[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
What constituted public space in the Greco-Roman world? Who planned, paid for, and regulated access to agoras, forums, and other features of the urban landscape? How were these spaces used, and how did the built environment both reflect and shape political, economic, and social relationships in ancient cities? This collection of seven papers from a 2007 Fransum colloquium at the University of Groningen, organized by Christopher P. Dickenson, presents a heterogeneous set of case studies posing these and related questions in material contexts ranging from the extra-urban temples of the Hellenistic Greek world to the cityscape of imperial Rome. The papers work from the shared premise that to understand a society we need to understand the spaces it inhabits, including the spaces of monumental public architecture that are the focus of this volume. Here, the contributors focus less on the buildings themselves than on the human interactions they helped to structure. Attending to the spatial politics of participation and exclusion, benefaction and competition, the book aims to illuminate the communicative function of public space.
As Dickenson and his co-editor Onno van Nijf note in their introduction, all the spaces studied in this collection fall outside the major centers of classical Athens and Republican Rome, the two ancient urban contexts in which the public value of space is perhaps most readily apparent. In this way, the collection challenges any assumption that public space must be defined by the political activities of engaged, democratic citizenship. More broadly, public space might be thought of as “an arena in which political relationships are affirmed, negotiated, and contested” (xiv)—but in fact the editors explicitly avoid defining public space, and after setting their interests in the context of the spatial turn in the humanities, and noting related developments in domestic and survey archaeology, they devote the bulk of the introduction to a detailed overview of each paper. This will be useful for readers picking and choosing their way through the collection—a likely scenario given the diversity of topics. Still, I would have welcomed further reflection from the editors on the challenge of establishing what makes space “public” and, implicitly, on what ties the papers of the collection together. In any case, the papers cluster around three ideas about how public spaces function as an arena for the working out of political relationships: through their physical and visual accessibility, as an expression of power dynamics within the city, and as a material articulation of a city’s relationship with outside powers.
The first and final chapters of the collection focus on the experience of public space, in terms of both its physical and visual accessibility. Christina Williamson’s opening paper on “Public space beyond the city” deals with two monumental sanctuaries located in the chora of Mylasa in Karia, at Labraunda and at Sinuri. At these extra-urban sanctuaries access was restricted: rituals might involve the public, but only periodically; technically of course, the precinct belonged to the god. In what sense, then, should these be considered public spaces? Williamson argues that the sites loomed large in the regional viewshed, and that even for passersby, they were important physical markers of civic politics. Substantial inscriptional finds show that the sanctuaries housed archives that included decrees pertaining to the constitution of the Karian community, Mylasa’s civic politics and inter-polis relationships, as well as honorary inscriptions—and, importantly, many of them refer to the place of their installation in the sanctuary. The effect, then, was that the sanctuaries magnified these political claims physically. While the average citizen may have had minimal access to the inscribed archive, the sanctuaries made Karian and Mylasan politics legible in the regional landscape, even at a distance.
Pamela Doms considers the urban landscape of Trajanic Rome, drawing on a body of Dutch scholarship to introduce the concept of a city plan with five strata. From the city’s geographical surface, to its built infrastructure and patterns of use, Doms argues, Trajan altered the city plan at every level. In general, Trajan increased the amount of public space available in the city—particularly by transforming the semi-public space occupied by Nero’s Domus Aurea into the public space of a massive bath complex. He also, Doms points out, dug away part of the Quirinal hill to create space for markets and a large, new imperial forum. This multi-function building ensemble, Doms emphasizes, created a new administrative center and drastically changed traffic patterns in the city, opening up a monumental route between the Caelian Hill and the Campus Martius and creating a new north-south access route between the suburbs and the Forum Romanum. From the perspective of the city plan, Trajan’s influence was systematic and pervasive: he altered the very geography of the city so substantially as to affect traffic routes and people’s day to day experience and perception of the city.
While Trajan in some sense masterminded the transformation of Rome’s cityscape, in the Hellenistic world and in diverse cities of the Roman empire, the power dynamics that configured public space were more complex. In their contributions to the volume, Christopher Dickenson and Arjan Zuiderhoek focus on the power of the polis as a corporate entity and how this was worked out spatially in cities that were no longer entirely independent. In his chapter on “Kings, cities, and marketplaces,” Dickenson shows that that along with epigraphic and literary sources, the archaeological evidence too suggests that the polis remained a political force in the Hellenistic period. He focuses on the agora—the quintessential public space of Athenian participatory democracy—and argues that this space did not decline with changed political realities, but rather was adapted to serve new political and cultural functions. Alexander’s successor kings, he suggests, seem to have been interested in the design of the agoras in the cities they founded and in their royal capitals: the proximity of agora and royal palace, as well as the elaboration of stoas and other monumental architecture at sites such as Pella and Pergamum suggest that the diadochoi recognized the value of the traditional agora in several respects: as the public face of the city, as a ceremonial venue, and also as a way of asserting kingly presence in the day to day civic business that the agora generally hosted. Dickenson argues that we should regard the agora as a forum for power negotiations, and as representing a “convergence of interests on the part of the kings and the people” (63).
In his chapter on “Cities, buildings and benefactors in the Roman East,” Arjan Zuiderhoek challenges the scholarly consensus that monumental building in the imperial Greek cities was dominated by the politics of inter-elite competition. Pointing to a range of literary and epigraphic evidence, he argues that the demos and ekklesia had a substantial role to play, both in the financing of civic buildings and in the discussions and decision making process concerning new and renovated constructions. Zuiderhoek surveys briefly some of the evidence he has presented in more detail elsewhere (notably in his 2009 monograph on The Politics of Munificence in the Roman Empire) to support two assertions: first, that the imperial cities of the Greek East controlled more public money than scholars sometimes assume—particularly coming from taxes and tariffs, as, for example, the tariff inscriptions from Palmyra, Kounos and Myra reveal; and second, that through the demos and the ekklesia, the public—beyond its elite members—was involved in debates about building projects, whether these projects involved private or public funds or (perhaps most often) some combination of the two. By tracing the evidence for this non-elite involvement Zuiderhoek proposes a more complex picture of the range of political negotiations required to create the monumental landscapes of the imperial world.
The three middle chapters of the volume (Chapters 3-5) deal in diverse ways with the question of how relationships with Rome mattered for, and played out in, the public spaces of its dependent cities. Jamie Sewell considers the relationship between public and private space in several Latin colonies of the Middle Republic, at Cosa, Fregellae, Alba Fucens, and Paestum, showing that from as early as the third century BCE core areas at these sites followed a common plan: immediately next to the forum, space was reserved for tabernae, and nearby, generally on prime pieces of elevated ground, insulae were marked out for the large atrium-houses of the elite. Sewell points out that there was no Greek precedent for this kind of town planning, and argues that the provision for a close relationship between public, commercial and domestic architecture at the heart of the colonial cities was, from the beginning, modeled directly on the city of Rome, so that the social engagements of salutatio and patronage that structured Roman society could be carried on in the colonies as well.
Turning attention to cities with a very different relationship to Rome, Ulf Kenzler argues for the rehabilitation of the term “Romanization” as a way to describe the bilateral process of cultural transformation in the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The Augustan period was a key moment in this process, Kenzler suggests, as the administrative reorganization of the province at this point coincided with the redevelopment of physical space in its principal cities. This, Kenzler argues, was the beginning of a widespread change in local patterns of urban design. Focusing on Ephesus—and particularly on the city’s stoa basilikê and the Tetragonos Agora—Kenzler shows that new buildings combined Greek and Roman elements but ultimately looked to the imperial fora at Rome as their main models. In arguing for the importance of Roman models, Kenzler points to the crucial role played by Roman citizens and freedmen in sponsoring public construction in the imperial cities of the East—a point Rubina Raja takes up, in the fifth chapter, where she studies the transformation of the public spaces of Asia Minor cities in the Augustan period. Taking Aphrodisias as a case study, Raja offers an overview of the city’s strategies of self-representation through public space, and she highlights the role of Augustus’ freedman Zoilos in this process. While Aphrodisias’ public identity was by no means monolithic, and was jointly created by a range of elite benefactors operating together with the city council, Zoilos appears to have played an outsized role in shaping the city’s public face. Embodying, in some sense, the city’s connection to Rome, Zoilus made this connection manifest in the public spaces he sponsored.
Although some unfortunate typos have slipped through the editing process, none of these are of great importance. The book is well produced, with abundant illustrations that are generally quite effective, perhaps especially in Doms’ chapter on Trajanic Rome. In some cases, improved site plans would have helped—for example in the chapters by Raja and Dickenson. Bibliography appears, helpfully, at the end of each paper. As noted above, for a collection as diverse in its material as this one is, it would have been productive to include more expansive reflection on some of the broad issues that link the papers. In principle, the editors are right to avoid defining public space, allowing the concept to take shape through the details of each case study. As a consequence, then, the volume is a collection of tesserae: I would have appreciated the editors’ reflections on the composite effect of the resulting mosaic.
Table of Contents
1. Public space beyond the city. The sanctuaries of Labraunda and Sinuri in the chora of Mylasa (Christina Williamson)
2. Kings, cities and marketplaces—negotiating power through public space in the Hellenistic world (Christopher P. Dickenson)
3. New observations on the planning of fora in the Latin colonies during the mid-Republic (Jamie Sewell)
4. Agoras in Asia Minor. Public space and Romanization in Augustan times (Ulf Kenzler)
5. Expressing public identities in urban spaces: the case of Aphrodisias in Caria (Rubina Raja)
6. Cities, buildings and benefactors in the Roman East (Arjan Zuiderhoek)
7. The influence of Trajan’s innovative building programme on the urban landscape of Rome (Pamela Doms)