NEW YORK — In 1770, the 14-year-old Mozart premiered an opera called “Mitridate, re di Ponto,” about the historical king of Pontus, who fought desperately to keep the Roman empire at bay in the 1st century B.C. The libretto was based on a minor play by Racine, which was based on various accounts from Roman historical writers. Today, the name (and the opera) are little known, a curious bit of old-fashioned narrative exotica that has long since fallen to the wayside of the layman’s knowledge of the ancient world.
Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus, ruled over one of the countries that fell into the large, diverse and culturally vibrant land that the Metropolitan Museum of Art calls “The World Between Empires.” That is also the title of an exhibition surveying the art, architecture and luxury goods of what we now think of as the “Middle East,” including present-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and Iran, among others. “The World Between Empires” focuses particularly on the period from 100 B.C. to about 250 A.D., when the empires of Rome to the west and Parthia to the east contested this territory, with shifting borders, long periods of uneasy peace and devastating wars that seemed to settle nothing.
Rather like Mozart’s opera, the artistic residue of these lands is hiding in plain sight in any decent museum of art. The halos around the head of Christ and the saints one finds in medieval and Renaissance painting derive from the sun-ray crowns that once picked out the divinity of gods such as Malakbel and Aglibol, sun and moon gods worshiped in Palmyra, a cosmopolitan entrepôt in what is now Syria. The plant and animal motifs present everywhere in medieval architectural reliefs and wall decoration worked their way there into churches in France and Italy and England through the Parthian influence on late Roman visual culture.
Even the frontal, symmetrical, stylized depiction of the human body common to byzantine and medieval art — a style that often seems static to modern viewers — was largely an inheritance from the art of this “in between” region that partook of both Hellenistic and Eastern or Parthian models. For generations, art history has suggested this style marked a decline or degradation of the classical ideal. But as this exhibition demonstrates, it makes much more sense to think not in terms of decay, but rather of a kind of smorgasbord of artistic options available in the early centuries of the first millennium, with Parthian influence coming to the fore as new ideas about religion and spirituality transformed the late classical world.
Exhibitions that look at cross-cultural influence, that explore the impact of trade and the transfer of ideas and goods across great distances, are popular today. Google “exhibition” and “silk road,” and you find an array of recent shows, not just in Western museums but in countries all along the loose network of trading paths that stretched between the Roman empire and China. But the Metropolitan Museum exhibition is better than the usual display of textiles, glassware and jewelry, meant to reinforce the obvious: that trade is a perennial of man’s dominion, that globalization has been at work, slowly and methodically, long before it became a fashionable idea in the 21st century.
The Metropolitan exhibition is more about dismantling fundamental, reflexive ideas about the Roman world. Among these is the assumption that there was a single, pervasive Roman aesthetic, which radiated out from the capital to the peripheries of the empire. Rather, there was a complex world of both local and broader aesthetics, and these didn’t just flow from Rome to the provinces. Communities from places such as Palmyra — a trading hub and oasis that was heavily damaged by Islamic State during its occupation of Syria — lived in Rome and brought their gods with them. One fascinating carving shows two divine figures, one dressed in Parthian style with loose trousers and a tunic, the other in Roman style with a muscled breastplate, joining hands in front of a cypress tree.
The lesson here isn’t just that religious life drew on many different sources, though that is definitely true. Rather, it tells us something about the psychology of the day, that people clearly felt little dissonance in the diversity of religious belief, aesthetic style and cultural identity that was common to these lands. From our vantage point, defined by centuries of bloody-minded monotheism and nationalism, this diversity looks like a mess that needs sorting out. It’s tempting to believe that for those who lived within it, the richness and range of aesthetic and spiritual material felt like a happy superabundance. If your gods can look like polished boxes with abstract faces, or Greek youths with perfect, muscled bodies, you have options, not just in whom or what to worship, but in how you conceive your relationship to divinity.
The exhibition requires of the viewer a mental change and a refusal of familiar categories. Even what seems to us quintessentially “Roman” isn’t necessarily Roman. Classical pediments and Corinthian columns were an architectural language as much at the disposal of those who resisted Rome as it was the basic design vocabulary of the Roman capital. When the murderous louts of the Islamic State blew up large parts of the ancient ruins of Palmyra between 2015 and 2017, they were destroying a city of columns and arches, with an agora and theater, that had been a thorn in the side of Rome for centuries.
The “world between empires” was once far more familiar to us than it is today, largely through Latin and Greek sources that told a very biased view of history. Parthian narratives were lost when the Sasanian empire supplanted it. Roman accounts were popular enough that Mozart could base an opera on a central figure from the era, the same king whom Ralph Waldo Emerson memorialized in his 1846 poem “Mithridates.” The region allowed Western artists and writers to project innumerable fantasies, of petty potentates and internecine rivalries, and cosmopolitan oases of culture and decadence. Looking at the magnificence of the material brought together by the Met, one is sympathetic with Emerson’s depiction of an intellectually voracious king at the crossroads of trade and history: “I will use the world, and sift it,/To a thousand humors shift it,/As you spin a cherry.”
“The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 23. For more information, visit metmuseum.org.