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The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome

The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome

By Patrick R. Crowley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2019. Pp. xi + 308. $60. ISBN 978-0-226-64829-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The first sentence of this volume is deceptively simple: “This a book about seeing and depicting ghosts in Roman art” (1). In fact, Crowley’s book reflects philosophical—particularly phenomenological—interests, toggling between Graeco-Roman material culture and diverse literary sources, whether a New York Times snippet from 1980 (sent by the ghost of Crowley’s former neighbor?) or quotes from an epistolary exchange between two 17th-century thinkers (Spinoza and Boxel) to illuminate an ancient communication between Pliny the Younger and Lucius Licinius Sura. Throughout the monograph Crowley engages with the history of thought as much as the history of art, referencing quintessential scholars, including Lessing, Warburg, and Panofsky in the first instance, and Kant, Derrida, and Heidegger in the second. This engagement with the history of ideas is one of the novel contributions of this volume, which, though focusing on the professed topic of specters in Roman art, is far more ambitious in scope.

Crowley aims to investigate the question behind the question (“Simply put, my argument is an argument about arguments,” 21, emphasis original), not whether Romans actually believed in ghosts, rather how they conceived of ghosts, “in the sense that they depict the challenge of depiction and even of seeing itself, giving physical form to conflicting and overlapping systems of knowledge and classification” (2). As an introduction, Crowley considers Greek and Latin nomenclature for ghosts (e.g., specter, eidolon, eikon, imago), which often overlaps with words for images, perhaps evincing a kind of “metapictoriality.” In addition to exploring this conception of ghosts as pictures, Crowley posits that a major shift in the “pictorial reflexivity” in seeing images of ghosts occurred during the Second Sophistic in which the antiquarian strategies of remembering “recursively conjure up bygone historical forms of life governed by a spectral logic of untimely chronologies in which the present, the past, and the future they promise are mutually implicated” (2).

The author admirably puts aside the question of belief (in ghosts) in favor of knowledge, which is surely a more applicable focus in the pre- and peri-Christian Roman environment. He systematically dismantles belief as an interpretive framework for his ancient subject matter, acknowledging, however (in his fourth chapter, which focuses on a Christian theme) Thomas’ disbelief in the somatic resurrection of Christ.

The first chapter examines two motifs: that pictorial images of ghosts “depict the conditions of depiction and even the visual event of seeing itself” (28), and “the iconographic and stylistic successions” of the Second Sophistic in the “imagistic referentiality” (55) of two myths depicted on a small number of Roman sarcophagi. Crowley employs a wide range of visual evidence elucidating a “grammar of ghosts,” including remnants of an obsidian mirror found at Pompeii, classical white-ground lekythoi, larvae (carefully distinguished from mere skeletons), and the two sarcophagi that depict the myth of Laodamia and Protesilaos, which appear again in the third chapter. One important passage deals with conflated perceptions of cremated bodies and “dark-skinned bodies” (52), a timely introduction to racialization in Graeco-Roman culture.

The second chapter explores the three aspects of the “paradoxical visibility of Hades . . . as a site of knowledge and aesthetic experience” (86): the vertigo-inducing view of the underworld and landscape painting, along with the aesthetics of the sublime evinced in a “regional cartography” or chorographia; the problem of pictorial perspective; and visibility in the tomb as a journey to Hades for the dead and the living. The first half of the chapter focuses on the Odyssey landscape paintings; the second half examines underworld-themed tomb decoration (mosaics, stucco relief, and sarcophagi) and also includes discussion of the phenomenology of viewer experience and spatial context.

Chapter 3 offers some of the most stimulating arguments about spectral images. Crowley’s investigation of images of drapery, ghosts, and the gaze (both in viewing and especially in being viewed) offers much to consider in the well-studied genre of mythological sarcophagi, here and throughout the book as a whole. The focus on aidōs or pudor is a fresh exploration of the visual language of drapery and concealment. In the rare depictions of ghosts on sarcophagi—selected by Crowley due to their very exceptionality, rather than commonplace appearance—a sensitivity to the visibility of these spectral bodies is revealed, with the phantom form thickly draped and occluded from the viewer’s gaze. Crowley further links this destabilizing, dispositional shamefastness (135) to gender, which is levelized in the heavily shrouded specters. On the Protesilaos sarcophagi, the nudity of the returned hero is partly obscured, which Crowley interprets as radical “feminine displays of modesty” (169)—in one instance as “Protesilaos Pudicus” (180–81)—that signify the sexual unavailability of the hero and the theme of tragic loss.

Chapter 4, an expansion of Crowley’s 2018 article “Doubting Thomas and the Matter of Embodiment on Early Christian Sarcophagi” (Art History 41.3, 566–91), considers the two sarcophagi with narrative scenes of the Incredulity of Thomas in terms of objecthood and embodiment, and Christ’s wound “as a constitutively phenomenological encounter of seeing feeling” (190, emphasis original). The discussions on pigment and color are provocative, challenging even the scholarly desire for scientific verification (203). However, the a priori assumption (and dependent suppositions) that the African onyx fragment that includes a depiction of the Incredulity of Thomas was not painted, while thought-provoking particularly in the context of embodied materiality, might have been strengthened by comparative evidence of colored stones lacking polychromy, like the Capitoline statue of Marsyas (fig. 1.21), and by scientific analysis. A small quibble is the emphasis of Christ’s depiction in the Thomas scene as intentionally statuesque, which contradicts late fourth- and early fifth-century Christian aversions to Christ in statue form. That said, the questions of embodiment, materiality, and the criteria of truth here engage the reader on many different levels.

In each section, the argumentation is amply supported with literature both ancient and modern (modern in the broadest sense). The sweeping narrative is exciting, traveling across the history of thought over millennia. One nagging issue is the uneven attention paid to historical specificity; for example, in the discussion of imagines in the context of the ca. 170 CE Vatican Protesileus sarcophagus (69), while there is some evidence that the production of wax masks continues into the later Roman period, they were not well attested during the later second century, the production date of the sarcophagus. The plaster molds (“death masks”) found in second- and third-century tombs, which Crowley has published elsewhere, may have made a closer comparison. In any case the noted literary source on Roman funerals (presumably Polybius) certainly belonged to a different sociohistorical and chronological context. There’s an elision of time in this and other cases, although elsewhere there is a careful examination of, for example, periodization and aesthetic phenomena. In terms of intended audience, references to a “well-known” quote or essay (e.g., by Rodenwaldt, 105; Vitruvius, 112; Plautus, 115) may ring true for some readers, but not all, and they verge on being pedantic. At times the balance leans heavily toward philosophical framing (and reframing), leaving less room for the images themselves. In one instance, Crowley notes that two figures have been “convincingly identified” without specifying by whom (116)—an omission of a footnote? Other editorial snafus occur (e.g., “Virtuvius,” 90; “Vispania,” 91; “out” for “our,” 122) and there are primary reference omissions (e.g., Longinus’ examples of sublimity, 109; a reference to Homer, 119). Yet such unfortunate infelicities detract little from such an estimably and rigorously argued book. The color plates enhance the amply illustrated volume, in which the author deftly integrates artworks from the classical world to the 19th century. This rewarding read offers manifold insights into ancient—and modern—perceptions of phantasia and rationalism in the context of ghostly phenomena.

Sarah Madole Lewis
Borough of Manhattan Community College
City University of New York

Book Review of The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome, by Patrick R. Crowley
Reviewed by Sarah Madole Lewis
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Lewis

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