I visited the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia at 33rd and Spruce Streets, on November 29. I was fortunate that the family I was visiting was willing to take me downtown, although they were nervous about the parking. There was just time enough to see the Mediterranean collection.
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This museum combines a very old building with a very new section housing Classical objects. This is serious research and teaching collection, and some objects are missing due to having been removed for study or classroom demonstration. There is little effort at flashiness or excitement. The labels are small and use difficult and technical vocabulary.
However, the objects are very interesting and are not just limited to art. The most intriguing object was the beautifully preserved floor of mosaic tiles (Anonymous, Theseus Mosaic, 300). The exhibit clearly demonstrated Roman floor construction, which differs substantially from modern techniques. Whereas modern tiles are thin and laid on a bed of cement, Roman tiles were many inches tall. With several inches of material below the surface, the floor was very, very sturdy. It would carry heavyweights. It was also built to last.
This reminds the viewer that the Romans thought of their empire in very long-range terms. They built for centuries, not for a few years. They expected to be in control forever or very near, walking on and using these exceedingly well-built and sturdy floors. This long-term approach to the construction of something as routine as a floor reflects their view of themselves as set apart and destined for long term greatness. It also coincides with their origin myth of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The Romans saw themselves as special and set to stay that way. They managed to maintain control of a huge geographic area, even though, as Keith Hopkins puts it, they retained the administration of a city-state (Hopkins, 1983, p. xi).
The museum research staff has more to stay on this floor. The boat represents Theseus sailing home from the Minoan Labyrinth. Donald White notes that the mosaic may have been from the floor of a tomb. He suggests that the image represented the freeing of the soul from the dead body, just as Theseus was liberated from the prison of the Labyrinth in Crete (White, 2003). This reveals the Romans’ rather sophisticated idea of the soul and its potential survival. Without understanding the significance of the Labyrinth, a part of Roman literature and perhaps part of cult activities, the mosaic would just look like an ordinary fishing scene.
Another precious object is a tiny glass vessel called an Aryballos (Anonymous, Aryballos, 300). It is beautiful, but it is also valuable because it shows how delicate and lovely Roman life could be. Romans apparently devoted a great deal of attention and resources to the finer things in life.
This reflects the immense wealth the Romans collected from their provinces. Raymond Goldsmith suggests that the Roman income from their provincial possessions was not matched by any nation or empire until the nineteenth century (Goldsmith, 2005). They could afford to spend immense amounts of slave labor on collecting the huge amounts of wood needed to build a blazing fire and experiment in crafting glassware that looks like jewels. This is power, indeed.
Like the mosaic floor, the exquisite glassware reveals more about Roman life and attitudes than one might first imagine. A willingness to build for the ages, and to adorn a dressing table with a very expensive craft is shown by these two objects. On the other hand, knowing that Rome had a social and political structure that allowed a relatively small number of people to govern an area that now represents a score of separate nations makes the artifacts in the Penn Museum far more meaningful (Hopkins, 1983, pp. xxii-xxiii). For example, the fact that the glassware was found in Palestine reveals that its owner was making life comfortable for female household members out in the wilds. Both the history and the artifacts help to understand the culture of the Romans.
Anonymous. (Roman era). Aryballos. . Philadelphia, PA, USA. Penn Museum.
Anonymous. (Roman era). Theseus Mosaic. . Philadelphia, PA, USA. Penn Museum.
Goldsmith, R. W. (2005). An Estimage of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire. The Review of Income and Wealth. Web.
Hopkins, K. (1983). Death and Renewal: Volume 2: Sociological Studies in Roman History (Vol. II). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Web.
White, D. (2003). Setting the Record Straight: The Contorted History of the Museum’s Theseus Mosaic. Expedition, 45(2). Web.