BMCR 2021.07.13

The busy periphery: urban systems of the Balkan and Danube provinces (2nd – 3rd c. AD)

, The busy periphery: urban systems of the Balkan and Danube provinces (2nd - 3rd c. AD). Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 61. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020. Pp. viii, 379. ISBN 9781789693492 $76.00.

This publication builds on a doctoral thesis funded within the major ERC-funded research project ‘An Empire of 2000 Cities: Urban Networks and Economic Integration in the Roman Empire’.[1] Directed by Luuk De Ligt and John Bintliff between 2013–18, the project aimed to tackle essential issues of scale – numbers of cities in the Empire, numbers and distributions within provinces – and connectivity – how did they work, how well were they ordered and how did they connect politically and economically; in brief, asking why ‘the urban networks of the Roman world looked the way they did’. A key synthesis of the project results edited by the project leads was published in 2019.[2]

In The Busy Periphery Donev frames, details, models and illustrates research findings from one of the ERC project’s wider target zones, spanning the central northern Roman provinces (primarily the Pannonias, Moesias, Dalmatia and Dacia, plus the northern halves of Epirus, Macedonia and Thrace). These provinces have seen strong local interest and study, but far less attention from scholars beyond, except in terms of frontiers; as Donev discusses in the introductory chapter, towns have been studied more as individual entities, often without close reference to associated territories and economies. This is not to deny wider provincial studies such as by Wilkes and Mócsy (both monographs now almost 50 years old!), although towns were here more considered as indexes of Romanisation than as contributors to the workings of their provinces.[3]  However, the ERC project was not designed to treat urban archaeologies or histories; accordingly, readers cannot expect here plans of towns or of monumental public complexes – although Donev does provide an extended Appendix/Catalogue of ‘Towns and Settlements, Built-Up Area, Agricultural and Administrative Territory’, ordered by province, with entries running from c. 5 to 30 lines of text and featuring essential references. Instead, Donev seeks ‘to reconstruct the urban geography of the Balkan and the Danubian provinces… at the time of the Severan dynasty, with a particular emphasis on the quantitative properties of the regional urban systems and the urban hierarchy’ (p.1). The time-period forms a mid-point in the Empire, being perhaps the peak for many urban centres and marking extended municipal developments in the military sector; furthermore, it comes before third-century upheavals impacted on frontier forms and vici, and on (some) urban and rural trajectories. It is also a period well attested archaeologically and materially, including in terms of inscriptions, which are taken as signifiers of status, vitality and connectivity, and guides to administrative territories (see Chapter VI).

The volume comprises five core chapters, plus detailed Conclusions; each chapter has statements on scope, issues, debates and sources/data, followed by syntheses of findings ordered by provinces or zones (Upper Macedonia and Epirus; the northern Adriatic and Dalmatia; the Pannonias; the Moesias; Thrace; and Dacia). Donev stresses that the scale of the territories explored made it unfeasible to combine all into analysis by theme; rather, the use of specific provincial zones draws out trends in those, which are then compared in end-discussion sections. As an emphasis is on quantification, zonal assessments feature diverse bar charts, rank-size graphs and max./min. plots, which feed into comparative graphs/charts.

Chapters II and III look to the Roman ‘genesis’, first in terms of the chronology and character of the wider settlement network, then in terms of the Roman urban imprint and network. Donev highlights how ‘As its counterpart on an Empire-wide level, the settlement system in the Balkan provinces was a composite phenomenon’ (p.14), of inherited and imposed sites, societies and land-use. Chapter II assesses what older settlement forms survived and asks how we model such continuity; it tackles also site categories and definitions, which necessarily vary from, say, Illyria and Macedonia with developed pre-Roman patterns, to Dacia, where old (proto-State) central places saw little survival after Roman conquest. Such analysis enables better charting of Roman reordering of provinces, as well as topographic and economic factors enabling older foci to continue.

The ‘new’ Roman sites considered in Chapter III are categorised between ‘garrison settlements’ (civilian and, in time, urbanised communities gathered beside forts and feeding off their guaranteed supplies and waged personnel) and ‘civilian settlements’ (including veteran colonies). Donev also discusses the less well-documented (epigraphically) ‘secondary agglomerations’, notably mansio-related communities, resource-oriented (minerals, spas) settlements and ports. The distribution and interplay between all these, their proportions and respective developments, offer important windows into settlement and population characters, often with surprising divergences between frontier zones and hinterlands. In particular, numbers of new autonomous towns are everywhere low, exceptions being in Dalmatia and Pannonia Superior; where these do appear is on main internal highways and at crossroads, reinforcing the image of State planning/management of the territories, troops, people and goods (though not all highways were treated thus and sometimes mansiones and vici sufficed, as for the extended Sava and Drava valleys in the Pannonias and the Thracian ‘Diagonal Road’).

Chapter IV ‘Settlement Size Distribution’ offers routes into diverse elements linked into urbanism and networks, namely scale (topographic and demographic), status, hierarchy and economic capacity. Problems exist in that rarely – except in cases where sites failed – are the extents of many settlements properly understood; archaeological investigations can vary hugely in scale and so knowledge usually clusters around elements of the monumental core or on houses, streets and burial grounds (pp.88, 91). Fragmentary data likewise make it difficult to properly map a town of c. AD 100 with one of c. AD 200 or 300, or a vicus or mansio whose ribbon-like layouts featured variable activity zones. Accordingly, Donev generates minimum/maximum size estimates, combined with ratios of built-up to walled areas, to provide more valid figures to reconstruct settlement hierarchies (Map IV 1 displays the overall distribution of settlements by size-categories – these from 1–14 hectares up to 115–200). Strikingly, the majority (c. 70%) of settlements in the study area were less than 15 ha in extent, although Donev views this as an underestimate; only 1% of towns push towards 100 ha, these primarily ‘double towns’ connected to the main legionary forts of the Danube (p.116). This was also reflective of the high connectivity of the river via State supply mechanisms, plus access to the resources of the ‘Barbaricum’ (pp.119–120). It would be an important follow-up to see how changes in the Roman military and breakdowns with groups beyond the frontier later in the third century and in the fourth affected the urban, economic and demographic profiles of these frontier foci, and reconfigured wider provincial urban systems.

The issue of scale and size leads onto questions of urban viability/dependency: Chapters V and VI thus tackle ‘Agricultural territories’ and ‘Administrative territories’, seeking ways to map these. In the first, Donev estimates, using catchment radius analysis, the amounts of arable land attached to sites, not to guide on their economies but to ‘detect settlements that outgrew their immediate surroundings by a great margin’. Again, min./max. calculations are made by region, with catchment or market radii size based also on topography (e.g. 10km for the hillier Moesia Superior) and on proximity with neighbouring and comparable sites (as on the actual frontier line). For Pannonia Inferior only the largest towns exceeded the agricultural potential of their catchments; in Dacia most settlements appear sub-optimal in relation to agricultural resources, but good for riverine trade. Overall, good land did not correlate with sizeable new foundations: ‘the urban map of the Balkan provinces almost never coincided with the agricultural heartlands of the provincial territories’ (p.174). Those lands were certainly exploited, in ways that saw surpluses taken to more distant urban markets. More field survey data are required, but larger rural agglomerations are rare and villae tend to lie near (larger) urban hinterlands; peasants may have been predominantly based in hamlets attached to urban elite estates (pp.176, 224).

Discrepancies between catchments and site size are explored in Chapter VI via Thiessen polygons to gauge territorial extents of the autonomous towns linked to rank. To cite the findings for Moesia Inferior, an east-west divide emerges, with eastern poleis and districts making up a two-thirds majority of the administrative units, contrasting with the towns and military districts in the west; the latter average c. 3500 km2 per territorial unit, the eastern average being 1500 km2. Such differences relate primarily to variations in urban density (but, recall, sites away from the military settlements were small size-wise) (p.236). Epigraphic data also feed into estimates on ‘shares’ by centres in provincial administration, but these texts can be problematic as they rarely show urban aristocratic activity far into the landscape: for Pannonia Inferior, most concentrate on the limes and adjacent areas (p.220), while for Dacia, low numbers of inscriptions create notable divergences in calculations of territorial units compared to those proposed via Thiessen polygons (pp.257–258).

The concluding chapter revisits Donev’s key findings, starting with the nature of imperial redefinition of conquered territories and the imposition of a distinctive settlement articulation. Settlement hierarchy evidence reveals the boost given by Roman annexation, territorial development and road creation; but this did not mean all new urban centres grew quickly and substantially, since ’large settlement size and monumental architecture were exceptional outside the group of autonomous towns and military agglomerations’ (p.281). At the same time, we see an overall uniformity in settlement hierarchies, with larger tier sites accounting for between 9–12% in the settlement systems; these latter lay on what look like the provincial peripheries but, in reality, were their administrative and economic cores. As Donev concludes (p.293), ‘The framework of the settlement system consisted of a set of vertical relationships between the frontier and civilian settlements and the civilian settlements and the secondary agglomerations. These relationships were mediated chiefly by the central and provincial government… [and] it has emerged that, theoretically, there was not much incentive for regular economic interactions on a regional level’.

Brief comment can be made on the presentation of the volume, which is amply illustrated, though without site photographs or plans. The colour maps are informative, especially for the catchment area plots and putative administrative territories, although a number were fuzzy/pixelated (e.g. V 8, VI 20) and some plots of epigraphic locations are too ‘busy’ (e.g. VI 31 and 49 – not helped by the darker coloured height zones). The Bibliography (30 pp) will be ample for many keen to explore more specific work on individual centres or areas; and the references fully draw on local publications.

All told, The Busy Periphery is a well-argued synthesis and analysis of a diverse and sometimes uneven range of data for the archaeology of Roman towns and territories in the under-studied Balkan and Danubian provinces in the mid-Empire. The quantitative approaches are rewarding in terms of revealing patterns that explain the articulation of these provinces, highlighting the artificiality and imbalances in the settlement record under Rome with favoured foci linked to the military presence as well as to supply systems. The results help clarify oddities in the archaeological record, such as the rather vague or quiet rural images; it prompts new questions about urban (built-up) extents and the character of secondary agglomerations; and it poses angles that need testing through new research. In sum, Donev has provided an excellent study that through its wide geographical scope sheds much light on the working – clearly successful – of some of Rome’s key northern territories.


[1] Universiteit Leiden, “An Empire of 2000 cities: urban networks and economic integration in the Roman Empire”.

[2] Regional Urban Systems in the Roman World, 150 BCE 250 CE. (Mnemosyne, Supplements, History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, Volume: 431). Edited by Luuk de Ligt & John Bintliff. Brill: Leiden, 2019. See review by Pawel Borowski in The Classical Review 70.2 (2020): 457–460.

[3] John J. Wilkes, Dalmatia. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1969; András Mócsy, Pannonia and Upper Moesia: A History of the Middle Danube Provinces of the Roman Empire. London: Routledge, 1974. Noteworthy for Moesia Inferior is the project work of Andrew Poulter centred on Nicopolis and, later, Dichin and their territories; Donev’s volume came too soon for the 2019 Dichin monograph. One surprising omission from the Bibliography is Hungarian Archaeology at the Turn of the Millennium. Edited by Zs. Visy. Budapest, 2003 – whose section VIII synthesises much on Roman frontiers, towns, landscapes, industries and roads.