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Rome’s Cultural Revolution

Rome’s Cultural Revolution

By Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Pp. xxiv + 502, figs. 152, color pls. 31, table 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2008. $49. ISBN 0-521-72160-1.

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As a modern description of profound political change in Late Republican Rome, “revolution” has been in play since Mommsen’s mid 19th-century History of Rome. Syme’s arguably ironic use in The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939), that landmark prosopographical study of the transformation of the Roman republic as viewed through the lens of elite power struggles, has subsequently served as the touchstone. When a scholar takes the idea of political revolution—with implications of overturning an older system and a period of instability before an alternative order rises (presumably different but always new)—and joins it with cultural change, how does it work? In Rome’s Cultural Revolution, Wallace-Hadrill proposes a pattern of cultural change not as a phenomenon bobbing in the wake of political events but as one aligned and intimately bound up within it. In his argument, a cultural revolution can be “mapped onto Syme’s revolution” (443), although he parts from Syme in his inclusion of the “sub-elite” as a significant participant in the transformation of cultural identity.

The book is divided into four parts, each subdivided into two chapters further organized thematically with subheadings. There is a good deal of cross-reference within the volume, as Wallace-Hadrill works with different categories of evidence, primarily literary and archaeological, to advance a theory that in its essence is as simple as the argument is complex and multivalent: the period of Rome’s history between the Late Republic and Early Empire saw a cultural revolution generated by a transfer of power in authoritative systems of knowledge. This transfer can be tracked through an observable shift in discourses on the construction of identity and the display and consumption of luxury goods.

Part 1, “Cultures and Identities,” serves as both introduction and theoretical clearinghouse. Wallace-Hadrill summarizes past and current interdisciplinary debates surrounding culture and ethnicity in the Roman world before settling on a model that allows for a relative and fluid positioning of identities. A related topic engages the dialogue surrounding “Romanization” and “Hellenization” as useful terms and actual processes. The author problematizes but does not reject these, finding useful concepts for understanding cultural change in Italy, particularly the effective deployment of symbolic language. To illuminate his ideas concerning the Roman construction of identity through an appropriate use of Greek cultural markers—potentially dangerous if miscued or misunderstood—Wallace-Hadrill draws upon the linguistic theory of “codeswitching,” an argument originating in the research of Meyers-Scotton (Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa [Oxford 1993]). Codeswitching proposes language switching within a multilingual society as negotiation through different codes with full awareness and employment of the sociopsychological values of each language. As a model for how two cultures may “sit alongside each other, interacting rather than ‘assimilating’” (63), and for the underlying power relationships articulated by language and dress, codeswitching is a useful theory. It is also valuable for looking at visual language. There is a missed opportunity in this analysis, however, for using metaphorical codeswitching (an unexpected language shift within a conversation to allow allusion to more than one domain) within the discussion of republican portraits of generals with idealized nude bodies and veristic heads.

Part 2, “Building Identities,” considers the processes from the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E. by which Italy came to view itself as possessing a unified identity; it gives careful attention to the transformative moment within the longer time frame—the Social Wars and their attendant debate concerning the extension of citizenship to allies. This examination explores the interplay and sustainability of multiple cultural identities within Italy—a kind of pretransformation manifested in material culture, language, and building practice. Wallace-Hadrill also introduces his trio of theoretical architects for Rome’s cultural revolution: Vitruvius, Cicero, and Varro. He notes their role in forming Roman identity with writings that incorporate and play off Hellenistic models, acknowledging difference while simultaneously elevating Roman forms and practice by creating shared theoretical underpinnings. In doing so, he upends the established method that reads these sources to understand how Romans articulated their “Roman-ness.” While Wallace-Hadrill does use the texts to show how Romans constructed identity (building under the guise of revealing), he introduces a concept that subsequently becomes one of the principal themes of the book: Rome’s cultural revolution was formed in part by writings like those of Vitruvius, which did not reiterate long-held knowledge but inventively created the discourse. This is a fairly dramatic reframing of Vitruvius that firmly moves his work away from scholars who wish to find in De architectura a helpful practical treatise illuminating Roman building practice.

Part 3, “Knowledge and Power,” most directly engages with the idea of cultural revolution by tracing shifts in authority within systems of knowledge as well as the circumstances of possession and deployment. Cicero and Varro in particular, “major players in the redefinition of identity” (216), are discussed as authors of antiquarian writings that actively construct mos maiorum. In this sense, they are characterized as leaders of a covert revolution who successfully removed the understanding and preservation of traditional ancestral practice from the nobility, locating it instead within their own research and scholarship. This section owes a debt, acknowledged in the introduction, to Michel Foucault’s work on the relationship between power and systems of knowledge, and particularly to his methodology of searching for the break in the discourse of power, a moment of transformation that signals a shift in social practice.

Part 4, “The Consumer Revolution,” represents the fullest expression of Wallace-Hadrill’s stated intent to map the cultural revolution onto the political one. This section delineates a relationship between the desire for recognition among the Italy-wide elite “trapped in the bottleneck of the Roman political system” (450) and the explosion of luxury items, the possession and display of which formed an alternative discursive system for status. For the importance of luxury as a discourse that can both affirm and potentially threaten social order, he turns to political and moral commentary on luxurious display within the larger context of premodern Europe. Drawing on Hunt’s excellent book on the history of sumptuary legislation (Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law [New York 1996]), he treats Roman sumptuary law as a prime discursive field that defines, disrupts, and reveals anxieties about the social order.

The title of the second chapter in this section, “Waves of Fashion,” underscores both the nature of the transmission of luxury objects as having regular rhythms of absorption from east to west, followed by creative appropriation and transformation at local and provincial levels, and the waves of luxury goods spreading into the wider population to be eagerly consumed by new social groups on the rise, including ex-slaves and veterans of the triumviral and Augustan settlements. The author could be clearer concerning how many participated in the new social diffusion of luxury, because this larger category of consumers “riding the wave” still formed a relatively small section of the Roman population. For most, even “sub-luxuries” were beyond reach.

This necessarily brief summary cannot communicate the richness and range of material under examination or its accompanying discussion. A substantive bibliography, effectively and economically mined, makes it easy for readers who are out of their areas of specialization to comprehend how the author locates himself relative to past and current scholarship in a given field. Wallace-Hadrill moves deftly through theory—employing a range of methodological tools including the work of Bordieu and, as discussed above, Foucault—to triangulate as a social scientist might, strengthening an interpretation by cross-checking with different types of data. From the field of cultural anthropology that has in recent years become ever more entwined with Romanist studies, he makes use of Weissner’s category of “emblemic style,” defined as a style intended to transmit a message about a conscious affiliation of identity. One might also note a proclivity, also seen in his colleague Beard, to undermine assumptions based on uncritical readings of ancient literary sources. The author’s sensitivity to ambiguity, irony, and contradiction within a text is a particular strength that advances the ongoing dialogue concerning how and under what circumstances Romans articulated their “Roman-ness.”

In terms of the field of Roman scholarship to which his work belongs, Wallace-Hadrill has membership in those groups that use interdisciplinary study models, including critical cultural and postcolonial studies and cultural anthropology, to examine issues surrounding “Romanization,” “Hellenization,” and the construction of identity. He also has affinities to scholars concerned with the end of the republic and the rise of Augustan culture, most notably Galinsky and Zanker. Several of the subjects and themes threading through the book, including the use of language and dress in the construction of identity and the relocation of authority concerning the preservation and communication of mos maiorum, have been explored at some length in earlier writings by the author. In spite of this, Rome’s Cultural Revolution does not read as a recycled assemblage but as a long-gestated work by a scholar whose interpretive skill—with literary sources, material culture, and the state of the research in a variety of related fields—is formidable and perhaps unique.

Regina Gee
Department of Art History
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana 59717

Book Review of Rome’s Cultural Revolution, by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Reviewed by Regina Gee

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.Gee

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