Picture Books As Educational Tools

Emerich Theodor Hohler, Abbildungen Römischer und Griechischer Alterthümer nach Antiken (English: ‘Illustrations of Roman and Greek Relics from the Ancient World’).

Printed in Vienna/Krems an der Donau in 1822 by B. Ph. Bauer.

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. This trite expression often isn’t true, as pictures can be very misleading. But pictures can convey ideas and illustrate history better than a dry text ever could. If you’ve never seen ancient column capitals in real life, a descriptive text would hardly be enough to help you accurately understand the differences between the Ionic and Doric orders. A picture, on the other hand, could work wonders. That’s why, in 1822, E. Th. Hohler published a work in the form of several booklets, intended to impart knowledge of the ancient world, in which he used drawings to describe the buildings and everyday objects of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Emerich Thomas Hohler was employed at the House of the Princes of Schwarzenberg (this is the coat of arms of the family’s primogeniture) where, alongside his work as the princely private tutor and later court librarian, he was also given the opportunity to publish extensively over many years. Source: 00988799876n / CC BY-SA 3.0

A Journey Through the Ancient World in Pictures

It’s difficult for us to imagine now, but there was once a time without photos. A time when the only way to see ancient statues or coins was in real life, in a museum for example, or in books, at best in engravings. A time when you couldn’t even take a two-week summer holiday to Athens or Rome and gaze at the real ruins there. Back then, in the early 19th century, the ‘Abbildungen Römischer und Griechischer Alterthümer nach Antiken’, with their engravings and accompanying descriptions, were truly cutting edge.

The author of this work, Emerich Thomas Hohler (1781–1846), was appointed private tutor at the House of the Princes of Schwarzenberg in 1809, where he taught the princely children. Alongside these duties, he also published works of academic literature that would nowadays be classified as schoolbooks. At that time, the general education system in the Austrian Empire was only just in its early stages of development and Hohler’s private, elite pupils were of course the privileged crème de la crème of society. But in 1822, one year before he was appointed the Princes’ private librarian, a role that carried the title ‘Princely Counsel’, Hohler published this book. Technically, it’s a collection of three booklets, which actually claims to ‘illustrate the main subjects of ancient history through sensory perception’. Hohler’s work is aimed at ‘students’ as well as laypersons interested in the subject, who could use it to broaden their educational horizons. The illustrations were intended to help ‘to form a complete knowledge of ancient history, literature and art and make the study of ancient history and antiquity more appealing.’ In other words, to provide the basis for dignified conversation in the parlours of the educated middle classes.

As models for his illustrations, Hohler would use objects from museums and collections, which he’d reproduce perfectly. Each panel has its own theme. Panel 1 depicts ancient writing tools, each of which are briefly described on the following page. The text therefore provides an introduction to ancient cultural history. This is followed by panels on clothing, jewellery, architecture and medals, on military tactics and siege weapons, on sacrificial implements, water systems and bridge construction. In short, everything that was known and considered elementary about the ancient world at that time.

In the late 19th century, the first great classical scholars realised that the academic study of coins is essential for gaining a deeper understanding of ancient history. But Hohler had already illustrated the ‘official decorations’ with tracings of Roman coins.

The Birth of Classical Studies

From a modern-day perspective, this selection seems very limited and clearly representative of the interests of the state. But let’s take a moment to remember that, in Hohler’s time, the field of classical studies did not yet exist. The fact that he even uses terms like ‘ancient history’ and ‘the study of antiquity’ is ground-breaking. Another whole generation passed before the study of ancient history became established as its own branch of academia under the name ‘classical studies’, after which point it was pursued with great interest and enthusiasm. Curtius and Winckelmann can be considered the founding fathers of classical archaeology, while Mommsen’s works paved the way for generations. In the 19th century, scholars had to gather written sources and physical artefacts so that they could use them as a basis for their academic discussions. There’s a reason this was the time of the great corpora, the collections of papyri, inscriptions, coins and legislative texts.

The Importance of School Education

But this development already takes us ahead into the middle and second half of the 19th century. Hohler was writing about a generation earlier. At that time, there was practically no material on the subject; no extensive specialist literature, no academic handbooks, no professors or experts. It was teachers, librarians and philologists like Hohler who loved the ancient world and who laid the groundwork for the new field of study, basing it on everything they had learned themselves from books and museums. These teachers mainly taught their students solid language skills in Latin and Greek and, in doing so, ignited their passion for ancient world. But they also had increasing access to the world of physical relics and artefacts that was being excavated and documented. And Hohler understood how important it was for people to see this world with their own eyes. He gave the wider public an idea of how to imagine the things that were described in ancient texts.

So, when we think of the first luminaries of classical studies, of Mommsen, Winckelmann, Curtius and Niebuhr, we should also remember the expression about standing on the shoulders of giants. Hohler may not have been a giant of the academic field, certainly not in comparison to the generation that followed him. But it is thanks to tutors and scholars like him and their books that classical studies saw such a surge in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. His ‘Abbildungen Römischer und Griechischer Alterthümer’ still radiates his passion for the subject, the passion that he wanted to pass on to the rest of society. His efforts were crowned with success.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In

Unfortunately, there is no digitised version of the work available, but you can find a complete table of contents here.

The value of picture books in children’s education had already been recognised several years earlier by Friedrich Bertuch. He was so successful that he had to deal with plagiarism.