Nilotica and the Image of Egypt

Molly Swetnam‐Burland

in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt

Published in print June 2012 | ISBN: 9780199571451
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Archaeology

 Nilotica and the Image of Egypt

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  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology of the Near East
  • Egyptian Archaeology
  • History of Art


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This article surveys Roman art known as 'nilotica' — artistic representations of Egypt and its residents. Though the word is ancient, the underlying concept is best understood as a scholarly construct, used to describe material in a range of media (coins, sculptures, mosaics, and frescos) that portray the Nile or people living near it. Romans imported Egyptian antiquities — including scarabs, canopic jars, sculptures, and obelisks — but the majority of nilotic material was made for display in Roman homes, gardens, baths, and tombs. For this reason, these artworks reveal as much or more about what their producers and consumers in Italy thought about Egypt as they do about the social realities of Egypt. Of particular interest are two themes: what this material tells us about the cult of Isis in Italy, and what it tells us about how Roman attitudes to Egypt (and Egyptians) evolved after Egypt became a Roman province. The discussion is structured around two examples from Italy, each a locus classicus of the genre: the Nile Mosaic of Palestrina and the Vatican Nile. These artworks represent the most commonly employed media — two-dimensional landscapes in painting or mosaic, and three-dimensional personifications sculpted in the round. As the Nile Mosaic pre-dates Roman conquest and the Vatican Nile post-dates it, these examples also illustrate the changing nature of the Roman conception of Egypt from foreign territory to imperial possession.

Keywords: Roman art; nilotica; Egypt; cult of Isis; Italy; Nile Mosaic of Palestrina; Vatican Nile

Article.  6584 words. 

Subjects: Archaeology ; Archaeology of the Near East ; Egyptian Archaeology ; History of Art

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