BMCR 2001.11.07

Romanization and the City. Creation, transformations, and failures

, , , Romanization and the city : creation, transformations, and failures : proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy in Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the excavations at Cosa, 14-16 May, 1998. Journal of Roman archaeology. Supplementary series, no. 38. Portsmouth: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2000. 231 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 29 cm.. ISBN 1887829385

This handsomely produced volume contains the proceedings of a conference held at the American Academy at Rome in May 1998 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American excavations at Cosa. As this very important site provides crucial information about the way Romans conceived their coloniae, the aim of the conference was to explore the idea of the city as an instrument of Romanization and to examine the process of urbanization in different parts of the Roman world from the 4th c. B.C. to the 3rd c. A.D. Actually, the subject is very loosely defined, and the book illustrates current trends in the study of cities and Romanization through a variety of approaches from some of the leading scholars in the field.

Reviewing a collection of essays is not easy as there is no overall thesis to deal with and the range of topics discussed is very wide, as can be seen, in this case, in the two short indexes (to places and to people and subjects) at the end of the book. So essentially this review will be descriptive, and I will summarize the fifteen essays, with a few comments. It must also be said that the volume is lavishly illustrated, with 4 colour plates, and many maps, plans, drawings and photographs (I counted 117 figures overall), which support most of the arguments and provide us with a very good set of examples.

After a short preface and a useful selected bibliography on the city and territory of Cosa in the Roman and medieval periods, the volume opens up with two essays about cities and colonization. E. Fentress ( Introduction: Frank Brown, Cosa, and the idea of a Roman city, 11-24) reassesses the evidence for republican Cosa in the light of new excavations and stresses that, contrary to Brown’s opinion, there is very little direct influence from Rome on the layout of the colony, which has to be interpreted in conjunction with what we know about other contemporary foundations. The topography of the city reflects the hierarchy of the settlement and of Roman society: it was definitely planned in Rome but did not use Rome as a model. Brown’s main contribution was to underline that Roman urbanism was not only functional but strongly connected to ritual, however his idea that colonies reproduced elements from the Urbs has to be seriously played down.

P. Zanker’s very dense paper ( The city as symbol: Rome and the creation of an urban image, 25-41) also shows that the basic elements of a Roman city were conceived by the Roman State but not with Rome as a model, and they included an axial plan, a capitolium at the crossroads of the kardo and the decumanus, and a public space in front of it, a model which was designed to underscore the subordination of political life to religion. In a later stage, the building of basilicas in Late Republican towns, and then of theatres, amphitheatres and bath complexes from Augustus’ time onwards reflected more the individual needs of the cities than a plan which originated in Rome. Roman cities must be understood within a comparative frame of self-representation: they were to be seen from the roads, and were designed to impress the traveller with a full range of structures which did not always follow the same pattern.

The next two papers discuss the very important recent discovery of a fresco representing a city, on the colle Oppio, at Rome. G. Caruso and R. Volpe ( Preesistenze e persistenze delle terme di Traiano, 42-56) carefully contextualize this find, which comes from a Flavian structure that predated the baths of Trajan and was possibly the seat of the praefectura urbana, and E. La Rocca ( L’affresco con veduto di città del colle Oppio, 57-71) describes the fresco, which shows a fortified city with a harbour, a theatre and temple, a forum and a small hill adorned with a Tuscan temple. He then studies other representations of cities that follow the same chorographical principle and stresses how much this can teach us about the way Romans conceived and portrayed their cities.

The following part of the volume focuses on ‘new cities’. F. Rakob ( The making of Augustan Carthage, 72-82) gives an overview of our knowledge of a site which has improved in recent years thanks to the UNESCO Save Carthage Project. He shows that even if the Roman colony tried to eradicate every memory of its Punic past, there was no tabula rasa strategy as the new foundation re-used the materials from the destroyed city and adopted its orientation. He also emphasizes that the Augustan city was monumentalized long before its completion in the age of the Antonines and that the whole of the colony was planned from the beginning. In his essay on Corinth ( A tale of two cities: Roman colonies at Corinth, 83-104), D. Romano relies on the field work done in the region and on computer analysis to recognize two distinct centuriations, which he relates to the two deductions made in the time of Caesar and Vespasian. He also suggests that the divisions of land were carried out well before the actual foundation took place, but the chronology does not seem precise enough to sustain this view for the Flavian period, and it certainly needs further evidence. H. Hurst ( The fortress coloniae of Roman Britain: Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester, 105-114) examines the urbanism of these three Roman camps, turned into coloniae during the first century A.D. He shows that, contrary to the Rhineland fortresses that merged with native settlements to become colonies, the Romano-British coloniae were kept separated from the indigenous towns that lay nearby and that their urbanism drew upon Roman urban and military associations. Finally, G. Woolf, in a stimulating paper ( Urbanization and its discontents in early Roman Gaul, 115-131), first expresses the traditional view of urbanization as a civilizing process, before he rightly points out that there was no consensus about its cultural signification and that it was also a disciplinary measure trying to impose a new lifestyle on the population. Drawing comparisons from the times of Gothic cathedrals or of megalithic tombs, he shows that these monumentalizations occurred during a moment of great change and were very costly and consciously innovative. He concludes his essay by using the urbanization of Saintes as a case-study for this new approach.

The next three papers deal with ‘Romanization in urbanized contexts’. F. Yegül first turns his attention to the cities of Asia Minor and their cultural identity ( Memory, metaphor and meaning in the cities of Asia Minor, 133-153). After general remarks about the nature of the Roman presence in that part of the Empire, which will come as no surprise to those familiar with the works of S. Mitchell and F. Millar, he insists on the pointlessness of an approach trying to separate Greek and Roman elements in an urbanism that was a synthesis of many different sources and traditions and represented an ‘historic inevitability’. He then focuses on how the mythical past of these cities was combined with elements of the Imperial cult in new rituals defining their identity in Roman times.

In her paper ( The transformation of Seleucid Dura-Europos, 154-172), S. Downey reassesses archaeological evidence to show that the Seleucid city did not really look like a Greek city (no theatre, no gymnasium…) and then explains that the settlement of the Roman army in the beginning of the third century brought little change to the overall plan of the town as most of the constructions were built only to provide the soldiers with the basic amenities. Finally, A. Bowman’s very strong overview of Urbanisation in Roman Egypt (173-187) challenges the now less and less common view that the province was weakly urbanized and that the Roman administration simply re-used the Ptolemaic institutional system. He turns his attention to the sheer size of the nomes or district capitals, and to their buildings which made them look like any city from the Eastern Empire. He then illustrates how the introduction of a new magisterial system in the cities led to the development of their urbanism and stresses how the many relationships between Alexandria and the nomes might have influenced the process of urbanization.

The last part of the volume relates to ‘transformations and failures’. First, S. Dyson looks at the situation in Sardinia ( The limited nature of Roman urbanism in Sardinia, 189-196), where field surveys seem to show that there was a continuity in settlement patterns in the inland areas of the island after the conquest and that, in spite of the development of a road-system, the only real cities were located on the coast. The countryside remained passively resistant to Romanization, the towns working only as gathering places. M. Downs ( Re-figuring colonial categories on the Roman frontier in southern Spain, 197-210) then focuses on southern Spain and the identity of its colonial society. She looks at the relationships between the Iberian élite and Roman power and draws comparisons from the situation in Mexico between the 16th and 18th centuries in order to illustrate that the new colonial society was a hybrid one and was far less Romanized than was once believed. She has certainly made a point about the situation in Republican times, but when her attention turns to the Principate the results are far less convincing as she downplays the political rôle of municipalization in the monumentalization of cities and ignores much of the epigraphical and archaeological evidence. Finally, P. Gros returns to Cosa and analyzes the transformation of the basilica into an odeon during the mid-first century ( L’odéon dans la basilique: mutation des modèles ou désagrégation des programmes?, 211-220). This was not so much a failure as evidence for another way of ‘living the city’ at a time when many Roman aristocrats came back to the region and wanted an auditorium to satisfy their cultural tastes. But the basilica probably soon recovered its use as a meeting place, the odeon working as a bouleuterion-type curia.

In her conclusions ( Heroic myths, but not for our times, 221-226), S. Alcock finds unity in the diversity of papers by underlining their desire to break many archaeological myths—which is true even if most were already dead before the tenure of the conference—and then points out some of the innovative strategies she found particularly stimulating, especially those based on comparisons and the relationship between native populations and their past.

The lack of coherence is a commonplace in collections of papers, and this is no exception. Some of the essays focus only on one site, sometimes providing a synthesis of its history (Downey, Rakob), sometimes concentrating on specific features (Fentress, Gros, Romano); others encompass a whole region with no special interest in particular sites (Bowman, Downs, Dyson, Yegül). Some of the approaches focus mainly on urbanism (Downey, Fentress, Gros, Hurst, Rakob, Zanker), but others are more concerned with inserting the urban experience within the very large framework of Romanization (Bowman, Downs, Dyson, Woolf, Yegül). And of course the two essays about the fresco from the colle Oppio stand apart: even if they can exemplify the way the Romans represented the city, they do not really share the same point of view as the other papers, except perhaps that of Zanker.

But this is not a complaint as the level of scholarship involved here is most of the time very high and gives glimpses of concrete situations around the Empire; it is stimulating to read about the many different contexts and methodologies, even if no model emerges from the collection of essays as a whole. Of course those specialized in any of the particular regions covered here might disagree on specific interpretations (as I did with parts of Downs’ essay, for example); but in general the papers also show the importance of viewing the urbanization process as a dramatic change firmly rooted in the past and very often pointing to the future, as G. Woolf and F. Yegül expressly demonstrate. Meanwhile, the two papers about the colle Oppio fresco are of the utmost importance until this important discovery is fully published elsewhere, and many scholars working on Stadtbild in the Roman Empire will be very happy to find a precise description of it, with good colour photographs.

Given the title of the volume, the biggest disappointment certainly lies in the absence of any proper definition of Romanization, a theme which is dealt with in almost each paper but with very different meanings, as S. Alcock bitterly points out (223). From this point of view, this volume certainly lacks the theoretical meticulousness of another similar book published recently (S. Keay, N. Terrenato (eds.), Italy and the West. Comparative Issues in Romanization, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001), which is perhaps a bit more up-to-date on that matter even if it does not necessarily focus on the relationship between Romanization and urbanization.

Nevertheless, this is a very good book which is perhaps more concerned with urbanization in the Roman world than specifically with ‘Romanization and the city’. This particular theme certainly needs further treatment, with a special look at inscriptions as epigraphy is definitely a very good marker of Romanization within an urban context but is almost absent from this collection of essays. But for its careful examination of many case-studies around the Roman world, this volume certainly provides useful and sometimes thought-provoking discussions of a very wide topic.