You are here

Architecture and Politics in Republican Rome

Architecture and Politics in Republican Rome

By Penelope J.E. Davies. Pp. xii + 366. Cambridge University Press, New York 2017. $58.99. ISBN 978-1-108-09431-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Thanks to the critical mass of recent archaeological discoveries from the deeper layers of Rome, the latest systematic studies in early Roman architecture are transforming the field, pushing for a shared agenda to reassess, and at times challenge, architectural production in relation to salient historical processes affecting Rome’s urbanization in the long term (e.g., J.N. Hopkins, The Genesis of Roman Architecture [New Haven 2016]). Davies contributes to this research thread by exploring how the component buildings of republican Rome were the product of the unique political system that governed the city over a period of four and a half centuries, emphasizing the agency of patrons in shaping the built environment and their ability to draw from past experience and contemporary knowledge, especially in response to periods of social crisis or change.

At the root of the argument is the idea that the sponsorship of monumental architecture was regarded as a tool that would bring visibility and unfair advantage in the competition for public office, and that this compelled the Roman state to impose stricter limits to public building. The task for the architectural historian of republican Rome, therefore, is that of weaving together the “history of individuals and groups”—the Senate, the magistrates, and the citizen body—who “developed strategies to maneuver within these constraints” (2–3). Moving beyond formalism (i.e., how “Roman” is Roman republican architecture?), the author concentrates on the issue of “intention,” expertly sifting through prosopography and administrative history to define the propagandistic language behind the patterning of commissioning, building design, honorands, location, and function. Thus, Davies is able to trace the origins and continued development of Rome’s architectural “intertext”—a landscape in which monuments “referred to and gained meaning from what came before” (255)—to score political goals.

To that end, the author analyzes the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C.E., an oft overlooked phase, and re-evaluates the dating of key monuments created between 293 and 219 B.C.E. and after 167 B.C.E., when Livy’s text is missing. Partly owing to the uneven quality and quantity of the material, developments between 509 and 133 B.C.E. are treated in the first three chapters, while the period between the Gracchi and Caesar occupies the remaining four. Inviting comparison across the different phases, each chapter is organized under three main headings: “religious buildings,” “spoils and the city” (manubial displays), and “civic developments” (urban layout and civic buildings), with some overlap (e.g., the Theater of Pompey, though formally a religious structure including a civic building, is discussed primarily as a manubial monument, 229–36).

In lieu of an appendix or tables summarizing the relevant data, phase maps present the known or approximate locations of existing, renovated, and new sites (though the first of these are not identified in the corresponding labels). Buildings with known or hypothetical plans are represented in outline to indicate their extent, while the rest are indicated with simple symbols. Lower-scale maps adopt the same coding: the footprint of a building appears only when it is fully known (cf. A. Carandini ed., The Atlas of Ancient Rome [Princeton 2017], much heavier in the use of restored plans). Excavation plans are avoided in favor of redrawn, simplified ones, which provide the basis for new reconstruction models (very useful for teaching). The apparatus is enriched by hundreds of color illustrations, including views of the cited monuments in their actual state and of associated decoration (those of sites or objects hard to access are especially valuable: e.g., the altar at Temple D in the Largo Argentina, fig. 3.4a and b, page 85).

In practical terms, for the period before the mid second century B.C.E. the book covers predominantly temple construction, almost the only archaeologically well-represented kind of monumental architecture besides fortifications. The physical evidence is read through the lens of political strategies of legitimization or contestation of the existing social order, which characterized the entire period. Hence, liturgical requirements would have little to do with the frontality of Early Republican temple podia, an archaic feature with which, according to Davies, the patricians restricted access to control the subaltern (24). By the same token, Davies explains the abrupt change in temple aesthetics from squat to slender proportions (50–4) as the result of stone entablatures being introduced for sensationalism (the temple of Victoria, ca. 294 B.C.E., is presented as the prototype), exemplifying how “patricians and plebeians with less-than-illustrious lineage” could deploy architectural design as an “innovative aggressive tactic” to break into politics (41–2).

The Middle Republic emerges as a phase in which Rome’s military expansion, and the early application of imperial wealth, influenced substantial shifts. Of the approximately 80 temples and major shrines attested between the foundation of the republic and the time of Caesar, up to 35 were newly built, and 4 restored, between 337 and 218 B.C.E. (cf. map 2.1, 40–1. Davies demonstrates that the standard pattern had surfaced already by the early third century B.C.E.: quid pro quo vows in response to military concerns; less restricted agency, with most builders being plebeian consuls; generals installing spoil displays at their own initiative; and the ability to dispense previously amassed funds (including spoils). Family agendas and rivalries, often spanning multiple generations, serve as a backdrop for these building projects (e.g., the Temple of Venus Obsequens, a “pseudo-manubial post-votum” of ca. 291 B.C.E., with which Q. Fabius Maximus Gurges aimed to stake his personal claims against both his nemesis Postumius Megellus and his father’s rival Appius Claudius [45]). Strategies for protesting domination also seem to originate in this period. Thus, aediles started to fund building projects using fines from transgressions of laws by the wealthy, a practice that Davies characterizes as a form of popular opposition to the nobilitas (e.g., the case of the Temple of Flora, ca. 241–238 B.C.E. [46]).

For the Late Republic, temple architecture still plays an important role, but it becomes more closely involved with Rome’s “civic developments” at large. Almost all known foundations of the post-Zama years are battlefield vows located along the Via Triumphalis honoring Italian deities connected with old patrician families. For Davies, this is the material manifestation of the struggle by conservatives to preserve national identity in a period characterized by increasing external influence (84). Another example of senatorial assertion, the planning of the temple of Magna Mater, is presented by the author as the earliest permanent installation for theatrical representations: the 8 m high podium and frontal platform provided a venue for the Ludi Megalenses but prevented mingling between spectators of different social status, curbing the power of those presiding over nonelite gatherings (101–2). On the other hand, the retrofitting of the podium of the Temple of Castor to accommodate a tribunal is interpreted as one of the first building initiatives by the tribunes to address shifts in voting procedures, as these were moved away from the Comitium, thus enhancing the function of the forum as a political space (102–4).

Between the late 180s and the 160s B.C.E., triumphant generals took full advantage of their various magistracies, following up on votive temples and freestanding manubial monuments they created as consuls or proconsuls (117–30) with censorial enterprises, such as basilicas with colonnaded facades (133–7) that would imitate the benefactions of Hellenistic kings. (Davies notes how only the office of censor gave the advantage of an extended period of time for orchestrating bigger plans.) The exploits of Scipio Aemilianus, Caecilius Metellus, and Lucius Mummius (depending on the identification of the Round Temple by the Tiber) made Greek design and materials the mark of lavish triumph, while the Gracchan and post-Gracchan temple foundations, all honoring deities already attested in Rome, saw the use of travertine or stuccoed tufo, a phenomenon usually characterized as a return to old republican mores in the face of foreign luxury. According to the author’s model, however, this could simply indicate the lack of manubial relevance. Similarly, while the design of the peripteros sine postico temple with frontal staircase is usually described as a distinctly Italic phenomenon, Davies prefers to highlight the continued influence of Greek fashion (especially the Hermogenean canon) over hybridity, suggesting that conservatives, too, had to resort to the “proper principles of art” in order to dignify their authority (158).

The years between the Gracchi and the Social War are characterized by Davies as a crucial phase of disruption: consuls engaging in civic construction; manubial monuments taking on a more civic character (e.g., the Porticus Minucia, which Davies interprets as an attempt by the optimates to secure control of grain distributions); and most notably, tribunes trying to subvert the architectural language of authority by altering movement within established spaces or allowing vandalism (177–80). The increased use of concrete is presented as a major cause for the weakening of the old republican restraints by ambitious magistrates: the new medium, quick and economical when compared with ashlar masonry, “broadened their imagination to conceive of larger building projects” in the short term (e.g., the Navalia, previously identified as the Porticus Aemilia, which Davies dates to the late second century B.C.E. [175–77]). In this perspective, Sulla’s main innovation, then, appears to be just that of assuming the construction mandates of all the relevant magistracies, thus concentrating building power. The destabilization under Pompey and Caesar, who finally managed to use architecture for mass communication, fits in the same trajectory of rejecting tradition to court public favor. As a final twist in the plot, Caesar’s demise, too, can be read as a result of the Senate utilizing the same weapon, though as an “art of resistance,” a granting of excessive “visual honors” to elicit a violent reaction (272–75).

Deserving to be included among the reference works on the subject, the book stimulates further research on several related issues. Those of us who wish to integrate private architecture in the model are particularly encouraged to reflect on the degree of permeability between elite domestic architecture and civic buildings, not only at the level of design but also more generally in terms of how private environments were used or adapted to stage spectacles of political nature (cf. the relationship between spolia displays and the early development of the peristyle house, or the case of the “domestic” basilicas). On the broader scale of analysis, we could also take the activities of Roman magistrates outside Rome into account (especially if they were using allotted funds, a practice established by at least 174 B.C.E. [Livy 41.27–8]). Did early experiments follow, or depart from, the contemporary pattern in Rome? And when they did either, to what extent and why? (Cf. the rejection of the stoa form at colonial sites). And how can the rich evidence from the Italian allied communities be brought into the picture? The case of Pompeii, where major monuments have been interpreted as manubial in nature (see the possible titulus Mummianus from the Sanctuary of Apollo) immediately stands out.

While recognizing that her reconstruction can accommodate “plenty of fine-tuning” (3), Davies delivers an authoritative account of the inextricable relationship between Roman art and architecture and Roman history, providing more fuel for the specialist discourse on the cultural implications of early Roman expansion but also speaking to present concerns about the political use (and misuse) of monuments for individual or group self-promotion.

Marcello Mogetta
Department of Ancient Mediterranean Studies
University of Missouri, Columbia

Book Review of Architecture and Politics in Republican Rome, by Penelope J.E. Davies

Reviewed by Marcello Mogetta

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.mogetta

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.