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    Art and society in fourth-century Britain: villa mosaics in context Essay

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    The mosaic pavements of Roman Britain are among the most spectacular relics of life in the province. Laid primarily in towns during the 2nd century, they passed to the wealthy villas of the countryside in the 4th century. It is to this later period that the bulk of the figured mosaics belong. Since they presumably represented a considerable capital investment on the part of the villa owners, the choice of designs and subjects can hardly have been entirely arbitrary; the mosaics are thus invaluable documents for understanding the tastes and aspirations of the landed classes of the time. Yet this evidence has been strangely neglected by modern interpreters; the thrust of research has been towards the analysis of regional `styles’ and the solving of iconographic problems. There has been no systematic study of mosaics as an index of Romano-British culture.

    Sarah Scott’s monograph seeks to fill the gap. In a series of nine short chapters, she reviews past research into mosaic production in Britain, then goes on to summarize the regional groupings of the 4th century and the architectural contexts in which the mosaics were set, before examining some of the mythological subjects that were depicted. Final chapters discuss the possible evidence for Christian belief offered by the mosaics and the general conclusions to be drawn from them about elite power and social transition in the 4th century (the luxury epitomized by the mosaics, it is argued, was a symptom of the social divisions between the rich and poor, divisions that led to the collapse of villa culture in the 5th century).

    While the assembling of the material is useful, this is a book that flatters to deceive. The Introduction raises the expectation of new insights into `the architectural and social contexts in which the mosaics were located and viewed’ and, in particular, into the local significance of the images; but in the final analysis little of what is said is new. Much of the book is devoted to resuming the views of past writers, generally without distinguishing the wheat from the chaff. The reader longs for a personal voice or a clearly constructed argument. Even where Scott reaches a conclusion, e.g. that the Woodchester pavements are the first of those produced by the putative Cirencester workshops, the case that she makes is hardly cogent. There are also confusions and non sequiturs.

    In the chapter on regional groupings, for instance, a constant problem is the equation of style with repertoire: what are described as `stylistic affinities’ often turn out to be no more than a sharing of motifs. In the use of the term `workshop’ there is a tendency to blur the distinction between the place of work and the team of practitioners who worked together.

    Central to the theme of the book are the discussions regarding the relationship of the mosaics to their architectural context and their meaning to the patrons who commissioned them. On the first question Scott has good observations about the visual impact of certain mosaics in relation to the position of entrances and the possible functions of rooms; but the full potential of the material is not realised. The much more systematic and perceptive analysis by Witts (2000) shows what can be achieved.

    On `meaning’, Scott rightly stresses the possibility of plural interpretations on the part of viewers, and she rightly links the choice of subjects with the villa owner’s display of his classical culture. She is also right to criticize the reviewer for describing choices of subjects as `random and non-significant’. But it is only fair to point out that she repeatedly takes these words out of context. My comments related primarily to the mosaics at Brading and to the idea that they embodied programmatic allusions to mystic religions (such as might indicate the use of the rooms for cult practices). What is at issue is whether subjects were put together to convey complex allegorical messages.

    A patron’s choices were clearly significant in defining his social and intellectual aspirations, but this does not mean that they necessarily did so by allegorical means. The study of such questions, and particularly of the ways in which visual images structured the experience of the Roman house, has now been put on a totally new footing by the important work of Muth (1998). Scott would have benefited from reading this before submitting her manuscript to the publisher. It is sad to conclude on a somewhat negative note, but one feels that an opportunity has been missed.

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