[Electronic Antiquity]


Current Editor
Terry Papillon, Terry.Papillon@vt.edu
Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals

Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture

H.I. Flower
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996
ISBN 0-19-815018-0

Reviewed by: Thomas Stevenson
Department of Classics and Ancient History,
University of Auckland,
Private Bag 92019,
New Zealand.
e-mail: tstevenson@artsnet.auckland.ac.nz

This is a fine book, a revision of the author's doctoral thesis. At first glance its subject may not appear promising - no imagines (ancestor masks) actually survive from the Roman period - but Harriet Flower (F.) has done a wonderful job in gathering evidence, ironing out several fundamental misconceptions, and elucidating the significance of ancestor masks in their legal, social and political contexts.

After an 'Introduction', the book proceeds through ten chapters and five appendices. There are lists of plates, figures, and abbreviations, indices of persons and of ancient sources, as well as a comprehensive 'Bibliography' and a 'General Index'. Much careful scholarship has gone into the production of this book. Its chapters generally end with a section detailing the author's conclusion. Chapter 10 is entitled 'Conclusions'. Through such clear and complete arrangement of the material, the reader is left in no doubt about the case which is progressively being constructed. Proofreading is of the highest standard.

The 'Introduction' (1-15) details the sources available (3-5), representations of imagines in art (5-9), and the methodology employed (9-15). F. uses the approach of a social historian not an art historian. Her aim 'is to elucidate the role of the imagines against a wide cultural background' (1), and to emphasize 'the function and cultural significance of imagines and of the dynamic representation of the ancestors which they made possible' (3). Roman ancestor masks are distinguished by their political function and their public use. Consequently, they can help us to understand political culture and the role of spectacle at Rome. These broad themes have not received detailed consideration in previous discussions of the imagines (cf. 3).

Chapter 1 examines 'The Significance of Imagines' (16-31) by considering two important ancient texts in detail: Sallust's version of the speech delivered by Marius as consul in 107 BC (Sall. Iug. 85) (16-23), and the senate's decree condemning Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso in AD 20 (the senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre) (23-31). Imagines figure prominently in both texts, as central elements in the overt praise and blame which is a feature of Roman politics (cf. F.'s remarks on Rome as a 'shame culture' at 11-15). The approach of the social historian is apparent when F. describes 'political culture' at Rome in interactive terms: it is a matter of 'honour and the public recognition of accepted virtues and behaviour patterns' (31).

Chapter 2, 'Defining the Imagines?' [the question mark may not be deliberate] (32-59), begins by outlining the range of meanings for the Latin word imago (32-5). Meanings such as 'likeness' and 'portrait' are seen as extensions of a fundamental definition of imagines maiorum as 'the technical term for Roman wax portraits of male ancestors kept in the atrium and displayed at aristocratic funerals' (32). No examples of these 'wax portraits' (termed 'ancestor masks' more commonly in F.'s pages) have survived, only literary testimonia and some rare artistic representations. They were the property of office-holders, made during the lifetime of the subject, and were closely associated with the nobility of office, having emerged after the conflict of the orders with the admission of plebeians to magisterial office and therefore to the senate (cf. 63). Yet there was no formal ius imaginum ('right to display masks') which defined nobilitas ('noble rank, nobility') technically as the descendants of officeholders who had the right to display an imago because they had secured the rank of aedile or above (53-9, cf. 61- 70). As the famous description in Polybius 6.53-4 shows, the family which inherited an imago was entitled to display it publicly, worn by an actor, in funeral processions (36-8, and 48-52 for such employment of the imago of Scipio Africanus, which was kept in the cella of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus). This custom was recognised in law, as is clear from the senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre (56-9). F. also takes this law to indicate that an imago might be displayed in the atrium of any house 'belonging to all relatives of the deceased both on the father's and mother's side of the family ... [because the] traditional wax mask symbolized the memory of the deceased and his position within the extended family of those related by blood and by marriage' (59). I am not so sure of this. It seems possible that the right of cognati (cognate relatives, by marriage) to display imagines was a secondary development of the final two centuries BC as the traditions surrounding nobilitas underwent dramatic change. From the later third century BC, for instance, more families were legitimately entitled to imagines with the creation of more magistrates, some families died out or were saved only by adoption, and there was a move towards greater pageantry and display, which could well have seen the net for relevant imagines cast as widely as possible (including cognati and other gentiles). That there was some infringement upon the rights and exclusive status of nobiles, or that there was at least the perception of such, seems indicated by, for example, the cognomen of M. Fulvius Nobilior (cos. 189), which might be read as an elitist reaction to such trends. So too might the complaints of the orator M. Valerius Messala Corvinus (cos. 31) against the inclusion of less distinguished members of his gens (the Valerii Laevini) among imagines belonging to his own familia (Pliny, HN 35.8). My feeling is that the use of imagines was perhaps confined in the beginning to agnati (i.e. descendants through the father's line), and that the imago probably remained in the subject's home, or at least in the home of the paterfamilias. A similar objection applies when F. writes of the 'Cornelii' (instead of the 'Cornelii Scipiones') employing the mask of Scipio Africanus, and when she says that, 'Any relative, either by marriage or by blood, could normally be entitled to keep Africanus' imago in his or her atrium' (48). Surely there was an established priority in this matter which favoured kin by blood and display of an imago in the ancestral or leading home of the familia at first instance. The Tomb of the Scipios, carefully analyzed by F. in Chapter 6, seems to emphasize agnatic links in a way which is at variance with both later practice and F.'s arguments on where the imago might reside.

I was particularly impressed by F.'s discussion of what can be known about the physical appearance of the imagines. She feels that they were 'realistic' but is careful to distinguish what this may mean from 'veristic' styles in other media (36-40). Equally, she does well to describe the range of ancestor images which might have been encountered in an atrium: bronze or stone busts, painted portraits, shield portraits, and so on (40-6).

Chapter 3, 'Ancestors at the Elections: Ancestral Portraits and Magisterial Office' (60-90), examines the ways in which imagines were used for the purpose of securing election. F. once more takes up the (non-technical) connection between imagines and the concept of nobilitas (61-70), and then goes on to describe how ancestor portraits of various types were displayed in public settings (70-89). She argues that, in conjunction with such means of representation as statues (71-5), shield portraits (75-7), portraits on curule chairs (77- 9), coins and gems (79-88), and related reliefs and inscriptions, the imagines held a central role in the oligarchic culture of the Republic, and were an important means by which a candidate might become nobilis ('known') and thereby secure election. Their role in perpetuating the status quo is emphasized: the imagines glorified, but also justified, the pre-eminence of the leading families (cf. 90). They embodied traditional norms and rules governing officeholding, and hence 'fostered serious competition at frequent elections without danger to the stability of the government, especially from individual ambition' (90). There is something a little static or ideal in this, for individual ambition did eventually overcome the commitment to collective powersharing among the noble families - the result of Rome's extraordinary rise to empire, especially in the second century BC, which saw the fruits shared unevenly and the development of serious social and economic problems that caused many of the common citizens to lose confidence in the traditional partnership between senate and people.

Chapter 4, 'Ancestors at the Funeral: The Pompa Funebris (91- 127), examines the specific context of the aristocratic funeral and succeeds well in evoking the atmosphere surrounding the procession of family members led by those actors wearing the wax masks and regalia of famous ancestors. Roman history could to some extent be rewritten at each of these funerals, to suit the needs of the particular family and the contemporary political climate. The theatricality of the occasion is obvious and its impact upon the audience must have been great, especially if the actors wearing the masks uttered words and employed gestures associated with the men whose imagines they were wearing (cf. 104). Such theatricality, F. argues characteristically (127), was a powerful justification as well as glorification of the leading families. It displayed and reinforced the ruling ideas by which the oligarchy shared power at Rome in the Republican period. Officeholders, those who had gained positive support from the Roman people, were the men especially set apart and honoured by such conspicuous ceremony, but the people's role in electing virtuous men was simultaneously honoured and verified. Hence the common heritage of leaders and people was displayed in a fashion calculated to unify and justify the present system as one rewarding virtue and bringing success. Rome was united across social classes and across generations. This fundamental definition and reinforcement of Roman society took place at a point of significant loss for one of the leading families; it was a time of trial for the stability and future viability of the state.

Chapter 5, 'Praising the Ancestors: Laudationes and other Orations' (128-58), focuses on the funerary speech in praise of both the deceased and his ancestors (the laudatio), and on references to imagines in other kinds of speeches, notably at elections (cf. 150- 57). This shows F.'s willingness to explore related areas, even large or difficult ones, in order to inform her subject more fully. The influence of imagines outside the funeral context becomes so much more intelligible because she has done this, and the work involved in analyzing the fragments of laudationes should not be underestimated. Their importance is illustrated by the fact that they were among the earliest, if not the very first, Latin speeches to be published, and the contents of laudationes greatly influenced the Roman historical tradition (145-50). Moreover, their power for social integration was considerable: 'They epitomized, and hence helped to hand on, aristocratic values and claims, which justified and explained the function of Rome's political elite in readily accessible terms. ... [and they] were central in shaping the citizens' sense of a common past' (157). In turn, the imagines served as the setting and props for the funeral speech while it was being delivered, and as reminders of its message to any visitors to the family atrium at a later date.

Chapter 6 is entitled 'Ancestors and Inscriptions: Elogia and Tituli' (159-84). There is a concentration upon evidence from the Tomb of the Scipios in the (surely justified) belief that Republican tomb inscriptions give some idea of both the core of laudationes and of the tituli (labels) which accompanied imagines in the atria ('entrance halls or rooms') of noble houses (esp. 180-84). Such a tomb also makes manifest the close relationship between ancestors and more recent family members - akin to the relationship between the living and the ancestors present in the form of imagines in the atrium. Those who died young or without political achievement were carefully integrated into the line of more distinguished ancestors who had won imagines. This was done, for instance, through the elogia (funerary epitaphs) on their sarcophagi, which represent them in terms of their office-holding ancestors. Through such devices, and through others like narrative paintings, architecture, and statues, past achievements of the whole family were perpetuated and edited. Thus the house of the dead mirrored the house of the living in its celebration of ancestors and its emphasis upon shared heritage, ambitions, and ideals.

Chapter 7, 'Ancestors at Home: Imagines in the Atrium' (185- 222), examines the presentation and impact of the imagines in their usual physical setting, the armaria ('cupboards') in the atrium of the aristocratic home. I had never quite realised the number of ceremonies which took place, or can be surmised to have taken place, in the atrium, in the presence of the imagines. The atrium provided the setting for rituals at birth, coming of age, marriage, and death - though ancestor masks had no role to play in cult or commemoration of the dead at the tomb and were not related to beliefs about life after death (209-11, 273). The imagines which resided in the atrium were fundamental to other ancestral displays, such as family trees, busts, shield portraits, trophies, or wall paintings (211-17). They were symbols of the continuing influence of ancestors on living members of the family, and on visitors at such ceremonies as the morning salutatio ('greeting, morning audience') (217-20). This influence shaped relations between the family and others, notably the ordinary citizen and voter. There are many such indications in this book that the 'public' / 'private', or 'civic' / 'domestic', distinction was not as sharp at Rome as it is today.

Chapter 8, 'Imagines and the New Principate: Augustus and Tiberius (223-55), deals with the changes which took place under the early Empire as a result of the way in which Augustus limited aristocratic privilege and became increasingly, along with his family, the focus for attention (224-46). Augustus employed imagines in order to enhance his position, in line with the traditionalist stance of the new regime. They featured prominently in funerals of members of his family and as inspirations for the statues of Roman heroes in his new forum, which is described as a public atrium in shape and function (224-36). Tiberius, of course, followed the lead of Augustus in this as in most things; so did successors and opponents of the new political order (246-54, 280).

Chapter 9 studies 'Imagines in the Later Empire: The Last Imagines' (256-69). Evidence becomes increasingly difficult to find after the Julio-Claudian period, but F. does a commendable job with the scraps. Her analysis tends to support the view that imagines continued to be influential for longer than previously thought, even after they seem to have been used exclusively for funerals of the imperial house from the third century AD. They were apparently still visible and familiar in the sixth century AD (264-69).

After the 'Conclusions' in Chapter 10, the appendices follow. Each is a little treasure trove. Appendix A supplies the literary testimonia on imagines (281-325). Each gobbet is given in the original Greek or Latin and is furnished with an English translation. Appendix B does the same for relevant inscriptions and laws (326-32). C provides a list of moneyers using ancestral themes on their coins (333-38). D is an excellent discussion on 'Etruscan Statues of Ancestors and the Origins of the Imagines' (339-52), and E provides family trees of the Caecilii Metelli, Cornelii Scipiones, and Augustus' Family (353-61).

The thesis is meticulously argued and consistently compelling. I did wonder, however, in addition to the agnate / cognate aspect mentioned above, whether the fundamental argument is slightly over-emphasized, and whether the study could have incorporated more recognition of developments in the middle-late Republic. There is no doubt that the imagines contributed to the social standing and influence of the officeholding families of the Republic. They helped these families perpetuate their dominance over successive generations. But to what degree were they responsible for the perpetuation of oligarchic control of the elections? F. thinks they were very powerful in this regard, even fundamental to displays of ancestral iconography in other media. Again and again the impression is created of an edifice resting on the imagines, so that if the imagines were removed the edifice would come crashing down. This perhaps misrepresents the situation, which changed greatly through the second and first centuries BC, as massive resources and hellenization produced expectations and associations for monuments like arches and statues which were fundamentally different to the evocations of imagines. This is not to deny their continuing power; it is just to ask how central or fundamental they remained in the light of hellenization of the Roman honours system, or what Wallace- Hadrill sees as progressive adoption of the Hellenistic 'rhetoric of power' (PCPhS 1990). There is also the debilitating drag of routine combined with the effects of repetition. Moreover, candidates relied upon material benefits like money and services to supplement the emotional and moral environment created by employment of devices like imagines, statues, and so on. The material underpinnings might have been emphasized more by F., or at least their role in conjunction with such things as imagines. It is also interesting that imagines do not seem to have been used directly at election time, though F. is convincing about the degree to which they were evoked in political and legal speeches. Might it have been valuable to display them around the candidate as he sued for votes? This wasn't deemed necessary; calling them to mind was apparently all that was needed. They might even have been a liability, or at least exposed to undignified attack, in the event that an outspoken homo novus ('new man, lacking senatorial ancestors') like Marius was a strong candidate. F. does admit that such new men were more successful at some periods than at others (278).

Our evidence might not permit consideration of some of these points in detail, let alone measurements of relative influence through constantly changing circumstances. It is hard to doubt that the imagines gave an advantage in the intense competition of Roman elections; but to what degree were they an advantage in comparison to more tangible benefits such as bribe money? My impression is that they did maintain their power quite remarkably, so that officeholding families continued to be successful into the late Republic, despite increasing violence and bribery at elections. Perhaps the point is simply that it would have been nice to see such additional factors given more attention, so that the precise influence of the imagines at election time might have been thrown into even clearer relief.

There is also the lingering feeling that it doesn't pay to be schematic or to generalize about the influence of imagines. F. understandably concentrates upon Polybius for the view that imagines were especially influential, even central to the Roman self-image and to the process of oligarchic image-propagation. The reader is constantly told that they were elements which united the oligarchy and the Roman people, and contributed in a special way to Rome's rapid rise to empire (as Polybius argues). Yet Latin authors, as F. honestly notes, do not stress the imagines in this way (e.g. 271). In her view this is because Romans took them for granted, as an implicit component of oligarchic culture. But if they were taken for granted could they have had for Romans the power that Polybius professed to see? Again, my inclinations are to support F., to say that fundamental truths are frequently left unarticulated because they are felt strongly and are not generally challenged in a way that would require explanation of their truth or force. The question could have been asked, however, especially since the officeholding families and the ordinary citizens of Rome were often less than united through the second and first centuries BC as a consequence of socio-economic problems and political upheavals associated with figures like the Gracchi. When F. refers to the changing social role of the imagines, she tends to envisage a dividing line between Republic and Empire, marked by the reign of Augustus. It might be that the evidence of Polybius should actually be taken as an idealization of a fluctuating situation, or even as a watershed, rather than as a strong indicator of general Republican attitudes. After all, Polybius was an outsider writing predominantly for other outsiders, who would be particularly interested in elements which set Rome apart from Greek communities. His stress on imagines is partly for this reason.

Such questioning naturally reflects upon F.'s view of the social function of imagines in promoting and confirming consensus between the orders and between the nobiles themselves as an officeholding elite by depicting officeholders of various ranks (aediles, praetors, consuls, etc.) and also relationships between families, including marriages and adoptions. However, I am loath to carry this too far because her view of 'political culture' at Rome, described in terms of interaction between senate and people, is attractive; and the characterization of imagines as elements of 'integration propaganda' (11-12, 278) is likewise so. In F.'s pages the reader can sense the shared commitment to pageantry and values which is the only real way to understand how noble dominance was maintained for so long. The ordinary citizens were not being duped by devices like imagines; they embraced and promoted them, employed them as a means of communication or dialogue (cf. 277), and demanded that their officeholders live up to the ideals expressed by them. F. has illustrated this better than anyone else I have read. Furthermore, this book is such an outstanding example of care, clarity and solid scholarship that it would be wrong to leave anything other than a positive impression.

Tom Stevenson,

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606

DLA Ejournal Home | Electronic Antiquity Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search ElAnt and other ejournals