Bay on Galinsky and Lapatin, 'Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire'

Karl Galinsky, Kenneth Lapatin, eds.
Carson Bay

Karl Galinsky, Kenneth Lapatin, eds. Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016. 376 pp. $85.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60606-462-7.

Reviewed by Carson Bay (Florida State University) Published on H-Empire (July, 2016) Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Volume 2 of the massive Memoria Romana project steps into the intensely interdisciplinary field of memory studies by examining various memory constructions within the Roman Empire. Karl Galinsky’s introduction frames memory in its collective, social, and cultural character, noting where memory studies exists, not in that nineteenth-century juncture where “the rise of nation-states demanded national histories that de-emphasized heterogeneous and competing traditions” but in a contemporary scholarship where culturally and regionally specific, ever-fluid memories are more palatable (p. 1). Here, memories emerge under the “universalizing but far from uniform” shift that the Age of Augustus begat (p. 5).

Susan Alcock’s chapter 2 begins part 1 (“Concepts and Approaches”) via three case studies. She shows how Roman imperial use of a Mycenaean tomb at Orchomenos embedded an emperor in regional culture and collapsed a millennium of time, how the theater and Artimesian Temple at Ephesos demonstrated willed unity and separation at particular points to forget collectively the Romans massacred there in 88 BC, and how artwork in eastern triclinia validated and contained certain commemorative priorities. This chapter lacks theoretical sophistication, and Alcock’s overall point—that memory is more like Playdoh (or a kaleidoscope) than a dollhouse, i.e., unstable and transient—may not need a chapter’s justification. In chapter 3, Rachel Kousser shows how Romans learned from Hellenistic monuments to illustrate Roman achievements grandiosely, to destroy/replace political monuments pointedly—institutionalized in damnatio—and to imagine Roman discourse through Greek mythology. From her discussion of the historicity of a Dacian-stomping Trajan (on his column) to the repurposing of a Nero-turned-Vespasian bust into an Egyptian tondo where Geta’s head is “erased” from Septimius Severus’s family, Kousser illustrates Roman monumentalism’s debt to Greece. 

Tim Whitmarsh in chapter 4 reads memory, negation, and their temporal and spatial elements as cultural practice/reactions to empire in Pausanias’s Periegesis and Dionysius of Alexandria, each concerned with regional diversities and systemic unity. Pausanias describes Zeus’s Athenian Temple as diachronic embodiment, whereas Dionysus’s description of the oikoumenē masks chronology; in Pausanias, space can be “larded” with memory, and in Dionysius space can be simply spatial. Whitmarsh exposes memory as a tool for periegetes in the Second Sophistic by which to relate to Roman imperium, playing with space and time.

In part 2 (“Imperial Memories and Local Identities”), in chapter 5, John Weisweiler argues that uses of honorary statuary evolved alongside Rome. While early emperors allowed senatorial “peers” some honorary martial statuary in Rome to avoid appearing domineering and provincial “memoryscapes” highlighted senators’ civilian qualities, late antique statuary redefined Roman virtus entirely as provincial justice rather than pioneering domination, cultivating ideological merger between province and capital. Eventually, statues such as Philippus’s (erected by Constantius II) witnessed another shift, in which such honors spoke of devotion to a holy ruler. Chapter 6 traces Hellenistic ruler cults within the Roman Empire, which according to Carlos Noreña informed emperors’ memory agendas. The second century witnessed the most of such cults, and also found the emperor memorialized as optimus, rather than the dominus he would become thereafter, and idealized in the ethical terms employed in Hellenistic royal ideology. Whether holdovers of a bygone age or recently renewed, cults honoring Alexander and his dynastic inheritors came to serve Roman imperial ideology in provincial Asia.

Jaś Elsner uses chapter 7 to explore ekphrasis of a Corinthian cult. Half description, half interpretation, Philostratus’s writing portrayed Sisyphus’s founding of the cult of Palaemon/Melicertes sincerely—contra charges of atheism leveled against Philostratus in classical tradition—and pointedly overlooked the cult’s apparent break in continuity resulting from Corinth’s sack by Rome in 146 BC. Elsner shows that memory making in text can employ explicit/visual and implicit/interpretive moves, and that silence can speak volumes. Ann Marie Yasin, in chapter 8, forays into marking how architectural structures communicate about the passage of time as they are experience firsthand. At the late antique Christian cult sites of S. Paolo fuori le mura in Rome, the cathedral at Poreč, and Saint Felix’s tomb complex in Cimitile, renovations accentuated patronage through new additions; redeployed older materials to signal antiquity and continuity, witnessed to cumulative tradition by combining new and old; and even allowed visitors to engage tradition bodily. This chapter shows how architectural ingenuity could shape knowledge of the past by providing viscerally appreciated structural cues.

In part 3 (“Presence and Absence of Memory in the Roman East and West”), C. Brian Rose revisits in chapter 9 his life’s work, Trojan War tradition, and maps Ilion’s agglutinative claims to having “housed”’ that long siege. Tumuli around the site, the Temple of Athena Ilias, and inscriptions, sculpture, and coins testify a long tradition of Ilion’s reinforcing itself as the Homeric “holy land,” a testament confirmed by the imperial dynasties of the empire as well as warring empires of the medieval period (and even early twentieth century!). Rose poignantly portrays the power of constructed memory to build an august localized tradition capable of stirring nations. Chapter 10, by Zena Kamash, exploits complementary dynamics of remembering and forgetting, by both individuals and collectives, while being highly speculative and incoherent. Kamash first invents creative backstories for a cattle figurine and adlocutio brooch from Marcham/Frilford supposed to illustrate conflicted individuals, next discusses the Walbrook Mithraeum as a site of multisensory memory constitution, and finally notes Christian/pagan confluence in the Thetford treasure before jumping to remains at Aphrodisias and Uley to illustrate Christian iconoclasm. Kamash’s takeaways—for example, that continuity of place can exist apart from ideological continuity—are difficult to conceive of as constituting a coherent chapter and are, like the chapter’s main point (that memories are mutable), truisms.

Alicia Jiménez (chapter 11) next asks why western Roman provinces, unlike the eastern, apparently failed to maintain their identity/memory ... or did they? Jiménez convinces readers that rough funerary figurines (cippi) from Baelo Claudia, along with an un-Roman capitolium, inscriptional use of Punic alongside Latin, and singularities in its two main necropoleis, demonstrate this site exemplifies tradition undecimated by colonized reality. Whether signifying the deceased or their offerers, these figurines communicate not just a psychological double but a “Roman” culture much shaped by its provincials, showing how antiquated local/North African traditions could thrive within an imperial host. In chapter 12, Felipe Rojas shows how Lydian lakes functioned as cultural depositories for millennia by positing relationships between lakes, gods, and kings. Textual and numismatic evidence point to a tradition of using Lake Torrhebia to antiquate local traditions and ignore the political prominence of nearby Sardis, and Roman authors also show that Mount Sipylos (where lakes once were) served similar memorializing functions. Given the history of Hittite (e.g., Suppililiuma) and Lydian (e.g., Alyattes) kings claiming the “divinity” of these lakes, Rojas’s chapter demonstrates that the agonistic uses potential in natural landmarks often drew on ancient precedent.

Beginning part 4 (“The Transformation of Memory at Rome”), Greg Woolf in chapter 13 wants to transcend static approaches that have visual culture simply communicating content and impute agency to such material. He does this by casting the Forum of Augustus as sanctuary and comparing it to prehistoric cave art; the Forum provides a context where material and human agency interact and participants react/develop as initiates or apprentices. Woolf helps us move beyond views of such fora as basic emblems for victory and helps us recognize that multiple readings from variously astute viewers rendered such spaces multivalently didactic with a life of their own. Steven Rutledge follows, seeking in chapter 14 to find a place for collective memory of (imperial) Roman plebs, which he finds on the Aventine. Here various temples addressed nonelite issues and provided political advantage and historical space, but elite undertones existed here too, as famous plebeian patrons were chastised as Philistines in elite literature (Mummius) or remembered as executed criminals (Cassius). In this memorial class struggle, even plebeian monuments could be deployed to put the mob in its place, and a self-styled advocate of commoners like Tiberius could hijack plebeian space (the Temple of Concordia) to coopt plebeian values for aristocratic political posturing.

Elizabeth Marlowe’s chapter 15 builds on archaeological reports and previous scholarship concerning the Vicennalia monument of the Roman Forum, employing creative parallels to the Lincoln Memorial, to point out the multivalent diplomacy reified therein. For Marlowe, the monument’s visual rhetoric bespeaks senatorial, not Tetrarchic, values: while there are no adlocutio statues advertising the Tetrarchs’ paideia (something these martial men lacked), there are pointedly Roman features on the monument (and its Decennalia base), a hortatory reminder amid panegyric beckoning absent emperors to remember Rome. Marlowe thus improves scholarly views of the Vicennalia monument, exposing how it presents “happy fictions” of educated emperors and military senators—both essentially extinct by the early fourth century—a reminder of the multivalent potential of monument. A comprehensive bibliography and index follow.

This volume resembles an academic grenade, with chronological, topical, and methodological shrapnel shooting in all directions. Yet this diversity illustrates major theoretical points, such as the importance of allowing for multivalence in memory construction, the salience of temporal and spatial aspects in the deployment of memorialization, and the ubiquity of socioeconomic and political diversity potential within any visual culture. Students of the Roman Empire will find here an accessible, deep introduction to memory studies. Moreover, given the breadth of material treated, one is likely to find at least one essay addressing one’s own area. 

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Citation: Carson Bay. Review of Galinsky, Karl; Lapatin, Kenneth, eds., Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. July, 2016. URL:

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