Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.06

Michele Fasolo, La via egnatia I. Da Apollonia e Dyrrachium ad Herakleia Lynkestidos. Viae Publicae Romanae, 1.   Rome:  Istituto Grafico Editoriale Romano, 2003.  Pp. 286.  

Reviewed by Gregory S. Bucher, Creighton University (
Word count: 2420 words

Michele F(asolo) offers an ambitious study of the Roman via Egnatia, a historically significant road which once ran from Dyrrhachium (modern Durrës) and Apollonia on the Adriatic to the Bosphorus. In this first volume dedicated to the Egnatia F. traces its path (and subsidiary roads) from the western termini through Albania to the ancient site of Herakleia Lynkestidos (Ohrid), which is just within the Macedonian border. This promising book, the first volume of a prospective Viae Publicae Romanae series, has much of interest and would fill a terrible gap in the literature but is ultimately disappointing and unsatisfactory because of careless presentation of the material.

To a casual observer, F.'s book, with its many charts, tables, maps, and fussy partition and chapter numbering (typical chapter sections: " Lo Shkumbin"; " La fauna acquatica") may suggest a dusty tome fit only for pedantic inquiry into things like what insects one would encounter on the via Egnatia on a summer day. The book hopes to offer this to the reader, but it is also manifestly a labor of love in homage to the road in question. F. has an intimate, elegiac connection to the road, on which he first traveled some twenty years ago with a friend "che ora non c'è più"; he also exhibits that romantic fascination with roads which one finds in the work of George R. Stewart.1 In what follows, which is of necessity aimed more at the head than the heart, it should be borne in mind that this book springs from the author's enthusiastic love of his topic and (I infer) his desire that we, too, should feel, even taste, the experience of traveling the road with the centuries stripped away. Such a deep, laudable engagement with the topic is rare and deserves commendation.

It would be hard to overestimate the usefulness of a book acting as both a detailed guide to, and scholarly compendium of what is known about the Roman via Egnatia. This is doubly so here because Albania is poorly known to many, if not most academics; such a book would have helped me when I once wrote about the battles at Dyrrhachium in 48 BC. Furthermore, the scope of the book is as laudable as it is ambitious: F. wants to treat the via Egnatia as an organism in context, offering the reader information on every possible area of interest (cf. the chapter titles given above). There is little or no information about the author or the Viae Publicae Romanae series besides what little can be inferred or guessed at from the volume's noncommittal prefatory remarks; F. maintains a limited resume at a website called getCITED, which suggests that he is a learned amateur and not a professional scholar. Unconventional handling of the epigraphical evidence (46-51: more below) and numerous typographical errors had already raised this suspicion. Typos can be harmless (if embarrassing) blunders, or symptomatic of a lack of professionally imposed discipline which undermines the reader's trust in the entire enterprise, and it appears to be the latter, which by their volume make F.'s book highly unreliable. A thorough attempt at pointing out the widespread and complicated errors is beyond the scope of a review, but I offer the following in the earnest hope that F. will edit the work and produce a second edition, and indeed, that in so doing, he will enlist the aid of scholarly coauthors for the first part of the book while reserving the second, descriptive part to himself, since he has done splendid work of autoptic investigation.

As mentioned above, the book is divided into two principal parts, a first, covering "Fonti, dati, problemi" (22-130), and a second, "Per una recostruzione dei tracciati" (131-251). The first exhibits Sammelfleiß, even though it is marked by inconsistency and errors, in that it seeks to provide answers to almost every conceivable avenue of inquiry into the road and its environment: natural environment (22-39); history of archeological scholarship, including wonderful information on early travelers such as the Cervantic early nineteenth century traveler F.C.H.L. Pouqueville, (40-45, biographical note on 41, n. 110); written sources, including inscriptions and late-antique itineraries (46-85); modern cartographic sources (86-89); a sketch of Roman power from the Adriatic to the Bosphorus (90-96); a prosopographical inquiry into the identity of the eponymous Egnatius (97-99); restorations of the road (100-102); the dating of the road's construction and development (103-105); a chronological summary chapter (106-108); an overview of Roman roads (109-118); and an overview of the road from an historical and topographical standpoint (119-130).

With regard to the first part of the book, my chief criticism could be summarized thus: this book aims at being a tool, but my lack of faith stemming from finding numerous errors would send me back to the original sources to check the raw data, thus diminishing the usefulness of F.'s collection. I am incompetent to pass judgment on F.'s summary of geological data and other aspects of natural history, but I immediately notice irregularities and inconsistencies in the epigraphic section. On page 46 we are offered a good photograph of a milestone with an inscription of Caracalla currently housed in a monastery in Apollonia. F. does not tell us which of the seven milestones in his list it depicts, but it can be deduced as being number 3 (on page 49) from the description of the stone (which does not reference the photo). The inscription is printed with expanded abbreviations in a left-justified text. The final line on the stone clearly reads:

PROCOS RESTITV, with a presumable IT out of view in the photo due to the curve of the stone.

F. prints the line:

pro[co(n)]s(ul), Restituit.

This unconventional use of square brackets is not only baffling but undermines one's faith in the texts offered for the other (unillustrated) inscriptions. In turn, the first milestone inscription (47, no photo) is inexplicably printed with a ragged left margin in a format neither centered nor left-justified; thanks to the peculiar practice in inscription 3, no confidence can be put in the alleged restorations in square brackets in this and the other inscriptions printed without illustration. Inscription 2, according to F., is pressoché identica to number 1; yet it is puzzlingly printed with its text centered, and again the lack of an illustration (or explanation in the text) leaves the reader wanting to double-check the text. F. tells us where to find the original publications, but it is a dubious tool which forces its user to expend labor it is intended to save.

In the collection of literary testimonia, F. preferred to err on the side of completeness. So, for example, under the heading of precursors to the via Egnatia he prints a passage from Apollodorus' Bibliotheca (3.5.4), "Cadmus, having left Thebes with Harmonia, went among the Encheleans." This passage is almost meaningless as a testimonium except that by inference it mentions territory potentially trodden by the mythical Cadmus in the vicinity of the later via Egnatia. Again, among the testimonia collected under the rubric "the via Egnatia from the second to the fifth centuries AD" we find a report from Appian's Civil Wars 2.55.229 (likely composed between AD 150-165) which discusses the movements of Pompey in connection with the campaign leading up to Pharsalus in 48 BC. Let us grant that the passage pertains to the road; still, it seems better to think that at best Appian is offering a second-hand account from the first century BC, not the second AD; here and generally it would have helped to have an historian as a co-author to provide surer handling of the ancient sources.

The second part of the book (131-251) contains F.'s chief contribution, namely a series of topographical commentaries accompanied by rather good terrestrial and aerial photographs of various date as well as topographical maps. F. has shrewdly used aerial photographs and a series of topographical maps created for the Albanian government by the Italian Istituto Geografico Militare in the decade before WW II so as to have photographs and maps reflecting pretty good technology, yet also reflecting the country before serious growth and alterations of the land made the ancient evidence much harder to read (this is an example of why F.'s book is potentially so good). The maps are nicely reproduced, bearing up well under the magnifying glass needed to read them because they are so small. These maps present two general problems, however.

F. has followed the course of the via Egnatia and has found many places of interest whose ancient names we do not know. This presents a problem: to be useful to scholars, ideally the discussion should consistently refer to places by their ancient toponyms, with the modern name added parenthetically in case someone must trace the path on the ground or on a modern map, e.g., Dyrrhachium (Durrës). But where our knowledge of ancient place names fails, what alternative is there to using the modern, in this case, Albanian names? If this is done, it is certainly necessary to use modern topographical maps, labelled (even if created in Italy) in Albanian. The problem then is that the discussion can (as here) waver back and forth inconsistently between the practice useful to scholars of always giving the ancient name, if known, and the practice of lapsing fully into the Albanian toponymy more suited to a travel guidebook. The result, which is frustrating, is that neither F.'s map(s) nor the Barrington Atlas are sufficient in themselves to illustrate the discussion; needlessly difficult collation of the two was necessary to follow the argument. As with the irregularities in (e.g.,) the epigraphic sections, I attribute these lapses to an amateur's lack of conversance with scholarly conventions (rather than carelessness), and perhaps the traveler's habit of thinking in terms of actually following the road on the ground and either habitually pulling out the Albanian names or using them to help a traveler needing to follow the existing Albanian road signs.

The second problem with the topographical maps is one of organization and waste. The map sheets are organized following a grid superimposed over Albania at 1:50,000 scale. Alas, there is no master diagram of the grid in the text, and, to complicate matters, the same map can be reprinted several times in different chapters which happen to focus on the same portion of territory, and even within any single chapter the ordering of the sheets is not always intuitively obvious. The result is chaotic, and could (and should) have been avoided by placing all of the maps together at the rear of the book with a master diagram and a (now wanting) key to F.'s overprinted annotations. A reviewer may expend the necessary hours reconstructing the road's path, but it is wrong to force other users to do so (and they won't).

In his topographical commentary on the road's path, F. lists all pertinent data, which he groups into sensible categories and lists sequentially throughout the entire book. Chapter one (136-160), following the road from Dyrrhachium to the modern town of Elbasan, is characteristic and lists 54 pieces of data in the following categories: naturally occurring paths, archeological evidence (pre-Roman and Roman settlements, surviving tracts of road, bridges, and inscriptions), waystations (stationes), significant toponyms, and anomalies in the aerial photographs he provides. Every numbered entry in theory corresponds to a numbered label on the topographical maps provided. In addition, the course of the road under consideration is marked with a dashed trace in red. This is all good method. In practice, however, there are glaring errors in the numbering, and many labels are misplaced or simply missing; even worse, the dashed tracks of the road are sometimes omitted, making the textual discussion opaque (for example, an important route missing on the map on p. 171 but described in confident detail in the text on pp. 162-163 took much time to reconstruct because I did not yet comprehend the depth of the labelling problems and kept seeking it on other maps). A missing map of great importance to the chapter concerning the road between Apollonia and Kuç (the Lushnja sheet, 15.I) caused time-consuming confusion (it belongs between pp. 172 and 173); yet the Lushnja sheet is important in other chapters and is printed twice elsewhere (pp. 184, 194)! Again, the reader follows the road south from Dyrrachium to Aulon (the late antique port serving Apollonia) on the Kryevidhe sheet (12.III), only to lose it utterly. It was at this point that I had to reconstruct the entire grid from inferential evidence on the maps themselves, only to discover that the crucial piece, the Divjaka sheet (15.IV) is omitted, not only from the relevant chapter, but from the book as a whole. Now armed with my master grid, I used a bit of detective work to pick up my road again on the (wouldn't you know it?) Lushnja sheet.

The reader now has, I trust, a fair idea of the book's problems, and sees why I judge the book, in its current state, to be of at best middling value, despite its promise. And it is indeed frustrating when one comes to consider the strengths within the reconstructive chapters in part II of the book. F. has laboriously recreated the path of the road using aerial photographs of good quality from the 1930s; he has meticulously formatted the pages with the photos (which are superimposed one upon another) so as to fit them on a page (or a spread) in the largest scale possible; useful, larger scale aerial photographs of significant places are also offered, and if the terrestrial photographs, mostly by F. himself, reveal a traveler's, rather than an archeologist's sensibility, they nevertheless form a fascinating photographic essay on modern Albania and are in generous supply. I could not find the book's price among my reviewing materials, on the book, or on the web, but it is clearly costly, and was costly to produce, given its heavy glossy paper, high quality illustrations, and royalties for images like that supplied of the Peutinger map.

After a summary concluding chapter, there is a long, well-stocked bibliography which includes Albanian titles which have probably been overlooked elsewhere. The usual difficulties erupt here: see, e.g., the seven authors' names under 'M' (257) carelessly listed without first initials. Summaries in Albanian and German follow, and then a characteristic analytic index with, e.g., 'CIL' (rightly) listed as occurring on p. 51 (but only there), whereas it also appears on pages 50 (n. 180) and 52 (n. 186), and perhaps elsewhere.


1.   George R. Stewart, US 40. Cross Section of the United States of America (1953); N.A. 1 The North-South Continental Highway. Looking North (1957); N.A. 1 The North-South Continental Highway. Looking South (1957).

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