BMCR 2023.04.24

The archaeology of Roman Macedonia: urban and rural environments

, The archaeology of Roman Macedonia: urban and rural environments. Oxford: Oxbow, 2022. Pp. 224. ISBN 9781789258011.

The Archaeology of Roman Macedonia: Urban and Rural Environments by Vassilis Evangelidis offers “a synthetic look at the built environment [of Roman Macedonia],” or “all [its] built features that constitute the human habitus: buildings, monuments and spaces created or modified by people” (p. 41). Evangelidis specifically states that the book is “meant to provide a starting point for those who want to delve deeper into more specialized subjects” (p. 195). Evangelidis is an organizer of the Roman Seminar, which offers lecture series that discuss new archaeological discoveries and studies pertaining to Roman Greece. Evangelidis’ book can be seen as an addition to this effort but with more focus on recent and ongoing systematic and rescue excavations in northern Greece, Albania, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria.[1]

The book is in three parts. Part I provides contextual information on how ancient Macedonia transitioned from the old Macedonian kingdom to the imperial period. Evangelidis takes particular interest in: 1) the breaks and continuities in demography, ethnic makeup, social stratification, cult practice, and civic institutions following the demise of the Macedonian kingdom; and 2) the removal and exodus of the Macedonian elites and the repopulation of Macedonia by persons, groups, and agencies from different regions of the Mediterranean world. The map in chapter three (p. 26, fig. 4) captioned “the urban network: old and new cities” offers an intriguing bird’s-eye view of two Macedonias: the old Greek coastal cities, such as Maroneia and Abdera, in decline, while the accumulation of roads brought about new connectivity with significant impact on the interior as the main economic interest shifted away from the coast and towards inland areas where new cities were founded, such as Traianopolis and Ulpia Tpeiros (p. 37).

The synthetic view becomes kaleidoscopic in Part II. Built features are classified according to public, commercial, industrial, ritual, entertainment, and other such types. Individual chapters focus on a single category of building types supported by layouts, stylistic features, functions, comparanda. Guiding themes and problems are given, at times subtly. On Public spaces (agorai/fora), for instance, Evangelidis invokes questions of how or whether they were transformed from Macedonian precursors or built anew, since there were scant remains of pre-Roman built features (ch. 5). Individual public and administrative buildings (ch. 7) and buildings for commerce and industry (ch. 8) follow, with attention directed towards the difficulty of function-based identifications (e.g., p. 59-60: what was the Building with the Arches at Stobi?). On ritual space (ch. 9), descriptions (e.g., Pseudo-Lucian’s highly relevant Lucius or Ass), as well as inscriptions concerning rituals, festivities, and cult worship, are anecdotal evidence useful for envisioning a populated, dynamic, and eclectic built environment at a specific point in time, but how can such sources fit into interpretations of continuity, adaptation, or the eclecticism of temples and sanctuaries? Surveys and discussion of the architecture of entertainment (ch. 10) also rely on similar issues, particularly on what traditional entertainment spaces actually were transformed into dual-use venues to accommodate a thriving gladiator culture from the second century CE onwards. The chapter on “the architecture of water” covers a dazzling array of the numerous aqueducts, latrines, fountains, and baths built during the Roman period (ch. 11). The natural abundance of water in Macedonia and the early developments of the Hellenistic balaneia (e.g., in Thessaloniki and Pella, pp. 108-109, and Amphipolis, pp. 114-115) may be taken as the driver for Macedonia’s “culture of water” that extended even to the most rural parts within the province. On built features of movement and passage (ch. 12), Evangelidis suggests the term “urban armatures” (p. 121). Many of these built features speak to the architectural language of imperial Rome, and Evangelidis suggests that they were purposely used to “hierarchize” urban spaces and regulated access, movement, and behavior (p. 128). One wonders to what degree the impact of hierarchized or regulated spaces are archaeologically visible. For “housing in urban and peri-urban contexts” (ch. 13), Evangelidis notes beyond traditional oikia houses and Roman style atria houses there was also the fusion type called the “courtyard house” that had various spaces opening around one or more courtyards (pp. 131-132). But non-elite domestic architecture remains poorly attested and understood (p. 141). Chapter 14 discusses architecture of defense. It is noteworthy that so little effort was made to build or at least reinforce urban defense against known and repeated northern incursions from the mid-second century onwards; Evangelidis suggests that hillside forts and fortified villas on highlands, including the rough stones crowning hill tops in Aegean Thrace, may have been local solutions to threats.  In addition to built features commonly seen in other Balkan provinces (e.g. funerary altars, sarcophagi), “Deathscapes” (ch. 15) discusses hundreds of third-century CE vaulted tombs typical of elite burial in earlier Macedonian kingdom, but to what degree can they be seen as “the mimicking of past funerary architecture” and part of a trend to revive the glorious Macedonian past (p. 156)? The last chapter (ch. 16) of Part II, which covers rural sites, raises questions regarding the differentiation of villas from farmsteads, and the dangers of classifying sites into types such as farms, villages, hamlets, and roadside settlements. Much appreciated is Evangelidis’ discussion of how rural sites may be connected to land and maritime transport networks, and figure 37 (p. 161) offers good visual guidance on the patterns of association between these two facets of Roman Macedonia.

Part III is comprised of four (again compact) chapters in which Evangelidis argues that Roman Macedonia should not be perceived exclusively in “Roman” terms. The chapter on the course of development of urban environments (ch. 18) identifies two phases of architectural development. The first is the Late Hellenistic to Early Roman, when materials were local and types mostly Hellenistic in character (p. 176-178) . The second phase is from the mid-2nd century to the early 4th century CE, when major urban spaces underwent rapid and comprehensive convergence with empire-wide social and cultural trends, and adapted existing public and private spaces to contemporary architectural and spatial models (pp. 177-178). But, as Evangelidis keeps reminding readers, the survival of local styles of construction, the reuse of building materials, maintenance, modification, and adaptation of pre-existing buildings complicate chronologies (pp. 176-177). Colonies may have earlier stages of built features by the first Italian colonists, then later reconfigurations (basically the levelling/erasure of pre-existing structures) create new, “coherent,” and even “theatrical” urban landscapes (p. 183). Roman Macedonia was also receptive to a broad range of spatial and architectural ideas (p. 185). Intra-city rivalries and euergetism can lead to unconventional forms of monumentaliztion (p. 186). For rural environments (ch. 19) Evangelidis is mostly concerned with the theory that (or rather the question whether) “Roman Macedonia was systematically and intensively exploited through a dense network of large and medium-sized estates” (p. 188). Evangelidis argues that, while the villa economy model may be useful, there is also evidence (e.g., the farm at Toumba outside Thessaloniki, the site in Aphytis, and the cluster of farms in Lete) that suggest villa-centric interpretations have limitations (p. 188). The many ritual sites (e.g., Hero Equitans, sanctuaries of Zeus Hypsistos, the sanctuary of Ennodia in Kozani), burial tumuli (e.g., Gomati cemetary in Chalkidike), and dispersed native settlements (along the Rodope mountains) did not conform to a “rational” Romanized landscape characterized by organized agricultural activities and a villa-centered lifestyle, and could achieve centrality through centuries’ of evolving perceptions about space and occupation of land in their immediate locales (pp. 191-192).

The last chapter of the book (ch. 20) compares Roman Macedonia with Roman Achaea. Evangelidis wishes to push back against an “archaeological orthodoxy” that sees little architectural difference between the two. But he does not explicate how they were different, except a matter-of-fact statement: “clearly, for many small cities and towns in Macedonia—especially the ones away from the coast like Vardarski rid (Gortynia?), Eidomene, Styberra or Petres—the experience of urban living and the form of the built environment was different than the one in Achaea” (p. 193). But the sole discussion on Vardarski rid, which also covers Petres in Florina, offers only a short comment on domestic architecture, that it must have been the “simple compact house…with no central colonnaded court,” a potential local variant of “the Greek courtyard house” that was “better suited to the colder weather conditions” (p. 129). For Eidomene, the discussion focuses on the Roman-style podium temple” found there, a typical frontal temple of Italy, prostyle and standing on a podium, donated by a makedoniarch (p. 79). Would this experience be entirely alien from, say, Patras, Corinth, or even Athens in Roman Achaea?

Chapter 17, “Building methods and construction techniques” centers on the systematic use of cement, particularly the opus mixtum technique, or “bricks laid in bands alternating with course of rubble covered with binding material” (p. 173) distinct  from the opus caementicium technique (p. 174, fig. 39), as the photos helpfully illustrate. One also appreciates the reminder that the “exclusively brick” opus caementicium technique was closely associated with the introduction of imperially-controlled figlinae in the Tetrachic period, and it is seen not only at the Galerian complex but also in domestic complexes in Thessaloniki, Dion, and Stobi (pp. 174-175). Diligent readers might find it unfortunate that specific types of vaulting and vaulted spaces (e.g. “barrel-vaulted,” p. 47, 72; “radial vaults,” p. 98; “wedge-shaped” vaults, p. 101; “pitched-brick” vaulting [the earliest known Roman example!], p. 105) mentioned throughout the book received no treatment in this chapter, which would have been a contribution, considering that Lynne Lancaster’s Innovative Vaulting in the Architecture of the Roman Empire: 1st to 4th Centuries CE (2015) does not cover most of the examples that Evangelidis mentions.[2]

Some readers might appreciate an index, considering that sites mentioned in the book are numerous and cross multiple countries. Site summaries (including site-specific introductions, maps and site plans, and bibliography, as seen in John Camp’s Archaeology of Athens, pp. 247-327) would have been very useful. But for a survey aiming to provide “a starting point for those who want to delve deeper,” some sort of general map with a full list of sites mentioned in the text (e.g., Susan Alcock’s Graecia Capta, pp. 10-12) would have been useful. One might also wish for more site plans, photos, and maps. There seems to be potential to create a supplementary digital humanities project comparable to the beautiful and informative Gardens of the Roman Empire Project, originally modeled on Gardens of Pompeii (1979-1993), that complements the edited volume Gardens of the Roman Empire (2018).

To sum up, there is much to like about this book. Evangelidis strings together the full spectrum of architectural features within a large “built environment,” and creates useful syntheses of new and ongoing archaeological work in northern Greece and elsewhere. Readers interested in Roman archaeology in general may benefit from the comparanda described and analyzed, thanks to Evangelidis’ coherent narration and analysis, and perhaps his up-to-date bibliography. Students may particularly benefit if a potential online edition can bring together visual aids and other resources currently not part of the printed edition.



[1] Though not entirely exhaustive: Heraclea Sintike (with its well-excavated Hellenistic agora/Roman forum) is not mentioned, for example. Cf. L. Vagalinski, “Heraclea Sintica and Some of Its Recently Found Marble Sculptures,” Archaeologica Bulgarica 24.2 (2020) 1-39; N. Sharankov, “Five Official Inscriptions from Heraclea Sintica Including a Record of the Complete Cursus Honorum of D. Terentius Gentianus,” Archaeologia Bulgarica 25.3 (2021) 1-43.

[2] The odeion at Thessaloniki, p. 60; Arch of Galerius, p. 63; Rotunda of Galerius, p. 89.