Rome in the 8th Century: A History in Art

What do we imagine the city of Rome to have been like in the 8th century AD? With the supremacy of Constantinople as the political and administrative centre of the empire, the Rome of this period – its buildings falling into disrepair and bedevilled by threats from the north – is popularly considered to be something of a vacuum, a place whose nature is difficult to assess due to the absence of documentary evidence.

In this new book, John Osborne seeks to develop a more rounded and informed view of this underexamined period in the life of the city, using visual culture as documentation. Osborne considers different types of buildings and their decorative schemes in order to interrogate the nature of Rome during the 8th century and to establish if the city had become a cultural and political backwater or, conversely, whether it was beginning to establish a completely different identity.

Osborne argues that, despite the political breach between Papal Rome and Imperial Constantinople, there was no immediate cultural break. The visual culture provides strong evidence that, at the beginning of the 8th century, Rome was something of a ‘Constantinople on the Tiber’, with the decorative schemes at a number of key sites clearly showing the influence of post-iconoclastic Byzantine art. A key example is the painting of the Anastasis – the resurrection, or ‘Harrowing of Hell’ – found in Santa Maria Antiqua. It is the first of several instances of themes developed in the eastern Mediterranean that can be found incorporated in significant public works in Rome during the early part of the 8th century.

This is the beginning of what Osborne considers to be process of continual evolution over the course of the century, as a new military and religious elite emerged in the city and the papal state was created. Papal autonomy from imperial rule increased and became all the more necessary as successive pontiffs took political, diplomatic, and even military action against the threat of the Lombards. The elite of Roman society, he argues, changed in the same fashion, made up of bureaucrats, and military officials likely to have been of Greek origin who settled in Rome and became the new ruling class of the city.

Osborne catalogues the visual evidence for this change in great detail. Visitors to Rome will often disregard what remains of the 8th century, as it is so dominated by the evidence of the much older past. The narrative here reveals the richness of the sites and their decoration, and would provide an excellent guide for visitors.

By the author’s own admission this argument and approach is ‘hegemonic’. Because it is informed by the attitudes and actions of the elite, it is difficult to get a sense of what the experience of 8th-century Rome would have been for the lower classes. There is no real consideration of groups outside the elite (other than pilgrims, clerics, and monks), as they were unlikely to have significant impact on visual culture. The question of how they thought of themselves and their city remains.

In his preface, Osborne sets out three ambitions for the book. The first two of these are to survey what is known about the material culture of Rome in the 8th century and to make a case for viewing buildings and their decoration as ‘documentary evidence’. Both ambitions are entirely achieved through the comprehensive review of the extant evidence and the effective use of it that Osborne makes. The third ambition stated is to offer a different view of the new Roman elite and to advance the claim that the 8th century might be the most important in the entire history of the city of Rome. This is a bold claim, but one that readers will enjoy debating the merits of, as they consider Osborne’s richly detailed and exhaustively researched narrative.

Review by Steve Batchelor.
Rome in the 8th Century: A History in Art, John Osborne, Cambridge University Press, £75, Hardback, ISBN 978-1108834582.