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Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture

Edited by Eleanor Betts. Pp. xvi + 227. Routledge, Abingdon, U.K. 2017. $165. ISBN 978-1-47244-629-9 (cloth). 

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This volume makes the Roman Empire seem both strange and exceptionally vivid. Consider the impact that restoring polychromy continues to have on our comprehension of classical buildings and sculptures. Then enrich that understanding with input for the other senses: the smell of roasting entrails, the taste of charred meat, the cacophony of nearby traffic, the feel of an unwieldy vase, the movement of the human body in response to these stimuli. Such is the perception shift that scholars of the senses demand. In the past five years, sensory studies of the classical world have advanced dramatically. Greek and Latin authors turn out to have had quite a lot to say about their sensory encounters. Even when they fall silent, phenomenological approaches can yield insights into the lived experience of material remains. In Betts’ edited volume, the 12 essays put literary and archaeological evidence into effective dialogue. The volume’s great strength lies in the methodologies it sets forth for a broad range of evidence (signet rings, saffron, votive offerings, musical instruments), contexts (streets, cloth cleaners, forts), and events (funerals, sacrifices, pantomime, shopping). Scholars seeking models for their own multisensory analyses or enticing case studies for the classroom will find this book rewarding.

The most provocative essays here set the record straight on familiar topics. Received wisdom may hold that the fullonica (cleaners) was a smelly place and that sparsiones (sprays) were refreshing for crowds at spectacles, but both notions prove false. In considering the fullery as a multisensory place, Flohr (ch. 3) argues that fuller’s earth could have neutralized the pungency of the urine-based ammonia in the cleaning solution and points out that literary references to foul-smelling establishments relate to those that were doing it wrong. Day’s essay (ch. 12) considers the locations (e.g., seats, stages) that ancient authors mention in relation to the sparsiones. She concludes that spectators seated near the front were those most likely to encounter them and that the luxurious saffron in the mist would have imparted color and scent to their clothing. Methodologically, both essays address the chemical properties of materials known today in order to read the literary evidence with greater precision. 

Most compelling are the essays that evoke the embodied experience of religion. Weddle (ch. 7) reconsiders how sensory encounters during sacrifices set gods (who were appeased by aroma) apart from mortals (who handled the victims and ate the meat). She concludes that “diners were forced to reach a fundamental ritual conclusion: I touch and I taste, therefore I am not a god” (118). Graham, in turn, draws on her personal experience of handling votive terracotta sculptures representing swaddled infants (ch. 8). She notes that their scientific cataloguing ignores a bodily truth: that one carries the life-sized portrayals as one would a living infant. Building on recent assertions that religious understandings resulted from interaction with the material world rather than from preformed concepts (N. Boivin, “Grasping the Elusive and Unknowable: Material Culture in Ritual Practice,” Material Religion 5.3 [2009] 274), she emphasizes that the resulting dissonance in perception and muscle memory would have heightened the poignancy of making the offering to the god. In these enhanced readings of religious evidence, the senses do not merely register ritual participation, they are instead key to understanding the event’s significance.

The three essays on sound best illustrate the range of approaches one might take to recovering particular sensory input and responses to it. Addressing sound and urbanism in Rome, Laurence (ch. 1) reminds us that the soundscapes of the Pantheon shift from the piazza, to the porch, to the cella (18–20) and that the curation of noise was the privilege of the elite in their villas (20–1). Veitch (ch. 4) lays out the mathematical formulae for measuring soundwaves when materials and room dimensions are known. He takes as a case study Ostia’s main road leading from the forum to the Tiber, and he asserts that acoustics can provide “the information required to perceive spatial volume” (54), that acoustic hierarches differ from visual ones (59), and that noise could serve as a landmark for orientation (i.e., echolocation, 69). Vincent (ch. 10) focuses on a surviving tuba from Neuvy-en-Sullias, France, which has been scientifically scanned, analyzed, and replicated. In comparing modern descriptions of the resulting bellows to responses recorded in ancient sources, he argues for a rigorous methodology that distinguishes emissions from perceptions and grounds consideration of the latter in extensive lexicographical analysis.

Like Vincent, both Betts and Slaney clearly outline their methodologies in order to recover the experience of a market street and the pantomime, respectively. Betts (ch. 2) lucidly lays out the conceptual foundations of phenomenology (building on her cogent historiography in the book’s introduction). She then describes both sensory artifacts, “the sum of the physical properties of an object and its sensory affordances” (26), and their collective creation of “sense loci” (28). She concludes with a case study of Rome’s Vicus Tuscus that is attentive to the agency of the senses in negotiating this changeable environment. Slaney (ch. 11) assigns the reader a thoughtful series of acting and dance exercises inspired by ancient descriptions of pantomime (where one person performs all the parts). She successfully shifts attention from a spectator’s view to the performer’s experience of his own body at work. Her instructions include exercises that address ancient medical understandings of the body (e.g., the movement of humors, 164–66), the exhilaration of embodying a succession of characters of varied status and gender (168–69), as well as the shame that ancient authors insisted performers should feel for displaying their bodies (166–67). Like Graham, she insists that doing is key to a scholar’s knowing.

Essays by Hope, Derrick, and Marshman reveal the benefits of rereading familiar evidence for rituals, places, and material culture with new attention to their sensory aspects. Hope (ch. 6) reconsiders the literary and visual evidence for embodied grief and mourning, with welcome attentiveness to intersectional identities and role reversals. She describes the period following death as one when corpses were supposed to be tidier in appearance than mourners. She also notes that while women initially had closer contact with the body as it was cleaned, men served as pallbearers and funeral orators. Professional mourners, she suggests, likely became desensitized to mourning and to proximity to decomposing corpses. Derrick (ch. 5) addresses the smellscapes of the Vindolanda fort, with consideration of the wind’s direction, the location of malodorous activities, and site planning. He also proposes community-based associations for particular scents. The equine aroma of cavalry quarters, for instance, may have conjured elitism, given that group’s status within the military (81). Marshman (ch. 9) concentrates on signet rings. Like Graham, he challenges the sensory muting of scientific cataloguing; like Flohr and Day, he considers tangible materials and their properties. Gold rings, he reminds us, feel smooth and pleasant compared to iron ones that also stain the skin (141–43). His sense-based observations enrich his reading of the literary evidence concerning which metals men were allowed to wear on their fingers.

These essays enliven the empire. They call on us all to be more attentive to the full sensory properties of our evidence. In my view, the volume joins Pitts and Versluys’ Globalisation and the Roman World (Cambridge 2015) and Van Oyen and Pitts’ Materialising Roman Histories (Oxford 2017) in forging promising pathways forward. All three projects allow for the recovery of elite and nonelite perspectives, as well as provincial and metropolitan experiences. They therefore have the potential to yield more complete and more compelling accounts of the empire.

Kimberly Cassibry
Wellesley College

Book Review of Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture, edited by Eleanor Betts

Reviewed by Kimberly Cassibry

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.cassibry

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