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Art of Empire: The Roman Frescoes and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple

April 2017 (121.2)

Book Review

Art of Empire: The Roman Frescoes and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple

Edited by Michael Jones and Susanna McFadden. Pp. xi + 240, figs. 151, color pls. 97. Yale University Press, New Haven 2015. $75. ISBN 978-0-300-16912-6 (cloth).

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The exquisite Roman frescoes conserved in situ at Egypt’s Luxor temple, the subject of this volume, are in many ways a departure from the non-naturalistic style most often associated with art of the Tetrarchic emperors. The volume is unprecedented in its multidisciplinary perspective and admirable dual goals of considering these frescoes for the first time in their original architectural, archaeological, and historical environments and placing them more firmly within the greater context of Tetrarchic ideology and Roman artistic achievement writ large.

Prompted by the recent (2005–2008) conservation of the frescoes by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), the study brings together researchers with scientific, epigraphic, historical, art historical, architectural, and archaeological expertise. These authors present the methods used for and the data gleaned from conservational interventions, and they mobilize multiple types of historical evidence to provide a contextualizing apparatus. The result is an important updated reference work on the Roman phase at Luxor that affords an accessible entrée to the monument while also tackling challenging interpretive issues. It is an undertaking of value to both specialists and students of various disciplines. As the editors give no indication of their rationale for the chapters’ organization within the volume, I discuss them here with regard to the conservational and contextualizing themes noted above.

The chapters dealing directly with the conservation of the temple—namely those by de Caesaris, Sucato, and Ricchi (ch. 5) and by Jones (ch. 4)—are distinctly in the minority. The first of these admirably balances the task of presenting documentary and methodological information specifically pertaining to ARCE’s conservation work with discussion of scientific analyses that give insight into the technical side of Roman wall painting more generally. Jones’ chapter serves as a hinge between the conservational and contextualizing foci of the volume; tapping an impressively diverse array of source material, he is able to convincingly reconstruct a much more complete archaeological and conservation history for the temple monument than has ever been offered before, owing to the absence of official documentation. In so doing, Jones effectively establishes a pre-project baseline for the frescoes’ preservation and a rationale for ARCE’s interventions, while also illuminating historiographic conditions that obstruct the interpretational efforts put forth in the volume’s contextualizing chapters.

Together, the remaining essays that serve the volume’s contextualization agenda join a recent trend in seeking to dispel the longstanding impression of a depopulated and backwater Roman Thebaid. They argue cogently that Roman Luxor was more than the straightforward military fortress scholars have long assumed it to be. Each chapter draws evidence from a different disciplinary perspective to counter the entrenched assumption that the Romans of Diocletian’s era inherited a defunct temple. Instead, these essays establish the distinct possibility that some iteration of the traditional cult practices related to divine kingship for which the temple was renowned in Pharaonic times may have continued (or at least been remembered among a portion of the population) at the time of the temple’s appropriation and modification. Ruffini (ch. 1) examines the literary and epigraphic evidence, systematically reevaluating discrete dialogues in the areas of demography, travel, funerary, and religious practices to provide a much-needed corrective on the state of our knowledge about life in Tetrarchic-era Thebes. Heidel and Johnson (ch. 3) offer a detailed description of the many Roman architectural modifications throughout the pharaonic temple and invite future scholars to productively engage with their proposed reconstructions through the commendable enumeration of the evidence and comparanda on which their reconstitutive visions are based. Given the weight elsewhere in the volume to the possibility of the temple’s cultic continuity, it is disappointing that the authors’ proposal for a new cultic route and modifications that maintained access into the monument’s original holy of holies are not argued with the verbal or visual clarity demonstrated in discussion of the frescoed room and those adjacent.

McFadden’s three independent articles, revising and building on ideas first put forth in the author’s dissertation, round out the contextualizing contributions. Chapter 2 dates the Roman modifications and argues for an expanded understanding of the repurposed temple beyond its traditional military fort designation. Chapter 6 offers an excellent detailed discussion of the frescoes. Finally, chapter 7 puzzles out intention vs. reception with respect to the Roman wall paintings and their placement. These chapters make several important contributions to the comprehensiveness of the volume while productively pushing the boundaries of our thinking with regard to Roman Luxor. Chapter 6, for instance, engages not just the subject matter of the frescoes—the topic given most attention in previous literature—but also gives equal weight to the style and composition of figural and nonfigural elements alike. The results of McFadden’s attention to detail here are, on the one hand, an addition to our knowledge of the frescoed room’s original appearance and, on the other, illustration of how the paintings relate to Tetrarchic court art empire-wide. She effectively demonstrates both that imperial art of this era was much more stylistically varied than previously assumed and that the unique context of the Luxor frescoes allowed for an unusually overt declaration of the living emperors’ divine status. This latter point is taken as evidence that the temple’s pharaonic associations with divine kingship persisted into the Roman period and that the imperial court strategically appropriated the monument for ideological use rather than for a primarily martial function. Chapter 7, for its part, works as a pendant not just to McFadden’s preceding iconographic chapter but also to Heidel and Johnson’s architectural chapter. It translates the practically enumerated modifications described in the architectural essay into their visual, emotive, and experiential equivalents in an attempt to reimagine how the Romans’ conscious manipulation of space may have impacted different types of visitors’ experiences of the Tetrarchic frescoes.

Eschewing segregationist tendencies that have presented Roman and Egyptian features of the Luxor temple in artificial isolation, one of the major achievements of the volume is its emphatic demonstration that contemporary experience of this Late Roman–period monument was in fact characterized by a constant and purposeful juxtaposition of elements of Graeco-Roman and Egyptian extraction. The volume’s other overriding takeaway—the suggestion that a Tetrarchic-era building that appears martial need not necessarily be interpreted strictly as a Roman fortress in the traditional sense—is an equally important contribution. Given that we now know of at least three Tetrarchic palaces built inside military-inspired walls but without evidence for the presence of traditional military buildings or other defensive criteria (palaces at Split, Gamzigrad, and Šarkamen; a body of evidence with which none of the volume’s authors engages), such a proposal for a revised understanding of the ideological significance of Roman Luxor is in good company. One must also commend the generous number of high-quality photographs, maps, and plans put to productive use throughout the publication. The appendix containing a high-quality facsimile of Wilkinson’s Luxor watercolors (reproduced in color and in their entirety) is a particularly welcome addition that increases the accessibility of the definitive record of the frescoes’ preservation soon after their discovery in the mid 19th century. As the editors note, the volume is not intended to be the last word on the Roman interventions at Luxor but rather a new starting point for future discussion; in this they have certainly succeeded as there is a wealth of new ideas presented here that are ripe for scholarly engagement.

Anne Hunnell Chen
Department of the History of Art and Architecture
Brown University

Book Review of Art of Empire: The Roman Frescoes and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple, edited by Michael Jones and Susanna McFadden

Reviewed by Anne Hunnell Chen

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1212.Chen

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