BMCR 2022.01.20

Continuity and rupture in Roman Mediterranean Gaul: an archaeology of colonial transformations at ancient Lattara

, Continuity and rupture in Roman Mediterranean Gaul: an archaeology of colonial transformations at ancient Lattara. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2020. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781789255669 $80.00.


How were the changes in Lattara’s material record associated with structural changes in power that resulted from Roman rule in Mediterranean Gaul? This is the question Luley sets out to answer, drawing on data from over 35 years of excavation and his own extensive expertise in the archaeology of the region. Discontented with both overly structural and overly agentive approaches to understanding life within the Roman empire, he has sought to balance the roles of individuals and institutions as he investigates the experiences of members of different communities residing in the same settlement and its surroundings.

Southern France is not a region particularly well served in anglophone scholarship. Notable exceptions exist[1], but the majority of treatments of archaeological data, in particular, are to be found in francophone publications and rescue excavation reports. A comprehensive regional overview is now available[2], and Lattara itself is also well-published—primarily in French—but the anglophone world seems to miss much of this. In offering a thorough introduction to southern Gaul prior to Roman conquest, as well as an expansive bibliography, Luley has filled an important lacuna. Bringing together archaeological evidence, ethnographic comparanda, and the little textual evidence there is for daily life in pre-Roman and Roman Gaul, Luley fleshes out a picture of continuity and rupture under Roman rule that is at once highly detailed and necessarily left open to multiple interpretive avenues. His fine-grained treatment of individual buildings and neighborhoods at Lattara is complemented by broader thematic discussion of the economy, social organization, and colonialism. This approach serves Luley’s arguments well, and their development over the course of the book is very strong. As a result, this review is focused on highlighting key points of interest from each chapter instead of any significant critique. For the sake of economy, I focus here on the book’s six thematic chapters; these are framed, however, by a concise, informative, and effective Introduction and Epilogue, which provide any reader who may be unfamiliar with either the region or the major relevant themes (e.g. post-colonial theory, imperialism, historical comparison, and Mediterranean archaeology) with the appropriate background to engage with this text.

In Chapter Two, Luley introduces Mediterranean Gaul, detailing what is known about social organization and subsistence practices prior to Roman conquest. While written sources are largely confined to Roman writers, several centuries of interaction between the region’s inhabitants and foreign merchants left a material record with at least some clues as to how Lattarans and their neighbors negotiated cross-cultural contact. Highlighting key factors for the book’s overall argument, Luley paints a picture of an Iron Age characterized by self-sufficient and economically autonomous families, and a place for which there is little evidence for political centralization. He also underscores the very different nature of the relationship between residents of Mediterranean Gaul and their trading partners as compared to the colonialist relationship with arriving Romans. Despite centuries of intensive commercial interaction centered around fortified oppida, the adoption of coinage and the Greek alphabet came quite late; outside practices associated with religion, civic and public life, and food production appear never to have been widely adopted within Gaul at all. Luley thus sets up a contrast with the violent and aggressively constraining nature of a Roman ‘pacification’ that spanned more than 50 years and involved devastating taxes, grain levies, forced conscription, and the seizure and ultimate redistribution of land.

Chapter Three deals with the question of continuity and rupture in the physical organization of the settlement, the plans of individual houses, and the dynamics of social structures and interactions on a community-wide scale. Luley highlights significant changes that took place in the physical makeup of the settlement during the century of Roman conquest, which contrasts strongly with ca. 500 years of relative continuity. The domestic landscape at Lattara was transformed from large blocks of clustered, two-room houses to one dominated by public buildings and courtyard houses that favored physically separated families in their own households. The population appears to have spread into the surrounding countryside in this period as well, and Luley argues that these changes reflect a shift in people’s intrapersonal interactions; the domus became the basic social unit, and increased specialization of space within houses reflects a more compartmentalized daily life. While continuity in construction methods is visible in some of the newer-style courtyard houses, the social environment that was reflected and reproduced in the buildings seems to have been fundamentally changed. Luley’s suggestion, which runs throughout most chapters, is that the changes visible in the form and function of domestic space likely reflect the long-term disruption of social and economic life wrought by the Roman conquest, including their enslavement of defeated locals and their exploitation of local landscape, resources, and people.

In Chapter Four, Luley builds on his study of individual house forms and addresses the evidence for changes in the social relationship that structured the production of agricultural and other goods. Specifically, he discusses the shift from the agricultural autonomy and economic independence of individual households to the development of rural villas and engagement in wage labor for these larger production centers as a means of supporting families. This shift, Luley argues, represents the development of a true class society at Lattara. The development of mass production of items for export by the early 1st c. CE, especially wine and terra sigillata pottery, accompanied a significant increase in access to new kinds of consumer goods. Mass production of craft goods and cash crops relied on increased economic specialization, particularly on the part of craftspeople, as well as the participation of wage laborers. Both of these phenomena are visible in the villae in the Lattaran countryside, where evidence for both pottery workshops and radical material differences in neighboring living spaces has been found.

Expanding on his discussion about shifts in production strategy and economic specialization, Luley dedicates Chapter Five to the development in coinage attested at Lattara. Drawing again on repeating themes, he connects this phenomenon with Roman taxation policies, and the need for part- if not full-time wage labor to acquire the monetary means to comply with Roman tax demands. Coinage was not new to Lattara when the Romans conquered the surrounding region, but its prevalence and density over the site was a new development in the first century BCE. Notably, the vast majority of coins at Lattara in this period were small-value, bronze coins. Luley suggests that their quantity and pattern of loss reflects their adoption by large numbers of people for daily use. Of particular interest is the fact that this significant increase in coinage occurred several decades before the economic shift to mass production at the site. This is consistent with Luley’s argument that the Roman program of heavy taxation likely forced Lattara’s native inhabitants into debt and fundamentally shifted the local economic landscape vis a vis accrual of wealth and household subsistence.

Chapter Six examines the expressions of individual and communal identity through religious materials and practices. Unsurprisingly, religious practice and material culture appear to have been maintained, adapted, and newly adopted in different contexts in and around the site. Rituals involved with domestic life and the construction of houses were maintained into the 1st c. CE, and other practices, such as the use of indigenous motifs on tombstones and the inclusion of specific Roman ceramics in graves, reflected Iron-Age activity and forms of identity expression. Latin formulae for inscriptions were also adjusted to fit with pre-existing needs and traditions. At the same time, whereas a lack of archaeological evidence for centralized religious practice or architecture characterized the Iron Age, Roman conquest ushered in a much more centralized religious infrastructure with its own built environment; the adoption of Roman divinities and construction of temples within the settlement coincided with the increase in public buildings noted in Chapter Three, and the power structure of Roman religious institutions was added to the existing layers of social hierarchy among settlements.

Finally, Chapter Seven considers the effect of Roman conquest on political life and the means by which individuals acquired and displayed power. A Roman reliance on local leaders for maintenance of their power in conquered areas is well-documented. Luley suggests that existing imbalances of power might have been both further entrenched and/or disrupted by Roman interference, depending on how individuals responded to the conquest. Because of this, he argues that an understanding of how Roman rule would have impacted local political life should not focus so much on the pre-determined ‘elites’ (a vague and overly broad category), but rather on aspects of the material record that reflect changes in how people across the board obtained and expressed influence and power, and maintained social relationships. His own assessment of the evidence suggests that prior to Roman conquest, Lattara was a place where access to, and possession of, material goods was relatively even and equal. Feasting seems to have been one valuable strategy for forging and maintaining relationships among different members of the community and for accruing and managing individual or familial power. After Roman conquest, however, acquisition of material wealth appears to have correlated much more closely with power and influence. Whether or not local political institutions persisted after Roman conquest, the means of acquiring power and influence would have differed significantly.

The six thematic chapters in this book come together to make a convincing argument about dramatic changes in domestic, social, economic, religious, and political spheres of life in Lattara over the course of the 1st centuries BCE and CE. Ultimately, the Roman state entered onto the scene of what appears to have been a relatively egalitarian society in terms of material wealth and resource access, structured around economically independent and agriculturally subsistent households. Over the course of two centuries, a true class society developed, in the Marxist sense, in which some members of native Lattaran society accrued large quantities of material wealth, as well as political power, while others were violently marginalized by a monetized economy, a program of taxation, and redistribution and privatization of land. Luley makes it very clear that the conclusions he has drawn for Lattara are by no means directly transferable to surrounding settlements, and indeed, makes no suggestion that his interpretive approach offers any kind of final say on the experience of Roman imperialism, even just at Lattara. And rightly so. Yet his deft incorporation of material and textual evidence, as well as judicious use of ethnographic comparison, offer a number of detailed and provocative insights into that experience. Furthermore, he has quite successfully achieved his stated goal, compellingly demonstrating the efficacy of an analysis based on ‘the interplay of agency, structure, and colonialism’ (p. 221) for understanding the social lives of native Lattarans living under Roman rule.

One of the things that makes Luley’s book so enjoyable, aside from the strength of his arguments, is his attention to the reader’s experience. One will be rewarded for working cover-to-cover, but he has nicely bookended each chapter with a clear road map, summary arguments, and appropriate references to previous or forthcoming chapters. One could thus productively read (or assign to students) a single chapter of particular interest. This makes the text a useful reference for individual thematic topics Luley addresses, as well as a comprehensive narrative treatment of the economic and social changes at Lattara under Roman rule. With its accessibility and compelling arguments, this book has much to recommend it; it is an essential read for anyone with an interest in southern Gaul or the western Mediterranean, and highly worthwhile for scholars and students working on shared thematic topics.


[1] Dietler, Michael, Archaeologies of Colonialism: Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010; Woolf, Greg, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul.New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[2] Gailledrat, Éric, Espaces coloniaux et indigènes sur les rivages d’extrême-occident méditerranéen (Xe-IIIe s. avant notre ère). Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014.