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Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your eyes

The image on a simple coin of the Roman emperor Augustus can convey much more than mere money. (Ephesus mint. Struck 24-20 BC)
Creative Commons
The image on a simple coin of the Roman emperor Augustus can convey much more than mere money. (Ephesus mint. Struck 24-20 BC)

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but when the picture comes from a different culture or time, it's tough to figure out exactly what those words might be. Illinois State University scholar Lea Cline deals with that challenge every day.

Cline, with fellow art historian Nathan Elkins, has edited the new "Oxford Handbook of Roman Imagery and Iconography," a collection of essays published by Oxford University Press.

Images play an important role in daily life. If you see a logo for a well-known corporation, you immediately know something about the company and its business. This communication was even more important for Romans when the literacy rate was between 5% and 15%, said Cline.

“The populace does rely on the images and the messages being sent out by their leaders. You might find, for instance, the most salient political language actually happens on coins. Coins can be minted in the millions in a very short amount of time. Most Romans don't know who the emperor is, until they see them on a coin,” said Cline.

The Roman empire was huge. It was not just Italy or even the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It stretched from the British Isles to Turkey and from Ukraine to North Africa. Cline said they used images on coins to overcome the difficulty of widespread and fast communication.

Oxford University Press

“On the back of a coin of Augustus is an image of the Capricorn. The Capricorn is a symbol for the zodiac. But the Capricorn is the sign under which he was born. It's also a sign of prosperity. And so, he oftentimes printed coins around his birthday with his face on one side and the image of the Capricorn on the other,” said Cline.

"There's no text on the coin that says that. It’s just an understanding his birth date would be important, and that the Capricorn then is a symbol of productivity and success … something he wants to convey about himself.”

Images also can convey religious messages, and transmit norms for behavior, trade, commerce, social class, and simple directions.

“In a bath complex, you might find the representation of a bath attendant with black skin on the floor," said Cline. "That's a symbol, a message that the floor is hot. People with black skin were considered to be African. Africans are warm because Africa is warm. There are these latent images that are complexly arranged but would probably not have the same read for us today.”

All humans are interested in sex. And yes, Roman images say things about that, too.

“The Romans believed that to be surrounded by beautiful art during the act of conception would mean that your child would be beautiful. So, there's a lot of representations of quote-unquote, beautiful sex that show married couples engaged in child making, in the context of a beautiful room or beautiful landscape,” said Cline.

And like sex in all times and cultures, it’s complicated.

“This is one of the reasons I like art and archaeology. We can read a text that says, this is illegal. And then you can see the realities on the ground are very, very different,” said Cline.

In the Roman empire men could have sex with whomever they wanted. Women were not supposed to enjoy it. Women were not supposed to have sex outside of marriage. And women were only supposed to be having sex for procreation, said Cline.

“However, we have lots of representations in Pompeii, for instance, of women being serviced by male prostitutes. We think those are supposed to be funny. Accessing humor requires that you understand these complex social mores to understand what counterculture would be, therefore shocking and funny,” said Cline.

Roman art was remarkably consistent across time, Cline said. Narratives and mythologies remained the same. For instance, they told the same story of Hercules in the third century AD, as in the first century BCE. Local traditions in the Roman world do matter, though. She said images differ stylistically from, say, Italy to Egypt. Before Egypt became part of the empire in 31 BC there was a 2,500-year history of Egyptian art.

“You can see an image of a Sphinx and you know that it's Egyptian. The Romans have a very different tradition, that's a kind of Greco Etruscan tradition, that has very different approaches to picturing their gods, for instance," said Cline. "The Romans don't have gods in the form of animals. Egyptians do. The clothing styles are different. The body types are different. The hairstyles are different.

"Over time, you'll see the Egyptian population wants to acclimate to the New Roman imperial tradition. We see mummies and their casings, an Egyptian tradition, showing images of Egyptian citizens seeking to look Roman, wearing Roman clothing, wearing Roman jewelry, wearing Roman hairstyles. They're using their traditional forms of burial, their traditional forms of illustration, or portraiture. Now they're layering Roman ideas on to it.” .

And each area of the Empire creates a mashup that is unique to it, Cline said.

Roman style images percolated through early Christianity into the Byzantine empire, the Middle Ages, and the Italian Renaissance.

“In the Middle Ages, churches are based entirely on a Roman architectural model called the Basilica, a Roman building adapted by Christian communities. Because Christian communities are congregational communities, they gather for worship. They need buildings that are big enough to hold people. Roman religion didn't need that. But the basilica was a big kind of multi-use space,” said Cline

Subsequent cultures found it important to imitate the Romans, to be inheritors of the empire. Cline said that is true even today, largely in architecture.

“Mostly in the articulation of power. If you go to any state capitol, and our federal capitol, we are heavily relying on the Roman tradition to articulate this idea of power and stability and some linkage to the great traditions. You can see images of Greek keys (a repeating motif across the tops of buildings) and acacia plants, and other things that are very common in Roman architectural imagery. They're on our Supreme Court and on the White House,” said Cline. “You can't go very far on a road without seeing a bank or some sort of building that's using Roman techniques.”

The study of the meaning of images has had less emphasis in the last half century as scholars have explored archaeological research, materials sciences, historical social history, psychological evaluation, and other new forms of analysis, Cline said.

That’s shifting back as researchers find they need iconography and visual analysis to be part of the toolkit of methods to reach a more global understanding of artifacts. Cline and Elkin’s book is intended as an aide to that. And by drilling down on details of the Roman tradition, Cline said readers can begin to see a more universal truth as they live in today’s visual world, bombarded by hundreds of images a minute.

“Even in the ancient Mesopotamian period, images have a power. Images speak. They tell stories. We can understand those stories, because the norms of using those images have been established for us. For instance, the way we do cartoon strips. I can find that same kind of arrangement of storytelling all the way back to about 2000 BC,” said Cline. “I think that's a human thing.”

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.