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Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire

Edited by Karl Galinsky and Kenneth Lapatin. Pp. xi + 296, figs. 115. Getty Publications, Los Angeles 2015. $85. ISBN 978-1-60606-462-7 (paper).

Reviewed by

This lavishly illustrated edited volume is the second of three that have resulted from the Memoria Romana project that Galinsky has directed since 2009. While the other two (Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory [Ann Arbor 2014] and Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity [Oxford 2016]) focus more on the capital city and written evidence, the balance here falls explicitly more toward material culture, especially in the provinces. Most of the 14 papers, which are all of high quality, were delivered at a conference at the Getty Villa in 2013, and the contributors include many leading figures in Roman studies.

The general theme of the volume is how Rome’s imperial expansion impacted the construction and transformation of both local and imperial memories and how we discern the formative processes of these memories. Galinsky’s introduction contextualizes the diverse approaches in the volume within the recent “memory boom” and highlights the plurality of issues that studying memory, and memories, in the Roman world entails. The volume thereafter is divided into four thematic parts: “Concepts and Approaches,” “Imperial Memories and Local Identities,” “Presence and Absence of Memory in the Roman East and West,” and “The Transformation of Memory at Rome.” It speaks to the interdisciplinarity and theoretical underpinnings of most of the papers how easily many of them could have been included under more than one of these rubrics. Despite the quadripartite division, the papers generally fall into two categories: those that analyze the effect of Roman imperial rule on local memory, and those that analyze how local and imperial memories were constructed. Several themes that commonly emerge among the papers are the importance of forgetting and memory suppression; inventing memories; memories and microidentities; and the polyvalence, mutability, and impermanence of cultural memories.

 Nearly half of the papers deal with local responses to Roman imperial authority in provincial contexts. Local memory as resistance to imperial subjugation is well documented, but these papers mostly emphasize different responses or reactions. Rose shows, for example, how inhabitants of Ilion exploited the rise of Rome under Augustus to create a veritable memory industry grounded in the sack of the Homeric city, while Rojas argues that deeper into Anatolia, Roman rule had little effect on how local towns shaped their communal memories through lakes. In the literary realm, Whitmarsh demonstrates different reactions to imperial authority, contrasting Dionysius of Alexandria’s suppression of local memories in a pro-imperial depiction of Roman rule with Pausanius’ use of local memory as resistance.

Local memories persisted and even emerged alongside new imperial ones. Noreña suggests that persistent Hellenistic ruler cults, potentially subversive to the emperor and the imperial cult, helped thwart unity among provincial peoples and remind them of their own monarchic past. Two papers show how Roman expansion entailed the spread of non-Roman local elements that were then used to construct new local memory traditions in Britain (Kamash) and Spain (Jiménez). Kamash further stresses the importance of the individual in accessing this kind of memory.

Most of the other papers focus more on how both imperial and local memories were constructed and transformed. Kousser argues that Roman practices of preserving and suppressing memories were indebted to Hellenistic ones but that Rome’s institutionalization of them increased their complexity and significance. Weisweiler traces how different subjectivities evident in commemorative statue dedications across the empire homogenized with the administrative restructuring of the Late Roman state. Elsner demonstrates how artfully Philostratus invented an archaic memory of the Isthmian cult of Palaemon by choosing some traditions and suppressing others in order to project continuity to the third century. In the only chapter that addresses early Christianity, Yasin shows how Early Christian patrons continued to use Roman strategies of constructing and evoking memory, particularly through ecclesiastical architecture that created experiences that both resembled and contrasted with those of the past.

Rome, the engine of the imperial memory machine, also features large in this volume, but through several new approaches. Woolf views the Forum of Augustus through the lens of a sanctuary to show how the complex instructed generations of Roman males in the ways of Mars through repetitious, ritual interaction with the space—just as sanctuaries have elsewhere since prehistory. Rutledge explores the role of class tensions in shaping the broader physical and literary memoryscapes of the capital city, as the ruling classes often denigrated or even co-opted plebeian memories as a means of control. Marlowe reinterprets the Vicennalia monument built atop the Augustan rostra in the forum not as a Tetrarchic commission, but as a senatorial one meant to express the frustrations of their new marginalized state while currying favor with distant monarchs working against their interests.

The value of the book lies in the range and diversity of topics included and the frequency with which memory theory is explicitly—and critically—engaged. We see how pervasive and diverse strategies of remembering and forgetting were, and we move almost into a new phase of scholarship in which the frameworks of the oft-cited Halbwachs, Assmann, and Nora are often inadequate or inappropriate for explaining many of the memory phenomena that the Roman world exhibits. As Galinsky warns, “there are no interpretive dogmas, methodological orthodoxies, or routine theorizing to fall back on” (21). In this respect, Alcock’s contribution provides perhaps the best takeaway for future studies on memory in the Roman world. Memory, she argues, was (and is) so pervasive, fluid, diverse, and mutable at all social scales and in all media of cultural expression that we should no longer treat it as an isolated, specialized topic (31). Any examination of the ancient world must inevitably face issues of memory; it cannot be the realm of the specialist. So impactful, then, has the memory boom been, including the Memoria Romana workshop, that memory studies may have become a victim of their own success.

Margaret M. Andrews
Brown University

Book Review of Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire, edited by Karl Galinsky and Kenneth Lapatin

Reviewed by Margaret M. Andrews

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 2 (April 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Andrews

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