BMCR 2005.07.36

Late Roman Spain and its Cities

, Late Roman Spain and its cities. Ancient society and history. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xviii, 489 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0801879787. $55.00.

The history of late antique Spain has long been notorious for its intractable sources and heated scholarly controversies. Michael Kulikowski has done an admirable job of unraveling many of these Gordian knots to produce an interpretation that is both sensible and persuasive. In part this is because (unlike most historians of this period) he considers the purpose and prejudices of the literary sources before using them as historical evidence. Even less conventional is his technique of interpreting the texts within the context of the archeological remains, rather than trying to make the latter fit the presumed framework of the former. The result is a groundbreaking study that will be important not only for Hispanic specialists but for anyone interested in the history of the Late Empire.

The author’s main thesis is implied by the title. K. rejects the traditional paradigm that the highly urban society of the Early Empire was destroyed by a third-century crisis, leaving a thoroughly rural culture of villas and cemeteries in the Late Empire and early Middle Ages. Instead, he argues for the continuity of urban institutions throughout the imperial era. To this end, he does not begin his history of Late Roman Spain in the third century AD, but in the first. Three chapters trace the development of urban institutions in the Iberian peninsula from Augustus to the fourth century. The next chapter considers the impact of the Diocletianic reforms on Spain’s role in the empire. Chapters 5 and 6 examine, respectively, changes in the city during the Late Empire and the material evidence for relations between town and country. Only after painting this urban-focused backdrop does he attempt, in the succeeding three chapters, a narrative history of the fifth century. Chapter 10 analyzes the archeological and literary evidence for Christianity in the peninsula, while the final two chapters discuss the problems of the sixth century, ending with the establishment of a strong Visigothic kingdom under Leovigild in the 570s.

K.’s insistence on municipal continuity in the Late Empire is partly an argument from silence, since the decline of the ‘epigraphic habit’ deprives us of the display inscriptions that would attest to local magistrates and building activity in the cities. Yet K. can also marshal positive evidence, such as the canons of Elvira (which deal with the reconciliation of Spanish Christians to their civic responsibilities) and a small archive of late inscriptions alluding to the activities of collegia. While there is little evidence for new monumental architecture, largely because city centers had already been filled with the requisite buildings during the Early Empire, the lavish redecoration of Late Roman houses (such as those at Clunia in the third century and Emerita in the fourth) demonstrates the continuing affluence and vitality of the urban elite. Archeological evidence points to the flourishing of amphitheaters, circuses and baths in the late period, even if theaters (never as popular as these other places of amusement) fell into disuse. Although only 17 of the forty-odd city walls that have been dated to the third and fourth centuries can confidently be assigned to that period, the number is still significant and provides useful evidence for public display and interurban competition. Obviously, those walls that date to the fourth or fifth century cannot be used to support the theory of a third-century ‘crisis’ in Spain. Nor can the evidence for continued commerce (89-90). In fact, despite a slump in the Spanish olive oil trade because of competition from Africa, the garum industry actually expands during the Late Empire.

With regard to Diocletian’s provincial reorganization, K. makes an important new interpretation of the addition of Mauretania Tingitana to the Spanish diocese. Unlike the peaceful Spanish provinces, Mauretania was a hotbed of tribal disturbances that had spilled over into Baetica in the late second century. Thus Diocletian’s reorganization was not a matter of appending Tingitania to Spain but of attaching Spain to Tingitania, both as a hinterland rich enough to support military operations there and as a safeguard against future disturbances across the straits. The choice of Emerita (with its excellent road connection to ports on the Gibraltar coast) rather than distant Tarraco as the diocesan capital reflects the need to control the Mauretanian frontier. K. rejects the theory that the recently discovered monumental complex on the outskirts of Corduba was a palace of Maximian during his African campaigns of the 290s and argues that it was more likely the residence of the governor of the new tetrarchic province of Baetica. This is plausible enough, though K. confusingly claims on p. 118 that there is no evidence that Maximian ever resided in Spain, and on p. 74 that his African campaign was probably conducted from a Spanish base. Why could that base not have been Corduba? K. also tackles the thorny problem of troop disposition in fourth-century Spain, based on two troublesome documents, the Notitia Dignitatum and the letter of Honorius to certain ill-defined troops in Spain. Questions concerning the date and purpose of these sources remain as insoluble as their textual difficulties, though K. makes a tentative proposal to ascribe the field army of the Notitia to the period 418-421 (172). He is at least able to disprove the usual assumption (based on the concentration of troops in northern Tingitania) that the Roman frontier in western Mauretania had contracted into a narrow strip near the straits of Gibraltar. In fact, all the military bases were sited within easy striking distance of the southernmost population centers of Tingitania; it was not strategically sound to string them out along the desert fringe as if it was the Rhine-Danube line.

Contrary to the conventional paradigm of third-century urban decline, K. argues that the flourishing of rural villas in the third and fourth centuries indicates not a population shift to the countryside but a ‘a more systematic use of available land than in previous centuries … probably as a result of population growth’ (131). This conclusion is vindicated by archeological field surveys indicating that agrarian exploitation in this period expanded beyond traditional farmland into more marginal areas. The new rural sites were clustered predominantly around road and river routes that allowed them to supply the demands of urban markets. The emerging picture is that cities, far from suffering depopulation, required larger quantities of food and hence more intensive farming than before. The profitability of selling produce to urban customers is presumably reflected in the rich decoration of many villas, including costly imported statuary and marble veneer.

The invasion of Spain by Vandals, Sueves and Alans in 409 is often seen as marking the end of the Roman period. K. again rejects conventional wisdom, arguing that the end of Roman Spain should be defined by bureaucracy, not barbarians. ‘Where imperial bureaucrats held office, the empire existed’ (152). Since imperial office-holding continued in Spain until the death of Majorian in 461, the Roman regime was far from dead. Though much of the peninsula was effectively under Gothic control long before Majorian, the emperors clearly envisaged Spain as part of their empire and continued to appoint officials. Even in the confusion of the years 409-411, amidst famine and barbarian violence, Hydatius ( Chron. 40) records that Roman tax collectors were seizing the wealth and goods of the cities and the soldiers were consuming them. Thus the provincial government (under the usurper Maximus at this point) kept functioning with vigor during the crisis. This was possible because the barbarians were spread relatively thin over a huge area and, while devastating the countryside, rarely captured the cities that served as the basis of Roman administration. Bureaucratic continuity gives the lie to Salvian’s hyperbolic claim that nothing remained of Spain in the fifth century except its name ( De gub. Dei 4.21). As K. suggests, Orosius’ famous comment that some Romans preferred living among the barbarians to paying imperial taxes ( Hist. 7.41.7) testifies less to the waning of Roman rule than to the relentless efficiency of the fiscal bureaucracy.

K. also rewrites the political history of Visigothic Spain. He rejects the scholarly tradition (for which there is not a shred of ancient evidence) that Spain was in turmoil from the barbarian settlement of 411 until the campaign of Wallia’s Goths in 416. He next debunks the standard account that Wallia attempted to lead his Goths to Africa but was turned back by a failed crossing at Cadiz. Orosius, our only source, states on the contrary that Wallia, frightened by an earlier and abortive Gothic attempt to reach Africa, made no such effort. There is indeed no evidence that Wallia and his followers ever left coastal Tarraconensis; his attempted crossing is thus a modern myth. K. skilfully reconstructs the tug-of-war between Goths and Romans for control of the peninsula under Valentinian III and his successors Avitus and Majorian, and the half-century of chaos that followed Majorian’s abandonment of Spain. He shows that Gothic rule in Spain in the years 507-568 was hardly as complete as usually depicted, since the Goths held only a few key Spanish cities and were more interested in Gaul for much of the period. Our meager textual sources must be supplemented by material evidence such as cemeteries and churches. Unfortunately, as K. points out, cemetery evidence is not ethnically diagnostic: the presence of ‘Gothic’ artifacts in tombs does not prove that their owner was a Goth, and thus, for example, the handful of Gothic brooches from southern Spain cannot be used to demonstrate a sixth-century Gothic presence in Baetica. Moreover, prototypical Visigothic churches in the countryside, such as San Pedro de la Nave and San Juan de Baños, are products of the seventh century and cannot count as evidence of Gothic impact in the sixth.

Even in the Gothic period, Spanish cities remained important. K. argues that the society of the sixth and seventh centuries was still essentially urban, not ‘proto-feudal’ as is sometimes claimed. Churches dominated the architecture of Spanish cities, sustaining urban vitality while giving unprecedented powers of patronage to ecclesiastical authorities such as the amply attested bishops of Mérida. The familiar theory of urban decline and ruralization in the late antique period must thus be seriously reconsidered and replaced by a more realistic model that retains the primacy of the city.

The book includes two maps, 12 site plans and eight photographs. The graphic layout is pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately there are several misspellings of Spanish words in titles of works in the bibliography, as well as the misprint ‘Tigitania’ on p. xxi. The Latin word cavea is treated as a plural on p. 113. The bibliography is extensive, but inexplicably omits an important article by S. Gutiérrez Lloret, ‘Eastern Spain in the Sixth Century in the Light of Archaeology’ in R. Hodges and W. Bowden (eds), The Sixth Century: Production, Distribution and Demand (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 161-184.