Skip to main content

The Phantom Image

Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome

Drawing from a rich corpus of art works, including sarcophagi, tomb paintings, and floor mosaics, Patrick R. Crowley investigates how something as insubstantial as a ghost could be made visible through the material grit of stone and paint. In this fresh and wide-ranging study, he uses the figure of the ghost to offer a new understanding of the status of the image in Roman art and visual culture. Tracing the shifting practices and debates in antiquity about the nature of vision and representation, Crowley shows how images of ghosts make visible structures of beholding and strategies of depiction. Yet the figure of the ghost simultaneously contributes to a broader conceptual history that accounts for how modalities of belief emerged and developed in antiquity. Neither illustrations of ancient beliefs in ghosts nor depictions of afterlife, these images show us something about the visual event of seeing itself. The Phantom Image offers essential insight into ancient art, visual culture, and the history of the image.

328 pages | 25 color plates, 71 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2019

Ancient Studies


Art: Ancient and Classical Art

History: Ancient and Classical History


"In The Phantom Image, Crowley investigates depictions of ghosts in ancient Rome in order to better understand a range of topics related to the representation and perception of images in the ancient visual arts. . . . The focused analyses of many individual works of ancient art are the most rewarding and thought-provoking aspect of the book, which is beautifully produced and abounds in excellent illustrations, including 25 fine color plates. . . . Recommended."


"The introduction, four chapters and epilogue of this volume, replete with texts and images that concern the dead, are packed with wide-ranging ideas and detailed discussion. The complexity of the subject is not hidden. The author has surmounted vast ranges of evidence."

Classics for All

"The author has an eye for intriguing and overlooked cast-studies. But he is also an expert in putting visual materials into dialogue with literary text - from the Elder Pliny to Augustine and beyond. . . . The book is essential reading for anyone concerned with the status of images in the Roman (indeed, pre-Christian, Western . . . ) world."


“Crowley is quite good at bringing out the conceptual eeriness of a subject matter that is already spooky.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Crowley’s compelling book explores the afterlife of such ‘phantom images’ in the Roman cultural imagination. . . .He is also expert in putting ancient visual materials into dialogue with literary texts — from the Elder Pliny and Quintilian to Augustine and beyond. Particularly compelling is the way that he weaves together the Greek and the Roman, flying in the face of a scholarly trend, especially prevalent in North America, of studying the two in effective scholarly apartheid."

Journal of Roman Studies

"The Phantom Image is a meticulously researched art history which brings together an impressive range of archaeological and historical evidence in an examination of the preconditions of ancient 'belief.' That much of the evidence marshalled by Crowley has never been considered within an analytical framework of ghostly iconography speaks to the innovation and ambition of the author’s project."

The Middle Ground Journal

"The volume explores, in particular, the depiction of ghosts in the Roman world, how they were illustrated and what they reveal about ways of seeing, representation and modalities of belief in the ancient world. Drawing on funerary monuments, tomb paintings, mythological sarcophagi and floor mosaics, largely from mortuary contexts in Rome, Crowley explores the concept of ghosts in the ancient world and how this is evidenced in imagery."


"The Phantom Image is as unique as its subject matter. Crowley shows impressive command of the historiographic and theoretical background while creating a book that is up-to-the-minute in terms of contemporary sources. This is an ambitious study in its intellectual, cultural, and chronological scope that focuses on some heretofore marginalized monuments and makes them central to an understanding of Roman visual culture."

Barbara Kellum, Smith College

"The Phantom Image is the very first monograph on the phenomenology of Roman umbrae. Crowley has written a careful and radical book: careful in its rigorous analysis of ancient funerary and domestic art and radical in the way it questions our assumptions about how and what Romans saw. While reading we see many shrouds lifted, not only of ghosts but of Roman aesthetic practices in general."

Ruth Bielfeldt, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

"In a dazzlingly original investigation of spectral phenomena from classical Greece to late antique Italy, The Phantom Image interrogates a haunting array of ancient visual evidence, much of it from Roman funerary contexts. Taking seriously Aby Warburg’s claim that art history is itself a ‘ghost story for grown-ups,’ Crowley brilliantly demonstrates not only how ancient concepts of the eidōlon and imago blurred the boundaries between spirits and images, but also how the visual and philosophical discourse of ghosts in antiquity served itself as an exploration of the limits of representation, conditions of visibility, claims to knowledge, and ethical regimes of the body."

Verity Platt, Cornell University

"This rewarding read offers manifold insights into ancient—and modern—perceptions of phantasia and rationalism in the context of ghostly phenomena."

American Journal of Archaeology

Table of Contents



Chapter One A Grammar of Ghosts
Chapter Two The Chthonic Sublime
Chapter Three Spectral Subjectivity
Chapter Four Phantoms in the Flesh

Epilogue Forms of Spectrality
List of Abbreviations

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press