Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 28, 2024
Maggie Popkin Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2023. 346 pp. Cloth $99.99 (9781316517567)
Kimberly Cassibry Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire's Souvenirs New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. 320 pp. Cloth GPB64.00 (9780190921897)

Released nearly contemporaneously and with substantial overlap in their corpora, the two volumes under review, Maggie Popkin’s Souvenirs and the Experience of Empire in Ancient Rome and Kimberly Cassibry’s Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire’s Souvenirs share similar agendas—to take seriously the portable, small-scale representations of popular sights and pastimes that recur in the material record of the Roman Empire. Despite these similarities, Popkin and Cassibry take different approaches in achieving their goal and consequently offer distinct yet complementary insights.

Popkin’s Souvenirs opens with an introductory chapter establishing key terms and methodological frameworks. The book then proceeds into two parts: part one (chapters two–four) focuses on souvenirs of specific objects and places—famous cult statues and landmark architectural monuments from different parts of the empire; and part two (chapters five–eight) switches focus to souvenirs and memorabilia related to arena, circus, and theater spectacles. In her introduction, Popkin convincingly argues that the anachronistic term souvenir is useful as a heuristic device that captures “the extraordinary capacities of otherwise seemingly ordinary objects,” including “their capacity to enable possession of places and experiences and to permit wide participation in a shared cultural koine” (7–8). Popkin’s theoretical approach draws on several analytical concepts which are signposted with remarkable clarity throughout the book. Students will benefit from succinct introductions to theories of lived religion (28–30), technologies of place-making (94–97), and memory studies (105–108).

Chapter two analyzes miniature reproductions of four famous cult statues—Artemis of Ephesus, Athena Parthenos, Knidian Aphrodite, and Tyche of Antioch—whose fame was inextricably linked to the place of their display. Popkin demonstrates the interdependency of the souvenirs and the cult statues themselves (without the countless replicas found in a variety of media across the empire, the “original” could not signify so much) (56). Through sensual experience, in particular, these handheld, portable souvenirs “made the gods more knowable than cult statues themselves” (58). Moving from sculpture to vessels in glass and metal, chapter three brings together souvenirs representing specific cities and sites of the Empire—the harbor of Alexandria in Egypt with its Pharos lighthouse, the popular seaside pleasure towns of Puteoli and Baiae in Italy, and Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. An extended section on chorographia (88–92) will be of particular interest to specialists interested in Roman representations of space. Especially thought-provoking is the discussion of souvenirs as demonstrating a sub-elite panegyric sensibility that is not entirely text-based as Popkin identifies the intention to praise (that one expects in a panegyric) through visual means and sharp formal analysis, by pointing out manipulations of scale or the positioning of captions on the surface of the vessel (90–91).

In chapter four, Popkin takes a step back and examines the work of objects discussed in the preceding two chapters as critical technologies of memory and knowledge. Her discussion of schematization resonates with the revival of interest in techniques of miniaturization among classical archaeologists and ancient art historians (some examples of this revival of interests include the 2018 volume The Tiny and the Fragmented: Miniature, Broken, or Otherwise Incomplete Objects in the Ancient World, edited by S. Rebecca Martin and Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper, or the 2020 volume Figurines: Figuration and the Sense of Scale, edited by Jaś Elsner). Roman souvenirs were engaged in “a continual act of place-making, a (re)construction and (re)signification of the represented place that derived from the interaction between the object and its beholder" (94). These objects did not merely reflect landmark status, they actively created it (103). Popkin also offers a new conceptualization of the networks that entangled producers, vendors, and users of souvenirs. Drawing from the postcolonial, diasporic, and feminist critiques of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), she proposes “imagined affinities” as a more useful term, one that “implies that a person may feel common ground with others while simultaneously feeling a certain amount of figural and possibly literal distance from those same people” (111–14).

Although no less conceptually rigorous, the second part of the book loses some of its specificity, as the discussion turns from souvenirs of specific places to souvenirs of sporting events and theatrical performances. In chapter five, Popkin’s central thesis is that portable representations of gladiatorial matches or chariot races generated and disseminated knowledge of arena and circus spectacles, while also enabling people to project their participation in these activities, relating them both to famous athletes and one another (121). She convincingly argues that such sports memorabilia could make specific moments within a spectacle loom larger in collective memory, by keeping visible the otherwise passing climactic moment (142). For a spectator of a live gladiatorial battle, for example, the moment of life or death decision would be mediated by countless visual encounters with memorabilia that represented precisely that moment of a battle’s narrative.

Whether such spectacle memorabilia are best understood as souvenirs, however, is unclear. This becomes a broader issue in chapter six, in which a very wide variety of portable objects with theatrical imagery theoretically fits Popkin’s definition of theater souvenirs, or, more precisely, “consumer goods relating to theater” (175). The author acknowledges that these objects “tend to evoke a more general idea of the theater” (190). Any given representation of a theatrical mask, for example, is more likely to connote well-being associated with the Dionysiac sphere (186) than a specific visit to the theater. Even if it did evoke such a visit, one should keep in mind that Roman theaters were sites of numerous nondramatic events of the highest importance, including civic assemblies and religious rituals, especially in the Greek-speaking parts of the empire (see Pont, Anne-Valérie, “The City at the Theater in Anatolia from the 260s to the 320s AD: Signs of a Major Transformation,” CHS Research Bulletin 2, 2014). Local idiosyncrasies of this kind are tackled in chapter seven, with three Empire-spanning case studies of spectacle souvenirs in context, focusing on Spain, Britain, and Greece.

One of Popkin’s arguments is that, because miniature souvenirs of large objects allowed proximity and intimacy, “they also allowed ownership: When one could buy and hold in one’s hands a glass bottle in the form of the Tyche of Antioch, one could possess that statue and the city it symbolized without being present in Syria” (10). This assumed desire to possess recurs throughout the book; spectacle memorabilia glorified, but also “literally objectified performers, enabling physical possession of actors, charioteers, and gladiators whose bodies already existed for the pleasure of others” (240). Possession is a notion that would benefit from a deeper critical engagement. What do we mean when we say that a resident of the Roman Empire desired “possession by proxy” (8) of a famous statue or a famous charioteer? In Roman law, possessio requires animus, or a manifest intention to control an object; “The animus consists in the will to treat as one’s own the thing that is the object of our apprehension” (Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 1875, s.v. possessio). Taking into account this desire to control, it seems crucial that all four of Popkin’s case studies of statue souvenirs are of female deities, and that souvenirs of well-known male statues are exceptions (53). While Popkin acknowledges that the naked Knidian Aphrodite could be an “erotic landmark” (49), this is true across the board: despite her shield and armor, the Athena Parthenos is just as manipulable.

Finally, present-day possession is an issue with respect to some of the objects discussed in this book. Popkin’s corpus consists of numerous objects with known excavation contexts, but also of objects from museum collections lacking an archaeological provenience. While it is appreciated that each illustrated object is identified with its museum accession number, more discussion of provenance would be welcome. For a book that so productively draws on the modern souvenir experience, it is surely relevant that, for example, the Syrian glass bottle depicting the Tyche of Antioch (42), today in the Yale University Art Gallery (acc. no. 1955.6.81), was purchased in 1925 from Kouchakji Frères, dealers who sold antiquities to Westerners via Aleppo, Paris, and New York. The absence of museums and collections in the index is also regrettable.

Kimberly Cassibry’s Destinations in Mind: Portraying Places on the Roman Empire’s Souvenirs approaches Roman souvenirs from a different methodological perspective, and is, in fact, more cautious about what can be termed a souvenir in the first place. Compared to Popkin’s capacious definitions, Cassibry is more restrictive; “[A] souvenir, strictly defined, should perpetuate personal memories, and I became frustrated trying to find those in the archaeological record. I could tell which objects had the potential to bear such cognitive investment, but not whether they actually had” (2). She decides instead to investigate the material as “portable portrayals of place” which are “equally material texts and portable works of art” (2–3).

Each of the book’s four main chapters is conceived as an independent case study following the same structure: a detailed description of the object group, followed by an introduction into the places portrayed, an analysis of the conventions employed to decorate the objects, a detailed treatment of inscriptions, and a discussion of the objects’ circulation. Cassibry’s lively writing prevents this system from appearing too rigid, while also avoiding shoehorning different classes of material into an overgeneralizing theory. Chapter one analyzes four silver vessels found in Vicarello (Aquae Apollinares), Italy, each inscribed with an itinerarium (list of stops on the journey) between Cádiz (Gades) and Rome. Although the three subsequent chapters overlap with material covered by Popkin, Cassibry tightens the focus on a smaller number of objects, which are analyzed in depth. Chapter two examines glass cups depicting labeled charioteers and gladiators, chapter three looks at metal pans from Hadrian’s wall, and chapter four focuses on glass bottles with representations of Puteoli and Baiae. A concluding chapter unites the insights and points out future directions of research.

Cassibry’s book is brimming with insights derived from close looking and handling of the objects, which complicate and push beyond Popkin’s more sociological understanding of the same material. Cassibry’s approach is especially valuable for the way it engages with the materiality of textual inscriptions, best exemplified in chapter one on the Vicarello silver cups. As a textual format, the Roman itinerarium can seem almost painfully dry, consisting of a list of places and distances between points A and B. However, in Cassibry’s hands, the cups come to life. Multiple temporalities in the objects’ biographies are considered, from the maker’s preparatory process of fitting hundreds of words on the curving surface of the vessel (45) to the end user’s pacing in reading the visually patterned words (47). An extended section retraces the journey inscribed on the cups; a number of stops between the Spanish city of Gades and the Empire’s capital are brought to mind with a dozen in situ color photographs taken by Cassibry, although the selection of sites seems somewhat arbitrary (35–61).

Cassibry has a remarkable ability to combine art historical, historiographic, and museological observations. The discussion of representative strategies employed by the makers of the spectacle cups in chapter two is informed by first-hand experience handling and rotating the cups (72–74), which produces an object encounter entirely different from the experience of those same images on a studio-shot museum photograph. The evidentiary value of rollout drawings, so necessary for the study of the cityscapes on the Puteoli and Baiae cups, is tackled in chapter four. Questions of provenance, woven into the argument throughout the book, are especially prominent in chapter three, where Cassibry makes clear the rapid and still evolving impact of the United Kingdom’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) on the contextualized study of metal pans found near Hadrian’s Wall. Throughout Destinations in Mind, profound insights about how we study the ancient experience of portable objects emerge even from passing remarks: a chariot race depicted around the body of a cup moves rightwards, requiring counterclockwise rotation of the vessel; the band of text running above the image, however, demands a clockwise rotation to be read (101). The commitment to an embodied experience of the object extends to the illustrations, which include numerous new photographs of objects from different angles taken by the author; unfortunately, paper quality and print resolution sometimes thwart those efforts.

Both volumes under review offer new approaches to the study of an underappreciated class of ancient material culture. Their different methodologies follow from different questions posed of the material; if Popkin asks what work souvenirs do in the globalized society of the Roman Empire, Cassibry is more interested in how they do it. The insights provided by both books are not limited to whichever class of object we may or may not consider a “proper” souvenir, and instead have implications for Roman art history, and art history more broadly. Indeed, Popkin and Cassibry’s arguments could (and should) be placed in a more global art historical context. One could imagine a dialog between Popkin’s work on miniaturization and Andrew Hamilton’s Scale and the Incas (Princeton University Press, 2018), or between Cassibry’s treatment of space on the Puteoli/Baiae cups and Juliet B. Wiersema’s Architectural Vessels of the Moche: Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space in Ancient Peru (University of Texas Press, 2015). One obvious venue where such a dialog might be fostered are annual meetings of the College Art Association, at which scholarship on Roman material culture, as Cassibry rightly notes in her conclusion (214), remains a rare sight.

Roko Rumora
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, The University of Chicago