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Family Fictions in Roman Art

July 2010 (114.3)

Book Review

Family Fictions in Roman Art

By Natalie Boymel Kampen. Pp. xviii + 208, figs. 46, color pls. 26. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $85. ISBN 978-0-521-58447-0 (cloth).

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Kampen’s study explores how Romans—specifically elite Romans—exploited images of family to produce a language of power. While such a statement seems, at first glance, to be something we might take for granted, Kampen’s contribution lies in her careful visual analysis of art objects, both small scale and monumental, and in her judicious reading of ancient texts. The end product is a richly layered, complex interpretation of representations of families, ranging in date from the Early Imperial period to the late fourth/early fifth centuries and across the empire from Rome to Greece, Libya, and beyond. Although the book addresses specific case studies, Kampen invites us to think more broadly about just how persuasive the notions of family and its representations could be throughout ancient Roman society.

Kampen is upfront about what this study is about (and what it is not). Above all, it is about the social constructions of Roman families as told through material remains. It is conscious of the deceptively simple idea that the concept of family is fluid but has a precise meaning in its specific physical and historical contexts.And perhaps most unexpectedly, this book focuses squarely on representations of ultraelite Roman families. I say unexpectedly, because Kampen is probably known best for her deep commitment to the study of those outside elite, powerful circles. Specifically, she has been invested in the lives of women and nonelite individuals, in addition to making pleas for a study of Roman art that joins conversations with archaeologists working outside Rome and even outside Italy. Yet this book nimbly bridges many of her scholarly interests, and it does so brilliantly.

In the introduction, Kampen wrestles with a number of ideas and the weight of historiography. This chapter, although carefully setting the stage, seems a trifle overargued. For example, she makes the point that images of families are more about constructions (as opposed to illustrations) of families. Indeed, when it comes to elite art forms, most scholars probably agree that we are looking at projections of an ideal, and, equally important, that this ideal may not be universal or consistent. To this end, I wonder why Kampen appears somewhat apologetic for the “atypical” nature of the works she chooses to investigate. If a “typical family” is hard to fix for Roman society, these works of art are likely to be symptomatic of this phenomenon. Perhaps what makes her choice of case studies atypical is that some are canonical, others less so. (I would argue that she strikes a reasonable balance between the two categories.) In any case, the author is right to point out that previous discussions of Roman families have made ample use of ancient texts but lesser use of images and that scholarship has been, understandably, Augustus-centric. It is these two tendencies that Kampen rightly confronts head-on in her book by revealing how varying kinship structures and desires for legitimization led to artistic experimentation in the visual arts.

The first two chapters present material that is well known but heretofore not as well understood in light of constructions of family. For example, Kampen examines an image of Livia as widow (and adopted daughter) of the recently deceased Augustus and mother of the living emperor, Tiberius. Kampen pays close attention to the details of a gem depicting Livia holding a bust of the divine Augustus; she proposes that Livia’s unusual combination of garments and the unnatural proportions of her hands work together in deliberate referentiality to create a picture of smooth dynastic transition. Employing such a maternal (and familial) link to communicate an ideal of dynastic stability was not within Trajan’s reach. But Pliny’s Panegyricus and the Column of Trajan work in concert to project an image of Trajan as pater patriae and parens publicus. Kampen’s observations in the second chapter are twofold: imperial women are displaced as signifiers of dynasty, while depictions of non-Roman women and children function as signifiers of the “reproductive continuity” of the newly pacified empire (57). While Kampen’s scrupulous examination of ethnographic details on the column is convincing, I remain haunted by the vexing question regarding the extent to which Roman audiences could have seen such details. In this regard, it might be worth thinking about how Trajan’s forum as a whole promoted the paternal qualities that Kampen rightly highlights.

Familial relationships between a beloved foster son and his household are the focus of the third chapter. Kampen locates the perceived excess grief that Herodes Atticus expressed for Polydeukion within the rhetoric of second-century sophist training. In this light, Herodes’ grief was surely about mourning a boy but, equally important, also about the self-posturing of the elite patron himself. Nothing, it would seem, was entirely authentic.

The last three chapters demonstrate how artists and patrons could willfully look to the past for source material and/or use unprecedented artistic forms to create images of elite power. In the fourth chapter, Kampen critically examines the imagery on the arch at Leptis Magna, arguing for a return to featuring the empress as the (maternal) link to the dynasty’s past and future. If a mother seems to play a central role in Severan art, she disappears in the art of the tetrarchs, whose representations were all about family fictions. Kampen is at her finest in this chapter, arguing that the utterly new type of portrait was historically specific in projecting a type of familial unity—collectivity and collegiality—as conveyed through references to affection among soldiers. In the final chapter, Kampen presents the Late Antique Diptych of Stilicho. She argues that while it revives old traditions, it, too, is novel in its conception, revealing the intersection of social and artistic trends in depicting the family while reflecting the patron’s agency in defining himself locally.

Kampen’s study contributes to a number of current conversations about Roman art and history. Most notably, it is set into dialogue with investigations into Roman families, gender roles, and the place of children in Roman thought and society along with discussions of religion, politics, and imperialism, among other topics. I have not done justice to the breadth and depth of knowledge that Kampen shares with us. Indeed, the merit of her study derives from its true interdisciplinarity, but, to be sure, Kampen always begins with questions that the visual evidence poses, such as materiality, artistic agency, and viewer reception. The writing is clear and lucid, making it accessible to scholars and students alike. Although Kampen reminds us that the chapters function as essays on individual case studies, she nonetheless weaves together a penetrating story of Roman art and power, a story in which families—both real and idealized—duly play a central role.

Lauren Hackworth Petersen
Department of Art History
University of Delaware
Newark, Delaware 19716

Book Review of Family Fictions in Roman Art, by Natalie Boymel Kampen

Reviewed by Lauren Hackworth Petersen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 3 (July 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1143.Petersen

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