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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.

They also prepare us for one of the most interesting statues in the new galleries, one not listed in the catalog. It is a splendid male nude, one-and-a-half-times life size, probably of a Hellenistic ruler. With this bronze statue, we know we are in the numinous world Alexander initiated. What would be our reaction if we turned a corner in Washington and saw a more-than-life-size nude statue of George W. Bush? It would take some considering. But this experience was commonplace in the Hellenistic kingdoms, and the Roman emperors would imitate the Greeks even in this practice. In the new galleries we find a life-size bronze nude statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus (251–253 CE), holding (presumably) a missing spear in the pose of Alexander’s famous statue by Lysippos.

The Trebonianus statue, like other bronze survivals, is made up of fragments filled in with reconstructions. The same is true of a far more impressive statue, the one I referred to as not listed in the catalog. It is not there because the work is on loan from Shelby White, and her collection is under siege by the Italian government.9 The brilliant redesigned atrium is named for White and her husband, Leon Levy, and this statue has been in their living room in the past. In the scholarly literature it is known as the Levy bronze, but Levy and White called it “Harry” in their living room.10

For information on the statue, one must go to the catalog of an exhibit the Met mounted for the Levy-White collection in 1990.11 The statue’s magnificent portions, including a fine intact head, are good enough to be the boast of any Renaissance sculptor, though they are now pieced together with fiberglass. Unlike other portraits of rulers of the time, it has no diadem, but it has the clean-shaven face, tousled hair, divine stature, and haughty pose of the Alexander type. The head of the statue is small in proportion to the body, and Pliny (Natural History 34.65) says that Lysippos made Alexander’s head small on his bronzes to increase his height, as if he were tapering off as he towered up.

The height and the nudity are signs of divinity. The Hellenistic rulers of ethnic realms in the Middle East did not want to be identified by dress with just one of the several cultures from which they expected obeisance. Macedonian or Phrygian or Lydian or Egyptian or Ethiopian clothing would have limited their sway. They transcended the divisions within their regions. The 1991 Levy-White catalog is uncertain about the source of this statue, but the new gallery guesses more precisely that it came from the Pergamon kingdom of the Attalids (in present-day Turkey), of the second or first century BCE. In any case, it is a stunner. No wonder the Italians want it.


Roman Imperial Art

The Romans took over the empire that Alexander and his successors had forged. And they adopted the manners of their forebears, including the divine rulers. Classical Greek gods mixed with the middle class, at phratry or phalanx or symposion. But in Rome the high gods tended to create a wall of privilege around the ruling class. The humbler deities—each home’s lares and penates, or the gods of local feasts—were good enough for the common people.

That the upper class took on divine attributes can be seen in a fascinating marble sarcophagus from the third century CE. On its lid a married couple recline, each propped on an elbow in the pose common to Etruscan sarcophagi. (The Romans imitated them too.) The nearly life-size figures are given divine attributes, those of a river god (he holds a reed and shelters a lizardlike creature) and of the earth goddess Tellus (she holds a garland and two sheaves of wheat), and a land mammal, with a figure of Eros astride it, balances the lizard at the other end of the lid. His face has all the individuality of the ancestor busts that Rome perfected, but her head is only a roughly shaped marble block—she looks like some Magritte nightmare of shapely body and shapeless face. The natural supposition is that his face was finished when he died, but she was still alive, and the family was waiting till her body could join his in the sarcophagus. But for whatever reason—the family went broke, or no close relatives lived in the same place?—she was not given her own face when she died.

The high life of wealthy Romans at their summer homes is suggested by wall paintings from large villas on the outskirts of Pompeii—Boscoreale and Boscotrecase—that perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The paintings survived when the houses holding them were buried in volcanic ash. Two rooms have three of their walls intact. In the Boscoreale one (see illustration on page 12), rich colors pick out an architectural fantasy, a grotto with a fountain, and a still life. The superimposed architectural forms crowd forward in a way that might give claustrophobia to the person trying to sleep in this bedroom. The window in the far wall has bars of iron twisted and rent by the heat of the volcano. Though the room has been at the Met since 1903, few noticed the dramatic detail of the window, since it had a dull surface covering or a dark surface behind it. In the new arrangement, the window is backlit and the bars give grisly witness to the horrors going on outside this warm snug bedroom.

That room’s paintings are in the Second (Pompeian) Style (circa 80–20 BCE), which portrays nature and buildings in realistic perspective. The room from Boscotrecase is in the Third Style (circa 29 BCE–50 CE), which abandons realism for fantasy. The ancient architectural theorist Vitruvius was severely critical of this style, which was just coming in as he wrote:

Instead of columns they draw up fluted fronds. Instead of pediments, curlicues with pointed leaves and scrolls. They make candlesticks support little temple shapes, from which several tendrils shoot up with figurines irregularly perched in them. Or sprouts divide, some supporting statuettes with human heads, some with animal heads…. Yet how can a frond support a roof, or a candlestick support a figured pediment, or a soft and tender stalk support miniature statues? How can flowers and figurines rise alternately from roots and stalks?12

Since Vitruvius was architect to Augustus, and the Boscotrecase villa was owned by Agrippa Postumus, the son of Augustus’ son-in-law, it is surprising that Agrippa would have embraced the condemned new style.

A first glance at the room does not betray its fantastic elements. Instead, it gives the picture of a properly Augustan severity. Its background is all black, with spare architectural traceries placed like filaments over small parts of the wall. It is more like an architectural drawing than the picture of any real structure. Only on closer approach does one see that the fairyland traceries are filled with tiny fantasies, birds and urns, tiny swans (a family symbol of Augustus), a pole holding a fountain holding an Egyptian scene. A jeweled frieze runs around a trompe-l’oeil niche. The thin supporting pillars of this fairy architecture are in a constant state of metamorphosis as they rise, changing magically from one fine material to another, with varying ornaments along the way. Small fronds or flowers sprout from it at intervals, and faces are enameled into the iridescent surfaces. The result is a paradoxical combination of restraint and the imagination gone wild.


Etruscan Art (900–100 BCE)

On the rim of the new atrium, the mezzanine contains Etruscan art where the directors had offices when the atrium was a restaurant. The star of the show up there, also the subject of news reports, is a processional chariot from the small Umbrian town of Monteleone di Spoleto (population 680), where a farmer dug it up on his land and sold it in 1902. The chariot, created in the mid-sixth century BCE, has beaten bronze panels on three sides, with scenes from the life of Achilles shown in relief. The pole to which the two-horse yoke is attached has a wild boar’s head at its base (with ivory tusks), an eagle’s face at the end, and lion heads on both sides of the yoke. The front panel depicts Thetis giving Achilles the armor made for him by Hephaestus. Eagles of good omen are swooping down on each figure. Thetis hands the new helmet over, above a shield with a gorgon’s head on it. On the left panel, Achilles is shown fighting an opponent. The eagle of good omen swoops toward Achilles, not toward his foe, telling us what the outcome of this engagement will be.

The Etruscans, like the Romans after them, were addicted to Greek art and story. That is why they made Homer’s hero the subject of this wealthy person’s ornamental chariot. But the artist went beyond Homer in showing, on the right-hand panel, an apotheosis of Achilles. He is ascending to heaven in a chariot like the one to which the panel is attached. His mother, the sea goddess Thetis, is recumbent at the bottom of the panel, the flow of her long straight hair suggesting the water that is her element.

This is the most spectacular bronze chariot in existence, and the town of Monteleone, which has created a replica of it, wants the original back. But the first Italian law prohibiting the export of historic treasure dates from 1909, six years after the sale of the chariot to Parisian dealers, from whom J.P. Morgan bought it for the Met in 1903. The Italian government does not back Monteleone’s bid, since it will just make it harder to reclaim items that were sold illegally.13 The Met has made a new and beautiful restoration of the work, under the guidance of an Italian expert on ancient chariotry.

If some archaeologists had their way, there could be no museums of antiquity outside the countries where objects were originally found. This presumes an ethnic continuity where there is no political continuity, an ethnic claim that overrides all rights of purchase or intermediate ownership before export. Where there are clear laws preventing sale or export, they must of course be enforced. America accepted a United Nations Convention on Cultural Property in 1983. Retrospective laws have no force.

The restitution mystique has a certain resemblance to calls for reparations to black Americans for the crime of slavery. The best treatment I have heard of that issue was in a speech by the great historian John Hope Franklin. When he was a boy in Oklahoma, the 1921 race riot destroyed thirty-five blocks of the black district in Tulsa. Franklin’s father, a lawyer, was about to move his family to Tulsa. He was in the city when the riot occurred and he collected evidence of specific harm done to specific persons by specific malefactors, and tried to get legal redress. That is the form of reparations John Hope Franklin supports. But that is very different from a blanket use of taxes for reparations for blacks.

For one thing, many blacks now in America descend from people who were not here before 1865. Some of those who were here were free blacks. Some have intermarried with other races. Many of the whites whose tax money would be used are the children of immigrants who came after 1865 or were in territories where they did not themselves own slaves. Franklin says that any reparations would be inadequate as well as poorly targeted. The reparations offered to Japanese-Americans after World War II were so petty that some indignantly rejected them. The fight over reparations, Franklin added, would cause resentments and distract from more pressing matters of racial injustice that can be addressed far more equitably.

Trying to go back and rewrite history, righting all its wrongs, is a feckless endeavor. Even in the case of personal crimes, there is a statute of limitations to prevent such fecklessness. In the famous case of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, are today’s Greeks actually the descendants of ancient Athenians? For that matter, the Athenians themselves believed that the proper owner of works on the Parthenon was Athena—and she has been missing in action for some time now. As far as she is still alive, she is in the brains of all the people who read and love Homer and related works that deal with her—and there are more of those outside Greece than inside it. The legacy of Greece is everywhere, not just in Athens and Rome. That point is made clear in the sun-washed galleries of the Met, and in the splendid new catalog of these rooms. We are all Greeks. We are all Romans.


We Are All Romans Now’ June 28, 2007

  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).

  8. 9

    Elisabetta Povoledo, “Top Collector is Asked to Relinquish Artifacts,” The New York Times, November 29, 2006.

  9. 10

    Rebecca Mead, “Den of Antiquity,” The New Yorker, April 9, 2007.

  10. 11

    Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection, edited by Dietrich von Bothmer (Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Abrams, 1990), pp. 238–240.

  11. 12

    Vitruvius, Architecture 7.5.

  12. 13

    Elisabetta Povoledo, “Umbrian Umbrage: Send Back That Etruscan Chariot,” The New York Times, April 5, 2007.

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