Neglected Egyptian influences on ancient Rome


Roman obelisque, showing a pharaoh with a Roman helmetTranslated from Leiden university in the Netherlands:

Ancient Roman culture more multicultural than thought

The ancient Roman material culture appears to be influenced more by other cultures than was previously assumed. In Rome plenty of elements such as images of Egyptian pharaohs were integrated, says archaeologist Marike van Aerde. PhD ceremony April 23rd.

Multiculturalism was normal

From the Romans from the period of Emperor Augustus (27 BC -14 AD) it was already known that they took elements of Greek and Hellenistic culture. They did this for instance in pottery, jewelry and buildings. The study by Marike van Aerde shows that they did this also with aspects of Egyptian culture.

Van Aerde: “They did not only take these elements, they really integrated them.” Eg, Van Aerde found a picture of a pharaoh with a Roman helmet on an obelisk made in Rome. “This integration demonstrates that multiculturalism in Augustan Rome was normal. Egypt was from 30 BC on a Roman province, but the Roman material culture did not treat the Egyptian culture as inferior.”

Illegible hieroglyphics

Van Aerde analyzed nearly two hundred objects unearthed in Rome like pottery and jewelry. Much of this came from museums, including the British Museum. The archaeologist also participated in excavations. She also looked at public monuments and murals. She found many Egyptian figurative scenes and architectural and decorative elements. She found at the Sallustiano obelisk previously undiscovered illegible hieroglyphics. “This was actually a strange multicultural mix, but it did not surprise the Romans probably. They used Egyptian influences as a way to enhance their status. It improved one’s status to be multicultural.”

Terracotta panel depicting the Egyptian goddess Isis and two sphinxes, in a Roman-Hellenistic style

Museums move objects

Roman glass depicting an Egyptian head. Copyright the Trustees of The British MuseumSome Roman objects looked at first sight so Egyptian that people thought that the Romans had taken them from Egypt, Van Aerde says. She included an analysis of a number of fragments of Roman cameo glass, which consist of two or more layers in contrasting colors. They proved to be of Roman manufacture and date from the Augustan period. Van Aerde “Some museums have on these insights moved these objects from the Egyptian to the Roman departments. A perspective shift is needed. We are used to stick a label on everything: this is Greek, this is Roman, this is Egyptian. My research shows that one cannot always make such a distinction.”

(April 23, 2015 – CR)

See also here.

Scholars have been studying Rome for hundreds of years, but it still holds some secrets — for instance, relatively little is known about the ancestral origins of the city’s denizens. Now, an international team led by researchers from Stanford University, the University of Vienna and Sapienza University of Rome is filling in the gaps with a genetic history that shows just how much the Eternal City’s populace mirrored its sometimes tumultuous history: here.

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