BMCR 2023.05.08

Stadttor und Stadteingang: zur Alltags- und Kulturgeschichte der Stadt in der römischen Kaiserzeit

, Stadttor und Stadteingang: zur Alltags- und Kulturgeschichte der Stadt in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2022. Pp. 463. ISBN 978349189180



As the title implies, Susanne Froehlich embarks on an analysis of the everyday use and cultural significance of city gates and city entrances in the Roman Empire. Her timeframe spans the Augustan period up to the third century AD. It is an ambitious subject that Froehlich tackles thoroughly to produce a voluminous book filled with detail and nuance. The book is a product of her Habilitationsschrift, submitted in 2021 at the Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen.

The introduction gives an overview of the scope of the volume and summarizes the chapters that will follow. The author also critically engages with the definition of terms such as ‘City’ and ‘City Gates’ and carries on offering an overview of methodological approaches and questions that will be addressed. The volume then divides into five main sections each arranged in a series of chapters. Each section begins with a summary of the chapters it contains and each chapter starts with a concise overview of its aims. The book is therefore sometimes repetitive, but one can also view this as an asset because it makes the volume easier to consult.

In Part 1 the author offers a brief overview of the development of city gates in central and eastern Mediterranean cultures broadly defined by geographical regions and historical periods. Chapter 2 examines the developments of Roman defensive architecture up to the early Imperial period with a focus on the construction of gates under Augustus and the Julio-Claudians. The author also answers questions about patronage, which cities had gates, and what premises allowed for their construction. Although she presents a thorough overview, the book somehow omits important examples such as the Porta Leoni and Porta Borsari in Verona. Chapter 3 looks at the developments in the Levant. Gadara is a case study highlighting how gates also performed as marketplaces and as the locus for court trials, a critical difference to common perceptions of the role of city gates elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The conclusions are interesting, but they are not pulled into the later narrative of the book, where they could have been used to explore regional variation in architectural vocabulary and semantics. In chapter 4, Froehlich examines the developments of fortifications in ancient Greece, opening with an overview of the construction of fortifications in the Archaic and Classical periods and their relationship to hoplite tactics on the Greek mainland. This overview is somewhat of a generalization. It omits the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy (e.g., Paestum, Velia, Syracuse, Selinus) where important developments occurred in poliorcetics during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The author then goes into a discussion about the description of city gates by Pausanias which seems somewhat isolated from the rest of the chapter.

Part 2 comprises four chapters where Froehlich examines the daily use of city gates and their function as structures of social and economic control. The topic of security forms an important thread. Chapter 5 addresses the notions of pax and securitas to include the influence of the emperor as guarantor of security. It also seeks answers to questions on the significance of open and closed city gates as markers of security. The chapter further addresses the extent of the freedom of movement in the empire as related to perceptions of security at city gates. Froehlich tackles longstanding questions on protection in chapter 6, answering a series of queries on the concept of security, watchmen, traffic and person control, and associated outposts set up at urban entrances. The conclusions in these chapters suggest that no single model existed for the application of measures across the empire and that they were administered at the local level. Chapter 7 continues the theme by addressing questions on taxation and money at city gates, using a series of papyri from Fayum to help elucidate the topic. Part 2 ends with Chapter 8 discussing the infrastructure associated with business and commerce at gates, including slaughterhouses, warehouses, inns and more.

Part 3 discusses the role of city gates in traffic and communication networks of cities. Chapter 9 serves to identify traffic patterns regulated at city gates including addressing the prohibition on carts travelling through the city of Rome by day and such restrictions at the local level which authorities would have enforced at gates. Chapter 10 follows with an examination of city gates as places anchoring street networks, as landmarks, and subsequently as locales for communication and information flow. Once again, the discussion is thorough, but the author could have polished her arguments by including some more theoretical discussion on landmarks and nodes in the flow of urban armatures. At the same time, when it comes to traffic regulation, the discussion sometimes seems to fall into rabbit holes that to some extent lose sight of the main argument.

Part 4 divides into three chapters that seek to answer questions on the semantics of city gates. Chapter 11 is dedicated to gates in their role as liminal spaces, addressing questions related to the pomerium and the Triumph in Rome. Froehlich also examines other cultic associations elsewhere such as the presence of apotropaic devices as well as the role of gates in processions and adventus ceremonies. Chapter 12 builds on these questions by examining gates as a locus of self-representation and as places expressing power in terms of dignitas, urbanitas, and romanitas. The elements of representation include commemorative monuments such as tombs and statues in the vicinity of gates. In chapter 13, Froehlich addresses the ‘fictional topography’ or mental image of urban boundaries in the empire using surviving texts including satire. City gates are critical to imagining the boundaries of empire especially to those travelling long distances.

Part 5 serves to conclude the book by taking stock of the evidence and further prospects. Chapter 14 once again reviews the many functions of Roman city gates by summarizing their role in the urban contexts of the empire. Chapter 15 looks ahead to the role of city gates in the pre-modern city, addressing issues of continuity and change. The book closes with extensive bibliographies of ancient and modern texts as well as indexes of images and terms.

Froelich sets out to sketch the cultural history of city gates in the Empire. In this aspect the volume is certainly a success. Her approach relies primarily on textual analysis and epigraphy as well as some archaeology to answer a broad set of questions in a methodical manner. A reader should not look to this volume for extensive discussions of architectural design, art history, military tactics, and the development of individual monuments. Instead, Froehlich argues for a continuity of use and symbolic function of city gates during the Empire when the focus on defense shifted away to the frontiers. Cities maintained gates and even shifted to building individual freestanding monumental arches that continued those functions. The author sketches a picture that indicates regional diversity in procedures of closure, taxation, and rituals which are fertile grounds for future research.

Recent studies of fortifications have tended to be collections of papers that have only managed to superficially address questions on cultural history that otherwise remained open in the field of fortification studies. They have tended to concentrate on publishing archaeological sites, regional surveys, or focusing on tactical developments in particular time periods rather than on cultural approaches. In this volume the author offers many insights into the cultural context of city gates. Froelich identifies the role of gates in taxation, social control, communication, as meeting places, traffic control, and religious significance as well as how they maintained their function as boundary markers and as symbols of power and projections of security. The book is well written, and the author displays a mastery of the topic through detailed discussion. In this manner, she convincingly addresses questions of long-distance mobility, economic, and social control that suggest a tangible regionality of governance throughout the empire. The volume is therefore a landmark in urban and architectural studies, offering a much-needed overview on the significance of city gates during the Roman empire. It looks to be a cornerstone in urban studies for many years to come.