by Stephanie Pearson
Egyptian Art in Rome as Art
«In the first centuries BC and AD, Egyptian imagery became so pervasive in the Roman Empire that even today visitors to the city can still see its traces. Obelisks rise in Rome’s grand plazas, some imported from Egypt and others newly commissioned by Roman emperors. Troves of Egyptian and Egyptian-inspired sculpture unearthed throughout Italy fill the national museums. Pompeian houses have preserved a wealth of Egyptian-inspired domestic objects, from fresco decoration to luxurious tableware. Together, these objects give some idea of just how present Egyptian art was in the Roman Empire during these two centuries: the ancient cityscapes were positively brimming with it. It was a pervasive, indeed integral part of the Roman visual landscape. And to judge from the extraordinary number, size, and quality of the extant objects, it seems that Romans across the empire expended enormous resources on acquiring and displaying them.
How can we make sense of the Romans’ ardor for Egyptian material? Since the first studies focused on this material in the 1970s up until the early 2000s, the Roman use of Egyptian art was generally argued to be politically or religiously motivated (discussed in depth below). Although recent studies have emphasized the plurality of Roman responses to Egyptian objects in Italy, as well as the importance of context for understanding them, the early arguments are so deep-seated that they continue to be repeated – even in the face of new methods and evidence. Perhaps this is in part because some of the most celebrated examples have not been revisited, or seem not to fit into the new frameworks proposed. Certainly, recent work has focused on case studies or subsections of the corpus that cannot relate directly to every object. It is therefore time to take stock of the arguments in a holistic way, to see how they have affected our understanding of the material.
In doing so, this book proposes that something fundamental has been left out of our accounts of Egyptian art in the Roman Empire. Namely, the spectacular nature of the Egyptian objects that Romans came into contact with. A far cry from the scattered, simple scarabs known in Italy in the Archaic period, and the dearth of material in the Republican period, the Egyptian items in early imperial Roman Italy are crafted from the most precious materials by the best artists of their day. They include tableware, sculpture, jewelry, furnishings, and textiles of breathtaking beauty, a range of genres that has never been so comprehensively addressed together as in this book. Indeed, the range and quality of Egyptian objects acquired by Romans at this time was determined by a fact that requires more attention than it has gotten: the Egypt known to Romans of this period had been most recently ruled by the Ptolemies, a dynasty that became synonymous with bombastic displays of wealth and high living. From the fourth century BC down to Cleopatra’s reign, the Ptolemies commissioned colossal gold statues of themselves, thousands of golden crowns carried in procession, huge sculptural ensembles in gold and precious stones, and banqueting barges with silver oars and purple sails. That almost every trace of these has been lost from the archaeological record in both Egypt and the rest of the Roman Empire is a hindrance, but sources do exist. This book shows how Ptolemaic material guided the Roman use of Egyptian objects. The sheer extravagance of the Ptolemaic material had an unavoidable, indelible impact on how the Romans viewed and used their own Egyptian objects: as works of extreme preciousness. This is belied today by the disproportionate lack of such remains in the archaeological record, which allows other, still extant material to be unwittingly taken as representative of the Roman experience of Egyptian objects. We must look more carefully to reconstruct the fuller picture.
If we consider fabulous luxury objects among the Egyptian items that Romans were familiar with, it is easier to understand why the Romans engaged so earnestly and passionately with Egyptian art. It embodied both materials and craftsmanship of obvious value, such as a bronze hydria minutely inlaid with silver and gold. Yet this book goes a step further. It argues that the Romans prized Egyptian art because it was art, and the Romans were art collectors. In light of the current discourses about Egyptian objects in Rome – and even more so the traditional, rather inflexible interpretations of them discussed later in this chapter – this is a radical idea. It raises the question of what art is, and how we define both “Egyptian” and “Roman” art. Yet, for the purposes of this argument, the answer need not be complex. The Romans recognized Egyptian material as valuable cultural material, often of outstanding craftsmanship and beauty, and they used it accordingly. How they used it is, indeed, the ultimate criterion for defining art; Duchamp demonstrated as much with the urinal. For the Romans, the patterns of use show that they considered Egyptian material to be “art” just as much as they considered Greek material to be art. This is argued in the following chapters by revealing the specific mechanisms through which the Romans acquired Egyptian goods, and how they subsequently displayed them – in summary, their patterns of use. Acknowledging the status of these items as art by no means excludes political and religious significance from the ways Romans understood these items, but expands these ways considerably.
Recognizing Egyptian objects in Rome as art carries with it substantial changes for our approach to Roman visual culture. It broadens our notion of the limits of “Roman” art beyond the traditional Western canon to include something of the Egyptian one. The perceived divide between Egyptian and Roman art is perhaps more permeable than previously supposed. In light of the long scholarly tradition of considering Egyptian objects in Rome a sign of “Egyptomania,” a term which immediately excludes the possibility of a respectable engagement with art, this shift in perspective would represent a big change. Thus it is worth considering why the idea of art has been missing from the scholarship on this material so far, and why it might even still be rejected. Let us therefore examine several fundamental yet problematic assumptions underlying influential previous studies on Egyptian objects in Rome.»