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Roman Empire: Power and People

Roman Empire: Power and People opens this Saturday 21st September at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in partnership with the British Museum.

Roman Empire: Power and People brings together over 160 stunning pieces from the British Museum to explore the story of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Highlights include sculpture from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, coins from the famous Hoxne treasure, beautiful jewellery and even near-perfectly preserved children’s clothing from Roman Egypt.

The exhibition explores the wealth, power and organisation of the Empire, but also how the Romans viewed their provinces and other peoples. Religious, military and personal objects give an insight into the lives of people across the Empire, from northern Britain to Egypt and the Middle East.

Roman Empire: Power and PeopleThe book, Roman Empire: Power and People by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is available now from the British Museum Press. Ahead of the opening of the exhibition, we’ve published here an exclusive extract from this fascinating new publication.

“The Roman opinion of their barbarian foes, particularly the Celtic people of north-western Europe, written about in contemporary literature initially seems contradictory: by some authors they were portrayed as uncouth, untamed savages in dire need of the civilizing lessons of Rome; at other times they were noble, simple people with a brave spirit, unhampered by the complex pressures of Roman life and the softening character that came through luxury and comfort. As Caesar wrote in his Gallic Wars: ‘Of all of these tribes, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are the furthest removed from the civilization and elegance of the Province [Gallia Narbonensis], and because merchants visit them least often to import those things that effeminate the mind’ (Caesar, Gallic Wars 1.1). However, despite seeming incompatible, the two opinions worked in tandem: the barbarian way of life was not to be praised or emulated, but victory over an unworthy foe was not much to celebrate. Therefore, the bravery and fighting spirit of the barbarians was to be applauded and mentioned at every opportunity as a tool for increasing Roman pride as their conquerors.

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Bronze eagle found at the Romano-British town of Calleva (modern Silchester). Despite being the inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliff’s book The Eagle of the Ninth, it was probably not part of a military standard but rather may have come from a statue of Jupiter. Silchester, early 1st century AD. Bronze, H. 15 cm, L. 23 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Attitudes towards the peoples of the Hellenic and Persian worlds generally differed from feelings about those of the Celtic provinces. The Greeks were greatly admired by the Romans for their intellectual accomplishments, not to mention their art which the Roman elite imported and imitated with relish. However, they were generally seen as somewhat ‘soft’ –lacking the hard-nosed political acumen and military prowess on which the Romans prided themselves. To be seen as too much of a ‘philhellene’ (a lover of Greek culture) was, for a Roman, a sign of weak and soft character and an accusation often leveled at the emperor Hadrian who spent a great part of his reign in the Hellenic provinces and earned the nickname Graeculus (Little Greek).

Further east, Arabia held a particular fascination for Rome as the source of luxury goods such as spices and silks. For example, a beautiful bust shows a Persian woman wrapped tightly in a veil and wearing the distinctive curved Phrygian cap which characterized eastern people in Greek and Roman art. The immediately alien aspect of this figure demonstrates the hold that the east had on the imaginations of the people of Rome. However, she is carved in a classical style and her facial features appear European. The idealizing of foreigners expressed by this sculpture is also seen clearly in Roman images of Gallic and German foes and their actual resemblance to the people of these areas is highly doubtful.

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Marble bust of a woman wearing a Persian headdress. Rome, 2nd century AD. Marble, H. 69.9 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“…Like the images on coins, Roman art throughout the empire is filled with depictions of bound captives, or of Roman soldiers and emperors crushing foreign enemies physically under their feet or their horses’ hooves. It was one thing to set up such images at home in Rome, where, as with the arch of Claudius and Trajan’s Column, they fed an already inflated sense of cultural and moral superiority, but they also repeatedly appear in the conquered provinces themselves, visible to the very people they pertain to represent, broken and subdued. … In Aphrodisias, in modern Turkey, two brothers erected a monumental temple complex for the cult of the Roman emperor with depictions of all the nations that the Romans had conquered, as well as images of the emperors physically trampling their subjects.

… It is interesting to wonder how the native peoples of these areas responded to having such graphic reminders of their suppression erected right on their doorstep. Would these peoples have identified with the depictions of ‘barbarians’ that adorned these monuments, or did their exaggerated, caricatured features make them as alien to them as they were to the Romans? The relationship between Rome and the peoples whom it conquered was far more complex than simply winner and loser.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum. Roman Empire: Power and People, by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is published by the British Museum Press in paperback at £10.99. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Category: Ancient History, Archaeology, Autumn 2013

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