A fresh look at the art of ordinary citizens in ancient Rome

Elaborate mosaics, elegant silver jewellery and glorious architecture for the emperor and his entourage in the imperial court…. Isn’t that what most people visualize when they picture art in the ancient Roman world?

Now, a recently published collection of essays, The Art of Citizens, Soldiers, and Freedmen in the Roman World (Archaeopress, 2006), takes a refreshing look beyond art for the elite.

Left: The cover image from The Art of Citizens, Soldiers, and Freedmen in the Roman World

Co-editor of the book, York art historian and archaeologist Guy Métraux, and fellow contributors examine artistic creations by and for the ordinary person, from the first century BCE to the early fifth century CE. The publication is richly illustrated with maps, plans, figures, drawings and photographs which show how folk in humble Roman times sought to express themselves.

"We aren’t talking about ‘official’ art at all," explains Métraux, "but rather ordinary objects for provincial citizens and the lower classes, such as tombs and wall paintings and household objects. Having your work commemorated was important for people then, most of whom lived lives of quiet desperation. Even a name roughly inscribed on a tomb gave a little hope for a working person."

Métraux describes the tombs of two midwives in the coastal town of Ostia. One was the moderately well-to-do wife of a doctor and her tomb was "fairly glamorous"; the other was evidently a fairly humble midwife, whose tomb was decorated with stone relief showing her assisting at a birth.

Right: Portrait statue of Julia Procula from Ostia, Rome. The statue is featured in the book The Art of Citizens, Soldiers, and Freedmen in the Roman World. The statue depics a young woman who was not of noble birth. She was commemorated as a figure of the healing arts because of her stepfather’s profession as a physician.

Some of the artists weren’t without a sense of humour. "All the walls of a tavern in Ostia were decorated with depictions of the Seven Sages of Greece seated on thrones together with their most famous sayings," says Métraux, talking about the scene described in an essay by John Clarke. Below the classical figures of the philosophers are "ordinary men sitting down to defecate in a large, communal latrine, commenting wittily on the sayings of the sages as they do so.

"This kind of visual joke is saying that, while not everyone drinking in such a bar would be literate, everyone can laugh. This is an example of real, popular culture of the time."

Métraux also spoke of an essay by Anthony Cutler that mentions an ivory comb showing mythological scenes of violence. "The question is, why, in a domestic situation, would someone have a personal object like this depicting violent scenes?"

And the answer Métraux provides is, "The Roman Empire depended on a constant presence of violence in the amphitheatre – for example, the famous martyrdoms – for purposes of social control. This ivory comb is an example of the domestication of violence."

Another type of Roman art made by the lower classes has been found in Scotland along the Antonine Wall, built north of Hadrian’s Wall around the middle of the second century.

"In her essay, Natalie Kampen illustrates the stone reliefs made by the soldiers to commemorate their work," says Métraux. "Her analysis shows how the multiethnic, multicultural Roman army devised new visual styles that were quite different from those of the classical, elite tradition."

Métraux’s own contribution to the book, "Consumer’s Choices: The Arts in the Age of Late Roman ‘Mechanical’ Reproduction", discusses how art in the ancient Roman world was re-fashioned as it became more accessible to people of all classes.

"There was no real ‘mechanical’ reproduction as such then," says Métraux, but as art became "absolutely indispensable in the urban and domestic scene", artists began to standardize their production, offering streamlined stylistic choices and easily repeatable meanings for quite ordinary houses.

Métraux speaks of "upwardly mobile" people who made use of the new, standardized art by commissioning Roman artisans to make mosaic pavements showing fish and crustaceans. "If you were wealthy, you could afford to eat fish and crustaceans," said Métraux. "However, if you belonged to the middle or lower class and wanted to claim a place among the elite, then you might do the next best thing to eating fish and crustaceans by commissioning a depiction of them."

Métraux’s next major project is a book following up research he carried out in the 1990s on the Carthage project of the Corpus des mosaiques de Tunisie. This book discusses the Christian destruction of ancient art and an exciting find he made.

This article was written by freelance writer Cathy Carlyle.