BMCR 2021.03.62

Urban space and aristocratic power late antique Rome: AD 270-535

, Urban space and aristocratic power late antique Rome: AD 270-535. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xi, 317. ISBN 9780198835073 $99.00.

Urban Space and Aristocratic Power in Late Antique Rome, by Carlos Machado, examines the transformation of the city of Rome from the time of Emperor Aurelian (270-275) until the Byzantine conquest of Italy (535). Urban Space and Aristocratic Power is originally based on Machado’s doctoral dissertation, but it is a rigorously updated and developed version. The book incorporates the very latest archaeological, epigraphical and historical studies into its discussions.

The time span of almost three centuries allows a comprehensive analysis of the changes that took place in Rome’s cityscape and monumental outlook during that time. These alterations are examined from the perspective of the Roman aristocrats who appropriated the urban spaces, institutions and traditions of the city to enhance their own social position and power. During these centuries, the status of Rome as the imperial capital was altered as the emperors, with their courts, no longer resided in the city. Instead, the senatorial elite and the church seized the urban spaces – by building, regulating, and using them and exercising and displaying power in everyday city life.

The amount of evidence that Machado examines is huge. The analysis of the senatorial elite’s strategies and activities in Rome’s urban space is divided into three sections. The first part (“The Definition of Urban Space”) discusses the ways in which the senators worked out their official and personal power to shape their city. The second one (“The Users of the Space”) analyses how the senatorial elite made its impact on important places, such as the Forum Romanum and the spaces of different festivals and ceremonies, within the transformations of religious life – from polytheistic religious places to the increasingly Christian-dominated spaces. The third part (“Domestic Spaces and the Privatization of Power”) discusses the elite’s urban residences as centres of power.

The influence of the Roman aristocracy was at its greatest in the urban prefecture, which was the most potent and visible institution in the city (Chapter 1). The urban prefect interacted with the emperors, Roman bishops and the people. He was responsible for the city administration and services, and the management of the city’s food supply. Policing and the service of the aqueducts were also under his supervision. Roman senatorial families were thoroughly involved in the late imperial annona that provided them many opportunities to increase their power, gain economic benefits and enhance their networks of clients. Machado shows how aristocrats and their dependants used and abused the system of annona to serve their own economic interests. E.g., in their legislation, the emperors complained that the fiscal horrea in Rome and Portus had been taken over for private use (p. 56). Chapter 2 thoroughly explores the late antique building industry and illustrates the aristocrats’ two-pronged role in it: on the one hand, they invested remarkable resources into new building and restoration works, and on the other hand, at the very same time, they were involved in the destruction of buildings and the recirculation and reuse of the materials from these buildings. Here again, we find out that corruption was part of the system and – as Machado sarcastically remarks – “public funds were commonly handled in irregular ways, to say the least” (p. 82). The reuse of building material was nothing new in Antiquity, but it became an essential element in late antique Rome. The immense building projects, such as the Aurelianic Wall, involved the demolition of earlier structures and thus generated material for reuse.

In Chapter 3, Machado discusses the transformation of the Forum Romanum from an imperial space to a civic and political space of the senatorial aristocracy. The Roman Forum was one of the most important places of memory in the city, and Christian and pagan senators used it for ritual displays of their power. In Late Antiquity, it became cherished and controlled by the aristocracy. The senators’ presence in city life was most visible in the urban festivals, ceremonies and spectacles (Chapter 4). During the games that were celebrated in honour of the accession of consuls, praetors, and quaestors, senators could show off their public standing and personal power. Quintus Aurelius Symmachus organised spectacles for his son, and illustrates in his letters how he took great pains to obtain different types of animals from around the Empire for the games. Public events were grand displays of wealth and power, and even personal occasions such as baptismal rituals could be public, as Jerome’s depiction (ep. 77) of Fabiola’s baptism indicates. Likewise, the death of an influential senator, such as that of Praetextatus, raised public commotion and a general outcry throughout the whole city. Aristocrats manifested their magnificence even in their funeral monuments as the tomb of the Probi in the basilica of S. Peter shows. The influence of the elite was also visible in the religious changes of Rome (Chapter 5). Senators were often priests of polytheistic cults and members of different religious communities, including Christian churches. They sponsored public celebrations like, the ritual of taurobolium or the Christian liturgies, and they exerted the patronage of building projects of churches. Despite the religious changes that occurred in the city, the aristocrats were able to maintain their influence and social standing as patrons of religious life.

In Machado’s analysis, the fourth century emerges as the golden era of the aristocratic ‘power-house’ (Chapter 6). The aristocratic domus was a multifunctional space that was used both as a symbol of one’s personal standing and as a tool for advancing one’s social position. Senators developed their residences by seizing public areas and structures to incorporate them into the structures of their domus. Aristocratic houses were social and political centres in which senators gave audiences to their friends, clients, and other visitors. Their houses were the visible representations of their power, and this is observable in the occasional attacks of the Roman people against senatorial houses. In one of the more notorious examples, Avianius Symmachus’ house was burned in one of the popular protests. The elite spent considerable sums of money on their residences. Even though the late antique writer Olympiodorus’ remark (frag. 41.1 Blockley) that aristocratic houses resembled small towns with their fora, temples and baths may be an exaggeration, the level of domestic splendour was astonishing. Chapter 7 further examines aristocratic power and politics in the domestic sphere and the relationship between official and personal power. Senatorial houses were situated somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of public and private spaces: important political activities, audiences and decision-making took place in the aristocratic domestic sphere. The reuse of building materials and architectural decoration in these grand houses was substantial, as the archaeological evidence indicates. Machado analyses the archaeological remains of, e.g., the ‘domus of the Sette Sale’ on the Oppian hill, the domus of the Symmachi (the area of the Ospedale militare) on the Caelian, the domus of Gaudentius, which neighbours the Symmachi house, and the domus of the Valerii in the same area. The golden days of the aristocratic houses had ended by the early fifth century. There is no evidence of major restorations or the renewal of domus structures in the fifth century. The abandonment of many senatorial houses was contemporary to the growth of the church properties. The bishops of Rome now played a more influential role in the city – Leo (440-461) was the turning point.

Urban Space and Aristocratic Power gives a many-sided and meticulously analysed portrait of the City. At the end of the third century, Rome was the largest and wealthiest city of the Empire. Rome’s position changed from the imperial residence and capital into a city of aristocrats that was still an important symbol of power. Thereafter, Rome went through several complex, political, economic and religious changes in which the senatorial elite retained its important role. At the end of the period under scrutiny (535), a new social order, dominated by the Roman bishop, had emerged. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455, and from time to time it witnessed political turmoil and civil war. Archaeological evidence of the fifth-century sacks is problematic because, as Machado mentions, not all traces of demolition can be dated with certainty, and other causes cannot be ruled out. Therefore, Machado’s caution is well argued. The reuse, spoliation and the end of restorations may even be a more resounding explanation for the decline of buildings. It is also noteworthy to stress that the end of the old was the beginning of the new: “abandonment and decline attest to the decline of the early imperial urban order, while also showing that a new city was in development” (p. 9). Urban Space and Aristocratic Power is a systematic, solid and in-depth analysis throughout, with excellent analyses of written sources and archaeological evidence accompanied by illustrative examples. I spotted only one lapsus on p. 227 where Serena is described as an empress. She was not an empress even though she belonged the imperial family, she was married to Stilicho, and she was one of the most influential women of her time. While following the topographical account of Rome, we also read of the (sometimes devastatingly sad) story of the development of archaeology as an academic discipline: several earlier excavations probably destroyed more than they revealed. Consequently, there are numerous uncertainties that Machado takes into account with due caution. He provides good up-to-date discussions on the different areas of the city and the modern status of archaeological excavations, and there are many informative plans of sites and buildings presented in the book.