BMCR 2022.12.33

Urban space between the Roman age and Late Antiquity: continuity, discontinuity and changes

, , Urban space between the Roman age and Late Antiquity: continuity, discontinuity and changes. Acts of the international workshop, University of Regensburg, 13-14 February 2020. Regensburg: Schnell + Steiner, 2022. Pp. 176. ISBN 9783795436605 €40,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


This volume is a collection of papers exploring urban development between the third and seventh centuries CE and focuses especially on the transformation of urban space as well as the interconnection between cities and their surrounding landscapes. The papers are drawn from presentations given at an international workshop hosted at the University of Regensburg in February 2020, which was organised jointly by the Research Training Group “Pre-Modern Metropolitanism” at the University of Regensburg and the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) at Aarhus University. The collection is necessarily interdisciplinary and includes archaeological, historical, art historical, theological, legal, and literary material. Twenty-one full colour plates are included at the end of the volume, which are very nicely produced and provide helpful visualisations—especially of city plans and maps.

The goal of the publication, as stated in the introduction by the editors Arabella Cortese and Giulia Fioratto, is to engage with the ongoing debate regarding whether Late Antiquity was a period of urban continuity, decline, or otherwise.[1] It is declared clearly at the outset that the editors are of the view that the case studies and methods presented in the collection demonstrate a tendency away from the decline model. While not espousing total continuity either, most of the papers nevertheless present Late Antiquity as an era during which the city and city life certainly changed but in a manner not fundamentally deleterious or strictly negative.

The primary audience for this volume is likely to be students and researchers already familiar with the field of ancient urbanism. There is very little introduction to some of the fundamentals of the field and awareness of ongoing research is assumed, although each paper is extensively referenced and the reader can easily follow the relevant citations to find this information. Individual papers could be used in advanced undergraduate or graduate courses as case studies of individual cities or examples of how to approach the study of ancient urbanism.

The first two entries in the collection investigate the city of Aquileia and provide complementary perspectives on one of the foremost Italian cities of Late Antiquity. An analysis of settlements outside of the city’s walls by Giulia Fioratto, focusing especially on the archaeological evidence, demonstrates that suburban occupation was established at Aquileia as early as the first century BCE and was generally unchanged until the third century CE. Yet in the late third and fourth centuries, the development of the city began to diverge from the classical model and previously suburban structures and even entire neighbourhoods were destroyed. Rather than a symptom of urban decay, however, the clearing of these buildings was deliberate demolition due to monumental building programs such as the construction of the city’s circus by Maximian and especially the erection of new city walls. The paper also attempts to estimate population changes at Aquileia and provides some interesting figures for the city’s earliest years but an admitted lack of reliable data for the fourth century onwards results in a rather cursory consideration of late antique demography.

Starting from an important fundamental premise—namely, considering how processes of continuity, discontinuity, and change are identified by modern scholars—Guido Furlan’s study of Aquileia’s waste management and disposal systems is a novel approach that provides further insight into the city’s development during Late Antiquity. The comparison of the practices of the earlier Roman period with archaeological evidence from the third to fifth centuries convincingly establishes a noticeable change in waste management habits and attitudes starting in the mid third century. Furlan concludes that, while some of the changes may seem to be indicators of urban deterioration, such as the negligence of drain maintenance and the accumulation of rubbish in abandoned or repurposed buildings, they occur during the time of Aquileia’s ascendency and are therefore likely explained by other factors; the changing priorities of urban elites and economic concerns are two possible explanations presented.

The analysis of Halikarnassos by Birte Poulson challenges the traditional understanding of the city’s development and provides a good demonstration of the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach. As is often the case with sites or time periods that have not been the focus of detailed archaeological research, the conventional view of Halikarnassos, which is predominantly based on literary sources, is shown to be incomplete when compared to the archaeological and epigraphic evidence from the city’s later history. Contrary to the picture presented in the literary sources of a city that never recovered after being heavily damaged during the siege of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, abundant mosaics, monumental tombs, and impressive residential architecture have been dated to the fourth to seventh centuries CE and attest quite clearly to the prosperity of Halikarnassos during Late Antiquity.

For the next paper, Yunus Demirci travels only a little way up the coast of Asia Minor and examines the process of hierotopy—the creation of sacred space—among the Jewish community in Priene by using the city’s synagogue as a case study. The architectural conversion of House XXIV into a synagogue in the late fourth century and its subsequent enlargement provides an interesting avenue for considering how space was used for liturgical purposes and how the use of shared symbols, such as the menorah and lulav, asserted the community’s distinct Jewish identity. The paper also attempts to contextualise the synagogue of Priene by situating it within the city’s wider topography, drawing comparisons in particular with the Christian community. Although this section illustrates some significant points, such as the concentration of Christian church building in the east of the city while the synagogue is situated in the west, it suffers from a lack of space to properly develop the topic. For instance, the presence of both Jewish and Christian graffiti in Priene is noted as evidence that the two communities cohabitated amicably but there is no mention of the fact that all of the Christian graffiti are concentrated in the centre and east of the city—that is, conspicuously not in the neighbourhood of the synagogue.[2] Further directed analysis of the synagogue of Priene in its urban context would be a valuable contribution.

During Late Antiquity, the religious landscape extended well beyond fortified urban centres and Arabella Cortese’s examination of the monasteries of Cilicia and Isauria demonstrates both the scope of such institutions and the extent to which they were connected to the lives of city-dwellers. The monasteries of Cilicia are primarily known through literary sources and the paper distinguishes between two types: remote, ascetic monasticism and the cenobitic tradition, which focused on communal living. Yet regardless of the monastic tradition, the interaction between the monks and visitors—particularly in the form of pilgrims—is stressed. A much greater representation of the monasteries of Isauria in the archaeological and epigraphic record facilitates even more detailed analysis and illustrates the close connection with the nearby cities of Seleucia and Olba, either through the production of goods, religious processions, or patronage. Consequently, the paper succeeds in highlighting the vitality of the late antique rural landscape.

In the collection’s one foray beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, Emanuele E. Intagliata’s overview of urban sites in the Kingdom of Lazica (Colchis) provides an important perspective on the processes of urban development in a region not directly administered by the Roman state. The paper focuses primarily on the influence of Roman-style urbanism from the west, which is apparent in the monumental architecture of the seven investigated cities—specifically, the ubiquity of fortification walls, churches, and baths. These conclusions include the important caveat that the prominence of monumental architecture in existing scholarship is largely due to former methodological priorities that neglected modest and private architecture rather than the actual absence of such features. Furthermore, the need to go further and analyse the wider regional—and especially Persian—influences on Lazican urbanism is very sensibly highlighted as well. The paper is, therefore, a helpful and welcome starting point for further investigation of urbanism in Lazica and the Caucasus.

Rubina Raja explores the process of studying urban religion by examining how the inhabitants of Palmyra interacted with and were influenced by the enormous Sanctuary of Bel. The architecture of the temple and surrounding complex, its extended construction period, and the associated religious ceremonies such as processions that moved throughout the city all impacted upon the lived daily experiences of the Palmyrene population. The analysis, however, only concentrates on the first few centuries of Roman control at Palmyra and misses an opportunity to discuss the transition between the Roman age and Late Antiquity and whether Late Antiquity was a period of continuity, discontinuity, or change for the city’s urban religion. The rise of Christianity, for instance, and the reuse of the Temple of Bel as a Christian church in the sixth century would presumably have changed the religious landscape of the city rather significantly.[3] Nevertheless, this essay provides an eminently well-researched example of how to approach the study of urban religion that will be helpful to anyone interested in the subject.

Taking the collection as a whole, there are certain areas that could benefit from further development. The somewhat limited geographic scope of the collection is conspicuous; three of the seven papers focus on Asia Minor and a further two are devoted to the city of Aquileia. Notable in their absence are essays regarding urbanism in the western Mediterranean and northern Europe. On a more methodological point, some of the contributions analyse only periods of prosperity and therefore do not include adequate consideration of historically-attested periods of damage or destruction such as sieges or the sack of a city. This gap may in turn affect the picture of non-recessive urban development in Late Antiquity posited by the editors. Finally, while Arabella Cortese’s analysis of monasticism in the countryside of Cilicia and Isauria is excellent, it is the only paper that truly explores the volume’s secondary aim of evaluating the relationship between cities and their hinterlands.

These reservations notwithstanding, this volume is certainly a compelling and constructive contribution to the study of ancient urbanism. It provides insight into the transformation of several noteworthy sites during Late Antiquity and addresses important methodological questions that should be relevant to any students or researchers interested in the subject, such as how decline is perceived and how previous research priorities affect published results. Consequently, individual papers in this collection would be very useful for teaching advanced undergraduate as well as graduate courses in ancient urbanism, topography, or urban archaeology and will easily facilitate discussion at those levels. Moreover, for the advanced reader who will devour the volume as a whole, it is an excellent example of modern, innovative, and interdisciplinary scholarship and is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the study of urban continuity, discontinuity, and change during Late Antiquity.


Authors and Titles

Preface, 6-8.
Introduction – Arabella Cortese, Giulia Fioratto, 9-21.
The “Peri-Urban Space” of the City of Aquileia Between Roman age and Late Antiquity: Hints of Demography – Giulia Fioratto, 22-37.
Waste Management for Evaluating the Health of Cities Between the Roman Age and Late Antiquity: A Brief Reappraisal Looking at Aquileia – Guido Furlan, 38-52.
Ancient Halikarnassos: Disruption or Continuity after the Golden Age? – Birte Poulsen, 53-75.
Asia Minor Synagogues Within their Late Antique City-Space and Religious Contexts: Priene as a Case Study – Yunus Demirci, 76-95.
Late Antique Monastic Foundations of Cilicia and Isauria as Landmarks of a Regional Sacred Topography – Arabella Cortese, 96-118.
Framing the Study of Late Antique Cities in Lazica and Nearby Territories (300-600 AD) – Emanuele E. Intagliata, 119-131.
Urban Transformations Seen Through the Lens of Urban Religion: The Case of the Sanctuary of Bel in Palmyra – Rubina Raja, 132-147.
Concluding remarks – Nadin Burkhardt, 148-159.
Plates, 160-176.



[1] A good selection of some of the more prominent modern scholars and their differing views is provided in footnotes 4 and 5 in the Introduction.

[2] Burkhardt, Nadin and Wilson, Mark (2013). “The Late Antique Synagogue in Priene: Its History, Architecture, and Context.” Gephyra 10, 166-196. For the concentration of Christian graffiti in the centre of the city, see especially 180-181.

[3] For the reuse of the Temple of Bel as a church, see especially: Jastrzębowska, Elżbieta (2013). “La Christianisation de Palmyre: L’Example du Temple de Bel.” Studia Palmyreńskie 12, 177-191.