Redefining the Romans with Art

“Since the life of the mind finds expression in art and literature, the literary imagination is where we go to access, teach, explain, divulge, and question the official mythologies of history,” said Paolo Asso, W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow and Scholar-in-Residence at Harvard and assistant professor of classical studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as part of his talk on “Ideas of Africa in the Roman Epic” last Wednesday. Speaking from research he had done for his as yet unfinished monograph called “Africa in the Roman Literary Imagination,” Asso went on to examine the ancient Roman identity as seen through its mythology. “In exposing mythologies and genealogies, I am chiefly interested in the mindset that emerges from the ancient sources,” he said. He proceeded to examine African portrayal in two Latin epics: Virgil’s “Aeneid” and the longest poem in ancient Latin literature, Silius Italicus’s “Punica.”

Speaking as part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Fall Colloquium Series, Paolo Asso explained how the Roman characters perceive Africans as cunning, barbarous, and savage in both texts. “I’ve read the Aeneid before, but I didn’t notice how native Africans were portrayed as people to be feared,” said Elliot A. Wilson ’15. “I’m not going to look at the poem the same way again.” However, as Asso points out, Africans were described in both the “Aeneid” and “Punica” with as much awe as fear. Indeed, Asso explains that racism did not exist in the modern sense of the word; Romans were both fascinated and frightened of African war and African physique, but they were never prejudiced against Africans.

To defend his claim, Asso used excerpts from each epic, replications of ancient European and African maps, and even a photograph of an ancient silver bowl depicting a woman with an elephant trunk on her forehead. By the end of his talk, he was able to link all of these representations of art to his central argument: Romans saw themselves as a part of a nation defined by the territories it conquered, not by the race of its people. This unique perception of identity of both the conquerors and the conquered became Asso’s focus.

According to Asso, Africans were considered inferior to Romans, but in the third century B.C.E., when Rome intended to conquer the world, virtually every other territory was considered an inferior enemy—at least until the territory became Roman. In this sense, the Romans were an open-minded people willing to accept different ethnicities into their Empire. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil describes blacks from Africa as having skin that was burned by the sun, a description that suggests that Romans saw no difference between themselves and those whom they conquered, as long as the conquered people called themselves Romans as well.

Audience member Rayshauna Gray, a Somerville resident, said that she was drawn to the talk because Greek and Roman mythology reminded her of slave narratives from the antebellum United States. “I was able to get a glimpse of the origins of black perception, and to see how these [black] identities developed,” she said. Indeed, many members of the audience asked during the discussion section about the difference between the perception of the African in Ancient Rome and of the black American in the modern day.

While the Romans were busy chiseling statues that venerated the human body, they did not discriminate the ideal body by race. The silver bowl that Asso showed during his talk was discovered as part of the Boscoreale Treasure—a trove of buried silver—after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It depicts an African woman whose body is idealized, not depicted a joke or a terror. Art was something to be immortalized, so the Romans were careful to make the proportions of the bust exact and the maps of their empire all-inclusive.

The next step for Asso in understanding the Romans’ perception of self was to examine their artifacts in more depth. “I’m interested in the ways in which ancient Greek and Roman literary sources treat Africa, her gods, peoples, animals, plants, and inanimate entities.” Maps with distorted geography and alternate names could reveal a lot about what the Romans perceived the lands they conquered.

The toughest part of understanding the ancients, according to Asso, is the language barrier. To view Latin text or art merely as a passing scholar is difficult without great familiarity with the language. “I feel sometime I need to let students ‘borrow my eyes’ to read the Greek and Latin words behind the English ones,” said Asso, “because the original music of the ancient tongue is just as crucial as the meaning that the words have in English.” In examining the “Aeneid” and the “Punica” with a fresh perspective, Asso not only provides a unique look at ancient texts as a window into the Roman identity but also makes this identity relevant to our own perceptions today.

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