Book explores Egyptian imagery in Roman homes

A new book from Caitlín Barrett, associate professor of classics, examines why many people in Pompeii chose to use Egyptian imagery in their household spaces.

In “Domesticating Empire: Egyptian Landscapes in Pompeian Gardens,” Barrett considers how regular citizens used artwork in their houses and gardens, and what impact these images had on their daily lives.

Part of the connection between the Romans and Egypt centers on conquest – Rome conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. – but Egypt and the Greco-Roman world also had deep trade and diplomatic connections that began with Egyptian-Aegean interactions in the Bronze Age. The Egyptian empire was formerly one of the most powerful states of the Mediterranean world.

“I’m interested in cross-cultural connections and encounters in antiquity,” Barrett said. “We think of these cultural groups – the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks – as though they belong in neat little self-contained boxes, but that’s not how it was. They were part of extensive networks of trade, knowledge exchange and cultural exchange.”

For her work on this book, Barrett examined paintings, mosaics and statuettes preserved in the Naples Museum – including many objects not on public view, accessible only with special permission – and she visited more than 30 buildings throughout the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, which buried the city in tons of volcanic ash, Pompeii is one of the most well-preserved sites for archaeologists to learn more about the ancient world.

“When we see ancient paintings in museums today, we can sometimes forget that they weren’t originally intended for museum viewing,” she said. “In their original settings, these frescoes were very much part of daily life – they decorated the walls of people’s houses, especially gardens. Some even covered the sides of outdoor dining benches. … I want to put these images back in context.”

For example, in some houses, a canal used to irrigate a garden was actually bordered by paintings showing the banks of the Nile, as if the canal were itself representing the great river.

Pompeiian residents of this time, Barrett said, would have learned about Egypt by reading, travel, imported religious practices or, most often, consumer goods such as bronze and terracotta figurines, lamps, amulets, vessels and textiles.

“At this time, Romans thought of Egyptian imagery – like Greek art – as appropriate decoration for a cultured, cosmopolitan person’s house,” she said. “So if you wanted to present yourself as a sophisticated person who knows a lot about the world, displaying your knowledge of Egypt – or your ownership of Egyptian-looking objects – could be a good way to go.”

Barrett said when she’s on a site, she likes to think of people actually inhabiting those spaces.

“I’m interested in people in the past and what their lives can tell us about our own lives,” she said. “How did their experience of empire compare to our experience today? Or their experience of globalization? If we look at how people dealt with these issues in the past, we can draw on their experiences to make our own choices today.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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