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La romanisation de l’Illyrie méridionale et de la Chaônie

La romanisation de l’Illyrie méridionale et de la Chaônie

By Saimir Shpuza (Collection de l’École Française de Rome 513). Pp. xv + 293, figs. 45, tables 6. École Française de Rome, Rome 2016. €30. ISBN 978-2-7283-1097-5 (paper).

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This volume, developed from the author’s doctoral thesis, details the impact of Rome on the area covered by the modern state of Albania across an era broadly spanning the third century B.C.E to the third century C.E. Shpuza acknowledges the problems inherent in studying the history of an area that had no obvious geographic or cultural unity in the past, but he offers some justification for his geographic focus through reference to the very particular historiography of Albania, which has resulted in some highly idiosyncratic interpretations of the country’s past.

Earlier Albanian scholarship attempted to construct a direct link between the present Albanian population and the ancient Illyrians. The Roman period had a limited role in this narrative beyond representing Marx’s slave mode of production and constituting the phase before the Illyrians threw off the shackles of Roman domination and reemerged as the so-called Arbër, or proto-Albanian, culture in the Early Middle Ages. Archaeologists paid relatively little attention to Roman material by comparison with the preceding and succeeding periods, and there was relatively little targeted excavation of Roman sites apart from those monuments and materials that could be studied within the art historical traditions of classical archaeology, in which Albania’s early archaeologists had been trained.

The term “romanization” has been the subject of lengthy debate over the last two decades, and Shpuza duly introduces some of this debate and its key literature, arguing (perhaps questionably) that despite its widespread rejection in much modern scholarship, the concept retains some utility in a form that recognizes the cultural and economic heterogeneity of the Roman world (6). He also notes that romanization (and “non-romanization”) were key aspects of earlier Albanian Marxist-inspired scholarship, which sought to demonstrate that only the upper classes were romanized, while the lower classes rejected Rome and retained an Illyrian identity (7–8).

The volume opens with a summary of the textual sources, recounting the familiar story (mainly derived from Livy and Polybius) of Rome’s increasingly interventionist activities in the Balkans prior to full-scale conquest in the second century B.C.E, noting also the sources’ description of the Illyrians and Epirotes as separate groups, a fact of particular significance to the nationalist narratives outlined above. The author then outlines the remaining evidence in five chapters dealing, respectively, with towns, the countryside, inscriptions, coinage, and ceramics.

The treatment of towns is fairly schematic, with brief descriptions covering major aspects of the key towns of Byllis, Oricum, Amantia, Hadrianopolis, Phoinike, Buthrotum, and Anchiasmos, including the development of monumental architecture, water supply, and defenses. The text provides a good route into the Albanian bibliography on these sites, although coverage of more recent work is sketchy, involving some odd choices of bibliography that favor conference publications over more mainstream and readily available journal articles. Such lacunae are particularly apparent in the coverage of Buthrotum, where the extensive publications of the Anglo-Albanian work done between 1994 and the present day are little used (although no one likes a reviewer who complains about the absence of his or her own work from a bibliography). Given that the synthetic nature of this volume is one of its most valuable aspects, it is a shame that it is not more reliable as a guide to the wider bibliography.

The rural landscape of Albania is characterized by mountainous uplands separated by river valleys along which the principal lines of communication ran during the Roman period, and Shpuza notes that the diversity of this landscape means that it cannot be viewed as a homogenous entity. A curiously large number of “road stations” (26 in total) have been identified along these routes (the courses of which are by no means certain), which seems a large number compared with the 17 villas or potential villas listed, and it is possible that some of these putative “road stations” are simply rural settlements that existed along these lines of communication. The volume provides a useful introduction to earlier landscape syntheses, notably the important “Harta arkeologjike” articles of Dhimosten Budina. Shpuza follows earlier scholars in viewing the abandonment of many Hellenistic sites as a key aspect of the emergent Roman rural landscape, although he rightly advises caution in seeing a causative link given that the dating evidence for most of these sites is so poor. A rather uninformative appendix lists the rural sites and gives the evidence associated with them.

A chapter is devoted to inscriptions, a research topic that has previously drawn considerable attention from Albania scholars interested in the presence of possible Illyrian names. Shpuza follows Pierre Cabanes in suggesting that names combining Illyrian and Greek or Latin elements indicate Illyrians who are engaging with or becoming assimilated with elite Greek or Roman society. Given the subject of the volume, this binary division between Illyrian and Graeco-Roman identity could have perhaps been nuanced a little. Curiously there are only two bilingual inscriptions noted from Albania, both relating to members of the same family. By the later second century, most people recorded in inscriptions were using Roman names, and all religious dedications were to the Roman pantheon. This marks profound social and cultural change, at least among the small percentage of the population recorded in epigraphic form.

A detailed chapter on coins, including a lengthy discussion of pre-Roman coinage, highlights an area with which the author is clearly familiar, although again there are some notable bibliographic absences, again including publications on the coinage from Buthrotum. Shpuza notes the gradual dominance of republican denarii from the later first century B.C.E., which he associates with the presence of the army, arguing that increased monetization develops along with the insecurity of the first century B.C.E. The chapter contains summary tables of hoards, but there is no detailed treatment of site finds (for which evidence is often poor), and it is clear that basic quantification of these is required for this field to develop. The same lack of quantified data also affects the study of ceramics, which Shpuza examines as evidence of “economic Romanization,” specifically the diffusion of agricultural produce of the Roman cultural sphere (217).

Shpuza concludes by advocating the concept of “Illyro-Roman” society to understand the transformations and continuities that can be identified in the region (251). Ultimately, his attempt to create a synthetic narrative of the “process of transformation” through which the region was integrated with the Roman empire is hamstrung by the limited archaeological evidence. Although the volume is therefore never able to go beyond the scope of a relatively traditional text-driven synthesis, it certainly makes this evidence more accessible to a wider readership.

Will Bowden
University of Nottingham 

Book Review of La romanisation de l’Illyrie méridionale et de la Chaônie, by Saimir Shpuza

Reviewed by Will Bowden

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Bowden

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