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We Are All Romans Now


One might think, from frequent news reports, that the Metropolitan Museum would be running low on artifacts to fill its redesigned galleries of ancient art. It has agreed to return twenty-one objects to Italy, including the famous Euphronios krater and sixteen pieces of valuable silver. (Half of the silver objects will remain on long-term loan to the Met.) It had already sold an ancient coin collection to pay for the Euphronios vase, “the million-dollar pot.” More than two hundred gold, silver, and bronze artifacts from the sixth century BCE—the famous “Lydian Hoard”—were returned to Turkey in 1993.1

Some say this rage to call art back to its place of origin is just part of a post-colonial and anti-imperial culture, new in our day. But Cicero shows that it was a concern even in antiquity. Prosecuting Gaius Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily, Cicero blames him for stripping statues and other artwork from the island’s temples:

He took away marble tables from Delphi, exquisite bronze kraters, a large treasure of Corinthian ware from all the Syracuse temples. Thus temple guides called sacred custodians, who used to describe what is to be seen there, must turn their explanations sharply about. What they used to show as present they must now describe as absent.

These objects were sacred to the Sicilians. “No polity anywhere in all Asia or Greece would freely have sold a single statue, or wall painting, or city monument.”2

The astonishing thing is that Cicero, who so roundly denounced Verres, was himself a voracious collector of Greek art. He had friends search for artifacts in all the Greek areas Rome now ruled. He wrote to his friend the millionaire Atticus, who was in Athens:

The herms you describe with bronze heads have already quite enticed me. So please send them, and the statues, and anything else that seems to fit this site, my acquisitiveness, and your connoisseurship—as many (and as soon) as possible, anything especially for my auditorium and portico. I am so eager to acquire them that you must help (let others perhaps rebuke) me.3

So one of the two main cultures (the Roman) being celebrated in the Met’s new galleries was already plundering the other (the Greek). This provenance issue is complicated.

Despite what has been returned to their countries of origin, the Met’s collection of antiquities remains vast. In fact, before the new galleries opened, only two thousand of the museum’s 17,000 ancient artifacts were on display. In the new space, over half the total is exhibited without crowding. The museum was, at its founding, primarily ancient in focus. Its first great acquisition, in two purchases (1874 and 1876), brought it some 35,000 works of art from Cyprus—it is still the major Cypriot collection outside the island, though it has been winnowed to about six thousand choice works.

The South Wing of the Central Park building was designed in 1912 by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to house the classical works in Roman style—a barrel-vaulted corridor with skylights, coffered ceiling, and classical cornice. In 1926, a square Roman atrium with a pool at its center was added at the end of the earlier corridor, extending the area for classical items. But in 1954 a medievalist director with no interest in classical art turned the atrium into a restaurant, with adjacent cooking and serving areas and restrooms. The displaced ancient works went to scattered spaces in the museum or into storage. The corridor’s skylights had been covered over from fear of air raids in World War II, and they were left unopened afterward—so the corridor had become a dark runway leading into the restaurant.

When Thomas Hoving became director of the museum, he wanted to renew its emphasis on classical art—he would even call the Euphronios vase “one of the ten greatest works created in the Western world.”4 In 1967 Hoving authorized a master plan for the museum that included making the South Wing a showcase for the collection of Cycladic, Cypriot, Archaic Greek, Classical Greek, Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Imperial Roman art. It has taken forty years of work in four stages—and $225 million—to complete the plan. But it reached its goal triumphantly in April. The exhibits are deployed, on the first floor, in the original corridor and atrium and in thirteen rooms along their sides and ends. They continue on a long mezzanine above, and on a second floor above that. The Greek works are in the original corridor and its flanking rooms, beautifully redesigned by Kevin Roche and opened to the public in 1999. I have already described that collection in these pages.^5 Now one can go to the end of the original corridor, which had been sealed while the restaurant was being removed from the atrium, and enter a new brightly lit area designed by Mr. Roche.

The transition from Greece to Rome is marked, in a propylaeum space, by a huge Ionic column’s base and capital, with a space between the broad part of the column below and the narrowing segment above. This was taken from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis in ancient Lydia. The whole column could not be shipped, since it was originally fifty-eight feet tall. It came from an inner ring of columns on the raised stylobate of the temple, which means that the outer ring was made up of even taller columns. Dating from about 300 BCE, it was part of one of the seven largest surviving Greek temples, which had fifty-six columns in all. When we look at the exquisite carving between the scrolls of the capital and on the torus (the convex cushion-shaped part) of the base, and realize that this work was duplicated fifty-six times, we get a sense of the artistry available in the Seleucid kingdom of Lydia. Two complete columns, and parts of others, are still standing in Turkey. The rest were carted off as building material. The American excavators of the site made a gift of this column to the Metropolitan in 1926, when the atrium was added to the South Wing.

Going past the column, we are soon alerted that we are in a different world from the Greek works we have just passed—different, yet oddly the same. A sign before the first statue we encounter informs us that practically everything in this central display area is a copy—four or five centuries later—of some Greek original. The Romans felt inferior to the Greeks in art. When they were not madly collecting Greek originals, they were having copies made of them. We know some of the most famous works described by Greek authors from marble imitations of bronze originals. Few bronze statues have survived. They were always being melted down, by accident or on purpose. In this case the Roman copying gives us some idea of Greek works for which we would otherwise just have written descriptions. The copying was preservative.

The Romans’ aesthetic concession to Greece was described by Virgil in the Aeneid‘s speech of Anchises to his son, Aeneas:

Let others make bronze statues that can breathe,
Carve marble to become a human face,
Be better orators, and chart the heavens,
Astronomers predicting when stars rise.
Remember, Roman,
your task, ruling nations,
Your artistry to set the terms for peace,
Spare those who yield, and beat resisters down.

The Romans, like some of our Southern politicians in the old days, liked to present themselves as country boys up against Greek city slickers. Quintilian, the Roman theorist of rhetoric, set his countrymen off from the Greeks this way:

We cannot be so elegant—let us be blunter. If we cannot prevail by subtlety, let us prove weightier. If they can pick the exact term, let us pour out ample terms. The Greeks have artful harbors where even their second-rate orators can ride. Let us crowd on sail, and stronger winds will get us to landfall, for we cannot be always on the high seas but must at times reach shore. They can skim over shallow approaches. I must find a somewhat deeper channel, so my bark will not get stranded.7

Greek work excels in refinement. Roman work is expressive of power. The flat lintel of a Greek temple limited the space that could exist between columns, and the number of stories that could be added above. The arch and the dome enabled the Romans to build huge structures like the Colosseum and the Pantheon. Roman roads had harder surfaces; their aqueducts were longer. They were master engineers. Since a museum cannot bring an aqueduct indoors, the museum-friendly Roman imitations of the Greeks give a less interesting picture of the Romans themselves than we can get in other places. Quintilian was right. The Romans were weightier. They were ampler.


Hellenistic Art

But the abrupt motion from Greece to Rome in the two main areas of the Met’s South Wing is unintentionally deceptive. There were intervening works—from the Hellenistic period and from Etruscan Italy—which are put on the periphery of the Roman atrium. If we want to move chronologically, we should detour both around the atrium (for Hellenistic works) and above the atrium (for Etruscan works on the mezzanine). Actually, the Sardis column is Hellenistic, from the kingdom of one of Alexander’s successors. But after passing it, one must veer left into the Hellenistic room along the Fifth Avenue windows.

The Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE) is conventionally dated between the death of Alexander the Great and the Battle of Actium that ended Ptolemaic rule in Egypt. This was a time when the huge empire Alexander had created split into wealthy kingdoms ruled by his leading warriors. Alexander brought a taste for the daring and even the outrageous into art, through his court sculptor Lysippos, who portrayed him throwing a spear, and his court painter Apelles, who portrayed him throwing a thunderbolt. A new freedom and a technical virtuosity mark art of the time. A small but stunning example is the bronze statue of a twirling dancer with a Dionysiac wreath on his head. His body has a sinuous torque meant to be seen from all sides. This is a tour de force like Verrocchio’s Putto with a Dolphin (circa 1480), another small and dancing figure meant to be seen from all sides.

Alexander’s successors wanted to be seen, like him, with a divine flair. That is visible in a few Hellenistic coins, showing rulers patterned on the gold coins issued showing Alexander as the son of Zeus Ammon. (Not all the Met’s coins were sold off to pay for for the Euphronios vase.) Classical Greek leaders had not been portrayed as gods. But Alexander saw himself as godlike—and he conquered peoples who had divine rulers (hence Zeus Ammon). His successors kept and fostered that concept.8 A wonderfully crisp gold coin here shows Ptolemy III Euergetes as Neptune with a trident. I do not often squint at little coins lined up in a vitrine. I know that numismatists get valuable information—chronological, geographical, and political—from the comings and goings of ruler heads on currency. It is like the old art of Kremlinologists who charted where people stood on the Moscow reviewing stand. But the royal-divine claims on the Hellenistic gold coins do tell us much about the values that replaced those of classical Greece.

  1. 1

    Carol Vogel, “Metropolitan Museum to Return Turkish Art,” The New York Times, September 23, 1993.

  2. 2

    Cicero, Verrine Orations 2.4.59.

  3. 3

    Cicero to Atticus 3.1.7.

  4. 4

    Russell Berman, “Met Chief to Discuss ‘Hot Pot’ in Rome,” The New York Sun, November 11, 2005.

  5. 6

    Virgil, Aeneid 6.848–853.

  6. 7

    Quintilian, Rhetorical Method 12.10.

  7. 8

    A fine study of the impact of Alexander’s portraits on the image of Hellenistic rulers is Andrew Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics (University of California Press, 1993).

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