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Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens

By Caitlín E. Barrett. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2019. Pp. xxiv + 445. $99. ISBN 9780190641351 (cloth).

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With this book, Barrett has greatly advanced the study of Egyptian imagery in Rome with respect to both material and methodology. Never before has the Nilotic imagery in Pompeian gardens been so comprehensively investigated, with not only 351 pages of in-depth analysis but also multiple appendices specifying objects and locations. Nor has it previously been considered within the frame of modern identity studies, in which negotiation and multiplicity hold the day and allow for more textured interpretations. As in her other recent work, Barrett stresses shifting meanings instead of the stable ones long assumed: “Instead of making a single definitive statement about Egypt or Egyptian culture, interactive assemblages [of Nilotic imagery] . . . enable viewers to grapple for themselves with these contradictions, explore the tensions between different possible identities, and act out the images’ complex games of identification and rejection” (13). While Molly Swetnam-Burland’s work has also pointed in this direction (Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, Cambridge University Press 2015), Barrett focuses specifically on the ways that visual culture interacts with constructions of Self, Other, and identity, and she limits her focus to Nilotic imagery in nontemple contexts.

Barrett’s primary subject is not simply Nilotic images but their context in Pompeian houses and gardens, which she calls “visual and functional landscapes” (118). This focus allows her to unpack the ways viewers encountered the images and thus the ways they were prompted to see, act, and react—for which she adopts the term “affordances” (59). Pygmy scenes, for instance, might rely on earlier Hellenistic Egyptian precedent, but they are changed such that their affordances for Roman viewers are new and different. And viewers, in turn, respond to these affordances in a variety of ways that Barrett teases out through the course of the book.

Therefore, rather than organizing her book by iconography or as a catalogue, Barrett centers her chapters 2–6 on case studies of the visual landscapes in certain houses (using the Italian names throughout): the Casa dell’Efebo in chapters 2 and 3, Casa del Medico in chapter 4, Casa del Fauno in chapter 5, and Casa di Acceptus e Euhodia (with a healthy dose of Octavius Quartio) in chapter 6. These case studies in turn each take on a thematic focus: Efebo, the “retrospective phenomena” and cosmopolitanism of Roman art; Medico, the way that grotesque and violent images might have functioned; Fauno, the liminality of the garden and its imagery; and Acceptus e Euhodia, the ways that three- and two-dimensional objects work as ensembles rather than within their distinct categories drawn along generic lines. Because these subjects naturally intertwine, none of them remains confined to a single chapter; I will return later to this point.

This book offers a number of “firsts” in the scholarship on Egyptian material in Rome. Chapter 2 presents the first in-depth study of the pharaonic precedents for Pygmy iconography (60–102) and their Greek and Roman modifications. Barrett concludes that they are not religious, nor just an evocation of otium and tryphe, but much more: water landscapes parallel each other in art and life, garden and dining activities in the paintings act like a distorted reflection of the viewers, the sex and humor in the scenes amused Roman viewers.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion in chapter 3 of “retrospective phenomena” in Roman art—specifically, how Egyptian imagery was used along with archaic, classical, and Hellenistic imagery for the Roman “social performance of knowledge” about these cultures and artistic traditions (175–78). While Barrett sees these phenomena as practices of universalizing and cosmopolitanism in the context of empire, and my own work connects these phenomena more closely with art collecting and connoisseurship (The Triumph and Trade of Egyptian Objects in Rome, de Gruyter, forthcoming), I find that our respective approaches and conclusions admirably support each other. Being part of an empire is what enabled the Romans to access these various artistic traditions and use them in their own ways.

Chapter 4 provides an excellent overview of the Casa del Medico, its finds, and its excavation history. Barrett offers a new reading of the space with the Nilotic paintings, at variance with John Clarke’s (e.g., “A Compendium of Pygmy Imagery in the Casa del Medico at Pompeii: Content, Context, and Viewers,” in C. Guiral Pelegrín, ed., Circulación de temas y sistemas decorativos en la pintura mural antigua, Gobierno de Aragon 2007, 219–22). In the first study “to integrate the artifactual assemblage into an interpretation of the frescoes” (186), Barrett proposes that the frescoes are not just a form of crude “othering.” They are more extreme than other Nilotic material, indicating a special affordance: they are about danger brought to order and thus prompted certain reflections on the viewer’s own situation. I found this a convincing reading of these extremely difficult and famous paintings, even if the formulation that they reminded viewers “of the risks associated with such lifestyles” (of the convivium) seems to me to go a bit too far (221).

Roman use of Hellenistic precedents is also the subject of chapter 5, centering on the Nilotic mosaics bordering the Alexander Mosaic in the Casa del Fauno. It was a pleasure to see some well-placed skepticism of the terms “Nilotic” and “Alexandrian” in this case: can lotuses and ducks alone suggest a Nilotic landscape, even if they also lived in Italy? And, what connection is actually demonstrable between the Alexander Mosaic and Alexandrian art? Barrett offers a revision of the old claim that the mosaic must be an Alexandrian product to the much more likely suggestion that it has its roots in Hellenistic artistic tradition without necessarily having a direct connection to the city or its artists. While I would not go so far as to say that viewers walking over the mosaic retraced Alexander’s conquest, as Barrett suggests (239), the analysis of traffic patterns over the mosaic in connection with viewing practices is refreshing and thought-provoking.

Another leitmotif of the book is Barrett’s contention that the duality “religious or secular,” traditionally drawn in the scholarship, is wrongly framed. Chapter 6 shows us how to understand the relationship of culture and religion in a more nuanced way than previously done for this material. The Casa di Octavius Quartio and Casa di Acceptus e Euhodia contain finds long understood as Isiac, yet which Barrett encourages us to see as no different from the many other objects treated in the book: they were perceived by different viewers in different ways, with their alterity at the fore, but not forcibly with a religious (traditionally called “Isiac”) significance. The very important question of what “Isiac” might even mean in the first century CE is a timely one; Barrett’s discussion meshes well with that throughout V. Gasparini and R. Veymier’s recent edited two-volume work (Individuals and Materials in the Greco-Roman Cults of Isis: Agents, Images, and Practices, Brill 2018).

Barrett’s book is thoroughly researched and forward-thinking, an unequivocal boon to the scholarship. That several reservations and questions remain for this reader is only natural; I offer here some observations that should in no way diminish Barrett’s contribution, but could perhaps help in the area of clarity. The interwoven nature of the topics led to several structural decisions that I found confusing. The many subheadings occupying each chapter are too numerous and abstract to serve as signposts; more useful might have been to use simple chapter titles that include the house of the case study and the phenomenon it typifies (e.g., “chapter 3—Efebo—retrospective phenomena” is the sort of key I made for myself). In addition, some points appearing in multiple places I would find more cogent if addressed together (e.g., the discussions of Bes figurines and of retrospective art). Of course, some of this cannot be avoided when dealing with such entwined concepts. But the concluding chapter revisits each subject treated in the previous chapters, which I found superfluous to the well-crafted arguments in the rest of the text. More importantly, it distracts from the conclusion’s own truly excellent original point, which I would like to underscore here. Barrett turns to Hadrian’s Villa as a coda to make the crucial observation that this villa’s “Canopus” is just like the other case studies in the book: a garden whose Nilotic elements provoked viewers to a variety of responses. That is to say, it is one of a large series of such gardens, not special for being imperial, not symptomatic of an emperor mourning his Nile-drowned companion, and not representative of a “top-down” cultural transfer (334–35). As scholarship on ancient art finally starts to turn away from the “great man” model of history, I believe we will recognize ever more frequently that imperial houses hew much more closely to the general trends of domestic material culture than they stand apart from it by dint of rank. As for the houses of Pompeii, Barrett has offered us an intelligent, fresh study that is sure to be a cornerstone of the field for many years to come.

Stephanie Pearson
Humboldt University of Berlin

Book Review of Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens, by Caitlín E. Barrett
Reviewed by Stephanie Pearson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Pearson

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