From Royal to Republican, by Caroline Winterer

Teaching the Article
Exercise 4

The Continence of Scipio

Kevin Lynch, a critic of the built environment, once asked the question, "What time is this place?"1 His question focuses our attention on a sense of time as essential to our understanding of a particular place. We see this complex relationship most clearly in efforts at "historic preservation" and in the "period rooms" that museums create. But the question is really embedded everywhere around us.

For artists choosing to give visual form to the parable of the continence of Scipio, the question of what time the place was loomed large. Told by ancient writers, the parable concerned the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235-183 BC) who conquered the Carthaginian region of Celtiberia (now Spain). His captives included a young woman; by rights of the conquerer he could rape her. Instead, he returns her inviolate to her betrothed, along with her ransom. So grateful are the Celtiberians that they join Scipio's army which goes on to defeat Carthage. Scipio's self-restraint is the "continence" to which the parable refers, and his reward is that he extends the Roman empire.

Part of what made the parable of the continence of Scipio so fascinating was that the "event" from Roman history seemed to hold lessons of universal applicability. The story generated the most interest when it was placed in a modernized setting, with only some Roman touches. In other words, it was the combination of modernity and antiquity that gave the parable its punch. In the images of the continence of Scipio below, look at what the artists have done both to make the story appear Roman and also to update it, to achieve the balance of time and place that would engage modern viewers. What have they chosen to update, and what have they chosen to classicize?

1Kevin Lynch, What Time is This Place? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).


A. Richard Earlom, The Continence of Scipio, 1766, engraving of Anthony Van Dyck's 1620-1621 painting, with King James I of England as Scipio. Reproduced in E. McSherry Fowble, Two Centuries of Prints in America, 458. The image appeared on the back of the trade card of the Philadelphia printer Robert Kennedy.

B. The Continence of Scipio, New-York Magazine (July 1793). American Antiquarian Society.

C. Alfred Jacob Miller, The Trapper's Bride, c.1850s. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.