The Mythology of Ecphrasis in Rome and Roman Greece (50 BC - 500 AD)

Change log
Bates, Albert 

Greek and Latin literature of the Roman empire is full of descriptions of artworks (a phenomenon known as “ecphrasis”). Even though these descriptions have received much scholarly attention in recent decades, Classicists have not yet taken seriously an approach to ecphrasis that was demonstrably popular in Rome: namely, to read it as privileged space for philosophy. This interdisciplinary thesis foregrounds this philosophical approach to better understand the complex role ecphrasis played in Roman literature and culture. In particular, the thesis contends that many imperial ecphrases describe Greek myths that were embedded in, or at least spoke to, famous philosophical debates about the nature of viewing. In doing so, the thesis uncovers the highly sophisticated and self-conscious ways in which these descriptions scrutinise their own philosophical stakes as texts designed to be seen.

Individual chapters focus on different myths – from the abduction of Ganymede to the infanticide of Hercules – and rove across a wide range of Latin and Greek authors – from Virgil and Ovid to Philostratus and Callistratus, among others – to demonstrate how imperial ecphrasis raises profound questions about the sense of sight, which are as pertinent today as they were in Rome. Such questions include: what does viewing beauty do to the soul? How does vision relate to the imagination? How can we trust that what we see is real? And is viewing art harmful or harmless for the individual, and the state at large? In exploring ecphrasis’ self-reflexive interrogation of such questions, the thesis ultimately offers a new cultural history of ecphrasis for the Roman empire, situating it not just at the nexus of philology and art history, but philosophy too. This revised cultural history of ecphrasis in turn challenges deeply entrenched assumptions, stemming from Plato’s "Republic", regarding the independence of philosophy from the visual arts in antiquity, as well as modernity.

Vout, Caroline
Ecphrasis, Art and Text, Greek Mythology, Ancient Philosophy, Latin Literature, Imperial Greek Literature, Phantasia
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (2107232)
Arts & Humanities Research Council, Ibn Battutah Fund