BMCR 2005.01.18

La naissance de la ville dans l’antiquité

, , , , , , La naissance de la ville dans l'antiquité. Paris: De Boccard, 2003. 298. €58.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

We often tend to envisage the ancient Greek and Roman perception of (what we call) civilisation in strictly political terms. The ‘civilised world’, or oikoumene, consisted of citizens acting within the framework of their well-ordered cities (poleis or civitates), or citizen-states; the rest was chaos and barbarism. Moreover, the material sign and the necessary prerequisite of ‘civilised life’ was towns and urbanization. For the present argument, it is less important that this interpretation tellingly expresses our own cultural biases than that it creates some severe theoretical problems and sometimes makes us ask difficult questions, such as the classic ones: can we speak of a full-fledged polis when its urban centre, or town, is lacking? Do proto-historical settlements deserve the name of towns? This volume, however, stems from the underlying question that makes its contributors concentrate on particular cases and partial responses only: how, why, and in which conditions do the ancient towns originate and develop in a given historical period? These are the very value and at the same time the main weakness of this important book, originating from a series of lectures delivered by invited scholars in the renowned Fourth Department of the École pratique des hautes études in Paris, in 2000 and 2001.1

The book is divided into three sections of unequal size, each preceded by an introduction: “The emergence of the city” (two contributions only, with a rather long introduction by D. Briquel, which in a way serves also as an overture to some more general leitmotifs of the volume); “The birth of the urban phenomenon in the Greek world” (eight essays, introduction by F. Queyrel); and “From the native to the Roman town” (nine papers, introduction by M. Reddé).

The first part, concerned more with what the French call the ‘imaginaire’ of the city than with its actual material shape, at first sight may give an impression of being closely related to the traditional approach to the study of the ancient city, an approach based mainly on literary sources which, ideally, should give us access to the way Greeks and Romans perceived the emergence of their poleis and civitates. Both essays, that of A. Carandini and that of F. Létoublon, have a common denominator in their attempts at elucidating the foundation myths of, respectively, Rome and Troy, correlated to some extent with archaeological data. In fact, however, this is perhaps the least coherent section of the book under review.

The first essay, Andrea Carandini’s “Variations sur le thème de Romulus. Réflexions après la parution de l’ouvrage La nascità [sic! – M.W.] di Roma” (15-25), is not a systematic study of the pivotal problem of the origins of the Roman legendary tradition regarding the beginnings of Rome, let alone the riddle of the beginnings of the City herself, but rather a postscript to an important book by this author.2 On the one hand, he defends his general approach against what he calls (rather undeservedly in my view) the hypercritical attitude of Emilio Gabba as to the reliability of the Roman traditions that predate the birth of Roman historiography. Here, I must admit that I am not fully convinced by C.’s idea of the possibility of discerning stages (or conceiving a stratigraphy) of the Romulean myth to reach finally its ‘articulations’ dating from the ‘Romulean period’ that may somehow reflect the historical reality of this period (20). On the other hand, C. criticises, rightly I believe, T.P. Wiseman’s hypothesis of a relatively late origin of the Remus’ fratricide myth.3 In general, one might deem it a bit eccentric to begin this book with so incidental a paper on so fundamental a problem.

The second paper, Françoise Létoublon, “Ilion battue des vents, Troie aux larges rues: la représentation de Troie dans l’ Iliade” (27-44), is an intriguing study of the Homeric image of Troy, starting off with a linguistic analysis of the Homeric formulas for the city of Priam. It looks as if the epithets connected with the traditional names of the city (Troie, Ilios, Pergamos, Dardanie), despite their highly formular language, formed a very developed and rigorous semantic system. This implies that — whatever hypothesis we adopt as regards the moment of writing down the Homeric poems — the Trojan material had already long been an important element of the traditional poetic stock of the aoidoi. When confronted with the Trojan foundation myths hinted at in the Homeric poems, this semantic system seems very coherent from the religious point of view. The final brief attempts at correlating these conclusions with the results of the current archaeological research in Troy are not entirely convincing.

The central organising idea of the second part of the book (“La naissance du phénomène urbain dans le monde grec”) is the notorious ambiguity of the notion of polis and the wide range of its material incarnations in different parts of the Greek world in all the periods of the history of this institution. As is also the case in the last section of this volume, the majority of papers aim at shaking received opinions, mostly thanks to recent archaeological developments.

Marcel Piérart’s essay, “Genèse et développement d’une ville à l’ancienne: Argos” (49-70), is an important case-study, but also sets up a more general questionnaire of problems regarding the Greek city. Conforming to a good tradition otherwise shared with many other contributors of this volume, this paper seeks to present the historical phenomenon under scrutiny in very close relationship to its geographic and topographic setting, the most important factors being the central position of the town of Argos in the Argive plain and its peculiarly unstable hydrographic conditions. According to Piérart, although the synoecism of Argos in the eighth century B.C. (which gave to this city the domination in the Argolid) cannot be doubted, we should carefully distinguish this essentially political phenomenon from its material counterpart of the second quarter of the fifth century (or perhaps already in the sixth century B.C.). In general, the reader can only regret that the very nature of the book prevented the editors from including in it a comprehensive theoretical discussion of the distinction between the political (or institutional) and material shape of the Greek polis in its historical development (cf. below).

Nouta Kourou, “Des petits habitats de l’époque mycénienne à la cité-état d’époque historique” (71-90), fills an intriguing gap in the studies of the origins of the Greek polis. Scholars only very recently started to examine urbanism and spatial development of the polis in its formative period, i.e. until the end of the eighth century B.C.4 If we compare the main characteristics of the material shape of the political centre of the polis at the end of this process (above all the agora with its public and religious buildings essential to the life of the community) with the material form of Mycenaean settlements and their political centres, the problem of continuity between the two worlds emerges as an important issue for scholarly debate. The scarcity of the material from settlements of the intervening period makes it impossible to propose anything more than highly tentative hypotheses. On the other hand, unlike, say, twenty years ago, we are sufficiently well informed about the complexity of the process of the polis-formation as not to reduce its ‘aetiology’ to a single, or a single dominant, materially detectable factor (the agora, fortifications, or emergence of sanctuaries). K. cautiously sees the ultimate starting point of the progressive development towards the political (and ceremonial) centre of the archaic city in the small settlements of the Mycenaean period but allows for local diversity due not only to locally determinant factors but also to the degree of participation of a given region in different networks of exchange within the Mediterranean, above all in the exchange with the East.

Irad Malkin, “Pan-Hellenism of the Greeks of Naukratis” (91-96), examines an exceptional case of interdependence between the polis religion, colonisation, and the ‘articulation of pan-Hellenic identity’ (91), including religious identity. In his opinion Naukratis, a joint colonial establishment of several Greek cities with its main sanctuary called Hellenion, is the only ‘colony’ of the archaic period where the idea of Hellenism can be seen explicitly. It was perhaps the Egyptian perception of the Greeks coming from diverse poleis as a unified group of strangers that stimulated the emergence of this idea, which was subsequently adopted and ‘internalized’ by the Greeks, who expressed their identity in the remarkable form of common worship of ‘the Gods of the Hellenes’.

William A.P. Childs, “L’urbanisme à Chypre, d’après les fouilles de l’Université de Princeton à Marion (Polis Chrysochous)” (97-107), reporting in detail on the excavations conducted since 1983 in the NW of Cyprus, brings us back to the problem of the material indicators of a Greek town (late seventh or early sixth century? or perhaps as late as the second half of the fourth century, when outer walls appear?). This rich town with an ‘archaic palace’ of the local dynasty was probably founded around 600 B.C., perhaps on a regular plan, which means that this site should now be taken into account when considering the origins of the so-called ‘Hippodamean town planning’.

André Laronde, “L’apparition de la vie urbaine en Libye dans l’antiquité” (109-120), presents a brief historical survey of urban life in Libya, where local geographical and climatic conditions determined both the peculiar character of urban life and the state of preservation of its material traces. Despite the existence of some small and still badly known pre-Greek ‘urban nuclei’ (110), the emergence of real towns in Cyrenaica is of course a Greek phenomenon, resulting from the archaic colonisation in this region. In the process of town foundation in Tripolitania, we witness an interesting case of conjunction of Phoenician and Libyan influences. Another remarkable example of externally influenced urbanisation is the Hellenistic and early imperial foundations and re-foundations of towns in Libya (including more or less durable changes or even transfers of their names).

Federica Cordano, “Fondazioni repubblicane e fondazioni tiranniche nella Sicilia del V sec. a.C.” (121-125), in her rather cursory study of fifth-century new colonial foundations, of the introduction of new citizens into old colonies, and of replacements of former citizens by a new citizen body, argues that all the tyrannical initiatives of this period were innovative synoecisms of mixed population, whereas all the subsequent ‘republican’ (i.e. non-tyrannical or post-tyrannical) ones aimed at reestablishment of old regimes and return of old citizens, which amounted to restoration of the original institutions of their ethnos, the only clear exception being Camarina.

Miltiades Hatzopoulos, “Cités en Macédoine” (127-140), synthesizes the results of a true ‘archaeological revolution’ that changed our view of ancient Macedonia in the past thirty years or so. This has been enough to shake some traditional historical generalisations regarding Macedonia, such as the idea that true religious centres did not exist, that there were no real towns or urbanisation in the country before the reign of Philip II (or even before the Roman conquest), or that, even if we admit the existence of some towns, there was no real political or cultural life in Macedonia. According to H., already in the fifth century B.C., we witness a remarkable spread of civic institutions in Macedonia, with Macedonian kings reacting to this phenomenon to control ‘this at the same time urban and civic movement’ (131). During the reign of Philip II the Macedonian territory was divided into autonomous civic organisms, with at least some of the cities enjoying the full range of Greek civic institutions: civic assembly, council, magistrates. What is particularly interesting here is the interplay between the competences of these civic institutions and the supreme royal authority.

Not inappropriately, Pierre Leriche, “Le phénomène urbain dans l’Orient hellénistique” (141-154), concludes his paper with an appeal for high international vigilance in the face of notorious threats to Near-East and Middle-East archaeology: urbanisation, tourism, road building. But, as it is all too well known nowadays, in this particularly unstable region stretching from Syria, through Iraq and Iran, to the fringes of Afghanistan, at least since the late seventies archaeology is above all victim of unending wars and political unrest. On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened some former Asiatic republics of the U.S.S.R. (southern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) to foreign archaeological exploration. Such are the difficult conditions for the study of Hellenistic urbanization in the East. L. gives a brief survey of the most important sites in the Near East and in Uzbekistan. Here, current research tends to undermine the traditional view of massive planned urbanization serving as a tool of Hellenization of these large areas. To mention only two examples, at Dura-Europos we have to revise both the chronology and the overall interpretation of the site by Rostovtzeff: the ‘Hippodamean’ town, often used as a model of a Greek colonial town, was in fact built in the Parthian period. So was the bouleutherion, which leads to the conclusion that it was the Parthians who favoured the regular town-planning here and who perhaps decisively contributed to the promotion of this simple military colony to the status of a self-standing city. The site of Khaytabad in Uzbekistan undermines the widespread opinion that the transition between the Achaemenid and the Hellenistic period usually meant destruction or abandon of earlier agglomerations (149). In general, L. advocates great caution in our approach to the Seleucid urbanization of the East, arguing that we should not identify all the Hellenistic foundations with town building activity. Here, archaeology simply does not support the view of massive Seleucid town founding that we find in literary sources.

The third section of the book (“De la ville indigèene à la ville romaine”) is perhaps the most coherent of all. As such it also provides us with a rich collection of case studies, which can be treated by this reviewer together and in a more comprehensive manner. Not unlike the second part of this collection, concerned with the ambiguity of the Greek notion of polis as well as its limited applicability to diverse urban phenomena in the history of Greek civilisation, the underlying idea of this section is the necessity of revising our notions, stemming from Roman legal concepts, applied to the material shape of diverse urban and quasi-urban phenomena of the Roman world. The deficiencies of the traditional opposition between, on the one hand, a civilised urbs ‘à la romaine’ and an indigenous stronghold called oppidum, allegedly not deserving the name of town, on the other, is the leitmotif of this part of the book. Another problem, parallel to that of the P. Leriche’s paper on Hellenistic urbanization, is the need to reassess the relationship between the Romanization of the Empire and the phenomenon of urbanization of the Roman provinces, the latter being all too often considered the most important and necessary element of the former, so that both terms tend to be employed almost interchangeably.

Jean-Michel Roddaz, “De l’oppidum indigène à la ville romaine. L’évolution de l’urbanisme dans la péninsule ibérique à la fin de la république” (157-170), gives a review of the results of recent archaeological research in the Ebro valley in the late Republic and early Empire. The scrutiny of the material traces of the Romanization of this region — a triple phenomenon consisting of the combined impact of the ‘municipalization’ of local elites, urbanization (including rather late ‘monumentalization’ of existing towns), and the not-easily measurable inflow of immigrants from Italy — raises the difficult question of the predominance of local or external factors in this process. In fact, we must allow both for diversity of local patterns of development and for chronological dynamics of this set of historical phenomena. Similar conclusions can be drawn from the last paper of this collection, Ioan Piso, “L’urbanisation des provinces danubiennes” (285-298). This article well illustrates the main problems of this section. It starts off with two fundamental questions: first, that of a pertinent definition of the Roman town; second, that of the relationship between Romanization and urbanization — was the town-building activity the ultimate end of the politics of Romanization or just a means to realise this goal? Recent scholarship rightly argues that Romanization does not necessarily entail founding colonies and municipia and vice versa, a large number of small municipia does not prove thorough Romanization of a given area. However, the Danubian provinces of the Roman Empire present some striking peculiarities, the main factors of their Romanization being: trade routes, including the Danube itself; geographical diversity; the needs of Roman troops stationed there; as well as, to a lesser extent, ethnic differentiation within the region. In a series of case studies, Piso reviews those local characteristics and their historical background. His conclusions are fairly clear: local differences in the degree and nature of urbanization are all rooted in ‘imperial pragmatism’, so to speak; they are due to different patterns of conquest of a given territory and to the needs of the organisation and defence of the empire.

Gernot Piccottini, “Virunum l’ancienne: le site du Magdalensberg” (171-194), is yet another example of local variability of Roman urbanization. Magdalensberg (Virunum?), an emporium founded by Roman tradesmen in the kingdom of the Norici in the first century B.C., is now the best known of the Roman towns in the eastern Alps. Its peculiarity is due to its unusually high, oppidum-style location (1058 m) and to its relatively long development into a full-fledged Roman city, after the Roman conquest of the region and before its ultimate abandonment during the reign of Claudius, when the inhabitants moved to the newly established capital of the Provincia Noricum, municipium Claudium Virunum.

Robert Bedon, “La naissance des premières villes en Gaule intérieure durant la période de la Tène finale” (195-214), brings us back to the problem of the true Roman meaning of the term ‘oppidum’ as applied to the urban phenomenon in the Gallia Comata and offers an interesting typology of the oppida in this region (196-199) as well as a review of the chronology and historical context of their founding. The Roman conquest, entailing the destruction or damage of a number of them, was in fact just the beginning of the period of the greatest flourishing of the Gallic oppida. The ultimate integration into the Roman province did not trigger the urbanization of this region, which had started already during the late La Tène period, but only ‘Romanized’ the previously existing urban settlements. In his turn, Jean-Paul Guillaumet, “De la naissance de Bibracte à la naissance d’Autun” (215-225), presents a very rare case where we can compare two successive capitals of a given region (the civitas of the Aedui): the Roman town Augustodunum (Autun) inherited its population from the Gallic oppidum Bibracte. Although earlier excavators at Bibracte envisioned it as an exemplary Celtic town, more recent discoveries show the extreme complexity of the Celtic urban phenomenon. Perhaps the most striking thing is a recently discovered open site, which can tentatively be considered a place of the assembly of the Aeduan citizenry (220).

Jeannot Metzler, “Fouilles du sanctuaire celtique et gallo-romain de l’oppidum du Titelberg” (263-269), is devoted to the what might have been the politico-religious centre of the Treveri, with the newly located great Celtic sanctuary of the fanum-type, hypothetically combined with a spacious square for public gatherings. The problem is what was the relationship between this peculiar oppidum and the nearby freshly established Roman town of Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The moment of its foundation interestingly corresponds with the time of the dismantlement of monumental wooden constructions in the Titelberg sanctuary, so the question arises of the reason for the apparent transfer of the political heart of this region. Was it a direct order of Rome, or did local aristocracy, already highly Romanized by the times of Augustus, decide to establish a new capital on the cross-roads of the most important trade routes of this area? We shall probably never know.

Martine Joly, “Langres, de la ville gauloise à la ville gallo-romaine” (227-238), studies another possible pattern of Gallo-Roman urbanization, that of a thorough continuity: this time a Roman town was installed in a previously existing indigenous agglomeration, subsequently subject to a progressive Romanization. Laurent Vaxelaire and Philippe Barral, “Besançon: de l’oppidum à la ville romaine” (239-261), is yet another case-study of the continuity between a Celtic oppidum and a Roman town, with a profound spatial and functional reorganisation of the town marking the passage between the two phases. The paper concludes with a detailed catalogue of sites and discoveries in Besançon from the Late La Tène period till the Augustan times.

The paper by Carsten Wentzel, “Gross-Gerau und Nida (Frankfurt/M.-Heddernheim) — zu Genese, Entwicklung und Struktur der Kastellvici im obergermanischen Limesgebiet” (271-284), deals with two Roman ‘Kastell-vici’, to use German terminology. The two sites under discussion allow us to conceive a model of the genesis and development of military towns in the province of Germania Superior and to observe their divergent role in the urbanization of this area. This example also shows a fundamental difference between the nature and the intensity of the Roman urbanization in the neighbouring province of Tres Galliae and in Germania Superior. In the latter case, the lack of solid rooting in pre-Roman urban phenomena and in their corresponding forms of political and social structures seriously hindered the progress of urbanization in this area. Thus, this penultimate paper of the collection neatly rounds off this section bringing us back to the conclusions of the Robert Bedon’s paper on the late La Tène urbanisation of Gallia. It must be added, in general, that in a so coherent part of the book as this one it is regrettable that precise cross-references between its constitutive articles have not been provided.

To conclude, the very provenance of this collection of papers — stemming not from a thematic conference, but from a series of lectures stretching over a rather long period of time — endangers its coherence not only on a technical level (cf. above), but also, more importantly, makes it impossible to read it as a self-standing book on so important a subject as “la Naissance de la ville dans l’Antiquité”. Hence, its potential readership will perhaps not be much wider than a limited circle of specialists of a respective section of ancient history and archaeology. Of course, the papers gathered together here differ both in scope (or ambitions) and in quality, and some of them will no doubt prove highly useful to a more general reader. From this point of view, I dare predict a wider readership to the second, or Greek, section of this volume.

However, it seems possible, and perhaps useful, to look for a common denominator or organising idea for the whole collection, which seems due more to the current state of research of urban phenomena in the ancient world than to its underlying theoretical assumptions. The key-notion of the book appeared already several times in this review: the idea of ‘diversity’ hovers over the majority of its constitutive essays. Elucidations of a given urban phenomenon are sought more in local (historical, geographical etc.) peculiarities than in general ‘rules’ of its inner development or in externally imposed ‘models’. Thus, almost all the papers gathered here tend to undermine general explanatory patterns and clear-cut categories typical of urban archaeology of the seventies and early eighties; it is enough to think of the once heated debates on the problem of the origins of the polis or that of the role of urbanization in, respectively, Hellenization or Romanization of ‘barbarian’ territories. The, so to speak, cumulative effect of the whole collection may then conveniently defy both die-hard traditional scholarly views and correct their underlying cultural biases mentioned at the outset of this review.

Yet, it must be added that this ‘cumulative effect’ is severely weakened by the absence of a concluding theoretical discussion that would sum up the disparate arguments of different papers and take a stance in some at least of the aforementioned classical debates. Thus, for instance, omnipresent as it is in the second section of the volume, the problem of the relationship between the institutional and the ‘urbanistic’ form of the polis in its historical development should definitely have found a more pronounced theoretical expression in this book. It is true that many recent treatments of the Greek city suffer from an exceedingly pattern-like, and hence sometimes anachronistic, approach,5 so a more empirical general project is both desirable and no doubt refreshing. Still, in the end the present collection left me a little unsatisfied.

Another thing is the scope of this book. Although its ambitions are, rightly I would say, not plainly comparative, the wide range of case-studies gathered here provides the reader with a rich comparative material. It is all the more striking that — even if we allow for the exclusion of some original contributions dealing with Phoenician and Carthaginian towns from the ultimate project — so fascinating a subject as the urbanization of pre-Roman Italy features so inconspicuously in this book. Except for A. Carandini’s opening paper, there is no mention of the Villanovan ‘proto-urbanization’ or subsequent town-building processes in Italy.

The book is not entirely free from typographic flaws, mainly in the notes, where the reader may be struck (rarely, it is true) by some cases of missing parts of a phrase (e.g. p. 25 n. 5), or missing diacritical signs, that make the argument not easily understandable, or by some omissions in the references that obviously should have been added in the final stage of proof-reading but unfortunately never were (e.g. p. 96 n. 28). It should be noted that different papers vary in this respect. In general, however, the volume under review has been produced and edited very well.


1. As the editors warn us, some of the original papers have been omitted in the book (7). One may suspect that the most blatant omission concerns the contributions in the field of Phoenician and Carthaginian studies, briefly mentioned in the preface, but altogether absent from this volume.

2. La nascita di Roma. Dèi, Lari, eroi e uomini all’alba di una civiltà, Torino 1997.

3. Cf. T.P. Wiseman, Remus. A Roman Myth, Cambridge 1995.

4. For a rich bibliography of recent works on ‘territoriality’ or ‘internal spatial order of the polis’, see Karl Joachim Hölkeskamp in BMCR 2004.04.03, especially notes 9-11.

5. In general, for an important criticism of the syntheses due to Mogens Herman Hansen and his “Copenhagen Polis Centre”, cf. K.J. Hölkeskamp’s review mentioned in the previous note.