Students of the late Roman city can learn a lot from American university campuses—from the discussions that they host, to be sure, but also from the peculiarities of their expansion and upkeep. Potential euergetai entertain “naming opportunities,” whereby the prestige of the new building exceeds that of repair and renovation. Curious hybrids result: glassy atriums abut moldering landmarks. Neither construction nor maintenance directly reflects communal prosperity or need; rather, both form part of a social-symbolic calculus whose constituent values are legible only to dedicated experts (“development officers”).
These reflections are prompted both by the view from my office window and by Ine Jacobs’s outstanding monograph, which reconstructs the values peculiar to the Roman East, above all to Anatolia and Syria, in late antiquity. Some aspects of the story reinforce now-standard accounts (civic monuments are out, churches in), while others will be uncannily familiar to American academics: “governors had a marked preference for new construction and … were reluctant to repair old buildings” (537); “a general plan … had been laid out beforehand, and … its separate parts … were then ‘offered’ as possible benefactions to members of the community” (524). The totality, however, is both original and persuasive.
Jacobs can surprise because her study is based on the first-hand inspection of archaeological remains: “one has little choice but to start at the lowest level of the individual structure or statue” (8). The discussion proceeds through a functional typology that owes much to William MacDonald. Walls come first, followed by colonnaded streets and the decorative monuments that adorn them, religious buildings (decaying temples and newly-built churches), and statues. Jacobs adopts a visitor’s point of view, so that “residential or artisanal quarters” are consciously omitted (12), although the labor that non-elite residents contribute to construction and upkeep is acknowledged (14).
Each functional type receives a chapter, producing a series of compact and confident architectural histories that are supported by appendices containing catalog entries on individual sites and monuments. The fourth- and fifth-century boom in fortifications announces the beginning of a new era of building. Solid ashlar masonry gives way to sandwich construction (“two faces of large rectangular blocks with an interior fill of rubble and mortar” ) with extensive use of spoils (38). Quality is uneven, with greater finish applied to gates. Passage through one of those main entries invariably leads to a colonnaded street, usually laid out in the second and third centuries AD but continually augmented and maintained in late antiquity. Paving required constant repairs (148). Diachronic shifts are clear: the stylobate, deemed essential in earlier centuries, was optional by the sixth (163), just as pillars could eventually replace columns (169) and impost capitals replace the orders (172). Despite occasional efforts to cut new elements in imitation of the originals, most repairs may be immediately recognized (177). Decorative monuments work in concert with colonnaded streets to frame vistas, an effort that was also abandoned in the sixth century (271).
Integration of churches into existing architectural frameworks is addressed via location (311), and through an important discussion of entrances. The atrium is often approached via a staircase, a propylon, and a monumental doorframe. In the most ambitious buildings, like the cathedral at Jerash, these three features “were combined into an elaborate… ensemble” (336), while humbler churches incorporate only one or two of them. When possible, church walls are constructed of ashlars, but in comparison to older buildings basilicas “possessed a rather boring exterior” (350), even if some offered panoramic views from their atriums (354). Church interiors are productively compared “with the exterior space of streets and squares. Churches are the only other newly constructed large complexes in which columns were needed in sizable quantities, and that even possessed the same directionality inherent to an elongated space flanked by two columnar rows” (371). The chapter on statues briefly returns to the streets and includes important remarks on positioning (423).
These monument-based chapters are followed by three thorough (and eminently readable) thematic accounts, first of the primary architectural changes observed: the emergence of heterogeneous colonnades, the construction of walls out of reused blocks, and the direct correlation of a monument’s visibility to its maintenance. Homogeneous colonnades are found mostly in churches, and patchwork assemblages in streets and squares (446). In the latter, individual pieces may be used in unorthodox fashion (capitals as column bases, columns as statue bases, etc.) but “architectural elements became completely alienated from their original function” only in the sixth century (469). Maintenance was reserved for monuments positioned on high points and along main streets, while “others on less visible locations were destroyed or left to decay” (475), and usually screened off by “a new visual boundary” (476).
The second thematic chapter focuses on patronage and labor. Local residents assumed increasing responsibility for construction—whether through levies (503) or labor (513)—and maintenance (520). The distinction between churches’ uniform colonnades and the mixed assemblages that lined city streets derives in part from different degrees of central organization and access to resources (532). A final chapter addresses the uses of urban space, including a crucial discussion of “everyday maintenance,” a task left primarily to local populations (593). Although trash was supposed to be carried outside the walls, in reality the disused and dilapidated buildings that were hidden from public view became dumps (611). Encroachment, especially on porticos, does not indicate the failure of civic government; rather, municipalities viewed it as an opportunity to raise revenue through taxes, rents, and fines. This privatization of public space had begun already in the fourth century (632), and accelerated through the sixth, when “spaces were … given completely new purposes that seldom complied with their original function” (639).
The conclusion begins as a lengthy abstract of the whole book, and finishes with a summary judgment: “the entire period can be seen as a decline in comparison with the first two centuries of the Roman Empire,” even if it “can also be valued on its own terms” (674). The middle of the sixth century marks a crucial break, after which citizens were no longer able, or willing, to maintain urban infrastructure.
In a more recent monograph, Hendrik Dey posits that “ongoing use and occupation of old buildings tends to be one of the hardest things to document archaeologically because archaeology is generally better at revealing change and destruction than persistence and maintenance.”1 Jacobs presents a strong case for the ability of nuts-and-bolts classical archaeology—close analysis of structural elements, from stylobate to entablature—to document and date maintenance, especially of those colonnaded streets on which both authors focus. If the two studies are read side-by-side, productive contrasts emerge. To take only one example: ʿAnjar, the eighth-century foundation in Lebanon depicted on the cover of MacDonald’s “urban appraisal,” is for Dey evidence of the survival of a specific “urban ideal”,2 for Jacobs “no more than a conservative, and maybe even a failed experiment” (677). Both views are defensible, and will continue to attract champions, but all future historians of the late Roman city will need to take seriously Jacobs’s evidence base, methods, and conclusions.
Beyond their differences, both authors share an explicit and exclusive focus on primary arteries, and a largely negative view of the remaining urban fabric. For Dey, the “monumental armature … screened from view all the squalor and filth that may have prevailed elsewhere.”3 Jacobs makes only passing reference to the second lives of dilapidated civic structures: “less visible locations were not only dismantled or left in ruins, but were also redeveloped in new residential and artisanal quarters” (477). Porticoes and squares must figure in any account of late antique cities, but residential and industrial development can be viewed as the other half of the same story. When state and civic authorities neglect their duties, associations of different kinds (guilds, factions, neighborhoods, religious fraternities, etc.) will fill the resulting vacuums (assuming maintenance both of physical infrastructure and of social cohesion). Jacobs detects non-state actors only when their priorities overlap with the traditional concerns of state and city, as when guilds restore the colonnades that frame their members’ shops (520), or neighborhoods assume responsibility for local stretches of wall (496). Yet these associations’ primary energies were probably directed elsewhere— only concerned with the monumental boasts of a failing order when they satisfied immediate (commercial or defensive) needs.
The middle of the sixth century is for Jacobs the moment when “residents either no longer cared about how the city was perceived by local citizens—and more importantly, by outsiders—or they were no longer able to take the necessary measures” (678). For a historian of medieval Constantinople, by contrast, it marks the point when “urban culture was not abandoned … but crystallised around a different set of nuclei,” namely, “hospitals, churches, diakoniai, [and] monasteries.”4 The next step is to embrace both phenomena within a single analysis that does not blame local residents for state failure, but assumes their ability to act rationally, both through justifiable neglect of a discredited “ideal” and through the advancement of new positive standards.
1. Hendrik Dey, The Afterlife of the Roman City: Architecture and Ceremony in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2015), 247.
2. ibid., 213-15. Future discussion of the site should heed the multiple contributions of Barbara Finster, e.g.: “Researches in ʿAnjar. I. Preliminary Report on the Architecture of ʿAnjar,” BAAL 7 (2003), 209-44; “Researches in ʿAnjar. II. Preliminary Report on the Ornaments of ʿAnjar,” BAAL 11 (2007), 143-65; “ʿAnjar: spätantik oder frühislamisch,” in Karin Bartl and Abd al-Razzaq Moaz, eds., Residences, Castles, Settlements: Transformation Processes from Late Antiquity to Early Islam in Bilad al-Sham (Rahden, 2008), 229-42.
3. Dey, Afterlife, 13.
4. Paul Magdalino, “Medieval Constantinople,” in idem, Studies on the History and Topography of Byzantine Constantinople (Aldershot, 2007), I.54.