Roman Empire: Power and People
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
16th May – 31st August
Anyone who thinks that England would be better off without all the foreigners clearly has not understood English history at all. Ours is a history of constant invasion, not only of the war-like political kind but also invasions of foreign ideas, fashions, food and drink, art, beliefs and knowledge. This island has been a crucible that bubbles with the heat generated by multiple cultures for over two thousand years.
This is not an exhibition about a country at the point of conquest, and nor is it about the end of an empire. It is about the 400-plus years that came between the two; a period of time when England was part of an empire that stretched from the borderlands of Scotland in the north, to Syria and Iraq in the east, south to Libya and Egypt and west to Morocco and Portugal. It is easy to think that we know this story; we know how the Romans came along and built us a road network and brought awe-inspiring engineering skills, only to depart again, scattering behind them handfuls of coins and tesserae for archaeologists to dig up centuries later. But the detail in this exhibition tells us a greater story; it is the little personal objects and the small hints of complex belief systems on display here that enable us to see more than just the massive scale and the sheer power of the Roman Empire; here we see through all of that, and can come face to face with the people who lived under its rule, on the very land that we now occupy.
This remarkable exhibition brings together around 300 objects from across the Roman Empire. Some huge and heavy, and others barely the size of your thumb-nail, some are rough stone and some are gleaming gold – but each is a dazzling little glimpse back at the people we used to be. Over 160 of the objects have come to Coventry from The British Museum in London, others are star exhibits on loan from other historic sites and museums such as Hadrian’s Wall, English Heritage managed Wroxeter Roman City, The Lunt Roman Fort and Rugby Museum. As you arrive you are caught in the gaze of the most exquisite statuette of Hercules in gilded bronze; fine, strong and heavy – and still bright after two thousand years. There are beautiful things here: a child’s knitted sock from Roman occupied Egypt, with its cheerful stripes still vivid; an invitation to dinner, written carefully on papyrus and preserved in the dry sands of Egypt; and the funny little feet of a tiny figurine, that remain standing while the rest of it is lost. And again, before you turn to leave you, are confronted by the steady, calm eyes of the life-sized stone-cut figures that grace a huge Roman funerary monument. Nestling among these internationally important artefacts are pieces that tell the story of our own corner of this province – there are finds from the Lunt Roman Fort at Baginton, a quern stone and amphora from Warwickshire, fragments of wall plaster and geophysics images from new excavations at Broadwell, a gold amulet from Oxfordshire and a huge pig of lead, from the area’s lead silver mines, that was somehow discarded along the Fosse Way. Then, when you look more closely, you start to understand the real story – how the new taste of wine and olives arrived packed inside those amphorae, how strange and beautiful new Gods blazed into our imaginations, how the brightly painted plaster and mosaic floors of the rectilinear architecture replaced our cosy, Hobbity roundhouses and how the shining, multi-coloured millefiori glass changed our taste in trinkets. This exhibition tells a story that is more appealing, more complex and far more interesting than is expressed in the words: ‘military occupation’.
One of the greatest mistakes of historical thinking that we can make is to allow the assumption that cultural change as a one way process. While there was certainly some extremely brutal repression of the Celts, there is also plenty evidence that not only were the Romans quite at ease with the mingling of celtic beliefs with their own, but also that Rome itself embraced gods, foods, ideas and even leaders from other parts of its Empire. Of the hundreds of objects on display in this exhibition, for me the most revealing is stone altar from the Gloucestershire that shows a Cotswold Hunter God, a sort of cross between the Roman god Apollo and the Celtic hunting god Cernunnos. Roman influence streamed like a river through our culture; and along that river in both directions, back and forth like the trading vessels, also travelled the ideas, tastes and objects that linked our little island to Europe and the Middle East.
While Roman Empire, Power and People is aimed at children, there is nothing diluted and simplified about its presentation. Schools and parents will find well-written interpretation, rather than ‘facts’ about revolting Romans. This is our history with all the complex and confusing bits left in. The space is used intelligently, with key areas left open so school groups can gather, and the myriad objects are displayed with humour and intelligence. The staff of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum have clearly enjoyed themselves immensely, and that makes all the difference! There are areas where you can take instruction about how to dress as a Roman, and then take and post selfies on social media, and the exhibition has a kaleidoscope of games and videos that help to draw visitors in to the story of the Roman Empire. Children and adults will be amused and delighted to see the statuette of golden Hercules displayed from the back as well as the front, giving the most spectacular view of his perfectly formed, pert Roman bottom. After all, anyone who has studied art history will know that perfection of form and an artistic understanding of ideal human anatomy was an idea central to Greek and Roman culture. And, here it is, on full display!
The exhibition is itself a testament to the role of both the British Museum and the many local collections around the country in enabling us to understand the true complexity of the English identity. Go! Take your children – and your parents too – to see this exhibition. It is now more essential than ever that we understand how important the arrival of foreign ways has been to our country’s history, and the extent to which foreign influence is part of being English.
Roman Empire, Power and People is at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry in partnership with The British Museum. 16th May – 31st August 2014
During the half term and summer holidays there are many of events and activities for children; and adults will find plenty curator tours and evening lectures.
Adult ticket £5, child £2.50 – concessions, family tickets, advanced booking reductions also available. See their website for details http://www.theherbert.org
Photo Credits: © The Trustees of the British Museum
Review by: @autumnrosewell