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A Companion to Roman Architecture

July 2015 (119.3)

Book Review

A Companion to Roman Architecture

Edited by Roger B. Ulrich and Caroline K. Quenemoen (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World). Pp. xxiv + 589, figs. 111, maps 4. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester 2014. $195. ISBN 978-1-4051-9964-3 (cloth).

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Compared with other aspects of Greek and Roman art and archaeology, Roman architecture has not attracted the attention it deserves in recent anglophone literature. The standard syntheses by Boëthius and Ward-Perkins (Etruscan and Roman Architecture [Harmondsworth 1970]) and by MacDonald (The Architecture of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1, An Introductory Study [New Haven and London 1965]; The Architecture of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2, An Urban Appraisal [New Haven and London 1986]), still widely used as undergraduate texts, in places now appear rather dated in a field that has seen much exciting new research in recent years. This volume has therefore been eagerly anticipated to fill a widely perceived lacuna, given that the aim of the Blackwell series is, according to its own publicity, to provide “sophisticated and authoritative overviews” of important periods and themes in ancient culture, “designed for an international audience of scholars, students and general readers” ( Not all of it, however, fills this gap, and the overall effect is disappointing.

Inevitably, the editors had to make choices. They decided to eschew “an encyclopedic review” in favor of a focus on “new discoveries and approaches,” while expanding the volume to include “the dynamic processes of creation and reception” (4). Their authors are a mix of well-established and younger scholars, all but two based at American or British institutions, writing first and foremost for an anglophone undergraduate audience, to whom the useful glossary of technical terms is directed. While the general bibliography is largely up-to-date, many of the “[g]uides to further reading” are strongly weighted in favor of works in English that predate the “new discoveries and approaches” to be found in the wider European literature. It is especially surprising to see how little use is made of Gros’ magisterial L’architecture romaine (Paris 1996, 2001), the most important synthesis since Ward-Perkins. This is surely to the disadvantage especially of graduate students, and it is hardly attractive to the international scholars who are ostensibly part of the target audience. 

The 25 chapters can be roughly divided into five themes: chronological overview (chs. 1–6); design and construction (chs. 7–10); temples and public buildings (chs. 11–13, 15–16); private building (chs. 14, 17–19); and a diverse group that might be categorized as ancient evidence and modern approaches (chs. 20–5). As well as new discoveries and approaches, there is much that is traditional in the volume, beginning with those chapters providing snapshots of major periods and themes within a broad chronological overview. In keeping with the recent approaches in art history, all are concerned with locating developments in architecture, mainly at Rome, in their sociopolitical contexts, reflecting the increasing integration of classical archaeology and ancient history. Becker (ch. 1) gives a broad overview of the earlier first millennium B.C.E. but also continuing as far as the Late Republic, focused on domestic architecture in Latium and Etruria with rather less on civic, defensive, and sacred structures. For the earlier period, in particular, he incorporates much recent material, from the late sixth- to fifth-century house at Gonfienti to the grid plan of Gabii. Davies (ch. 2) continues with mid to Late Republican Rome, but with a far narrower focus on the historical circumstances that brought Greek building practices to Rome. Both D’Alessio and La Rocca (eds., Tradizione e innovazione: L’elaborazione del linguaggio ellenistico nell’architettura romana e italica di età tardo-repubblicana [Rome 2011]) and Wallace-Hadrill (Rome’s Cultural Revolution [Cambridge 2008]) could have usefully been added to the general reading. Nielsen (ch. 3) provides a thoughtful but somewhat dated coverage of the all-important transition from Late Republican to Roman imperial architecture, a difficult task that might have served its audience better with a more current reading list, while Quenemoen (ch. 4) takes the story as far as Hadrian. Her densely referenced synthesis, while generally up-to-date, strangely omits any reference to the current debate on the date of the Pantheon (see L.M. Hetland, “Dating the Pantheon,” JRA 20 [2007] 95–112) and the exciting new studies by Wulf-Rheidt and her team of the imperial palace on the Palatine (most accessible in F. Coarelli, ed., Divus Vespasianus: Il bimillenario dei Flavi [Rome 2009] 268–79). The final two essays of this section cover the Severan period (Thomas [ch. 5]) and the Tetrarchy (Mayer [ch. 6]), both providing stimulating critical coverage of periods that have previously had relatively little coherent attention in terms of architecture.

The next four chapters bring the underlying creative processes of Roman architecture into play, exploring the input of architect and patron (Anderson [ch. 7]), design and planning (Senseney [ch. 8]), building material and techniques (Lancaster and Ulrich [ch. 9], the longest and one of the best chapters in the volume), and labor force and execution (Taylor [ch. 10]). All these are areas barely touched on in the standard syntheses, but they are ones in which much new work has been done and where this kind of introductory overview is welcome. Senseney’s overly compressed discussion of scale planning, commensuration, and the shaping of ordered space (145–55), based on his recent book, would, however, be challenging even for advanced scholars, and something more accessible might have encouraged younger scholars to pursue these new directions.

The volume then turns to address particular building types. While the chapters on public buildings cover traditional areas, the treatments are more variable. Yegül (ch. 16), on baths, and Dodge (ch. 15), on spectacle buildings, provide solid syntheses that give welcome coverage of provincial examples, although the latter could usefully have cited Rose (“Spectators and Spectator Comfort in Roman Entertainment Buildings: A Study in Functional Design,” PBSR 73 [2005] 99–130) in her section “Designing for an Audience.” Frakes (ch. 13) focuses narrowly on forums as social phenomena in the context of the western provinces, neatly illustrated by three contrasting case studies of Ostia (based, however, in part on some outdated interpretations), Nîmes and Dougga. He deliberately leaves aside the question of forums and their possible equivalents in the East (249), although the increased recognition of a form of stoa-basilica—best known from Ephesus—is now raising interesting questions about the relation between eastern and western civic spaces (cf. P. Stinson, “The Civil Basilica: Urban Context, Design, and Significance,” in R.R.R. Smith and C. Ratté, eds., Aphrodisias Papers 4: New Research on the City and Its Monuments [Portsmouth, R.I. 2008] 79–106). The two chapters on sanctuaries (Stamper [ch. 11]) and cult places (Stek [ch. 12]) are much more narrowly focused on Rome and central Italy in the Republican and Augustan periods. Stamper largely revisits the idiosyncratic and much-criticized views found in his 2005 monograph (The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire [Cambridge]), especially on the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, without updating his material to include more recent discussions; the latest items in his references and further reading (apart from his own monograph) date to 2000. Stek, in contrast, is up-to-date in content and modern in approach, even if many would find especially his final case study on Lucania very much on the fringes of what is traditionally considered Roman architecture.

Private architecture is rather less well served, apart from the satisfyingly broad coverage of private villas in Italy and the provinces by Zarmakoupi (ch. 19). McDonnell’s chapter (ch. 14), ostensibly on Roman funerary architecture, inserted awkwardly between forums and spectacle buildings, gives a very limited picture restricted to the house-tombs of Isola Sacra and is not really suited to this volume. Clarke (ch. 18) provides a succinct reprieve of his 1991 monograph on the domus, or single-family house, but without extending coverage into the provinces, especially in North Africa and the East, which have so much to offer for the second to fifth centuries C.E.; some bibliography on this in English is, however, given in the further reading. In a pendant to this (disconcertingly placed before Clarke’s chapter), Ulrich (ch. 17) examines those insulae at Ostia built around a porticoed court, a curiously narrow focus, as these are generally uncommon at Ostia. It is notable that his “representative examples” (327–28) are a collegium headquarters and a warehouse. He also emphasizes the importance of the axial tablinum-type room (336) and the orderly arrangement of rooms around a spacious central courtyard (339), neither of which can really be found in domestic contexts, not even in the one Ostian example he uses, the House of the Muses. The postulated relation of these to Hellenistic Delos, to the Templum Pacis, and to Domitian’s palace is thus questionable. However, this section is rounded off by an excellent chapter by Revell (ch. 20) on “romanization,” which redresses some of the imbalance in relation to the provinces, presenting a convincing picture of regional responses to their new imperial context, while Laurence (ch. 21) follows MacDonald (1986) in arguing for the place of streets and facades within the ambit of Roman architecture.

It is the last four chapters that, for very different reasons, bring the most surprises. Only now does a chapter dedicated to Vitruvius appear, apart from a very short discussion by Anderson (131–32). Rowland (ch. 22) focuses on the Roman audience for and reception of De architectura, providing in the last couple of pages a sweeping overview of its survival and influence up to the present day; the very short guide to reading, however, is hardly designed to encourage a new generation of scholars to pursue research in this field. Gessert (ch. 23) provides a rare illustrative example of the influence of Roman architecture in a specific historical setting, that of the Fascist era in Rome, but which has more to contribute to reception studies than to illuminate Roman architecture per se. Sobocinski (ch. 24) provides an object lesson in the interpretation of architectural depictions, stressing the different aims and expectations of both ancient representations and modern reconstructions, which should be compulsory reading for all graduate students hoping to specialize in Roman (or indeed Greek) architecture. The final chapter (ch. 25) is misleadingly entitled “Conservation,” a modern concept unknown to the Romans, as Aylward notes; it is actually about continuity (or otherwise) in ancient Roman rebuilding practices and the importance to the Romans of connection with the past, illustrated by the history of the three Pantheons.

Although the editors sensibly rejected any attempt to be encyclopedic and preferred to give space to new approaches, there remain some regrettable omissions. The most notable are the absence of any discussion of temples and sanctuaries after the Augustan period (with no coherent account of the Pantheon, and the great temples at Baalbek are mentioned only in passing), of the use of marble, and of the columnar orders and architectural ornament in general. The last may in part reflect the biases in Anglophone scholarship, despite  Wilson Jones’ seminal Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven 2000), but there has been much interesting and important work in this area by European scholars, which has been completely overlooked. There is also considerable bias toward material from Rome and Italy, notable also in the illustrations, where more than 60% of the representations of actual Roman architecture are from Rome, Ostia, and the Bay of Naples, less than 10% from the rest of Italy, and only 30% from sites outside Italy. Given the vast amount of possible material for inclusion (e.g., the thousands of bath buildings), choice of examples has by necessity had to be very selective. It is surprising, therefore, to find some particular examples used in several places. The most notable repetition is in the treatment of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, which is the focus of two chapters, plays a role in nine, and has eight separate illustrations, despite—or because of—how very little remains. The House of the Muses at Ostia is another example of duplication, appearing both in Ulrich’s chapter (338) as an example of courtyard architecture at Ostia and in Clarke’s (353) as an example of a post-Pompeian version of the domus. One account would have sufficed.

Rather too many errors of fact and/or misrepresentations of material mar quite a few of the chapters. A few examples will suffice. There is nothing in Vitruvius (or elsewhere) to suggest that Marius “insisted” that the Temple to Honos and Virtus was not to be of marble or that its architect, Mucius, was an amateur (129). The Domitii and Marciani (194–95) did not remain “the dominant brick barons” throughout the second century and into late antiquity, as there were no Marciani, just the figlinae Marcianae, which from Trajan onward belonged to the emperor, while the brick estates of the Domitii had passed to Marcus Aurelius from his mother Domitia Lucilla before the end of the second century C.E. The facing porticoes on either side of the so-called Decumanus Maximus at Ostia are not second century B.C.E. on one side and second century C.E. on the other, but first century B.C.E. at the earliest and late fourth century C.E. (reusing earlier material), nor are its columns “imported from Egypt, Asia Minor and North Africa” (412), but are portasanta from Chios and a variety of white marble. Composite capitals were not introduced by the Flavians, but existed at least from the Augustan period (422). The “82 temples” mentioned in Augustus’ Res Gestae (468–69) are actually 82 templa, so not necessarily anything more than small shrines, about which we do not in fact know anything more, despite what is suggested here—and contrary to Zanker (The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus [Ann Arbor 1988] 108–10), which is cited as a source. This is a misunderstanding found elsewhere in the volume (221). But this is an impressively clean text, with only three small errors that affect interpretation and seem to have escaped the individual authors, and which might confuse readers (before not after the sixth century [14]; partes rusticae not urbanae [368]; north and south are mixed up [394]), while the numbering of figures 8.2 and 8.3 has been reversed. The maps unfortunately are less than helpful, as they appear to have been created for a different work, with many of the places mentioned in the text not on the maps, and vice versa.

Inevitably, fulfilling this demanding brief for such a vast field of study, and one that is very much in a state of flux, has proved a tall order. Some chapters in this volume do live up to the challenging criteria, being at the same time clear, accurate, and balanced but also stimulating, up-to-date, and engaging with European scholarship; one would happily recommend these to good undergraduate and to graduate students, confident that they were being given both a clear account of the state of play but also the tools for further research. But they are in the minority. It is a pity that other contributions fall short of the brief and that not all provide the genuinely authoritative overviews that might have been expected.

Janet DeLaine
Faculty of Classics
University of Oxford

Book Review of A Companion to Roman Architecture, edited by Roger B. Ulrich and Caroline K. Quenemoen

Reviewed by Janet DeLaine

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 3 (July 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1193.DeLaine

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