Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.36

Catherine Balmelle, Les Demeures Aristocratiques d'Aquitaine. Société et culture de l'Antiquité tardive dans le Sud-Ouest de la Gaule. Aquitania, Supplément 10.   Bordeaux/Paris:  De Boccard, 2001.  Pp. 497.  ISBN 2-910023-25-7.  EUR 95.00.  

Reviewed by Michele George, McMaster University (
Word count: 1927 words

It is the rich feast of the late antique villas of Aquitania so celebrated in the work of Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris that B. examines in this volume. Comprehensive in content and lavishly illustrated, B.'s book focuses on the villas of south-western Gaul and brings together the relevant archaeological, historical, and cultural data of recent publications into a coherent, ordered study. Although many of the villas first came to light in the 19th century, there has been much significant excavation and re-evaluation of these sites in the past thirty years, making this effort to synthesize the data especially welcome.

The book covers villas from the tetrarchic period to the end of the sixth century C.E., an architectural floruit for the region that mirrors to a great extent the world portrayed so vividly by Ausonius and Sidonius.1 B. proceeds through a careful examination of the villas themselves and offers a catalogue of 109 entries, each with a prose description of its excavation history, key structural features put in chronological sequence, a detailed bibliography, and plan. The first 64 sites are relatively complete; the rest are far more fragmentary, comprising in most cases merely a few mosaic pavements and the odd wall. With remarkable clarity, B. analyzes the bits and pieces of these elaborate estates, often in minute detail, while never losing sight of the big picture. The book will be prized by scholars in two main areas: late antique historians, who will obviously be familiar with the time and place but possibly not aware of the depth and breadth of the archaeological evidence and most of all specialists in Roman domestic architecture, who, while not conversant with all the historical events, will appreciate the attention to structural and decorative details and the thoughtful use of comparative material from houses and villas in both the eastern and western empire. B. serves both masters well, but the major portion of this book is devoted to issues of domestic architecture, its forms, function, decoration, and development in the unique cultural context of late antiquity.

Chapter 1 provides a concise survey of the major political, social, and economic developments in the region during this era, a period for which there are numerous useful historical and literary sources. Compared to other parts of the empire, Aquitania was generally isolated from the major disruptions of early 4th century Rome and later the court intrigues of Ravenna. Instead, it benefited economically from its proximity to the capital at Trier, and the elite among its native sons rose in political power and influence as senators, praetorian prefects, governors, and, in the case of Paul of Nola, even suffect consul. With agricultural bounty as its economic base, the city of Burdigala (modern Bordeaux) became the administrative and cultural capital, and was famous for its university and school of rhetoric led by Ausonius. The villa culture of the territory continued to prosper amid the political unrest of the 5th century. Even the barbarian 'invasions' or migrations (depending on one's perspective) of 406-409, despite the lamentations of Jerome and other contemporary commentators, left little apparent physical damage, and the installation of the Visigoth Wallia as king at Toulouse in 418 goes equally unrecognized in the archaeological evidence. Stressing that economic prosperity extended from the 4th century well into the 5th century, B. sees the continuity in the archaeological material as proof that the presence of the Gothic kings and their court ensured, rather than threatened, the perpetuation of a way of life patterned on the elite value system of Roman Italy.

In chapter 2, B. sets out the general characteristics and chronology of the villas, while in chapter 3 she goes over each major architectural feature in detail. Situated to take maximum advantage of the natural landscape, these were praedia voluptaria, pleasure villas, with little evidence of a pars rustica; B. suggests that the surrounding land was worked by tenant farmers who saw to the storage of produce and animals. The initial construction of most villas can be dated to the 3rd-4th century, often replacing or expanding a simpler plan of imperial date; further expansion or renovation work was carried out in many cases in the early 5th century. By the beginning of the 6th century, decline is evident, with some villas perhaps occupied by squatters, as suggested by the kilns, grain silos, and smelting facilities that were added (e.g., Moncrabeau, cat. no. 31), while others assumed a more identifiably religious function, with increasing numbers of burials and the eventual construction of a church in the medieval period (e.g., Taron, cat. no. 61). Although some sites were doubtless abandoned, the majority had apparently continuous occupation into the medieval era, albeit in many cases with a radical change in use.

Among the extant structures there is a significant range of diversity in size and arrangement and in the quality and quantity of ornamentation, indicating the existence of social stratification among the local elite. While there is no single architectural type, B. offers a list of shared elements: extensive size; a porticoed fa├žade; an inner peristyle court which formed the main framework for the rest of the complex; well-appointed bath suites; reception rooms, often positioned on the main axis and frequently with one or more apses; residential suites off one side of the peristyle; and heated rooms.

The sprawling villa at Chiragan, the most famous of the group, is easily the local behemoth at 18,000 sq.m. and receives ample coverage along with Montmaurin (cat. no. 35, 5,800 sq.m.), the other best-known late antique Gallic villa. Other examples, however, were also remarkably vast (e.g., Saint-Cric-Villeneuve, cat. no. 49 at 7,400 sq.m.; Valentine, cat. no. 64 at 8,400 sq.m.), and numerous smaller sites repay careful study for their architectural details despite their less impressive dimensions. For example, the features and structural history of the villa at Montréal-Séviac (cat. no. 38) illustrate many developments typical to the corpus. Occupying some 5700 sq. m., the villa's first phase is dated to the 2nd century C.E., but its main structures are dated to its second phase in the late 3rd to early 4th century, when it was a large peristyle villa with several reception rooms; a secondary peristyle and elaborate bath and residential suites with particularly fine tessellated pavements were added ca. 330-357 C.E. A change in function is indicated by the addition of a baptistery at the end of the 5th century, and later still, a small church, in which were found 70 burials of the 7th and 8th century. Other features, such as post-holes, hearths, and walls built across mosaic pavements, suggest that it was no longer the wealthy residence it had been in its heyday, although the precise nature of its new incarnation cannot be ascertained from the archaeological evidence.

In chapter 3, B. focuses on the three most important common characteristics: entrance courts and vestibules, reception rooms, and bath complexes. By their size, embellishment, and multiplicity, the entrance courts and vestibules of these villas point to an impulse to direct the movement of visitors and mark out domestic space in an hierarchical way, in much the same fashion as the large urban domus of North Africa. The frequency of crescent-shaped porticoes proves that, whatever literary debt he might have owed to Pliny the Younger and the rhetorical topos of villa description, Sidonius' well-known paean to the burgus of Pontius Leontius was in fact rooted in real buildings.2 The entrance vestibules that go with them took a variety of forms, and were usually decorated with mosaic pavements and, in some cases, water basins.

It is the plethora of shapes and sizes assumed by reception rooms, however, that is most remarkable: square, rectangular, apsidal, multi-apsidal, cruciform, and octagonal, many occurring in combinations of varying magnitude in a single villa and extending to more than 140 sq.m. (e.g., Valentine cat. no. 64; Lescar, cat. no. 26; Sarbazan cat. no. 57). B. skillfully sets this dizzying array against the sizeable scholarship on late antique domestic reception rooms at other major sites in Spain, North Africa, and Syria in a discussion that is clear and economical, incorporating invaluable new bibliography in a field which has already had substantial coverage. She can therefore be forgiven if there is only slight engagement with the larger cultural meaning of the phenomenon, a subject that has been addressed by many scholars in the past few decades.3 The reception rooms of south-western Gaul illustrate all the major trends in design and decoration which can be seen throughout late antique domestic architecture, particularly in the tendency toward apsidal rooms and the possible accompanying preference for the crescent-shaped sigma couch over the rectangular kline conventionally favoured in the west.4 The multiplication of reception rooms within individual villas suggests that distinctions in social status among guests affected the patterns of spatial use, while on the practical side seasonal changes in room function could be facilitated, two characteristics which are visible across the empire in both urban and rural late antique residential architecture.

Equally noteworthy are the extensive domestic bath complexes common to these villas. Substantial in size (from 100 to 760 sq.m.) and furnished with elaborate tessellated pavements, the baths were among the last sectors of the villas to be maintained and renovated into the decline of the 6th c., reflecting their importance in contemporary social rituals as described by Sidonius.5 Although all contain the essential elements of thermal suites, there is a wide variation in arrangements, and the existence of three double bath complexes (at Chiragan, Montmaurin, and Montréal-Séviac) probably point to gender distinctions in usage. In addition to mosaic floors, the baths were often equipped with fine marble veneer, decorative basins, their own gardens, porticoes, or even full peristyles.

In chapter 4 Balmelle concentrates on the decorative features, examining the extensive use of marble in paving and facings and in the statuary found in the villas. Whether the famous collection of emperor portraits from Chiragan or the genre sculpture of Greek divinities from Montagne-Petit-Corbin (cat. no. 33) were family heirlooms or evidence of connoisseurship is uncertain, but they point to a predilection for the aesthetics of the Roman empire among the late antique provincial elite who were prepared to expend large sums on domestic decoration.6 The best extant proof of this rests in the expanse of mosaic pavements which is still visible and which gives some hint of the glories which, now lost, once covered the floors of these structures. B., herself a mosaic specialist, gives the mosaics highly detailed attention but isolates the major stylistic characteristics for the non-specialist. In the great majority of cases, geometric, floral, and vegetative motifs are used in elaborate polychrome designs, with patterns differentiated according to a hierarchy of spatial function so as to mark out significant rooms. Finding their clearest parallels in North Africa and, to a lesser extent, Syria, the pavements do their part to contribute to the koine of Villenkultur that can be delineated in Late Antiquity. Echoing the villa themes of eternal prosperity and fecundity, the preference for naturalistic elements such as the depiction of fruit trees and branches appears to be a regional innovation. Figural representations, on the other hand, are far fewer, and are mostly devoted to specific popular mythological conceits (Dionysos, the Seasons), marine and hunt scenes, and their attendant fauna.

The production of the volume is of very high quality, with numerous illustrations in black and white as well as in colour, and an excellent map. B. should be congratulated on this fine contribution to the scholarship of the Roman villa and to our understanding of late antique Aquitania.


1.   Mostly famously, Ausonius Mosella, Sidonius Carm. 22, Ep. 2.2).
2.   Carm. 22.150-155.
3.   I. Lavin, "The house of the Lord. Aspects of the Role of Palace triclinia in the Architecture of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages". Art Bulletin 44, 1962, 1-27; among the important scholarship by N. Duval on this subject: Felix Ravenna 115, 1978, 29-62; J. Rossiter, "Convivium and villa in Late Antiquity" in. W.J. Slater, ed., Dining in a Classical Context Ann Arbor, 1991, 199-214; K.M.D. Dunbabin, 'The Use of Private Space', in Proceedings of the XIV Congreso Internacional de Arqueología Clásica, Tarragona, 1993 165-176.
4.   E. Morvillez, "Sur les installations de lits de table en sigma dans l'architecture domestique du Haut-Empire et du Bas-Empire", Pallas 44, 1996, 119-158.
5.   Ep. 2.9.9.
6.   See further L. Stirling, Mythological Statuary in Late Antiquity: A case study of villa decoration in southwest Gaul, PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1994; M. Bergmann, Chiragan, Aphrodisias, Konstantinopel: zur mythologischen Skulptur der Spaetantike, Palilia 7, Wiesbaden, 1999.

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