Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2016
Jaś Elsner and Michel Meyer, eds. Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 524 pp.; 129 b/w ills. Cloth $115.00 (9781107000711)

Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, edited by Jaś Elsner and Michel Meyer, makes a case for a prescriptive approach to the understanding of Roman visual culture. This prescription is outlined in Meyer’s preface and Elsner’s introduction. Both propose the model of Aristotle’s tripartite division of rhetoric into speaker (ethos), audience (pathos), and speech (logos) as the framework for the analysis of visual material. The preface defines the distinctive qualities of Roman as being more declamatory than argumentative—as in Greek rhetoric—which then allows for the inclusion of visual material: “Art is a way of displaying without debating” (xix).

Elsner argues that using the Aristotelian system to understand Roman art has the value of employing an ancient intellectual construction. That goal is surely important, although it is unclear if explorations by ancient or modern constructs are mutually exclusive. The complexity of the audience’s possible experiences of visual material in potential contrast with the reception of a text is broached with the example of the Arch of Titus. The ordering and relatively easier selectivity of viewing constitute a serious divergence from the more determinative arrangement characteristic of textual reception. That said, Elsner is not willing to remove from the work of art all authority over viewing. Rather, he asks how does one examine the operational structure of a visual object that is true to the distinctive ways in which objects work; what kinds of texts can function as rhetorical comparanda to objects; is the structure of visual rhetoric circumscribed by textual models; and does the application of the rhetorical model lead to results not achievable otherwise?

The essays are grouped into four thematic sections, the first being “Architecture and Public Space.” Edmund Thomas’s “On the Sublime in Architecture” is among the most far-reaching contributions; it begins strategically with architecture, where the metaphorical affiliation with rhetorical language is familiar. Thomas then moves that relationship beyond the metaphorical with the observation that both function as systems of expression. He illustrates the point by noting the influence of ancient texts on Early Modern architecture, to argue that, citing Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, while architecture is spatial and rhetoric is temporal, nevertheless the arts of text can be experienced spatially and the objects temporally. Thomas does not force the point, as the extension of the relationship between the verbal and visual beyond metaphor remains open to debate, and the Early Modern employment of rhetorical terms tends to be “descriptions of thinking about buildings” (46). Thomas further analyzes the blending of rhetorical with architectural, reinforcing his argument with the impact pseudo-Longinus’s first-century CE On the Sublime made on Baroque architecture. Texts contemporary with On the Sublime provide further support for seeing the architecture of the late first century onward as embodying rhetorical aesthetics.

Francesco De Angelis’s “Sublime, Histories, Exceptional Viewers: Trajan’s Column and Its Visibility” focuses on how the frieze, given its design and the spatial setting, could have been a successful communicative structure. Roman literary texts provide the evidence here, reflecting broader intellectual structures that contrast the function of the large-scale against the small. The small-scaled or the detailed (ἀκρίβεια) fails to contribute to grandeur in a literary, hence also visual, work; but the small-scaled can apply to precision and accuracy. The presented texts support a distinction: for visual monuments, the smaller-scaled correlates with the human rather than the divine. The absence of attention in ancient texts to this famous frieze is perhaps of little diagnostic value for the function of the column, as authors at the time very rarely acknowledged relief sculptures, but this does not detract from the conclusion that the column by its setting and scale evokes the sense of grandeur, while the reliefs assert the accurate documentation of historical events.

By contrast, Jennifer Trimble’s “Corpore enormi: The Rhetoric of Physical Appearance in Suetonius and Imperial Portrait Statuary” takes up the application of the tripartite rhetorical structure to explore the inconsistency between how Suetonius describes emperors and how sculptors depict them. Here, the rhetorical structure applied to the visual material is not derived from texts; of particular interest is how Trimble applies those divisions to the phenomenon of a visual object. For example, where statues were installed and how they were seen in situ are described as aspects of pathos. But if the place of installation were a decision of the creator or perhaps culturally dictated, it would seem to be more accurately described as the ethos. The situation is even more complex where Trimble argues that “logos will prove to be interwoven with pathos” (145). Clearly, the coordination of rhetorical and visual systems is still a dynamic issue.

Eve D’Ambra’s “Beauty and the Roman Female Portrait” also broaches the application of the rhetorical frame, but arrives quite separately at its conclusion that a portrait proclaims the ethos of the represented individual. The essay relies largely on visual evidence, with some literary references illustrating Roman attitudes concerning the messages about social status an audience might draw from elaborate coiffures. Although the rhetorical framework is far less in evidence in this discussion than in Trimble’s, both leave one to consider to what degree the same conclusions might have been reached even in the absence of that framework.

The book’s second section, “The Domestic Realm,” begins with Katharina Lorenz’s “The Casa del Menandro in Pompeii: Rhetoric and the Topology of Roman Wall Painting.” Using the house’s paintings as the case study, Lorenz asks whether, or to what degree, there is a difference in the sequence by which the audience can experience a visual as opposed to textual work, and what the effects of such variant sequences are. She draws on Quintilian’s rhetorical text to caution against applying to images the linear assumption of reading texts. While the same figures recommended in the rhetorical manuals appear in the paintings, there is with the paintings a greater complexity devolving from the different sequences in which they could be viewed.

In some respects Verity Platt’s “Agamemnon’s Grief: On the Limits of Expression in Roman Rhetoric and Painting” inverts the question of how visual arts might conform to the framework of rhetoric. Platt is interested in rhetorical tracts’ metaphorical use of painting imagery to address theoretical issues in rhetoric itself. The mimetic forces of painting are treated thusly as exempla of the desire of rhetoric to persuade by artifice. The implication is that painting and rhetoric share a common intellectual position in their need to persuade.

Barbara E. Borg’s “Rhetoric and Art in Third-Century AD Rome” opens the next section, “The Funerary.” Her essay does not attempt to construct a correspondence between visual material and rhetorical texts, but asserts that as visual artists employ strategies to direct an audience’s interpretation of a subject—a “visual rhetoric”—they share a goal with rhetoricians. Borg investigates the change in the handling of mythological narrative in third-century CE sarcophagi, as sculptors manipulated the stories to place new emphasis on the status and character of the deceased whose portraits were inserted into these scenes. This aesthetic stands in contrast to contemporary ekphrases by Philostratus that invest in verisimilitude. Related second-century mythological sarcophagi are addressed in Zahra Newby’s essay, “Poems in Stone: Reading Mythological Sarcophagi through Statius’s Consolations,” which argues for an identifiable commonality of purpose between the first-century CE poet Statius and these images. The shared consolatory persuasion found in the poetry and the handling of mythological stories is the rhetorical link. Borg’s and Newby’s essays illustrate the range of rhetorical texts as well as their varied relationships with images.

Carolyn Vout’s “The Funerary Altar of Pedana and the Rhetoric of Unreachability” posits that images, as things that seek to persuade, are inherently rhetorical. At the same time, they function differently than texts. The essay applies Jacques Derrida’s aporia of “undecidability” to consider the category of funeral monuments and, then, a single altar. These objects commemorate the dead while visually presenting them, thereby inexorably drawing attention to what Vout calls their “unreachability.” In the case of the altar of Pedana, this conundrum is further forced by modern restoration and recutting of the image.

Elsner’s own contribution, “Rational, Passionate and Appetitive: The Psychology of Rhetoric and the Transformation of Visual Culture from Non-Christian to Christian Sarcophagi in the Roman World,” aims to define the shift in Late Imperial and Early Christian sarcophagi imagery not simply in terms of iconography, but also in the rhetorical strategies involved. Contemporary rhetorical treatises provide connections to the tripartite rhetorical model, and Elsner is particularly attentive to the psychological intent of their operative arguments. In the rhetorical treatises of Early Christianity there is an increased emphasis on blame (psogos) as a way to distinguish Christian identity from the pagan. Elsner detects the same process in the selection of Biblical scenes for sarcophagi to polemicize and warn against temptations, while illustrating, often typologically, Christian identity.

The concluding section, “Rhetoric and the Visual,” begins with Michael Squire’s “The ordo of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Order,” which considers the issue of narrative order (ordo) in relation both to texts and visual work such as the early imperial Tabulae Iliacae—which nonlinearly depict Homeric text and images. Paintings in the Casa di Octavius Quarto, with their perplexing narrative sequencing, provide the visual comparanda for similar experimentation with ordo. Readers are invited to wonder, as with Lorenz’s discussion of the Casa del Menandro paintings, whether for a viewer, ancient or modern, any proposed order of reading is falsifiable; method becomes everything. Squire returns ancient fascination with Homeric narrative order to Virgil’s Aeneid without losing the visual thread by examining that poet’s ekphrastic practices.

Meyer’s “Coda: The Rhetoric of Roman Painting within the History of Culture: A Global Interpretation” reflects on the entire volume, but also attempts something more sweeping. The essay addresses the natures of each of the Four Styles of Roman painting through the later first-century CE in service of the broader goal of contextualizing how Roman art fits into a larger art-historical continuum. Drawing a distinction between the “figurativity” and realism of answers in History (in its configuration by Hegel), Meyer proposes to account for how art changes in response to societal problems. He argues that by the end of the first-century CE, Roman painting had lost its stylistic imagination, using as analogies the histories of Italian Renaissance painting and opera as manifestations of the extended operation of the “figurativity”/realism duality. Such an explanation for the radical change in painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century as an epiphenomenon of the loss of figurative (as defined here) vitality is interesting; however, the answer that the response was the invention of opera rather than new directions taken in painting pleads for greater historical evidence and argument.

Given the various applications of the rhetorical prescription to visual art in this volume, one might say that a single author approach would likely provide more consistency, but it would not accurately reflect either the real challenges of such an approach or the sheer range of discovery it can provide. Few readers would object to the premise that there is a kind of visual rhetoric, however much its nature and workings are still vitally debated. Advanced scholars of Roman art therefore surely will benefit from this volume.

Brian Madigan
Associate Professor, History of Art, Wayne State University

Please send comments about this review to