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Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Visual Cultures in the Provinces of Ancient Rome

Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Visual Cultures in the Provinces of Ancient Rome

Edited by Susan E. Alcock, Mariana Egri, and James F.D. Frakes. Pp. viii + 386, b&w figs. 78, color figs. 106, maps 7. Getty Publications, Los Angeles 2016. $69.95. ISBN 978-1-60606-471-9 (cloth).

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This lavishly illustrated volume is a result of the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative to sponsor the Arts of Rome’s Provinces seminar. The aim of the seminar and book was to open up new exploratory avenues with respect to how visual systems of Rome’s provinces should be studied and understood. The 19 case studies aim to challenge traditional models of art history and the humanities in regard to presenting, interpreting, and visualizing the worlds of Rome’s provinces (3). The contributions are not looking at how “Roman” was defined and appropriated in the provinces but rather at the variations in local responses in material and visual culture to the expanding metropolitan style.

Since there is no unified perspective on how one should understand Roman provincial art, the volume does not seek to provide a single uniform view on the topic. Multiple perceptions, methodological approaches, and theories are scrutinized, and rightly so, as Roman provinces were not homogenous entities and consequently cannot be studied or understood using a one-size-fits-all mentality. To provide a multifarious experience of art in the provinces, the authors construct their contributions in such a way as to allow a dialogue to develop between the arguments they are discussing. Such a situation adds further positive dimension to the book, and it consciously avoids falling into the trap of just another conference proceedings collecting unconnected essays.

The first part of the volume, “Approaches to Provincial Art,” presents various perspectives of what a province is and, to some extent, a crusade against the persistent and conservative image of a province as a periphery. The contribution from Jiménez sets the agenda by arguing that some provincial phenomena should be explained not only through the provinces’ relation to Rome but also through relations to one another and the inner dynamics of a particular province itself (26). Papaioannou’s essay argues convincingly that there is no need to try to find a catchall word to explain the nature of cultural, visual, and material changes in the provinces upon Roman annexation since the processes were regionally dependent and, therefore, naturally variable. The following three essays introduce the themes of regionalism, choice, and coexistence of various local responses to the imperial art and culture, themes that are prominent throughout the volume. By using the example of the Cyclades, Sweetman shows that islanders had some degree of choice whether to become part of a wider imperial network. Wootton examines the idea of choice further by analyzing the art and manufacture of mosaics: while the technique was standardized and the repertoire similar, artists and patrons across the Roman world adhered to local tastes, visual preferences, and cultural traditions. Hijmans argues that art in the provinces should not be viewed as aesthetically pleasing but as a meaningful nonverbal communicator adherent to the local preferences for how such things as objects, statues, and altars should look in the eyes of society (99).

This first part of the book clearly shows how much the volume is situated within North American scholarship. While issues such as globalization, “glocalization,” connectivity, entanglement, and agency discussed in the volume position it within current trends in the study of Roman provinces across the Atlantic, some of the claims made by contributors seem rather odd for those who work in the context of European scholarship. For instance, Jiménez states that “we may finally be able to move . . . beyond Roman/native dichotomy” (28) and misses the long pedigree of Roman/native or center/periphery dichotomy deconstruction in works of many European scholars or the role of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in debates about Roman imperialism and local responses. In fact, the most stimulating essays in the volume are those that go beyond the boundaries of binary discourses on Roman/peripheral, imperial/local, or even “glocal” to give justice to the volume’s title. As Ahuja argues, it is the analysis of polyvalent cultural exchanges that should matter most in our studies where “metropolitan” is viewed in the “peripheral” light (260–61). While one cannot take Rome out of the equation, as “local was imbricated in the imperial” (303), it becomes clear in many essays that provincial agency mattered on the ground, where everyday communal and individual choices could swing one way or another, accepting, declining, borrowing, or transforming material and visual culture according to local tastes and fashion.

In the second part, “Tradition, Innovation, Manipulation,” which covers technological, cultural, social, and visual borrowing, Mladenović, like Hijmans, discusses the nature and development of provincial art. The absence of skill and training in artisans creating stone monuments according to the Roman canon in the early decades of Roman domination in the central Balkans resulted in an unintentional creation of new “naive” style, which over centuries became the predominant art form, with locals preferring this form to anything else (114). The next essay by Rizakis and Touratsoglou charts the changing nature of funerary reliefs in Roman Macedonia, reinforcing the claims in the first part of the volume on regionalism, free choice, and coexistence of local responses to new forms of commemoration, which moved from persistence to acceptance. The following three essays experiment to various degrees with the now-popular idea of entanglement. Cassibry uses the example of three coins from different regions of Gaul to record cross-cultural encounters and visual borrowing. Bergmann’s largely descriptive narrative presents a case of how borrowed “Greek” hairstyles were used to showcase status in sculpture and portrait painting in culturally mixed Graeco-Roman Egypt. Moser’s analysis of two sanctuaries in northern Gaul suggests a coupling of pre-Roman ideas of sacred space with Roman-inspired ritual performances entangled with the innovative architecture of the buildings where the rituals were taking place.

In the third part of the volume, “Networks, Movements, Meanings,” global phenomena and local responses to such phenomena are compressed as a way to show how entangled objects were (re)contextualized and (re)conceptualized in new environments. Walker’s synthetic paper deals with visual cultural encounters in the metalwork of Roman Britain. Revell looks at “local agency in the adoption of [universal] cultural form” (219) by discussing a peculiar type of dedication in the form of a footprint within the popular and widespread Isiac cult in Greece and Spain. While Gates-Foster deals with the situational and (re)contextualized nature of material culture by using the example of Indian import commodities in Roman Egypt, Wicker analyzes similar shifting modes in the use and meaning of Roman medallions in Scandinavia. An inspiring essay by Ahuja draws it all together by arguing that the origin of anything provincial must not be searched for in theoretical models of hybridity or syncretism (261) but, as in the work of Jiménez, in networks of interaction offered by the expanding Roman empire.

The last part of the volume is titled “Local Accents in the Imperial Context.” The first two papers, by McCarty and Morton, chart the fluid and transient nature of local choices within the regional contexts of North Africa. Of the two, McCarty’s contribution is more exciting: through analysis of the worship of Baal Hammon and Saturn across Roman Africa, mistakenly paired in modern scholarship, he presents a strong case for the absence of divisions in religious commemoration. It was the choice of commemorators how to depict, invoke, or name a god. The next two papers, by Noreña and Di Napoli, focus on heritage and its role in creating regional diversity, although it seems that both cannot trespass Roman/provincial dichotomies.

Altogether, the value of this volume lies in its versatility of approaches, with contributors arguing, supporting, or dismissing each other’s arguments throughout the book. As such, the book is perfect for third-year or postgraduate students who were exposed in their studies to the top-down approaches of Roman imperialism and the ideas of romanization, or students of classical archaeology who were indoctrinated with the images of provinces as backwaters. This volume will be an asset to “debate seminar” formats since it poses challenges and multiple perspectives. Another strength lies in the ability of many contributors to chart the genealogy of change and local responses, making it possible to trace and juxtapose the individual and communal experiences immediately before and after Roman annexation.

Whether this book will make any impact on scholarship in Europe is questionable because many of the issues that its raises, in particular regionalism or the extent to which locals played an active role in (de)constructing the imperial, continue and support decades-old perspectives. However, it does provide a solid narrative, thought-provoking case studies, and a starting point for those who search for the alternative view in the study of Roman provincial art in North American institutions.

Tatiana Ivleva
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Visual Cultures in the Provinces of Ancient Rome, edited by Susan E. Alcock, Mariana Egri, and James F.D. Frakes

Reviewed by Tatiana Ivleva

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Ivleva

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