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The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy, and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa

July 2015 (119.3)

Book Review

The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy, and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa

By Anna Leone. Pp. xxii + 319, figs. 49, tables 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-957092-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

At the end of antiquity, an urban landscape largely defined by its pagan monuments gave way to one that was instead characterized by Christian churches and activity. Though this process has attracted considerable attention, scholars have for the most part explored the transition from paganism to Christianity through the written sources rather than through archaeology. Leone’s new monograph focuses instead on how the physical cityscape was reshaped in late antiquity and above all on the extent to which changes in the urban fabric were “driven by religious and symbolic motivations and contrasts, or were stimulated purely by economic issues” (1). The study concentrates on the old Roman province of Africa (roughly the territory of modern Tunisia, Algeria, and western Libya) in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries C.E., with a particular emphasis on the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. Considering in turn the fate of pagan temples, the imperial cult, and statuary, as well as the reuse in Christian churches of spoliated building material, Leone argues that the archaeological evidence reveals a process that was far less polemical and contentious than the writings of Christian controversialists would seem to suggest.

After first providing a basic orientation to the inquiry (ch. 1), Leone demonstrates that there are few signs of the ideologically motivated destruction of urban pagan monuments across the archaeological record. Quite the contrary: in late antiquity, the imperial administration sought to maintain cities’ imposing—if often derelict—public infrastructure and retain control over the valuable building material that it preserved. The demolition of temples or their wholesale repurposing as churches was rare in North Africa. At sites such as Sabratha and Sitifis, however, the material evidence suggests that temples were shuttered and dilapidated even before the imperial administration officially prohibited pagan religious practices (ch. 2). By the end of the fourth century C.E., prominent buildings once associated with the imperial cult were similarly in a state of disrepair. Imperial statues continued to be dedicated and displayed in the porticoes of bath complexes in major and minor provincial centers, but—like civic festivities in general—the imperial cult itself was probably increasingly secularized over the course of the Late Roman period (ch. 3). The destruction or mutilation of statues also appears to have been unusual in North Africa. Indeed, sculptures were moved around cities to adorn those public buildings that continued to function, especially baths, and large numbers of statues appear to have been found in situ or in storage depots (ch. 4). Nonetheless, as supplies of newly imported marble became scarcer, the reuse of previously worked stone became more common in late antiquity. Abandoned baths and theaters were most frequently targeted for dismantling; Capitolia and temples were less commonly stripped down. Reused objects presumably retained both symbolic and artistic value, and at least at Sabratha—the subject of a particularly illuminating case study—the chromatic impact of reclaimed marble appears to have been fundamental to Late Antique aesthetic sensibilities. The process of dismantling unused buildings and reworking or storing their architectural elements for subsequent use was, Leone argues, “certainly a state-controlled activity” (231) and one that was driven by practical economic concerns (ch. 5). The final chapter succinctly pulls together the analytic themes of the study.

The overall vision that emerges from Leone’s analysis is one of the Late Antique city as a fundamentally pragmatic and secular space rather than a zealously religious one. Her thesis that changes in the urban environment were “very much driven by issues of economy and availability of material” (236) is persuasively argued on the basis of the material evidence. Indeed, one of the major appeals of Leone’s study is the way in which she uses archaeology to enrich and deepen the scholarly understanding of when and how the formal structures of civic paganism gave way to a new Christian order. Given North Africa’s long archaeological history, many of the sites that are central to the analysis were excavated before the advent of stratigraphic archaeology, and this fact renders the source base particularly problematic. Yet Leone does an astute job of drawing together this difficult, diffuse, and often fragmentary body of evidence, making sense of it, and using it judiciously to extrapolate general trends. Her study is well grounded in the modern scholarly literature, and it offers stimulating insights throughout, including, for example, in her discussions of the Late Antique market in old statues (130–33) and of urban workshops for the reprocessing of marble (202–15).

Though framed as a study of the end of paganism and the changing face of urbanism in late antiquity, the material that Leone considers is also revealing with respect to the relationship between the African provinces and the imperial center; the continued secularism of the imperial administration in the fourth and early fifth centuries and its more vehemently Christian character in the age of Justinian; and some of the contingencies that underlay and informed the rise to prominence of Christian churches and their bishops. Positioning the study more self-consciously with respect to the scholarship on these topics could have allowed for still richer and more nuanced analysis of these aspects of the study and facilitated a deeper dialogue with scholars whose primary interests lie in these directions. On the other hand, the study has remarkably little to say about the century-long period of Vandal dominance in Africa. This has the functional effect of throwing into sharp contrast the secularism of the Late Roman period and the religiosity of the Byzantine era, which in turn would seem to suggest that the Vandal age was a critical period of transition. If this was the case, then that transition surely deserves to be explored in greater depth. One wonders, too, about the role that municipal elites played in the process of preserving and repurposing the physical infrastructure of civic paganism, a role about which more might usefully be said.

Overall, however, Leone has produced a valuable and important study that makes a genuine contribution to the field and that will reward the careful attention of specialists and nonspecialists alike.

Jonathan P. Conant
Department of History
Brown University

Book Review of The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy, and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa, by Anna Leone

Reviewed by Jonathan P. Conant

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1193.Conant

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