Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

By Herwig Wolfram, University of Vienna

The names of early Germanic warrior tribes and leaders resound in songs and legends; the real story of the part they played in reshaping the ancient world is no less gripping. Herwig Wolfram's panoramic history spans the great migrations of the Germanic peoples and the rise and fall of their kingdoms between the third and eighth centuries, as they invaded, settled in, and ultimately transformed the Roman Empire.

"As Germanic military kings and their fighting bands created kingdoms, and won political and military recognition from imperial governments through alternating confrontation and accommodation, the "tribes" lost their shared culture and social structure, and became sharply differentiated. They acquired their own regions and their own histories, which blended with the history of the empire. In Wolfram's words, "the Germanic peoples neither destroyed the Roman world nor restored it; instead, they made a home for themselves within it."

This story is far from the "decline and fall" interpretation that held sway until recent decades. Wolfram's narrative, based on his sweeping grasp of documentary and archaeological evidence, brings new clarity to a poorly understood period of Western history."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration

Last week I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was thrilled to see wall frescoes from the Roman villas in Boscoreale. I will be visiting that archaeological site in October. In looking for reference material about the villas there, I came across this comprehensive book.

"In this richly illustrated book, art historian John R. Clarke helps us see the ancient Roman house "with Roman eyes." Clarke presents a range of houses, from tenements to villas, and shows us how enduring patterns of Roman wall decoration tellingly bear the cultural, religious, and social imprints of the people who lived with them.

In case studies of seventeen excavated houses, Clarke guides us through four centuries of Roman wall painting, mosaic, and stucco decoration, from the period of the "Four Styles" (100 B.C. to A.D. 79) to the mid- third century. The First Style Samnite House shows its debt to public architecture in its clear integration of public and private spaces. The Villa of Oplontis asserts the extravagant social and cultural climate of the Second Style. Gemlike Third-Style rooms from the House of Lucretius Fronto reflect the refinement and elegance of Augustan tastes. The Vettii brothers' social climbing helps explain the overburdened Fourth-Style decoration of their famous house. And evidence of remodelling leads Clarke to conclude that the House of Jupiter and Ganymede became a gay hotel in the second century.

In his emphasis on social and spiritual dimensions, Clarke offers a contribution to Roman art and architectural history that is both original and accessible to the general reader. The book's superb photographs not only support the author's findings but help to preserve an ancient legacy that is fast succumbing to modern deterioration resulting from pollution and vandalism."