Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.44

David Rollason, The Power of Place: Rulers and their Palaces, Landscapes, Cities, and Holy Places.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxi, 458.  ISBN 9780691167626.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Garrett Ryan, University of Michigan (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The Power of Place explores “the messages of power that sites created by, or associated with, rulers could send…to anyone who saw or entered them” (1). It ranges very widely in space and time, culling examples impartially from every part of the Europe and the whole millennium and a half between the reign of Augustus and the traditional end of the Middle Ages. The author, medievalist David Rollason, disclaims any attempt at a complete survey. He aims, rather, “to provide a sort of handbook to how sites created or modified by rulers can yield essentially historical conclusions about the nature of their power” (3), and thereby to demonstrate that “rulership was in important respects unchanging” (4) across premodern Europe. Instead of attempting to trace historical patterns, he undertakes to analyze his case studies as expressions of the Weberian ideal types of authority: bureaucratic, personal, and ideological.

Since the many case studies that comprise the bulk of the book defy summary, I can provide only a very brief overview of the major themes, garnished with examples from sites familiar to BMCR readers.

The first of the book’s five parts contends that palace design and décor are most usefully understood in light of a premodern ruler’s need to advertise and amplify his power. Courtyards, halls, and other spaces in which rulership was customarily performed were stages designed to facilitate communication with different audiences. Two such settings were the peristyle courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace at Split (pp. 12-14) and “private wing” (44-5) of Domitian’s Palace in Rome. The former was visually focused on a balcony, which allowed the emperor to present himself to best effect before crowds of soldiers and suppliants. The latter featured a series of small rooms for dining and discussion, which functioned as intimate venues for the reception of high-ranking guests.

The second part presents gardens, parks, and forests as significant contributors to the display of rulership. Like the palaces they often surrounded, these managed landscapes were at once symbols of royal power and stages for its performance. Gardens and parks, in particular, could be virtual extensions of the ruler’s residence, where the messages implicit in interior design and décor were restated on a scale that implied control of the natural world and its resources. The small open-air dining area overlooking the so-called Canopus in Hadrian’s villa, for example, translated “all the magnificence and intimacy of an indoor triclinium” (115) onto the villa grounds. Forests, larger and more remote, were important primarily as venues for hunts, which allowed rulers to advertise personal courage in a setting conducive to intimate contact with their nobles.

The third part outlines the relationships rulers established with settlements in their domains. Programmatic construction projects like the imperial fora of Rome and Constantinople were especially important, since they served as visible definitions of the authority claimed by their builders (134-6). The participation of civic space in the articulation of power was most pronounced, however, during royal triumphs and entries. On these occasions, the processional route became the narrative line of a performance in which both ruler and subjects had parts to play. The friezes on the Arch of Constantine, which stage the victorious emperor’s entry into Rome against a backdrop of cheering crowds and famous monuments, illustrate the potency of the relationships these occasions could create between a ruler and the urban settings in which he presented himself (204-5, 228-9).

The fourth part explores how rulers employed built environments to advertise their proximity to the divine, above all by building or enriching places of worship. The Trier Ivory, which shows Theodosius II leading the relics of St. Stephen into a chapel under construction, is one of many visual representations of such munificence (245-7). Particularly when connected to a royal palace, shrines were spectacular venues for advertising divinely-sanctioned legitimacy. In Christian contexts, however, such buildings were sometimes also designed to express subordination to God and divine law, particularly where clergy were powerful enough to assert their own special access to the divine. On feast days, for example, a Byzantine emperor entering Hagia Sophia customarily surrendered his crown to the patriarch at the door, passed mosaics that advertised the supremacy of God, and prostrated himself at set points on the church floor (296-7).

The fifth and final part investigates the relationship of the places in which rulers were crowned and buried to the perceived legitimacy of their power. Roman custom was flexible; but from the fifth century onward, the coronation of Byzantine emperors was marked by a carefully articulated set of rituals initially centered on the Hippodrome (321-3). In the Roman as in the medieval world, the tomb of a revered ancestor or predecessor often became the reference point of a royal necropolis. The sarcophagus of Constantine, surrounded by cenotaphs for the twelve Apostles, broadcasted the special status of a Christian emperor to mortal and heavenly audiences alike (377). Seven centuries of Byzantine rulers confirmed the message by having themselves buried nearby.

In the conclusion, Rollason emphasizes his sense of basic continuity in the ways rulers used space to articulate their power. Parallel spatial strategies appeared in polities with no historical connections, apparently on account of congruencies in “the nature of the power that rulers were wielding, or at least claiming” (390). The single most significant commonality, the assumption that rulers enjoyed a special relationship with the divine, signals the persistent significance of Weber’s “ideological” type of authority in premodern European rulership.

The Power of Place has many positive qualities. So far as I am qualified to judge, the discussions of individual sites are accurate, and distinguished by a clear sense of the possibilities and limitations of physical evidence.1 The full and current bibliography is complemented by a useful section with suggestions for further reading.2 The prose is lucid, and the illustrations are clear. Typos and factual errors are infrequent.3 Most impressive of all is the sheer scope of the discussion. No other work on the intersection of setting and authority adopts such a comprehensive definition of the topic, or ranges so widely in time and space. This latitude will especially benefit the popular audience for which the book seems to have been written. Classicists, however, will find the many parallels drawn between the practices of Roman emperors and those of the medieval kings who imitated them stimulating, if not necessarily compelling.

Yet the cumulative effect of The Power of Place is more tantalizing than satisfying. Rollason successfully illustrates basic patterns in the spatial strategies of rulers, and so demonstrates a certain degree of continuity and coherence among various forms of premodern European rulership. The reader, however, is left with little sense of why, or even whether, European rulership was distinctive.

In part, the fault lies with the Weberian ideal types of authority, which are too broad to set up a nuanced discussion of rulership and its relationship with place: after all, as Rollason himself observes, most styles of rulership combine elements from all three types. A comparative paradigm based in space syntax analysis, performance studies, and/or a theory of practice (to name but a few possibilities) might have allowed a more effective analysis of the messages inherent in sites.

More generally, Rollason seems to assume that the need to perform sovereignty in the conditions characteristic of the premodern world elicited analogous strategies of royal self-presentation, and thus convergent spatial goals and practices. As Rollason is well aware, however, cultural-historical factors were at least as important in determining how rulers used space. Even if a full genealogy of power and place was beyond the scope of this book, some comment on historical filiation, if only in the conclusion, would have made clearer the significance of the patterns it traces. It would be particularly interesting to know whether Rollason associates the characteristics shared by premodern European monarchies with the influence of a common model or concepts of authority.

Despite its silences, The Power of Place is a very impressive achievement. Its value lies not only in the connections it establishes between far-flung case studies, but also in the example its comparative approach sets for future studies of authority and its settings. We may be grateful for a bold step toward mapping the elusive relationship of power and place onto the brick and mortar of European history.

Table of Contents

Preface xix
Chapter 1. Introduction 1
Part I. Palaces 9
Chapter 2. The Power of Design 11
Chapter 3. The Power of Architectural Style and Decoration 59
Part II. Landscapes 99
Chapter 4. Gardens, Parks, and Power 102
Chapter 5. The Power of Forests and the Hunt 136
Part III. Cities 169
Chapter 6. Cities, Planning, and Power 171
Chapter 7. Triumphs and Entries: The City as Stage Set 202
Part IV. Holy Places 241
Chapter 8. Power, Place, and Relics 242
Chapter 9. Churches, Mosques, and Power 273
Part V. Inauguration Places and Burial Places 319
Chapter 10. The Inauguration of Rulers: Places and Rituals 320
Chapter 11. Death and Power: The Burial Places of Rulers 344
Chapter 12. Conclusion 387


1.   A few interpretations seem dubious. It is doubtful that the peristyles in ancient palaces were intended as a democratic touch (24). The remains of late Roman buildings in Britain, not the walls of distant Constantinople, probably inspired the banded masonry in the walls of Caernarfon Castle (68). Philosophical influence on medieval town-planning seems unlikely (178-9). The “urban” characteristics of certain palaces were in all likelihood simple coincidences of scale and architectural convention (194-8). Connecting the building programs of Augustus and Hadrian in Rome with a conception of cosmic kingship applies the solar theology of the later empire to a period for which there is little evidence of its use (357-8).
2.   The “Research and Reading” section will be useful to both academics and the general public. Some scholars, however, will be disappointed by Rollason’s decision to omit notes from the body of the text.
3.   Serapis was not a goddess (117), India was not the name of a Roman province (132), the names of “Trogus Pompeius” have been transposed (266), Latinus was not a Roman king (266), and “Aelius” was Hadrian’s birth nomen (358). More generally, it would have been reassuring to see classical sources cited by book and chapter, as opposed to translation page number.

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