My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Upon my return home from a five-week stint in Rome on research, I wanted a little something to beef up my knowledge of the art that I saw there, since that’s where my knowledge of the ancient world is not as strong in other areas, like old-fashioned ‘history’, or literature, or even philosophy. I chose this book because I’ve read some of the series’ volume Early Medieval Art by Lawrence Nees and liked it. Furthermore, this book covers the periods I most wanted to investigate — from the High Empire in the 100s through Late Antiquity, ending in AD 450. This is the period when most of Rome’s remaining monuments were erected, and it’s also the period I research.
I thought the book would move chronologically, but it did not. Instead, Elsner takes you through the centuries thematically. The book is divided into three major themes, each of which is further subdivided into different facets of Roman art. The intellectual superstructure of the entire book is the consideration of how art in the Roman world interacts with society, culture, government. How do the changes in the thoughtlife and politics of the era, from the Second Sophistic to the rise of Christianity, from the Good Emperors to the ‘Crisis’, then the Tetrarchy and beyond, impact art? What roles does art play in ‘private’? Is the Roman world ever private? How does the movement of poltical gravity from Rome to the frontiers influence the style and scale of art?
While certain of these questions are addressed head-on as the main subjects of the chapters, they all permeate the book at one level or another throughout. As a result, this volume is not a collection of essays by Elsner, each of which touches upon a different aspect of 250 years of art history. Instead, we have a coherent whole that presents Roman art in a comprehensible manner as one facet of a major, changing society.
In line with so much research in the past few decades in various aspects of the later Roman world, Elsner does not see a grand break from classicism in emergent and early ‘triumphant’ Christian art. Elements of classicism persist into the Middle Ages, while some aspects associated with Late Antique and Christian art are present in the second and third centuries, let alone the pre-Constantinian tetrarchy as well as the art of the fourth-century polytheist Symmachus. Christianity certainly had its own contributions to make to art, given its relationship to text, its monotheism, its drive for theological precision, its status as a formerly persecuted sect; but these factors worked alongside the factors of the classical world to create a new development, not a rupture.
I withhold one star first because I wasn’t sure about all of Elsner’s comments and (perceived) attitudes towards imperial Christianity, and second because he maintains the Second Sophistic in the second century AD as the period when Romans consciously adopted a Hellenistic culture, taking on Greek rather than Roman mythology and philosophy and all that goes with it. To give but one contrary example (I believe many abound), given the interaction of Catullus (d. 54 BC) with Hellenistic poetry, it does not strike me that the Second Sophistic is when Rome assimilated herself into the Hellenistic world. Perhaps, rather, it is the full flowering of that assimilation?