Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.55

Elio Lo Cascio (ed.), Roma imperiale: una metropoli antica. Studi superiori, 391.   Rome:  Carocci Editori, 2002.  Pp. 353.  ISBN 88-430-1670-9.  €25.90.  

Contributors: E. Lo Cascio, A. Daguet-Gagey, C. Virlouvet, C. Bruun, A. Wallace-Hadrill, F. Coarelli, F. de Caprariis, F. Zevi, and F. Guidobaldi

Reviewed by Susann Lusnia, Tulane University (
Word count: 1599 words

Studies of the city Rome represent a burgeoning category of publications in recent years. These works take various approaches. Some look at the archaeology and physical growth of the city,1 while others combine study of the city's physical aspects with an analysis of their political motivations and/or social implications.2 The volume under review, Roma imperiale, endeavors to give the reader a broad yet comprehensive survey of issues pertaining to urban development and life in ancient Rome, and it does this quite successfully. This work approaches the city from the perspectives of its population, services, and use of space. Imperial grandeur and the politics of the powerful are somewhat less emphasized, in favor of seeing the full city and its inhabitants. The collection of essays addresses topics ranging from population estimates and food supply to architecture and social life in the city. This book has many virtues, not the least of which is that the quality of the essays is generally consistent throughout. No doubt much of this is due to the fact that each author is writing on what he or she knows best. In most cases, the subjects under discussion are traced from the Late Republic or start of the Principate into Late Antiquity. Although the essays cover such a broad chronological period, in this way the reader is allowed a more complete picture of Rome's development as an ancient city.

Roma imperiale begins with the human aspect of the city. Lo Cascio (L.), both editor and contributor, leads off with the problem of calculating the population of Rome at different points in its history. In my opinion, this is one of the clearest discussions of the surviving data, the rationale, and the pitfalls involved in estimating the population of such a dynamic ancient city. L. carefully explains the documents behind the numbers that are so often quoted without elaboration by other scholars. Understanding the nature and limits of the evidence used to estimate population figures is key, and L. also devotes a large portion of his essay to evaluating the application of modern population theories to ancient Rome. He takes issue with Paine and Storey's3 use of epigraphic data to establish mortality rates and carefully guides the reader through the intricate arguments about whether Rome's population could maintain itself and how immigration and crises (wars and plagues, for instance) affected this. For anyone intending to delve into this complex topic, L.'s chapter should be required reading.

Daguet-Gagey (D.-G.) addresses the public services at Rome: public order, fire control, and supply of provisions. Hers is a straightforward essay outlining the creation and duties of the major prefectures, most of which were created or reorganized by Augustus. D.-G. has previously published a monograph on the opera publica at Rome during the empire,4 and so it comes as no surprise that she is well-versed in the organization of Roman public services.

While D.-G. touches upon food provisioning for the city, the more substantial discussion of this topic is presented by Virlouvet (V.) in the third chapter of the book. Again, this is a chapter written by an expert on the topic (V. has produced a sizeable monograph on the annona and its supply system5), and she presents a thorough overview of the topic. V.'s primary focus is the administrative system based in Rome, although there is some brief discussion of food supply in other parts of Italy, as well as on shipping and transport of grain and oil to Rome. She tracks the ups and downs of Rome's food supply policies from the early attempts at public benefaction and agrarian reform in the second century B.C. to late antiquity.

Chapter four deals with the water supply of ancient Rome, and Bruun (B.) begins his essay with an overview of the aqueduct system of the city. B. devotes two sections of his work to helping the reader understand the ancient mentality behind the aqueducts' construction (pragmatism almost always triumphed in the design) and the prestige that could be had by funding these projects. The bulk of B.'s chapter, however, is focused on administrative issues and the commentary of Frontinus, which is not a surprise since B. has published widely on these and other water issues.6 B. tackles the source materials (legislation, Frontinus, and the fistulae) well and presents a clear survey of Rome's water system.

Houses and their inhabitants comprise the subject of the fifth chapter, and Wallace-Hadrill (W.-H.) draws upon his previous work on this same topic regarding Pompeii and Herculaneum.7 Here, he extends the discussion from pre-Republican Rome to late antiquity. Understanding the residential aspects of Rome is difficult because of the scarce remains and their often poor state of preservation. W.-H. overcomes these difficulties by focusing on themes that can be traced over time, such as the interrelation of public and private in the Roman house and the relationship between rich and poor in the city. I find W.-H.'s comments on early Rome especially useful because he is able to put Rome into the larger context of central Italy and to show that it developed in the same way as other settlements in the region. For the Late Republic through Late Antique periods where evidence, both literary and physical, is more abundant. W.-H. weaves an intricate portrait of the social role of the Roman house. He also give some indication of the vibrancy of Rome's vici and examines the role of the insula, or apartment-block, in the city's development during the empire and late antiquity.

Coarelli (C.) addresses the issue of public spaces in the city, including, among others, administrative offices, fora, vici, and entertainment facilities. C. laments in his introduction that scholars often overlook the administrative offices and archives of Rome, in part because the evidence for them is so difficult and rare. But he rightly asserts that such spaces were essential to the operation of such a large, cosmopolitan city as well as for the management of the empire, and he devotes a significant portion of his essay to the discussion of the physical settings of the city's administration. His suggestion that the Basilica of Maxentius/Constantine may have been built to expand the facilities of the urban prefecture (housed in the nearby Templum Pacis) is attractive, though difficult to prove. It would be useful, too, if C. has provided references to ancient authors and included a broader bibliography -- for instance, I find it odd that he does not cite Anderson's work on the imperial fora.8 Nevertheless, C.'s focus on the practical side of Rome's urban spaces is useful.

In the final two chapters, 7 and 8, the reader is guided through the "grande Roma dei Tarquini" to that of Gregory the Great. With such a huge time span, one might fear that the treatment would be too cursory, but that is not the case. Moreover, the authors of both chapters have exercised good judgment in presenting a selective overview of their topics. In chapter 7, de Caprariis and Zevi limit themselves to the public and religious buildings, from the period of the last kings of Rome through the reign of the emperor Hadrian. They focus on the development of urban spaces such as the Forum Romanum and the Imperial fora. Rome, they argue, was central to the expression of political ideals in visual form, usually through architectural means (although they include the decorative elements, too). This chapter is lengthy, but it has strong coherence, as the authors link the development of particular areas of the city with expressions of Roman ideology, such as the Circus Flaminius and its role in triumphal celebrations. Their section on the origins of the Roman basilica is also timely as this topic has enjoyed renewed interest at recent archaeological conferences.

Guidobaldi's (G.) chapter on Rome's growth and decline through late antiquity concludes the book. Rather than discuss Rome's transformation to a Christian capital solely from the vantage point of sacred architecture, G. also looks at the residential aspects of the city's growth in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. The changes to the city's street plan caused by the construction of new and exceedingly luxurious domus shows that Rome remained vital well into the fourth century. But as G. demonstrates, the emperor's move to Constantinople gradually siphoned off the rich, senatorial aristocracy. G. tracks what he calls a shift from the "city-museum" to the "sacred city" (or perhaps "holy city") in this period. The grand monuments are now the cemetery churches of the city's perimeter, for the most part, and the last major attempt at new imperial building and restorations seems to occur under Theodoric. Through his study of late antique housing, G. is in a position to argue convincingly that the real decline of Rome and its population begins after the sack of Alaric in A.D. 410 and that sharp decay follows the Gothic Wars.

Writing about Rome's topography and growth is a monumental task, and there will always be some points of controversy and differing interpretations among scholars. It is also all to easy for such scholarship to be highly esoteric. I am delighted to say that Roma imperiale avoids these potential pitfalls. Indeed, it is an ambitious book, but thanks to its talented authors, it is a great success. My hope is that it might someday be translated into English, as I think it would be an excellent text for use in an upper level undergraduate course on Roman topography or ancient cities. I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a comprehensive introduction to the historical development of Rome, its urban setting, and public services.


1.   For example, J. Coulston and H. Dodge, Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, Oxford University School of Archaeology Monograph 54: Oxford, 2000.
2.   Examples include: J. Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000; R. Darwall-Smith, Emperors and Architecture: A Study of Flavian Rome, Bruxelles:Latomus, 1996, and M.T. Boatwright, Hadrian and the City of Rome, Princeton, 1987.
3.   G. Storey and R. Paine, "Latin Funerary Inscriptions. Another Attempt at Demographic Analysis," in XI Congresso Internazionale di Epigrafia greca e latina (Roma 18-24 settembre 1997), Atti, I . Rome, 1999: 847-62.
4.   A. Daguet-Gagey, Les opera publica a Rome (180 - 305 ap. J. C.), Paris, 1997.
5.   C. Virlouvet, Tessera frumentaria. Les procédures de la distribution du blé public à Rome, Rome: École française de Rome, 1995.
6.   Most notable is his monograph: C. Bruun, The Water Supply of Ancient Rome. A Study of Roman Imperial Administration, Helsinki, 1991.
7.   A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton, 1994.
8.   J. C. Anderson, jr, The Historical Topography of the Imperial Fora, Collection Latomus 182, Bruxelles, 1984.

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