Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.02.08


T.J. Cornell and K. Lomas (edds.), Urban Society in Roman Italy. London: UCL Press, 1995. Pp. xii, 221. £38.00. ISBN 1-85728-033-4.


Reviewed by Mary E. Hoskins Walbank, Institute of the Humanities, The University of Calgary.

The ancient city continues to be the subject of lively debate. A recent addition to the study of ancient urbanism is this collection of eleven essays, most of which originate in a conference of the same name held at the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London in July 1991. There is an introduction by Kathryn Lomas in which she makes a valiant, though not entirely successful, attempt to unify the disparate essays, a list of contributors and a general index, but no bibliography of works cited. This is an unfortunate omission in view of the wide range of subject matter. Anyone thinking that this volume provides an overview or general introduction to urbanism in Roman Italy will be disappointed, but there is much that is of value and interest.

First, a brief comment on several articles which do not adhere to the central theme before I discuss the body of the collection. "The limits of the ancient city and the evolution of the medieval city in the thought of Max Weber" by L. Capogrossi Colognesi (27-37) is a discussion of the way in which Weber developed his ideas about the agrarian economies of ancient civilisations and the evolution of the city-state; it is salutary to be reminded that Weber's most influential and most often cited work, The City is not an accurate representation of his views on urbanism. In "The idea of the city and the excavations at Pompeii", M. Goalen (181-202) takes up the well-known theme of the influence of Vitruvius and classical architecture on Alberti and Palladio and develops it to include the less familiar work of Mazois in studying and publishing the results of excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum at the beginning of the 18th century, which in turn influenced the work of Tony Garnier (1869-1948), whose ideas, both practical and philosophical, were taken up and transformed by the great 20th century architectural thinker, Le Corbusier. The final essay, "'Slouching towards Rome': Mussolini's imperial vision", by L. Quartermaine (203-215) begins with the essay of a 14-year old Italian schoolboy which he plagiarised from a 1939 pamphlet titled Civiltà Romana published by the Istituto Nazionale di Cultura Fascista. The theme was that Roman history and contemporary Italian history mirror one another. Q shows how Mussolini's lectures, the film industry, architecture, town-planning and the press all drew upon Roman models and traditions to promote national unity, and the social and moral reforms of the Fascist party, including the return of women to the traditional role of wife and mother. "Above all, she must cultivate the feminine and avoid becoming an intellectual." The publications of the Accademia dei Lincei on the age of Augustus were particularly useful. (For Augustus read Mussolini.) Nazi propaganda based on Roman models is well-known, but the Italian fascist material is likely to be less familiar. This is a valuable essay with its detailed examples and citations from Italian sources.

Back to the real Roman Italy. In a brief review it is not possible to discuss all the papers individually and I shall pick out those that I found most interesting, though others may choose differently. In the introductory essay, "Do theories of the ancient city matter?" C.R. Whittaker (9-26) also deals with Weber's ideas on the city, but in a context which is both wider and more precisely related to the theme of the book. It is a very useful commentary on current thinking. Many people will agree with his opening comment, "The theme of more or less irredeemable confusion in the general theory of the ancient city in particular is reflected in many of the publications in recent years, which seem to have reached a crescendo in the last decade." He then selects for discussion a number of works that, in his words, concern themselves with, or challenge, the Bucher-Sombart-Weber-Finley model of the consumer city. He discusses these works under four headings: Weber and the consumer city, the service city, la cité organisatrice and the processor city. Implicit in Whittaker's discussion, as well as in the various studies, is Moses Finley's thinking, that the only way forward in the study of ancient urbanism is to use models.

The section on the service city is largely concerned with the model as developed by D. Engels in Roman Corinth, An Alternative Model for the Classical City. This study in which Corinth is used as a peg on which to hang ideas has attract ed considerable interest. Such a city is not dependent on its agricultural hinterland and the payment of rents and taxes, but also derives its prosperity from trade and providing services. W voices his instinctive feeling that Engels' reasoning is suspect, in particular his figures for rural and urban population and for the invisible earnings of the diolkos. My own research on Roman Corinth since 1981 confirms that much of Engels' theorizing is based on out-of-date or inaccurate data and assumptions, and that his conclusions are highly questionable. (For a critical review see M.E.H. Walbank, JRS vol. LXXX1 [1991] 220-221; for a more enthusiastic response, see D.P. Tompkins, BMCR 1.1 [1990] 20-33). W also observes that theories of the consumer city have always taken into account the existence of major commercial ports. He questions whether the new service city is an economic model with a general application and concludes that it is less satisfactory than the consumer city. La cité organisatrice proposed by Wacher and then Leveau brings into the equation the exploitation of land round the civic centre through the establishment of villas by the Roman elite. W points out that "what is demonstrated is the ambiguity between town and country: the villa was an urban phenomenon yet a rural investment", and widens the debate by reviewing briefly the contrasting views of scholars studying the growth of urbanism in various parts of Italy and elsewhere. Processor cities are defined by their pivotal role in transferring cash from state consumers to rural producers, the tax and trade cycle. W's discussion ranges widely, from the "small towns" of Britain to Cherchel and Pompeii, and to urban and rural production in Italy and North Africa. The final section deals with theories and problems of the economic city and economic relations between the urban and rural. W's opening question was rhetorical. Of course theories matter, but they are all unsatisfactory, "above all because the study of cities is only an imperfect way of studying the operations of power in society". This is essential reading for students, indeed anyone interested in ancient urbanism.

Three papers are based on evidence from Pompeii and Ostia, the best-known urban sites in Italy. A. Wallace-Hadrill's essay is really two in one (39-62). In the first part, "Pompeii and the historian", he reviews the present state of research and publication on Pompeii, including the creation of the computer databank, set up in 1986, its objectives and current limitations. This is an extremely useful summary. Some of the preliminary analyses are then used in the second part, "Public honour and private shame". W-H has made important contributions to our knowledge of urban society (four major articles form the basis of his recent book, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton 1994). Now he extends this work by examining the urban texture of Pompeii and the way in which Roman moral values defined the different types of use of space. One of W-H's strengths is the way in which he relates literary and archaeological evidence in examining social history: familiar material is used in a new way. This essay begins with Seneca's well-known passage, "Virtue is something lofty, elevated and regal ... Pleasure is something lowly and servile ... Virtue you will meet in the temple, the forum and the senate house ... Pleasure you will find lurking and hanging around in the shadows, round the baths and saunas and places that fear the aedile..." W-H uses recent archaeological research, including an important study of wheel ruts from which a traffic system and density of use can be deduced, to establish a physical geography of Pompeii that matches Seneca's moral geography. Bars and cookshops were excluded from the symmetrical, open space of the forum, temples and other public areas and from the route used on formal or festival occasions This central area is balanced by the irregularly shaped blocks and winding streets of Regio VII, just to the east of the forum, with its stinking fulleries, bakeries and popinae. Thus, the areas associated with public office and religion, and the offices held by freeborn decurions and magistrates, are separated from that part of town providing the services which bring intense physical satisfaction, such as eating, drinking and sex, and which are controlled predominantly by those of servile origin. W-H uses the location of brothels, which he defines with precision, to illustrate this moral and physical geography: they are hidden away on the narrow back streets. The public baths illustrate an ambivalence in society in that the entrance is on the main street as befits an important public building, while the back entrance provides easy access to a brothel area. (Should we be entirely surprised at these arrangements? Zoning into public, residential and commercial areas is commonly found in modern North American cities; brothels or their equivalent are often located centrally near places of entertainment.) W-H's point is that if we wish to examine the ancient economy in the context of ancient ideology and culture, then we must take into account the symbolic and spatial separation of what the Romans considered to be virtue and vice -- definitions that may or may not match ours -- and also the fact that they were enabled to exist and flourish alongside one another.

R. Laurence also deals with the organization of space in Pompeii (63-78), but his essay has been overtaken by his book, Roman Pompeii, Space and Society, Routledge 1994, which was reviewed recently in BMCR (6:7 [1995] 629-634). J. DeLaine's contribution on the Insula of the Paintings at Ostia (79-106) is not only an architectural study, but the history of one structure over five centuries. By placing it in the context of Ostian history she also provides fresh insights into the changing nature of the city. Southern Italy under Roman domination has long been neglected. K. Lomas has made a useful study of the urban elite and cultural definition in Magna Graecia under Roman rule (107-120). L bases her analysis primarily on literary and epigraphic evidence, concentrating on the cities of Cumae and Paestum, Naples, Velia and Rhegium. Cultural values as represented in the language choice vary widely, but Hellenism and Romanization were mutually compatible and the Greek identity was used to advantage by the local elites. It is interesting to compare her observations with the situation in the currently fashionable area of Roman Greece. L's essay has now been subsumed in her book, Rome and the Western Greeks, 350 BC - AD 200: conquest and acculturation in southern Italy, Routledge 1993.

The remaining three essays are general in approach. T.J. Cornell (121-134) discusses the central role of military matters and the extent to which the almost constant warfare in republican Italy contributed to the development of the city. J.A. North (1 35-150) assesses whether there was a "country" religion in republican Italy and, if so, how it should be identified and defined. He concludes that the dichotomy between urban and rural religious cults is largely artificial. Finally, in a fascinating essay, N. Purcell (151-179) discusses the Roman villa and what he calls "the landscape of production". He sees the villa as a place that embodies the values of the urban elite, but which is also a productive estate. The villa is part of a continuum between town and country. Some of these ideas were raised in an earlier article, "Town in Country and Country in Town" (Ancient Roman Villa Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks, 1987), but the theme is elaborated here, drawing on the evidence of literary and agricultural writers, the law of usufruct, as well as Vitruvius and the physical remains of villas. P asks what country estates actually stood for -- and makes some provocative suggestions. "Villas are the barns which define the power of control over the surplus in ancient agriculture." He compares the tall villae on platforms as shown in the Avezzano landscape relief with the great grain elevators of the prairies. (Another comparison might be with the Bronze Age palaces of Crete.) But human contacts and ideas, as well as the distribution of produce, contribute to the network joining the villa to the city. "For my 'landscape of production' is indissolubly embedded in that landscape of consumption which is formed by stratification, patronage and euergetism in the Roman city." This essay appears deceptively simple, partly because it is a pleasure to read, but the ideas are complex and should stimulate discussion.

I have two reservations about this volume, although not with regard to the content. It is becoming increasingly common for conference papers -- and not simply those of the big international meetings -- to be published as a book. In theory, the idea that current research in a specific area should be made widely available is admirable. (To be cynical, it can also provide a convenient source of publications.) But in this case the papers were originally given in 1991 and the essays were finally published in book form four years later in 1995. By that time Whittaker's essay had been published elsewhere (Land, City and Trade in the Roman Empire [Variorum Collected Studies], Aldershot and Vermont 1993), and both Laurence and Lomas have since published books on the same subjects thus rendering their contributions out-of-date. It does not make sense for work in progress to be published so long after the event. Also, this volume, though admittedly well-produced in hardback, is expensive. In these days of desk-top publishing and electronic communication, surely there are ways in which conference papers can be made available faster and more cheaply.