Showcased in a spacious room with orange-tinged red walls, “Roman in the Provinces: Art on the Periphery of Empire” has a pristine aura to it. Organizationally precise and self-explanatory, the exhibit has different sections, each telling the story of Ancient Rome. The neat structure of the exhibit warmly introduced me, the uninitiated observer, to the complex society of the Roman Empire. But “Roman in the Provinces” avoids the typical narrative of the Empire, describing Rome’s dining and hospitality culture, popular furniture styles, technology, politics and religion, but emphasizing the subtle but distinct cultural nuances of the different regions that made up the Empire.
The exhibit cleverly employed textural and chromatic elements to give the viewers both a broad and a close-up look at Ancient Rome. “Mosaic with Personifications of Wealth and Pleasure,” a piece depicting Romans at leisure, along with other paintings on plaster and on limestone, gives a bohemian touch to the description of Rome’s society. The unfinished texture of the items invokes ideas of a potentially great Empire still in development.
Other sections of the exhibit showcase Roman dining and seating areas. Aside from flaunting the at once elegant and flamboyant nature of Roman taste, these areas offered a commentary on the socio-economic structures within the Empire. For instance, the description accompanying the seating area informed the viewers that women usually “sat or reclined on benches below those of their male companions.” Further, the quality of hospitality offered to guests was an indicator of the particular household’s social standing. The more refined the meat served and the more lavish the dining room setup, the higher the household’s position on the ladder.
“Roman in the Provinces,” while depicting trade and transport, attempts to offer the viewer a broader perspective. A map with the Empire’s major trade routes is on display. The well-connected networks suggest an advanced transport system, which facilitated what seemed to be a burgeoning trade market. Adding to the sense of cosmopolitanism, the exhibit also features several depictions of Julia Domna — a beautiful Syrian-born empress. These depictions took the form of Greek inscriptions about her and a doll head. Her importance, despite her foreign identity, was made clear by the space and the veneration dedicated to her in the exhibit.
The smaller items on display give more intricate and specific depictions of the Empire. These include coins, stones, vases, candlesticks, tumblers, cups, double headed bowls and jewelry items such as bead necklaces. Walking through this section of the exhibit was akin to exploring a present-day flee market in a small town; I felt almost felt an urge to negotiate a price for some of the pieces.
The center of the exhibit displays heads — a portrait of a woman, a portrait bust of a man in a toga, a portrait of an intellectual, and a portrait of an official, among others. The faces of the “Humans of the Roman Empire” — if you will — add a sense of completion to “Roman in the Provinces.” These people — not of the highest or the lowest classes — were those involved in the large-scale trade of these sorts of goods across the Empire. The Roman Empire, though great and mostly remembered for those on the highest rungs, was really made up by common men and women.