Tag Archives: jas elsner

Scholars of later Rome know earlier Rome, too

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

I was thinking about how a certain amount of knowledge of earlier Rome is an important ingredient in being able to interpret the Later Roman Empire and the fall of its western portion. As my previous post about the Age of Augustus observes, knowing Augustus helps you interpret Constantine.

This point illustrates itself very well in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. In order to demonstrate that the sort of complex society and economy that typified the Roman world ceased to exist as a result of the dismemberment and manslaughter of the western Roman Empire at the hands of invading barbarians, Ward-Perkins had to marshal the evidence for just such a complex society. By showing what sort of economy and standards of living people had before the fall of the Roman Empire, Ward-Perkins is able to show us the final years of Late Antiquity and on into the Early Middle Ages were less economically stable with a lower standard of living.

But you need the evidence from earlier, imperial Rome to be able to do that.

For example, to discuss common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire, you need evidence of common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire. And Ward-Perkins finds it, from Pompeii to Britain.

If your concern is not the fall of Rome, the rest of the Roman world is still important for understanding Late Antiquity. One of the realities that stands out in late antique Latin verse, for example, is its awareness that it is not ‘classical’. Even if they might at times wish to rival the greats of the past, the poets of the Later Roman Empire know that they live in a different age. There is perceptible distance between them and Virgil, and they make it known.

If you don’t know Virgil, it is much harder to interpret Prudentius and Claudian, let alone Macrobius.

If you don’t know Cicero, Jerome is harder. If you don’t know Livy, Augustine’s City of God is interpreted differently. And on it goes.

Furthermore, Elsner’s art history book Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph makes an important point about the monumental art of Late Antiquity — it has models and precursors from the High Empire, at least as early as Antoninus Pius. That is to say — reading Late Antiquity as a hermetically-sealed cultural entity will miss the connections it has with the Roman past.

I do hope this is no surprise for anyone else who studies Roman history! It would be a great shame if colleagues who study Republican Rome or the empire from Augustus to the third century thought we knew nothing of those epochs of the grand Roman story. It is also worth mulling over if you want to get into the history and culture of the Later Roman Empire — how well do you know what came before it? This, I think, has sometimes contributed to some of the clashes over interpreting the fall of the West.

Anyway, we late Romanists enjoy the rest of Roman history! It’s part of our education and training, essential to our research.

Review: Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450

Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire Ad 100-450Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire Ad 100-450 by Jas Elsner

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?

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