Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.51

Frank Vermeulen, From the Mountains to the Sea: The Roman Colonisation and Urbanisation of Central Adriatic Italy. BABESCH Supplement, 30.   Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT:  Peeters, 2017.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 9789042934702.  €84,00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Miko Flohr, Leiden University (m.flohr@hum.leidenuniv.nl)

This important monograph by Frank Vermeulen is the culmination of more than fifteen years of engagement with the Roman archaeology of central Adriatic Italy, and a thoroughly documented contextual analysis of the results of Vermeulen’s ambitious and innovative surveys in the Potenza Valley, which started in 2000 and continued until 2015. Richly illustrated and well-referenced, it offers a detailed, evidence-driven analysis of the urban history of the region between Rimini and Pescara, from the the central Apennine watershed to the Adriatic shoreline. Chronologically, the book covers the period from the fifth century BC until the late second century AD, thus starting a century or so before Roman conquest of the region, and continuing until Roman urbanism in this region had reached its peak. This suits the agenda of the book, which consists in assessing the impact of Roman conquest and hegemony on the urban system of Picenum and the Ager Gallicus, but it results in the exclusion of later antiquity from the analysis.

The narrative is divided into four main chapters, preceded by a brief introduction and followed by a short epilogue and a lengthy appendix discussing the history and the remains of the individual cities of the region, co-authored by Vermeulen and Dimitri van Limbergen. The chapter following the introduction serves to build up the narrative: it discusses the region’s geological formation, its main topographical features, and its climate, highlighting the fragmentation of the region into a sequence of valleys, and the sharp differences in climate, ecology and viability between the mountainous upper valleys, the hilly lower valleys, and the flat but marshy coastal zone. Vermeulen rightly highlights the natural subdivision of the area into more-or-less independent settlement chambers. After briefly discussing the traditional (text-based) scholarship on the region, Vermeulen moves on to outlining the methodology of his project, emphasizing the role and the potential of urban surveys for reconstructing Roman urban landscapes. The chapter concludes with a brief conceptual discussion on Roman colonisation, urbanisation and Romanisation, which reflects the (heated) debates about the ways in which these concepts can be used to capture the historical development of Roman Italy.

The following chapter 3 discusses the history of the region in the centuries preceding Roman conquest. It starts from the observation that the region should be seen as a ‘melting pot’, where a variety of peoples were living in close proximity, including Piceni, Umbrians, Gallic tribes, Etruscans and Greeks – and shows how this reality is not only reflected in textual evidence, but also in the archaeology of the region, though it is emphasized that the archaeological evidence leaves a lot to be desired. Vermeulen subsequently moves on to discuss several subregions in more detail, highlighting processes of nucleation, and developments that can best be characterized as a form of proto-urbanization. This leads Vermeulen to discard the traditional idea that the Romans, upon conquest, introduced urbanism in a region that otherwise was not yet developing in that direction. Particularly in the fourth century BC, the move toward urbanization was accelerating under the influence both of internal processes of wealth accumulation and social differentiation, and of increased integration into supra-local economic networks. Vermeulen particularly identifies the appearance of Gallic tribes in the area as an accelerator of nucleation and integration. In the end, however, Vermeulen declines to identify any of the sites in the region as truly urban in this period.

This changed, of course, in the following centuries, when, partially on the initiative of the Romans, a range of settlements in the region develops a clear urban form. Chapter 4 covers the immediate impact of the incorporation of the region into Rome’s emerging power network in the Italian peninsula. In the first phase, which covered the third century BC, Roman engagement became most clearly visible in the coastal zone, where a number of Roman and Latin colonies were founded, including Sena Gallia and Ariminum. Though the early phases of these foundations remain badly documented, Vermeulen notes that most settlements show evidence for at least some pre-Roman occupation. A second wave of colonization followed after the Hannibalic war, with several new foundations, including Pisaurum, Potentia and Auximum (though the case of Auximum may in fact be less secure than Vermeulen takes it to be, as it rests on an extremely generous interpretation of Livy 41.27). Vermeulen argues, rightly, that these developments had impact on the countryside, particularly in the direct environment of the colonies, but also throughout the rest of the region, and fostered the emergence of an entire range of smaller and larger habitation centres, including several old indigenous centres, and a larger number of new centres that emerged in central places on the countryside, either through active policy by the Romans, or spontaneously. This development particularly intensified in the second century BC.

After the Social War, the urban system of central Adriatic Italy developed its final, imperial form. Chapter 5 highlights the dynamics of urban growth in the first century BC and the first two centuries AD. This started with the municipalisation of the region in the century following the Social War, and was decisively influenced by renewed phases of colonization under Caesar and Augustus, which reorganized both the urban system and the countryside. The centuries of peace that followed saw uninterrupted demographic growth, and a gradual increase in the wealth of local elites, resulting in a continuous prospering of urban life, as expressed through architecture and epigraphy. Vermeulen presents a number of case studies of settlements developing into true towns in this period, including, of course, the cities of Septempeda and Trea in the Potenza Valley, but also Suasa, further to the north, and highlights the architectural models that spread through the region in the architectural boom of the first and early second centuries AD: baths, theatres, amphitheatres, monumentalized fora, and other urban embellishments. Moreover, survey work in the countryside indicates an increased density of settlement throughout the region, and particularly in the environs of cities. Still, however, Vermeulen assumes an urbanization rate of not more than 20%, and argues that the level of monumentalization reached by many urban centres was exaggerated, and not proportional to the relatively small demographic size of these towns.

And then, somewhere between Hadrian and Caracalla, the narrative stops. While it makes sense for this monograph to end around 200 AD, one cannot help longing for more: what happened after the late second century AD, when the construction of monumental (public) architecture came to a halt, and the production of epigraphy dwindled? How are we to understand the historical processes of later antiquity and the early medieval period that resulted in the abandonment of so many urban centres? Should we see this as a true demographic collapse, where many urban communities simply ceased to exist, or as a transformation, where the urban areas of the Roman period were simply given up by their shrinking populations in favour of alternative locations nearby? How long did the early imperial urban system continue to function in a recognizable way, and how much of it continued to exist throughout later antiquity into the Middle Ages? It is clear that Vermeulen – and probably no one more than him – has the detailed knowledge of the region necessary to reconstruct what was happening, and one would like to challenge him to supplement this book with an article covering this issue, as far as possible in the current state of our knowledge.

Apart from lamenting the omission of Late Antiquity, one can only recommend this book. It fits very nicely into recent debates on the urban history of Roman Italy, and offers a regionally specific and archaeologically enriched angle on, e.g., the work of John Patterson (Landscapes and Cities, Oxford 2006), and Cooley’s recent Blackwell A Companion to Roman Italy (2016). In general, Vermeulen’s main argument seems roughly in line with most of this earlier scholarship, but From the Mountains to the Sea offers a good, detailed overview of how more general trends worked out in a specific region which is on the one hand an easily recognizable part of Roman Italy, but on the other hand distinguishes itself clearly from both Latium and Campania and Samnium, which have dominated discourse so far. It has to be pointed out that this also gives the book significant potential in teaching: it presents a lot of evidence in plain and clear English that can not only inform scholarly endeavours to Roman urbanism, but also student papers. This is true for the general narrative, but also for the richly documented gazetteer, which offers up-to-date overviews of our archaeological knowledge and ample references to further literature. One can only recommend to colleagues to make sure they, and their library, get a copy of this monograph.

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