Monday, May 8, 2017


J. W. Hanson, An Urban Geography of the Roman World, 100 BC to AD 300. Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 18. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2016. Pp. vii, 818. ISBN 9781784914721. £65.00.

Reviewed by Laura Pfuntner, Queen's University Belfast (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This ambitious book attempts to quantify urbanism in the Roman world in its chronological and geographical entirety. As Hanson notes, no similar study has ever been attempted, even though the urbanism of the Roman world marks a period of "efflorescence" compared to the eras that preceded and followed it (p. 3). In addition, recently, this assumed growth in the number, size, and monumentality of cities has often been proposed as a proxy for economic growth in the Roman Empire (pp. 13-15).

The reason such a synthetic study has never before been attempted must be the many challenges that the textual and archaeological evidence for Roman urbanism presents: the individual regions of the Roman world vary dramatically in the quality and consistency of the available archaeological and textual evidence for urban settlement, and it is rarely possible to determine an ancient settlement's date of foundation, physical extent, population, and level of monumentality with any degree of precision. In his Introduction (Chapter One), Hanson acknowledges these challenges and attempts to overcome them, primarily by using a "shotgun method" (or "big data" approach, pp. 7-8) that synthesizes a wide range of archaeological and textual evidence in order to identify broad patterns in the geographical and chronological development of Roman urbanism, rather than focusing on a single region or time period. Although it is a challenging endeavor, Hanson is able to attempt a quantitative study thanks to the increased availability of archaeological data (e.g., on the physical extent and level of monumentality of individual sites) from across the Roman Empire. This is coupled with advances in GIS to enable the modelling and visualization of various aspects of Roman urbanism, including the density of urban settlement, the nature of empire-wide and regional urban hierarchies (discussed in Chapter Four), and the "ordering" and "clustering" of sites (Chapter Seven).

Even with these advances, the majority of the dataset for a "big data" study of Roman urbanism must be reliable and a cursory reading of the Catalogue of 1388 sites that forms the basis of Hanson's analysis raises doubts about its accuracy.1 Hanson outlines his method of data collection at the beginning of Chapter Three: he favors archaeological evidence over ancient sources (such as Strabo and Pliny the Elder), and uses the Barrington Atlas as the "backbone" of his database, adopting the BA's periodization and classification of settlements. He draws additional information from studies of specific regions, periods, and monument-types, as well as from other encyclopedic sources (such as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites). Since Hanson relies on works of variable date, quality, and specificity for information on an enormous number of sites, it is unsurprising that many individual catalogue entries do not withstand close scrutiny. In the section on the province of Sicilia (mislabelled "Silicia") (pp. 748-762), 2 I found questionable or erroneous information in the entries for twelve of the 31 catalogued sites, ranging from relatively minor details of civic status (e.g., Messana was not a colonia) to the misplacement or omission of sites (for example, Himera and its successor settlement of Thermae Himerenses are not distinguished as separate settlements). It is likely that readers with specialist knowledge of other regions will find similar inaccuracies.

If the reader can set aside doubts about the reliability of individual Catalogue entries, Hanson's analytical section (Chapters Three through Seven) offers several ways in which this dataset as a whole can be used to understand the development of urbanism in the Roman world. Some of his findings are unsurprising; for example, few would doubt that the number of urban settlements grew in the Roman period (ca. 100 BC—AD 300), and that this growth mostly occurred in regions beyond Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean (pp. 46-48). However, some of the methodologies that Hanson takes from modern geographical studies will be relatively unfamiliar to many readers. Chapter Seven ("Spatial Patterns") in particular offers several new and interesting ways of looking at the urbanism of the Roman world. For example, Hanson's finding that only 16% of urban sites were located on or near coastlines is a salient reminder that the reach of Roman urbanism extended far beyond Plato's Aegean "frogs around a pond," and that parts of this urban network relied as much—if not more—on riverine and overland transportation routes (pp. 92-93). Hanson's modelling of hypothetical (and potentially overlapping) urban "buffers" at radii of 40km, 80km, and 120km (i.e., one, two, or three days' travel from the city center) demonstrates cities' extensive potential economic, social, and political reach in the Roman world (pp. 89-91 and Figures 140-142). Hanson also models the hypothetical non-overlapping hinterlands of cities based on distance between neighboring sites (i.e., by "allocation") (Figure 143). This complementary approach to urban hinterlands—in which Hanson finds no correlation between the sizes of cities and the sizes of their buffers or allocations (i.e., the hinterlands of high, medium, and low-order sites are nested within each other)—raises the question of the appropriateness of a center/hinterland model of Roman urbanism, especially for an imperial mega-city like Rome. Hanson bases his hinterland models on the entire corpus of urban sites, but a chronological approach illustrating the changing distributions of urban hinterlands over time might have been particularly illuminating (e.g., of the potential effect of the growth of Rome on the distribution of cities in Italy).

Although Hanson highlights several developments in Roman urbanism over time, he makes surprisingly little reference to the history of the Roman Empire, and he rarely attempts to pinpoint the historical causes of the trends he observes. For example, he claims that very few cities were deserted or destroyed in the Roman period, with the exception of a "handful" of sites in Southern Italy, Sicily, and Greece in the first century BC and first and second centuries AD. He connects this abandonment to the "widespread decline of these regions under Roman rule," but offers no further definition of or historical explanation for this supposed "decline" (p. 48). The chronological imprecision of much of the data may be partly to blame for this lack of historical contextualization. Perhaps as a complement to his broad portrait of the development of Roman urbanism century-by-century, across the empire at its greatest extent (set at the death of Trajan in AD 117), Hanson could have presented a few "case-studies" of regions where the evidence for urbanism is relatively plentiful and consistent (such as Baetica or Africa Proconsularis) in order to show how wider trends (such as the growth of monumentality, the spread of civic status, and the emergence of urban hierarchies) operated "on the ground." Such an approach may have provided more depth and nuance to the concluding discussion in Chapter Eight. For example, although Hanson's assertion that urbanism can be used as a proxy for economic integration is now relatively uncontroversial, his division of the Roman Empire into urban zones of "demand" and rural zones of "production" that formed "an essentially multi-nuclear mesh of connections, articulated by multilateral flows between regions of high demand and high supply" fails to account for the role of non-urban regions with extensive demand—most notably, military frontiers—in fostering economic integration (p. 99).

The analytical chapters of the main text are accompanied by 89 black-and-white and color maps generated from Hanson's dataset that illustrate several aspects of urbanism in the Roman Empire. Some of the maps —and the discussion that accompanies them—are not particularly informative, and their data could have been incorporated into other maps or omitted altogether. An especially large number of figures (81-107) accompanies Chapter Five's discussion of urban monumentality, but Hanson would have been on safer ground without mapping monument distribution according to "types," especially since so many public structures in Greek and Roman cities were multifunctional. For example, it is often difficult to distinguish purely "political and administrative structures" (bouleuteria, ekklesiasteria, curiae, and comitia) (Figure 97) from "entertainment structures" like theaters and odea (Figure 101), as Hanson himself acknowledges (p. 78). Hanson's mapping and analysis of categories of "civic status" (Chapter Six and Figures 120-138) is on similarly shaky ground, particularly given the frequent difficulty of establishing the precise nature and chronology of grants of status to individual cities.

Hanson's dot-map of the cities of the Roman world (Figure 45) will be a valuable resource for instructors who wish to illustrate the chronological and geographical spread of Roman urbanism to their classes. Nonetheless, it is one of the least interesting of the visualizations that Hanson presents. Among the more thought-provoking maps are Figures 60-63, which highlight regional increases and decreases in numbers of cities in the first century BC through the third century AD (discussed in Chapter Three); Figures 67-68, which map the sizes (in hectares) and density of the sizes of cities (discussed in Chapter Four); and Figure 139, in which regions with "clustered" and "ordered" settlement distributions are distinguished (discussed in Chapter Seven).

Overall, this is a work that, although laudable for its scope and ambition, does not fully surmount the many challenges of its evidentiary basis. It stands alone as a quantitative study of urbanism in the Roman world, and as such, it offers scholars of specific aspects of Roman urbanism (such as urban economies), or of urban development in particular regions, a valuable way of contextualizing their findings. Hopefully, it represents only a first step in Hanson's study of the urban geography of the Roman world. Although its publication as a weighty and relatively expensive monograph may limit its impact in both scholarship and pedagogy of Roman urbanism, it is encouraging that Hanson suggests avenues for future research that include integration with online platforms like ORBIS (p. 91). An online home would allow for the further refinement and expansion of Hanson's database through "crowdsourcing" (along the lines of PLEIADES), and for the dissemination of visualizations of this data to a wider range of audiences.


1.   The Catalogue also comprises the bulk of the book, taking up nearly 600 pages compared to just over 100 pages of text.
2.   This is one of the few conspicuous typographical errors in what is generally a clean and concise text. The maps that make up the majority of the Figures section (pp. 116-184) are also generally of high quality and are clearly explained in the main text, though some labels are erroneous or confusing (especially Figure 34, a map of the provinces of the Roman Empire at the death of Trajan in AD 117).

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