann Arbor, Mich. 1988]), which Zanker explicitly relates to the Third Reich. As a consequence, these papers examine works of art not as existing in themselves, independently of their viewers and their makers (including both patrons or commissioners and artists), but instead as containing a range of messages conveyed from one to the other, with the purpose of bringing out specific effects and emotions in the audience, of which the work of art is both the means and (for us) the empirical evidence.

The authors of the essays collected in this volume therefore position works created in the Roman world within their relevant rhetorical frameworks, ranging from public monuments like imperial architecture (Thomas), the Arch of Titus (Elsner), or Trajan’s column (de Angelis), to imperial portrait statuary (Trimble, D’Ambra), domestic wall painting (Lorenz, Meyer, Platt), Tabulae Iliacae (Squire), and funerary art (Borg), including altars (Vout) and sarcophagi (Elsner, Newby). They ably demonstrate the Roman uses of art to promulgate identity—both individuality and collectivity, as well as particular provincial and cosmopolitan, rural and urban, military and civilian self-assertions and self-representations—within a rhetorical system of visual identity claims. Stylistic and iconographical choices (within what has come to be accepted as the pluralism of Roman art) are interpreted as directly and deliberately rhetorical. As a group, these essays effectively argue for the rhetorical nature of Roman art as a distinctive aspect of the larger rhetorical culture of the Roman world, where “rhetoric” is neither merely a metaphor for thinking about art nor a system or language through which the visual operates, but rather a system in which the problems and questions inherent in identity may be negotiated within a large multicultural and imperial system, a space for the play of intersubjective relationships where ethos and pathos interact through a variety of visual and material media. We discover that rhetoric in Rome was less a matter of logos than a matter of expressing and displaying one’s virtues (ethos) through language, including the language of images.

Peter J. Holliday
School of Art
California State University, Long Beach

Book Review of Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, edited by Jaś Elsner and Michel Meyer

Reviewed by Peter J. Holliday

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Holliday

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.