by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rome and the Barbarians

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 15 February 2008
Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia.
Jean-Paul Laurens's 'Honorius,' 1880,
depicts the last emperor of the West.



'In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.' So the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon began his monumental 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' addressing in six volumes the question: What went wrong?

The organizers of 'Rome and the Barbarians' at Palazzo Grassi appear to take a sunnier view of these momentous events, subtitling their exhibition, which covers around 800 years of the same ground as Gibbon, 'The Birth of a New World.' The show of more than 2,000 artifacts from 200 museums in 23 countries revives the policy of using Palazzo Grassi as the venue for blockbuster presentations of ancient civilizations - the Celts, Mayans and Etruscans were among them - established by the Fiat group during its tenure of the building from 1983 to 2005.

The Palazzo was taken over by the French businessman François Pinault, whose assets include Gucci and Christie's and he initially employed it as a showcase for his own collection of modern and contemporary art (attracting a fraction of the number of visitors typical in the Fiat days). The current exhibition continues until July 20, then travels on to the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn (Aug. 22 to Dec. 7). The curator of the Grassi version is Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a career public service employee and former French culture minister, rather than a scholar.

It would be worth visiting this exhibition for certain categories of objects alone - the wonderful ivory diptychs from Aosta, Florence, Novara and Rome in Italy; Liège, Belgium; and Paris; the exceptional silverwork, including the late-fourth to early-fifth-century 'Achilles Shield' platter (fished out of the Rhone in 1656); the magnificent first-century Hildesheim Treasure from Berlin; the 'Meerstadtplatte,' with its exquisite engraved and gilded roundel of a port city, from Switzerland; and the glittering gold cloisonné ornaments and jewelry from sites scattered across Europe.

When it comes to the mode of presentation, those who are familiar with their Gibbon should not have much trouble following the narrative. But those who are not or who have not read up on the period elsewhere may find themselves struggling to relate the objects to the unfolding historical drama. The exhibition guide, with short texts by Aillagon, does not say enough, and the catalogue, with its awkwardly arranged structure, contributions from 120 authors and nearly 700 pages, says too much for the average lay person, and, weighing in at over 3.25 kilos (7 pounds) is too heavy to carry around. The explanatory panels on the walls and labeling of exhibits are seriously inadequate.

The show is punctuated by French 19th-century oils, such as Paul-Henri Motte's 'Vercingetorix Surrenders to Julius Caesar'; Lionel Royer's 'Germanicus Before the Remains of the Legions of Varus,' commemorating the disastrous defeat of the Roman legions by Germanic tribes in the Teutoborg Forest in A.D. 9; Jean-Paul Laurens's 'Honorius,' depicting the last, boy emperor of the West; and Joseph-Noël Sylvestre's 'The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410,' of the near naked soldiers of the Visigoth Alaric clambering up a massive statue of a Roman emperor to attach a rope to topple it - an image that instantly brings to mind the conquest of Baghdad. These are colorful and suggestive additions but, of course, fanciful recreations, not historical documents.

With scores of peoples and subgroups involved - from the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals and Alamanni to the Huns, Avars, Franks and Saxons - this is a complex story to relate and illustrate in an exhibition. And the focus is often far from clear. An early section, for example, is called: 'The Empire: A Humane Community and Open Society.' This consists principally of Roman portrait busts, which bear mute witness to this somewhat sweeping characterization of their slave-owning civilization. The only panel in the room relates to a 19th-century print of a reconstruction of the 'Tabularium,' the Roman Archives building. Meanwhile, a beautifully inscribed bronze plaque from Lyon, recording a speech in which the Emperor Claudius asked the Senate to admit eminent Gauls to official Roman posts, is insufficiently commented and expanded on.

The section called 'The Birth of the Barbarian Kingdoms: The Ostrogoths of Ravenna' fleetingly presents the most productive case of Roman-Barbarian symbiosis, in the late fifth and early sixth century. Theodoric had spent time in his youth as a 'hostage' at the Byzantine court, a guarantee of the good behavior of the Ostrogoth leadership, whose people had been allowed to settle within the eastern Empire's borders. He was exposed in Constantinople to high Greek and Latin culture and went on to rule Italy in the name of the Emperor from his own capital in Ravenna, leaving much of the administration to the old Roman elite, while enforcing law and order with his Ostrogothic troops.

There is a finely wrought length of pipe here from an aqueduct, bearing his name, but its significance is not clarified. For Theodoric undertook a vast program of public works in Ravenna and other parts of the peninsula, including Rome, to repair the ruination and neglect caused by repeated barbarian invasions.

Theodoric, along with very many other 'barbarians' in different parts of Europe and North Africa, was a follower of the Arian sect, which had its own churches, bishops and clergy. The spread of this brand of Christianity among Germanic speakers had been facilitated by the Arian bishop Ulfilas's remarkable fourth-century translation of the Bible into Gothic. For most of his 33-year reign, Theodoric was notable for his toleration of his Catholic fellow Christians. This policy was not reciprocated by the Catholics, who had declared Arianism, which regarded Christ as not being of the same divine substance as the Father, a heresy at the Council of Niceae in 325, and eventually persecuted it out of existence.

Arianism is touched upon at various points in the exhibition, but its importance to a large part of the barbarian world is underplayed. So complete was the eradication of the heresy that most of what we know about its doctrines now comes down to us from its opponents. Consequently, a sixth-century Arian book 'On the Trinity' is a rare survival, and could have been made the centerpiece of a section devoted to barbarian Christianity. As it is, this remarkable ancient text appears in 'The Vandals in Carthage' section, with a caption (in Italian only) solemnly noting that 'being Arians, the Vandals always had rather difficult relations with the Catholic clergy in North Africa.'

Some barbarians left more material remains than others. Thus, the Huns and the Avars, for example, are much more difficult to account for in an exhibition than the Goths or the Franks. Most of these cultures left no written records, so we are heavily reliant on Greek and Roman authors for their history.

Even the most fragmentary of these writings can bring the era alive. In 'The Avar Menace' section, a desperate prayer - 'Christ the Lord! Help the city drive away the Avars, protect the Roman lands and those who write these lines. Amen' - scratched on a brick in 582 in the besieged Sirmium (now in Serbia), is eloquent testimony of the terror the barbarians once spread across the length and breadth of the civilized world.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024