Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.06.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.06.16

Hendrik W. Dey, The Afterlife of the Roman City: Architecture and Ceremony in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 291; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781107069183.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by M. Shane Bjornlie, Claremont McKenna College (


Cities are problematic spaces for late-antique scholars to navigate. The Roman government regularly constituted itself, in terms of political ideology and administrative habit, as a collective of cities. One need only glance at the Tabula Peutingeriana to appreciate how the Roman political imagination could flatten the diversity of landscapes on three continents to accommodate a vision of the Empire as an extended network of “urban” sites. Nevertheless, the relatively small portion of humanity that experienced urban culture on a daily basis did so in different modes. Accurately capturing the urban experience is a problem faced by any scholar who would study the Roman city. For the “afterlife” of these cities, especially in the early-medieval west, scholars additionally must grapple with acute debates about the continuity or discontinuity of the Roman urban habit.

Hendrik Dey’s new book, The Afterlife of the Roman City, handles these difficulties with consummate skill and finesse. Afterlife traces the development and maintenance of monumental architecture used to stage the adventus in cities from the 3rd through the 8th century. Dey naturally focuses on the kinds of cities associated with rulership—imperial and regional capitals, royal cities, communities connected to political patronage)—as he shuttles from cities of the former western provinces to Byzantium and the Umayyad state. The result is a panoramic study of a discrete—but vibrant and consequential—thread in the lived experience of the urban environment that testifies to the durability of an urban political tradition that persisted in conversation with dramatic changes to that environment. The book’s narrow focus well illustrates the particularity of continuity in a landscape of change and it models how we might conceptualize continuity and change in specific social, political, economic and religious modalities. Indeed, Dey’s stated purpose is to avoid sweeping claims of “structural upheaval or cultural continuity” (p. 8) and to refrain from “the use of ‘continuity’ and ‘catastrophe’ as analytical constructs” (p. 249). Afterlife thus circumvents the understanding of Roman cities in teleological terms and permits a new appreciation for the pageantry of urban life in the early Middle Ages.

Chapter One (pp. 1-20) introduces a methodological reorientation that asks us to assess the urban landscape as the result of human choices based on “the prevailing idea of what a city should be” (pp. 8-9), rather than as outcomes of structural processes to which hapless people were susceptible. According to Dey, “urban topography came in late antiquity to be governed by a more coherent spatial logic and a more closely defined ideological agenda than ever before…the surviving urban centers of late antiquity were reengineered to promote the conjoined power of civic and ecclesiastical institutions as effectively as possible” (p. 10). According to Dey, this re- ordering of the idea of the Roman city in select governmental contexts was partly a response to wider changes in which many cities ceased to function as the prevailing referent for the state: “in those areas where cities remained central to the configuration of society in the post-Roman period, it was in large part because… [rulers] needed them to exist, as crucial tokens of the power and patronage that these leaders sought to project” (p. 15).

Chapter Two (pp. 21-64) outlines the “armature” of monumental architecture that made the late-antique city the premier stage for the performance of legitimating ceremony. Seen in settings as diverse as tetrarchic capitals (Antioch, Thessaloniki, Trier), imperial residences (Split and Gamzigrad) and at Rome, emphasis on the visibility of power became manifest in a complex of architectural features that facilitated the adventus and other ceremonial processions. Dey identifies in the syntactical arrangement of city gates, porticated arteries, circuses and palaces “a robust urban skeleton that stands essentially independent of the remainder of the intramural space” (pp. 21-24). Whereas much of this architectural vocabulary emulated, to degrees, the earlier imperial ceremonial fabric, the chief difference in Late Antiquity was the repeated centrality of colonnaded processional routes: “the spinal column of the new architecture of…majesty” for emperors, members of the service elite and, eventually, for bishops (pp. 33-57). Dey is correct to explain the new importance of the adventus and its attendant architecture as a means of generating grandeur for rulers in a period when the social backgrounds of main political actors were in flux (pp. 57-64). The new architectural orientation also maps onto other desiderata for imperial display in this period. The impressive dimensions of ceremonial gateways and colonnaded thoroughfares would have allowed higher visibility for the presence of the military in imperial government.

Chapter Three (pp. 65-126) introduces the appropriation of the ceremonial habit (and its associated architecture) by the ecclesiastical leadership in cities such as Rome and Milan (pp. 68-77). By the late 4th century, urban processional routes were prominent features of both secular and religious ceremony and the Christian church had become an indispensable element of the imperial architectural vocabulary. Constantinople, where Christian imperial rhetoric had reached its highest pitch (pp. 77-89), became paradigmatic for cities like Ravenna (pp. 108-19). By the 6th century, the ceremonial pattern of extra-mural church, processional route and palace had become such a powerful referent for organizing the idea of the city that some ex novo foundations, such as Justiniana Prima, consisted almost entirely of the ceremonial armature (pp. 103-08). Similarly, Dey demonstrates how the idea of the city had become defined almost entirely in terms of the new ceremonial armature by examining condensed representations of the city, such as the image of Jerusalem in the Madaba Map Mosaic (pp. 119-26). In agreement with more recent archaeological studies, idealized representations of cities suggest a new understanding of the late-antique colonnaded avenue. Rather than an increasingly crowded and unregulated space of squatter’s residences and shops (the locus communis), a more representational model may be found at Ephesus (pp. 89-103), where the ceremonial use of the space harmonized with the needs of urban daily life.

The fourth and longest chapter (pp. 127-220) surveys the survival of this urban habit after the end of the Roman state in the west and the rise of the Umayyad state in the east. Concerning former provinces of the western Empire, Dey draws attention to the mixed profiles of urban centers evident from the 5th century: from the loss of the centrality of cities in post-Roman Britain (which Dey correlates to the settlement of people with cultural priorities formed outside of experience with Roman urban life); to the development of fortified upland settlements, randomly arrayed with no clear sense of spatial priority (incastellamento); but also the continuation of former Roman cities which, having lost their purpose as administrative centers, nonetheless remained vital as demographic collectives with new priorities (pp. 127-34). It is in this terrain of mixed urban fates that Dey identifies the continuation of the late-antique ceremonial habit, from the 6th through 8th centuries, at ecclesiastical and royal centers of the post-Roman western kingdoms. Although early-medieval western cities had narrower economic horizons, and were generally poorer, with “very few substantial ex novo architectural commissions” beyond ecclesiastical projects, Dey identifies a striking array of cases in which either late-antique monumental armatures remained in continual use for enacting the ceremonial of power or where sites were reconstructed for that purpose: Narbonne, Toledo, Recopolis, and Mérida for Visigothic rulers (pp. 140-60); Tours, Paris, Orleans, Soissons, Reims and Trier for Merovingian rulers (pp. 160-78); and Pavia, Salerno and Benevento for Lombard rulers (pp. 178-89). One corollary of the consistent use of ceremonial architecture across early-medieval kingdoms of the west that bears emphasizing (although not explicitly noted by Dey), is that this presents compelling evidence for the maintenance of a koine in political language which not only had vertical roots in Roman urban habits, but also strong lateral roots in the exchange of political communication across the western Mediterranean. At Byzantine administrative centers (Syracuse and Palermo in Sicily; Corinth and Athens in Greece; Amorium, Ephesus, Miletus, Anazarbos, and Mytilene in Anatolia), substantial evidence exists not only for the maintenance of late-antique ceremonial architecture, but also impressive refurbishment and expansion. Particularly in Anatolia, this occurred in response to the creation of new frontiers with the Muslim Umayyad state (pp. 189-213). In the Levant, the replication of late-antique ceremonial armatures at Anjar, Aila, Damascus and Jerash played a role in the translatio imperii for Umayyad rulers (pp. 213-20). Given the importance of these cities for the representation of imperial power, Dey suggests, in contrast to the notion that porticated avenues became suqs as an immediate result of Arab conquest, that the real rupture with the ceremonial use of these avenues probably occurred in 750, when the Abbasids overthrew Umayyad rule and transferred the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, marginalizing the ceremonial advantages of cities further west.

The fifth and final chapter (pp. 221-43) considers how the ceremonial habit that survived into the early Middle Ages translated to new imperial and monastic centers of the Carolingian Empire. Consonant with Charlemagne’s attempt to envision a western Christian Empire, monastic foundations influenced by Carolingian patronage (such as at Centula and Lorsche) appropriated elements of ceremonial architecture that emulated the stational liturgy at Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople. Dey notes the importance of these ex novo monastic centers, which frequently served as royal residences for itinerant Carolingian kings and thus played as dramatic a role in communicating imperial majesty as had regional capitals for tetrarchic emperors five centuries earlier. Although not a monastic center, Aachen too played a similar role by staging architectural and decorative elements from the great Christian centers of the former Roman world in order to frame the translatio imperii for Carolingian Francia.

Afterlife is an outstanding work of scholarship that follows a bright and lustrous thread of urban life—the celebration of rulership—with some remarkably fresh insights. Dey quite convincingly demonstrates the durability of a ceremonial syntax that included churches, ceremonial gates, colonnaded processions and palaces and which maintained connectivity, however tenuous, with a much adapted Roman idea of the city. The image of governmental and ecclesiastical ceremonial that emerges in this study is all the more striking because of the massive tides of change so evident in other aspects of the urban environment in which (as Dey notes) the architecture of rulership was embedded. Although one must appeal to (or await) other studies to animate areas of the late-antique city outside the ceremonial armature, Afterlife nonetheless deserves praise precisely for its restrained scope. Late-antique and early-medieval scholarship has had its sweeping syntheses of the urban role in “decline and fall.” What is now needed is a patient assay of select urban experiences that can be collectively profiled to reconstruct the layers of difference that people experienced in the late-antique and post-Roman world. Dey’s fulfillment of that charge is admirable in every aspect. Written in a style that is clear, animated and enjoyable, his argument is everywhere brought to life with the archaeology of city spaces and with literary and documentary sources that describe the processional habit. Finally, the rich variety of cities and communities surveyed across five centuries makes this a fascinating and lasting contribution to scholarship in a range of fields: urban archaeology and architecture, political and religious history, and the cultural history of late-antique and early-medieval cities.

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