Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.23


Diane Favro, The Urban Image of Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. 346. $80.00. ISBN 0-521-45083-7.


Reviewed by Mary Jaeger, University of Oregon, maryjaeg@oregon.uoregon.edu.

What is an urban image? According to Diane Favro, it is "not a pictorial representation, but the idea of the city produced in the minds of contemporary visitors" (p.1). This idea arises from two sources: the impact of the physical city on a person's senses and that person's culturally conditioned notion of what a city is. Favro, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, derives her methodology from work on modern city planning, particularly that of Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City, Cambridge MA, 1960). Dividing the concept of the "urban image" into the three categories defined by Lynch: structure, identity, and meaning, Favro sets out to show how Rome's urban image took shape and was consolidated between Julius Caesar's death and that of Augustus. The book argues a simple and plausible thesis: Augustus found Rome in semiotic chaos, and left it a clear pointer to his own greatness.

Favro makes her argument in the book's four central chapters (Chapters 3-6), which discuss Rome's urban environment in the Republican period, its evolution between 44 B.C. and A.D. 14, and the consolidation of the city's image as a reminder of Augustus. Two "experiential" readings of the city, in which fictional characters, "urban observers," move through the Roman cityscape, frame the central argument.

Under the heading "Context," Chapter 3 examines the urban image of Republican Rome and finds it unfocused, confusing, and inadequate. Here, as in subsequent chapters, Favro's argument proceeds through the accumulation of descriptive details. This makes for tedious reading: first a catalog of Sulla's alterations, which were concentrated on the city center and continued the Republican tradition of public building projects; then a description of Pompey's developments on the Campus Martius, and, finally, a survey of Julius Caesar's ambitious plans, some, like his Forum, left partially realized at his death, others, like the rerouting of the Tiber, never more than rumor. Favro concludes, reasonably enough, that the image of the Republican city was confusing and multivalent because the Roman Republic itself was multivalent: competing triumphators and their families built individual monuments that commemorated their own achievements but failed to present any unified message.

Chapter 4, "Identity," divides the development of Augustan Rome into three phases. According to Favro, the first period (44 B.C.-29 B.C.) was characterized by emphasis on continuity with the Republican past and on Rome as the focal point of Latin heritage, as well as by an interest in evoking the aura of Julius Caesar. The second (29 B.C.-17 B.C.) saw Rome's religious regeneration, Augustus' famous restoration of temples, and an increase in the responsibility taken by wealthy and influential Romans for the practical aspects of running the city. The third (17 B.C.-A.D. 14) emphasized consolidation and the imprinting of Augustus' plans for the succession on Rome's urban fabric. This reviewer does not question the author's detailed descriptions of the Augustan building program, but must express frustration at her tendency to present as fact what are really imaginary responses to particular buildings. For example, after describing the triumphal monuments of Plancus and Lepidus, Favro says that "neither triumphator immediately realized his manubial project. During the disruptions of the late 40s and 30s B.C., a shortage of workers, materials, and funds greatly slowed construction in Rome. Nevertheless, residents were well aware of the projects and debated their complex associational meaning" (p.86). Information about such debates is crucial in a book that aims to identify the impact of the city on the minds of its inhabitants. Which of Rome's residents debated the "complex associational meaning" of the restored Temple of Saturn and the Saepta Julia? What evidence is there to support the assertion that such debates took place?

Chapter 5, "Structure," argues that "Augustan buildings transcended their individual context and content." Kevin Lynch identified five components of urban form: landmarks, nodes, districts, paths, and edges. Favro argues that Augustus' unifying vision of the city emphasized these five elements, thus increasing Rome's "imageability" (Lynch's word). This also made the city memorable, because "urban observers" experienced it as a narrative. Favro shows how Augustan developments made Rome into a series of loci stocked with the vivid imagines of the rhetorical ars memoriae. This chapter is, on the whole, successful. Favro points out that while Augustus used architectural forms sanctioned by time and familiar from Republican precedents, alterations in scale made particular buildings memorable: the vertical orientation of temple facades increased the impression they made of mass and height, especially given the restricted space in which the viewer saw them; the Ara Pacis, on the other hand, was all the more notable for its small size and the delicate precision of its reliefs.

Chapter 6, "Meaning," places emphasis on the aesthetically pleasing sense of order to be found in Augustan Rome: consistency in material, in style, in quality of craftsmanship produced a highly "imageable" city. Here again Favro presents possible responses to urban change as if they were facts: "Augustus introduced physical and temporal uniformity. He reprogrammed existing nodes with commemoratives of himself and his family. At the same time, he physically ordered the spaces, creating clear physical hierarchies and emphasizing formal order. Such design strategy was especially evident in the new urban foci he created atop the Palatine and at the Forum Augustum adjacent to the Forum Romanum. As a result, observers in the Augustan city began to consider urban nodes as deficit [sic] if lacking either a focused message or regular form" (p.221). Instead of giving any evidence that "observers" actually did think this way, Favro goes on to describe nodal development in Oakland, California, which failed because it lacked a focused message. She concludes, "in contrast, Augustan urban nodes were physically cohesive and complete. The successful execution of these works was an overt statement of the patron's strong and constant power base."

In the second part of this chapter, Favro points out that the stage-like nature of Augustan public space encouraged city-dwellers to see themselves as participants in the urban drama in general, and in particular in the festivals that traversed this landscape. Increased participation in public ritual characterized Augustan Rome (see Karl Galinsky, Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Approach, Princeton, 1996), and Favro's observations to this effect are quite reasonable. Favro uses the analogy of space and time to show how Augustus developed parts of the Roman calendar (August and September, in particular) as "districts," and other clusters of events as "nodes." There were temporal "paths" through this calendar, and "landmark" dates. The beginning of each year even provided a temporal "edge." Rome is on its way to becoming what Lynch would call "a place utopia," in which, "time of day and season are dramatized, and so are the important social events and pervasive rhythms of human activity" (Kevin Lynch, Good Urban Form, Cambridge MA, 1981, p.313).

Favro's strongest point in the central chapters is her insistence that a building's context plays an important role in determining its impression on an "urban observer," It is, consequently, all the more frustrating to find that she does not extend this interest in context to the literary evidence. For example, when Favro quotes the directions given by Syrus to Demea in Adelphoe 573ff. as proof that "good environmental memories were essential to navigate the convoluted byways of larger cities, and to understand the meaning woven into the urban fabric" (p.6), she might have told the reader that Syrus' intent in this very funny passage was to confuse Demea and get him lost. Hence the plethora of topographical details, prepositional phrases, and directional adverbs. Then again, when Livy (40.5.7) reports that attempts to provoke the naive prince Demetrius included snobby criticism of Rome's customs, achievements, and architecture, Favro interprets the passage as evidence that "in 182 B.C., courtiers of Philip V of Macedon spent hours belittling their rivals, the Romans." She claims that this was powerful propaganda: "who could consider the Romans serious contenders for political hegemony when their primary city projected an unimpressive image?" (p.42). Now, Philip's courtiers may or may not have said what Livy reports them to have said, but such details increase the reader's sympathy for the doomed Demetrius, friend of Rome, and this alone is sufficient to justify Livy's including them. One cannot infer from only these deeply embedded remarks that Rome's political ambitions in the second century B.C. were hampered by its lack of a clear urban image, or that "by the first century B.C., the Romans were acknowledged players on the Mediterranean stage. The poor urban image of their premier city negatively affected the political aspirations of independent Republicans and of the State as a whole" (p.43). There is no evidence for this. Unless people leave behind some kind of lasting record (written response, for example, or architectural imitation), the psychological impact of an ancient urban image is simply impossible to measure. Still, Cicero's speeches show how one Roman could manipulate ideas of the city, and a reference to A. Vasaly's work on Cicero would have been welcome (Representations: Images of the World in Ciceronian Oratory, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993).

The first "experiential" reading of the city (Chapter 2) recreates the route through Republican Rome of a pair of "urban observers" who are leaving the city in 52 B.C. The second (Chapter 7) recreates the walk of a second pair from the Milvian Bridge to the heart of Rome shortly after Augustus' funeral. Favro includes some caveats in a footnote, but the problems of this approach are all too apparent to any skeptical reader. Who are these urban observers? In Chapter 2 they are "a staunch Roman father and his son." The viewers on the return trip are the son from Chapter 2, now a patrician grandfather, and his young granddaughter. Once the urban observer has been assigned any specific traits at all, the identity of the audience becomes a problem. What are this family's allegiances and antipathies? What are the "horizons of expectation" of this Roman father in 52. B.C.? One such question leads to another, and the persnickety reviewer begins to wonder why the two travellers introduced in the second paragraph of Chapter 7 are "fictional" while the workers represented in the first paragraph as sweating away under the obelisk on the Campus Martius are not. Favro admits that these readings are an experiment. She ought to have tested this method informally a few more times before offering the results to the public for, if done well, an "experiential" reading can work -- Favro presented a much more successful version of a walk along the Via Flaminia in an earlier essay ("Reading the Augustan City," in Narrative and Event in Ancient Art, edited by Peter J. Holliday, Cambridge, 1993). Here, however, the bad fiction distracts the reader from seeing Favro's lively representation of Rome.

The book is nicely bound, with a beautiful dust jacket, but its physical beauty makes the pedestrian nature of Favro's prose all the more striking. One must constantly translate Favro's words into what one thinks she means by them (e.g. "singular" where Favro surely intends "single," in statements like the following: "wielding a singular vision and a singular voice, Augustus created a focused urban image" p.19). Instances of wrong usage abound (e.g. "among the choices brandied [sic] about" (p.66); "introverted siting took an opposite tact [sic]" p.194). Finally, while some of the figures illustrate Favro's points nicely (e.g. 9 and especially 103 -- a map of the Campus Martius showing viewing points of travelers along the way), others contribute nothing to the argument (e.g. 4, 5, 6, 16, and 60). This reviewer, who is a classicist, not an architect or geographer, recognizes that Favro has attempted a very difficult task in crossing the boundaries between disciplines, to say nothing of the boundary between fact and fiction. Nevertheless, an interdisciplinary and experimental approach does not justify unsubstantiated speculation, the cavalier use of sources, and the clumsy presentation of an argument. And nothing excuses Cambridge University Press for releasing a book that appears to have been neither copy-edited nor proofread.