Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Damián Fernández, Aristocrats and Statehood in Western Iberia, 300-600 C.E. Empire and after. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 368. ISBN 9780812249460. $65.00.

Reviewed by Rubén Montoya González, University of Leicester (rm503@leicester.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Preview In the last few decades, the transformations of landscapes between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages have been the subject of extensive research. In this work, evidence from the Iberian peninsula and, most of all, recent archaeological work have played an essential role in the shift from orthodox and reductionist assumptions towards a more diverse and complex panorama of this crucial period. Within this book, Damián Fernández, an expert on the society and economy of Late Antique and Early Medieval Iberia, successfully fulfils his aim of examining the distinctive nature of the aristocracy of Western Iberia, a distant corner of the late Antique world, from 300 to 600 C.E. Overall, the author's magisterial combination of literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence is admirable.

The large regional area demarcated by the author for the scope of this work, Western or Atlantic Iberia, is consistently supported and clearly presented from the very beginning (p. 2). This allows the author to investigate the same phenomenon across regional and local scales of analysis in a vast territory that was well connected in antiquity. The argument is essentially divided into two major sections that are chronologically delimited: the late Roman (the end of the 3rd and early 4th centuries) and the post-Roman (from the mid-4th century onwards) periods. References to the later Visigothic period (dating from the end of the 5th century onwards) are also included. It is helpful for the reader that the structure of the book permits both a chronological and a thematic reading; that is, each part of the book is composed of three chapters, each paired with one in the other section.

Building on previous scholarship, which is thoroughly examined throughout the book, a new perspective on 'state' and 'aristocracy' is proposed in the introduction (p. 15-20). Furthermore, the nature of such an aristocracy goes beyond the analytical limits established by previous scholarship (p. 64, 225): within Western Iberia, both local aristocracies and agents of the central power enacted the same idea of the state through a variety of means.

Urban and rural changes —and continuities—in the late Roman period are thoroughly addressed in Chapters One and Two to unveil "an invisible class in a silent land". Fernández presents the construction and (re)development of defensive walls and of urban and rural settlements as a way to express social status. He also links local elites and empire-wide aristocracies is by examining conspicuous consumption, exemplified in a series of case studies, which range from funerary practices to house decoration, private baths and, finally, villa layouts.

Attention paid to the absence of evidence—silenced in the archaeological record due to the inherent perishability of these materials and the intellectual priorities of scholars—allows Fernández to reflect on the existence of other types of settlements, as well as their relationship with the most representative part of rural complexes. In some cases, although the author recognises inconsistencies in applying the labels used for different types of settlements in textual sources to the archaeological evidence, a minor criticism arises over Fernández's references to the so-called "secondary settlements". With regard to the latter, no indications are given as to the provenance of such a modern classification, nor the other categories of settlement and their relationship with the archaeological evidence found in surveys in the region (p. 54).

A new vocabulary used to express social status by those local elites, monarchs and their representatives, characteristic of the post-Roman world, is presented in Chapter Four. Although the maintenance of specific older forms of expression is evidenced (p. 130), a new Christian and symbolic vocabulary emerged after the demise of Roman imperial administration. Such a vocabulary is presented through the proliferation of urban and rural churches and associated burials. A general continuity in the occupation of villas/settlements is noted (e.g., p. 50-51, 128, 154, 227); this is in line with current studies that trace late antique and early Medieval changes back to the early Roman villas and other representative buildings, highlighting a continuous occupation.1 A drastic end to the concept of the villa as a synonym for an elite house, and the appearance of agglomerations—villas and farms—after the 5th century (p. 139-155), is presented region by region. The author consistently examines the limitations of the evidence to evaluate the extent to which these changes can be explained as either local developments or caused by external influences (p. 145). A minor criticism is the lack of references to a relevant interpretative model proposed by Ariño for understanding rural settlement in the Iberian Peninsula between the 4th and 8th centuries.2

A more diverse way to express social identity and enact statehood, anchored in a combination of inherited structural practices underpinning the late Roman period and the historical changes of the post-Roman era, under the Suevic and Visigothic monarchies, is analysed in Chapter 5. Although Mérida retained in the post-Roman period its symbolic centrality in central and southern Lusitania, government notables ("office-holders, landowners, and, perhaps, clergy" [p. 173]) of the Suevic kingdom replaced the previous curial government and stressed social differentiation through the construction of rural basilicas. In north western Iberia, local aristocracies initially embraced the Suevic project due to the presence of foreign rulers until the second third of the 6th century, when the monarchy and elite enacted power through the Church. In the northern Meseta, a territory conditioned by the presence of barbarian armies, aristocrats adopted a more localised form of social distinction characterised by fortified hilltop settlements with a more marked military identity. In the post-Roman period, as the author states, "wealth defined the aristocratic class as long as it was used in the service of ideological principals supporting statehood" (p. 195).

Access to the various means of consumption presented throughout the book depended, apart from direct state income, on landed properties. With regard to the latter, the author succeeds in portraying aristocracies pursuing their own economic advantage, adapting to changing situations and maximizing benefits: especially in Chapters Three and Six, which examine the tax system and the shift towards more regional and local exchange networks and economies. The author's ability to surmount the fragmentary archaeological evidence and the limitations of scholarship is impressive.

Overall, the book presents a good range of illustrations—maps and plans—in black and white, although some of the plans lack essential information such as scale or an arrow indicating northern orientation (p. 84, 132, 135, 149 and 150). A minor criticism is the focus on inland regions at the expense of maritime ones (ports, maritime villas/settlements, etc.), a promising field for future study.3 Nevertheless, this book substantially contributes to current debates on changes and continuities between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula (see also Diarte).4 It examines literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence to present a more complete overview of aristocracies in Western Iberia than any hitherto available. The agency attributed to the latter allows the author to present a period of change, continuity and adaptation, in contrast to previous analyses, which have emphasised decline and fall, and the emergence of a barbarian age in the Iberian Peninsula. The volume serves as a model for future studies of this kind in other parts of Hispania, or further afield.


1.   Zeman, M. 2017. A reverse perspective on the transformation of the Roman 'rural landscape' in Central Dalmatia—Hyllis Peninsula, Danilo, Bilice. In P. Diarte-Blasco, Cities, Lands and Ports in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archeologies of Change, 111-132. Rome: BraDypUS.
2.   Ariño, E. 2013. "El hábitat rural en la Península Ibérica entre finales del siglo IV y principios del VIII: un ensayo interpretativo". Antiquité Tardive 21, 93-123.
3.   Ramallo, F., Cerezo, F., and Vizcaino, J. 2017. Puertos y espacios portuarios entre la antigüedad y la alta edad media: nuevos escenarios de investigación. In P. Diarte-Blasco, Cities, Lands and Ports in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archeologies of Change, 159-174. Rome: BraDypUS; Cerezo, F. 2017. Escolletes y El Estacio, fondaderos y comercio tardoantiguo. Un estudio desde la Arqueología Náutica. In P. Diarte-Blasco, Cities, Lands and Ports in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archeologies of Change, 175-189. Rome: BraDypUS; Fernández, D. 2017. El Puerto de Bares. Nuevas aportaciones acerca de su configuración y origen. In P. Diarte-Blasco, Cities, Lands and Ports in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archeologies of Change, 207-218. Rome: BraDypUS.
4.   Diarte-Blasco, P. 2017. Cities, Lands and Ports in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archeologies of Change. Rome: BraDypUS.

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