BMCR 2018.09.17

The Christianization of Western Baetica: Architecture, Power, and Religion in a Late Antique Landscape. Late antique and early medieval Iberia, 5

, The Christianization of Western Baetica: Architecture, Power, and Religion in a Late Antique Landscape. Late antique and early medieval Iberia, 5. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 376. ISBN 9789089649324. €129,00.


The book by Sánchez Velasco is a summarised and updated version of his PhD thesis, which was passed in 2012. As per its title, the book addresses, through the evolution of architecture reconstructed from archaeology, the development of the Church as a main historical agent in the lower Guadalquivir valley and its adjacent territories, from the fourth century down to the Umayyad invasion of AD 711. In this sense, the author’s definition of ‘Western’ Baetica equates (roughly) with the modern provinces of Córdoba, Badajoz, Seville, and Huelva—perhaps ‘Northern’ or ‘North-western’ Baetica would have been more adequate. Similarly, the concept of Late Antiquity used throughout the text is eminently historical, as it stops abruptly in 711 with the Muslim conquest, a position which cannot really be upheld archaeologically. Lastly, the concept of Christianisation used in the book underlines the role and importance of the Church both in the emergence of a Christian funerary materiality and in developing its own architecture of power. While all these definitions are debatable, the author is consistent and all operate together to build a coherent narrative.

The book is divided into three parts and 12 chapters plus a complete bibliography, and thoroughly illustrated with images, plans, and maps, both in black and white and in colour. The distribution of the content is, however, uneven. Part one includes a very short chapter on Roman Baetica (Ch. 1), presented as a good example of thorough provincial Romanisation. This is followed by an introduction to the archaeology of Roman towns in Baetica (Ch. 2), and the main monuments known for each individual city. A last chapter (Ch. 3) follows, focused on the archaeology of Baetica between Constantine and 711. This last chapter dwells on some dated issues, such as the fifth century referred to as a “Dark Age” (p. 55), the use of ethnic labels (“Iberian” and “Hispano-Roman”) to describe the nature of the local aristocrats, or even “feudalization” (p. 64). At this point, there is no clear explanation as to why the book only focus on the pre-Umayyad conquest, when archaeologically there is little that can be seen as changing until the late eighth century, and when it is stated (p. 64) that the ecclesiastical administration (central in the whole narrative of the book) was preserved largely the same after the initial invasion.

The second part includes a very extensive and updated catalogue (Chs. 4-10) of all the Christian sites in the broader Guadalquivir valley (urban and rural) listed geographically, which are used to create an ecclesiastical map of the bishoprics of Baetica in the Visigothic period. Chapter 4 sets the methodology used in the catalogue and in the explanatory chapters of Part 3, opening with a definition of Christianisation (p. 67), which specifies that it is a process of social and political formation (especially through the Church). This is followed by a detail study on the territorial definition of the bishoprics object of study in the following chapters: Córdoba (Ch. 5), Cabra (Ch. 6), Écija (Ch. 7), Seville (Ch. 8), Itálica (Ch. 9) and Niebla (Ch. 10). All these follow the same structure, looking at the main city first and then addressing the rural sites and other minor urban communities. Wherever possible, the most recent archaeological finds are presented, although sometimes the argument is supported by very little evidence—some of it even out of context. For instance, the ‘violent’ Christianisation of some buildings by the destruction of its pagan statuary is perhaps over-stated. A similar case can be made for the proposed Byzantine political control of the Guadalquivir valley as exemplified for the basilica of Coracho (pp. 160-1), based simply on a bench by the apse which is linked to a specific form Eastern liturgy, and this deliberate choice of non-Hispanic cult would imply that the Byzantine conquest was a) not limited to simply the southern coast, and b) that it was religiously motivated.

The third Part includes Chapters 11 and 12, which form a post-script with the overall interpretative and concluding remarks. Chapter 11 classifies all the information that has been provided in Part 2, but this time classified by building, including episcopal complexes, churches, baptisteries, monasteries, and funerary buildings. While most of this information has been already introduced, the author takes this chance to further elaborate on the wider parallels in the ancient world and explain them typologically, rather than just in their own local context. At this point, there are various hypothetical proposals based on thin evidence, especially when describing monasteries and episcopal complexes, which the author puts forward without sufficient caution but which fit within the general argument presented in the book. The final chapter (Ch. 12) presents as conclusions the same evidence, but this time arranged chronologically, repeating the examples and expanding on the arguments presented throughout the book. It begins by proposing a very early phase of Christian monumentality in the fourth century. This is underlined as a factor of direct state and urban Christian munificence, which is not really convincing outside Córdoba. For the later fourth century, the main event in the evolution of Christianity, as presented in the book, is that of the violent destruction of pagan sculptures and their active appropriation and Christianisation of pagan sites, something which happens in parallel with the substitution of urban civil administration by the new episcopal one. During the late sixth century, after the Visigothic take over, a new phase of monumentalisation is noticeable. Lastly, the Church of the late seventh century is presented as representing the urban administration of the kingdom, which is used to explain why it managed to continue after the Umayyad invasion but again failing to justify, on archaeological grounds, why 711 is a turning point in the long-process of Christianisation of Baetica.

To conclude, and paraphrasing what it is said at the end of the Introduction (p. 33), the book offers an extensive, readable and updated catalogue of the Christian archaeology of a region of the Empire which hardly appears in general discussions on late antique archaeology. The focus given to and the questions asked from the archaeological record are, perhaps, too historical, giving the impression that the material culture is simply being used as a prop for pre-conceived historical interpretations. Despite this, it will be extremely valuable as a meticulously compiled catalogue of sites: for the experts in late antique Hispania, because of its updated bibliography and thorough presentation of the sites, and for the more general reader as an extensive introduction in English to the Christian archaeology of the northern Guadalquivir valley.