Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Ross Burns, Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 409. ISBN 9780198784548. $140.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Crowther, University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site


"Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets."1 Thus wrote urban activist Jane Jacobs in her landmark volume on the urban planning practices of the 20th century. If streets characterize a city, then an abundance of evidence is available for historical inquiries into Roman urban life. In recent years, archaeologists and historians alike have taken this premise to heart and looked to the connective architecture of streets to better understand the urban milieu of the Roman world.

Although Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East was first conceived decades ago, it fits well within the current flurry of scholarship on the Roman street and provides perspective on a type of street that often is overlooked in this scholarship.2 Despite the prominence of colonnaded streets in the Roman world, most recent studies that examine them focus on their integration into Late Antique and Byzantine cityscapes.3 Only Giorgio Bejor's Vie colonnate: paesaggi urbani del mondo antico has treated at length the colonnaded streets of the Roman Imperial period (1st-3rd centuries CE), with an interest in their visual effect and architectural development.4 In Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East, Ross Burns shifts the discussion toward the political conditions that encouraged the proliferation of this architectural unit and seeks to identify why many cities in the Roman East monumentalized their cross-city axis by adding colonnades.

Burns has divided the book into three sections. Chapters One through Four investigate the urban traditions and political frameworks that preceded the creation of the first colonnaded axis at the end of the 1st century BCE. This includes an extended survey of Hellenistic, Roman, and Eastern patterns of urban development in an attempt to determine whether the origin of colonnaded streets can be attributed to a single cultural group. From the evidence, Burns advocates against ascribing the development of these monumental streets to any one culture. Chapter Four contains an overview of the technical requirements for constructing a colonnaded street.

In Chapters Five through Eight, Burns argues that local conditions at the turn of the millennium in the eastern Mediterranean fostered the creation of the first colonnaded streets. The section begins with an examination of the effect Roman provincial administration had on the development of the early imperial cities of North Africa, where the author claims the surviving evidence best illustrates its priorities. He then returns to the eastern Mediterranean to examine the region's urban development under Rome's client kings, the most powerful of whom exercised their authority to impose a centralized look on a city. It is at this point in the book that the first colonnaded street is introduced: Antioch's cardo maximus, begun by Herod the Great. Burns characterizes Herod's project as a watershed moment in the development of colonnaded streets. The trend did not catch fire immediately; the remainder of the 1st century CE saw only limited experimentation with the form.

The book's third section, Chapters Nine through Twelve, seeks explanations for the increasing popularity of colonnaded streets in the building programs of the 2nd century CE. Burns identifies several factors that contribute to this process, such as the reorganization of the building materials trade and the rise of an architectural language that employed monumentalism to make political and ideological statements on a grand scale. Burns contends that the rapid construction of colonnaded streets throughout the cities of the Roman East amounts to an urban competition among cities to court imperial favor and gain prestige. Short surveys of over twenty sites with colonnaded streets are interspersed throughout these chapters to support these points. The book's final chapter considers why the urban aesthetic of the colonnaded street only made limited inroads into the cities of the Roman West.

Overall, the book has two main premises: 1) the architectural conception of a colonnaded street resulted from a confluence of several traditions of urbanism prevalent in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century CE and 2) once conditions became suitable in the 2nd century CE, the cities in this region built colonnaded streets to advertise their attachment to the Roman system.

In service of his first premise, Burns takes a welcome approach that stresses local developments over outside influence. Previous research into the architectural origins of colonnaded streets has tended to emphasize the influence of one particular cultural group (Roman, Greek, or Eastern) while downplaying the local context in the Levant.5 Burns sees the earliest example of a colonnaded street, Antioch's cardo maximus, as an accretion of architectural developments such as the stoa, the porticoed square, and the central axial avenue. At Antioch, Burns argues that elements from these architectural units were combined to manage local climatic conditions, particularly heavy rainfall in the city.

However, in his quest to deny a single overarching architectural influence, Burns' scope often expands beyond local context to include architectural developments far outside the temporal and geographic bounds of his study. He examines a range of architecture, from the Pharaonic dromos to late Republican and early Imperial porticos in Rome, only to conclude that none of these developments was a dominant source of inspiration for colonnaded streets. This survey of Mediterranean urbanism and city planning over the longue durée oftentimes diminishes the impact of local context and leads Burns to transpose architectural developments in one region onto another, particularly in Chapter Five, where he examines the cities of 1st-century-CE North Africa to understand the general effect Roman provincial administration had on city-building across the empire. While some background is appreciated and the author readily admits these leaps in time and space, this results in a book which, for the first third of its duration, preoccupies itself with something other than its primary subject matter, the colonnaded street in the Roman East.

As for the second premise, the book does little to elaborate on a theoretical framework for the connection between the construction of colonnaded streets and a city's adherence to Rome. For the most part, readers are left to draw their own conclusions, but without adequate information; the architectural and archaeological evidence presented is often too brief to be valuable. The book surveys over sixty sites with colonnaded streets, many of which receive no more than a page or two of treatment. In part, this is because several of these sites preserve only a handful of columns with little archaeological context, but even those with extensive excavated and/or standing architecture, such as Apamea, Sagalassos, and Perge, are shortchanged.

Burns' main analytical tool is the urban plan, not the actual architectural remains; thus it is difficult to appreciate the implications the construction of a colonnaded street had for a city's attachment to Roman imperial values. Recent scholarship on the relationship between Roman imperialism and urbanism has made a strong case that the experience of a cityscape promoted Roman values and encouraged a particular way of living among its inhabitants.6 Urban plans fail to capture the experiential aspects of a colonnaded street, which offer the most direct connection between urban form and an imperial system. Rich architectural and epigraphic evidence at sites like Apamea shed light on the human experience of its colonnaded avenue, where inhabitants went about their daily lives and encountered statues of both emperors and local benefactors resting upon inscribed brackets that project from the columns. Understood in all its dimensions, the colonnaded street can be seen to reflect commercial, civic, and imperial values side-by-side. By adopting a bird's-eye rather than street view, Burns does not capitalize on the full range of material available to explain the colonnaded street's role in shaping and perpetuating the shared culture of the empire.

Ultimately, this book raises several intriguing questions, particularly in its later chapters, regarding the social and economic implications behind the urban form of the colonnaded street. Burns identifies topics worthy of investigation, such as the nature of a colonnaded street's funding and sponsorship, the use and ownership of its colonnade, and its relationship to a city's public and private spaces. However, his singular focus on the ideological significance and chronological development of colonnaded streets leaves these issues largely unexplored. Readers will appreciate his ambitious scope, but may find that the picture lacks resolution upon close analysis. Still, the book provides an overview of an abundance of sites with colonnaded streets and supplements each with a robust bibliography. It is clear that the author's knowledge of these sites comes from his deep personal experience with the region and his time spent in it.

The primary value of this book lies in its readiness to look outside the Bay of Naples for the importance of Roman streets in urban life. Recent publications on Roman urbanism have focused increasingly on the role city streets played in the economic and social lives of urban dwellers, but these draw almost exclusively from examples at Pompeii and Herculaneum.7 Rather than return to these two well-known sites, this book partakes in a renewed interest in colonnaded streets after a nearly thirty-year hiatus since William MacDonald's The Architecture of the Roman Empire, Volume II 8 and recognizes that the armature of colonnaded streets offers an avenue to study urban life in the Roman East. ​


1.   Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 29.
2.   E.g. Hartnett, J. (2017) The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hartnett consciously focuses on the archaeological and literary evidence from the Italian peninsula to avoid over-generalization.
3.   Jacobs, I. (2013) Aesthetic maintenance of civic space: the 'Classical' city from the 4th to the 7th c. AD. Leuven: Peeters; Dey, H. (2015) The Afterlife of the Roman City: Architecture and Ceremony in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
4.   Bejor, G. (1999) Vie colonnate: paesaggi urbani del mondo antico. Rome, Giorgio Bretschneider.
5.   Segal, A. (1997) From Function to Monument: Urban Landscapes of Roman Palestine, Syria, and Provincia Arabia. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 5-9.
6.   Revell, L. (2009). Roman Imperialism and Local Identities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 12-15.
7.   Notable exceptions include: Frakes, J. F. D. (2009) Framing Public Life: The Portico in Roman Gaul. Vienna: Phoibos; Ball, W. (2016) Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
8.   MacDonald, W. L. (1986) The Architecture of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2, An Urban Appraisal. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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