# 29-1 | Ancient Rome | Alexandre Grandazzi

One must go back to Ancient Rome in order to study the burgeoning relationships between art and society at a time when images had already become the dominant means of expression. Valérie Naas offers us a valuable critical appreciation of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, a key source on ancient art. She thus reveals the role art-as-war-booty played for the victors who had brought countless statues back to Rome.
Alexandre Grandazzi emphatically shows how original was the framework within which these transfers took place, and he also brings out the political impact of this form of art that was not yet so named. The Romans carried off the masterpieces of Greece, but also and especially they brought back with them a model, stealing thereby from the vanquished their creative powers while admiring them to the point of imitating their style and making a host of copies. By imposing a new context and new edifying figures on this largely borrowed form of art, the Romans conferred upon it a new role as a unifier for an empire that was destined to promote “the Roman way of life.”

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Seminar of April 15th 2010

and Greek Art

Alexandre Grandazzi

Despite how things may look, it is not off topic to talk about Roman art in an “Arts and Societies” seminar at the French Institute of Political Sciences devoted to contemporary art. For, ancient art was deeply immersed in the society of its time as well as the bearer of ideological and political messages.
Nevertheless, the obstacles in the way of an accurate understanding of what is called Roman art are numerous. They can be formulated, initially, in terms of two paradoxes. The first of these is that, in a way neither Greece nor Rome were familiar with what we call art. The surest sign of this is that neither Greek nor Latin has any words to designate these obvious things that for us are art and the artist. Indeed, the Greek word techne as well as the Latin word ars mean something wholly other than art. Of course, the last of these was present in Rome, but what that means is that it existed there neither as an abstract totality nor as an autonomous phenomenon.
The second paradox is that such Roman art is wholly Greek in its references, its codes, and its styles, whereas the Greek art present in Rome is in good part of Roman making, indeed Roman in inspiration. We know Horace’s phrase (Ep 2.1.156-57), “Conquered Greece conquered its rough victor and brought the arts to rustic Latium” Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artes / Intulit agresti Latio. We Moderns are in the habit of thinking that military and economic superiority goes hand in hand with cultural influence because we, at least those of us in Europe, live in a world where the financial predominance of the United States of America is accompanied by the omnipresence, in all cultural fields, of themes and styles that come from the other side of the Atlantic. Now, in ancient Rome the situation was precisely the opposite: whether it be for literature, philosophy, rhetoric, or the all the representational arts, Greece, a small conquered country, was and remained the source of all creative activity.
Of course, these paradoxes do not rule out the very existence of our topic for all that. But what they reveal is the difficulty one would encounter in trying to think about art solely with the tools of contemporary art criticism. Thus, the potential topicality of the question of ancient art will be able to be revealed to us only through its very lack of topicality.

Fig. 1 Apollon du Belvédère (Rome: Musée du Vatican).

The very similarities that may exist between these two worlds, the ancient and our own, are somewhat deceiving. Ancient Rome was, like our world today, an image-based society. One has to imagine (that’s the word!) its streets, its squares, and its porticoes as being occupied, cluttered with a host of statues in marble and bronze, bas-reliefs and high-reliefs, the whole of it with a density incomparable to what European cities were to experience during other historical periods. Drawing my inspiration from the terminology offered by Régis Debray–according to whom we would have gone from the “graphosphere” to the “videosphere”–I would say that the Roman Empire was an iconosphere. Yet, as numerous as such images might have been, they did not play the same role as they do in our societies–where they are meant, generally speaking, to provoke reactions inducing attachment to an explicit message or to prompt the purchase of the represented product. The images of Antiquity–in particular statues, including those that celebrated a political personality–seem to have no immediate aim, and that is all the more true of those ones, far more numerous, that represented gods. Finally, and above all, we may note that such statues and pictures were, in very large part, more or less exact copies. The Apollo Belvedere–so admired by Wincklemann, who saw therein the very essence of ancient art–is, as we know today, a copy! A good copy, certainly, but a copy nonetheless.
Here, then, are the questions to which we have to respond: Why were there so many images, and in particular statues, in Rome? And why did those works respect the canons of a foreign form of art–as it happens, Greek art? Why were they, in most cases, copies? Under such conditions, what was the relation between copy and original? Was there a market for art and, if so, what forms did it take?

I. Causes

        A. Rome’s Conquest of the Greek World

Fig. 2. Temple rond au Foro Boario de Rome.

The two main peninsulas of the Western Mediterranean have always been in permanent contact. To say nothing of what might have happened during prehistoric times, we know today that colonization of the southern part of present-day Italy in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE had been preceded by a whole movement of discovery and prior commercial contacts, today designated under the name precolonization. Colonization itself had effects that were not limited to Magna Graecia alone: Greek potsherds dating back to the eighth century have been uncovered beneath the ground of central Rome, and it is well known that representations of deities like Hercules, honored at the Forum Boarium (near the present-day Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin), date back to a very distant past. Next, the Hellenization of Rome took place in successive waves. In the fifth century BCE, this occurred especially with the decoration of the Temple of Ceres and the very conception of such a goddess in her civic and community roles. After the subjection of Latium (completed in 338 BCE), Rome began its march to the south, that is to say, toward regions of the Italian peninsula where Greek culture predominated. There was also the conquest of Naples in 326, and then, owing to Pyrrhus’ failed invasion, that of Magna Graecia. As early as the fourth century BCE, Rome was a major center of artistic production (the Ficoroni Cista). And starting in the second century BCE, “Asia”–in other words, Asia Minor, which corresponds to the western coast of present-day Turkey–then the Greek peninsula, and gradually all the Hellenistic kingdoms entered into the Roman sphere of orbit. It was then that the Hellenization of Rome took on a new and unequaled breadth.

        B. The Roman Complex Regarding Greek Culture
Never was Greek culture so admired, never was Greek spoken over such a wide range of territories as they were under the Roman Empire. Indeed, during the first centuries of our era Greek was spoken east of a line that stretched from the Danube plains to Libya and went by way of the Balkans. Why this situation, which seems so curious to us, where military inferiority was combined with a persistent superiority in culture and art? The Greek colonists who landed in Italy in the eighth century BCE were familiar with what is called the Epic Cycle and already, undoubtedly, the work of Homer–a marvelous fictional universe that continued to fascinate the indigenous elites of the countries in which they settled. Rome would have a literature of its own only a half millennium later. And it still would be, for almost a century after that, a literature written in the Greek language, with historians like Quintus Fabius Pictor and Lucius Cincius Alimentus. Rome then went off in conquest of the Greek world, which would only go to accentuate further the primacy it granted Hellenic culture and art. Thus was a division of labor established in actual fact, and first of all in people’s minds: cultural and the intellectual disciplines were reserved for Greece, the conquest of the world, the rule of law, and the command of commercial networks were reserved for Rome. Rome took up Greek schooling because, from the very origins of the Urbs, culture existed in a Greek mold: for the Romans, everything that was Greek was beautiful, and everything that was beautiful could not but be Greek. Wanting, here as elsewhere, to be ranked first, Rome could not but adopt the references and codes that predominated in these cultural and artistic fields. As psychoanalysis has taught us, an inferiority complex in reality expresses a superiority complex.

        C. Competition for Power
What was going to help give Rome’s Hellenization its particular intensity starting in the second century BCE was the typically Roman phenomenon of the competition for power, a competition to which the members of the ruling class in urban Roman society devoted themselves. In the context of permanent military conquest, the egalitarianism that hitherto prevailed among the members of the oligarchy of the Roman Republic had started to crumble. For the top Roman politicians it was thenceforth a matter of obtaining major military commands, which would allow them to gain victories and carry off booty so that they might, upon their return, be granted by the Senate the right to celebrate their triumph, a grandiose and frenzied, festive and ritual procession through the streets of Rome to be perpetuated afterward by the construction of a temple, which itself would be, for the triumphant leader and his entire clan, the source of lasting political popularity and preeminence. That is why one of the urban areas where the influences of Greek art would become most present was situated near the Circus Flaminius, alongside the Tiber River. Indeed, it was from there that triumphal processions departed, as one was still extra pomerium–that is to say, outside the sacred limits of the old city, thus affording some opportunities for innovation and for adoption of foreign customs not possible once this religious barrier was crossed. It was then that those great Roman imperatores (consuls and generals) adopted the procedures for legitimation and glorification that had been perfected under the Hellenistic monarchies by the successors of Alexander the Great. Such procedures included the celebration of ceremonies that exalted their persons, in monuments and in specially laid out urban spaces, and the proliferation of statues representing them in a heroic, nay even divine light, all of this executed in Greek artistic forms.

II. Characteristics

        A. An Art Economy?
The conquest of Greece brought to Rome an enormous quantity of Greek works, first of all from the booty brought back from wars. Greek cities that were veritable treasures of art and culture fell into Roman hands. In 212 BCE, that was what happened with Syracuse; its numerous statues would be brought to Rome by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who was to gain a reputation for “gentleness,” that is to say, culture. In 198 BCE, the small city of Eretria was taken by assault, pillaged, and destroyed by Flaminius, the “liberator” of Greece, with the victors stunned by its wealth in statues and other works of art. In 146 BCE, it was the turn of Corinth, which was razed by a Roman army commanded by Lucius Mummius. It is undoubtedly to him that we owe the small round temple in the Forum Boarium dedicated to Hercules, which was probably done by a Greek architect. And another temple, that of the Moon, on the Aventine, was decorated by him with a complete set of bronze statues taken from metropolitan Greece. In 133 BCE, it was the turn of the Kingdom of Pergamon to enter, through the will and testament of its last sovereign, among Rome’s possessions. In 86 BCE, finally, Lucius Cornelius Sulla captured Athens and laid it to waste, sending to Rome boats laden with art works, including many statues, taken from the capital of Greek culture. It was on this occasion that numerous Greek artists came to Rome to join the ranks of those who had already settled there.
Soon the proceeds from these spoils of war no longer sufficed. Every member of the Roman oligarchy wanted to have, on his country estate, some Greek works that would give him a sense of belonging to the world’s elite and of living like a prince. Between Greece and Italy, between the latter and the major Mediterranean islands, all of which were of old Greek culture, vessels laden with statues, paintings, precious vases, mosaics, and candelabra plied their routes. Only a few traces remain of such trafficking. Some wrecks–for example at Mahdia, off the coast of Tunisia, or at Antikythera, off the coast of Crete–were rediscovered by underwater archeologists who have not yet completed their investigations on the subject: after all, the bronzes of Riace were found only in 1972, and a few rare texts have been found, the interpretation of which in this direction began only recently. Depicted as an matchless monster by Cicero, the much-talked-about Gaius Verres was in reality an large-scale art dealer who used his powers as governor of Sicily to supply high-priced works to a good part of the high Roman aristocracy; in return, those aristocrats did not spare him their protection. His accuser, Cicero, who in his speeches against Verres claimed not even to know the name of some very famous Greek sculptor, himself proved in private, in his letters to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, to be very keen on acquiring some Greek statues for his Tusculum villa (see his letters to Atticus 1.7-10, dated February to August 67 BCE). Thanks to Filippo Coarelli, we are able to estimate the load of the vessels carrying columns and statues to Rome at 200-250 tons for a price of around one million sesterces; this is about three times less than a nice estate (uilla) located on the outskirts of Rome.

        B. The Reign of Copies
During the second and first centuries BCE, the presence of Greek works in Rome started to become a massive phenomenon. But not all those works can be placed on the same level. To be distinguished here are:
1. Works that came directly from Greece or from culturally Greek territories. These were the ones an imperial-era author called the ornaments of the City, ornameta Urbis. Among many examples that could be cited, let us take that of the pediment of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus, near the Circus Flaminius. Thanks to a scholar and some meticulous work gathering and piecing together fragments that had fallen from the temple in late Antiquity and were quickly covered over by other debris, it has been noted (by Eugenio La Rocca) that this pediment came in its entirety from a classical Greek temple, that is to say, one from the fifth century BCE.

Fig. 3. Autel dit de Domitius Ahenobarbus (Paris: Musée du Louvre).

2. Greek works manufactured in Rome or in Italy. Traces of workshops have on occasion been found, as at Baiae, south of Naples, and it is known, via texts and through the discovery of bases of statues bearing the names of sculptors, that some Greek artists lived and worked in Rome. The cases of Hermodorus of Salamis, Scopas Minor, and Polycles are well known to specialists in the field. These three artists worked in the neighborhood called the Portico of Metellus–that is to say, not far from the previously mentioned Temple of Apollo and near the Circus Flaminius. The much-talked-about Domitius Ahenobarbus altarpiece, which one can marvel at today in the Louvre Museum, comes from there and fits into this category.
3. Works done in Rome which, without being exact copies, were freely inspired by the Greek style. They undoubtedly represent the most numerous category, though as a matter of fact they often remain, for the Moderns, difficult to identify. As well known as it is, the sculpture with Laocoön and his sons, found in 1506 on the Caelian Hill and admired by all the Humanists before being so by Winckelmann, stands as an enigma for scholars, despite the signature it bears of three artists from Rhodes: Is it an imported work or one made in Rome? Indeed, it is not out of the question to think that it was made in Rome, perhaps on commission from a Roman aristocrat who wanted an illustration of a famous scene from the second book of the Aeneid.
In all, Greek or Greek-style statues must have been quite numerous in Rome. Archeological finds made during the Renaissance give only a very faint idea of their numbers. A computer program is now being developed that will register and identify, as precisely as possible, the locations of all discoveries of antiquities ever made in Rome. One of the organizers, Paolo Carafa of the Sapienza University of Rome, told me that this program, called Imago Urbis, has inventoried 2,898 rediscovered statues, including 2,110 busts or portraits, 1,238 of which are recognizable as portraits of emperors or their close associates; 739 objects remain, including 95 safely identifiable Greek copies. But these figures are not representative: to them would have to be added all the works mentioned in literary sources. A single example may allow one to gauge the disproportion between what remains and what was: for his theater, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus brought over 360 columns and nearly 3,000 statues. It is often estimated that the ratio of statues preserved to statues that existed does not go beyond one in a hundred, and still it’s quite often a matter only of mere fragments. Public as well as private statuary was omnipresent, and among these, there was a preponderance of copies. That is the real situation of Greek art in Rome.

       C. Which Copies?
Rome is not the first city to have practiced the art of copying. The example comes to mind of the new capitals of the Hellenistic kingdoms, which were anxious to affirm their Greek character, like Alexandria or, still later, Pergamon, a small but prosperous kingdom from the third to the second centuries BCE which ended up falling into Rome’s clutches. From Pergamon, too, came the primacy granted to the art of fifth and fourth centuries BCE and its canonization as classical art. At the outset, the issue for this Asian Minor state was to affirm its Hellenism and, consequently, the legitimacy of its dynasty. Rome was to do the same thing, but without forgetting, either, the other periods and other styles of Greek art–which, moreover, were already highly present in Pergamon. The marriage of classical serenity and Hellenistic pathos was to characterize the official art of Pergamon, whose codes and effects Rome would adopt. That is to say, strictly precise copies were relatively rare, even if they were not unknown. What is the relation of this Greco-Roman art to the originals? It can be said, along with Paul Zanker, that it confirms Walter Benjamin’s prediction that the reproducibility of the art work allowed by modern technology had to lead to the devaluation of the original works. While the transformation, today, of art works into financial economic investments has kept the prediction from coming true in the modern era, it can be said that this prediction was proven true in Antiquity: the Romans were not unaware of the seductiveness of the original work when it came to the most famous artists of the classical period, but they did not establish between the original and the copy the sort of ontological difference the Moderns place therein. Roman art is therefore a copied, composite, and, in fact, eclectic form of Greek art. This is what prevented Romans–though with some exceptions–from making a place for the artist in their scale of values and their society. This explains the profusion of copies but also is expressive the very nature of their economic and social system: the fact the Empire was a slave society in which a very large proportion of manual workers was made up of people deprived of their freedom. That situation could not help but greatly devalue the work of artists, whose hands were their primary tool.

III. A First Attempt at Conceptualization

        A. A New Semiotics of Urban Space
While in the view of Macedonian envoys at the beginning of the second century BCE Rome appeared as a “city itself unadorned, without either public or private structures (speciem urbis nondum exornatae neque publicis neque priuatis locis (Titus Livy 40.5.7, trans. George Baker), it was, in less than a century, going to change profoundly and alter its urban identity to match the size of what had become its world role. Its temples, but also its porticos, its triumphal arches, its basilicas, and its squares were going to make of Rome the genuine capital of this new kind of Hellenic world that was the Roman Empire. That is the real meaning behind the transplantation of Greek sculptures into the monuments of the Urbs. To take up again the example of Apollo Sosianus already examined here, the myth represented on its pediment–namely, that of Theseus’ victorious struggle against the Amazons–would thenceforth illustrate, for Roman viewers, no longer, as in the original sanctuary, the victory of the Greeks, led by Athens, over those Barbarians the Persians, but indeed that of Augustus, a new Theseus and a new Pericles, over Mark Antony and his barbarian ally, Cleopatra. This gives full meaning to the adoption, by the ruling elite of the Urbs, of classical Greek art: to affirm Rome’s identity as a new Athens–that is to say, as a capital whose cultural and artistic influence corresponded thenceforth to its overwhelming military, socioeconomic, and political predominance. Classicism expresses the superiority and the serenity of a power that was self-assured, while Hellenistic expressionism was chosen when it was a matter of showing the disarray of the vanquished, like the much-talked-about injured Gaul, or of illustrating, through a faithful rendering of facial lines, the strength of character of the Roman elite.

        B. The Copy as Social Semiology
One of the criticisms most frequently addressed to such Roman art, which is in fact Greco-Roman art, concerns its monotony: always and everywhere, the same statuary types, the same styles. Such stability on the formal level runs totally contrary to our conceptions about art, which are based on the search for originality as well on the affirmation of the subjectivity of the artist. Rather than see in this ancient predilection for repetitiveness an irremediable defect and sign of inferiority, it is better to understand it in relation to the society whose aspirations it expressed. Today people like Paul Zanker are deciphering a language that expresses a certain idea of happiness, these monuments filled with statues, in particular in the case of thermae, being understood then as an essential feature of life’s pleasures, as the frequency of statues representing Venus and Bacchus/Dionysus reveals. More than the isolated work, what people are now looking at is the urban and social monumental context to which the work belongs: from this standpoint, the signification of one and the same type of statuary changes according to place and circumstance. Thus, in the decoration of tombs, the reuse of official statuary models allows different segments of society, in particular emancipated slaves, to give to their new social status all the respectability and visibility they wished to have. It is therefore because ancient art was meant to be a language whose elements could be understood by all, and which were supposed bear a message, that it was grasped by the Ancients with the conceptual tools that had been perfected in the fields of rhetoric and ethics. Starting with a relatively limited number of basic elements, Greco-Roman art thus offered intermediate social strata a whole range of signifying elements the masses could easily use and comprehend. Among elites, this could, by way of contrast, foster a taste for hidden meanings. But such cryptology (see Gilles Sauron), which was reserved especially for the private sphere of aristocrats’ residences, consisted not in ignoring codes known to all but in playing with them while rendering them more complex.

        C. The Copy as a Messenger of Universalism
In the first centuries of our era, a traveler who would go from the plains of present-day Syria to the northern shores of the British Isles never left the Roman Empire. And yet, on such an extended and varied set of territories he would have everywhere encountered the same type of monuments and public facilities, decorated with the same pictures and the same statues. How is one to comprehend such uniformity in both space and time? Was it due to an inability to create, censorship, aesthetic conformism? In reality, such stability and such uniformity are bearers of a strong sociopolitical signification: they expressed the unity and cohesion of a huge empire. In this sense, it can be said that images are the instrument of social and political bonds within varied, numerous, and hierarchized, but not sociologically frozen, human communities. As for the public exhibition in Rome of the masterworks of Greek art, which was desired by such leaders as Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’ closest collaborator, and then by Vespasian in his Forum of Peace, such exhibition stemmed less from an aesthetic valuing of originals as such than from a demagogic desire (in the precise sense of the term demagogic) to make that people-king the Roman people had become into the recipient of works hitherto monopolized by the oligarchs of the Senate. In this sense, the universal dissemination, via copies, of the main types of Greek art is illustrative of new social strata’s attainment to the Roman Way of Life–that is, an urban civilization in a Hellenistic mold that was, according to the conceptions then in force, the only possible form of civilization.


The Greek art present and copied in Rome and in the cities of the Roman Empire was going to come out of this adoption procedure by seeing itself transformed. Here as elsewhere, what is confirmed is that, in this play of exchanges and influences, there was no straightforward assimilation, or passive reception, by one society of a kind of art and its aesthetic codes that had been worked out by another society. Taken over and developed by Rome, statuary and the pictorial arts, both of Greek origin, were going to undergo some big changes and to take on new meanings, in particular on account of the contexts in which they happened to be employed, and to which some are paying special attention today. Without make too big a deal of this comparison, one might think here of what happens in linguistic history: from this standpoint, a Romance language like French is but a persistent and debased form of Latin! Yet, even though it is of Latin origin in a good part of its vocabulary, French no less existed in an autonomous and original way. The same goes for Roman art: it exists through the new semantic changes it conferred upon well worn iconographic paradigms and through the increased number of associations it created between different themes and styles. Let us take up for one last time the example of the Temple of Apollo Sosianus. It may be observed that while the pediment is entirely Greek, though now furnished with a very Roman meaning, the interior of the sanctuary is decorated with a frieze that recalls one of Augustus’ victories celebrated in the Urbs shortly before construction was completed. We can see that Horace’s phrase is deceptive. Moreover, for the poet that phrase was but a commonplace saying with which he was playing. So, for the Empire artistic Hellenization turned out to be the best way of achieving its own Romanization. Are we so sure, after all, that this kind of phenomenon is destined to remain unmatched? If ever the century now dawning were to turn out to be, as some analysts forecast, that of the worldwide supremacy of this or that East Asian power, would not such a conquest, at least on the commercial and then undoubtedly also cultural level, take place in another’s language, the global English, Globish, that is like the koine (common Greek) of our time?



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Sauron, Gilles. Quis deum? L’expression plastique des idéologies politiques et religieuses à Rome à la fin de la République et au début du Principat. Rome: École française de Rome, 1994.

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Zanker, Paul. Un arte per l’impero. Funzione e intenzione delle immagini nel mondo romano. Milan: Electa, 2002

Alexandre Grandazzi a former student at the École Normale Supérieure and a former member of the École Française de Rome, is a professor at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne and a member of the French Prime Minister’s General Commission on Terminology and Neology. Specializing in the study of ancient Rome, he has concentrated his work on Rome’s origins, on religion during the republican and imperial eras, and on topography and urban planning in the City of the Seven Hills, which for centuries was the center of the ancient world.
His main publications include: The Foundation of Rome: Myth and History (1991, 1997), trans. Jane Marie Todd (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997; Italian translation 1993), Les origines de Rome (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2003; Japanese translation, 2006; Portuguese-language translation, 2010), Une certaine idée de la Grèce. Entretiens, with Jacqueline de Romilly (Paris: Éditions Bernard de Fallois, 2003; Le Livre de Poche, 2006; Greek translation, 2007), and Alba Longa, histoire d’une légende, 2 vols. (Rome: École française de Rome/de Boccard, 2008).

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