Friday, February 3, 2017


Susan E. Alcock, Mariana Egri, James F. D. Frakes (ed.), Beyond Boundaries: Connecting Visual Cultures in the Provinces of Ancient Rome. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2016. Pp. xxi, 386. ISBN 9781606064719. $69.95.

Reviewed by Stefanie Hoss, Small Finds Archaeology, Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book under review is the result of the unusual 'Arts of Rome's provinces' seminar, a remarkable exercise in learning. Propelled by Natalie Kampen and abundantly sponsored by the Getty Foundation, scholars from many nations and a wide range of neighbouring disciplines participated, visiting sites in both Britain and Greece and later meeting for a weeklong workshop at the Getty Centre in Malibu. It is an interdisciplinary undertaking, with each theme tackled using different material and from different angles by several authors. What they have in common is their movement away from pure theory and towards a more integrated view of art, even though some authors are clearly well-versed in theory.

This book is best suited to advanced students and researchers with some experience in material studies, because it assumes knowledge of most of the research discussions on Roman art and material culture as well as the pertinent theoretical models. Many of the papers resemble icebergs, in that the amount of text is but a small part of the whole, while the larger and mostly unseen part is made up of the underlying learning hidden in footnotes. In numerous cases, the subjects treated would merit far longer papers, and in some even a monograph, making it a very dense reading experience.

This book will have an interesting place in current scholarship, as the various contributions are relevant to such a broad range of research areas. Because it is such a varied collection, it is difficult to evaluate the merits of them all together, especially as most papers are about clearly defined case studies in rather narrow research fields, many of which are outside this reviewer's expertise. But while it seems inevitable that the average reader will choose just one or perhaps two or three chapters to read, it is this broad approach that is the very strength of both the publication and the underlying seminar. It is not only the sheer number of examples illustrating the effects of an outside influence on local art that is convincing, it is the variety of art forms and cultures these examples come from.

The papers are presented in four groups, each containing four to five papers connected by a theme rather than region or chronology. These themes are rather loose and it is not always apparent why a specific contribution belongs to this rather than that group. Within the limits of this review, only a number of examples per group can be discussed.

The first part revolves around ways of reinterpreting 'the provincial', focussing on the ideological structures that shaped the ancient world (p. 10). Jimenez' case study in coinage is proof that it is time for Roman archaeology to move away from simple centre-periphery dichotomies and accept that Roman imperialism also brought decentralization and the large-scale dissemination of a variety of material cultures stemming from various other cultural backgrounds. Wootton summarizes the manner in which the ancient art of mosaics was shaped by both the choices of the clients and the possibilities and workshop traditions of the craftsmen, whose lives he skilfully recreates by making full use of the sparse evidence. While craftsmen's knowledge of materials and motifs shaped the products, local economic conditions and the social aspirations of the clients ensured that mosaics in various regions of the Roman world developed in slightly differing traditions, which nevertheless overlapped in their visual repertoire. Hijmans demonstrates that a number of unarticulated assumptions on the superiority of idealized naturalism and the desire of provincial artists to work in this manner are responsible for our modern judgement of provincial art as being 'bad'. He proposes to focus on the communicative power of the depiction instead.

The second part concentrates on traditions and innovations and kicks off with a paper by Mladenović that contrasts interestingly with Hijmans in contending that the provincial art of the Balkans was indeed hampered by a lack of skill and experience, as this region lacked a pre-Roman stonecutting or sculptural tradition. The epigraphic and sculptural habit only gained ground with the opening of metal ore extraction in 212 AD, which led to an influx of people from elsewhere, while the local population continued to prefer other forms of art. Cassibry describes the development of Gaulish coins (evidence of the indirect 'impact of empire'); close study of three coins and their iconographic relationships to Graeco-Roman and Celtic art demonstrates their 'entangled imagery', combining elements of both cultures. Bergmann's paper is an exercise in unpicking the complicated mesh of cultural relationships and traditions in Roman Egypt, with her subject three portraits of boys with an elaborate braided hairstyle. While this may remind many of Egyptian youth braids, careful comparison to all the different hairstyles for children in Egypt shows that this particular style is typical for upper class boys attending the Gymnasion.

In the third part, on movement and meanings, the first contribution by Walker outlines a development of 'Celtic' design by studying metal objects. He argues against the theory of the incompetence of provincial artists by demonstrating that a single monument may contain both elements executed very well and very badly, the latter usually being the human form. Revell starts by describing material culture studies, insisting that any art object is a product of the specific social practice for which it was made and can only be valued in its context. Her case study on a number of 'footprints' in Iberian temples again shows that lateral networks for transmitting cultural experiences existed in the Roman Empire (which are therefore not 'Romanisation'). She stresses the importance of local agency in the form the adoption of these cultural expressions takes. Gates-Foster explores the experience of the inhabitants of Egypt's Red Sea ports, who were at the edge of the empire, but in the midst of a trade network supported by Roman (and Indian) consumerism. She shows that local concerns outweighed the conflicts with the imperial structures and asserts that Roman styles were 'telegraphed' from province to province, rather than from Rome directly.

The fourth part on local accents in an imperial world starts off with McCarty investigating the syncretism of Saturn/Baal Hammon in several smaller North African towns. He argues that the gods were not separated into the modern categories 'Classical, Oriental and indigenous' by ancient viewers, but instead into very local geographical categories ('the Saturn of place X'). Accordingly, syncretism did not 'fuse' two (or more) of them, but rather functioned by widening the iconographic spectrum (or other elements of the god's character) to include the other. Noreña can determine that the coinage of Antioch was characterized by a constant interplay between the imperial and the local (the city). While the local elements were all indisputably local, the 'semantic system' in which they worked was the same all over the Roman East. This system was a new development of the Augustan era and the imperial element was monarchic in intent. Finally, di Napoli studied the copies found in Greece of two famous masterpieces of Classical Greek art, the Doryphoros and the Knidian Aphrodite. While the Doryphoros copies were mostly life-sized or bigger and put up in public places, the copies of the Knidian Aphrodite were mostly statuettes and found in private dwellings. This concurs with the Roman manner of using copies of these masterpieces. Most surprising, however, is the relative disinterest in Greece towards these legacies of their great past.

In addition to the quality of most of the contributions, the value of this collection lies in the fact that different ideas on the same sets of problems are included in a single volume (unfortunately a rare occurrence), which makes the reading of the whole a very stimulating exercise. A case in point is the juxtaposition of Hijmans and Mladenović, who at first seem to contradict each other – until one realizes that sculptors in the provinces could at the same time have a different intent (than the naturalistic depiction of the body) and be not very good at sculpting.

A red ribbon running through the whole collection is the idea that the Roman Empire provided a framework, which enabled two things: it allowed local traditions to come into contact with traditions from elsewhere (both top-down and laterally) and encouraged locals to emphasise their own heritage, whether ancient or newly invented/hybridized. – McCarty speaks of 'glocalisation'. In most cases, the overarching 'Roman' culture provided the frame or 'semantic system' (Noreña) in which these traditions were used. Because of this common frame, the local elements of the object in question were easily understood both by locals and by people from elsewhere.

Table of Contents

Part One: Approaches to provincial contexts.
What is a province / Alicia Jiménez
A synoecism of cultures in Roman Greece / Maria Papaioannou
Networks: exile and tourism in the Roman Cyclades / Rebecca Sweetman
A portrait of the artist as a mosaicist under the Roman Empire / Will Wootton
Material matters: object, authorship, and audience in the arts of Rome's empire / Steven Hijmans.

Part Two: Traditions, innovation, manipulation.
Developing a "sculptural habit": the creation of a sculptural tradition in the Roman Central Balkans / Dragana Mladenović
In search of identities : a preliminary report on the visual and textual context of the funerary monuments of Roman Macedonia / A.D. Rizakis and I. Touratsoglou
Coins before conquest in Celtic France : an art lost to empire / Kimberly Cassibry
Mallokouria : portraits of local elite boys in Roman Egypt / Marianne Bergmann
The architecture of changing sacrificial practices in Pre-Roman and Roman Gaul / Claudia Moser.

Part Three: Networks, movements, meaning.
Celtic design, Roman subjects: a portrait of Marcus Aurelius from rural Britain / Susan Walker
Footsteps in stone: variability within a global culture / Louise Revell
Objective alterity: import consumption in the ports of Roman Egypt / Jennifer Gates-Foster
Roman medallions in Scandinavia : shifting contexts of space, time, and meaning / Nancy L. Wicker
The British Museum Hāritī: toward understanding transculturalism in Gandhara / Naman P. Ahuja.

Part Four: Local accents in the imperial context.
Gods, masks, and monstra: situational syncretisms in Roman Africa / Matthew M. McCarty
Constructed landscape: designing urban centers in Roman Africa / Thomas Morton
Heritage and homogeneity in the coinage of early Roman Antioch / Carlos F. Noreña
Looking at the classical past: tradition, identity, and copies of nobilia opera in Roman Greece / Valentina Di Napoli.

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