BMCR 2008.05.15

Styling Romanisation. Pottery and Society in Central Italy. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Styling Romanisation : pottery and society in central Italy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvi, 237 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521875677 $99.00.

Roman Roth’s new book makes the argument that pottery can be used as evidence for ancient social history, particularly with regard to people who were not part of the upper classes. More specifically, Roth carries out an examination of black-gloss ceramics from the central Italian sites of Volterra and Capena to demonstrate that the apparent homogeneity of the material culture of Roman Italy obscures what were in fact diverse responses to the process of Romanization at the local and non-elite levels of Italian society. Thus, Roth addresses the key problem of how material evidence may be used for the study of social history and of groups under-represented in the written record. His discussion is wide-ranging and touches on many topics of interest to archaeologists and historians, although his prose can be dense and non-specialists may find parts of the book difficult to penetrate.

The book, an expanded version of the author’s 2003 University of Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, consists of a short introduction, three chapters of theoretical and methodological orientation (Chapters 1-3), two core chapters of analysis of the pottery from Volterra and Capena (Chapters 4-5), a chapter of synthesis (Chapter 6), and a short conclusion (Chapter 7). The book provides two black-and-white photographs and several line drawings, charts, and graphs to supplement the discussion in the text. An extensive bibliography and a brief index are also included.

Roth begins by making the case for pottery as a meaningful class of object that experiences stylistic changes in conjunction with larger social and historical trends. He emphasizes that ceramic remains should be examined in their full context, both archaeological and historical, for it is such contextual study that allows meaning to be mined from superficially similar objects that in fact have different histories. Roth also argues that, as a commodity within the economic reach of most, pottery is evidence well suited to the study of non-elite members of ancient society, his stated focus.

In Chapter 1, Roth addresses the controversial concept of Romanization, since the transition to Roman rule provides the setting in which black-gloss ceramics flourished in Italy. He justifies his use of the word Romanization on the grounds that the term, despite colonialist connotations, has paradoxically become the most neutral way to refer to the process in question, precisely because its meaning has been much debated. Roth summarizes a range of arguments concerning Romanization; issues raised include: the degree to which either the process or outcome of Romanization was uniform, the role of members of the local elite and of local social competition in the adoption of Roman practices, and the role of military force. Roth then gives a more detailed review of Nicola Terrenato’s concept of “cultural bricolage,” defined as a process in which pre-existing cultural elements take on new functions and meanings in a new context, viz. Roman rule.1 In this model, there is no typical example of Romanization, as local factors are a significant part of both process and outcome. The concept is central to Roth’s work, because it underlies the arguments he intends to make about the use and meaning of black-gloss pottery at Roman Volterra and Capena. Drawing on sociological theory, Roth contends that every member of society has a role with social power; therefore, all members of a society undergoing Romanization, including non-elite people, played an active role in the cultural bricolage process, i.e. in negotiating the new functions and meanings of pre-existing cultural elements.

In the chapter that follows, “Black-gloss wares and the Romanisation of Italy,” Roth critiques the history of the study of black-gloss pottery, focusing particularly on the landmark work of Nino Lamboglia and Jean-Paul Morel.2 Both men created classificatory systems that tend to emphasize higher-quality, internationally traded black-gloss pottery, at the expense of the regional wares that are of interest to Roth. Roth contends that Morel’s typology, now considered standard, is closely intertwined with a larger argument about the industrialization of some pottery workshops, and he objects to what he sees as the indiscriminate use of Morel’s typology without consideration of the context in which it was conceived, a use, Roth maintains, that has contributed inappropriately to the idea that black-gloss pottery is a uniform, industrial product and, by extension, evidence of Romanization as a uniform process across the Italian peninsula. Typologies and other methods of sorting artifacts are necessarily biased toward the questions a researcher wishes to investigate, and Roth’s reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all system of classification is useful. Roth concludes that Morel’s typology is unsuitable for his own study, and he prefers a system that will allow him to compare regional black-gloss material with pottery made from other ceramic wares.

Roth begins Chapter 3, “Style and society in central Italy during the Hellenistic period,” with the observation that pottery is not by itself meaningful; rather it both creates and takes on social meaning through its presence in a particular context. Roth argues that the meaning of stylistic variation should be sought in choices made in the production process, situated in its broader social context. He therefore sets about examining the “chains of contexts of interaction” (p. 77) in which black-gloss ceramics create and adopt social meaning, i.e., their production, distribution, and sale. On the basis of materials needed and the technical complexity of the pottery itself, he deduces that both affluent proprietors and skilled craftsmen were involved in the manufacturing of finer wares, while lower-quality regional ceramics were likely made by trained craftsmen who worked with more independence. Roth maintains that the finer pottery circulated on the basis of less than economic considerations, such as social relationships and attempts to assert status by elite patrons who controlled the production process. Regional black-gloss ceramics were instead sold primarily at urban markets, where direct contact between the producer and consumer could occur. Roth believes that this interaction resulted in the potter’s catering more closely to the user’s wants and consequently fostering innovation of a type not seen in the higher-quality ceramics. He concludes the chapter with a statement of methodology for his artifact analysis. He proposes to divide the pottery on the basis of: (1) general shape, whether plate, bowl, or closed shape; (2) rim morphology; and (3) vessel size.

In Chapter 4, “Volterra,” Roth arrives at the analysis that is the heart of his study. The assemblage of pottery at his disposal—595 rim sherds—comes from the Vallebuona site, the location of Volterra’s first-century BC theater. The material was not, however, found in its primary depositional context. Rather the sherds were re-deposited at the site after having been first discarded elsewhere, and Roth is at pains to explain that the sample is broadly representative and domestic in nature. Roth focuses on two second-century BC black-gloss fabrics, one of a higher- and one of a lower-quality, and he shows that there is little overlap in terms of vessel shape between the two, while, interestingly, coarse-ware pottery seems to provide many prototypes for the less refined black-gloss material. By analyzing the number of vessels with particular rim diameters, in both black-gloss finishes, over time and synchronically, Roth finds that many containers were individual eating dishes, with fewer serving dishes or show pieces. He also concludes that the lower-quality pottery is not simply a replacement for the more refined type, as similar vessels in the two fabrics do not have the same range of rim diameters. Unfortunately, Roth is working with small sample sizes for the rim diameter analyses: many of the categories he identifies appear to contain only one or two sherds, and the largest comprises no more than a dozen. Moreover, this fact is obscured by the inclusion of percentages alone in the graphs recording the data; no absolute numbers are given. Figure 9 mistakenly repeats the graph given in Figure 8. In summing up his findings, Roth argues that the locally produced black-gloss pottery was used for everyday activities, while the finer ware was reserved for special occasions and display. He describes the rise of the lower-quality pottery as a new fashion characteristic of a “generational discourse” (p. 144), whereby tradition and innovation are combined, and he sees it as an indication of a wide-spread improvement in the standard of living, probably in conjunction with a drop in the number of formal occasions celebrated. The new style of ceramics also points to the increased status of the potter, achieved independently of an elite patron, and the enlarged economic horizons of lower-class consumers. Roth concludes the chapter by arguing that these changes, incorporating both old and new, should be seen within the framework of Terrenato’s cultural bricolage model.

Chapter 5, entitled “Capena,” presents the evidence for a second case study. As at Volterra, a new type of less-refined black-gloss pottery became popular at Capena in the second century BC, alongside pre-existing high-quality black-gloss wares, both imported and locally made. Roth supplies little introductory information about the collection of pottery from Capena he analyzes: the material is simply described as “residual, from diverse, primary contexts” (p. 154); the total number of sherds in the assemblage is not given. The discussion follows a format similar to that in the previous chapter. Noting that the number of vessel shapes in Capena proliferated in the second century BC, Roth connects the trend with consumers’ desire for variety, potters’ willingness to experiment, increasing commercial competition, and perhaps some changes in eating patterns as well. Because the new shapes in the locally made pottery do not imitate imported vessels found at Capena, Roth argues that innovations of form were also intended to reinforce local identity in the face of imported foreign goods. He does, however, mention that the supposedly new shapes can be found outside of Capena, and I could not help but wonder if these are a sign of the arrival in Capena of craftsmen trained elsewhere, rather than a statement about local identity. On the basis of rim diameter analyses, he proposes that containers made from different qualities of black-gloss pottery were used in distinct contexts. As in Chapter 4, the analyses here are based on limited sample sizes, with statistics reported in percentages rather than absolute numbers. Roth concludes the chapter by summing up trends he sees at Capena: the importance of tradition and local identity, despite some innovation; a rise in the standard of living; and the presence of genuine economic competition. He also emphasizes that the lower-quality local pottery was not simply an imitation of imported ceramics; instead it resulted from a mixture of traditional and new impulses, which Roth again places within the cultural bricolage framework.

In Chapters 6 and 7 (“Ceramics and the Romanisation of central Italy” and “Conclusions”), Roth brings together many strands of his argument to explain the tension between the apparent overarching homogeneity of material culture in second-century BC central Italy on the one hand and the heterogeneity of local practices and responses to Romanization on the other. He first reviews the situation at Volterra, where he argues that monumental construction on the acropolis was related to attempts by members of the local elite to reaffirm their status and traditional social roles, both to outsiders and to people of the lower classes in Volterra. Because the local social structure continued in essence to function, Romanization was, Roth says, a stable process at Volterra, and the result included a perceived increase in status across the population as well as real economic gains. Roth sees the introduction of a new, local black-gloss pottery type into this situation as an assertion of status on the part of non-elite producers and consumers, who were not simply passive participants in the changes. The scenario Roth describes at Capena is similar: the well-to-do used monumental architecture to affirm their status, while prosperity grew and perceived status was raised across the social spectrum. Roth argues, however, that, unlike at the more isolated Volterra, constructions on the acropolis of Capena were built to impress non-residents more than local inhabitants; indeed, overlooking the much-traveled route into town, these were intended to solidify the local sense of identity in the face of outsiders. At the same time, according to Roth, members of the lower classes, who used pottery that drew on both old and new conventions, expressed their sense of local identity through their consumer choices. In the cases of both Volterra and Capena, Roth considers the lower-quality, regional ceramics to represent conscious choices on the part of non-elite members of society who were purposefully negotiating their position in the new, Romanized reality through both innovation (low-grade black-gloss decoration, and, perhaps, new pottery shapes) and familiar means (traditional pottery shapes). Roth notes that the actions of the upper classes were probably the impetus for change in Roman Italy—and also the source of the appearance of homogenization across the peninsula— but lower-class people likewise responded actively and with creativity to the new situation. Indeed, Roth concludes that it was these same non-elite members of society who were responsible for the heterogeneous nature of life across Roman Italy.

In the opening chapter of the book, Roth insists upon the importance of context, and he goes to great lengths to present the larger historical and social settings of the pottery, potters, and consumers he is studying. Much less emphasis is given to the specific archaeological context for the black-gloss ceramics in question, which seem to be entirely from secondary deposits. This fact, combined with the small sample sizes available for rim diameter analyses, means that the information that can be learned from the archaeological data is also limited. In effect, many of the more interesting arguments that Roth makes are derived from examination of the broader, less specific contexts of the pottery rather than of the evidence provided by the artifacts themselves and their particular archaeological provenience. The arguments in the book might therefore be strengthened by the analysis of collections of black-gloss pottery with more diagnostic sherds from primary depositional contexts, admittedly a desideratum that may not be possible in terms of the pottery assemblages that are actually available for study. Nonetheless, Terrenato’s cultural bricolage model ultimately pushes the need for explanation and analysis from the empire-wide level down to the regional or local one; therefore, any fully successful attempt to situate evidence within this model necessarily requires solid data at the lower contextual levels of analysis as well.

Roth has done a thorough job of researching the varied issues he raises, and the book represents an impressively woven synthesis of previous scholarship on a number of themes. Those seeking an initiation into such topics as Romanization or the intellectual underpinnings of artifact analysis will find Roth’s discussion and the comprehensive bibliography useful. Others may wish that the core of the arguments were streamlined into a long article rather than a short (yet not inexpensive) monograph. In any case, the book makes many salutary points—for instance about the pitfalls of over-reliance on one system of classification of artifacts—and Roth’s detailed, nuanced approach to the troublesome issue of Romanization is to be welcomed.


1. Nicola Terrenato, “The Romanization of Italy: global acculturation or cultural bricolage ?” in Colin Forcey, John Hawthorne, and Robert Witcher, editors, TRAC 97. Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxbow Books, 1998: 20-27.

2. Nino Lamboglia, “Per una classificazione preliminare della ceramica campana” in Atti dello Congresso Internazionale di Studi Liguri, Istituto Internazionale di Studi Liguri, 1952: 139-206; Jean-Paul Morel, Céramique campanienne: Les formes, Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome 244, 1981.