Saturday, September 24, 2011


Diana Spencer, Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity. Greece & Rome. New Surveys in the Classics, 39. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 228. ISBN 9781107400245. $21.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Amy Russell, Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies and British School at Rome (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In this volume, Spencer draws together threads from the burgeoning scholarship on Roman landscape, which she defines as land as formed, viewed and represented by human agency.1 Landscape functions as a link between nature and culture, aesthetics and politics, and human and divine; it can be a valuable site for the creation of memory and identity, and it is the relationship between landscape and Roman identity, specifically in the last century BCE and the first century CE, which is Spencer's focus. Rather than arguing for a specific reading of that relationship, Spencer uses a series of case studies to lay out its basic terms, demonstrating that the landscape in which all human activities took place was constantly subject to interpretation and reinterpretation, and that individual Romans articulated their relationships with land and nature as a basic part of their own identity formation.

Throughout the volume, theoretical approaches are emphasised, including those drawn from geography, linguistics, anthropology, and post-colonial critical theory. The objects of analysis include archaeologically preserved spaces and visual representations, though literature receives by far the most attention, especially in the earlier, scene-setting chapters. Spencer's book, like others in its series, is intended as an introductory survey, defining itself on the back cover as 'a starting point for [readers] developing their own in depth study.' It performs this function well, and will be of interest to those working on many aspects of Roman culture. On the other hand, its restricted length gives rise to a compressed style of argument, jumping rapidly from point to point, which will not convert those implacably opposed to scare-quotes "theory" and in places risks confusing readers who are less familiar with the period. The case studies which form the second half of the book are worthy offerings in themselves, and the volume as a whole makes a strong argument for the importance of landscape as a location of Roman cultural self-fashioning.

The overall layout of Spencer's book makes it a useful aid for readers grappling with theoretical approaches to Roman landscape, memory, and identity. The first half of the book presents in four relatively short chapters an overview of theoretical work and themes relevant to the study of Roman landscape and its role in identity formation. In the much longer fifth and sixth chapters, carefully chosen case studies allow the reader to see at work many of the approaches outlined in the earlier sections. Cross-references in the notes aid the reader in finding links between the two halves of the book, although more and more specific cross-references would be an improvement (usually reference is only by chapter). In a survey such a combination of explication and application is to be applauded; too often in studies informed by a particular theory a reader may find it hard to disentangle the theory itself from the details of its application to a specific case, while a purely theoretical work can seem dauntingly distant from any connection with actual texts.

Pressure of space and the organizational plan Spencer adopts mean that the opening chapters tend to pile concept upon concept, introducing a number of different ideas without necessarily connecting them into a single argument. The main text is prefaced by a list of Key Terms (xiii-xvi) including technical and theoretical items some of which are taken from the common lexicon of classical scholarship (ekphrasis, otium, syncretism) while others may be new to many readers (chronotope, hyperreality, voyant-visible). Chapter I presents many of these terms in their methodological context, laying out a broad range of approaches to landscape, while the next three chapters go on to explore in slightly greater detail some of these concepts which have proven valuable in looking at Roman landscape in particular, and to draw out relevant themes. Chapter two takes on aesthetics and ethics, covering the philosophical roots of the locus amoenus trope in Plato's Phaedrus, the tempting yet perilous Bacchic possibilities of wilderness, and the success of Roman landscape representations which combine the two. The work required to achieve such a combination is the subject of the third chapter, covering a range of perspectives on agriculture and the taming of the land as a standing issue in Roman political, social and moral discussions. The fourth chapter outlines ways of reading landscapes using movement through time and space. Although the brief examples within the chapter itself, including Virgil's tour of Rome past, present and future at Aen. 8.337-69, are perhaps too compressed to make convincing demonstrations out of such well-worn passages, the methodological sections are strong, and Spencer will go on to put such approaches to good use in the later case studies.

Chapter five, the first to consist of extended case studies, takes on the political aspects of Romans' discussions of their own villa estates in literary texts. Cicero's literary representations of villas show a tension between impulses to escape from Rome and political life on the one hand and to return and reform it on the other. Varro is interpreted as an ironic reader of Cato, demonstrating how unsuited the formal oppositions of nature and culture, country and town, or productive farm and leisure palace are to his day. Discussion of Columella's philosophical, mythological, and historical musings on the sometimes violent relationship between man and soil is capped by an ingenious seven- page close reading of Rust. 10.127-39: the geography and history of Italy and its interactions with Rome encapsulated in a thirteen-line description of the habitat of the cabbage. The length of the close reading makes a strong point concerning the dense allusiveness of such a text and its possibilities, but also risks collapsing into a reductio ad absurdum in places. Statius' villas build themselves, diverting attention from the human labour involved or the political resonance of that labour in earlier authors – a lack Spencer reads as pointed, calling forth questions about the politics of leisure and aesthetics under Domitian. Pliny brings us full circle to the villa as intellectual retreat, and here, in what is to my mind one of the volume's most successful sections, Spencer makes her first moves into the consideration of physical spaces and phenomenological experience, as the play between reality and imagination in Pliny's literary descriptions is compared fruitfully to the imaginary and textual qualities of an actual visit to a villa.

Chapter six deals more thoroughly with material culture, moving through painted representations to archaeologically preserved spaces. The textual nature of physical space in the Roman imagination, highlighted in the previous section, remains key to Spencer's interpretations. After brief discussions of the shifting economics and politics of landscape painting through the centuries and the ideology of the Roman garden, Spencer turns to the painted landscapes of the Villa Farnesina, which eschew trompe-l'oeil in favour of deliberately schematic compositions of individual elements each endowed with symbolic weight. Spencer's reading brings in the experience of movement along the narrow, curving corridor as an invitation to narrative-formation and intellectual consideration of the tropes and their political resonances. Livia's 'Garden Room', by contrast, is interpreted as an immersive experience, in which obvious artificiality is partially veiled by the initial unified and overwhelming effect, allowing for a different kind of visual sport. It might be objected that the balance between naturalism and artifice is nowadays tilted by the loss of large portions of the stucco roof (mentioned briefly on p.160), whose stylised motifs will have been more visually intrusive when complete than they are in the room's current presentation. The final section of the chapter deals with the Horti Sallustiani and the Porticus of Pompey, both interpreted as invitations to suspend belief, with vistas and routes planned to suggest the erotic possibilities of stone, vegetation, and water on the one hand and the presence of otium and the countryside in the heart of big-city politics on the other, all eventually owed to the power of empire and the individual patron. The volume closes with an 'envoi' on Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, concentrating less on the allusive games played by its original architecture and decoration than on the different set of puzzles faced by a modern visitor.

The book as a whole is not always easy to pin down in terms of register and the expectations placed on the audience. The tone is didactic and sometimes colloquial. Despite the list of Key Terms, some authorial guidance on further reading and useful sources inserted in the text, and a carefully-selected bibliography (predominantly in English) and even webography, an advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate student might well need careful guidance to follow up on the necessarily brief explications of each particular theoretical approach. Names of classical scholars and theorists are sometimes dropped into the text without much introduction, where it would be useful to know their date, discipline, or theoretical affiliation. There are places throughout the book where a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the period and its cultural production is expected: for example, the discussion on pages 24-5 of landscape in Catullus is much enriched by a recent reading of poems 61 and 62, which are analysed in detail but not quoted or outlined; similarly, the history of the Social War is a frequent presence in the argument (e.g. p. 45, 65, 73), but the generalist whose memory of the period is hazy will not find an explicit narrative. These and other absences are understandable where space is limited, but may give pause to those compiling course or seminar reading lists. To more experienced scholars of Roman culture the introductory material will be a helpful reminder of or introduction to some of the theoretical tools available, and the case studies make useful inputs to the study of landscape and the particular texts they take as their subjects. My minor quibbles are almost all a function of the limited space available in such a survey, and within the constraints of the genre Spencer has produced a valuable contribution.

The book is well made, with useful illustrations, and attractively priced. I have not noticed any typographical errors affecting the sense, although on page 51 the elements of the compound '(re)call' are placed on different lines, making the whole sentence hard to comprehend.


1.   In the process of articulating her definition, Spencer (p.1 n.5) cites Elkins, J. and DeLue, R. (eds), Landscape Theory (Routledge 2008) and Wylie, J., Landscape (Routledge 2007) as good introductions to key themes in modern discussion of landscape. Both of these volumes are extremely concerned with the problem of defining landscape as a theoretical category, an ongoing debate which Spencer more or less elides. In the context of classical scholarship, however, her definition is a sensible one, and allows her to move quickly to the meat of her argument.

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