You are here

Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain

Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain

By Adam Rogers (Mnemosyne Suppl. 355). Pp. xiv + 278, figs. 38. Brill, Leiden 2013. $161. ISBN 978-90-04-24787-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Rogers’ Water and Roman Urbanism is an innovative examination of the “waterscapes” of Roman Britain—including oceans and seas; rivers, streams, and other water courses; waterfronts; shores and coasts; lakes, ponds, and pools; springs, marshes, and wetlands; and groundwater—in order to demonstrate the complex relationships between water and the ancient urban experience at a variety of specific sites in Britain. Waterscapes, in fact, are imbued with an importance that matches landscapes and townscapes for the purpose of investigating archaeological environments.

Rogers argues that by giving the waterscapes of Roman cities greater significance, we can gain a much more nuanced understanding of Roman urbanism, urban developments, and the urban experience generally, including the cultural and religious importance of water (87). This promise of the book, therefore, is enticing, and while its pages have much to offer both experts and students of Roman archaeology, urban planning, and ancient technology, the actual lessons about Roman urbanism—the second half of the book’s title, after all—are somewhat lacking among the book’s six chapters.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction that thoughtfully contextualizes Water and Roman Urbanism within recent research on water and lays out the structure and plan for the book. We learn all the ways that waterscapes interacted with urban spaces and why we should pay attention to these interactions as we consider Roman urbanism.

The heart of the volume, chapter 2, explores five urban settlements and their surroundings: London (32–51), Canterbury (51–7), Cirencester (57–66), Lincoln (66–78), and Winchester (78–87). In addition to the crucial importance of the waterscapes and their cultural significance to these towns, we discover that location of the towns, their development, and even certain preexisting activities and places are also closely tied to the nearby waterscapes.

Chapter 3 unfolds a full treatment of rivers, lakes, and islands and the changing waterscapes of Roman cities. We learn in this chapter that rivers actually became an “architectural element” in cities and had a major impact on the urban experience (129). Rogers reviews several additional sites to those discussed in chapter 2: the River Lavant at Chichester in West Sussex; the River Ver (and others) at Verulamium in Hertfordshire; the River Tas at Caistor-by-Norwich in Norfolk; the River Severn at Gloucester and Wroxeter; the River Exe at Exeter in Devon; and the River Ouse in York. We learn that rivers form a part of both the fabric and biography of the towns through which they flow by how they are used, how their courses change, how they overflow and widen or dry up and shrink, and how they are controlled by dams or are left to run free.

Waterfronts involving the interface between land and water and the construction of waterfront installations in towns are the focus of chapter 4. Here, Rogers urges the application of methodologies from maritime archaeology (140–46) to get at the motives behind waterfront alteration that may have affected urban spaces. While his synthesis of several proponents of these new ways to study maritime cultures is satisfying and enlightening, I was looking for a more rigorous application of these theoretical maritime approaches to the specific sites under discussion in order to get beyond pure description and the economic issues that usually dominate discussions of Roman ports, harbors, and urban waterfronts.

Chapter 5 provides coverage of wetlands, drainage, and land reclamation necessary for building towns. As in chapter 4, Rogers engages with new ideas and theories, this time from wetlands archaeology (180–87), to push against more traditional views concerning, for example, urban flooding (which may not have troubled the Romans as much as it would bother us today) and other environmental issues related to water management.

The concluding chapter (ch. 6), an overview of towns, water, and places, adds further suggestions for the value of including waterscapes in studies of Roman urbanism and summarizes most of the arguments of the earlier chapters. Through the application of various theoretical frameworks not used in studies of Roman urbanism before, Rogers emphasizes the human interaction between the land and various bodies of water more succinctly than anyone has so far attempted. Unfortunately, he stops a bit short and leaves us wondering exactly how the Romans did understand their urbanism within these insightful observations on the social and cultural impact of waterscapes. I am sure the book will inspire further work on Roman urbanism.

Rogers argues that waterscapes played economic, social, and cultural roles in their environments and that the human inhabitants living near them had changing perceptions about them. He asks: what were the parameters that determined these changes? What can we learn by studying the waterscapes of a specific culture and geographic area? Why do people experience these waterscapes in different ways in different historical periods, and how did this affect their lives, especially in Roman urban settlements?

The definition and description of waterscapes in themselves are not new, but Rogers goes far beyond the physical nature of these features, which are consistent and unalterable regardless of culture and time. Twenty-six (original or adapted) crisply drawn plans of Roman urban sites in Britain demonstrate his points and help us see the need to change our entire approach to ancient urbanism by vigorously avoiding the shallow assumption that we think we already understand it. Rogers insists, rightly so, that studying water supply systems, bath houses, and other aspects of the water infrastructure of towns and cities is not enough to reveal the place of water within Roman urban developments. He concludes that Roman urbanism is a meaningful subject of historical and archaeological inquiry, but only if it is seen in the broadest possible spectrum, including inside the waterscapes in which Roman cities and towns were sited.

The book is well written, aimed at a scholarly audience, and provides an excellent review of the scholarship and avenues for debate on the topic. It attempts to map the profound ways people experienced waterscapes in and around the urban Roman world in Britain.

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow
Department of Classical Studies
Brandeis University

Book Review of Water and Roman Urbanism: Towns, Waterscapes, Land Transformation and Experience in Roman Britain, by Adam Rogers

Reviewed by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.KoloskiOstrow

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.