Monday, February 14, 2011


Vincent Jolivet, Carlo Pavolini, Maria Antonietta Tomei, Rita Volpe (ed.), Suburbium II: Il suburbio di Roma dalla fine dell'Età monarchica alla nascita del sistema delle ville (V-II secolo a.C.). Collection de l'Ecole française de Rome; 419. Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, 2009. Pp. 755; CD-ROM. ISBN 9782728308200. €177.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Roman Roth, University of Cape Town (

Version at BMCR home site

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this piece.]

Table of Contents

This volume combines the proceedings of three conferences. The first two , held in October and March 2004, focused on the areas of 'Methods of Archaeological Research in the Suburbium' and 'Criteria for the Dating of Republican Contexts: Building Techniques, Pottery and Coinage' respectively. The third – a plenary meeting held over two days in February 2005 – was primarily concerned with presenting the results of recent fieldwork in the suburbium. In its entirety, the book makes an immensely valuable contribution, not only to the regional archaeology of the suburbium but, more widely, to the study of Italian material culture from the Republican period. If not all (or not even the majority) of contributions are not individually addressed in what follows, this is in no way a reflection of their quality or lack thereof. On the contrary, it is possible to offer this review in a more comprehensive mode precisely because the volume hangs very well together as a whole, with each chapter adding an integral part to the opus. This reviewer's reason for assigning privilege to several specific contributions is that these would, in particular, appear to endorse the volume's importance as compulsory reading for any cultural historian and archaeologist of Republican Italy.

The first part on methodology brings together nine chapters, each of which addresses an individual project in the vicinity of Rome. All of these projects combine new fieldwork with archival research and the re-study of materials from earlier excavations and surveys. In light of this (but not only in light of this) it is appropriate that the volume begins with the contribution by Helga di Giuseppe and Helen Patterson (pp. 7-26) of the Tiber Valley Project based at the British School at Rome, which combined new fieldwork, archival research and, in particular, the re-study of the materials previously recovered during the South Etruria Survey on a grand scale. In addition, the Tiber Valley Project in many ways broke the ground for an innovative approach to the archaeological study of regionalism: rather than concentrating on individual regions as defined by ancient notions (or modern takes on them), such the 'Augustan Regions' or a given ancient town and its presumed agricultural territory, this new approach is based on parameters of regional coherence (to be defined in its extent) like the Tiber or, indeed, the ever expanding city of Rome. The Tiber valley and the suburbium, of course, border on each other and, arguably, intersect; therefore, it is legitimate to question the extent of how much bearing officially defined boundaries did in fact have on the ancient perception of where one region ended and the other began. What the works collected in 'Suburbium II' certainly suggest is that, on the whole, we should expect a certain degree of fluidity (or even fuzziness), both within the sub-regions of the suburbium and between the latter and its neighbours; and that, what is more, different types of artefacts – as evidence for cultural activities – may provide a variety of how boundedness and intersection were perceived in each case.

Archaeological research is rarely unhampered by practicalities, and to say that the suburbium of Rome does not form an exception would be an understatement. Ongoing building activities often lead to a time race between archaeologists and developers, while the results obtained by earlier fieldwork or more incidental discoveries present the researcher with an up-hill challenge when it comes to integrating them with newly gained insights. With regard to the first issue, the chapter by Daniela Rossi and Vincenza Iorio (pp. 123-130) discusses the issue of collaboration between 'official' and 'voluntary' archaeologists in their work in the area of Castel di Guido. Although such collaborative ventures are frequently encountered in Italy – especially in Rome and its vicinity, where these have for many years been taking place under the umbrella of the Gruppo Archeologico Romano – it is worthwhile highlighting both their problems and potential in a volume like this. Its contributors should, on the whole, be applauded for their frankness in discussing the practical obstacles encountered in the archaeology of Republican central Italy and Rome in particular. This is nowhere more evident than in Francesco di Gennaro's contribution (pp. 93-104) on rescue archaeology in the suburbium – rescue not only in the sense of preparing the ground for future construction but, unfortunately, also as a necessary means of anticipating the activities of criminals. The subject of integrating old with new results, on the other hand, forms the subject of several other contributions to the first section, such as the chapter by Laura Asor Rosa et al. (pp. 69-79) who discuss the uses of Geographical Information Systems from this specific angle.

However, it is the second section (on the chronology of several key classes of the Republican material culture found in the suburbium) which – at least in the eyes of this reviewer – constitutes the pivotal part of the entire volume. Slowly but surely, the last fifteen years or so have seen a gradual revision of time-honoured chronological frameworks. As, for instance, in the case of black-gloss pottery or Graeco-Italic amphorae, this has largely been the result of an increasing awareness of the regional aspects of such forms of material culture, which many would still regard as relatively uniform and, in one way or another, centrally produced and distributed. Closely connected to this is our still precarious lack of chronological resolution for this period, which must equally be rectified by material culture studies at the regional and sub-regional level, in conjunction with the analysis of well-stratified contexts that continue to be a relatively rare beast as far as central Italy during the Republican period is concerned. All of the contributions to the second section laudably succeed in doing just this – as far as the evidence allows – which is also borne out by the fact that many of their findings have already found their way into the individual field reports presented in the plenary sessions (sections three and four of the volume; in several cases, there is also an overlap of authorship). This, by the way, forms another important indication of how well the volume hangs together as a whole.

Following Vincent Jolivet's incisive comments (pp. 139-141) concerning some fundamental problems of Republican chronology, Gloria Olcese (pp. 143-156) provides an admirable overview of the results, problems and potential of pottery studies in the suburbium, while managing to embed her discussion within the wider context of the situation in central Italy as a whole. This reviewer fully agrees with Olcese on the importance of combining archaeometric with more traditional methods of stylistic analysis (the latter being espoused by Stanco's thought-provoking chapter which follows [pp. 157-193]). This, of course, requires by necessity considerable quantities of material from stratified contexts, both of which are still in short supply. At the peril of breaking with the section-by-section approach taken here, it is worth pointing out the constructive correlation between Olcese's chapter here and Volpe's contribution (pp. 369-381) on the archaeology of viticulture in the suburbium presented in the third section. Together, they help to nuance the impressionistic picture of the production, movement and consumption of goods, which archaeologists and historians of the Roman economy so readily draw from ceramic evidence.

All but one – i.e., the informative numismatic contribution by Fiorenzo Catalli – of the other chapters in this section deal with different aspects of Republican pottery found in the suburbium. In virtually all of them, it is evident – and to be welcomed – that, rather than being broken down into separate categories of fine-wares, coarse-wares etc., the ceramic spectrum increasingly tends to be approached in its entirety, which forms a crucial step towards arriving at a better understanding of the regional and sub-regional dimensions of ancient life.

The third and fourth sections of the book comprise the papers delivered in the plenary sessions. Each of these presents a recent or ongoing field project within the confines of the suburbium. This is not to say that the chapters in these last two sections simply provide matter-of-fact field reports. Far from it: while exposing the reader to their new results, all of the authors not only succeed in offering interpretative perspectives but (as noted earlier) also take into account the issues of research methodology and material culture studies discussed in sections one and two (in addition to Volpe's paper, the contribution by Helga di Giuseppe and Mirella Serlorenzi [pp. 573-598] merits especial mentions in this regard).

It would go beyond the scope of this review to offer any detailed synopses of the papers collected in these two sections. On a general (and distinctly positive) note, this reviewer would like to emphasise that, for the main part, the contributions in question are concerned with evidence from recent (and, as in the case of the chapter by Nicola Terrenato and Jeffrey A. Becker [pp. 393-401]) older excavations (and rather informal explorations) within what is now known about the settlement structure of the region as a whole. The coherence of the latter as an area of research, of course, remains a volatile one – owing not so much to the quality of research as to what happens to be archaeologically accessible within the context of an urban sprawl. Of particular interest are those projects in areas adjacent to those which have been subjected to wider survey projects, such as the Tiber Valley Project (see above) or, as in the case of the contribution by Antonia Arnoldus Huyzendveld et al. (pp. 599-619), the Portus project.

To conclude, 'Suburbium II' has everything going for it, notwithstanding its considerable price (€ 177). The texts and accompanying materials – in hard copy as well as CD-Rom – are well edited and clearly laid out. The overall tone of the contributions is refreshingly open-minded: all of what is presented here could be classified as 'work in progress'. If the future of regional archaeology in central Italy archaeology holds more of such integrated approaches in store, we are looking forward to a good inning.

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