Thursday, February 5, 2015


Elizabeth C. Robinson (ed.), Papers on Italian Urbanism in the First Millennium B.C. JRA supplementary series, 97. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2014. Pp. 242. ISBN 9780991373017. $99.00.

Reviewed by Saskia T. Roselaar (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume collects the proceedings of a session held at the Roman Archaeology Conference at the University of Michigan in 2009, with a further six additional papers added by invitation. As Robinson's introduction states, it intends to investigate the role of urban sites as 'catalysts of social and cultural processes' (p. 7). The volume studies urbanism from the early first millennium BC, when in many locations in the peninsula the first urbanization processes started to occur, and rightly emphasizes the great variety and complexity of regional developments within the Italian peninsula. These processes of urbanization were rooted in the more distant past, and therefore took on different shapes and trajectories in different parts of the peninsula. On the other hand, some common characteristics can also be discerned. Wisely, however, the volume seeks to avoid cultural bias, not looking for 'Roman', 'Etruscan' or 'Greek' influences that may have caused these common characteristics. As Robinson points out, not all contributions to the volume are compatible, partially because of the research methodology employed, but also as a consequence of the enormous variety of regional trajectories that urbanism could take.

The first two papers discuss Rome itself. Gabriele Cifani investigates the connection between urbanism and political ideology in the Archaic period. This was a period in which a great amount of monumentalization of public buildings took place, as well as the development of a public infrastructure. Most likely this reflects the concentration of power in central authorities (i.e. the kings) and the reduction of previous aristocratic institutions, a development that is visible in many cities in Etruria and Latium in this period. This hegemony of Rome was most likely enabled by its growing dominance over surrounding cities, allowing great amounts of war booty to be acquired by the rulers of Rome.

John North Hopkins focuses on the Forum of Rome. This area was unsuitable for monumental building, since it was regularly flooded by the Tiber. However, in the late 7th century an artificial embankment was built which not only drained the area, but also in no uncertain terms announced the power of Rome. The motivation for this was probably to improve access to the Tiber, which was essential for trade purposes. Monumental temples were built on the forum to further convince visitors of Rome's might and wealth. These temples, with their references to Ionian architecture, also announced Rome's connections to some of the most famous and powerful Mediterranean sanctuaries.

In the next article, Phil Perkins investigates long-standing traditions in the scholarship of Etruscan urbanization. It is usually assumed that urbanism started in the 'core' of Etruria, i.e. the south, while central and northern Etruria followed developments in the south at some later date. Many of the northern urban sites are even considered colonies of southern towns, like Marzabotto. However, not all northern urban centres followed the same trajectory as those in the south; furthermore, many northern sites already existed before southern cities could have engaged in colonization. It is therefore more likely that urbanization processes should be seen as the result of proximity and interaction, rather than of direct political control, and were employed by local elites as a tool to legitimize their rule.

Elisabetta Govi further investigates the colonization theories that have long been put forward about the Etruscan towns in the Po valley. Cities such as Marzabotto and Bologna were often seen as 'caravan cities', with trade functions but little artistic or cultural expression. The recent excavation of a peripteral temple at Marzabotto, as well as its regular layout and the import of prestigious items from Attica and central Etruria, changes this image dramatically: the town 'fully belonged to the very lively cultural atmosphere that existed in the entire central Italic area from the end of the 6th to the beginning of the 5th c.' (p. 97). This allowed the citizens of the northern towns to express their own cultural identity, which was not necessarily the same as in central Etruria.

An explosion of building projects is visible in southern Etruria and Latium between 530 and 480 BC, as Patricia Lulof explains. More monumental sanctuaries appeared in this period; many of these projects were initiated by local elites who chose thus to manifest their power. Lulof discusses in detail the decoration of the temple roofs, which was strongly Ionian in style, but mostly derived from Etruscan centres which had connections with Ionia. From 530 to 510 Rome was dominant in the determining the decoration of temples in central Italy: temples with identical designs appeared in many cities, apparently executed by one Roman workshop. Around 510 a new system of roof decoration appeared and quickly spread over all of central Italy, but it cannot be assumed that Rome again was dominant in this movement.

Elisabeth van 't Lindenhout discusses the development of house plans in Latium in the Archaic period. A canonical house design, with rooms arranged around a courtyard, is visible in many sites from the mid-6th century, although a greater variety in house types also appeared at this time, pointing to a growing functional differentiation and specialization. Growing social complexity may be indicated by the appearance of monumental temple buildings; these only appeared from the late 6th century, and served to display the authority of the ruling class.

Roman colonization is the subject of Marcello Mogetta's paper. It is often argued that the Latin colonies founded by Rome after 338 BC were based on a clearly defined model of what an urban settlement should look like, and that this model had been formulated by Rome. However, as Mogetta argues, there were other cities in Latium which are more suitable as precursors to Latin colonies. Gabii for example had a regular grid layout and fortification walls already in the 5th century. Since settlers in Latin colonies in many cases came from Latium, the reconstruction of town layouts that were familiar to them was logical; moreover, the many Latin cities with a long and proud history were good examples for new colonies to follow.

The next article is a collective effort reporting on recent work at Crustumerium. Already from its earliest phase of settlement, ca. 850 BC, the whole area was occupied, suggesting that the site was conceived as a unified whole from the start. The public buildings were mostly small, e.g. roads and drainage works; the only large constructions were a deep road trench running right through the settlement, a moat, and an area with monumental walls. These would have required planning and organization by a governing authority. Urban renewal took place in the Archaic period; architectural terracottas suggest the existence of a monumental structure. Crustumerium was abandoned by the early 5th century, probably as a result of the loss of its autonomy and importance after its conquest by Rome.

In a short article, Elizabeth Robinson investigates indigenous urbanism in southern Italy. She focuses on the 4th and 3rd centuries, somewhat later than other contributions to the volume, and is also the only one to discuss southern Italy. Robinson argues, very sensibly, that discussions of settlement sites should not try to fit all sites into categories like 'urban', 'proto-urban', 'pre-urban,' – scholars differ about what these terms mean in any case, so that they are often more confusing than helpful. Nor should we see the city as the 'pinnacle of an evolutionary scale of political organization' (p. 201-2). Instead, we should study the archaeological remains without preconceived judgements and investigate Italian notions of urbanism, e.g. ideas about citizenship and belonging, which were not necessarily influenced by Greek or Roman thought.

Spencer Pope's contribution is the only one that discusses Sicily. As such, it deals more than the other papers with the direct influence of Greek models of urbanism on indigenous sites. In the late 8th century to late 7th centuries, indigenous sites adopted some elements of Greek urban culture, e.g. architectural materials and techniques. Shortly afterwards, indigenous sites started to adopt more urban traits, such as rectangular buildings and straight streets, although sites as a whole did not have a centralized design. In the 6th century many indigenous sites came under the direct control of Greek colonies, leading to a change in site layout with planned urban grids. In the late Classical period many indigenous sites were taken over by Greek colonies, which created highly urbanized communities with regular layouts. Pope's article gives an indication of the variety of developments that could take place in indigenous sites. However, he unfortunately uses terms like 'progression' and 'sophistication' (p. 218), as if Greek town layout was by definition better than the indigenous one.

Peter Attema ends the volume with a concluding chapter on the recent developments in urbanization studies in Italy. Fortunately, the tendency to ascribe any urbanization process to contacts with Greece or Rome has declined recently; indigenous sites were connected to their own pasts, as well as to the outside world. Nor should Rome be seen as exerting strong influence on town planning in Italy. Regional landscapes were organized though complex processes of long duration, leading to the 'emancipation of indigenous landscapes, which now appear to be dynamic rather than static entities' (p. 232). Therefore, urbanism in any location in Italy should not automatically be seen as the result of colonization movements from central Italy, although of course we cannot exclude that in some cases colonization did in fact occur. Attema concludes that, fortunately, the old paradigms based on 'cultural dominance and political hegemony are – probably definitively – now behind us, having been replaced by flexible models based on interaction between equally complex communities of different cultural signatures and socio-political backgrounds' (p. 233-4). Future research should aim to understand the 'societal mechanisms that fuelled Italian urbanization' (p. 237).

This volume offers many new and fascinating insights into the urbanism in the first millennium BC. On the one hand it clearly sets out the common trends within urbanization movements that appeared in Italy – or at least central Italy, since the southern part is unfortunately rather neglected. At the same time it emphasizes the complex regional variation in urbanization processes and the agency of indigenous peoples in their engagement with Greek and Roman culture; this variety has also been emphasized in other studies, such as those on regional responses to 'Romanization' in the Republican and imperial period.1 This awareness of regional variation and local agency seems to have arrived slightly later in the study of urbanism, since many of the contributions to this volume argue vehemently against ideas of direct cultural influence, which were still put forward in very recent scholarly works.

Many contributions to the volume note the importance of local elites, who used public building as a way to legitimize their power and display their wealth. As Attema states, it would be interesting to have a greater understanding of the societal mechanisms that had brought these elites to power; what were the economic developments that lay behind the emergence of wealthy and powerful local elites in the Archaic period? How and on what scale did these people engage with Greek or Roman culture, and why did they choose particular buildings and decorations to express their power? The contributions to this volume do not address these issues in much detail.

The great merit of this book is to elucidate the new direction that studies on urbanism in the first millennium BC in Italy have taken in recent years. It also displays the extent to which scholars from different traditions currently work together, rather than pursuing different tracks of thought, as happened in the past. This volume should therefore be essential reading for anyone interested in the history of urbanism in Italy and the complex processes of cultural change that occurred in the peninsula in the first millennium BC.

[For a response to this review by Beryl Barr-Sharrar, please see BMCR 2016.02.29.]

Table of Contents

Elizabeth C. Robinson, Introduction, 7-13
Gabriele Cifani, Aspects of urbanism and political ideology in Archaic Rome, 15-28
John North Hopkins, The creation of the Forum and the making of monumental Rome, 29-61
Phil Perkins, Processes of urban development in northern and central Etruria in the Orientalizing and Archaic periods, 62-79
Elisabetta Govi, Etruscan urbanism at Bologna, Marzabotto and in the Po valley, 81-111
Patricia S. Lulof, Reconstructing a golden age in temple construction: temples and roofs from the last Tarquin to the Roman Republic (c.530-480 B.C.) in Rome, Etruria and Latium, 113-125
Elisabeth van 't Lindenhout, Constructing urban landscapes in Latium Vetus in the Archaic period, 126-144
Marcello Mogetta, From Latin planned urbanism to Roman colonial layouts: the town-planning of Gabii and its cultural implications, 145-174
P. A. J. Attema, F. Di Gennaro, J. F. Seubers, B. Belelli Marchesini and B. Ullrich, Early urbanization at Crustumerium (9th-5th century B.C.), 175-195
Elizabeth C. Robinson, Non-Greek urbanism in Southern Italy in the 4th and 3rd c. B.C., 197-204
Spencer Pope, An indigenous perspective on urbanization in Archaic and Classical Sicily, 205-227
Peter A. J. Attema, Whither Early Roman urbanization studies?, 229-237
Index of places and topographic names
Index of individuals, groups and deities


1.   See for just one example Keay, S. and N. Terrenato (edds.), 2001. Italy and the West: comparative issues in Romanization, Oxford & Oakville, CT.

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