BMCR 2021.05.08

Marmor – Maße – Monumente. Vorfertigung, Standardisierung und Massenproduktion marmorner Bauteile in der römischen Kaiserzeit

, Marmor – Maße – Monumente. Vorfertigung, Standardisierung und Massenproduktion marmorner Bauteile in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Philippika, 121. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020. Pp. xvi, 568. ISBN 9783447110099. €148,00.

In a recent review, J. Clayton Fant pointed out the unbalanced proportion between the large number of books on Roman pottery and the few publications on the so-called “marble studies” that one would have been able to browse in university libraries up to 2009.[1] Thankfully, this last decade has witnessed a boost in interest towards ancient stones, their use and distribution, through the appearance of new and innovative studies. The Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity (ASMOSIA) continues to provide a venue for interdisciplinary, archaeological and archaeometric approaches to the topic, with eleven volumes of conference proceedings released to date. Among the scholars who have engaged with the study of stones in antiquity, one could not do without the painstaking work of Patrizio Pensabene, a pioneer in this field with his many publications.[2] It is also encouraging to see that younger scholars are taking the lead — Ben Russell’s book The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade (Oxford 2013), for instance, has proved to be a turning point for marble studies. It is within this context that one can place the work of Natalia Toma, a researcher who has already offered valuable contributions to scholarly debate in this discipline.

The book under review is based on Toma’s doctoral dissertation, which was submitted to the University of Kiel in 2015. Her study fruitfully combines bibliographic research with autopsy of ancient sites and quarries. The volume opens with two introductory chapters and is then divided in two sections: the first part deals with the provenance, transport, and storage of marble in Roman times (chapters 3–5); the second part engages with imperial-period building projects across the Mediterranean (chapters 6–11). A comprehensive index allows readers to identify subjects of interests with ease. It is perhaps regrettable that the publisher did not include summaries in English and/or other languages, which are becoming a standard feature with most German publishers. Illustrations are collected in 79 plates at the back of the volume. The advantage of this choice is that photographs (most of which are reproduced in colour), newly drawn maps, plans, and sketches are all printed on high-quality paper; the main shortcoming, on the other hand, is that this forces readers to go back and forth between text and images.

Chapters 1–2 complement each other and raise important points. After a brief status quaestionis on past research on marble studies, aspects of the Roman imperial administration of marble are reviewed, with particular attention to the epigraphic marks on stone bearing the ex ratione and caesura sub cura formulas. In chapter 2, Toma engages with two crucial themes of her study: the standardization (Standardisierung) and prefabrication (Vorfertigung) of marble architectural elements under the Roman empire, which are related to the idea of mass production (Massenproduktion). Her remarks, which are in part reprised in chapter 3, are best read together with an article she published in 2018.[3] The concepts of prefabrication and production-to-stock have become a sort of widespread assumption following John B. Ward-Perkins’ studies,[4] but issues with this model were recently raised by Ben Russell in his book, referenced above. Toma’s arguments, in my view, represent a well-balanced assessment of the matter, according to which the distinction between large-scale and smaller columnar orders played an important role, and the demand for blocks and monoliths of predetermined dimensions influenced the production at the quarries, rather than vice versa. The author distinguishes between small-scale (less than 24 Roman feet), large-scale (24 to 60 R.f.), and colossal-scale (more than 60 R.f.) columns. In addition to column shafts, the stages of production of bases and capitals are commented on, drawing upon the study ofNuşin Asgari and a recent reassessment by Toma herself.[5]

Chapter 3 collects published evidence of marble artefacts discovered at the quarries and within their regions. The materials are presented in tables listing the provenance, type of artefact (stone block, column shaft, etc.), dimensions, presence of inscribed marks, and main bibliographic references. This is useful to make comparisons; for instance, when one looks at three commonly used marbles in antiquity — Luna, Pentelic, and Proconnesian — it is striking to observe how little evidence is preserved at the sites on Mount Penteli, because of the landscape transformations and the continuous quarrying activities through time. It is also notable that the majority of items from the Luna district are raw stone blocks, while the opposite holds true for Proconnesus where half-finished and fully carved artefacts prevail, although one should take into account that the latter objects date mostly from the Theodosian period onwards.

In chapter 4, the author reviews the evidence of marble blocks and artefacts recovered from shipwrecks across the Mediterranean. Among the literature, mention is made of the provisional list of shipwrecks presented by Russell in 2011, but it is surprising that no reference is made to his more extensive catalogue of 2013.[6] The number of shipwrecks in these three studies is divergent: Toma provides 58 entries in this chapter, Russell’s 2011 article lists 73 items, while his updated 2013 inventory includes 83 securely identifiable shipwrecks, extended to 96 when one adds those of uncertain identification. Of course, the different timeframe under consideration and the composition of stone cargoes can explain some discrepancies (Toma only considers shipwrecks where stone blocks are included in the cargo), but it would be interesting to undertake a study to cross-reference and compare these inventories. Related to the matter of transport is that of storage facilities and workshops, which the author examines in chapter 5. Detailed tables are presented of the artefacts found at the marble yards (Marmorlager) at Portus, the Emporium-Marmorata beneath the Aventine, the Via Ostiense, and the northwest Campus Martius.[7] The main question about these discoveries is whether they represent evidence for workshops or places where large quantities of marble were stored and sold. Based on her assessment, Toma concludes that these should be identified as workshops with associated warehouses, and she also hints to the fact that probably no centralized storage facility for marbles existed in the city of Rome.

The second part of the book looks at imperial-era construction projects that involved the use of marble. Monumental buildings are taken into account from these regions: Hispania Baetica (chapter 6); Tripolitania (chapter 7); Moesia Inferior (chapter 8); Caria and South Ionia (chapter 9). Due to space constraints, I shall focus here only on the Tripolitanian evidence. The author engages with monuments from the three cities of the region: Lepcis Magna, Sabratha, and Oea. Rather unsurprisingly, the amount of preserved evidence differs for each site due to the extent of the excavations and the post-antique urban transformations — Oea lies underneath modern Tripoli and this limits considerably our knowledge of the ancient city. Beginning with Ward-Perkins’ research, Tripolitania has been at the centre of marble studies because of the quantity of imported marble, the early start of this phenomenon in the second century CE, and the connections with eastern Mediterranean workshops, materials, and decorative styles that characterized this region (as opposed to the rest of Africa Proconsularis, where western metropolitan influences are to be recognized).[8] The principal merit of Toma’s analysis consists of her thorough examination of the individual components of the architectural orders of Tripolitanian buildings, a method that she uses consistently for the case studies of the other provinces as well. Tables again serve this purpose well; for each colonnade the author lists the dimensions, their conversion in Roman feet, and the type of marble employed for their bases, shafts, and capitals. The data are sourced from a range of architectural studies that were published especially in recent years, such as that of the northwest temples in the Old Forum of Lepcis Magna.[9] Further tables are presented to compare the size of column shafts, bases, and capitals from the investigated Tripolitanian buildings. From this analysis, it emerges that standard architectural solutions were adopted in five (re)construction projects of Antonine date: the West Temple (Temple of Liber Pater?) and the Temple of Roma and Augustus at Lepcis Magna, the Temple of Unknown Deity and the Antonine Temple at Sabratha, and the Temple of the genius coloniae at Oea.

To sum up, this is an important publication that further increases the list of new studies on the Roman stone trade, carving, and use for construction purposes. At first glance, some readers may be put off by the enormous number of tables that one finds throughout the text, but it will soon become evident that the principal strength of this book lies precisely in its format. The data are presented in an accessible and concise way, making their understanding and use straightforward. There is no doubt that Toma’s approach is of an empirical character that leaves little space for theoretical questions, unlike many current studies of Classical archaeology and history. That said, other scholars will not be prevented from using these data to address different issues in the future, even of a more theoretical kind. The social components of Roman imperial architecture, or its perception and reception amongst the provincial communities, may well fall into this category. However, if one wants to engage with these topics, the starting point will be always and necessarily the same: the extant material evidence. We must therefore be grateful to the author for having collected such a wealth of data in a monograph that is to become a standard reference tool.


[1] Fant, J.C. 2016. “A milestone in the history of the Roman trade in stone.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 29: 701–10.

[2] His bibliography is extensive, but for a recent synthesis see Pensabene, P. 2013. I marmi nella Roma antica. Rome.

[3] Toma, N. 2018. “Standardization and mass customization of architectural components: new perspectives on the imperial marble construction industry.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 31: 161–91.

[4] Especially Ward-Perkins, J.B. 1980. “Nicomedia and the marble trade.” Papers of the British School at Rome 48: 23–69.

[5] Asgari, N. 1988. “The stages of workmanship of the Corinthian capital in Proconnesus and its export form.” In N. Herz and M. Waelkens (eds), Classical Marble: Geochemistry, Technology, Trade. Dordrecht: 115–25; Toma, N. 2014. “Von Marmorblock über Halbfabrikat zu korinthischem Kapitell. Zur Kapitellproduktion in der Kaiserzeit.” In J. Lipps and D. Maschek (eds), Antike Bauornamentik. Grenzen und Möglichkeiten ihrer Erforschung. Wiesbaden: 83–98.

[6] Russell, B. 2011. “Lapis transmarinus: stone-carrying ships and the maritime distribution of stone in the Roman empire.” In D. Robinson and A.I. Wilson (eds), Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean. Oxford: 139–­55; id. 2013. “Roman and late-antique shipwrecks with stone cargoes: a new inventory.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 26: 331-61.

[7] See Pensabene, P. 1995. Le vie del marmo. I blocchi di cava di Roma e di Ostia: il fenomeno del marmo nella Roma antica. Rome; Maischberger, M. 1997. Marmor in Rom. Anlieferung, Lager- und Werkplätze in der Kaiserzeit. Wiesbaden; Fant, J.C. 2001. “Rome’s marble yards.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 14: 167–98.

[8] Among the numerous works on Tripolitania’s marble architecture and architectural ornament, see in particular Ward-Perkins, J.B. 1993. The Severan Buildings of Lepcis Magna: An Architectural Survey. Tripoli; Pensabene, P. 2001. “Pentelico e proconnesio in Tripolitania: coordinamento o concorrenza nella distribuzione?” Archeologia Classica 52: 63–127; Bianchi, F. 2009. “Su alcuni aspetti della decorazione architettonica in marmo a Leptis Magna in età imperiale.” Marmora 5: 45–70; Bruno, M. and Bianchi, F. 2015. Marmi di Leptis Magna. Repertorio delle pietre bianche e policrome della città. Rome.

[9] Di Vita, A. and Livadiotti, M. (eds) 2005. I tre templi del lato nord-ovest del foro vecchio di Leptis Magna. Rome. Regrettably, the results of the new study on the forum curia was published too late to be included: see Livadiotti, M. and Rocco, G. 2018. Exornata aedes. La curia del foro vecchio di Leptis Magna. Rome.