Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.10

Laurence Cavalier, Raymond Descat, Jacques des Courtils (ed.), Basiliques et agoras de Grèce et d'Asie mineure. Mémoires, 27.   Bordeaux:  Ausonius Éditions, 2012.  Pp. 308.  ISBN 9782356130648.  €50.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Paul Dickenson, Radboud University Nijmegen (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Basiliques et Agoras de Grèce et d’Asie Mineure consists of the proceedings of two separate conferences— one on basilicas held in Bordeaux in 2007, the other on agoras held in Istanbul in 2010. The subjects naturally belong together considering that basilicas (or basilica-like buildings—see below) tended to stand on the edge of public squares and, in Roman times, accommodated the same range of judicial and commercial activities traditionally associated with the agora. The book is divided into two unequal halves (basilicas get nine chapters, agoras seven). Three of the chapters are in English, the rest are in French. The last chapter of each section—by, respectively, Pierre Gros and Raymond Descat—reflect upon the most important conclusions that can be drawn for each subject. The first chapter of the section on basilicas, also by Pierre Gros, provides an overview of the current state of basilica scholarship, thereby effectively serving as an introduction to that section. The introduction to the book as a whole is really a short preface setting out the aims of the conferences. The book contains a great number of useful photographs, (reconstruction) drawings and maps.

The first section proper opens with Paul Scotton’s consideration of whether the basilica built at Fano by Vitruvius, and described by him, represents a specific type of basilica and, if so, whether it is possible to trace its distribution geographically and across time. To address these issues Scotton carries out statistical analyses of the width-length ratios of a catalogue of some 154 published basilicas. Only a handful of these buildings are located in Greece or Asia Minor—the geographical focus of the book. Admittedly few basilicas have been found in the Greek east, but it is a pity that those at Hierapolis, Magnesia on the Maeander and Aphrodisias—each the subject of other chapters here— are not included. Scotton’s main conclusion is that the Fano basilica was indeed a type, which peaked in popularity in the first century AD. Criteria other than the length-width ratio (e.g. height, width of aisles, decoration) that might have contributed to the definition of the basilica’s style are not considered. With such a narrow focus, the value of the 54 pages of graphs and tables (presenting the same data multiple times but organized according to different principles) is limited. Scotton makes the suggestion that this type of basilica might typically have been used for emperor worship, as Vitruvius tells us was the case at Fano. To support that hypothesis would involve looking for correlations between buildings of these proportions and actual evidence for the Imperial cult (sculpture, inscriptions or, as at Fanum, the presence of a temple). It is to be hoped that Scotton will pursue this line of enquiry in the future.

Each of the other six chapters in the basilicas section focuses on an individual building at a particular site. These chapters are important in presenting the most detailed considerations to date of each of these buildings. The emphasis is mainly on architecture, which means that large parts of the discussions will probably be of interest only to other specialists in this area. These chapters do, however, provide a solid foundation for conclusions on issues of relevance to scholars with a broader interest in Graeco-Roman urban culture, such as the date of the buildings and potential stylistic influences between sites. The architectural analyses also underpin the attempts at reconstruction made in most of these chapters. The archaeological evidence for the use of these buildings is unsurprisingly slight. Remains of blocks and columns provide insights into the buildings at the time of their construction and/or destruction, and chance epigraphic finds sometimes suggest a particular function, but these are mere snapshots of moments in the history of buildings that were often in use for many generations, and which may well have served multiple purposes or undergone changes of use. Nonetheless, these papers do contain some thought-provoking discussions of the functions of the buildings and their impact on the urban environment. Philip Stinson’s chapter on Aphrodisias stands out here for his insights into how the basilica’s decorative programme integrated it into the urban landscape, and on the significance of the use of its façade to display Diocletian’s price and currency edicts. Andria and Rosignani’s idea (illustrated by an evocative full page colour reconstruction) that the apparently gladiatorial motifs decorating the basilica at Hierapolis suggest that the agora that it bordered served as the venue for such blood-sports is also particularly interesting.

An issue that is addressed in three of the chapters (by Sève and Weber on Philippi, and Cavalier on both Xanthos and Smyrna), and which Pierre Gros stresses as important in his conclusion, is whether the buildings discussed there can indeed be classified as basilicas or should rather be thought of as “stoa-basilicas”. I am not sure that such discussions do much to further our understanding these structures. Basilicas and stoas were versatile buildings that could be used for a wide range of functions, which means that labeling particular buildings in this way adds little to what can be gleaned about their use from the archaeological evidence. Furthermore, where epigraphic or literary evidence is absent, it is impossible to be sure if the names we give to such buildings correspond to the names they bore in antiquity. Identifying buildings as “basilicas” or “stoa-basilicas” therefore tells us little about how they were thought about by their ancient users. This reservation aside, the discussions here contain important inferences about the design and use of their respective subjects.

Four chapters in the section on agoras deal with individual sites, while two apply a comparative approach to questions of regional significance. The first chapter by Marchetti is a reconsideration of the transformations of the Athenian agora in early Roman times. His title is misleading in that the chapter is not just about the Augustan period; in fact two thirds of his contribution is devoted to the period before the Principate. Nonetheless, Marchetti’s main point is an important one—that more attention needs to be paid to the possible Roman influence behind some of the Hellenistic buildings there; after all, the Attalids and Ptolemies enjoyed close ties with Rome at the time when their benefactions did so much to transform the civic centre of Athens. Marchetti’s arguments concerning the significance of individual buildings are sometimes highly speculative, which makes some of his conclusions rather less secure than the confidence of his presentation suggests. Some arguments do not fit the evidence. To give one example, Marchetti makes a detailed case for resurrecting the old proposal that the enigmatic South Square was the Gymnasium of Ptolemy located by Pausanias near the agora. Thus far his argument at least deserves to be taken seriously, but his suggestion that the Odeion of Agrippa was built backing onto the square to serve as an extension to the gymnasium is problematic. The excavations have shown that the South Square sustained serious damage in the Sullan assault on the city and was then taken over by potters, iron-workers and marble-workers. The square was not renovated until the early second century AD, so at the time when the Odeion was built it cannot have been functioning as a gymnasium. Such issues mean that the chapter raises as many problems as it solves, but it certainly provides food for thought.

Jean-Yves Marc’s discussion of the market building excavated in recent years to the southwest of the Agora of Thasos is important not only as the first detailed discussion of this building but also for its implications for our understanding of the development of Greek urban space. Marc argues that the Hellenistic date of the first phase of this “macellum” suggests that the Greek, or possibly Macedonian, influence on the emergence of specialized market buildings was greater than scholars have previously suspected. The only point where I would take issue with his argument is his idea that the agora at the Macedonian capital of Pella may foreshadow this development. The excavations at Pella have, admittedly, shown a division of function between different areas of the agora, but this was all within a single architectural complex, which to my mind therefore has more in common with the zoning of activities attested for the Classical Athenian agora than with a separation into different squares.

Marianne Mathys’ main subject is how the two agoras of Pergamon served as settings for elite representation through benefactions and honorific statues.In her introduction she maintains that Pergamon is of particular interest in this respect because kingship and polis institutions existed there side by side. This sets up a misleading expectation for the reader because, as Mathys herself concludes, most of the evidence for local elite representation post-dates the end of the monarchy in the second century BC. In truth even that evidence is rather limited, consisting of a handful of inscriptions. Matthys does argue convincingly that the discovery of inscriptions related to the “agoranomoi” in both agoras shows that previous scholars have exaggerated the separation of activity between the two squares. The chapter also provides a useful overview of scholarship on Pergamon’s two agoras throughout the Hellenistic period.

Arslan and Eren’s discussion of the agora at Assos makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the site by using evidence from recent excavations to identify different phases in its development. They thereby challenge the old assumption that the agora was all built at one time in the second century BC.

The remaining two chapters take a regional and comparative approach to the development, design and use of agoras in Asia Minor. Laurence Cavalier examines the three-storeyed stoas found at several agora sites throughout Asia Minor. This is Cavalier’s third contribution to the volume and, as to be expected from his expertise, it places the emphasis on architectural detail. It also, however, pays significant attention to the possible use of these buildings. In particular he makes a strong case for the use of their basements for grain storage, a practice that he links to the well-known obligation of local eurgetai to secure their city’s grain supply in Hellenistic times. Cavalier pays considerable attention to Xanthos, which makes his paper a natural counterpart to the final chapter by Jaques des Courtils. Des Courtils takes a comparative approach to the exploration of the development of public spaces in Lycia from pre-Hellenistic (and in this region largely pre-Greek) through to Roman Imperial times. For the earliest periods he questions the extent to which several open spaces associated with tombs, and of an apparently religious nature, can be thought of as agoras. In so doing he touches upon the important issue of how uniquely Greek an “agora” really was at this point in time. For the Roman period he explores the tendency for Lycian agoras to be constructed above cisterns—a fascinating and uniquely local solution to the problem of public water management.

The book as a whole would, in my opinion, hold together better if more effort had been made to cross-reference the ideas found in the different chapters. I have already mentioned one instance where an author has passed up an opportunity to draw upon the work of his fellow contributors. It is also odd to find Arslan and Eren mentioning the separation of function between the two agoras at Pergamon with no reference to Matthys’ arguments in the preceding chapter, which fundamentally challenge that interpretation. The lack of any overarching focus on shared problems or issues frustrates the emergence of a systematic attempt to advance our knowledge of the two main subjects. However, it is explicitly stated in the introduction that the aim of both conferences was to publish new data rather than to produce a new synthesis. In this the book more than succeeds and along the way makes some important contributions to our knowledge of the evolution of urban space in the Greek east.

Table of Contents

Auteurs—p. 5
Sommaire—p. 7
L. Cavalier, J. des Courtils, and R. Descat: Introduction—p .9

Basiliques de Grèce et d’Asie Mineure
P. Gros: Basiliques civiles de Grèce et d’Asie Mineure—p. 13
P. D. Scotton: The Basilica at Fano and the Vitruvian Norm—p. 25
M. Sève and P. Weber: Peut-on parler d’une basilique civile au forum de Philippes?—p. 91
P. Stinson: Aphrodisias: Image, Text and Monument—p. 107
F. d’Andria and M. Pia Rossignani: La stoa-basilique de Hiérapolis de Phrygie. Architecture et contexte urbain—p. 127
L. Cavalier: Chapiteaux de la basilique civile de Smyrne: une «école» smyrniote?—p. 153
S. Hakan Öztaner: La basilique civile de Magnésie du Méandre—p. 167
L. Cavalier: La basilique civile de Xanthos: étude architecturale et proposition de restitution—p. 189
P. Gros: Conclusions—p. 201

Agoras de Grèce et d’Asie Mineure
P. Marchetti: Métamorphoses de l’agora d’Athènes à l’époque augustéenne—p. 207
J.-Y. Marc: Un macellum d’époque hellénistique à Thasos—p. 225
L. Cavalier: Portiques en bordure des agoras d’Asie Mineure à l’époque hellénistique et à
l’époque impériale—p. 241
M. Mathys: The Agorai of Pergamon: Urban Space and Civic Stage—p. 257
N. Arslan and K. Eren: L’agora d’Assos: le plan, la construction et les différentes phases de son
utilisation—p. 273
J. des Courtils: Particularités des lieux de rassemblement public en Lycie—p. 287
R. Descat: Conclusions—p. 305
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