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Fréjus (Forum Julii): Le Port Antique / The Ancient Harbour

Fréjus (Forum Julii): Le Port Antique / The Ancient Harbour

By Chérine Gébara and Christophe Morhange (JRA Suppl. 77). Pp. 152, b&w figs. 68, color figs. 20. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2010. $69.50. ISBN 978-1-887829-77-9 (cloth).

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Fréjus (Forum Julii): The Ancient Harbour, by Gébara and Morhange, is the publication of the research data collected by a multidisciplinary project that has studied the ancient harbor of Fréjus in France since 1986. The project employed a combination of paleographical and archaeological methods in an effort to provide a different model for interpreting the harbor’s construction and surrounding architecture, as well as clarifying its importance for maritime commerce. The primary goal of the project was to bring attention to this substantial site and reinterpret it in light of new and unpublished data collected in the last 20 years. To reach a wider audience, the published results are presented in a bilingual format with alternating pages of French and English.

While the book is composed of many smaller sections, the editors divided the work into two main parts: an introduction and background to the site and the presentation of the collected data, including an appendix, with a brief conclusion. The first part of the work supplies the reader with some background to this site and the earlier archaeological work in the area. It provides the main textual testimonia for Fréjus from ancient times and sets the site into the surrounding landscape. The textual evidence indicates that Julius Caesar founded the town of Fréjus in the first century B.C.E. at the delta of Butte Saint-Antoine to take advantage of a natural harbor and its position on a terrestrial trading route. The commercial growth of the town ensured that the harbor, which had been in use since the Iron Age, became both a successful commercial and important military harbor in the western Mediterranean in the Roman period. The initial depth of the newly built Roman harbor, approximately 7 m, and its protected basin facilitated its initial success. But over the succeeding centuries, silt from the Argens delta slowly filled in the harbor, and by the sixth or seventh century C.E. it became useful only for small, shallow draft vessels, such as small trading vessels and fishing boats. Historical records indicate that it was still used as a harbor as late as the 10th century and that at some time after this, it became permanently cut off from the sea and by the 19th century was completely infilled and eventually used for agricultural purposes.

The longer section of the work is the publication of the archaeological data collected since the project began. It starts with a summary of the paleoenvironmental data, which complements the other more traditionally collected archaeological data. Biosedimentological analyses of 11 cores taken in the harbor basin illustrates two main phases: a protected maritime harbor during the Roman period with a direct connection to the sea and the existence of a freshwater dock that was in use for 1,200–1,500 years following its silting up. The evidence from these cores also allowed them to challenge an earlier argument that the harbor basin contained an outer harbor and to demonstrate that the harbor had been originally connected directly to the sea by a channel.

The authors next present the archaeological results from their examination of the harbor’s architecture, most notably the quays. Based on this work, Gébara and Morhange conclude that the harbor’s installation and surrounding harbor architecture underwent five stages of development in the Roman period (at the end of the first century B.C.E. and the beginning of the first century C.E.), perhaps close together in chronology. Most of the main structures, such as a customs post, are dated to the Augustan period and fit in well with Augustus’ overall harbor reorganization in the Mediterranean. Based on their work, the authors also believe that there would have been two additional lighthouses constructed on the quays that, in conjunction with a third lighthouse, would have assisted mariners in locating the harbor’s sea entrance.

This reconstruction of lighthouses is developed more fully in the work’s final section, which is a lengthy appendix (by Gassend, Lemoine, and Gébara) focusing on the Triton monument discovered at the entrance to the harbor. This discovery of the statue, two blocks of modillion, and the remains of a Roman building at the end of the eastern quay nearby, is the primary evidence for this site being a lighthouse. The close connection between Triton and ports and harbors in the Hellenistic and Roman periods is well documented. The lighthouse would have been 15–16 m in height and would have worked in conjunction with two other towers. One, situated on the Île du Lion de Mer, would have been the primary light or beacon that coastal traffic would have navigated toward. As they approached the harbor, the Triton lighthouse on the northern side of the channel into the harbor, and the other lighthouse on the southern side, would have marked the entrance and thus provided safe passage into the harbor.

The book is well written, contains numerous illustrations, and is reasonably priced. The prose is easy to follow and presents the authors’ work and conclusions in a practical, straightforward manner. Organizing the presentation of archaeological data in a publication so that it is both accessible and beneficial is always difficult, and the authors’ rather traditional approach impedes its usefulness at times. There is no doubt, however, that the work will be beneficial to maritime historians of the Roman period, and it provides a possible blueprint for other archaeological projects to follow when investigating ancient harbors. The authors state in the preface that they hope that their study might “serve as a basis for a serious reflection on the future of the Roman port in respect of the rich evidence which is still preserved” (6). In this regard, they have succeeded.

R. Scott Moore
Department of History
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, Pennsylvania 15705

Book Review of Fréjus (Forum Julii): Le Port Antique/The Ancient Harbour, by Chérine Gébara and Christophe Morhange

Reviewed by R. Scott Moore

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Moore

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