BMCR 2016.10.30

The Genesis of Roman Architecture

, The Genesis of Roman Architecture. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016. xiv, 254. ISBN 9780300211818. $65.00.


Writing the history of early Roman architecture is an ambitious project; whoever undertakes it will inevitably have to stand comparison with such eminent scholars as Axel Boëthius, John Bryan Ward-Perkins, Ferdinando Castagnoli, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, Einar Gjerstad, Filippo Coarelli or Andrea Carandini. John North Hopkins has taken up that challenge. And he has admirably risen to the task.

His narrative is based upon a chronological trajectory, leading from the 8th century through the Archaic period down to the Early Republic. These chapters are skilfully framed by a set of broader methodological questions which are discussed at length both in the Introduction and the two concluding chapters.

Hopkins starts with a brief but trenchant review of over 100 years of scholarship on early Rome (pp. 4-12). Not only does he succeed in pinpointing the main bones of contention, but he also—even more impressively—avoids any ad hominem arguments in the process of discussing the patchy nature of the archaeological evidence, which strikingly contrasts with the wealth of occasionally far-flung interpretations. His map of Rome (p. 5) provides a welcome, up-to-date illustration of this conundrum by showing the limited scale of excavations on sites relevant to early Rome, enlightening for scholars and students alike.

In his methodological discussion, Hopkins then moves on to introduce one of the key concepts of his new approach: the idea of connectivity, which strikes a very familiar Hordenian/Purcellian pose (pp. 12-19). Hopkins rightfully stresses the importance of the steadily transforming cultural and political landscapes of Central Italy. Instead of a movement between massive cultural blocks, he prefers to see cultural transfer as the result of individual mobility and human agency, and he also pays the obligatory tribute to the fashionable concepts of ‘network connectivity’ and ‘peer-polity interaction’ (p. 17). Furthermore, he draws our attention to central Italy’s vital role as a hub of creative interaction with the eastern Mediterranean, doing away with the traditional concept of a “broad trend, prototype, or koine that emerges from Greek culture […] or any other conglomerate culture” (p. 19). It is by breaking up this paradigm that Hopkins wants to (quite literally) re-position the early development of Rome in a much more dynamic environment than before.

In the first chapter (“The Makings of a City”), he discusses the evidence for ‘proto-urbanism’ in the area of the Seven Hills. Starting with the famous huts on the Palatine, Hopkins gives a nuanced and balanced account of several models of settlement organization, skilfully weaving the archaeological remains into the broader narrative (pp. 20-26). He is generally in favour of isolated settlements on the hilltops which gradually grew together from the 8th to the 7th century BCE, a process that finally culminated in the reclamation of the Forum basin between 650 and 600 BCE (pp. 27-34). Hopkins comprehensively collects the archaeological and geological evidence for the creation of the huge landfill. On this basis he convincingly argues for the existence of a big retaining wall towards the Velabrum, comparing this to similar works in the eastern Mediterranean, especially the Argive Heraion (pp. 31-32).

The profound landscape transformation of the Forum area can only be conceptualized as a huge collective undertaking, and Hopkins indeed uses it to argue for a ‘community of Romans’ at this point, i.e. in the second half of the 7th century BCE. In his words, the creation of the landfill constitutes “the first archaeological evidence of an unequivocal social and topographical change meant to promote unification of the hills around a central space” (p. 35). This was “perhaps the first truly monumental architectonic undertaking in Rome” (p. 37). The only aspect which remains a bit vague is the hypothetical organization of this massive building project. Hopkins seems to see it as a communal effort when he describes “Romans breaking the barrier wherein necessity defines action” and beginning “monumental projects […] that effectively proclaimed their new interests” (p. 38). But one could also think about a potential growth in social inequality as the driving force behind such an ambitious project.

In Chapter 2 (“Coherence and Distinction, ca. 650-550”), Hopkins discusses the next steps in the architectural development of this new urban community. In the first section he draws upon the results of the comparatively extensive excavations along the Via Sacra. This is a compelling narrative in which Hopkins deliberately de-mystifies such famous buildings as the first Regia and the huts at the ‘Sepulcretum’ and instead values them for their physical elaboration. He then proceeds to the first monumental phase of the Area Sacra di S. Omobono, which he convincingly connects with cult buildings in Syracuse, Corfu and Attica on grounds of style and decoration (pp. 53-65).

However, for Hopkins architectural style is not an end in itself. He instead uses it as a fine heuristic tool to gain vital information about the reciprocal influences between society and the built environment. Architecture is not just passively created by human beings, but rather possesses its own kind of agency which in turn can unfold as a historically powerful process. Hopkins eloquently drives this point home when he states that “the construction that went on in the late seventh and early sixth centuries may represent greater unity and increased civic construction, but one must keep in mind that in such a fluid, rapidly changing society, it would also have fostered that unity” (p. 65).

This line of enquiry is continued in Chapter 3 (“On a New Scale, ca. 550-500”). Hopkins starts it with the second phase of the Area Sacra di S. Omobono. He avoids any attempt to identify the divinity originally worshipped in this temple; instead he places the building and its statuary decoration in a wider Mediterranean context, rightly discarding the idea of Etruscan sources of inspiration and pointing to Archaic sculpture from Attica instead (pp. 66-84). Many original observations follow, but the most important part of this chapter is beyond doubt the long and thorough discussion of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (pp. 97-122). Hopkins makes a strong case for the traditional interpretation of the temple’s enormous dimensions, rejecting Stamper’s much smaller reconstruction (pp. 101-102). He then succeeds in presenting a convincing roofing system, based on a trussed configuration instead of a post-and-lintel roof. Hopkins’s reasoning is founded upon astute observation and evaluation of the primary evidence. I only spotted one excusable error which does by no means diminish his achievement: In Hopkins’s new ground-plan of the temple (p. 109 fig. 86), the antae are not in line with the neighbouring columns of the peristasis, which would have created major structural problems with the roofing.

The final comparisons of the Capitoline temple with the colossal sanctuaries of Ionia are interesting, even if the hypothesis of a migrating Samian workshop (pp. 118-119) may seem rather conventional when compared with Hopkins’s initial emphasis on fluid ‘connectivity’ and dynamic ‘networks’—and despite his new focus on the eastern Mediterranean, we should also not forget about the Etruscan master-sculptor Vulca who, according to Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 35, 157), created the temple’s famous terracotta sculptures. True believers in connectivity will probably have to think a bit harder about what may differentiate their approach from conventional cultural diffusionism.

In Chapter 4 (“The Continuity of Splendor, ca. 500-450”), Hopkins breaks with traditional accounts of the Early Republic as a period of reduced building activity. His opinion is well founded upon the material evidence. Discussion does not only include the monumental twin temples of S. Omobono and the new temples (Dioscuri, Saturn) on the Forum Romanum, but also some very important (but dispersed) finds, mainly terracottas, from the hilltops. This re-evaluation of the archaeological material does not fail to convince. It leads the way into Chapter 5, a sweeping re-assessment of the influential notion of a “Grande Roma dei Tarquini” (somewhat teasingly entitled “The Great Rome of the Romans”). Hopkins contrasts “The Textual Story” with “The Architectural Story”, demonstrating beyond any doubt that there was no peak of building activity under the earlier Etruscan kings — either we are dealing with a massive flaw in conventional chronology, or (much more likely) we need to concede that monumental construction projects actually only started at the very end of the regal period and lasted well into the 5th century BCE without any significant interruption.

In conclusion, Hopkins has written nothing less than a highly original history of early Rome, based on a balanced and up- to-date reading of the available archaeological evidence. His narrative is crisp and geared towards facts and probabilities. Hopkins’s text may revolve around architecture, but he achieves much more than just a deeper understanding of some disparate buildings: he provides a new socio-political perspective on the urban roots of Rome in the wider context of the central and eastern Mediterranean. Last but not least, his detailed maps, plans and sensibly designed 3D-reconstructions will certainly make an impact on future generations (even if the scholar of architecture would occasionally have appreciated more detailed considerations and discussions about measurements, proportions, dimensions and comparanda for specific structural elements such as stone columns). This is an important book and highly recommended to anyone interested in the art, architecture and society of early Rome.