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The Archaeology of Roman Surveillance in the Central Alentejo, Portugal

The Archaeology of Roman Surveillance in the Central Alentejo, Portugal

By Joey Williams (California Classical Studies 5). Pp. xiii + 168. California Classical Studies, Berkeley 2017. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-939926-08-1 (paper).

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This book is an investigation of an understudied region of the Roman empire: Alentejo, Portugal. It is also a study of the dynamics of colonization in a contested landscape, and it is a rare example of what can be accomplished by an in-depth reading of the landscape. Within this larger discussion of the region, Williams creates context for his excavation of the first-century B.C.E. watchtower at Caladinho, Portugal (ch. 5).

The strength of this work lies in the summary of the carefully collected data and in the theoretical synthesis. In addition, the author makes an important contribution to surveillance studies by moving beyond the commonly used Foucauldian Panopticon paradigm. The central idea in this theory, proposed by the philosopher Michel Foucault, is that human behavior can be modified by visibility. A few individuals, if placed at key points, can monitor and control the actions of many through the power of the gaze, especially utilizing architecture that emphasizes the unequal power relationship between the viewer and the viewed.

Williams pushes the theoretical discussion forward by considering three types of Roman surveillance: “border control,” “oversight,” and “borderless surveillance” (128). By distinguishing the three, Williams can examine different motives and effects from the points of view of both the surveyor and those who are surveyed. His case study of the Caladinho watchtower is then clearly placed into the category of borderless surveillance, a defense-in-depth system against brigands while the incorporation of the province into the empire is not settled. This gives a framework for discussion of a nonunilateral surveillance, one where the viewers and the viewed are in a shifting relationship and are both creating a new landscape and being affected by it.

However, the work suffers from a familiar problem. The structure does not escape its thesis roots; elements of it still have the blocky organization of “signposting,” indicating what the chapter will be discussing and how far one must read to reach that part of the argument. This is especially visible in chapter 1, “The Archaeology of Surveillance Landscapes.” Elsewhere, it is clear that the author spent a great deal of time editing and summarizing to escape the thesis format. Unfortunately, in places this makes the argument seem over-summarized and the editing too heavy, leaving the work slightly disjointed and all the individual parts not forming a whole.

That being said, several aspects of this work are very useful. First, Williams discusses the historical and archaeological aspects of the central Alentejo very carefully, articulating the significance of each piece of evidence. Given the importance of the violent history of the area to his argument about entangled colonial landscapes, this is a vital thread to establish early. Also of value is the gazetteer of all watchtowers in Early Roman central Portugal in chapter 4. The gazetteer allows the author to create a regional context for his own excavations at the site of Caladinho. Given how rarely this region is studied, especially in English, such a collection is invaluable. A typology can be established, and characteristics of surveillance sites can be generalized.

The chapter that is simultaneously the strongest and the weakest is the seventh, “Toward a Theory of Surveillance in a Roman Colonial Landscape.” Its strength lies in the theoretical framework already discussed above. However, its weakness can be explained by an incomplete integration of the data in the previous chapters to support the conclusions presented here. For instance, in chapter 3, “Surveillance Structures in Art, Literature, and Archaeology,” Williams discusses multiple pieces of evidence for Roman surveillance in literary and artistic representations, but none of these are referenced again. This leaves this chapter seemingly unrelated to the larger argument unless its purpose is to prove that the concept of surveillance existed and was understood by the Romans. Chapter 3 does, however, raise important points about using surveillance for preventing banditry in Lusitania, a subject vital to Williams’ later discussion of borderless surveillance. It would have been helpful if the author had linked chapters 3 and 7 clearly. Instead chapter 7 contains a brief discussion of examples of Roman surveillance at Mons Claudianus, Greek villas, and Hadrian’s Wall, which are not mentioned in chapter 3. If the author had more explicitly linked these two examples, it would have strengthened his argument considerably. Those familiar with the arguments of surveillance usage in the Roman empire will be able to reconstruct this unarticulated link, but those without background knowledge might not.

Overall, this is a useful study of the region and surveillance structures, and it advances theories of Roman surveillance by detailing the nuances of such systems. The writing and evidence are clearly presented, if not fully integrated. The author correctly points out that there are few examples of surveillance systems that have been well studied in the Roman empire, making it a difficult topic to discuss. The difficulties in finding comparable evidence are the fault not of the author but of the data set. One hopes that future studies will one day fill in these gaps in our knowledge.

Hannah Friedman
Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures
Texas Tech University

Book Review of The Archaeology of Roman Surveillance in the Central Alentejo, Portugal, by Joey Williams

Reviewed by Hannah Friedman

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.friedman

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