Classically Inclined

September 8, 2014

On emperors and exhibitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
Tags: , ,

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been hard-pressed to miss the recent flurry of #Aug2K tweets as I live-tweeted my way through the Commemorating Augustus conference at Leeds, ably organised by Penny Goodman. The occasion for all the Augustus excitement is the bimillenium of his death – two thousand years ago in August, the first ever emperor carked it. (Penny has a blog post on how we know the precise date.) The conference was one of those wonderful assortments of people working on things that you’d not think fitted together but that actually each reflect on each other in really interesting ways. I particularly loved the panel my talk belonged to, which had three very different ways of reading Senecan and pseudo-Senecan texts plus a bit of a riff on Flavian coinage. But this is not the only Augustan honorific I’ve seen – I also managed to get over the Channel in time to see the Moi, Auguste exhibition at the Paris Expo before it closed. This show had travelled from Rome with some alterations – Mary Beard saw both versions and wrote about the comparison back in April. Having not seen the Rome version, I’m not in a position to comment, but I do have some thoughts about what I saw.

Obviously, the experience was hugely enhanced by being a classicist, and by going with a classicist – one sneaky reason for the quick trip across was to coincide with a good friend of mine who spends most of the year in the US but was in Europe for the summer. Statues and catching-up coffee – what’s not to like? This meant that when we saw the simply spectacular marble frieze of a naval battle (presumably Actium) featuring a centaur in Hercules’ lion-skin to represent Antony… oh, how we laughed. Honestly, it’s hysterical if you’re familiar with the political polemic of the period, in which Antony tries to associate himself with Heracles for his political benefit, and his enemies describe him as a centaur who can’t control his base physical desires. If ever a student asks whether we aren’t asking too much in expecting an audience to automatically associate a politician with his propaganda, the photo of this frieze is coming out. Subtle it ain’t – and it was expected to be understood long after it had been put up.

The experience of the Actium frieze actually represents my overall experience quite well – there were a number of Quite Interesting Artefacts of which I either had seen a hundred photographs or had never heard, meaning I oscillated between the joy of meeting old friends and the excitement of encountering new ones. That’s not an easy feat when dealing with the first emperor, whose material culture is so very well known – or maybe it isn’t so surprising, given the small number of superstar artefacts allow for many less well-known works to be out there and deserve their time in the spotlight.

My problem with the exhibit, alas, was with the structure. A ‘Romans in Gaul in sort-of-this-period’ had been tacked on to the end, which was fairly interesting but didn’t quite feel as if it connected to the rest of the exhibition. The show spread over two floors; while the first worked well and the second started strongly, even by the time we’d reached the Romans in Gaul it felt as if we’d moved away from a strong focus on Augustus and more into some generally interesting things about the Romans and their empire, which meant that the focus on Gaul had some lead-in but still didn’t quite link back to the start of the show as well as it might have done. Finally, the final room was something of an anti-climax  – there were two monumental statues of Augustus and Livia in religious roles, and… that was that. No comment on emperor-cult, no particular reflection on the succession or the funeral. Just some more stairs and the gift shop. Which was a bit of a damp squib of a way to end the exhibition, sadly.

I think the problem with these things is how to make the available artefacts fit into a sensible narrative – the second floor felt very much like it slipped into general Augustan culture and sort-of-Augustan history without quite making enough connection to the emperor himself, so the disjointed ending was the product of a slow disengagement with Augustus which lead to a rapid whiplash effect in the final room. But it’s hard to have a narrative about Augustus, as the Leeds conference showed – for a figure about whom we know an awful lot, he’s open to a lot of rewriting. He can be the goodie, the villain, the right-man-in-the-right-place, the manipulated husband, an early recipient of the Christian message, and plenty of other things besides. It’s not surprising that the Paris narrative, in wanting to write itself into Augustan history, got a bit side-tracked. After all, there’s an awful lot of story to tell and plenty of angles to take – there’s only so much you can do with two floors, no matter how wonderful the exhibits.

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