Thursday, April 10, 2014


Adam Rogers, Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 355. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. Pp. xi, 278. ISBN 9789004247871. $161.00.

Reviewed by Eric E. Poehler, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site

In Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain Adam Rogers sets himself the ambitious task of elevating the word "waterscape" into equal prominence with related terminology, such as landscape and townscape, which have received both thoughtful theoretical attention and detailed historical investigation. In the same way that landscape encompasses all topographic interests and townscape surveys the totality of urban environment, so too is waterscape exhaustive, including all bodies of water: rivers and streams, lakes and marshes, springs and pools, groundwater and oceans. In bringing a vast corpus of research materials to bear upon a novel question, Rogers is remarkably successful. Equally, Rogers is successful in demonstrating the need for a theoretical stance toward the subject of water in archaeology, perhaps classical archaeology particularly. His attempt to activate this research through such theory to create credible new narratives of how the Romans understood urbanism, however, is not equally successful. I will return to this issue after summarizing the contents of the book.

Rogers begins (Chapter 1) by establishing the purpose of the book and then placing that purpose within the context of previous scholarship, particularly the traditional thinking on Roman urbanism in Britain: how conquest and colonialism drove urbanism and how political and economic arguments have been used to substantiate those claims. Rogers does well to remind the reader of the preexisting people and things excluded by this narrative of Roman dominance and suggests that the roles and meanings of water offer a valuable avenue to examine those predeterminants (the rebuttal of traditional scholarship is picked up again in chapter 2, pp. 27-32). For this reason, Rogers also wants to dislodge the discussion of water from within its locations in built environments, particularly as evoked in monumentalism. More specifically, he wants to talk about water beyond its physical infrastructure: ports, baths, aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs.

Chapter two consists of a set of deep descriptions of five Roman towns in Britain and their waterscapes. These are London, Canterbury, Cirencester, Lincoln, and Winchester. Each was chosen for the depth of its documentation and for the diversity of the evidence. Rogers is at his best here, offering some fascinating potential hydrological histories: showing the efforts of land reclamation at Lincoln (73-78), altered river courses at Cirencester (59-65), and the development of London's waterfronts (39-45). The chapter ends, however, with the conspicuous absence of a summarizing or synthetic statement. Instead, two short paragraphs assert that these five examples can offer a "much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of Roman urbanism, urban development, and urban experience." Perhaps the ideas that might have been presented here are saved for the following chapters, but the reader is left to wonder.

In the next three chapters Rogers adds a stronger chronological dimension, discussing changes to several types of waterscapes across the Roman period. He does this by dividing the different watery environments and how humans interacted with them, giving each its own section and treating each within its own theoretical framework. Chapter three addresses rivers, lakes, and islands and how these features informed Roman townscapes. These features, however permanent they may seem in our daily existence, are forever in flux and we must be aware of their changing relationships to both ancient cities and modern ruins. This chapter relies, in part, on the descriptive disciples of geology and geography, whereas following chapters look back to theoretical approaches. Waterfronts are discussed in chapter four as the physical and social interface between water and town. Thus, at the intersection of the town—moored in the landscape—and the lapping waters at shorelines, banks, and riparian zones are the physical embodiments of how Romans expected such interactions to be defined: as ports, harbors, and waterfronts. To contextualize these embodiments, Rogers introduces maritime archaeological theory (140-143) as a means to move the discussion of waterfronts beyond the descriptive; that is, beyond the economic questions of ports, the monumentalism inherent in the construction of such features, and/or the architectures built upon them.

Wetlands, land reclamation, and the repercussions of reclamation, such as flooding, are the subject of chapter five. Again, a better established body of practice, wetlands archaeology (180-184), is engaged to advance the questions Rogers wants to consider. And again, these questions rightly push an old subject, drainage, past its traditional discussions of rationalizing landscapes or maximizing value. For example, the question of urban flooding forms a challenge to Roman environmental knowledge, or perhaps to our own misconceptions of Roman notions of inconvenience. A concluding section (chapter six) attempts to bring greater cohesion to the argument and offers suggestions on the broader impact that work on waterscapes might have on the discipline of archaeology.

These sections are unified by a related and often repeated purpose, namely Rogers' project of advancing the scholarship on watery places and towns in Roman Britain beyond the functional, political, and economic modes previously used to explain these environments and associated architectures. The heart of Water and Roman Urbanism is thus an attempt to consider rivers beyond their navigability, to imagine waterfronts outside their role in trade and conquest, and to examine wetlands not only when they are drained away. Such a goal is very worthy of pursuit and Rogers has certainly done well to advance its cause.

There are also some complaints to be made about the book. The first of these is in execution of the project, in the transformation of facts into narrative and narrative into argument. In many places the remarkable depth of research— the simple weight of so many useful facts—has flattened the book's organization and especially its writing. At times the reader feels this weight and can almost see through a paragraph to its underlying outline. This makes it difficult for the reader to hold in mind the argument being made through the outlay of these many facts.

The strongest criticism of the book is that it does not achieve the goal of demonstrating how waterscapes help us to a better understanding of Roman urbanism. This is a distinction of the historical over the theoretical. The book has surely succeeded in amassing evidence and making the case for waterscapes as a concept worthy of consideration in the analysis of urban contexts, but it has not transcended the evidence of a particular Roman town to demonstrate the impact of waterscapes on Roman urbanism in Britain. To put it another way, although the holes in our knowledge produced by the preoccupations of previous scholarship are laid bare and the value of exploring these gaps forcefully argued, what we might find within them is not demonstrated. Instead, the reader finds formulaic repetitions of the claim of importance, particularly at the end of paragraphs and sections, coupled with an abundance of the language of uncertainty in illustrating conclusions. The discussion of sourcing pozzolana offers a paradigmatic example (150-51):

"This [pozzolana] took on a different appearance from the central Italian material and it is important to recognise that the different sources and appearances may have had cultural meanings and actions cannot be reduced down solely to technological considerations. It is possible that the Mount Vesuvius material was associated with myths and stories linked with the wider landscape and histories of this location. It may as a consequence also have been regarded as possessing special properties and powers which made it impossible to consider that other sources of material would function in a similar way. The colour of the material may also potentially have been regarded as just as significant as other characteristics. The use of these materials, then, cannot be reduced merely to economics and practicality and we can also look at the meanings associated with the construction of installations in other contexts."

It is hard to disagree with these cultural possibilities, but it is harder still to do anything with them. Such difficulty in operationalizing these theoretical ideas is illustrated by the absence of any archaeological case study to prove the point. Instead, after this series of suppositions, the reader finds a claim of exportability and comparative value. Let me be clear in the target of this criticism. I am fully supportive of theory building and of imagining in print the human agencies that represent those theories. What is lacking in the text (and promised in the title) is the discussion of how such social and cultural considerations did impact Roman urbanism, not only how they might.

Especially striking in the passage above is the number of words used to cushion the impact of the historical potentialities that the reader is asked to imagine. The book is replete with such words: appears, could, might, possibly, etc. Indeed, applying a quantitative approach to find occurrences of such words in the book reveals numbers more striking even than the reader's impressions.1 Within the 229 pages of text there are 549 instances of words that distance the author from the conclusion being asserted. This is on average nearly twice a page. Another example further demonstrates how the writing privileges the possible over the certain. To introduce the possible, the word "can" is used 190 times in the book, while its unequivocal negation, "cannot" has only 18 instances. These simple tabulations support the reader's instincts and validate a worry that he is no more certain about what he knows of Roman urbanism for having read this book.

In important ways, Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain is more manifesto than monograph. It effectively challenges the overly positivist interpretive regimes in which Roman urbanism in Britain has been previously understood and demonstrates that human relationships to water, with particular emphasis on urban environments, are contingent and socially mediated beyond desires to rationalize and maximize. What it does not do, however, is offer a convincing historical image of Romans broadly making such culturally mediated decisions because of their relationships to water. In the end Rogers has effectively advanced the theoretical position of water for classical archaeologists and has positioned the discipline to more fully notice and describe examples of Roman attitudes and actions toward watery environments.


1.   These quantifications were made by creating an optical character recognized copy of the book and uploading its text, excluding front matters and bibliography, to Voyant Tools. The 549 instances were calculated from the following individual words: appears (69), could (130), likely (59), might (56), must (30), perhaps (63), possibly (25), probable (5), probably (95), should (17).

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