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The Genesis of Roman Architecture

The Genesis of Roman Architecture

By John North Hopkins. Pp. xiv + 254, figs. 120. Yale University Press, New Haven 2016. $65. ISBN 978-0-300-21181-8 (cloth).

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This publication is a valuable contribution to the study of early Rome. It is particularly useful as an independent assessment of recent excavation at key sites in the ancient city’s center. Hopkins shows full awareness of the archaeology, and there is little published, or unpublished, that escapes his notice. The author applies this up-to-date view of the evidence to long-standing questions. When did Rome take on an unusually large and complex urban aspect? What is “Roman” about Early Roman architecture, considering that it is neither Greek nor Etruscan, but displays features associable with both? Hopkins approaches these issues under the rubric of connectivity: Greek, Roman, and Etruscan are blurry categories; the “influence” of non-Roman styles on Roman architecture does not devalue the latter but instead comes as an expected result of the constant interaction that characterized Mediterranean society.

Four chapters follow developments from the Late Bronze Age to 450 B.C.E. Focus is chiefly on areas made visible through excavation (the Palatine, Forum Romanum, Capitoline, and Forum Boarium), but since Hopkins pays attention to both stone masonry and terracotta adornment, the result is a synthetic architectural history, which includes objects such as the Esquiline Amazon found elsewhere in the city. The author holds that while the separate hilltops communicated in an earlier period, they coalesced into a single settlement in the mid seventh century. In approaching the city’s earliest phases, Hopkins mostly sets aside theoretical discussion of state formation in Iron Age Italy (cf. F. Fulminante, The Urbanisation of Rome and Latium Vetus: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era [Cambridge 2014]) and instead pursues clear physical markers that imply the cooperative efforts of those populations living on the hilltops. The late seventh-century raising of the Forum basin is thus key. Its creation facilitates more permanent architecture, including buildings made with stone masonry and terracotta roofs by the very beginning of the sixth century.

For both the range and depth of its argument, the long chapter on the late sixth century is the book’s best. Starting ca. 540 B.C.E., Roman architecture takes a turn, exhibiting significant monumentality and more international style. Paradigmatic is the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter. Hopkins vigorously defends the interpretation of the temple as the largest Italian religious structure of its day; he ranks it among Greek colossal temples in Asia Minor and Sicily. The wide span of its post-and-lintel superstructure is unproblematic if we imagine the use of trussed beams. Further support might be found in recent work on Greek roofing systems (e.g., A. von Kienlin, “Überlegungen zur Entwicklung weitspannender Dachtragwerke in Anatolien,” Byzas 11 [2011] 81–92), rather than in the Diribitorium, mentioned here, whose massive beams do not seem to have been compound and were anyway unable to be replaced after their collapse (cf. Cass. Dio, 55.8.4). Hopkins points out that many colossal Mediterranean temples in fact postdate the Temple of Jupiter, if just barely. Thus, Rome does not follow a trend in colossal temple construction, but is on the vanguard, particularly in the West.

This narrative is resolutely centered on architecture. For example, Hopkins proposes a Samian connection in the building of the Temple of Jupiter based on the iconography of terracotta revetments, as well as a particular relationship in plan between the Roman temple and the Samian Heraion. The construction of the Samian Heraion pauses ca. 540–530 B.C.E. and restarts a generation later; in the interim, the Temple of Jupiter is built at Rome. Could it be, he wonders, that out-of-work Samian masons brought their skills to Rome? The idea, based solely on architectural affinities, is ingenious. Further food for thought now comes from Gruben, who also sees Samian masons traveling west, but to Syracuse, not Rome (Der Polykratische Tempel im Heraion von Samos. Samos 27 [Bonn 2014] 195–99). But it is also worth noting the very different story told by our sources in which the Tarquins complete the temple by summoning builders from central Italy, including the Veian coroplast Vulca (e.g., Plin., HN 35.157). Hopkins suggests instead that some reputedly Italic features, such as the tripartite cella, appear first at Rome, not elsewhere, while he emphasizes links between late sixth-century Roman architectural statuary and Greek kouroi.

Still, the preference of one narrative over the other raises the perennial question of the relative usefulness of texts and archaeology for our reconstruction of early Rome. This forms the topic of the final analytical chapter. In expressing skepticism toward Rome’s earliest kings, Hopkins gives voice to widely shared opinion. However, the author will forgive me if I am less convinced by his reading of the later monarchy. He maintains that the texts do not accurately depict the architectural grandeur of late sixth-century Rome and therefore contain little utility. That is, no doubt sixth-century Rome was grand, but it was not the grand Rome of the Tarquins. Since ancient authors ascribe fewer monuments to the later kings than to their predecessors, for example, he argues that the Tarquins are not remembered as eminent builders. But indeed the sources grant unparalleled space to the topic of how the Tarquins went about building those monuments attributed to them. Tarquin Superbus’ brutal corvées, or the fabri coacti who build the Temple of Jupiter, are central to ancient depictions of his reign. Brutus allegedly inveighs against Tarquin because “Roman men, conquerors of all surrounding peoples, were turned from soldiers into builders and stonecutters” (Liv., 1.59.9). So the tradition does focus extensively on the Tarquins as builders because such focus lends color to the political character of the last kings. Indeed, one fact we owe to the sources is that most archaic states building colossal temples were ruled by tyrants: Polycrates at Samos, Peisistratus and his sons at Athens, Peithagoras at Selinus, Theron at Acragas, and the Tarquins at Rome—that is, exceptional as it may have been in some ways, the monumentality that Hopkins demonstrates in late sixth-century Rome can also be fit into a narrative about the sorts of architecture that reflect the ideology and economic capacities of tyrannies. Thus, while this book gives a cogent account of architectural developments in early Rome, one comes away still interested in this architecture’s historical context, especially because the sort of Mediterranean connectivity the author describes here circulated not only building styles and technologies but also (and not unrelated) political and social ideas.

Finally, as a physical object, this book is exemplary. Yale University Press includes copious illustrations, very many in color, in a reasonably priced hardback edition. Hopkins’ effort is readily on display in producing his own plans and drawings, something that is regrettably not standard practice in studies of this period’s architecture. Especially noteworthy are numerous three-dimensional renderings of many monuments. Such visualization is the first of its kind for the period and will undoubtedly help the author’s intention of placing early Rome in dialogue with the broader study of Roman architecture. The book does not include a gazetteer of sites but is usefully read alongside such catalogues in Cifani’s L’architettura romana arcaica (Rome 2008), or, for central Italian temples, Potts’ Religious Architecture in Latium and Etruria, c. 900–500 BC (Oxford 2016).

Seth Bernard
Department of Classics
University of Toronto

Book Review of The Genesis of Roman Architecture, by John North Hopkins

Reviewed by Seth Bernard

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Bernard


Ancient Rome to which the Bible identifies as 'capital of the whole world' and which was visited by Paul, was also visited by Alexander the Great at the 'end of the world'. Indian puranas call it Ramanaka country ; and Ptolemy calls it Roomuck in his maps. It identifies the 'west'. It was a part of Cos or Kos ; It was the birthplace of Rama, the epic hero of the Ramayana. Present Rome has nothing do with its ancient counterpart. It is a new settlement after the Flood.

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