Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.04.25

Stephen L. Dyson, The Roman Countryside.   London:  Duckworth, 2003.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 0-7156-3225-6.  £10.99.  

Reviewed by Harri Kiiskinen, Cultural History, University of Turku (
Word count: 1992 words

Dyson's book aims to be a description of the current state of research on Roman countryside. It aspires not so much to be a factual introduction to the history and development of the Roman countryside as an analytical description of the research history on the subject. It strives for this in five chapters, each of which has a certain object of study combined with selected, relevant developments in theoretical models and archaeological methods. The main chapters are: 1) The Roman Villa and the Roman Countryside; 2) Expanding the Vision: Survey and a New View of the Roman Countryside; 3) Aerial Photography, Landscape Archaeology and a Macrovision of the Roman Countryside; 4) Resistance and Continuity: An Indigenous Perspective on the Roman Countryside; and 5) The End of the Roman Countryside.

As a result of this approach, the book is mainly a short history of methodical development within classical archaeology, with special attention given to the 'new' or 'scientific' methods of the later 20th century. At the same time, the reader is given an interesting overview of current research in the United Kingdom, and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands. The presented studies in French and Italian archaeology tend to illuminate more the history of the studies than the current state of research.

In the first chapter, D. addresses the research history and current situation of studies on Roman villas. He begins by briefly describing the early studies of villa in the renaissance and connects these to the birth of a new, country-oriented lifestyle, which was based on the revival of Roman villa rituals. Then he goes on to discuss the renewed interest in villas during the eighteenth century, which he connects closely to the rise of country gentry and nobility, particularly in England. Also, in this case he sees as the motivating factor the imitation of Roman lifestyle by the country nobility. The villa studies of most of the twentieth century, then, are seen as a continuation of these traditions, both in aims and methods. As an example of these, D. presents the question of classifications of villas in three types, villa rustica, villa suburbana and villa maritima, and some research on these different types. The detailed analysis of decorative elements in villas he connects again with the same tradition, while the new, methodically and theoretically more conscious studies D. thinks start with the excavations of the villa of Settefinestre. The publication of this villa is shown to be exemplary in its detailed study of the occupation history and its contained information of all types of finds; other examples of excavations are cited, too, and they are used to develop the questions of the history of Roman countryside during the Empire, especially the relation of slave-worked large farms to small, independent farmhouses. After these excavations of the 1960's and 70's, the chapter ends with a discussion of the merits of well-known ancient historians of the twentieth century; with the exception of Moses Finley, all the examples presented were active in the first half of the century.

In the second chapter, D. presents a summary of the development of survey methods. These were developed as a response to the agricultural reform and suburban development after the World War II, and their use has increased dramatically in the last few decades. With survey, a new vision of the Roman countryside was brought about, as an example of which D. describes studies on settlement and production forms and patterns in North Africa. Other examples concentrate on pottery production and mining: the study of amphorae for understanding of the economics; production and consumption of household ceramics in Gaul and Britain; examples of mining communities and their impact on their surrounding areas in Spain, France and Britain. In general, D. concludes, as a result of the widespread use of survey methods, it has been realised how important studies of small communities are to the understanding of the functioning of the Roman countryside. D. sees that survey has enabled the studies to move beyond the antiquarian tradition of villa-studies, while still being limited to settlement archaeology.

The true move to landscape archaeology came with aerial photography, which is the subject of the third chapter. First applications were in the period between the World Wars, while the use of military aerial photographs after World War II gave the first possibilities of large-scale application. These photographs were in large scale, and consequently revealed well larger structures, like towns, villas, the road network and centuriations. To answer the specific needs of archeologists, specialised aerial photography was developed to study habitations and their surroundings in smaller scale. As an example of results of these methods, D. presents two cases: the changed view of the North African countryside, where a centuriated landscape stretching for thousands of kilometres was found; and the renewed importance of the study of road systems, where the subsidiary roads came to be of interest in addition to the main roads. D. sees that these new, geographically wider approaches led to a new, holistic approach to the countryside. In this, the relations between settlements, connections and land-use became central. This new approach can be well seen in the river valley studies in Italy, as well as in the studies of the transformation of fenland, marshes and swamps to farming, and the transformation of arid semi-deserts into fertile land. These new questions, in their turn, brought a realisation of the importance of faunal and floral studies.

In the fourth chapter, D. abandons the method-centred approach of the previous chapters and turns to the study of the provinces. He describes how in recent years, a new (post-colonial) approach to the indigenous populations has given rise to a new sensitivity to the interplay between the colonising Roman culture and the local, pre-Roman cultures. Good examples of this are Britain and Sardinia, where in remote areas the influence of the Romans on the habits of the local population was less than previously has been thought, and the indigenous cultural patterns survived. Cults and religious practices were especially resistant, and these survived also in the rural Italy and Gaul. However, the Roman presence in the landscape was connected everywhere to the pre-Roman remains, thus creating a landscape of interlocutory features: the presence of the current reality of the Roman rule in connection with the remains from the pre-Roman times. The new studies have brought about a new realisation, that the Romanising influence may not have been as strong as thought, especially in the countryside; however, D. stresses the fact that, in spite of these realisations, we still have to remember that the Roman rule had many rewards to give, too, as is well attested through the ubiquitous remains of household ceramics and the thousands of the villas all over the provinces. Where the local elites were involved in the Roman rule on the material and cultural level, the romanisation reached all through the society in the form of commercial products.

In the fifth chapter, D. addresses questions concerning late Roman countryside. He presents a large number of examples from the western provinces, where villa habitation has continued much later than previously thought, to the fourth century and, in some cases, even beyond that. In addition, he addresses some of the problems present in the research on late antique villas, including the change of type of pottery, the vulnerability of later layers to post-depositional processes and the localisation of the habitational patterns.

In the conclusion, D. stresses the interplay between strong, local factors and the common processes of the Empire present in the Roman countryside -- or any Roman countryside -- which is the message he seems to convey. In this he obviously is right. There is not, nor ever was, a single Roman countryside, which we could study as a phenomenon wherever we chose. However, there are common factors present in each Roman countryside, which result from the nature of the Roman empire. Some things were imposed from above, like the roads, centuriation, the cities and their public buildings, the forms of participation in the common culture of the cities; other things were left quite much as they were, and, for a local farmer, living under Roman rule may not have produced any far-reaching changes.

The book as a whole has a somewhat constrained structure. The author is constantly referring to things in the next chapter. On the other hand, his intention to make a 'grand story' out of the development of classical archaeology in the twentieth century leads to a confusing conflict between chronological and thematic presentation. The progress of archaeology is presented as a development of methods, from the excavations of single villas through survey to aerial photography, while the real progress of research questions and subjects of the research is forcibly subordinated to methods. In the last two chapters, where D. gets rid of the methodology-centred approach, the messages he wants to convey are much clearer and more convincing.

This approach results in a few problems. While the first chapter claims to address villa-studies, it is actually more about the birth and early development of Classical Archaeology from the viewpoint of relevant research questions. The fifth chapter, which is about the end of the Roman countryside, is as much about current villa-studies. A very interesting theme of post-colonial attitudes to ancient studies, the colonial connections of Roman studies in North Africa and the present political importance of landscape archaeology in the same region, is hidden inside three chapters, while the chapter on aerial photography has relatively little to say about aerial photography as such.

The description of the series ("Duckworth Debates in Archaeology") states that "[the series] is designed to be accessible to students and serious scholars alike." In the case of this particular book, I rather disagree with the student part. The book is an excellent introduction to the current state of research for a reader who already has some understanding of the issues handled in the book; for a student, it is not a particularly good introduction to studies on Roman countryside. The book is very much like a long essay; citations are few and always without page numbers, in many cases citations are missing altogether, especially when concerning research in other languages than English. The bibliography probably includes the main studies in English, but -- once again -- a considerable amount of research in Italian, German and French is missing. But then again, neither the structure of the book nor the composition of the arguments is what is found in monographs; and the book should be read as a partially polemical (scientific methods have to be taken into account in classical archaeology), partly moderate (the current trends in historiography should not be followed too far) personal statement. Its main value is the summing up of relatively fresh evidence from a wide geographical area in an easily digestible form. In this, it only gains from the essay-form selected. A monograph of the same content and same aims would have taken ten times the amount of time and pages to prepare, and it would be ten times less readable. This book is popular history for professionals at its best.

In a book of this type, it is hardly relevant to search for factual errors as such. There are no exact citations, and current research is cited in an anecdotal manner, which are both quite suitable for the intentions of the book. The layout of the book pleases the eye, and especially praiseworthy are the maps included at the back of the book. They include only the necessary amount of information, while still being complete as regards the place names used in the book. The bibliography has some minor errors, while in general, the inclusion of the publisher in the bibliographic data is more and more common. Also, the use of abbreviations for journals without any indication of their origin is somewhat irritating, especially concerning some less-well-known abbreviations ("Ber. ROB", 123: Wightman 1978).

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