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The City in the Roman West, c.250 BC–c.AD 250

The City in the Roman West, c.250 BC–c.AD 250

By Ray Laurence, Simon Esmonde-Cleary, and Gareth Sears. Pp. xiv + 355, figs. 90. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $42. ISBN 978-0-521-70140-2 (paper).

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The development and significance of the Roman city has been an important and recurrent research theme over the past 40 years. Cities were ubiquitous throughout Italy and the Roman provinces, and there are close connections between urbanization, imperialism, and the cultural changes previously termed “Romanization.” As a result, city life and the development of Roman forms of urbanization are central to our understanding of the Roman empire and its relationship with Rome. This volume presents a wide-ranging analysis of cities and their development in the western half of the empire—the region in which urban life was least well established in the pre-Roman era and in which Roman forms of urbanism were most dominant—over a period of 500 years.

Although the book covers a wide range of aspects of urbanism—including colonization and urban formation, the legal and administrative framework of urban life, and urban society—the emphasis is very much on urban planning and the physical development of the city. Likewise, although the focus is on the spatial layout and structures of the city, there is also a discussion of ancient sources, which demonstrates that cities are more complex and nuanced than is often recognized (92–5). However, the core chapters of the book, all lavishly illustrated with site plans and maps, focus on the urban geography of the city. They address the development of urban plans and layouts, walls and fortifications, the forum, and a range of important building types such as theaters, baths, and amphitheaters, although these are all examined within the overall context of the city as a social and cultural environment.

The comparative approach works best in the chapters focusing on specific elements of the urban environment, such as street layouts, fortifications, and various types of building. Here, it allows the authors to explore the variations in urban development both between and within regions and provinces and to present new insights into the factors that influenced urban layouts and the relationship between cities and their surroundings. The book makes a very convincing case for urban development as a much more varied and nuanced process than is often suggested. Chronological change is less clearly handled. Although the book does cover the development of cities from the middle of the third century B.C.E. in Italy, the emphasis is on the Augustan period and the Roman empire, and the impact and significance of chronological change is presented less effectively than aspects of regional variation.

The wide-ranging approach has both strengths and weaknesses. The comparative aspects of the book are very much to be welcomed, particularly with respect to urbanization in the western provinces, which has perhaps received less scholarly attention than urban development in Italy. However, this broad-brush approach can lead to some slightly odd omissions and sweeping statements. The discussion of colonization, for example, focuses mainly—apart from consideration of Cosa and Paestum—on the colonies of the first century B.C.E. and later. The important role of the local elites in shaping urban development and urban life is passed over in a mere couple of paragraphs (89–90), although the authors return to the subject in a little more depth in the final chapter. Perhaps more seriously, it can elide some important issues about the extent to which the urban development in Italy—where there was a long tradition of urban life in some areas—and the provinces can be dealt with in the same terms. This gives rise to some slightly curious assertions: the idea that cities in the western provinces were shaped as much by the priorities of the local population as by those of the Roman administration (91–2) is a very interesting one, but it is not clear why the authors believe this to be a particular feature of these provinces, and not (as implied) shared by Italy or the eastern empire. The development of urban forms and urban culture as an interplay between local and Roman/central cultures and priorities is an important feature throughout the empire, although perhaps more clearly visible in areas where pre-Roman levels of urbanism were low.

There is a similar unevenness in coverage and a slightly uneven balance between coverage of the city as a physical and spatial object, which is excellent, and that of the city as a social and cultural system, which is less satisfactory and leaves the volume somewhat stronger on the material evidence than on social context. The final chapter, which seeks to place urbanism in its wider socioeconomic context and to suggest some possible explanations for the phenomenon of urbanization, discusses a number of possible models for explaining patterns of urban development. These range from various models of demographic and macroeconomic change to the role of the local elites, interactions with Rome, and with specific subgroups such as senators or members of the equestrian order. The complexity of the processes of urbanism is underlined by the fact that none of the models reviewed by the authors seems to provide an explanation that is convincing for all the provinces and regions covered by this book.

Despite these issues, however, the authors present a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of urban forms and building types and a thorough review of the wider context of urban development. Furthermore, this book makes a persuasive case for the city in the western Roman empire as being more varied and responsive to local needs and cultures than has sometimes been suggested.

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Book Review of The City in the Roman West, c.250 BC–c.AD 250, by Ray Laurence, Simon Esmonde-Cleary, and Gareth Sears

Reviewed by Kathryn Lomas

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Lomas

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