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Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space: The “Classical” City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD

Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space: The “Classical” City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD

By Ine Jacobs (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 193). Pp. xi + 1,028, figs. 224, plans 17. Peeters, Leuven 2013. €120. ISBN 978-90-429-2302-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Jacobs has taken on a substantial and challenging theme in exploring the evolving appearance and monumentality of Late Roman and Early Byzantine towns and the changing attitudes to these monuments and their spaces by civic authorities and the wider urban population. The theme—most certainly multistranded—gives scope to explore en route aspects of politics, religion, and economics; it also enables a closer questioning of when cities began to look less “classical.” In particular, it builds on and expands the work of Saradi (The Byzantine City in the Sixth Century: Literary Images and Historical Reality [Athens 2006]).

This sizeable volume derives from a doctoral dissertation completed in 2008 for the Catholic University of Leuven (the author notes that the bibliography extends to early 2010 [v]); it benefits from the author’s engagement with the highly productive Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project and from numerous site visits in Turkey especially (these providing the bulk of the book’s numerous and informative color photographs). Indeed, the book centers on the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor and exploits sites such as Aphrodisias, Ephesos, Xanthos, Sardis, Hierapolis, and Sagalassos (many of which have seen extended archaeological campaigns) and the heightened interest at many of these on their Late Antique phases. Appendix 1 (679–701) summarizes the 15 core sites explored in terms of site history, plans, and status; the short sections on “excavated area” perhaps needed fuller bibliographic guides. Appendix 2 (702–62) gives brief overviews of the key monuments discussed, ordered by the volume’s chapters (e.g., “Fortifications,” “Streets and Squares”). Bringing such important data together and debating them in a coherent and engaging fashion is no mean feat, and Jacobs certainly will open many doors for scholars centered on the western Mediterranean alone, not least in highlighting the rich epigraphic record available that enables so much of the discussion here.

The core research question is on what can be learned of “the attention paid to the appearance and maintenance of the city” (4) across ca. 300–600 C.E. and of changes in modes of construction and repairs and, more widely, in attitude. Quality, speed, materials, and recording of works are seen as routes to gauge contemporary aesthetic appreciation of the cityscapes. Linked questions are on scale—of operations, input, and investors—and on whether the larger cities or capitals enjoyed the higher attention and the wider participation or whether big cities struggled more than lesser ones. How cities appeared to residents and visitors alike adds substantially to our comprehension of these as mutable places and not just as settings for monuments that existed but then failed. Importantly, Jacobs’ volume as a whole can be supplemented by ongoing work in “The Visualisation of the Late Antique City” project based at the University of Kent, Canterbury (, which is confronting how urban spaces, places (public, private, commercial), and people looked in late antiquity. Indeed, while Jacobs does talk of workers and patrons, the Kent project, which also considers private houses, will populate the cities more.

Jacobs presents seven main chapters that first describe and discuss the various components of the Late Classical cityscapes and then debate the changes and their instigators: “Fortifications,” “Streets and Squares,” “Decorative Monuments,” “Religious Architecture,” “Statuary,” “Architectural Changes,” and “Initiators and Constructors.” The last chapter might have come earlier in the sequence, since we learn here (notably via epigraphic data—ranging from fine marble inscriptions to mosaic texts to graffiti) of those who commissioned works, from imperial munificence in the provincial capitals to governors, councilors, guilds, and ordinary shopkeepers, with fascinating evidence, for example, for individual or group repairs to street colonnades reflected both in text and in the mishmash of column and entablature types (66–184, 516–21, 612–22). Arguably, keeping roads and squares tidy and clear might be viewed as symbolic of the classical city (although this implies that classical cities were themselves clean), and it is striking how utility and pride combined to keep these “in order” through to the late sixth century in many sites, and with covered colonnaded thoroughfares often a focus of large- to small-scale patronage. However, as for all the structures discussed, from porticoes to churches and city walls, street pavings do see change (140–58), with spolia drawn on to repave, restore, and patch. These spolia were part of the “making-do” process and denote a logical exploitation of resources to hand through loss of other structures.

There are plenty of details and supporting examples on offer in this volume, whether in terms of tracing where Late Antique churches were sited in the ancient town plan (viewing the range of architectural elements that made up a church and questioning why church exteriors may have been relatively plain [ch. 4]) or discussing decorative features on city gates (ch. 1, perhaps the weakest chapter in the volume) or debating what changes Christianity might have wrought on the multiple statuary that populated many larger eastern cities (ch. 5) or in exploring survivals, decorative upgradings, or even functional conversions of fountains and nymphaea (ch. 3, with clever considerations of vistas).

Each section raises questions: for example, how might one recognize supporting features of programs of work and repair, such as scaffolding and supplies of materials for these and the workers? Can one ever know how long such fittings and workpiles lay about? After all, in some modern towns scaffolding and boarded-up buildings damaged by fire, subsidence, and neglect can sometimes linger for decades. Jacobs works hard at tackling many such points, such as noting that we can likely identify efforts at prioritization, for example, after an earthquake (534)—and earthquakes seem a major problem in the period—some buildings will be selected for speedy repair, some must wait, and others are demolished; choices may be made on the basis of damage but also on the availability of civic funds and preferences toward certain structures. By the time churches form the primary civic focus from ca. 500 C.E., such preferences were restricted, and church builders took strategically from inactive structures and actively started in the remodeling of parts of town plans (391–92).

There are effectively two concluding chapters. Chapter 8 is titled “Using Urban Space,” but in part it synthesizes earlier conclusions while also extending discussion to who undertook maintenance, where dumping took place, and how privatized or commerce-oriented encroachment on streets occurred. Arguably, another book is required to explore in depth changing private spaces, since one might expect that how houses were ordered, decorated, used, and maintained might form strong reflections of changes in the wider urban fabric. The conclusion (ch. 9) sensibly traces the main chronological markers of evolving construction, maintenance, and change and then assesses what the “constants” (even if modified or remodeled) of public space, utilities, and ornamentation were and how well we can read “aesthetic maintenance” in these. Finally, status is flagged: provincial capital status, elite presences, Church input, and economic vitality undoubtedly played key roles in the extended vitality and display in the larger centers.

Two issues that need further work regard movement and mentalities in the latter phases of these places. For the first, the decay of the classical urban cores and of associated monumental zones surely impacted how people communicated within the cities: even with what seems regular or systematic robbing for materials, rubble-strewn areas and dangerous ruins created “no-go” areas, forcing new lanes and tracks to appear. Jacobs does show how sometimes ruins might be leveled and new buildings or streets superimposed, but such efforts appear fewer after the mid sixth century, and many old cities by ca. 600–625 C.E. must have looked shabbier and disfigured (cf. descriptions of Sagalassos [608–9]). One might conjure up images from present-day battle-scarred Libya, Syria, and Palestine to see people “making do” and living in half-ruinous edifices and using other bombed or damaged zones for dumping; it would be valuable to know how "attached" such people remain to their enfeebled cities and how they view the surrounding debris.

As Jacobs observes (677), by 600 C.E., therefore, “the decline of aesthetic maintenance of urban space had already largely been concluded,” and the later Arab takeovers, the shrunken Byzantine world, and damaged economies created reduced, functional places far removed from their Late Antique prime. 

Neil Christie
School of Archaeology & Ancient History
University of Leicester
Leicester LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

Book Review of Aesthetic Maintenance of Civic Space: The Classical City from the 4th to the 7th c. AD, by Ine Jacobs

Reviewed by Neil Christie

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Christie

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