Review – Materialising Roman Histories

3 mins read
Edited by Astrid Van Oyen and Martin Pitts
Oxbow Books, £40.00
ISBN 978-1785706769
Review Edward Biddulph

Objects have long been viewed in Roman archaeology as things that represent, being regarded as expressions of status, identity, wealth or Romanisation. While the concept of Romanisation has been subject to much criticism, the idea of representation continues to dominate. The result, the editors of Materialising Roman Histories argue, prevents a fuller understanding of objects – the cultural environment in which they emerged and were used, their associations, and their role in historical narratives.

This book sets out to challenge notions of representation, look beyond typologies to identify cultural connections that may otherwise have been obscured, and examine standardisation and mechanisms of change. It also aims to explore how materials, objects, people, and context were interconnected or ‘entangled’. At the heart of the book is the theory of material agency, the idea that objects not only are, but also do. In other words, objects have agency that influences human behaviour and are therefore fundamental to our understanding of material, cultural change and history.

The function of objects is explored in contributions by academics specialising in Roman materiality, who examine objects as diverse as Gallo-Belgic pottery, concrete, inkwells, dice, clay figurines, and wall paintings across the Roman Empire. The cases are compelling (that Nero’s historical impact depended so much on concrete is a revelation), yet I felt there was a gap. Material agency and cultural evolution share much common ground, but the latter had little more than a passing mention. This is curious as, with discussions of object genealogies; incremental culture change ‘invisible to the eye’; the transmission of knowledge to the next generation; variation through improvisation and error; and the view that material agency is ‘a force that can work beyond that of conscious human agency’, the book is not short of Darwinian ideas.

The volume’s editors and contributors have the ambitious and exciting aim of changing the way we look at objects. In this they deserve to succeed. The question we must ask now is not ‘what did the Romans do for us?’, but ‘what did objects do for the Romans?’

This review appeared in CA 333.

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