Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.18

Pete Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Roman Towns. Studies in honour of John S. Wacher. The Archaeology of Roman Towns.   Exeter:  Oxbow , 2003.  Pp. 269.  ISBN 1-84217-103-8.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by A.T. Fear, University of Manchester (
Word count: 1330 words

As to be expected from a Festschrift in honour of one of the doyens of Romano-British archaeology, this collection deals mainly with the Romans in Britain -- eighteen of the twenty-six papers deal with aspects of urban life in the province. The remaining papers also have a generally western focus: the two dealing with the German frontier (Carroll on towns on the Lower Rhine, which outlines a new model of development for Cologne, and van Enckevort and Thijssen on Nijmegen) are particularly welcome given that little material on this area is published in English. On the other hand, it is sad to see that the Spanish provinces are not represented at all, which gives a somewhat unbalanced view of the western Empire. Only one paper, that by Bennett on Ancyra deals with the Eastern Empire and serves in many ways to underline the differences between the two halves of the Roman World.

The papers themselves range broadly from general treatments of urbanisation in a given region (Wilkes on Dalmatia and Wilson on Yorkshire) to surveys of towns (e.g. McCarthy on Carlisle and Wilson on Caistor St Edmund) and particular aspects of individuals towns (e.g. Dannell on early Samian Ware from London, Jones on water supply in Lincoln). The range of towns dealt with is also wide-ranging, covering coloniae, civitas capitals, and a variety of "small town" sites.

There is no attempt to group the papers by theme in the volume, and the order of their presentation is simply alphabetic by author's name. This is a shame, as several papers deal with related topics and their juxtaposition would have been useful, as would a short index.

Town walls and their archaeology are particularly well represented, with three papers dealing with walls at specific British sites (Caewent, Colchester, and Chichester) and Esmonde Cleary surveying city defences in the "West" (this is a West lacking Spain). Cleary makes a forceful case for walls as status markers rather than primarily defensive structures. British walls which favour earthworks are seen as the product of a distinct insular tradition. Cleary also notes that city walls in Britain tend to be both earlier in date than their continental analogues and present at many more second-level sites. This latter phenomenon, which suggests a different attitude to urban sites by the British population, is striking and worthy of further investigation.

Cleary also notes the tendency for walls in the high empire to enclose much more land than was built on and suggests that this could be a continuation of the oppidum tradition of the pre-Roman period. The idea of walls reflecting pre-Roman conceptions of power and display is picked up in Britain by White and Gaffney in their discussion of the Wroxeter Hinterland Project. Here they demonstrate that the town was always intended to be large and was not extended by the emperor Hadrian, as has been argued in the past. The paper also shows how modern archaeological techniques have revealed a much denser occupation of the city than was previously known, which may sound a warning for assumptions about "thin" occupation on some continental sites that have not received the same intensive surveys. If White and Gaffney are right about the continuation of pre-Roman ideology, the Wroxeter they reveal presents an intriguing paradox in that it has a Roman interior surrounded by a wall expressing an ideology which is in part at least non-Roman. These paradoxes continue when the town's hinterland is considered as the Roman city seems to have existed in the centre of a distinctly non-Roman landscape, with Roman mores in the words of the two authors: "largely considered an irrelevance by those living outside the city walls".

This model of settlement can be usefully compared with that at Nicopolis in Thrace, another area very much on the edge of empire, as presented by Poulter. Here instead of a crowded Roman town generated by the local aristocracy we are confronted with an artificial settlement of settlers from Asia Minor with luxurious, spacious intra-mural buildings. Poulter suggests that the reason for this was that the fragmented nature of the local native society made it impossible to graft classical city life on to it, yet in other areas Rome did try to do just that and her reluctance/inability to pursue this policy here is intriguing. The divide between the city and its hinterland appears to be linguistic as well as racial -- the town's epigraphy being Greek, reflecting the origins of the settlers, but that of the hinterland being predominantly Latin.

Ferris looks at Romano-British towns as an area for the display of civic art, rightly seeing such art, "truly urban art" as he puts it, as an integral part of what it was to be Roman. While issuing the caution that our evidence is incomplete, he finds that such art was much thinner on the ground than one might expect, not only in contrast to what is found in Italy, but also in parts of Gaul. Sadly, there is no extended attempt to examine why this may have been the case nor to look at other frontier areas of the empire to see how exceptional Britain was in this respect. Nevertheless, this is a useful introduction to an aspect of urban "Romanisation" that ought to be pursued further.

Fulford's article, while focussing on Silchester, also discusses the early Roman period at other sites in the south of England. Early Roman Silchester emerges as in some ways an organic successor to its Iron Age predecessor, implying in Fulford's eyes a considerable amount of continuity of social organisation and property ownership from the pre-Roman to the early Roman period. This would make eminent sense as Silchester was a major town in a philo-Roman (or perhaps anti-Catuvellaunian) tribal area. Some Roman elements do appear, such as temples, a bath-house and, in the centre of the town, an enigmatic courtyard building which is not fully understood and could be the palace of a client king or a Roman installation, but there appears to be no street grid at this period. The town's iron-age ramparts seem to have remained in use until the Roman period and then were built over as the town grew, suggesting both Roman and native indifference to defensive structures at this time. The picture Fulford draws is a fascinating one of what a philo-Roman group thought they ought to create, or had the ability to create, when confronted with Rome on their doorstep. The restructuring of the town onto a more regular grid pattern is normally seen as taking place on the demise of King Cogidubnus, as part of the process of the fragmentation of his kingdom into separate civitates which were then absorbed into the province of Britannia. Fulford suggests that these changes could have begun in the Neronian period and so during the period of the client kingdom rather than that of its destruction. Again, this has important consequences for what we think of the process of voluntary "Romanisation". Fulford goes on to suggest that the absence of a theatre at Silchester shows the legitimacy of Atrebatic rule here and that early theatres elsewhere in the south of England show an attempt to legitimate the rule of Cogidubnus beyond the Atrebates' traditional tribal area. If true (and the theory relies on unproven assumptions about the use of theatres), this would imply that the Atrebatic realm was potentially very large indeed, and many readers, including this reviewer, would be inclined to doubt this. Nevertheless the theory is a timely reminder of our lack of precise knowledge about the political situation in early Roman Britain.

In general, the papers in this collection are of a very high quality and, while heavily focussed on Britain, raise many important general questions regarding urbanisation in the Roman period. As such they provide ample food for thought for anyone interested in the West Roman Empire and could be used as a useful foundation for graduate seminars on issues of Romanisation and urbanisation.

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