Sunday, February 17, 2013


Jeffrey A. Becker, Nicola Terrenato (ed.), Roman Republican Villas. Architecture, Context, and Ideology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. Pp. 146. ISBN 9780472117703. $60.00.

Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

The editors of this volume, archaeologists of ancient Italy interested in the architecture and urbanism of the Roman republic, have crafted an energetic collection of papers arising from a joint AIA/APA symposium of the same name. Determined to contextualize the frustratingly polysemous villa in terms which capture its archaeological, historical, and textual resonances, Becker and Terrenato posit Geertzian 'thick description' ('Introduction', p. 2) as the analytical and interpretative touchstone for what they claim will be an interdisciplinary perspective on the literary conceptualizations of and material evidence for the idea/site classified as the villa. As a necessarily prescriptive overview of such a broad topic, limiting discussion to the geographical frontiers of peninsular Italy and the chronological period of the Roman republic makes perfect sense. The editors indicate at the outset (p. 3) that their aim is to utilize the latest archaeological discoveries, historical paradigms, and interpretations of literary texts in order to contribute something new to current debates regarding the Roman republican villa.

Chapter One (Mario Torelli: 'The Early Villa: Roman Contributions to the Development of a Greek Prototype") provides a wide-ranging etymological, historical, and socio-cultural overview of Etruscan and Greek rural building types, which casts the republican villa – 'that unique experience in Roman architecture' (p. 26) – as a composite of the fifth/fourth-century BC Greek farm and a Roman townhouse.

Dispensing with the quest for historical reality, Chapter Two (Carin M. C. Green: 'The Shepherd of the People: Varro on Herding for the Villa Publica in De re rustica') discerns in Varro's treatise on farming a philosophical meditation on the nature of aristocratic Roman identity. Green acknowledges that Varro is profoundly interested in the dynamics of 'real farming' (p. 43), but proposes that he formulates discussion of the cultivation of the land as analogous to the constitution of the state. To that end, the De re rustica should be seen as envisaging the early villa as the embodiment of republican traditions – the Villa Publica = the (ideal) city of Rome – and later incarnations as representative of the devolution of the res publica. Chapter Three (John Bodel: 'Villaculture') continues this exploration of later republican and early imperial Roman conceptions of the villa, broadening the analytical ambit to encapsulate not only Varro but Cato and Cicero as well. Bodel identifies, in turn, (1) the villa in De agri cultura as 'a paradigmatic emblem of the qualities of character and mode of life expected of the good Roman citizen' (p. 47); (2) Cicero's contribution – in embedding the villa as the locus classicus for his philosophical, religious, and legal dialogues – as the establishment of an ideological connection between the villa and distinctively republican notions of literary and cultural sophistication; and, like Green, (3) Varro's arrangement of settings and subjects as investing 'villaculture' (the associations of farms, lifestyle, and citizenship) with broader ideological significance.

Chapter Four (Brendon Reay: 'Cato's De agri cultura and the spectacle of Expertise') addresses Cato's agricultural treatise from the perspective of authorial self-representation. Following in the footsteps of Habinek,1 Reay agrees, with Bodel, that Cato is very much concerned with utilizing the agricultural context of his handbook as a means to distill the essential ingredients of Roman aristocratic authority. More than this, however, he regards Cato's publication as a physical embodiment of the writer's distinctiveness – his superior authority in relation to the privileged world of the agricultural estate – from his elite peers.

Chapter Five (Nicola Terrenato: 'The Enigma of "Catonian" Villas: The De agri cultura in the Context of Second-Century BC Italian Architecture') reconnects the literary world of villa estates with the archaeological and historical evidence for Italian farms. Well aware of the interpretative issues dealt with previously in relation to Cato's treatise, Terrenato opts instead for a comparative approach. Using Cato's description of wine-making as a test case, he establishes convincingly a number of inconsistencies between the literary construct and what is known about the process from the perspectives of scale (evidence of surviving spaces for oil production and storage bely the enormity of Cato's idealized claims), widespread practice (the absence of any reference to the use of amphorae is a telling lacuna), and architectural plan (Cato's ideal version of the villa as a modest, unplastered, functional homestead clashes with the archaeological record for any number of larger, more extravagant working estates).

Chapter Six (Rita Volpe: 'Republican Villas in the Suburbium of Rome') looks at how physical evidence for Roman villas close to the city of Rome skews the traditional formulation of villa evolution – small farms > Catonian villas > Varro's villa perfecta – in the literary tradition. By way of close, critical 'reading' of the archaeological record, Volpe unpacks the significance of the discovery of the so-called 'Auditorium' villa within the context of related suburban land use. Situating the history and archaeology of this site in relation to broadening scholarly understanding of new villa discoveries in Rome's hinterland, she posits a far more extensive landscape of villas within a highly productive network of agricultural systems.

Chapter Seven (Jeffrey A. Becker: 'Polygonal Masonry and Republican Villas? The Problem of the Basis Villae') examines the evidence for the architectural class known as the basis villae and what, if anything, this will tell us about other issues of republican architecture and landscape archaeology. Unsurprisingly, Becker finds that the term basis, when applied to the foundations of so-called villa buildings (rusticate and maritimae), does not correspond as expected (indeed, required) with either general building type. Contextualizing the discussion in relation to evidence for the geographical spread of polygonal masonry platform sites in the Italian hinterland, he finds that the traditional consensus regarding extensive, large-scale agriculture in the middle republic requires fine-tuning to accommodate architectural forms and settlement patterns reflecting micro-regional production.

Stephen Dyson's 'Concluding Remarks' provide an abrasive but invigorating perspective on what has gone before. Worked up from his original discussant response at the 2007 'Villas' symposium, Dyson's brief engagement with the collected papers foregrounds: the de-privileging of elite literary texts over other evidentiary categories in reconstructing agrarian realities; the unique political, social, and economic conditions adhering to the historical developments of the Roman republic and their impact on rural and suburban agricultural systems; the essential role of an expanding corpus of archaeological evidence in complicating ideal formulations of villa production; recognition of the interdependent relationship between Etruscan, Greek, and indigenous practices underlying a more nuanced agrarian paradigm; and contextualizing the idealized villa form within the variegated landscape of the Italian republican countryside.

Becker and Terrenato include at the end of their brief but highly informative book an index locorum of textual references and a general index of topics, persons and locations.

While the volume includes no photographs illustrating particular architectural or archaeological features, a useful variety of site maps, building plans and data tables flesh out the wide range of technical and interpretative discussions provided in the chapters concerned with the material evidence for republican villas (Chapters 1, 5, 6 and 7). Key excerpts from the primary texts, comprising useful rhetorical detail and ideological context, enhance general discussion in those chapters with a literary focus (Chapters 2-4). For advanced undergraduates, students interested in moving beyond traditional historical models of Roman agriculture based on elite literary templates, as well as persons wishing to see how interdisciplinarity in the social sciences actually works to enhance current modes of understanding, this easily digested work is recommended.


1.   Thomas Habinek, The Politics of Latin Literature (Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 34-68.

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