Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2004
David Fredrick, ed. The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 352 pp.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $47.00 (0801869617)
Thumbnail

This edited volume of essays attests to Classicists’ recent engagement with contemporary theory. Despite its foundations in empirical scholarship, the field of Classics has been advanced by feminist thought, along with poststructural critiques of vision and power. Not all Classicists have welcomed these developments, of course, and theory per se still rouses suspicions of trendiness and contributes to a general decline in the discipline, according to those with little patience for the challenges launched by these studies. Some literary scholars have embraced theoretical methods for the study of intertextuality, for example, although Classical art historians and archaeologists as a group remain resolutely unconcerned by the question of the gaze (although there are some notable exceptions).

In a volume of collected essays, the introduction usually serves up broad statements of purpose and ties the various offerings together. In The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body, the editor’s introduction does considerably more by giving a sweeping account of Western thought on visuality and the body as it pertains to the study of Classical antiquity. David Fredrick argues that Rome has been overlooked by theorists who tend to lump it with Greece as the Mediterranean prehistory of the modern world. For students of ancient Rome, he continues, this is indeed troubling. Feminist film theory finds a continuing Western tradition of the gaze that begins in the early Renaissance, not earlier. The history of the body, on the other hand, allows for the varying conditions of diverse cultures and periods, but tends to view representation on the body as text or discourse rather than lived experience. To combine these two traditions, Fredrick contends, is a difficult and tricky task, but was taken on successfully by Andrew Stewart in his Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). In a different line, Amy Richlin has countered Foucauldian notions about similarity and difference between Greece and Rome, and antiquity and modernity (“Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3:4 (1993): 523–73). Fredrick sets out the rich, highly nuanced debates in his substantial and thoughtful introduction, which could be used as a primer on the literature for the uninitiated. Terminology is succinctly explained, background is supplied, and broad trajectories are kept in mind in this brief guide to gaze theory and body history.

The essays contribute models of theoretical analysis on literary topics (Seneca, Lucan, Lucretius, and Lucian) and art-historical ones (relief sculpture, wall painting, architecture, and urban space). Other chapters focus on related subjects of importance to art historians: the deportment of political players in the late Republic, the protocol of modesty involved in seeing and being seen, and fragmented points of view and multiple points of identification offered by works of art. Zahra Newby analyzes connections between the Spada reliefs and different ways of viewing inspired by rhetorical education. The eight marble panels depicting Greek myth have been studied as an example of a decorative program, but Newby teases out a relationship between viewers and works of art based on the Hellenic intellectual revival known as the Second Sophistic. (Her essay can be a bit ponderous, which may be a reflection of its compact structure.) The analysis provides a cultural context in the idyllic retreats, the villas owned by elite patrons in the high empire. John Clarke turns to paintings of sexual couplings in the changing room of the Suburban Baths at Pompeii. Defying codes of conduct, the sexuality depicted in the painted scenes would have been seen as over-the-top to Roman viewers, especially those well versed in elite texts. According to Clarke, bathers would laugh at the scenes in response to the awkwardness at gazing upon such explicit acts and to their own vulnerability disrobing in the baths (exposing themselves to the evil eye). Humor exempts the paintings from the more banal charges of pornography (yet some humor, beyond the grotesque, is hard to translate). The Suburban Baths accommodated patrons of the lower social order (though some may have been fairly well-to-do) whose tastes ranged from raunchy sexual mimes to the pleasures of a steam and a soak.

Fredrick’s essay considers public and private spaces (the amphitheater, Forum of Augustus, and elite dwellings) in terms of the social status and view of visitors. He aims to question the mastery of the gaze that possesses and penetrates others in public spectacles and rituals of hospitality. The Romans’ complex social hierarchy allowed for subtle gradations in subject positions, which corresponded to the experience of the space and movement through it (and what one sees). Anthony Corbeill turns to the political orators in the Forum whose gait and gestures signified their affiliations. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus gives Corbeill a method to demonstrate that appearances counted and were not easily counterfeited, as Cicero astutely observed. The science of posture and gesture ought to illuminate depictions of the human figure, especially the statues of politicians and generals that cluttered the fora of Roman cities.

The essays in this volume are ambitious and provocative to read. Intended for scholars and graduate students in the fields of Classics and art history, they may also be appropriate to advanced undergraduates in Roman art courses. The most stimulating chapters are those that reflect the interdisciplinary aspects of the field of Roman studies, which lie at the heart of the best of the recent scholarship. In these essays, the self-consciousness about method has broad applications for the field at large. 

Eve D’Ambra
Department of Art, Vassar College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.