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The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome

Edited by Ida Östenberg, Simon Malmberg, and Jonas Bjørnebye. Pp. xiv + 361, figs. 32. Bloomsbury, London 2015. $138. ISBN 978-1-4725-2800-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In the field of Roman urbanism, a growing current of scholarship has concentrated on the passage of people, carts, goods, and animals through the city. The present volume aims to advance discussion by drawing together an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars to examine movement through specific topographical contexts of Rome, especially, though not exclusively, on certain orchestrated occasions, such as parades. The volume focuses on people and their passage by, through, and to particular monuments of the caput mundi rather than on the urban population’s quotidian transit along faceless corridors. As a result, Rome’s topography feels enlivened; the volume offers a Rome that is not merely a patchwork of its many creators’ diverse desires but instead a knit-together and dynamic cityscape that groups and individuals—such as embassies of foreign dignitaries, devotees of St. Lawrence, and the empress herself—engaged in a variety of ways and on numerous occasions, from rites in honor of Mithras to pilgrimages into catacombs. The book’s coverage extends from the mid republic to late antiquity, and the content is organized thematically into four parts: “Elite Movement,” “Literary Movement,” “Processional Movement,” and “Movement and Urban Form.” Each section’s chapters appear in chronological order. Here I highlight several contributions that point up specific advantages of the volume’s general theme and that explore interesting dialogues between movement and the use of Rome’s spaces.

The title of part 1, “Elite Movement,” disguises a major motif of the section, namely that Rome’s upper crust rarely passed through the city by themselves. Instead, as is clear in Östenberg’s chapter, “Power Walks: Aristocratic Escorted Movements in Republican Rome,” a penumbra of supporters, attendants, and others surrounded and accompanied the powerful through the city. In their appearance, order, and size, then, these marches took on the trappings of the more formal realm of triumphs, funeral corteges, scripted arrivals and departures, and religious processions, as they made their way along some of the same routes (among houses, forum, gate, and Capitol).

Östenberg’s essay builds on the work of O’Sullivan, who himself contributes to part 2 (“Literary movement”) with his “Augustan Literary Tours: Walking and Reading the City.” O’Sullivan focuses on the prevalence of poems that mark an “urban tour” and especially how they deploy the metaphor of movement to describe, refract, and question the Augustan transformation of Rome. This lens serves to illustrate the significant shift in experiences and ideas of the city at this critical juncture; the Rome experienced by Evander and Aeneas in Aeneid 8, for instance, has greater chronological elasticity and feels more unified than the city portrayed by the narrators of Catullus and Horace in poem 55 and Satirae 1.9, respectively. O’Sullivan’s close readings will bear much fruit for those who study Augustan Rome, while scholars of urban movement will benefit from his articulation of the deep ways that movement was linked in the Roman mindset to the acts of reading, writing, and cognition itself.

The rewards of studying a procession, its composition, and its route are brought to the fore in part 3 (“Processional Movement”) with Andrews’ contribution, “The Laetaniae Septiformes of Gregory I, S. Maria Maggiore and Early Marian Cult in Rome.” Andrews examines a pair of unprecedented litanies from ca. 600 C.E. that were prompted by floods and disease. Worshipers, grouped by sex, age, or ecclesiastical role, departed from a variety of churches throughout the city and convened at S. Maria Maggiore, which had not previously been an important processional destination. Andrews’ investigation benefits from careful attention to several contexts: the Cispian Hill’s deep history and its transformation into a monumental zone with the construction of S. Maria Maggiore, the subtleties of Mary’s veneration across the Mediterranean, the social dynamics of sixth-century Rome, and other Christian processions through the eternal city in the Late Antique period. Against this backdrop, one of the key purposes of Gregory’s litanies, Andrews contends, was to mark and enact Christian unity, both socially and topographically, in the face of disaster and with Gregory at the helm (158–60).

Processions like Gregory I’s both drew meaning from their surroundings and also infused those settings with new significances. This reciprocal relationship between urban movement and topography is prominent in part 4 (“Movement and Urban Form”) with Malmberg’s contribution, “‘Ships are Seen Gliding Swiftly Along the Sacred River’: The River as an Artery of Urban Movement and Development.” In focusing on Tiber traffic and the conveyance, unloading, and distribution of foodstuffs, Malmberg opens up an alternative topography of Rome that we know of intuitively but too rarely consider in appropriate depth. From Malmberg’s chapter emerges a city that was populated by skiffs, quays, stevedores, and spoil heaps and that morphed significantly over time, as infrastructure grew to meet the needs of Rome’s burgeoning population and in tandem with other changes in urban life. The construction of the Aurelian Wall, for example, cut off what had been key infrastructure, and the new public distributions of bread, oil, pork, and wine that largely replaced the traditional annona of grain required a different distribution system with new spots for unloading, storage, and distribution. By the 260s or so, focus shifted from Testaccio and the southern Campus Martius to the northern Campus Martius and to distribution points (called gradus and mensae) throughout the city, which understandably caused significant ripples in the city’s system of overland urban movement.

The volume holds together nicely for an edited collection, perhaps because the essays sprang from a novel organization. Contributors first met in Rome in 2011 to present papers orally and then reconvened a year later to discuss and refine the written-up products. The editors should be commended for shepherding chapters into print that—while varying a bit in quality and in degree of engagement with the central theme—are on the whole tight, coherent, and accessible. One downside of the volume’s coherence, however, is the repetition of several observations, such as changes in urban movement and display that were ushered in during the reign of Augustus. Additionally, a more robust index would have been welcome. Nevertheless, the volume’s ease of legibility makes it well suited for graduate or advanced undergraduate courses dedicated to urbanism, the topography of Rome, or particular historical periods. Perhaps more importantly, the essays collectively illustrate the multiple approaches that can fruitfully be deployed not just for placing Romans back into their multilayered city but also for getting them moving through its deeply resonant landscape of hills, thoroughfares, historical hotspots, and edifices.

Jeremy Hartnett
Department of Classics
Wabash College

Book Review of The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome, edited by Ida Östenberg, Simon Malmberg, and Jonas Bjørnebye

Reviewed by Jeremy Hartnett

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Hartnett


For 6th century BC history, a scholar should refer to Pali texts; there is no escape from this ; otherwise a scholar will miss the truth; the moving city was called CHimmerian

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