Friday, September 29, 2017


Andy Merrills, Roman Geographies of the Nile: From the late Republic to the Early Empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 338. ISBN 9781107177284. $120.00.

Reviewed by Edward Kelting, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site


To wade into Nile scholarship is no small thing. The various representations of the Nile in poetry, prose, public monuments, domestic wall-paintings, technical maps, or itineraries have all been given their fair share of attention.1 Merrills, in a stimulating and ambitious work, addresses them all. He chooses the Nile as a test case to look at "different modes of geographical representation that were known within Roman Italy, and crucially how they related to one another" (p. 5). In so doing, he offers a less homogenous set of geographies than Claude Nicolet's L'inventaire du monde, which focuses mostly on painted maps and the Res Gestae.2 Merrills shows in each chapter how a different type of Nile geography creates a unique relationship between geography and political power, from the late Republic through the Flavian period. By juxtaposing different media in one work, Merrills offers a richer, more variegated picture of the Nile's contributions to (and undermining of) the ideologies of the principate and broadens Nicolet's otherwise narrow definition of authoritative, Augustus-sanctioned geography.

Chapter One, "A World Full of Maps?", focuses on Vitruvius's discussion of painted Nile maps and the Palestrina mosaic to emphasize public maps' role in broadcasting an ideology of community to their viewers. An introduction shows the range of forms that the so-called Map of Agrippa and, by extension, all public maps could have taken. Pliny's critiques of the Map of Agrippa's distance measurements point to the relative inability of such maps to communicate definitive cartographic information. Instead, its importance lay in viewers' collective contemplation, which cemented their place in an imperial community.

The main sections on Vitruvius and the Palestrina mosaic reiterate this elevation of imperial community over geographic authority. Vitruvius' citation of painted maps nods to their collective importance as "visual frames of reference" (p. 38), but Vitruvius' actual Nile description relies entirely on textual sources. Merrills' argument about the Palestrina mosaic takes the same form. As Merrills concludes, arguments for the identification of specific sites on the mosaic ignore that images and texts are only given meaning by their audience. Original viewers would not have all recognized a temple in the mosaic as Edfu, Philae, or Memphis. The importance of the mosaic (and all public maps) lies not in a definitive representation of specific sites or the accurate communication of cartographic data, but the "communal gaze that lent these representations their peculiar authority" (p. 68).

The same holds true for triumphs, which Merrills tackles in Chapter Two, "The Dismembered Nile." He differentiates the prominent geographical features highlighted by tituli and commemorated in the Fasti Triumphales from the jumbled list of conquered cities included not for geographic accuracy, but for sheer impressiveness. Once again, the audience constitutes the triumph: Ovid's Ars Amatoria and the geographic ignorance of its amator suggest that the geographic specifics of triumphs could be discussed, contested, and misread by the audience. The geographic mishmash central to triumphs creates a "dismembered" geography where the oikoumene is broken down, abstracted of original associations, imbued with a semantics of imperial subjugation, and reconstructed into new geographies in sites like Augustus' Porticus ad Nationes or Vespasian's Templum Pacis. The juxtaposition of the Vatican Nile and the Louvre Tiber in the Isaeum Campense underscores rivers' core role in this process of dismemberment and triumphal reconstruction.

Chapter Three, "Gazing on the Nile," shifts from public to private, moving from Rome to Pompeii. By presenting a summary of the Nile decorations of the House of the Ephebe and the Praedia of Julia Felix, Merrills traces the development of Nilotic scenes and the common presence of pygmies, wild fauna, and religious buildings in them. To Merrills, the presence of both a religious Nilescape and a pygmy scene in The House of the Ceii shows how different Niles cut against each other. With these two scenes paired, "the comic excesses and figural distortions of the pygmy painting partly emphasizes the other-worldly calm of the sacral-idyllic landscape, but also punctures it" (123).

Merrills then returns to the viewer. He underlines the control and domination that viewing Nilescapes entails by applying the ideology of the "managerial gaze" central to aristocratic self-fashioning to spectators of Egyptian wall-paintings; the move from illusionistic Roman villa scenes (the typical site of the "managerial gaze") to Nilescapes speaks to Pompeian elites' "claims to authority over a far wider area" (141) than Italy alone. Merrills ends by introducing different ancient viewers beyond the male elite; he thus broadens the range of associations that viewers would have made with Nilotic pygmy landscapes.

Chapter Four, "Creatio ex Nilo," bridges philosophy and religion. He analyzes Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Seneca's Naturales Quaestiones, where lengthy doxographies offer explanations of the Nile inundation. To Lucretius and Seneca, the calming effect of listing multiple explanations of a phenomenon outweighs selecting a final preferred explanation. These Nile doxographies begin a process that leads one out of the physical present, toward larger and potentially unsettling cosmogonic cycles of watery cataclysm. A brief excursus on the Nile in Egyptian religion prefaces the different Niles present in the Isis complex at Pompeii. The cistern designed to recreate the inundation, the mythic Nile's presence in an Io wall-painting, and the wider dispersal of sacred-water vessels across Pompeii all point to the widespread religious-metaphysical associations often made with the Nile. In Chapter 5, "The River is a Jumbled Line, Perhaps?", Merrills outlines itineraries and the periplus tradition and argues, following Pietro Janni's articulation of "hodological" space, for the inherent linearity of travel along the Nile.3 Nero's expedition into Nubia in the 60s CE and Strabo's trip along the Nile in Geography Book 17 lead to two main arguments on itineraries in Egypt. First, Merrills emphasizes the lack of any single, definitive itinerary by examining how Nero's expedition relied on Hellenistic itineraries whose toponyms had become obsolete but which Romans continued to reproduce. Second, Strabo's trip upriver irons out the Nile's bends into a linear itinerary. The second half of the chapter traces the process by which the specific order of a linear trip through Egypt loses meaning. The order of stops in Egypt matters much less than the jumble of sights one would see in a trip along the Nile. Here, he relies on Tacitus' warped geography of Germanicus' trip to Egypt in Annals 2.59–61, nineteenth-century comparanda for Nile travel, and the satire of Lucian and Juvenal, all of which betray disinterest in or satirize the specific order of the nodes that constitute the Nilotic itinerary.

Poetry, mostly epic with a dash of elegy, rounds things out. Chapter 6, "Triumph and Disaster," gives half of its time to Augustan poetry before a longer reading of Books 8 and 10 of Lucan's Pharsalia. The Augustan arguments are brief. Merrills first traces an allusive legacy from Octavian's triumph in 29 BCE, through Aeneid 8, to Propertius and Ovid. He then makes two brief arguments on the Augustan fossilization of both the Nile's seven mouths and the link between a culpable Nile and Pompey's death. Turning to the Pharsalia, Merrills offers a reading of the two apostrophes to the Nile elicited by Pompey's death, which twist Nile topoi to morbid, anti-Vergilian ends. In Book 10, the geographic imprecision of Acoreus' Nile proves the inability of priest, poet, or tyrant (Caesar, but also Nero by extension) to claim privileged knowledge of the river's course; so too does Acoreus' list of frustrated source-searching tyrants play on a programmatic opposition between nature and tyrant, which connects Caesar's sympotic inquiry to Nero's expedition. Finally, the proliferation of flooded, Nile-like rivers throughout the Pharsalia both serves the poetics of Lucan's discors machina and builds on Seneca's belief that all rivers were connected by underground caverns.

An afterword on Pliny and his several Niles reemphasizes Merrills' overarching point about the polyvalent geographies created by the many different presentations of the Nile. The different locations of the river's sources in Books 5, 6, and 8 connect Pliny's collapse of multiple, competing authorities with Merrills' argument against monolithic, geographically authoritative texts or media. Pliny's valorization of Rome and its wonders (e.g., the Nile pales in comparison to the Cloaca Maxima) reintroduces the triumphal and imperial focus of the book's opening chapters.

Merrills is successful in his representation of Rome's many geographies. His reevaluation of the hierarchy of geographies helps move away from a paradigm that often looks to wall-painting and poetry to play a secondary role for conventional geographic media like prose texts and public maps. An emphasis on the diversity of geographic knowledge of ancient viewers, even if it sometimes ventures into hypothetical terrain, nevertheless introduces a welcome corrective to positivist arguments for the unambiguous meaning of visual geographies.

A book of this type necessarily pits diversity of different Niles against sustained individual arguments, which occasionally leads to sub-arguments that are less effective. While perhaps inevitable when working across so many different media, he occasionally advances arguments that do not move beyond other studies. His reading of Lucan's Nile digression and the presence of Nero therein largely restates the arguments of Jonathan Tracy and Eleni Manolaraki. The same can be said of his sections on pygmy landscapes and the Vatican Nile, which mostly repeats the fine work of Miguel John Versluys and Molly Swetnam-Burland.

Several of his smaller arguments are not given enough space to be developed fully. The argument that Propertius and then Ovid alluded specifically to Vergil's representation of Octavian's triumph needed further proof and a closer reading (quotations throughout are given only in English): Merrill's allusive argument depends on shared snake imagery, but does not mention that Ovid's word-choice for snake (serpens) differs from both Vergil's (anguis) and Propertius' (coluber); as it stands, Anubis and sistra do not prove Ovid's or Propertius' debt to Aeneid 8 and Octavian's triumphs rather than popular Isiac iconography. Other textual arguments are also overstated. That the Augustan poets established the seven-mouth Nile topos depends on an all-too-summary dismissal of the Greek tradition as overly complicated. Diodorus might offer caveats about additional mouths or canals, but he nevertheless gives the Nile seven mouths (1.33.5: ἐξίησι δ' εἰς τὴν θάλατταν ἑπτὰ στόμασιν).

While the inclusion of an Egyptian perspective has been badly needed in work on the Nile's reception, Merrills' discussion of the Nile in Egyptian religion bit off more than it could chew. His argument that Egyptian cosmogonies made a minimal impact on Roman authors would have been more persuasive had he engaged with a specific cosmogony. A discussion of the Hermopolitan Cosmogony and its frog zoomorphism would have built nicely on the chapter's discussion both of the half-born life created by the inundation and of Seneca's coordination of Nile inundation and watery cataclysm; even more so as the Hapy iconography mentioned by Merrills often depicted him holding a frog.4

These caveats notwithstanding, Merrills' overall contribution to our appreciation of Rome's many different geographies remains substantial. His goal of opening our eyes to the swathe of Nile geographies is well met, and his recalibration of the authority of different geographic media is a welcome breath of fresh air.


1.   Merrills relies particularly on: Versluys, M. J. 2002. Aegyptiaca Romana. Nilotic Scenes and the Roman Views of Egypt (Leiden; Boston); Tracy, J. 2014. Lucan's Egyptian Civil War (Cambridge); Manolaraki, E. 2013. Noscendi Nilum Cupido: Imagining Egypt from Lucan to Philostratus (Berlin); Swetnam-Burland, M. 2015. Egypt in Italy. Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture (Cambridge).
2.   Translated into English as Nicolet, C. 1991. Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. Jerome Lectures 19 (Ann Arbor, MI).
3.   Janni, P. 1984. La Mappa e il Periplo. Cartografia antica e spazio odologico (Rome).
4.   On both of which, see Houlihan, P. F. 2001. "Frogs," in D. B. Redford, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. I (Oxford): 563.

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