Power and identity: Romans at the McManus Gallery

Credit: visitscotland.com
Credit: visitscotland.com
Credit: visitscotland.com

A Parthian captive sculpted from marble is the first item you see in McManus Gallery’s current exhibition. Crouched at the bottom of the spiral stairs, hands bound, he looks up in fear. Was his gaze directed at his captor, the stone since destroyed? In the absence of a second figure, perhaps you might look down from halfway up the stairs, and see his helpless face looking up at you.

The McManus Dundee is home to the stuff-of-local-legend, the skeleton of the Tay Whale. But, don’t let anyone say Dundee has nothing else to offer: there’s plenty to accompany those old bones. McManus is the only Scottish venue hosting the British Museum’s touring exhibition, The Romans: Power and People. The exhibition is running for free until 10 May.

The majestic display showcases Roman artistic expressions of opulence and power, and, as with the Parthian man, bears a stark reminder of the humanity and individuality of ancient people. Exhibits are sourced from locations such as Tiberius’ Capri Villa Jovis, where the emperor lived (and leched) for the final, reclusive decade of his unpopular career. Tiles from Nero’s Domus Aurea, the massive entertainment villa built in the wake of Rome’s great fire, are also displayed – though Tiberius is more impressively represented.

The exhibition then showcases Roman influenced art and iconography in the provinces. Piecues such as a statue of Horus clad in Roman chainmail, fulfil and confirm Rome’s self-expressed grandeur in further reaches of the empire from Egypt to Britain. As well as Roman and provincial images of ‘Romanness’, the Roman definition of foreignness is represented from the Parthian captive bound at the bottom of the stairs.Two bland featured female busts, one a ragged-haired personification of the province Germania and one sculpted in traditional Roman style with traditional Parthian veils, represent a generic ‘other.’

The exhibition gives varied Roman interpretations of non-Roman or provincial life, but also highlights the tension between ‘Romanness’ and grand architecture purporting to amplify Rome’s status: the Domus Aurea, as embarrassingly un-Roman as Nero in its luxury, was built over after the emperor’s death. Roman artifacts on Scottish native sites are rare finds. While the religious iconography of the province Britain takes on Roman elements, Celtic art boomed during the Romans’ presence in Scotland. Soldiers’ artifacts represent unconquered Scotland instead.

Tile fragments from Carpow, a short-lived Roman military settlement on the Tay, accompany soldiers’ bent and broken hobnails. Carpow also provides the best preserved sample of Roman scale armour, lorica squamata, from Western Europe, notable for the preservation of its fabric as well as its metal. Most Scottish examples are the National Museum of Scotland’s and McManus’ additions to an already formidable line-up, though the travelling collection is more impressive.

The exhibition ergonomically utilises the museum space and allows McManus to prove its status in Scotland’s culture scene. By combining objects from Rome with locally-found and locally-curated remains, the exhibit presents a diverse exploration of the Roman world and what was once our relation to it. Through varied Roman depictions of and foreign reactions to the empire’s power, the exhibition investigates both recognition and self-identification of what made one Roman– and what didn’t.


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