Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.15


Richard Tomlinson, From Mycenae to Constantinople: the evolution of the ancient city. London: Routledge, 1992. Pp xiii + 238. ISBN 0-415-05997-6 (hb). ISBN 0-415-05998-4 (pb).


Reviewed by Symphorien Van de Maele, University of Ottawa.

The title of this book lacks precision. It is not a general history of the city-state, it has nothing to do with institutions and it totally ignores the chôra. In that respect it is very different from another recent publication The Greek City from Homer to Alexander (edited by Oswyn Murray and Simon Price [Oxford, 1990]), which is mostly concerned with the relations between the city and its countryside. Tomlinson is exclusively interested in the urban development of the city center, the town, "la ville". In order to achieve this goal, he studies successively the evolution of thirteen cities, roughly stated eight from the Greek period and five from the Roman. Although he sometimes dwells at some length on the town plan and its fortifications, the main thrust of his book is the architecture of the different buildings. Not merely do we have a detailed description of the buildings, but the author clearly shows their evolution framed within the history of the city. There lies the main interest of this book.

For the Greek period, Tomlinson starts somewhat awkwardly with Mycenae: the forerunners, which he calls the smallest of the cities. After a few lines on the site of the Classical period there follows a description of the remains of the Bronze Age site, which is called a "city" because there was some building activity outside the fortress. But can we call the Mycenae of the Bronze Age a "city"? For some, like Henri Van Effenterre, La Cité grecque. Des origines à la défaite de Marathon (Paris, Hachette, 1985) there is continuity between the Cretan and Mycenaean "cities" and the "classical city", but this theory has not met with much of a success. Although Tomlinson compares the Mycenaean sites with Cretan villages claiming, wrongly I believe, that "The walls (of Mycenae) are ... an indication of accepted status, not merely for defence" (p. 41), he clearly indicates the rupture, albeit not total, between the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages.

As is normal, it is the town of Athens with its harbour Piraeus which receives the longest treatment in the Greek section, as does the city of Rome in the Roman. In general, Tomlinson approaches controversial issues with prudence; he will allude to a problem but not take sides. Let us take the example of the controversy concerning the existence of a pre-Themistoclean wall. On p. 48, the author assumes that at the end of the sixth century the walls of the acropolis were "ruinous, though there are no traces, at this date, of new walls encircling the lower town". Later, after the victories over the Persians at Salamis and Plataea, Themistocles (p. 50) "urged his fellow countrymen to surround the entire city with a substantial ring of defences". But two pages further, we can read in brackets "(in fact, the latest date for burials within the line of Themistocles' walls seems to be about 525 BC, suggesting at least the possibility that the extension, and even an earlier fortification, may have taken place about that date)." Clearly Tomlinson does not want to take sides here, but he could at least have mentioned the problem and given in his footnote the references to Thucydides (I 89,3; I 93,2; VI 57,3) and Aristotle (Ath. Pol., 18).

In the same chapter on Athens, Tomlinson maintains that a vow by the Athenians to the gods not to rebuild the monuments on the acropolis, at least until they had gained complete victory over the Persians, should explain why they waited almost thirty years after the battle of Plataea to start the reconstruction (p. 55). The fact is that the period between 479 and 449 was one of great military activity and at the same time of great turmoil within the city: the successes, and also the failures of Cimon (ostracised around 461); the disastrous expeditions in the delta valley of the Nile; the campaigns in Boeotia; the construction of the Long Walls; the murder of Ephialtes; the revolts of Naxos and Thasos. Furthermore, at that time, money was still needed for the building and maintenance of the fleet, and it is only in 454 that the treasury of the Delian Confederacy will be transferred from Delos to the Athenian acropolis, thus allowing the Athenians to use it as they saw fit. Is it true that the original design of the Propylaea "was truncated to save money and expedite completion on the threat of war with Sparta"? Or has it more to do with infringment on the space taken up by the sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia?

Next we have a few pages devoted to Corinth, a city whose remains are more those of a Roman than of a Greek city. The author finds it debatable that the reason for settlement far from the coast was due to fear of seaborne raids. It could well be true that the real reason was the good water supply, but in maintaining this he challenges Thucydides (I,7): "Because of the persistence of piracy, the older cities were founded at a distance from the sea ... and until now they still live inland". Corinth is clearly one of those "older" cities. Unfortunately, Thucydides is not mentioned here. Indeed, references to ancient authors are sparse.

For the next four cities, Tomlinson more or less follows a chronological order: Priene, Alexandria and Pergamon are followed by a very short chapter on Thessalonike. Not much can be said about the treatment of Priene and Pergamon; both are a "must" in the study of urban development. I take some exception to his remarks that the stoai at Pergamon were two-storeyed for the purposes of economy (p. 120). In fact, one of the marvelous features of those stoai is their relation to the street which, winding its way up through the upper agora, allows direct access to the lower stoa on the South as well as to the upper stoa on the North. One climbs a flight of stairs to the agora if one comes through the South stoa, or one comes down the stairs descending to the agora through the North stoa. Furthermore, from the second floor of the North stoa, which is on higher ground than the South stoa, one has a view above the latter one towards the valley. The same is true for the North and South stoa in the Sanctuary of Demeter.

More pages are devoted to Alexandria, although its remains are very scarce, than to Priene or Pergamon. The approach of the author is in this section also much more personal, which makes for very interesting reading. There are thirty-one footnotes compared with a mere five for Pergamon. The same personal approach applies to the last of the Greek cities, Cyrene. It is true that neither of these cities, Alexandria and Cyrene, have been visited by the reviewer and they are less well known to him. He wonders, however, why the author has not drawn the attention of his readers on the similarities between Cyrene and its metropolis, Thera. Both are situated on a spur, although Cyrene is on a somewhat wider plateau, and both have their religious center and acropolis in the Western part of the city and their agora in the center.

In the Roman section of his book, the author clearly distinguishes between the Greek and Roman characteristics, and how we often find both in the same buildings. Here the selection includes, of course, the city of Rome and the best excavated town of the Ancient world, Pompeii. It is complemented by two "desert" towns, Lepcis Magna in North Africa and Palmyra in the Middle East. Finally, there is a short epilogue devoted to the city of Constantinople, which forms the bridge with the Byzantine area. There are a very short Select Bibliography and an Index.

There is also a rather lengthy introduction (29 pages). In the first half of this, the author gives a very general overview of the geographical, political, economic and social background to the evolution of the cities, emphasising the role of their founders. The first pages are sometimes almost a paraphrase of parts of Thucydides' "Archaeology", but nowhere is this acknowledged. The second half is devoted to the definition and function of the most conspicuous buildings of the Ancient cities.

It is perhaps silly to question the selection of particular sites. But one wonders why Mycenae is included. And the exclusions are odd. The most apparent to the reviewer is the absence of any Greek colony in the West, for we know how important they were for the development of the town plan. We are also struck by the absence of Olynthos and Miletos. But the author has probably described the sites he knows best or which have been less well treated by others, such as Alexandria or Cyrene.

Throughout the book, footnotes and bibliographical references have been limited to the absolute minimum. So one asks for whom the book has been written, the general reader or the student and scholar? Although everyone will here and there learn something, the sheer absence of controversy and notes seems to indicate that the general reader was foremost in the mind of the author. So far so good. But then there are problems: the lack of a general map for example and the total absence of line drawings and detailed plans, except for a vague general plan of the town at the beginning of each chapter. All this is not compensated for by a few good photographs. For someone who knows the sites and the buildings, reading the descriptions provides a pleasant reminder, but for a neophyte the absence of detailed drawings makes almost for reading in abstracto.

This book was probably not intended to be a manual and could not be used as one because of the absence of some key sites and of drawings. It in no way supersedes the excellent book by Roland Martin, L'Urbanisme dans la Grèce antique (Paris, Picard, 1974 [second edition]). Lately two (perhaps less well known) books written in French have been added to the study of Ancient sites in the Roman Orient: a small one by Marcel Le Glay, Villes, Temples et Sanctuaires de l'Orient Romain (Paris, Sedes, 1986) and the more important study of Maurice Sartre, L'Orient romain. Provinces et sociétés provinciales en Méditerranée orientale d'Auguste aux Sévères (31 av J.-C. - 235 ap. J.-C.) (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1991).

For someone who wants to learn more about a particular site while visiting it, or who wants to refresh his knowledge about a site he has visited in the past and which he now can visualise, Tomlinson's book will prove very useful. The presence of adequate plans and drawings could have made it also an invaluable book for the general reader.