Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Ellen Swift, Style and Function in Roman Decoration: Living with Objects and Interiors. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. xii, 231. ISBN 9780754665632. $99.95.
Reviewed by Sarah Levin-Richardson, University of Washington

Table of Contents

"I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world. . . " --Alfred Gell 1

A growing trend in Classical scholarship has been to investigate art and architecture as active participants in the "lived space" of antiquity. In her new book, Ellen Swift applies this view of material culture to non-figurative mosaics, dining and toilet vessels, and dress accessories, building in the last two cases on her previous studies in those areas.2 Through this methodology, Swift aims to illuminate the active roles of these categories of decoration in conveying and creating social relationships.

This well-produced volume3 is divided into an introductory chapter, a chapter each on non-figurative mosaics, vessels, and dress accessories, and a conclusion. In the Introduction, Swift describes both the scholarly milieu in which she locates her work and also the ancient evidence for how Romans defined and viewed decoration. Swift positions herself at the intersection of art-historical, anthropological, and archaeological scholarship, noting that her main influences are Alois Riegl's study of style in Roman art and Alfred Gell's theory of the social agency of art. Her succinct and clearly worded synopsis of the relevant scholarship could be a stand-alone introduction for any student of material culture. In short, Swift views Roman art as an active agent that can affect social relationships, and inspired by Gell and E. H. Gombrich, she introduces readers to the ways in which visual effects within patterns could act upon on viewers. Swift's analysis of Roman viewing owes much to the work of Jas Elsner, and as such, she uses the tantalizing texts of Philostratus and others to evaluate Roman ways of seeing. Finally, Swift demarcates her focus as the Imperial period through the transition into Late Antiquity in Italy and the Western provinces.

The first main chapter investigates the various motifs found in non-figurative mosaics, especially in the mid-to-late Imperial period, and at 78 pages comprises nearly half the book. Swift builds on small-scale observations concerning motifs to make larger arguments about Romanization and the stylistic changes of Late Antique art. She begins by observing that certain patterns seem to indicate a space's marginality and relative dynamism. She then presents several case studies to show how patterns and color in mosaics link various parts of the house together, and how mosaics can indicate a hierarchy of spaces, with the most ornate and complex mosaic indicating the most important room. Finally, she notes that decorative designs become increasingly complex over time.

Swift interprets regional differences the location of "marginal" patterns as an indication that the provinces did not import Roman culture wholesale, while suggesting that similarities in the placement of these patterns might mark a desire to be seen as integrated into Roman culture. Her coup de grâce is explaining the shift from perspectival main floor designs to complex, grid-based main floors with multiple unique motifs. These complicated patterns, she argues, not only are visually impressive, but they "induce a feeling of incomprehension and even powerlessness in the viewer, who abandons any attempt at understanding" (101), thereby subordinating the viewer to the owner of the house. The primary function of these floors was not to delight guests, she asserts, but to express the dominance and status of the owner over the guest. The emphasis on "acted-out" (102) power relationships corresponds with current scholarship suggesting an increasing hierarchization of social structure in the late Roman empire. Swift continues that this may explain the growing popularity of purely geometric main viewing floors in the later Roman empire: "Figurative motifs offer the possibility of inclusion: if you can interpret the scene, you can belong, becoming a member of an exclusive, elite culture; and such an interpretation may be learned. But the bewildering geometric designs of the late Roman empire offer much less possibility of comprehension, and therefore small chance of belonging. . . " (102-103). Her attention to the visual effects of mosaic motifs is particularly innovative and can lead to fascinating results.

In the next chapter, Swift examines motifs on dining and toilet items, focusing especially, but not exclusively, on third- and fourth-century items found in hoards. Decorative motifs, she argues, could 1) accentuate the form of the vessel, 2) help indicate where the item was to be placed, 3) mark social status, and 4) refer to the contents or intended function of the vessel. As for the first point, she explains, "Decoration that emphasizes the form of the vessel, therefore, by doing so, points to its appropriate function, to the shape of the interior space of the vessel that would be the receptacle for a particular kind of food or drink. The decoration is designed to reinforce the social role of the vessel as a practical object, a container" (111). Proceeding to the second point above, Swift notes that cups are sometimes paired by means of mirror-image motifs, indicating that they were to be set on the table in a way that respects their symmetry. Swift then discusses some examples of dining sets which contain both less- and more-elaborately decorated items, which may have been used to differentiate the status of the diners. Lastly, Swift demonstrates the ways in which motifs could refer to the contents of an item or to an item's function. So, for example, cups, spoons, and toilet items often have water or marine motifs to allude to their contact with liquid; plates sometimes have hunting scenes or depictions of the food that was to placed thereon; and women's toilet items often show Venus, the paragon of beauty. Swift's clearest argument about the active role of these items comes in her analysis of the fourth-century Projecta casket from the Esquiline hoard. First, she argues that the realistic scenes of adornment on the casket were self-referential, pointing to the intended function of the object. Next, she argues that the depiction of Venus in the act of adornment naturalized the social practice of adornment. Far from being just a reflection of elite culture, then, Swift shows how decoration could have an active role in justifying and perpetuating cultural practices.

Swift explores the social functions of dress accessories--female jewelry, male crossbow brooches and belt-sets, and intaglio rings--in the third main chapter. Her analysis of jewelry shows some of the ways in which items could convey gender and status and reinforce feminine norms. Many items of jewelry were specific to women, she argues, helping to constitute the wearer's female identity, and the expense of the materials and craftsmanship could help communicate status. Hairpins with self-referential themes such as Venus, female heads with ornate hairdos, or even hands in the act of combing could have reinforced ideals of elite femininity. Marriage-rings and other depictions of families in jewelry reinforced the role of women vis-à-vis husbands and other family members, and in combination with Christian iconography, emphasized (and even promoted) the idea of divinely sanctioned, unbreakable marriage bonds. Swift then turns to male dress accessories, showing how relative status could be indicated by the material of the item, its size or number of components, and the level of decoration. In addition, she argues that certain motifs derived from Graeco-Roman culture may have indicated or solidified a communal Roman identity. Finally, she discusses intaglio rings, finding that the material and motifs are often paired, or that the motif suits the intaglio's function: Bacchus often appears on purple amethyst; circus themes are commonly found on stones the color of the four main circus teams; military themes abound on rings found in soldiers' graves; and votive rings found at shrines sometimes depict the relevant deity. Furthermore, she notes how some motifs could be apotropaic or protective, and that inscribing these motifs on material that was deemed, by itself, to be magical could enhance these qualities. The potential agency of these designs is best seen in her discussion of Clement's exhortation that Christians shun military or lascivious motifs that could spur them to un-Christian acts. Swift comments, "the decoration could be regarded here as social agent 'policing' the wearer's behaviour on behalf of God or the church" (181). Decoration, she concludes, has multiple functions beyond just decoration.4

In a short concluding chapter, Swift calls attention to the products of her inquiry. First, she points out that while previous studies of the so-called "minor arts" have focused on aesthetic change, her use of anthropological theory can bring out the social functions of these objections. She shows the roles that decoration can have in articulating a spectrum of status, as with visually dazzling mosaics, dining ware of different prestige values, or variations in the level of ornamentation in dress accessories. Some motifs can embody the power of divinities, while others can offer protection; some types of decoration can suggest the way in which the item or space is to be used, while self-referential motifs can prescribe or reinforce norms. She argues that the persistence of certain motifs suggests the power of the Classical tradition, while the wide dispersion and continuing importance of self-referential motifs implies, although not entirely unproblematically, a certain degree of uniformity in social conventions across the provinces. After a very clear and well-written historiography of stylistic change in Roman art, Swift ends with her own theory of the transition into Late Antique art. Swift suggests that the rise of non-figural motifs in the main floor mosaics of elite villas (as discussed in chapter 2) trickled down to other arts. As a result, ornamentation increased to accurately capture and project gradations of social hierarchy. In the end, Swift uses her analysis of the social functions of decoration to shed light on developments in aesthetic taste.

One issue that arises in all of the chapters is the potential danger of circular arguments. So, for example, Swift takes mosaic motifs that often appear in marginal spaces to be a determining factor of any space's "marginality." However, simple decorative motifs do not always indicate a marginal space, as in the Villa della Farnesina in Rome, where the plain mosaic floors seem to have been chosen to contrast with the elaborate wall frescoes. In addition, while I support Swift's claim that Romans enjoyed self-referential decoration, problems arise from arguing that, for example, depictions of Venus indicate that an item belongs to a women's toilet, and that the decoration is, in turn, self-referential. I also find problematic that Swift sometimes assumes that the existence of similar items or motifs across the provinces indicates uniformity in how the items or motifs were used. Indeed, recent research has shown the ways in which various cultures could use "Roman" things in entirely different ways.5 Swift herself acknowledges this pitfall at one point concerning female toilet items (191), but the larger issue of assessing how these items and motifs could have been used needs more discussion. Finally, I found myself wishing for her analysis of norms and transgression to delve deeper, and for her to address better how separate categories of material might work together in acting upon viewers.6

In sum, Swift suggests interesting ways in which the "minor arts" could play active roles in the creation of status and gender in the later Roman empire, paving the way for future work in this area.


1. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 1998: 6.

2. The End of the Western Roman Empire: An Archaeological Investigation. Stroud and Charleston, SC: Tempus, 2000; Regionality in Dress Accessories in the Late Roman West. Montagnac: Monique Mergoil, 2000; "Decorated Vessels: The Function of Decoration in Late Antiquity" in L. Lavan, E. Swift, and T. Putzeys, eds. Objects in Context Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007: 385-412.

3. Typographical errors are relatively rare and most are minor. However, there is no room "B" on the plan of Couvent du Verbe Incarné, Lyon, though it is mentioned in the text (85); the crossbow brooch in plate 18 is referred to as type 7 in the text (184) but type 6 on the plate itself and in the list of figures; and many of the plans lack a north arrow and some lack a scale, occasionally making it difficult for the reader to associate a room mentioned in the text with one on the plan.

4. For another archaeological approach to adornment in the Graeco-Roman world (which may have appeared too late for Swift to incorporate), see C. S. Colburn and M. K. Heyn, eds. Reading a Dynamic Canvas: Adornment in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008.

5. See, for example, D. J. Mattingly, S. E. Alcock, et al., eds. Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, Discourse and Discrepant Experience in the Roman Empire. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1997; and S. Keay and N. Terrenato, eds. Italy and the West: Comparative Issues in Romanization. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001. For Roman Britain, see, for example, R. Hingley's article in the former: "Resistance and Domination: Social Change in Roman Britain," 81-102.

6. She does, however, address the second concern more fully in Swift 2007, 399-405.

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