Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.01

Karen Eva Carr, Vandals to Visigoths: Rural Settlement Patterns in Early Medieval Spain.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. xiv + 242.  ISBN 0-472-10891-3.  $54.50.  

Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, History, University of Tennessee (
Word count: 1608 words

Within the first ten pages of this book, Charles V of Habsburg conquers Spain, Charles Martel becomes a Merovingian, the Austrian Herwig Wolfram becomes German, Ian Wood seizes authorship of Fifth-century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? from Drinkwater and Elton, and the venerable Casa de Velázquez is bequeathed to a hitherto unknown Velasquez. Things do not improve from there.

Carr sets out to examine how the standard of living of the rural poor changed between the fourth and seventh centuries and how those changes can be explained. She confines her study to Baetica, or more precisely, the lowland plain of the Guadalquivir River, which allows her analysis to rest on the massive surface survey of Michel Ponsich, published in four volumes as Implantation rurale antique sur le Bas-Guadalquivir between 1974 and 1991. She concludes that the rural poor got progressively poorer after the fourth century and that this can only be explained by the differing governments of Romans, Vandals and Visigoths. This is a valid hypothesis and one that bears testing it does not receive here.

Leaving aside the demonstrably erroneous assumption that "the Romans lost control of Spain in the very beginning of the fifth century A.D." (20), Carr's command of the historical evidence is simply not sufficient for the task she sets herself. In setting the historical scene, Carr claims that the Baeticans of 284 were too preoccupied with rebuilding from the Frankish invasions of 260 and too worried by fear of Moorish invasion to have noticed the accession of Diocletian. This is the voice of Spanish scholarship c. 1955. The Mauri had invaded Baetica under Marcus Aurelius, more than a century before Diocletian (though on p. 141, the Moorish invasions are transferred to 260); the "Frankish" invasion (anachronistically so-called in only one of our four Kaisergeschichte-derived sources) is attested nowhere further south than Tarragona; and the epigraphic evidence shows, in remarkable quantity by third-century standards, that Baeticans were passionately interested in the accession and correct titulature of new emperors and, when necessary, in their damnationes memoriae too (see e.g. CIL II2/7: 233, 234, 235; the new edition of CIL II is unknown to Carr).

The rest of Carr's historical material similarly is riddled with error: Diocletian's co-augustus is called Maxentius and given credit for Spanish campaigns against Frankish pirates, Magnus Maximus is made to seize the purple in 384, Honorius' Spanish cousin Verinianus becomes Verianus, Gerontius' puppet (a cliens, pais, or oikeos in the sources) becomes an aristocrat, and on and on, all before we reach page 25. Thereafter, Valentinian II rules from 425-55; the first Visigothic Theoderic is made to invade Spain in 456, fully five years after his death in battle; the council of Agde meets in 504 and is located in Spain; III Toledo, where the Goths convert to orthodoxy, meets in 587; we are confidently told that no written sources exist from fourth-century Spain (whence Potamius? Pacianus?); and the Lex Irnitana becomes second-century, the Chronicle of Zaragoza fifth-century, and the chronicles of 754 and of Alfonso III are described as Islamic. The problem, one assumes, comes from an exclusive reliance on poorly-understood secondary sources, almost all from before 1986 and disproportionately the work of L.A. García Moreno and J.M. Blázquez. But if one proposes to connect material change to changes in government, it would seem a prerequisite to know what governmental changes took place and when they did so (realizing, for instance, that Vandal control over Baetica, such as it was, existed for just two short stretches, 411-417 and 419-29, and not the across the fifth century). As it stands, relentless historical inaccuracy nullifies one half of the book's premise.

What of the archaeology? Ponsich's survey of the Guadalquivir valley was pioneering, though as an extensive, rather than an intensive, survey its representativeness, and hence its statistical utility, is more open to question than is the work of Carreté, Keay, and Millett in the Ager Tarraconensis. On the other hand, buried in its four dense volumes are nuggets of information that no one has troubled to dig out. Carr proposes to extract sites with evidence for the late antique rural economy and subject them to a closer analysis than Ponsich was able to give them, and in doing so she draws two limited, but nevertheless useful, conclusions.

Realizing quite correctly that sites dated by Ponsich according to Lamboglia's ceramic typology can be dated more precisely by reexamination in light of Hayes and Carandini, Carr begins by redating as many late sites recorded by Ponsich as possible. That done, she proceeds to sort the evidence into categories by site type, chronology, and the presence or absence of luxury goods, baths, building materials, and different industrial materials. She goes on to plot these dated sites on 1: 25,000-scale maps which were made in the 1940s and preserve a record of a pre-industrial Spanish landscape that has since largely disappeared. By cross-referencing the chronological and geographical data with the typology of a site, Carr proposes to plot the change in the human landscape of the Guadalquivir basin between Roman and Visigothic rule.

She takes as her premise that the basic strategy of the late Roman farmer was diversification, owning several separate plots of land so that disaster in any one field would not lead to ruin. This is no doubt true, though one might like to see more recent -- and more archaeological -- work than Jones and Duby cited in evidence (e.g., Leveau's excellent synthetic Campagnes de la Méditeranée romaine, 1991) and I am not quite sure that Petronius, John Moschus and Jones' data from Magnesia are especially useful for fourth-century Baetica. Carr concludes that this pattern of small-holding became more difficult in the disturbed conditions of the fifth century, which seems likely a priori though the conclusion does not follow from any evidence adduced. On three points -- oleoculture, ceramic imports, and nucleation of settlement -- Carr is on firmer ground and finds more of systematic utility in Ponsich than others have previously uncovered. On the question of olive oil for export, Carr is surely correct to see the abandonment of industrial sites after the fifth century as a major factor in economic change, probably caused by the end of the annona to the Rhineland. We already knew this from Remesal, but Carr adds the plausible suggestion that the sixth-century distribution of olive presses suggests a shift from industrial/export production to production for local consumption. A decline in the number of amphora-kilns in the immediate vicinity of the Guadalquivir would likewise seem to support her conclusions.

That this decline of exports correlates with a decline in imports of pottery to Baetica is also demonstrable, as is the fact that the decline is more noticeable than along parts of the peninsula's eastern seaboard. Carr's findings on the distribution of imported pottery confirm what is known about nucleation of settlement from the Ager Tarraconensis survey, as she realizes. But though further Spanish comparanda are readily available, she makes no use of them (not even the vital work of Aguilar and Guichard on eastern Extremadura or Paul Reynolds on the Vinalopó), instead quoting "Richard" Sallares on pollen evidence for the end of the Mycenaean period in Greece. Again, the fact that Ponsich's data show a moderate reoccupation of hilltop sites from the fifth to the sixth centuries is good to know, as is the fact that marginal land was increasingly abandoned. But any move beyond the narrow limits of Ponsich brings trouble. Carr is unaware of recent efforts to systematize the typology of Terra Sigillata Hispanica which might allow more precise dating for her fourth-century sites. Aqueducts "are reported from the area around Córdoba," but there is no sign of Ventura Villanueva's exhaustive 1993 and 1996 studies of the city's water supply. The abandonment of marginal land could be usefully compared to its initial occupation, in the later second and the third centuries, as discussed by, e.g., Fernández Corrales on Extremadura. Discussion of the economy sends us back into a world where the textual evidence compiled decades ago by Tenney Frank and J.M. Blázquez need not interact with material evidence on the ground. Much is made of Spanish annona, but the evidence adduced is second-century and Carr is ignorant of the herculean, and fully documented, work done on the fourth-century system by Fernández-Ochoa, Morillo, and Fuentes Domínguez.

Spanish orthography is frequently wrong, Spanish accentuation wrong or missing (aciete for aceite and Léon for León throughout, Vipsaca for Vipasca), and the author gives the impression of not understanding the Latin she quotes: the seventh-century Visigothic law code becomes a Liber Iudicorum; the Vitas Patrum Emeritensium [sic] become the Vitae Patres Emeritensum; and Mérida retains its Spanish accent in the Latin Émerita.

The substance of this book could have been usefully condensed into a short article, consisting of the appendix of sites and charts together with a few pages of interpretation. The attempt at linking material evidence to historical data is effort wholly wasted. The olive oil industry did not decline because the "Vandal state" in Baetica (a phantasm) had no standing army or because "ethnic Vandals" preferred animal fats to olive oil (128), and Theodoric's Italian government did not have to demand a grain tribute from Spain because the Baetican olive oil industry had collapsed, but because the government of Theodoric's grandson Amalaric did not extend beyond parts of Tarraconensis and Carthaginiensis. Yet Carr has usefully shown that, when systematically decoded and analysed, Ponsich's unwieldy inventory does document the decline of industrial agriculture, the shrinkage of imports, and the abandonment of marginal land. Others had suspected as much of course, but the demonstration has its merits.

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