Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Denis Sami, Gavin Speed (ed.), Debating Urbanism within and beyond the Walls A.D. 300-700. Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Leicester, 15th November 2008. Leicester Archaeology Monographs 17. Leicester: University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, 2010. Pp. 296. ISBN 9780956017925. £21.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Kenneth G. Holum, University of Maryland (kholum@umd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Having advanced swiftly from conference presentations into print, the papers in this book join a profound stream of new scholarship on the Late Antique transformation of Roman cities. Except for Kristensen on statuary, the focus is the western Mediterranean, Britain, and lands that would become Europe. Indeed, a major impetus for such studies has been the European Science Foundation's conferences in the mid-1990s on the Transformation of the Roman World. Throughout, the spotlight is on new archaeological evidence and scholarship, and in fact more than half of the authors were graduate students or recent Ph.D.s at the time of the conference. Martin Carver, one of the organizers, likened what he heard to "a coiled spring ready to throw bundles of new ideas into the air."

Part I is two papers exploring the survival of Roman towns in post-Roman contexts, in Dacia after the Roman state withdrew in 271, and in northern Italy after the sixth-century Ostrogothic and Lombard conquests. Wanner and De Sena support settlement continuity in northern Dacia, drawing on relatively unknown Romanian discoveries at three "migration period" urban sites in Transylvania. The main evidence, neither very rich nor illuminating, is post-withdrawal burials in sarcophagi of brick or stone, often derived from spolia, and reconfiguration of the forum colonnade at Porolissum with crude walls closing the intercolumniations. The authors assume unconvincingly that coins indicate surviving commercial links. The Daco-Roman population apparently remained, but in the town buildings fell out of use and burials invaded urban space, settlement tending to disperse to villages in the suburbs and countryside. Similarly construed as "post-Roman" are Latimer's Italian towns. She alerts us correctly to a reassertion of the notional link between city walls and urban status evident in archaeological evidence for strengthened fortifications and in sixth- through eighth-century literary sources. These texts distinguish a civitas, or city, as having walls from a vicus or villa without defenses. As in the traditional Roman city, the Germanic kings, their officials, and apparently those who read these texts still understood the civitas as a fortified urban center, also termed urbs or castrum, but civitas could also mean the urban center together with the territory or regio governed from it. Moreover, the fortifications still counted as sacra, meaning that the kings had taken on the emperor's traditional duty of maintaining and improving them. For Latimer, the kings therefore had adopted the "traditional Roman practice of associating local autonomy and devolved government with urban status" (45).

Introducing part II, Mattingly proposes, as a way of managing complexity, a "biographical" method of exploring individual towns, since each had its own unique life-history. The watchword, though, is "change" replacing the concept of "decline." In his essay on British towns before and after 410, allegedly the end of the imperial administration, Rogers proposes a new method of understanding change: interpreting an archaeological context not as "space" but as a "place," with consequent attention to the "human experience, feeling and thought" that the evidence implies. Rogers applies this strategy to forum-basilica complexes and public baths in which evidence of metallurgy has turned up in late- or post-Roman contexts. The focus is two British examples. At Silchester Rogers takes deposits of animal, bird, and fish bones recovered in the vicinity of forging slag as evidence for association of (ritual) feasting with "the symbolic power of metalworking," a concept not further defined. The Wroxeter case is even more bizarre. Discovery of four human foetuses or newborn skeletons in association with slag deposits–at least one of them found in a casting pit that was in use at the time of placement–suggests that "metalworking was also associated with ideas of procreation, regeneration and rebirth" (72). Likewise on Britain and "change" is Speed's essay addressing the alleged "gap" between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon occupation of urban sites before and after 410–but the "gap" is now gradually closing, he asserts, because ceramic and other artifact chronologies have improved. Leicester itself, the location of the conference, yielded much of the evidence in recent, relatively large-scale excavations, which Speed deems much more illuminating than the typical "key-hole" excavations at other sites. The result is apparent continuity of occupation in the fifth and sixth centuries but with a change in urban values that likely signaled a new population. Elite town-houses were subdivided, domestic space reused for blacksmith and bone-working shops, and, beginning in the fifth century, the so-called Sunken-Feature Buildings (SFBs) proliferated, associated with the arrival of Anglo-Saxons. New constructions respected ancient streets, walls still offered defense, and outside the town burials continued in the ancient cemeteries. Nor did Roman towns decline sharply in Gallaecia, the post-Diocletianic province in northwestern Spain and northern Portugal, the topic of Portass's essay. Here the striking phenomenon is refortification of the main Hispano-Roman cities. Indeed, the walls of Lugo (Lucus Augusta), with more than 40 towers, are the most impressive in the entire peninsula. Portass associates walls reasonably with the Diocletian's initiative of revitalizing the main cities in order to promote extraction of recruits and military provisions (the annona). The archaeological evidence supports continued prosperity in most cities in the fifth and sixth centuries. The author points to the rebellion of Maximus in A.D. 420 as evidence for Gallaecia's ability to field and officer a powerful military but ignores the larger fact that the family and many associates of the emperor Theodosius I, founder of the current dynasty in both east and west until mid-century, likewise hailed from this province.

Part III, billed as "Altering Spaces and Economies," actually deals with cultural choice in reprioritizing uses of urban space. Macphail's illuminating essay brings soil micromorphology to bear on interpreting the so-called "dark earth" deposits that since the 1930's have been thought to represent the end of urbanism and ruralization of urban sites, especially in Britain. Indeed, these deposits do sometimes mean introduction of animal management or gardening in what had been strictly urban space, but they also occur earlier than alleged urban decline and reflect purely urban activities. Johnson's study of waste disposal practices (actually only of broken wine and oil amphoras) in Rome and Milan from the High Empire through the sixth century reaches suggestive though very tentative conclusions on several high-profile issues: decentralization after the third century in distributing the oil dole, continued state involvement in selecting waste disposal sites, the emerging ability of ecclesiastical authority to control disposal near churches, and generally "strong continuity of urban traditions." Negri's essay explores the siting of a fifth-century cathedral in Bergamo, northern Italy, and how the choice of site affected the urban topography. Placing the cathedral above two Roman houses flanking a street, and orientation of the church at an angle to the earlier street, obviously demonstrate reconfiguration of urban space, but from this slight evidence far-reaching conclusions about urban continuity and discontinuity hardly seem justified, nor do the ceramic evidence for a dropoff in African Red Slip in favor of possibly local glazed wares suffice to indicate changing eating habits or the arrival of new social groups. Like the others in this volume, this essay offers many more questions than answers.

Finally, the three papers in part IV deal with how Christianizing changed representation of the city in town planning, urban architecture, and the public display of classical sculpture. Sami explores the emergence of Christianity in the urban landscapes of Sicily, which he perceives as a "slow and extended" and as "part of a wider, well organized and systematic process" (214). The earliest imposition of Christianity upon the landscape was cemeteries and martyr shrines in the third century, followed by the first larger church buildings a century later, and, after a fifth-century slowdown, a final outburst of new construction in the sixth century. Earlier, churches tended to rise near martyrs' graves outside the walls, but later they appeared across the cityscape, with a tendency to respect the classical layout and to favor prominent sites near the forum. Gradually, monasteries, hostels, and hospitals also populated the terrain, while pagan shrines passed out of use, or, in the sixth century and later, underwent conversion into churches, notably the temple of Athena in Syracuse. Next, Cirelli presents a stirring account of Ravenna's transformation from a modest third-century Roman city extending over only 33 hectares of intramural space into an imperial, royal, and episcopal capital that flourished until well into the Carolingian age. New fortifications enclosed 166 hectares, not including the commercial and industrial suburbs Caesarea and Classe, and the furnishings of the new capital eventually comprised an extensive imperial/royal palace, a circus, numerous luxury mansions, an episcopal palace, and upwards of 23 churches. Elite residences flourished in Ravenna until the tenth century. Finally, Kristensen takes issue with studies of the reuse of ancient statuary (including one study written by the author of this review) in cities of the eastern Mediterranean that have interpreted reuse as a manifestation of antiquarianism or "cultural nostalgia." He believes that overemphasis on written texts, especially inscriptions, has contributed to misapprehension and proposes corrective attention to the "materiality" of the statues, leavened also with current theorizing about how memory is shaped. Two cases from Caesarea Palaestinae of antique statues reused in sixth- or early seventh-century buildings suggest, for Kristensen, Christian "triumphalism," because the statues were headless or otherwise damaged when reinstalled. So they may indeed have appeared to some resolutely Christian observers, but reading "triumphalism" into sixth- (as opposed to fifth- or fourth-) century reinstallations seems anachronistic and out of line with contemporary literary evidence for interpreting reused statues, as well as marble architectural pieces inherited from the past, simply as urbis decus, ornaments of the city.

This book's main enthusiasm is for revisiting received models and paradigms. Above all, the authors consistently resist "the D-word," "decline," as in Gibbon and as deployed in recent influential works of J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz and N. Faulkner. Generally archaeologists, the authors favor interpretive strategies drawn from anthropology and other social sciences, not from text-based historical studies. Thus Moreland (144) applauds the authors for giving "Late Antiquity," too often (in Averil Cameron's words) "an exotic territory populated by wild monks and excitable virgins," a social and economic face based on archaeological evidence. The deployment of literary evidence, however, is sometimes ham-handed, as in the assumption that the Theodosian Code registers actual facts about the destruction of temples rather than imperial policies, or in favoring the "materialist" perspective over literary sources on the motivation for reusing statues.

Despite the book's title suggesting equal treatment of "urbanism beyond the walls," the authors attend too little to critical links between town and countryside upheld in the ancient Mediterranean city by an elite whose estates made up much of a town's subject territory but who lived in town and patronized public building and social institutions. Indeed, these links, including the local apparatus for collecting taxes in a town's subject territory, appear essential to the concept of "true city in the Roman sense of the term" (112) more than any particular set of walls, public buildings, bathhouses, sewer system, or mosaic decoration. One might have hoped for greater conceptual clarity. Moreover, what was "ruralization"? Did it mean reducing built-up urban space to agricultural fields, as in one explanation for "black earth" deposits? The settlement of elites in the countryside when previously they had favored the city? The dissolving of "administrative" links between city and countryside, after which the urban elite no longer collected rents and taxes but left the countryside to its own devices? From our modern perspective, was "ruralization," in any or all of these senses, not just a matter of "cultural choice" but indeed the end of the ancient Mediterranean city?

One appreciates the energy applied in this book to devising alternative models and strategies, but in some cases the results are decidedly thin. Moreover, the standards of writing and editing are distressingly low, with the result that often the printed words yield no meaning at all. Frustratingly, referenced items are frequently missing in the chapter bibliographies, and the bibliography for the part II introduction has disappeared entirely.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Debating Urbanism and Change in the Late Roman and Early Medieval World (Neil Christie)
Part 1: Walls and Town Life
An Introduction (Simon Esmonde-Cleary)
1. Three Dying Towns: Reflections on the Immediate Post-Roman Phase of Napoca, Potaissa and Porolissum (Robert Wanner and Eric C. De Sena)
2. 'Hoc est civitatis vel potius castri': City-Walls and Urban Status in Northern Italy (circa A.D. 493-774)(Simona Latimer)
Part 2: Changing Urban Forms
An Introduction (David Mattingly)
3. Late Roman Towns as Meaningful Places: Re-Conceptualizing Decline in the Towns of Late Roman Britain (Adam Rogers)
4. Mind the (Archaeological) Gap: Tracing Life in Early Post-Roman Towns (Gavin Speed)
5. Re-evaluating the Iberian North-west in Late Antiquity (Robert Portass)
Part 3: Altering Spaces and Economies
An Introduction (John Moreland)
6. Dark Earth and Insights into Changing Land Use of Urban Areas (Richard I. Macphail)
7. Investigating Urban Change in Late Antique Italy Through Waste Disposal Practices (Paul S. Johnson)
8. The Late Antique Cathedral of Bergamo: The Ceramic Context and New Perspectives from the 2004-2006 Excavations (Pietro Negri)
Part 4: Image and Belief in the Late Antique Townscape
An Introduction (Gareth Sears)
9. Changing Beliefs: The Transition from Pagan to Christian Town in Late Antique Sicily (Denis Sami)
10. Ravenna–Rise of a Late Antique Capital (Enrico Cirelli)
11. The Display of Statues in the Late Antique Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean: Reflections on Memory, Meaning, and Aesthetics (Troels Myrup Kristensen)
Conclusion: Debating Urbanism in Post-Roman Europe: Some Thoughts About Objectives (Martin Carver)

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