On ancient cities as museums

One of the few work-related advantages of living in a small village nine miles away from Oxford is that the forty-minute bus trip each morning and evening gives me a lot of time for reading. I know that a few weeks ago I was moaning about the sheer amount of scholarship researchers in the humanities are now forced to grapple with but I wouldn’t be doing the work I do if I didn’t greatly enjoy reading about ancient history and archaeology. After spending the last few years teaching and having my reading load largely determined by what I was required to cover in lectures and seminars it’s great to have the freedom to get stuck into some good books on topics more closely connected to my research interests.

This week I’ve been engrossed in the recent publication by Steven Rutledge, “Ancient Rome as a Museum”. In the book Rutledge uses theories from modern museum studies to explore what the vast array of what he calls “cultural property” on display in ancient Rome – paintings, statues, ancient weapons, tapestries, silverware etc. – can tell us about Roman identity and structures of power within the city. A recurrent issue in the work is the way that the meaning of such artefacts was heavily dependent on setting – where they could be seen and how they were grouped together – which is a central concern of my own research into the public monuments of Roman Greece. Indeed much of Rutledge’s “cultural property” falls into the category of what I would call monuments.

Of course Rome was a very different place than the Greek poleis I’m dealing with. By the late Republic/early Empire – the period covered by my research and the period when most of Rutledge’s evidence clusters – Rome was the capital of an Empire spanning three continents and a city with probably close to a million inhabitants. While most of what we nowadays tend to call cities in ancient Greece were home to no more than a few thousand or tens of thousands of people, Rome came close to fitting our modern expectations of what a city should be like, at least in terms of scale.

In terms of the sheer amount of statuary and cultural bric-a-brac on display in its public spaces and buildings, however, Rome, like the cities of Greece would have looked rather odd to a modern viewer. A few days ago I read, in a different book, an estimate that by the 3rd Century AD there may have been as many as 500,000 statues in Rome, which would be one for every three of the million and a half inhabitants! Throughout its long history Rome had accumulated a fascinatingly diverse array of monuments and public artworks. Some had originally been erected in Rome itself but, by the time of the emperors, the vast majority of cultural treasure to be seen was comprised of artefacts taken from elsewhere, and in particular from the Greek world, whether captured as war booty or acquired through trade from conquered peoples.

From the late 3rd to the late 1st century BC as the Romans worked their way clockwise around the Mediterranean absorbing the old Hellenistic kingdoms into their expanding Empire they brought increasing amounts of Greek statuary and other artwork back to adorn the city of Rome. By the time of the first emperor, Augustus, Rome could boast sculpture and paintings by some of the most famous artists of Greece’s glorious Classical past including Pheidias (he made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, reckoned among the so-called Seven Wonders of the World), Praxiteles (famous for being the first artist to sculpt Aphrodite in the nude) and Zeuxis (a painter whose painted grapes were so realistic that birds flew down to eat them). None of the works by these great masters that adorned the city have survived but we are informed about them in literary sources such as Pliny’s Natural History, a book written in the mid 1st century AD, which has a strong claim to be the world’s first, or at least the earliest surviving, encyclopaedia.

One of the more wondrous monuments to have been lost to us, in my opinion, was a set of twenty-five statues of warriors on horseback commissioned by Alexander the Great to commemorate his comrades who had fallen at the Battle of Granicus by his favourite sculptor Lysippos. The group had originally stood in the religious sanctuary of Dion in Macedonia (incidentally a site with extremely impressive Roman period remains and well worth a visit) and was shipped back to Rome in the mid 2nd century BC by the victorious general who annexed the region as a Roman province. Possibly the weirdest monument to have stood in the city was another mounted statue, again by Lysippos, of Alexander himself, whose portrait features were remodelled to look like Julius Caesar while the front hooves of the horse were refashioned to look like human feet because that’s what Caesar’s horse was supposed to have looked like!

Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like
Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like

I must admit that when I first heard about Rutledge’s book I was suspicious that I wouldn’t agree with its central argument because of the word “museum” in the title and because of the way that that word has been used to describe what happened to the public spaces of Greek cities in the period of Roman rule. In researching the transformation of the Greek agora (main public square) in Hellenistic and Roman times for my PhD thesis I frequently came across scholars pronouncing that the agora at that time became more and more like a museum, by which they meant that it gradually ceased to be the vibrant public square it had been in earlier periods.

Saying that agoras became like museums implied a number of things and none of them good: firstly agoras had become so cluttered with statues and other monuments that there was little room for the exciting types of human interactions that had taken place there in the Classical period; furthermore, a lot of these monuments were in honour of local oligarchs or Roman Empires and therefore symbolised the decline of democracy and a reduced role in political life for the ordinary citizen; finally, the interest bestowed upon older monuments was a symptom of a backward looking culture sapped of its earlier vitality.

Until very recently there was very little comparative research into the Hellenistic and Roman agora at all and such conclusions were generally tacked on to the end of discussions about the Classical agora, which was glorified as the quintessential public space, where people of different backgrounds rubbed shoulders, where politics was fervently debated, where philosophical conflicts were played out and where new ideas came into existence. To say that in later periods the agora became like a museum implied that it had very little in common with the famous Classical Athenian Agora where Socrates had harangued the citizens and democracy had been born.

My thesis, which I’m now working into book form for publication, is an argument against this interpretation. It aims to show that the agora remained a dynamic public space until well into Roman times and that it is worth looking at issues such as how people interacted on the agora, at the public discourse surrounding behaviour on the agora, at public violence and the transformation of the built environment of the space itself because to do so can deepen our understanding of the nature of polis society.

The number of monuments in public spaces might have increased under the Empire but this didn’t mean that these spaces became like museums because the display of monuments was never the primary purpose of these spaces. Except for a few tourists, people didn’t go to the agora to stroll around gazing at monuments, they went there to shop, to barter, to witness public trials, to worship the gods at temples and to talk with friends. The fact that this activity was taking place surrounded by statues that numbered in their hundreds raises fascinating questions about the impact these monuments had on day-to-day life at this time. I’ve already used the analogy in an earlier post but try imagining what it would be like if your local supermarket or leisure centre were cluttered with statues and you can begin to appreciate just how different these cities were from our own.

So, it was with this prejudice against the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums that I began Rutledge’s book. It soon became apparent, however, that his use of the word “museum” implies none of the negative connotations that I’d encountered in scholarship on the agora. The book is interested in the way in which the meaning of monuments and other cultural property were transformed and reshaped to suit the interests of the present as the balance of power within the city shifted – first as competing generals and politicians struggled with each other for influence in the declining years of the Republic and then as successive Emperors sought to stamp their authority on the city and Empire. Rutledge’s museum city is very much a living place. I would have liked to have seen perhaps a little more attention for the types of things people did in the spaces where different kinds of cultural property were displayed but that wasn’t Rutledge’s main concern and the scope of the book in terms of the evidence amassed and the range of issues discussed is already impressive enough.

Rutledge’s book is a fascinating read and, as I expected, very useful for my project, both in terms of thinking about how I’m approaching my topic, and by providing a wealth of insight into the impact of artworks on the urban experience in Rome, which will help me tackle the rather thorny problem of potential Roman influence on how the Greeks dealt with their material heritage under the Empire. In my next piece I’m going to talk about an issue that I hadn’t really given much thought before but which occurred to me while reading the book – the way in which the Romans and the Greeks seem to have developed separate and quite distinct traditions of erecting honorific portrait statues and what this meant for the practice of setting up such statues once Greece became part of the Roman Empire.


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