Thursday, October 16, 2014


John Pollini, From Republic to Empire: Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome. Oklahoma series in classical culture, 48. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 550. ISBN 9780806142586. $60.00.

Reviewed by Rubina Raja, Aarhus University (

Version at BMCR home site


From Republic to Empire: Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome gathers several papers presented by John Pollini at various conferences through the years. It is therefore far from providing an overview of Roman visual culture, as the title may lead us to expect; it presents instead the author's personal reading of important material evidence ranging from the late Republic to the early Imperial period in a manner sure to appeal to scholars and students alike. Despite its piecemeal origin, the text has a certain consistency and chronological order; it provides a fresh outlook and stimulus to study anew monuments that have been abundantly published before and should be known to every student of classical studies.

The book is divided into nine chapters under appropriate thematic headings. It has a comprehensive and updated bibliography, a detailed general index and a very helpful index of museums and collections housing the items treated in the book. As is seldom the case today, all such monuments are beautifully illustrated in 271 figures and 31 color plates —together with a perhaps overabundant computer-animated reconstruction of Augustus' mausoleum. Furthermore, the book is sturdily bound, all features that alone would make it worth buying.

The nine chapters are structured around the following themes: I. Ritualizing Death in Republican Rome: Memory, Religion, Class Struggle, and the Wax Ancestral Mask Tradition's Origin and Influence on Veristic Portraiture, II. The Leader and the Divine: Official and Nonofficial Modes of Representation, III. The Cult Statue of Julius Caesar and Heroic and Divine Imagery of Deified Leaders in the Late Republic and Early Principate, IV. From Warrior to Statesman in Art and Ideology: Octavian/Augustus and the Image of Alexander the Great, V. The Ideology of "Peace through Victory" and the Ara Pacis Augustae: Visual Rhetoric and the Creation of a Dynastic Narrative, VI. The Acanthus of the Ara Pacis as an Apolline and Dionysiac Symbol of Anamorphosis, Anakyklosis, and Numen Mixtum, VII. The Smaller Cancelleria ("Vicomagistri") Reliefs and Julio-Claudian Imperial Altars: Limitations of the Evidence and Problems of Interpretation, VIII. The "Insanity" of Caligula or the "Insanity" of the Jews? Differences in Perception and Religious Beliefs, IX. "Star Power" in Imperial Rome: Astral Theology, Castorian Imagery, and the Dual Heirs in the Transmission of Leadership. These nine chapters are followed by a ten-page conclusion

Several chapters (II, IV, V, VII and VIII) have appendices which treat a certain monument or object in more detail and not only reveal the author's knowledge but also increase the understanding of the thematic headings. The appendix of chapter VIII, for example, deals with the polychromy of Caligula's portrait in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; Pollini suggests variations in its color scheme, in particular the eyes, which he would like blue-grey instead of the normally accepted brown. This discussion brings out the importance of color for the perception of all sorts of monuments and, in the specific case of Caligula's head, it highlights how the official portraiture of that Emperor might have been received and understood in Rome and the provinces.

The ten page long introduction sets out the purpose of the book and also clearly states Pollini's grounds.: he is "a cultural archaeologist…interested in how the Romans understood their religion, culture, and history in terms of their art and how they used, projected, and disseminated visual imagery as a means of honoring and commemorating themselves and their achievements" [p. 1] In an academic world constantly confronting us with new theories or with old theories applied to new empirical material, it is a relief to read a book that actually addresses the empirical material and ways of approaching it, namely "ways of seeing",1 of understanding how to view, and why people view as they do. Pollini's book is a wonderful demonstration of how this might be done. Whether or not you agree with all his interpretations, you understand how the author reaches his conclusions and cannot fail to admire both his general outlook and his attention to detail.

Chapter I deals with portraiture, its development and its various sources of influence in the late Republican period, especially that of ancestral wax masks on veristic style. Pollini points out, as others have, that these were life-masks, not death-masks, which might explain their considerable impact. He further expands on their function and their cultural, social and religious connotations. Among other possible influences he considers Hellenistic (i.e., non-Roman) portraiture and concludes that no generalization can be made about late Republican heads because they fuse together many different trends in different proportions, thus demanding that we look in detail at each single item before judging its composition. Central to any book on portrayals of leadership and imperial power, Pollini's Chapter II concerns representations from the Julio-Claudian and in particular the Augustan period. The subtitle of the chapter stresses the difference between official and non-official images. This may seem an obvious point; however, given today's blurred boundaries between public and private, official and nonofficial, such a distinction is important. Furthermore, what private and public really meant in Antiquity still remains difficult for us to grasp. Chapter III deals with various types of heroic and divine imagery of deified leaders, including the early emperors, with an emphasis on the iconography of Julius Caesar and Augustus.

In Chapter IV Pollini carefully analyses various iconographic types of Octavian/Augustus, vividly showing how, particularly in the early period, they drew on the imagery of Alexander the Great. A welcome appendix to this chapter discusses the less-known Actian victory monument at Nikopolis, which is crucial for our understanding of Augustus' official modes of representation.

Chapter V concerns the Ara Pacis, which Pollini considers one of the most important public monuments of Roman art, conveying its message in completely different ways from, for example, the later columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Appendices A-C deal respectively with Aeneas' panel on the Ara Pacis, the Mausoleum of Augustus, and the Ustrinum Augusti.

Chapter VI continues to discuss the Ara Pacis and is completely devoted to the study of its acanthus motifs, which Pollini rightly calls a central but understudied floral pattern. Whereas focus usually is on the figural scenes, Pollini sees the floral element as just as essential in conveying Augustan ideas and ideals. Although not completely a new theory, the floral decoration is here shown to play together with the figural scenes and to support them in much subtler ways than usually thought.

The Smaller Cancelleria Reliefs and early imperial altars are treated in chapter VII. Pollini explains his appealing interpretation of the former and also suggests their hypothetical reconstruction as part of the inner altar podium of a larger monumental complex like the Ara Pacis. Other altars discussed are the Ara Pietatas, Ara Gentis Iuliae, Ara Numinis Augusti, and Ara Reditus Claudii. The appendix concerns the Ara Providentiae Augustae and a colossal seated statue of Augustus.

Chapter VIII, on the emperor Caligula and in particular his relationship to the Jews, stands out among the others because it is more strongly based on the interpretation of historical events and accounts of Caligula and his state of mind, thus providing a fascinating and multifaceted retelling of the history of this emperor. It connects Caligula as a person to the monuments which he is said to have set up or sponsored — among these, his decree to place a statue of himself in the temple of Jerusalem. The appendix on the portraiture of Caligula is fairly short and could have been integrated into the chapter itself.

Chapter IX tackles the concept of the importance of astral symbolism for ruler cults and imperial leadership. Here Pollini gives new interpretations to the meaning of celestial symbolism and in particular to the imagery of the Dioscuri in Roman art. In many ways this chapter is the most unconventional in the volume and the most challenging to read since its use of a wide range of visual evidence requires a broad knowledge. It is a fine conclusion to a book that also treats so many very well-known monuments of the late Republican and early Imperial periods. Although not a handbook, it is highly recommended for reading and discussion in classical courses and seminars as an inspiring publication on late Republican and early Imperial visual culture.


1.   To quote the title of the rather slim but influential book by John Berger (Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, London, 1972), which was based on a four-part BBC television series by John Berger.

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