CJ Online Review: Trimble, Women and Visual Replication

posted with permission:

Women and Visual Replication in Roman Imperial Art and Culture. By Jennifer Trimble. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xi + 486. Hardcover, £79.00/$125.00. ISBN 978-0-521-82515-3.

Reviewed by Antony Augoustakis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jennifer Trimble has produced a compelling study of the Roman portrait statue of the second century ce known as the “Large Herculaneum Woman” and its variations, of which she surveys 202 examples. The statues “represented individual women but replicated the same body from the neck down, recreating the same stance, the same gesture, the same elaborate drapery folds” (1). Trimble suggests that this book is about visual representation, sameness and otherness, social relations, the Roman empire and imperial practices, and, of course, Roman women. But then again with certain limitations: only adult women are represented; these statues are common in some regions of the vast empire, and ultimately they do a poor job of replicating women. The study aims to explain such paradoxes, often despite the limitative nature of the evidence (most of the statues are fragmentary), and I believe it does a good job.

After an Introduction, the first chapter looks at the origins of these statues, three of which were discovered in a well near Portici in 1711: the Large type and two Small Herculaneum Woman type statues (all dated to before 79 ce). Trimble rightly interrogates previous assumptions by pointing to some intriguing facts: the Large type was spread in the second century ce in the eastern Empire and Italy, it was used for display in public, urban spaces, and it was employed to honor the woman, not the sculptor or the Greek prototype. How do we explain then the replication and continuity of a type of statue in shifting historical and social circumstances from one century to the next?

Chapter 2 directs our attention to the questions of production. These statues were made in bronze and marble (the former do not survive). Where? Trimble delves into quarrying practices in the Imperial period: for instance, emphasis was laid on efficiency and speed, and there was also a wealth of prefabricated forms, which were then finished according to need. No Large Herculaneum Woman statues have been found in quarries though: as Trimble concludes, the semantics of “finished” vary according to perspective: for the quarries, the statues were finished when stockpiled as unshaped blocks (perhaps half-finished); for the cities, the statues were “finished” locally when they were ready to be installed in public spaces.

In the third chapter, Trimble investigates questions of distribution and looks at the finishing workshops involved. The period witnessed the expansion of marble trade, and here one can locate certain practices regarding local tastes and consumption, destination markets and shipping. Since the Large type left the quarries usually roughed out, Trimble examines the finishing workshops that undertook the next phase of the project. By observing similarities and differences among these statues, what can we gather regarding local demands and taste: different tunics, varying details of the mantle, different folds, or even same fronts but different backs.

The reader will surely find Chapters 4 and 5 to be the most rewarding in the book. The first one is dedicated to issues of portraiture: head, body, and inscription on the base. As expected, bodies are not individualized but rather idealized, formulaic, as opposed to the facial features and the hairstyle which vary. There are those statues, however, where the head is generic or replicated, with classicizing hairstyles and faces. As Trimble suggests, this flexibility in assemblage between head and body can be explained only by looking at the whole final product, including the inscriptional base (seven of which survive). Among the inscriptions some common themes emerge as topoi: the city’s patronage, the immediate family members, Greek ethnicity and/or Roman citizenship, stereotypical (female) virtues (arete, sophrosune, eusebeia). Visual representations help build or reinforce social identity, and Trimble persuasively points to the networks of social relationships constructed and extended by means of these (replicated) statues.

The use of space to display the sculpture is addressed in the fifth chapter, where Trimble takes into account the physical settings as well as the relationship formed among groups of statues meant to be viewed and received in specific contexts. The Large type is used for public, civic display with honorific purposes, namely in recognition of civic euergetism. Moreover, the sculptures becomes part of a koine of forms: they affirm membership “in a wider world of instantly recognizable visual forms, types of urban space, and kinds of social relationships” (257). In the same vein, in the penultimate Chapter 6, Trimble turns to those statues found far outside the canonical areas, away from the centers (Italy, Greece, Asia Minor), especially in the Danube region (Sarmizegetusa). Trimble interprets the statues as part of the koine which was spread by Imperial culture in the second century through the mechanisms of Romanization.

In Chapter 7, Trimble concludes with a survey of the possible reasons why the Large statue type stopped being made in the early third century: loss of demand is explained as the result of the statue’s inability to bestow special meaning and rank any longer.

The volume’s 95-page catalogue (360–456) is highly informative. To be sure, Trimble’s book is to be recommended for its thorough treatment of the subject and for its insightful and challenging views on a very interesting type of female statues.

Discarding Babies at Poggio Civitate?

Another bit of coverage from the AIA shindig … from the Daily Mail:

Baby bones found scattered on the ground at a seventh century workshop have hinted at an unexpected callousness towards child deaths among Romans.

Two bones and skull fragment were found lying on the floor among the remains of pigs, goats and sheep.

Another bone, that of a baby’s arm, was simply swept up against a wall along with all the other debris being brushed away from the ground around a villa.

The bones could be from up to four infants who are thought to have died shortly before or after they were born.

The findings, suggests a US archaeologist, shows that the death of infants in parts of Roman society may have been treated with rather less ceremony and respect than was accorded adults.

Bone fragments from babies were found over several years during excavations at the settlement of Poggio Civitate, about 15 miles from the modern city of Siena in Italy

Anthony Tuck, an archaeologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Archaeological Institute of America that it was likely the babies were discarded without any ritual.

‘We have the remains of one or several human infants, scattered over a relative small area that also preserves abundant evidence for bustling industrial and economic activity,’ he said.

‘In neither area do we see any suggestion whatsoever that any ritual treatment was accorded these remains.

‘Instead, they were simply either left on the floor of the workshop or ended up in an area with a heavy concentration of other discarded remains of butchered animals.’

While the Poggio Civitate settlement dates back almost 2,800 years, the bones were found in a section that was occupied during the seventh century AD when there was a lavish home and an open-air 170-feet long pavilion that was used as a workshop.

Two of the baby bones were located in the workshop area where bronze was cast and terracotta tiles, ceramics and other materials were manufactured.

He said the finds could indicated the parents, perhaps slaves or servants, who worked in the workshop were considered too lowly for their tragedy to be taken any notice by the wider community.

The arm bone found brushed up against a wall could similarly have been from a low-grade family.

Dr Tuck said that if the child belonged to the wealthy family who lived in the villa it would further emphasise the lack of impact a young child’s death might have had among the Romans.

He added: ‘These examples of neonatal infants at Poggio Civitate appear to have been treated in a manner that suggests the death of very young children did not provoke any formal ritual response whatsoever.

‘Whether this is an effect of parental social status or a phenomenon common to all early deaths, we cannot yet say with any certainty.

‘Nevertheless, we hope that continued examination of the osteological assemblage from Poggio Civitate may help lend clarity to this and a number of related questions concerning social status at the site.

Death in infancy would have been common in the seventh century and few signs of infant burial have been detected in central Italy at this time, suggesting they were disposed of with little ceremony.

Those burials of infants that have been found are usually accompanied by ornaments and jewellery indicative of coming from a wealthy family.

Attitudes that might appear callous in the twenty-first century could make sense in a society where extreme poverty and high infant mortality were common.

He added in his address to the Archaeological Institute of America: ‘A very high rate of infant mortality perhaps produced a response similar to that studied by Nancy Scheper-Hughes of modern women suffering under extreme economic and social duress in Brazilian slums.

‘In this environment, the all too common death of infants is met with relatively limited emotional responses in most cases.

‘Moreover, we ought not imagine ourselves in the western, developed world as very far removed from such responses.

‘In fact, it was not until the reforms of the Vatican II council in 1962 that priests of the Roman Catholic church were allowed to wear black vestments while conducting funerals for children under the age of three.’

He told MailOnline: ‘There is definitely a tendency – especially when working in a region like Tuscany – to romanticize the past.

‘That, coupled with a very real sense of incomprehension a lot of modern, western viewers import into such casual treatment of infants, certainly can upset people.

‘In fact, quite a few people simply reject the notion and refuse to talk about it. But the evidence is as it is and I think the best thing we can do is present it, confront it and discuss it.’

… the DM piece has the usual spate of photographs to highlight the story and, despite the sensationalizing title, really isn’t generalizing that this was a ‘feature’ of Roman society. Whatever the case, folks will want to read the commentary of Kristina Killgrove on this one: Baby Bones Were Trash to Romans (Powered by Osteons).

d.m. Zvi Yavetz

from Ynet:

Distinguished historian Professor Zvi Yavetz, who was the 1990 Israel Prize for Humanities laureate, died Tuesday. He was 88-years-old.

Yavetz, who co-founded the Tel Aviv University, was a world renowned historian, and received honorary doctorates from various universities worldwide.

Born in 1925 in Chernovitz, now in southwestern Ukraine, he lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He managed to escape Romania in 1944, with 20 other Jewish refugees. He was able to arrive in then-British ruled Palestine later that year.

At the age of 29, just after finishing his doctorate, he was asked to help form Tel Aviv University. In 1956 he was named head of the general history department and dean of the Humanities Faculty in TAU.

He would later become instrumental in the founding of the colleges at Beit Berl and in Tel Chai. In 1960, at the government’s request, he traveled to Ethiopia, where he helped found the Faculty of Humanities at the Addis Ababa University.

Specializing in the history of ancient Rome, Yavetz penned dozens of books and articles including a series focusing on the Roman emperors: Augustus, Julius Caesar, Caligula and Tiberius, Cicero, Claudius and Nero.

“He’ll be remembered as an extremely charismatic man, sharp and funny. He had a phenomenal memory and he was a compelling public speaker,” one of his colleagues said Tuesday.

Prof. Zvi Yavetz will be laid to rest on Thursday at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak.

Classical Words of the Day


This Day in Ancient History: ante diem v idus januarias

ante diem v idus januarias

  • Agonalia — one of four dies agonales during which the Rex Sacrorum would sacrifice a ram in the Regia; on this occasion apparently in honour of Janus.
  • 250 A.D. — martyrdom of Felix and companions in Africa
  • 302 A.D. — martyrdom of Julian and companions at Antioch
  • c. 303 A.D. — martyrdom of Marciana at Caesarea (Mauretania)