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Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture

By Molly Swetnam-Burland. Pp. xii + 250. Cambridge University Press, New York 2015. $113. ISBN 978-1-107-04048-9 (cloth).

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Egypt in Italy presents Swetnam-Burland’s investigation into the Roman relationship with Egyptian culture through visual and textual materials in Roman Italy. The historical context of this study ranges from the battles of Actium and Alexandria and the Roman annexation of Egypt in the first century B.C.E. through the Roman Imperial period. It is important to note that Rome’s interaction with Egypt began before this and that many of the objects under discussion were originally created during Egypt’s dynastic periods. However, Swetnam-Burland notes that during the Imperial period Egyptian goods became staples in Rome, and the preference for Egyptianized artworks was at its height (2).

In the introduction, the author acknowledges the impact of Roman conquest on Roman perceptions of ancient Egypt but notes that long-standing transcultural processes underlie the relationship between Romans and Egyptian products. She also adopts the approach of chaȋne opératoire to highlight reuse as an important aspect of the life of an artifact, which can change the meaning of the object for the next individual who possesses it. This is a useful approach for examining objects traded between different cultures and the ways different societies may view the same object. By seeing these objects in both their original Egyptian contexts and in their Roman contexts, we comprehend how they can be simultaneously Egyptian and Roman.

In the first three chapters, Swetnam-Burland presents a series of case studies. The first chapter looks at imported Egyptian objects, Egyptian-style monuments created in Italy, and other Roman appropriations of Egyptian design, providing a discussion of the overall style and meaning of these objects. The author notes that she is offering a new perspective on these objects, emphasizing their use within a Roman context, and looking beyond their manufacture (18). This approach provides insight into an object’s entire life-span, emphasizing stages of reuse in the chaȋne opératoire, as noted in the introduction. A key concept she employs in this chapter is “re-commodification,” reflecting her argument that, despite the “Egyptian-ness” of these objects, they have become Roman objects at their point of use in Italy (21). She discusses the complexity of Roman imports of Egyptian goods, using as an example a vessel dating to the ninth or eighth century B.C.E. in Egypt that was reinscribed in Rome in the first century C.E. and then was employed as a cinerary urn for Publius Claudius Pulcher. This vessel’s story reveals the complex meaning and function of an object as it moves across time and cultures. The author comments on the importance of the object’s “Egyptian-ness” to its later use, stating that the Egyptian origin of the material was its main appeal rather than the location of its production, exhibited by its significant reworking in Rome (27). The vessel exemplifies how an object can be both Egyptian and Roman in its manufacture, as well as how an object can be recommodified, accumulating new meaning as it shifts from Egyptian to Roman contexts.

The second chapter focuses on two obelisks brought to Rome by Augustus in 10/9 B.C.E. The author attempts to understand how Romans viewed these objects and what they knew of their histories. She notes that while these objects could reflect the celebration of conquest in Egypt, they were not transported to Rome until two decades after the battles of Actium and Alexandria, when an interest in Egypt had already developed in Rome. She also mentions that although some educated Romans may have understood the Egyptian significance of the obelisks, they would have had their own ideas regarding the symbolism of the objects in their new, Roman contexts (68). She also discusses how re-erecting these monuments in Rome would have demonstrated the extent of the empire and the emperor’s authority, hearkening back to the Egyptian pharaohs and their ability to carry out impressive building projects. Although the obelisks reflect a less personal interaction between the object and its Roman viewers than an object the owner might possess, use, and repurpose in their own individual way, they document how the use of Egyptian objects or motifs in Roman settings reveals the cultural aesthetic of this time in Italy.

The third chapter discusses the Sanctuary of Isis in Pompeii as a case study of Egyptian style used in a Roman setting and the ways it both influenced and reflected its patrons. The author notes that the viewers of the sanctuary were likely a broad community who understood the customs and traditions of the cult of Isis to some extent (106). The very presence of a sanctuary to Isis at Pompeii reflects the integration of Egyptian religion and style into Roman culture. Although the exact understanding of Egyptian theology in a Roman setting is uncertain, what is unique about this particular setting is the fact that it was meant to provide both a space for personal worship and shared, communal displays of devotion. The relationships between the Sanctuary of Isis and its devotees are further reflected in the testimonies of the Isiaci, which reveal the variety of experiences the patrons had and the different ways they interacted with the space and its place in the broader community.

The fourth chapter discusses views of Egypt’s people and culture in Roman art and literature. Investigating Roman views of ancient Egypt is a complex topic, proceeding from the works of Graeco-Roman authors and necessitating an awareness of their implicit and explicit cultural biases. The issue is further complicated by the vast span of Egyptian history prior to the Roman empire and the continuation of ancient Egyptian traditions under Roman rule. One of the author’s examples is nilotica, which reflect exotic characteristics Romans attributed to Egypt and its people. Personifications of Egypt as well as of the Nile river, including imagery such as cornucopias and exotic animals, communicate similar themes. This chapter highlights the underlying assumptions behind the interactions between Romans and the different types of objects discussed in the first three chapters, assumptions that influenced how Romans viewed Egyptian objects and styles in Roman culture.

Understanding the meaning and function of Egyptian objects and themes in Rome is a complex endeavor. The long history and relationship between ancient Egyptians and the citizens of imperial Rome, as well as Greek influence, impacted the assumptions Romans had about Egypt and its culture. The variety in the objects and settings also complicates our understanding of the situation, as objects of different natures have more potential to vary in meaning and use in the public and private spheres and on an individual or communal level. Nonetheless, approaching these objects through the evolution and history of an individual object and its reuse is a useful method of understanding the cross-cultural relationship between Egypt and Rome.

Arabela Baer
The University of Memphis

Book Review of Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, by Molly Swetnam-Burland

Reviewed by Arabela Baer

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.baer

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