Carrie Vout Abstract

 Collecting like Caesar: the pornography and paideia of amassing artefacts in the Roman Empire

Carrie Vout
University of Cambridge

Ancient Rome and the Italy of which it was a part had long expressed its relationship with the Greek world through the acquisition of culture and the blending of styles. With Rome’s expansion into this Greek world in the second century BCE, the need to define this relationship became imperative: the Romans were conquerors of people and production, bringing Greek artefacts back into the Urbs and treating them in ways that would come to define the world’s largest empire. When Augustus won at Actium in 31 BCE, Egyptian iconography was added to an evolving classicism. What was initially intended as part of a public display that would enable Rome to rival Alexandria and Athens quickly infiltrated individual houses. By 100 CE, there was a thriving art market in Italy, a classical canon, and a premium on connoisseurship.

Ancient authors adopt various strategies to make sense of this ‘evolution’, retrospectively asking what Rome does to this influx of ‘art’, as it now is, and what it does to Rome and good Romans. Understandably perhaps, the Roman emperor is at the heart of this new discourse, his interest in artefacts seen as an index of his strengths and weaknesses as a ruler. Suetonius’ Julius Caesar prepares the ground here; his decision to invade remote and godforsaken Britain understood, with the benefit of hindsight, as a desire to get his hands on pearls, the bigger the better. Augustus too, though generally extolled as the ideal emperor, is accused of putting people on proscription lists simply to get hold of their Corinthian vases, a failing that Suetonius groups together with a fondness for gambling. Small wonder that when his successor Tiberius set his sights on Greek art, his desire has become pornography.

Extreme it may be, but pornography of the kind attributed to Tiberius is one way of rationalizing the levels of excitement that made artefacts ‘art’ in this period. ‘Paideia’ or elite education would be another, with later emperors such as Hadrian and imitators such as Herodes Atticus investing more self-consciously than ever in this equation of collecting and playing at being a princeps. The ‘collection’ of Greek- and Egyptian-inspired artworks at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli is held up as the epitome of good taste and the model for later collectors such as Catherine the Great, yet it too constructs contexts for its artefacts that make the connoisseur an inevitable voyeur.

Pornography and paideia are two sides of the same coin, and the discourses of empire and collecting, as developed in Rome, were currencies traded by courts from the Carolingians onwards: it is no accident that when the Pope gave Henri II the ‘Diana of Versailles’, the statue spoke of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Pliny’s Natural History, a work dedicated to the emperor Titus, already brings sex and statues together. This paper shows that no matter how many artefacts empires (have to) acquire, art collecting has to be personal.