Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.02.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.02.07

Simon Esmonde Cleary, The Roman West, AD 200-500: An Archaeological Study.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xv, 533.  ISBN 9780521196499.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Steven Spiegl, University of Manchester (


Archaeology has long suffered from the belief that its potential contribution to history is ‘inversely proportional to the quantity and quality of the available written sources.’1 It is a discipline commonly regarded as a substitute, or supplement, for literary sources, and even works offering an archaeological approach often allow their interpretations to be governed by an awareness—if not acceptance—of the pre-existing narrative, into which the archaeology is expected to fit. It is these long-held perceptions and practices that Simon Esmonde Cleary attempts to counter in his study of the Roman West (here: Britain, Gaul and Spain) from AD 200-500. Archaeology, he argues, has been too long 'the handmaid of history', and he declares it his mission to 'emancipate' the discipline (p. 4). His method is to divorce the archaeology from the traditional literary narrative, thus enabling the reader to approach the archaeology from a fresh perspective, untainted by the preconditioned idea that material evidence must confirm or answer the stories and questions generated within the written sources. Esmonde Cleary’s approach often results in interesting theories, generated outside, but compatible with, the traditional historical framework. The decision to divorce the material from the literary evidence is particularly appropriate to the period studied, since its written sources repeatedly have had their credibility questioned, while continuing to influence archaeological interpretations greatly. Esmonde Cleary’s approach allows us to consider alternative readings, as the material evidence is assessed according to its own merits, and not shoehorned into a pre-determined conclusion. This review provides a structural breakdown, followed by discussion of key themes and arguments.

The book comprises ten sections plus an introduction. Chapter one assesses the third-century crisis, and argues that the literary perception of upheaval often prevents the evidence from being interrogated properly, with the ‘crisis’ being used as a deus ex machina to explain all changes. Esmonde Cleary argues that we must seek the roots of these changes in the previous century. Chapter two discusses how the short-term events of the third century shaped those societies near the frontiers. It accepts the possibility of military crisis in certain areas, but suggests that our best evidence for this lies in later developments, for example in the militaristic ways that elites represented themselves in affected areas. The fortification of settlements in Northeast Gaul is considered, and alternatives offered to the traditional interpretation of panicked response to immediate barbarian threat. Chapter three considers the role of cities, and how specific types of city created specific types of citizen. Regional differences in urban archaeological trends are explored in relation to economic function and social developments. Chapter four examines Christianity, and demonstrates how the traditional preoccupation with the triumph of this religion has led to the neglect of those that preceded and endured it. Chapter five looks at non-militaristic modes of aristocratic display. The imperial residences are examined in some detail, and their ideological purpose considered. Elsewhere, a significant urban-rural shift in social and cultural expression is shown, with villa culture flourishing in southern Gaul, some regions of Iberia, and southern Britain from the fourth century. Chapters six and seven assess changes in the economic functions of rural settlements and buildings, and consider the economic products these regions generated, consumed, imported or exported. Chapter eight evaluates the ‘barbarian’ presence from the fifth century, with an emphasis on the invaders’ sense of identity. Chapter nine examines the socioeconomic effects of this power shift, and the transition to the medieval period. Aristocratic display is considered, along with the shift from state to private power.

Several themes emerge in this book, not all of which can be expounded here. Therefore, I have chosen some examples that demonstrate the merit of Esmonde Cleary’s approach. The first of these is Esmonde Cleary's treatment of settlement patterns. The traditional literary narrative of third-century destruction has led to the common interpretation of any changes or interruptions in settlement as indicative of violence. Burnt layers are often considered proof of marauding barbarians, while fortification is seen as being either in response to or in anticipation of invasion. Often, the geography of these phenomena is simply neglected. Esmonde Cleary's decision to set aside this narrative allows him to posit alternative explanations, which sensibly consider the geographical context of the evidence. Although towns in northeastern Gaul show concentrations of destruction consistent with incursion, alternative explanations must be sought further from the Rhine, where despite there being no sustained threat, towns contract, defensive walls are built around the reduced settlement, and a general sense of urban decline pervades. Clearly, the traditional explanation of barbarian invaders cannot work here. Esmonde Cleary suggests these changes should be seen not as a response to a threat both chronologically and geographically distant, but as part of a changing perception of what constituted a Roman city. Since walls were often built with great care, and sometimes decorated, they appear to represent more than ad hoc reactions to threats. Esmonde Cleary suggests that circuits now represented an essential aspect of urban monumentalism, consistent with the increasingly military vocabulary of the empire. The merit of this explanation is that it appreciates the deteriorating situation without offering it as a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. The cities of Southern Gaul and Spain were aware of the barbarian threat, and it manifested itself in their urban planning, but that does not mean that they considered themselves subject to that threat. Although the changing nature of Roman monumentalism has been noted before,2 Esmonde Cleary goes further and links this to the ideological function of cities, which he describes as ‘machines’. According to Esmonde Cleary, ‘a central function of a city is to produce citizens of the type desired by the society of which it is an expression’ (p. 76). Therefore, the buildings and monuments adorning a city represent an attempt to influence the mindset and aspirations of its inhabitants.

Regarding Northern Gaul, Esmonde Cleary suggests that changes in the use of urban spaces from the late second century, such as the abandonment of fora and bathhouses, and the erection of defensive circuits, do not signal continual military crisis. Rather, he argues, they show a development in the kind of citizen the region was attempting to produce: under the high empire, the region could concentrate on producing citizens versed in the niceties of the Graeco-Roman lifestyle; under the progressive militarisation of the late second century onwards, their architectural focus adapted to the circumstances, adopting an increasingly militaristic flavour. The shift to militarisation was not absolute, and the ‘function’ of cities varied; important settlements like Trier might maintain the trappings of their classical past. Just as militarised cities represented an attempt to produce soldier-citizens, Esmonde Cleary argues, towns like Trier were expected to produce citizens reflecting ‘the old Roman civic virtues and values, or at least those elements of them as understood and found acceptable by the elites of the fourth century’ (p. 148). This idea of an ideological objective in the militarisation of northern Gaul represents a novel take on a phenomenon that could easily be appropriated as just another sign of unrest. Of course, it seems probable that the various incursions that occurred from the late high empire were instrumental in changing the nature of urbanisation. Esmonde Cleary’s perception of cities as machines is not incompatible with this, but offers the possibility that this was a considered, ideologically driven process, rather than a panicked, belated response to invasion.

Esmonde Cleary shows a keen awareness of the importance of identity. This is a theme found in almost every chapter, and one that produces thoughtful interpretations of several phenomena. Esmonde Cleary considers the role of emic (self-imposed) and etic (externally imposed) concepts of identity in influencing burial practices, epigraphy, dress, fortification, and religious expression. He applies this approach not only to Romans, but also to the ‘barbarians’ who came to co-inhabit the west, providing the reader with an interesting image of the perception and self-perception of the invaders, and of their interaction with other barbarian tribes and with pre-existing populations. The idea of identity and ethnicity as cognitive rather than genetic phenomena, altered as circumstances dictate, is a particularly interesting concept. The application of such anthropological analyses to material evidence shows that archaeology can provide great insight into the everyday existence of the Roman non-elite, something the literary sources often fail to do. Concepts of identity are integral in determining communities’ responses to wider historical events. Esmonde Cleary’s exploration of the archaeological traces left by said concepts offers an extremely rewarding method of understanding the responses they helped shape. It would be interesting to see where else this anthropological approach to archaeology might lead. The Roman world produced a plethora of popular, non-elite actions for which our sources are primarily literary, such as protests, petitions, and riots. Approaching these actions with better understanding of the perpetrators’ pre-existing notions of identity would help us understand an area for which we are far too reliant on the biases of our elite sources.

In a publication covering the Roman West, Italy’s absence is notable. Esmonde Cleary explains that this is ‘entirely pragmatic’, since to have dealt with Italy in the detail afforded the rest of the west would have increased the length of the book enormously (p. 5). Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see the application of some of the book’s key themes to the Italian peninsula. Italy suffered several invasions from 200-500, and one might ask how themes such as militarisation, architecture, and identity manifested themselves and how they might be explained in relation to the trends noted in this book. Given the attention afforded identity, it would have been fascinating to observe how the concept of cities as ‘machines’ affected the Italian cities, existing as they did within a province that, ideologically, had remained the empire’s military core long after it ceased to perform this function in practice.

Esmonde Cleary does an admirable job of collating data from a vast geographical area, while ensuring the reader is left with an appreciation of the variety and individuality of the settlements contained within. His refusal to see the third century as a watershed between high empire and late antiquity allows him to explain the ‘crisis’ in its proper chronological context. Thus, the important point is made that many of the events associated with the third century (e.g. invasion, urban decline) have roots in the late second century, or do not occur until the fourth. Rather than just picking holes in existing arguments, Esmonde Cleary offers interesting alternative explanations for the phenomena witnessed within the period. The result is a book that sheds fresh light on three well-studied periods, by refusing to consider them as separate, distinct and non-integrable events. Esmonde Cleary expresses his theories and their historical and historiographical context clearly and concisely, and explains concepts other archaeological works often gloss over (e.g. ‘barbarous radiates’). As such, while this book will be greatly appreciated by experienced archaeologists, it is also a good guide for non-archaeologists who want to use the discipline to strengthen their work, but who might be hampered by the changing schools of thought or misled by the generalisations of earlier works.

Esmonde Cleary begins by declaring his intention to ‘emancipate archaeology from the role of servant’ (p. 4). In this, he can consider himself successful. Ultimately, material and literary evidence are only ever temporarily divorced, so as to allow them to be considered in their own right before being consolidated. It could be argued that the influence of the pre-existing narrative goes beyond simple acceptance, so that even a work attempting to disprove a pre-existing narrative event will be, to some degree, influenced by the knowledge of that narrative. If so, can the material ever be free of the literary? Perhaps not, but Esmonde Cleary’s achievement is to put the two types of evidence on an level-footing, showing that they should be interrogated according to their own merits, rather than expected to fit into pre-determined, often incompatible, frameworks.


1.   Finley (1971) ‘Archaeology and History’, in Daedalus, Vol. 100. No. 1, 174-175.
2.   Dey (2011) The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome, Cambridge, 124-137.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010