Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Manifestation of Power Via Art In the Roman Empire

San Rafael, CA


 I took an Art History class this semester that is now coming to an end. A theme in my life has developed over the past couple of years of being astonished at some of the things I've become interested in. Yoga is a total no brainer on the astonishment scale. I mean who would have ever predicted that? If you had told me I'd be teaching yoga in the near future when I was anchored not long ago in Bequia, I would have accused you of shopping for fruit as a cover at the Rasta Man Stand. He sold more than fruit. As an aside 
I am teaching class after class now, and loving it so.

Another pleasant surprise has been my Art History of the Greek & Roman World class. I give substantial credit to my professor, Heidi who is so dog gone passionate about the subject, that you just can't help but get swept up into her historical narrative. Art boring? NOT! I really learned a ton, and would have worn a Toga to class, but Dominican University has a Convent on the campus, and that would have been weird.

I wrote a paper about Roman power in Art after learning that the Saddam Hussein statue that was yanked down in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion in 2003 was inspired directly by the Romans. I started to do some more research, and I've come to learn almost all art is used to project messaging in some fashion. Anyway, below is the paper. Read it if you will or not. Maybe you'll see some connections. Jefferson's Monticello anyone?


Manifestation of Power Via Art In the Roman Empire

            Today the Roman Empire is discussed in the context of a once great empire, its spectacular fall spurred by unchecked pride. The inevitable comparison between contemporary America, and her apparent hubris leading to over reach. The breath, scope, achievements, and length of the Roman Empire are truly amazing. Like all giants, the Romans stood upon the shoulders of those who came before. This famous metaphor, “Standing on the shoulder of giants,” was propelled into our modern lexicon by Sir Isaac Newton in 1676. However, the first usage of this metaphor stretches back to ancient mythological Greece when Orion, the blind giant god carries his servant Cedalion on his shoulders. Indeed, the Roman ruler Hadrian highlights his respect for his much admired predecessor Trajan, by inserting himself in panels on TheArch of Trajan at Benevento; thereby communicating to the Roman citizenry whose shoulders he stands atop.
Ancient Greece is the foundation to which The Roman Empire was built upon. In this essay, I briefly explore how Roman art is based upon Greek art, and how this came to be. Focusing in on the Roman Empire, I discuss the notion of propaganda, how the Roman rulers used visual imagery, including architecture to assert, and maintain power to control the Roman population. I will point to several rulers, projects they initiated or completed, discussing how this effectively rippled throughout an enormous area, creating a shared Roman culture.

            Pinpointing the duration of the Roman Empire is difficult, and open to interpretation. However, factually, it lasted a long time. Rome was founded roughly in 750 BCE, but at the time was a simple town, and not a great empire. The traditional ending came when Romulus Augustus was driven from power in 476 CE. Originally governed by the Etruscans, who developed their own artistic style displayed mostly in their palaces and tombs. In a cultural process known as Hellenization, after the founding of the Roman Republic in 500 BCE, Roman art began taking its artistic cues less from the Etruscans, and more from the Greeks as it came into contact with the flourishing Greek states in Italy. However, art influence has no distinct line as “one important line of influence from Greek art comes directly through the Etruscans traditions that Rome adopted” (Ramage 33). The Romans absorbed Greek art, and their artists into the Roman fold. Author Peter Stewart points to Roman art history as being “abnormal in a variety of respects, but one of the most striking is the relative absence of artists” (10). Most cultures tend to have a distinct art flavor that is easily identified, however Roman art is lacking somewhat in a cultural identity as a whole. This is not to imply that the Romans did not create. In fact they did produce (copy?) an astounding number of pieces. They used their art to build, maintain, propel, propagate, and shape Roman cultural values, thereby extending the empire itself.

            Art is much more than an object to be admired for admirations sake. It’s used to transmit messages to sway or assert any number of principles and values. Words clearly have power, and a great orator can influence on a grand scale. Art does the same thing, but in a more stealthily, impactful, and longer lasting fashion. The centrality of rhetoric in Roman education is unquestioned. A rhetorician was greatly respected in Roman civilization. What I will highlight is how the Romans connected their respect for the speaking tradition to its art. “There is thus an important parallel between rhetoric and the design of Augustan statuary” (Oneonta.edu).  The statue Augustus of Primaporta has “strong parallels to the statue entitled the Doryphoros by the Greek mid fifth-century BCE artist Polykleitos” (Oneonta.edu).  The Augustus of Primaporta has the idealized archetypical concept of what a male should be. The extension of Augustus’s right arm is a symbol for speech connecting the importance of rhetoric to the idealized masculine ruler poised and strong. The Romans were masters in using “Art in the service of the state” (Ramage 19). “Civic leaders were well aware of the power of art to promote their political ends, during both the Republican period and the imperial age” (Ramage 19).   The tendency of Roman rulers to use art as a form of manipulation or propaganda seems to imply nefarious purposes. The term propaganda has taken on a different meaning in contemporary society much like the term rhetoric insinuates someone is full of it. The word propaganda automatically triggers thoughts of less than altruistic motives. This is not the case.

            There are two sides to propaganda coin. The notion that propaganda is only used for subversive activity, or to sway a population to level its government is incorrect. Author Jacques Ellul as quoted from Silverstein’s piece defines this type of propaganda as the “propaganda of agitation” (49). Ellul goes on to explain the more potent form of propaganda, a form that the Romans mastered. He calls this “the ‘propaganda of integration’ to promote acceptance and support among its citizens for that system” (Silverstein 49). This is relevant to the Roman Empire, as the shear size and diversity of cultures conquered required a methodology to promote the state for societal cohesion. Virtually all-Roman rulers used art as “propaganda of integration” as “no society can function for long without at least the implicit support of most of its citizens” (Silverstein 50).  

            It’s in this vain that the Roman rulers utilized art. Rome clearly exercised brute force to project power, but its leaders realized this form ultimately would fracture society, and not bind it together if used exclusively. “Insofar as power is a matter of presentation, its cultural currency in antiquity (and still today) was the creation, manipulation and display of images. In the propagation of the imperial office, at any rate, art was power” (Elsner 53). In the years prior to Augustus Caesar taking power in 31 BCE, Romans had spent many grim years involved in a civil war that sapped the civilizations energy. Indeed “an atmosphere of pessimism pervaded the Roman state, and there were many who, in there own moral decadence, considered Rome on the edge of destruction” (Zanker 1). Augustus ushered in 45 years of stability and prosperity. How did he accomplish such a task? He engaged in a sustained, large scale, long-term cultural program shifting the Roman mood, and art was his Modus Operandi.

Res Publica Restituta means “restored the republic.” Augustus had saved the republic and now it was his duty to restore it. “On the arch put up by the Senate for the victor in the civil war stood the legend ‘res publica restitute’” (Zanker 90). A persistent reminder of the societal debt owed to Augustus fostering their allegiance. In another example of Augustus as savior of the republic, a coin was minted 10 years after he returned power to the Roman Senate in 29 BCE. Stamped into the coin “the res publica, represented in the scheme usual for a conquered province, kneels before Augustus, and he helps her to her feet. The savior stands beside the restored Republic, which is in need of his leadership” (Zanker 91-92).

The coin was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire, and a small way (at least in physical stature) to build Roman allegiance, and project the power of the ruler into the citizen’s daily lives. However, during the Flavian’s reign, Vespasian commissioned the enormous and consequential Colosseum, originally named the Flavian Amphitheater. “The message was surely not lost on the Roman people: the Colosseum was the grandest amphitheater anywhere”, and its purpose was for “entertainment, including mock sea battles, gladiatorial games, and wild beast hunts” (Ramage 170). This forum was wildly popular with the Romans, and thus was useful to the leaders in building Roman nationalism. Images of the games were found in numerous pieces of art including the “Campana relief with gladiators, a panther, and a lion in the Circus Maximus” (Ramage 174).

Many art historians have debated on the significance of the arena. The Colosseum, and other like facilities are a complex piece to the Roman social fabric puzzle. The architecture itself, and the innovations built into the Colosseum shout out to the citizenry a message of greatness. In fact, sitting here 2000 years later, the glory of the Colosseum makes me want to be Roman. This is power. Beyond the messaging of the structure itself, “The arena plays an important role in the moralization and maintenance of Roman social roles and hierarchical relations” (Gunderson 115). It can be argued that the Colosseum, and other like institutions, were built by the emperor with full knowledge the institution was a social mechanism, a tool, used specifically to reinforce social norms, and maintain the state power. Furthermore, the emperor could use the institution as a barometer to gauge the mood of the governed.

In his essay, The Ideology of the Arena, Eric Gunderson acknowledges previous scholars who “diagnose the ills of Roman society and politics by interpreting its spectacles, their performance, and their audience” (115).  Gunderson goes much deeper in his analysis of the meaning of the arena in Roman society. Some of the spectacles present in the Colosseum may be brutish to contemporary sensibilities, but the message that it propagated to the wider Roman society, is less barbarous blood sport, and more about societal structure as a whole. Gunderson writes, “The arena can thus be taken as an apparatus which not only looks in upon a spectacle, but one which in its organization and structure reproduces the relations subsisting between observer and observed” (116). The seating arrangements in the arena was serious business, and as far as the arena can be viewed as art, the various rulers of the empire used the arena to make it crystal clear to which class one belonged. “The Romans themselves were acutely aware that seating involved dignitas and honor” (Gunderson 124). In fact, the seating arrangements don’t tell the entire classism story of Roman society as a whole, as not all the populous was represented.

Gunderson’s thesis is “the arena as an Ideological State Apparatus in Rome” in which the arena is a factory of sorts that duplicates Romanness. He says, “the arena serves to reproduce the Roman subject and thus acts as an instrument of the reproduction of Romanness as a variously lived experience” (117). This idea of reproduction of Romanness can be extended to numerous other Roman institutions, and works of art. The precise engineering of the aqueducts, public baths, and the design of Roman villas are all examples of unique Roman culture. They all are in some form “ideological functionaries supporting and generating Roman social structure” (Gunderson 117). Mary T. Boatwright’s study of Roman theaters also supports Gunderson’s thesis. She writes “In the Roman world, theaters embodied the close relationship of spectacles, religion, society, and politics” (185). Boatwright also makes the distinction between the Hellenistic theaters of ancient Greece, and the later Roman theaters. The Greeks tended to build into hillsides, where as the Romans built actual structures, with enormous substructures. This allowed the Romans to integrate urban planning into the structures to make it “possible for prominent theatergoers to keep from mingling with other spectators as they made their way to and from customary seats” (185). This is another innovation allowing the state to exert control by design. The Romans also embellished their theaters with significant works of art, usually portraying gods or highlighting present or past emperors. In the theater of Orange in France for example, Augustus, the first Roman emperor has been erected in a larger than life relief in the “central niche of the scaena forns” (Boatwright 187). The first permanent theater built by Pompey the Great in 55 BCE featured a prominent temple to Venus. An interesting observation is the states consent in letting wealthy benefactors contribute funds to the building of the theaters.  In return the benefactors secured permanent inscriptions into the building adding to their social position within society, an ancillary benefit to the state, helping to keep the wealthy somewhat happy.  A type of insurance policy against social agitation by the wealthy.

In my final example of the Roman state projecting power to its people via art, I turn back to my favorite emperor, Augustus. The Ara Pacis, or “Alter of Augustian Peace” is a tour de force in propaganda as integration. Commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4th 13 BCE for the specific purpose of commemorating an age of peace ushered in by Augustus that extended throughout the entire empire.  The altar itself is enclosed in marble with magnificent art adorned everywhere. “Attempts to identify the source for the form of the altar have suggested close parallels to the fifth century BCE Altar of the Twelve Gods in the Agora in Athens. This is one of many links connecting the Roman work to Greek and especially Athenian mid-fifth century monuments” (Oneonta.edu). The panels on both sides of the entryway depict the legendary founders of Rome, supporting my thesis of “standing on shoulders of giants.” The four panels on the north, south, east and west sides contain significant reliefs telling the Roman story. They contain “four major themes of Augustan ideology: Piety and respect for traditional custom (Aeneas sacrificing); War (Mars with Romulus and Remus); Victory (Roma with Honos and Virtus); Fruits of Peace (Tellus panel with the fertility of the land and sea)” (Oneonta.edu). The Ara Pacis’s art work covers nearly every significant value or principle that the Romans held dear. The scenes depict the centrality of the family; the long lineage that Augustus descended from, themes of honor, and dignity all support the notions of a great empire.

In conclusion, once I was trained to look at Roman works of art, and ask myself “what is this piece trying to say?” I had a real paradigm shift. The Romans conquered far and wide, were the first to realize the importance of urban planning to placate its huge population. Numerous projects were undertaken by the rulers to propagate Romaness, to build institutions to remind the citizenry of past emperors, and their accomplishments. This served to send the signal that rising up against the state was futile, and that the state is powerful. Besides look what the empire is providing in the form of public baths and other like institutions. Who wants to dash off to war when a hot bath is right around the corner? It made the citizenry proud, and more prone to contribute to the empire instead of chaffing against it.

In this essay, I pointed to the Roman Empire’s reliance on ancient Greece to propel it greatness. I discussed the term propaganda, explaining how the Romans used it via art to great effect to integrate its massive conquered territory, and assimilate diverse cultures. I used Augustus of Primaporta as an example of the Roman emperor projecting his power, the message of controlled masculinity, and expert rhetorician. I provide more support for the manifestation of power via art by pointing to the Flavian Amphitheater, the symbol it provides, and its use in providing Roman social structure. The Roman Empire was a complex, and a totally absorbing society. I wish to study it further.

Works Cited

Art Department. SunyOnata, “Roman Power and Roman Imperial Sculpture” Web. 04 Nov 2011. http://www.oneonta.edu/home/default.asp

“Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” 1658. Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Artchive. Web. 04 Nov 2011.

Boatwright, Mary T. Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Elsner, Jaś. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph : The Art of the Roman Empire AD 100-450. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 

"Frequently Asked Questions "Web. 10/30/2011 <http://www.roman-empire.net/diverse/faq.html>.

Gunderson, Erik. "The Ideology of the Arena." Classical Antiquity 15.1 (1996): pp. 113-151. Web.

Ramage, Nancy H., and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art : Romulus to Constantine. [London]: Laurence King, 2005.

Ramage, Nancy H., and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art : Romulus to Constantine. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

"The Roman Empire "Web. 11/4/2011 <http://www.roman-empire.net/>.

Stewart, Peter. The Social History of Roman Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Silverstein, Brett. "Toward a Science of Propaganda." Political Psychology 8.1 (1987): pp. 49-59. Web.

Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. Print.


Anonymous said...

Good to see you broadening your horizons,Roman art and just about anything ancient Roman is fascinating.Glad you enjoyed the class and you can see how a good teacher makes for an interesting class and this will carry over to your yoga teaching,


Anonymous said...


I've enjoyed reading through your blog, especially the transition.

Isaac Newton's comment "standing on the shoulders of giants" has an interesting background. According to a science history book Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke were in a tiff and professional friends encouraged each to write a letter to the other to "make amends". Robert Hooke wrote first followed by Newton. Newton's letter included the "standing on the shoulders of giants" which may have been a very subtle barb as Hooke was a very short man. The comment is neither to add nor subtract from your paper, but is meant as an interesting side note.

R Wall