Blog Week 11: Conflict and Contradiction in Republican Imagery

"piggy-eyed" Pompey: channeling "the Great" (check out the hair)

Paul Zanker characterizes this period of Roman art as one of “conflict” and “contradiction,” particularly with respect to self-image.  What does he mean by this, and, based on your various readings for this week, do you agree?  Why or why not?



5 responses to “Blog Week 11: Conflict and Contradiction in Republican Imagery

  • Sarah Murphy

    By describing this period of Roman art as one of conflict and contradiction, Zanker is indicating that Romans were grappling with the best way to portray themselves. Although they were now a large power in the world, they still claimed to maintain many of their traditional, almost rustic, values. Zanker acknowledges the Hellenistic influence on depictions of Roman authority figures; the superhuman ideals present in depictions of Greek leaders found their way into portraits of Roman magistrates, but the “borrowed symbolism lost its meaning from overuse and became a generalized mark of distinction” (Zanker 9). This hyper-idealization of Hellenistic kings, however, did not fit well with Romans’ hatred of kings, nor did it fit with the aristocratic ideal of “age, experience, and modesty” (Zanker 9). As a result, Romans strove to find a balance in their portraiture. This tension resulted in statues that combined veristic heads with idealized bodies.
    I agree with Zanker’s assessment of this period of Roman art. Romans strove to find a balance between their older traditions and their role as a leading power. Hannestad’s discussion of coinage shows that Romans were trying to exalt themselves by using their deeds on coins; denarii often depicted historical events and linked them to the coin’s makers. For example, a denarius showing Brutus and a cap between two daggers referred to the assassination of Julius Caesar. Coins, however, also portrayed more traditional symbols of Rome, like gods, heroes, and even the she-wolf suckling twins. Romans were constantly assaulted with images both of Rome’s past and its present.
    Even when one looks at portraiture, this tension between old and new is visible. The Tivoli General has an idealized, muscular body, and his partial nudity gestures back to Greek portraiture. His body, however, contrasts sharply with his face. A close examination of the face reveals it to be the opposite of idealization; the general is not at all handsome, and his wrinkles and fleshy face do not seem to match his body. This portrait of a general indicates the difficulty of the ancient Romans in coming to terms with their new role in the world. In trying to remain grounded in past tradition while still asserting their current power, Roman leaders created a new way to depict portraiture. It may be jarring to modern eyes, but it was uniquely Roman.

  • Danny Rivera

    Describing this period in Roman art as one of “conflict” and “contradiction” as Zanker does seems to give the period something of a negative slant, whereas I prefer to think of it as something more akin to growing pains. Stepping into the limelight, as it were, as a superpower comes with adjustments, and the Romans were no different. As a new superpower, you choose to look back on great powers, keep what worked for them, and at the same time carve out a portion of the world for yourself, leave your stamp on the world. The same is true, as we’ve read, of the Roman experiments with art. Artists asked, “what worked in the past, and how can we carve out a unique place for ourselves?”
    There was something to the idealization of the body, of depicting strength, physical strength, that appealed to the Romans, thus why that aspect of sculpture carried over from the Greeks to the Romans. As the Romans began to establish a republic, however, and the idea of a single ruler became less appealing, it became less important for men to be depicted as “hyperidealized”. The public decreasingly needed to be convinced of the power and prowess of a single man. A governing body, a group of men called together to make decisions, needed to be seen as men capable of just that: they needn’t be the youthful, soldier-like rulers that could charge into battle. They needed to be men of age, of wisdom, men who knew what they were doing–traits not associated with youth.
    This led to realistic depictions of faces, of age, of experience, with strong and youthful bodies: you want your leaders to be seen as men who possess the strength of mind to lead, and the strength of body to, to oversimplify, live long enough to lead. This is the “contradiction” to which Zanker refers: older head, younger body. Jarring, yes, but the artistic reaction to this is that Roman artists were obviously aware of how unrealistic portraits can be, and acknowledged that by making them even more unrealistic. They chose to portray Roman ideals though they contradicted traditional physical ideals. The contradiction and conflict that seems apparent in the art is merely a side effect of a society discovering its identity and how best to portray that identity to the world.

  • Lili Dodderidge

    Paul Zanker’s introduction to his book, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, sets the stage for an exploration of Roman art in its relation to, and imitation of, Greek artistic characteristics. He suggests that the cultural influence of the Greek East after the Roman conquest in the second century BC introduced a more civilized way of living into Roman daily operations, inspiring the primitive city-state to transform into an empire of high society and honored traditions, reflecting that of Greece. Rather than embracing its own national identity, Rome found itself conflicting its own history with its embrace of Greek culture. According to Zanker, “cultural life (in Rome) was barren, with no literature or art” (2). This traditional state of the Romans, upon the conquering of the Greek East, suddenly felt the need to change this stagnant lifestyle, and the model of obvious interest was that of Greece. In this new age of Augustus, the embrace of artistic culture was important for establishing a new sort of mythology for the Romans, emphasizing the austerity of the emperor and establishing a culture of living. However, this artistic identity creation blended the lines between Greek and Roman culture, losing some of the traditionalism in a conflicting embodiment of Hellenistic ideals.

    One piece of evidence to support this idea that Roman art at this time faced a contradiction in self-image rests in contemporary statues of generals. Zanker explains that, “before the middle of the second century BC, the total nudity of a figure must have been extremely disturbing to most Romans” (5). A totally nude bronze statue that was displayed in Rome was directly reflective of Hellenistic art, which valued physical power. This depiction of a Roman general conflicts with traditional Roman values, abandoning these ideals for the emphasis on physical prowess that the Greeks found as an important tool in conveying the divine and invincible powers of rulers. Busts of important rulers also reflected Greek tactics—take Pompey’s portrait, for example, as his hair is designed in a fashion very reminiscent to that of Alexander’s, complete with waves and a center cowlick.

    References to Greek artistic tendencies flooded Roman art endeavors at this time, challenging Romans to think outside the traditional ideas about art and embrace a renaissance of sorts in terms of culture and society. I personally do not see this as a bad thing; granted, Zanker crafts his book in such a way as to give a slight negative connotation to this relationship between the Romans and Greeks, but I find it an important stepping stone in the formation of a unique and lasting Roman cultural identity. The Romans, lacking a strong and vivacious art and literature base, had no choice but to look for inspiration in successful and engaging art personas of other empires. The influences from Greece helped Rome build a lasting influence on art, culture, and social identity. Yes, much of that influence was direct replications of artistic styles and modes of the Greeks, but the associations of those tactics with Roman ideals and influential people helped transform that art into a relatable, tangible manifestation of Rome.

  • Danielle Lee

    I definitely agree that this era of Roman history was indeed wrought with contradictions and conflicting messages. Even in the scholarship for this time period, there seem to be differing opinions on the Roman response to imperial conquests. Zanker says that as strong as the Romans were, their cultural identity became putty in the hands of the conquered Greeks. Hellenistic art and culture soon pervaded Roman life in all areas—religion and art to name a few. On the other hand, Hannestad recalls the words of Cicero who said that imperialism meant “extending the blessings of civilization to backward peoples” (Hannestad 24). Though there may be a way to reconcile these two opposing opinions on the matter, it seems appropriate that there would be such contradiction in the study of this era. The Romans themselves, it seems, did not really know what they were doing which was then translated into their art and the reception of that art.

    One thing that struck me was the idea that citizens and leaders who were wealthy and influential enough were able to erect statues or mint coins depicting themselves. And these were not for their own personal admiration, though I’m sure they did have images of themselves at home; rather, they were allowed to put up their own images in the public forums! I found this incredibly intriguing. From a philosophical standpoint, Americans have always looked to the Romans as the ancestors to our own dedication to country and principles above our individual needs. The Romans of old shaped the way we view and understand political leaders and structures. Most of all, we inherited this idea that the leaders of our country are there not for their own purposes but for the cause of the nation. It is then, almost appalling to know that they would have the audacity to celebrate themselves in such an obnoxious manner.

    Now, of course, I am hardly arguing that the political leaders of our day are the epitome of ‘servants of the republic,’ but I would have thought that the Romans, who held a purer version of our ideals, would have gotten it a little better. I also do not propose that the Romans were completely self-serving power-mongers. On the contrary! Seeing my own reaction to this practice of public self aggrandizement, I hope and assume that Romans of the day may have had a similar reaction to such acts and mentalities.

    To respond to such a reaction, it makes sense that the sculptural portraits of the era’s leaders would be filled with physical contradictions. Most representative of this artistic hypocrisy is the statue of the Republican general from Tivoli. His face, I assume, was sculpted just as he looked at the time of the rendering. However, his body is a totally different story. I wonder if even a man in his prime back in those days would have had such a build.

    These inconsistencies seem to represent the tension between trying to maintain an individual uniqueness while striving toward a greater ideal. If the statue were being studied as a piece of advertisement during an election campaign, for instance, the face would be the part of the ad where the candidate emphasizes how exceptional he is compared to his opponents. In the intense competition between the nobles (with statues) of the day, there had to be some connection between yourself and your sculpture or the competition would be lost! The body, then, would be the candidate’s explanation of how he strives for the ideals of old and always for better days (in this case, yesterdays).

    In the end, Zanker was spot on when he described the contradictory nature of Roman art of this time and of that culture.

  • Ryan Day

    Image and sculpture during the roman republic seems to have been immensely important to senators, generals, and anyone else who was attempting to make a name for himself at the time. A sculpture was like an advertisement for yourself. A senator couldn’t be everywhere he needed to be, or didn’t want to, so a sculpture would suffice to let the masses know who he was.

    Often these sculptures were idealized. This seems rather logical since most people would want to put out an image of themselves as young and attractive because this would appeal to many people. However, it was also important not to get too carried away, to the point where the image is unrecognizable. Likewise, it probably wasn’t the best idea to look too regal since roman culture seemed allergic to the idea of a king

    The methods of creating an idealized image seemed to be similar to the methods used for the past few hundred years. Youth seemed fairly important, but it was important not to look so young as to be inexperienced. Men would portray themselves as having a full head of hair, no matter how ridiculous it might look. I also noticed a trend of making oneself look well-fed and healthy, possibly to show power and influence (I can get more food than everyone else so I must be powerful)

    Overall, I would say that this was an era of contradiction. Images were not realistic depictions of people but they weren’t entirely false and idealized. They were somewhere in between, and some of them looked prety odd because of the mixture of the two.

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