BMCR 2020.07.13

(Re)using ruins: public building in the cities of the late antique West, A.D. 300-600

, (Re)using ruins: public building in the cities of the late antique West, A.D. 300-600. Late antique archaeology (supplementary series), volume 3. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 268 p.. ISBN 9789004319691. €143,00.

This book derives from a recent doctoral thesis completed at the University of St Andrews. It is presented in five chapters: “Late Antiquity and the City”, “Baths, Aqueducts and Water”, Spectacle Buildings”, “Reuse and Public Buildings” and “Analysis and Discussion”.

The purpose of this study is to describe the fate of public buildings during Late Antiquity. The author examines continued use, maintenance and repair of these buildings, and final disuse or reuse, between the 4th and 7th centuries AD in a large area around the Mediterranean, encompassing hinterland up to 450 km from the shore, not including the Alps. The corpus consists of urban spectacle buildings and public buildings linked to water (baths, aqueducts), because these buildings are numerous and typically of Roman origin. The subject’s relevance on an imperial scale is linked to a historical and cultural background. The author works on different scales: single monument, city, province, Mediterranean region. He uses all source types (archaeological, literary, epigraphical) and examines systematically the long-term evolutions of the public buildings, from Early Empire to the end of Late Antiquity.

The first chapter concerns the historical background (politics, society, religion), and is consistently linked to the question of the status of the city during Late Antiquity. Here, Underwood puts the emphasis on public spaces and urban fortifications; he also presents historical debates about Late Antique transformations. The most important debate divides scholars between two conceptions of the late antique city: “decline” or “transformation”.

The second chapter is focused on public buildings linked to water. Public baths changed in a homogeneous way in the western Mediterranean during Late Antiquity, but there was more repair and reconstruction in Italy than in other provinces, owing to the presence of emperors. Chronology is not homogeneous: public baths are closed earlier in Gaul and Spain, rather than during the 6th century in Italy, and later still in Africa. There are several reasons which allow us to understand the decline of public baths, including cultural changes linked to Christianity or the cost of labour. However, the corpus of aqueducts is not very extensive. The growing scarcity of aqueducts is understandable given that aqueducts were not necessary for the population’s basic needs in most cities but were indispensable for representing the Roman way of life in cities.

The third chapter is the most developed one. It concerns spectacle buildings. The author studies theaters, amphitheaters and circuses, which are the most common spectacle buildings in the Roman world. The fate of these monuments during Late Antiquity has not often been studied, except with relation to Christianization. No new theatre or amphitheater was built during this period. The evolution of spectacle buildings was specific in imperial cities and in some provincial capitals. In other cities, theaters were abandoned or reconverted sooner than amphitheaters and circuses. The abandonment of spectacle buildings could be explained by the cost of games rather than by imperial legislation.

The fourth chapter examines the ways in which public buildings were reused. The author begins with an historiographical analysis of the word spolia. With great relevance, he decides to employ the word “reuse”, being more neutral. He defines four main types of reuse: reuse in toto, reuse in parte, spoliation in toto and spoliation in parte. Remarkable innovations appeared during Late Antiquity: reused stones were clearly visible in new buildings; total reuse of a building for a new purpose was frequent unlike in the Early Empire. Underwood examines baths and aqueducts, then spectacle buildings. Modes of reuse were different between these two kinds of public buildings but the most frequent form of reuse was partial reuse and the least frequent one was total spoliation, probably because the structure of some buildings was very solid and some material had a poor value. The author studies relations between reuse and the late antique city. Several topics are successively examined in connection with reuse: religion, law and preservation, and memory. A minority of spectacle buildings and public baths were reused as Christian religious buildings and always for pragmatic reasons. Imperial laws did not prevent spoliation, which is not consistently synonymous with the defacement of urban landscape. Underwood underlines the progressive decrease of civic control on closed public buildings. He also raises the problem of private occupation of deserted public buildings.

The last chapter is a synthesis. He emphasizes that buildings fell out of use because of a decrease in their primary functions more than a need for reusing their specific architectural features. Public buildings were mostly reused for housing or graves. The author examines explanations about the demise and reuse of public buildings, technological changes, financial conditions and civic governance. He points out that scholars have worked very little on the issue of technological changes during Late Antiquity. The lack of financial investment in spectacle or water-linked buildings could be explained by the considerable decrease of public benefaction (due to social, religious and cultural changes) and by the decline of the urban population. Finally, the end of the Western Roman Empire breaks the unity of urban conception.

Tables (p. 197-241) give relevant archaeological information about all western public buildings studied and the related benefaction. The indexes are detailed and very helpful.

The book is fully illustrated: maps, diagrams and graphs are very useful and the numerous photographical documents are closely linked to the text. Reading this work is pleasant and the style is flowing.

Underwood has constituted a wide and relevant corpus of buildings, which are listed in several tables in appendix C, with notes and references. The author has mastered the historiographies of reuse and spoliation. He defends an idea of transformation more than an idea of decline of cities. This transformation is initially due to the end of the curial system and changing conceptions of urbanism. He has a wide and detailed view of phenomena that influenced the evolution of public buildings and he analyses the impact of civic (and possibly imperial) authorities. Underwood especially notes the impact of changes in aristocratic behavior. He underlines the fact that investment in Roman public buildings decreased owing to the drop in imperial centralization. Furthermore, notions of Roman identity (Romanitas) changed between Early Empire and Late Antiquity. The author concentrates his reflection on the most pertinent kinds of public buildings and he never avoids methodological difficulties. Public buildings are always placed in the context of their Late Antique city.

This book is innovative and underlines transformations in the late antique Mediterranean area. Its approach to reuse is rich, full of nuance, and based on a subtle analysis of all archaeological data. Underwood explains his choice to limit the focus of the book to spectacle buildings and public buildings associated with water. By contrast, pagan sanctuaries had a different fate, and not only on account of Christianization. As a result, Underwood shows clearly that there is not a single model for the city during Late Antiquity, but several models: Late Antique cities present a wide heterogeneity and the book does not over simplify trends in the evolution of building. Imperial cities had a different destiny, because of the presence of the imperial court during some periods. The case studies deployed throughout the book have been chosen because of the high quality of archaeological and historical information that they offer.

There is no doubt this book will become a reference for the evolutionary processes of public buildings during Late Antiquity.