Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.06

Stephan Seiler, Die Entwicklung der römischen Villenwirtschaft im Trierer Land: agrarökonomische und infrastrukturelle Untersuchungen eines römischen Wirtschaftsgebiets. Philippika, 81.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015.  Pp. xii, 430.  ISBN 9783447103220.  €138.00.  


Reviewed by Tyler V. Franconi, University of Oxford (tyler.franconi@arch.ox.ac.uk)

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in publishing this review.]

This book presents a new appraisal of the development of the Roman villa economy in the hinterland of the German city of Trier, Roman Augusta Treverorum, the ancient capital city of the province of Gallia Belgica and later of the Dioecesis Galliarum. Trier was one of the most important cities of the western Empire, serving not only as a major administrative center, but also acting as an important locus of economic activity throughout the Roman imperial period. Seiler’s work focuses on this economic function by exploring the development of the rural economy that is typified by the development of many villas, some quite large and impressive. This work presents the first detailed catalogue of all known villas in the hinterland of Trier, listing 188 definite villas and an additional 494 findspots that could be villas, for a total dataset of 682 sites. These sites are all located within a 15 km radius of the city of Trier, defined as the city’s zone of influence based on the distance easily covered by a wagon in a single day’s journey. In modern terms, this study region covers the westernmost area of the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz; it does not, notably, cover the easternmost region of Luxembourg that also falls within this study area.

The book is arranged in five main sections: the first section, entitled “methods”, introduces the topic of study by critically examining the historiography of villa research in the area, introducing past ideas, hypotheses, and data sources. The second section, entitled “The Trier landscape and location factors”, examines the influence that the landscape of the eastern Rhenish slate massif, especially the Hünsrück and Eifel hills and the Moselle River valley, had on the distribution of settlement. This section also explores the development of roads and rivers as part of the local infrastructure, and also examines local markets with Trier as the main center, surrounded by smaller towns and, more distant to the east, the military frontier. With the local context established, the third section, entitled “Typology and Chronology”, examines the development of the villa landscape in the region from both architectural and chronological perspectives. The fourth section, entitled “The villa as an economic unit”, examines the economic activities of the villa system, outlining not only the produce of the region (grain, vegetables, vegetal oils, fruits), but also the livestock (including sheep, cattle, horses, goats, pigs, poultry), as well as the various tools and outbuildings (corn dryers, storehouses). After laying out the evidence for these primary products, namely palaeo-botanical and faunal remains, the author goes on to examine secondary products such as wool, leather, baskets, and rope alongside other sorts of rural products like timber as well as crafts like metal, stone, pottery, ceramic building material, glass, and coin counterfeiting. The final section, entitled “The development of the villa economy around Trier”, summarizes and concludes the study.

The narrative developed throughout this book reads as follows: a late Iron Age pattern of agricultural exploitation was intensified after Roman conquest in the first century BC, and saw the introduction of identifiable villas from c. AD 50-150. The rural economy reached a peak in prosperity during the late second and early third centuries AD, when 77 villas were in use; these numbers declined thereafter: 56 in the later fourth century and only about 12 in the early fifth. Hundreds of villas were built in the region during the Roman period, with the majority being smaller, risalit type structures that focused on a mixed economy producing plants, animals, and crafts for local markets. Textile production was especially important, demonstrating a close link between villas where the wool was produced and then towns where it was spun and dyed. The villa economy was closely linked to the trajectory of settlements in the region, and as they grew, so too did the rural economy. The collapse of this system in the later fourth and fifth centuries in the face of increasing instability saw the abandonment of much of the landscape and the end of the villa system.

The actual text of the volume is relatively short (only 165 pages) and is accompanied by an extensive catalogue of 188 confirmed villa sites in the study region. Each catalog entry lists the location, elevation, topography, geology, size (if known), type (if determinable), date, associated finds (mainly architectural), and bibliographic references. The catalogue is followed by a series of graphs, tables, and maps. These graphics include maps by time period, allowing a visualization of the growth and contraction of the rural economy around Trier. The 97 illustrations that follow these maps helpfully illustrate the building and site plans of many of the villas in the region, sometimes with added aerial photographs, geophysical surveys, or excavation photographs.

I have only two real criticisms of this book. First, we must wonder about the historical relevance of the study region as defined. The author is aware of the difficulties of delimiting the “Trierer Land”, and goes into some discussion in the book’s introduction (29-30). The final selection of territory would have been more understandable if it had been consistent, but the exclusion of Luxembourg from consideration, despite falling within the 15 km radius of Trier, necessarily raises some eyebrows. A more honest appraisal of the study region would be “the area of Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany nearest to Trier”, which certainly does not roll off the tongue. This reliance upon modern political boundaries, rather than either ancient boundaries or significant topographic features, undoubtedly results in only a single piece of what would have been a much larger rural landscape of Gallia Belgica.

A second issue revolves around the production of wine. The author explains on page 2 that the subject of wine production in the Moselle valley has been discussed in recent decades by K.-J. Gilles and therefore will not be discussed within this book (an explanation repeated again on p. 115), and while it is understandable to not want to take a large amount of space to recount work by another scholar, it seems an odd choice to leave it out of the discussion entirely. The apparently rapid development of wine production from the end of the third century AD throughout the Moselle River valley is one of the defining characteristics of the late-Roman rural economy, and also one of the most puzzling. Unlike the noted productions of spelt wheat or wool, wine had no pre-Roman precedent in the region—and it is not even clear that it had an earlier Roman precedent. The fact that the cultivation of vines in the region roughly coincides with the establishment of Trier as an imperial residence may be coincidence, but the late-Roman prosperity of wine production along the Moselle seems to be at odds with the chronological trajectory of the villa economy in the Trier hinterland. Many of the wine producing villas known are, granted, farther downstream from Trier than Seiler’s study region, but should we expect that villas closer to the Rhine frontier would be less damaged by Germanic raids than those farther behind the line? A larger study region would have perhaps been better suited for tackling this issue, but perhaps future investigations will be able to better outline the place of wine production within the diverse agricultural enterprises and the complex historical contexts of the region that Seiler has now outlined here.

These minor issues take nothing away from the quality of the work presented by Seiler, who has, in the creation of this catalogue and discussion, laid a very sturdy foundation for future exploration. This book is a very welcome contribution to the archaeology of Roman Germany, presenting a very clear and easy to read account of the story of the hinterland of Trier. The book is very well produced, and the catalogue is a valuable resource for the study of the region. While the text is fairly short, the amount of work that went into writing it was clearly immense, requiring extensive research and synthesis of excavations not always published in readily available sources. The level of detail available in this dataset is a strong testament to the high standards of archaeological practice in Germany, and offers a good model for other regions to follow when synthesizing regional settlement.

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