Four - Face to Face in Ancient Rome: The Vocabulary of Physical Appearance in Latin
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On several occasions, Jean-Pierre Vernant has guided us through the world of images and imitations within ancient Greek culture. At the same time, the studies of Françoise Frontisi have permitted us to understand how the Greeks unified in a single image—to prosōpon—two notions that remain distinct in our culture: the mask and the face.1 With regard to ancient Roman culture, however, very little has been said along these lines, although the Romans had to confront problems similar to those faced by the Greeks: on one hand, the need to define what images are; one the other, the need to describe themselves and their own appearance. In this chapter, I would like begin sketching out a possible “anthropology of physical appearance” in the Roman world. To do so, we will focus primarily on the words used in Latin to describe a person’s appearance. Two preliminary remarks. First: in this as in so many other cases, we will be dealing with cultural representations that are not entirely coherent . In other words, the terms and cultural models that we are about to examine do not fit neatly into a single, internally consistent “theory”: there is no single, overarching representation of the face or physical appearance that accommodates every mode of representation employed by the Romans. 1. The contributions of Vernant and Frontisi towards this topic may be found in different places, beginning with Vernant 1975; Vernant and Frontisi 1983, 53–69; Vernant 1975, 31–58; Frontisi 1988, on which see Vernant 1995, 310–15; and Frontisi 1991b, 131–58. see also Vernant 1988, 211–32. 131 Face to Face in Ancient Rome Four The Vocabulary of Physical Appearance in Latin 132 Part 2. Social Practices Indeed, the terminology that refers to physical appearance is a frequently shifting field, suggesting different metaphorical possibilities and different expressive “intentions.” (This is the same principle we observed in Roman cultural representation of time and physical space, with their corresponding vocabulary).2 Sometimes perspectives on the face and “person” change and nothing dictates that these perspectives will be of the same order, or that they will interact on the same level. However, this is probably something we should expect from any cultural configuration of broad relevance and wide-ranging significance within a society. Second: The question of physical appearance and above all of the “face” should not be reduced to a simple problem of anatomy.3 A person’s face, countenance, physique and build are meaningful in ways far beyond their intrinsic “natural” significance, so to speak. These features of the human body have an extremely specific cultural value. Taken together, they form a fundamental aspect of “the person”: its identity. In fact, the ability to recognize someone (to be able to say, “This is Gaius”) and the ability to be recognized (to be able to say, “I am Titius,” and being accepted as such) both depend to a great degree on physical appearance. This is particularly true of ancient societies, where methods of identification we take for granted today—pictures, identification cards, passports, fingerprints and even DNA—did not exist. As a result, when we consider how the ancient Romans “saw” someone’s appearance, face and physique, we cannot separate the analysis of these terms from the anthropological and cultural problem par excellence, identity. Aspect and Sight So let us see. Vernant and Frontisi have surely taught us how to look at the Greeks “face to face.” For the Greeks, the face—to prosōpon—was something above all subject to sight. Better yet, it was something designated by a term derived directly from “sight” (op-). In defining this vitally important part of the body, the Greeks valorized a relationship between “seeing” and simultaneously “being seen”: to prosōpon is the “face to face” presence of an individual who, in order to define his own identity, models himself on others in a relationship of complete visual reciprocity. The same tendency to understand the face in terms of “sight” is apparent also in the terms ops or eidos, both derived from the roots related to “seeing” and once again 2. Cf. Bettini 1991a. 3. Even if the two fields coincide in part: this explains why some, though not all of the terms that we will analyze here have been dealt with also by André 1991, 27ff. Chapter 4. Face to Face in Ancient Rome 133 used to designate a person’s physical appearance. Equally interesting is the Greek expression dusōpia...


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