Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.36 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.36

Roger B. Ulrich, Caroline K. Quenemoen (ed.), A Companion to Roman Architecture. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Literature and culture.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley Blackwell, 2014.  Pp. xxiii, 589.  ISBN 9781405199643.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Rubina Raja, Aarhus University (


This comprehensive volume of almost 600 pages deserves praise. Its 25 chapters have a chronological as well as a thematic focus, and cover the broader Roman Empire as well as specific case studies.

The first six chapters cover the period between the forerunners to Roman architecture in the first millennium BC and the end of the Tetrarchy, using the conventional periodization according to imperial rulers. Chapter 1 by Becker traces the origin of Roman construction to Italic forerunners in the first half of the first millennium BC. Its refreshing view, taking into consideration the wider range of Italian scholarship on the topic, deals with domestic, civic and sacred structures as well as fortifications. Trade and colonialization are considered as the strongest impetus for the creation of local building traditions in Italy. In the absence of much primary evidence, surrogate evidence such as the famous hut urns is considered and interpreted as reflection of real hut forms in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Etruscan tomb architecture is another source of “surrogate evidence”. Sanctified civic structures, the curia-comitium complexes, are also treated and a forerunner to the Roman comitium, the so-called elliptical building in Vigna Parrochiale in Caere dating to the sixth century BC is introduced. The emergence of monumental sanctuaries in Rome, such as the sixth century BC Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, is established as a key turning point.

Moving from the Italic tradition to the Greek heritage, chapter 2 by Davies is concerned with Greek building practices in Republican Rome. Here among other issues the dramatic Hellenization of Roman construction from the early third century BC onwards is discussed as interacting in fruitful dialogue with Greek traditions. Moreover the increased focus on the monumentalisation of architecture promoted by a stronger but smaller elite is also treated. Early imperial buildings are the topic of Nielsen’s chapter. She speaks of “power architecture” and of imperial architecture as being a product of the competition for power by the dominant men of the period, thereby creating a manipulated tradition. The chapter focusses on evidence in Rome: the Forum Romanum, places for public and imperial cults, the Augustan complexes on the Palatine Hill, as well as complexes for entertainment, sport, and education.

The fire of AD 64 is viewed as a game changer for the development of Roman architecture. Chapter 4 by Quenemoen (from Nero to Hadrian) aims at understanding the dynamic interplay of structure, construction and design and the nature of change in this period. Catastrophe made it necessary to rebuild Rome quickly and concrete was the means to do so, not only because of its flexible and durable nature but also because laws were imposed about how much wood was allowed to be used in constructions within the cityscape. Concrete drove architectural innovation in this period and Roman emperors latched onto this material as a possibility for embedding symbolic power into monumental architecture. Chapter 5 gives a good overview of central monuments from the Severan period. It also tackles other scholars’ interpretation of the time as a phase in which architecture was already consolidated and innovation was not essential Thomas is of a different view and underlines his arguments with solid examples, such as the buildings of Baalbek in Lebanon. In chapter 6 (by Meyer, on the Tetrarchy) the military influence on the imperial structures of this period predominates. Meyer shows how the architecture of this period reflected changes in power relations within the changing power structure of the empire. Through a series of well-known examples we are shown in which way the Tetrarchs shaped their visions of imperial architecture.

After the chronological chapters the next 19 chapters are thematically oriented. The first four focus on architects, techniques, materials and labour force. Chapter 7 (by Anderson) explores the relationship between architects and patrons through literary evidence. It highlights the importance of this dynamic relationship and also reminds us that emperors often had a large say in the vision for future architectural projects. An overview of architectural planning and technology during the Roman period is offered by Senserey in chapter 8. It introduces the reader to the planning phases of buildings and monuments and highlights an area of study which is overlooked and usually unfamiliar to both students and scholars. It is therefore a much welcome contribution to this volume. Chapter 9, by Lancaster and Ulrich, is almost twice the length of other chapters. It not only provides elementary information about building materials and techniques but also includes detailed discussions about Roman building techniques. We do not know much about the organization of labour force in antiquity, but chapter 10 by Taylor discusses the categories of evidence on this subject, such as stamped bricks and roof tiles, which give insight into the organization of brick- and tileworks in central Italy. Evidence for the marble trade and the organization of the quarries is also considered. The chapter importantly turns to what is known about associations which organized labour and the various groups of labour forces which were available, ranging from free agents and day labourers to permanent staff and skilled groups of workmen and craftsmen.

The next 11 chapters are concerned with various categories of buildings. Chapter 11 by Stamper focusses on urban sanctuaries in Rome and takes the reader through monuments of this period. Monumental architecture of non-urban cult places in Roman Italy are treated in chapter 12 by Stek. The gradual monumentalisation of natural sacred spaces formed an important process in the development of a built sacred landscape and this is clearly shown through case studies. In chapter 13 Frakes makes a good attempt at presenting non-imperial fora in the West and the development of these central urban spaces. Chapter 14 by McDonnell deals with tomb landscapes and tomb monuments and has an exclusive focus on Isola Sacra in Ostia as a case study. The chapter tackles various categories of monuments in order to lay out various backgrounds for the development of funerary monuments and their significance within the hierarchy of Roman society. The three main categories of buildings for mass entertainment are treated in chapter 15 by Dodge. These include amphitheaters, theatres as well as stadia. Dodge treats the geographical spread of these buildings and the reasons for it. A section is also devoted to the hierarchy, patronage and euergetism, which these locations represented as much as being architectural monuments.

Bath complexes are another category of buildings which testify to Roman euergetism. Yegül treats both western and eastern bath traditions within their local contexts. The imperial baths are discussed in more detail and here not only the architecture, but also the water management as well as the administration of the bath complexes are addressed. Chapter 17 by Ulrich focusses on courtyards and takes Ostia as a case study site. It does not only treat single house architecture, but also takes into consideration the range of Ostian structures encompassing courtyards, be they horrea, guild buildings or apartment blocks. It is refreshing to view these complexes as all stemming from the same architectural point of departure. In chapter 18 Clarke surveys the development of domus architecture based on examples from Pompei and Ostia. Zarmakoupi in chapter 19 explains Roman villa architecture as, on the one hand, a space of leisure, and on the other hand a space of production. Even imperial villas had the function of production and agriculture connected with them in a wider sense.

Revell tackles the problematic term “Romanization” in chapter 20. She aptly summarizes the scholarly arguments of the last decade about the term and its implications. Revell opts for a theory of regional variability as expression of how local societies dealt with becoming part of the Roman Empire. Infrastructure, and in particular streets, is the theme of chapter 21 by Laurence. Particular emphasis is given to the Severan marble plan in the introduction. The chapter moves on to deal with layout of streets and more technical aspects such as surfaces, widths, crossroads and street furniture. The chapter ends with a section on the architecture of movement, which is a helpful approach to a complex theme that still deserves to be researched in more depth. In chapter 22, Rowland introduces Vitruvius and his importance for the understanding of Roman architecture both in antiquity and today. Rowland underlines Vitruvius’ grounding in philosophical principles and also questions his importance to his contemporary society in particular because of the philosophical nature of his treatises. Since we all quote Vitruvius and ask students to read his work, this chapter reminds us that we might not have to ascribe him the strong and direct impact he is often attributed. The last three chapters tackle subjects that pertain to modern times: ideological applications, visualizing architecture, and conservation. Chapter 23 by Gessert is a welcome discussion ofideological uses of Roman architecture during the fascist period. All classical archaeologists are acquainted with the architecture promoted by Mussolini, but few know the reasons behind his architectural schemes. Sobocinski (chapter 24) takes us through partial resemblances between artistic representations and subject, investigating reasons behind these interpretative choices, both in images of monuments as well as plans. With a point of departure in the Jupiter Optimus Maximus temple in Rome, the chapter highlights awareness of the choices consciously made in antiquity when monuments were depicted in other media, such as coins and reliefs. Aylward, the director of the rescue excavations at Zeugma, is the ideal author for a chapter on conservation. In chapter 25 he turns his attention to conservation in antiquity — a complex matter which he readily admits cannot be researched to its fullest because of the nature of the evidence. He stresses that conservation in antiquity was not driven by theory as much as it is today but was selective and more focused on power and opportunity.

The publication is well edited; the table of contents at first sight seems too scattered judging from the titles of the chapters but the chapters are actually well attuned to each other, which is usually one of the major challenges of a “Companion.” It would have been helpful to have had the chapter on Romanization earlier in the book, since it touches on issues central to our understanding of Roman architecture conceptually. The surveys undertaken are thorough and the guides to further reading highlight important works. The combination of chronological and thematic chapters works well. It is positive that not only buildings and monuments are considered through architectural analysis, but also their use and broader social, cultural as well as religious implications. It remains to be said that one wishes for more illustrations. This is not the fault of the editors but of the press, which does not allow many images in books in the “Companion” series.

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