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Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World

Edited by Tyler V. Franconi (JRA Suppl. 104). Pp. 164. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2017. $89.50. ISBN 978-0-9913730-8-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World is a timely contribution to growing discourses on the relationship between humans and the environment. The product of a 2014 conference organized with the Oxford Roman Economy Project, this volume employs varied methodologies and data sets with the aim of illuminating rivers and the lives of people who depended on or were impacted by them. Classicists, historians, archaeologists, and environmental scientists will all find portions of this book accessible and enlightening. The papers serve as commendable examples of effective cross-disciplinary dialogue and the productivity achieved when diverse scholars are invited to approach similar research questions from various angles. By drawing on the ample historical and scientific evidence available from the Roman world, this book offers new perspectives on a complicated but prescient subject: past human-environment interactions.

One of the book’s recurring themes is underscored by Franconi’s opening sentence: “Rivers change” (7). Deceptively obvious, this simple fact makes the study of rivers and their impact on ancient societies inherently complex. Beyond quantifying and dating past landscape change, it can be even more challenging to ascertain causative factors of change, as riverine environments are heavily altered by natural (climatic and geomorphological) as well as anthropic forces. These variables operate within an interconnected system, so disentangling the causes of landscape transformation, even when data are available and robust, can be frustratingly difficult. To assess the dynamism of riverine landscapes, therefore, requires an understanding of change over seasons and over multiple centuries, at the local level and across a regional watershed. This volume appropriately reflects this need for multiscalar perspectives on rivers, with contributions that span the broad geographical and temporal boundaries of the Roman empire. 

Several chapters employ geoarchaeological data in service of paleoenvironmental reconstruction, although not all contributions prove to be equally effective. Bravard and Leveau each synthesize abundant data collected from the Rhône River over the last three decades into two chapter-length contributions. First, Bravard references, in rapid succession, evidence for varying degrees of landscape change over the entire length of the Rhône, in part to demonstrate the existence of a Wet Roman Pulsation from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. This rainy phase, he effectively argues, along with human activities, triggered erosion and sedimentation across the river system. While he provides some discussion of the human response to floods and sedimentation, this topic remains rather tangential to the main focus of his essay: summarizing a half century of scholarship on geomorphological approaches to fluvial systems and a quick survey of case studies from Roman France. Leveau picks up the discussion on floods in the lower Rhône valley, but his chapter, noticeably translated from the original French, is rather dense. Although the author admirably seeks to integrate all available evidence relevant to his topic, the reader (especially one who lacks experience with geoarchaeological data sets) may find the thread of the discussion difficult to follow. In addition to referencing a number of geoarchaeological studies without providing sufficient contextualization, he uses numerous grayscale maps that would have been far more legible if presented in color (as elsewhere in the book). Leveau’s use of the historical record is similarly frustrating. For example, he cites Polybius’ account of Hannibal’s crossing of the Rhône by boat as demonstrating “ancient use of the river for navigation” (49). Crossing, however, is not the same as navigating a river, and in any case, the literary record should not be taken as definitive evidence for river navigability (cf. Whiting’s paper on the Orontes, discussed below). Ideally, the archaeological and epigraphic evidence for the Rhône’s navigability in antiquity would have received more attention.

The potential of interdisciplinarity and geoarchaeological methodologies is better exemplified by two multiauthored contributions. Goiran et al. provide a convincing reconstruction of the republican harbor at Ostia, thereby filling a noticeable gap in the story of Rome and its harbors. By presenting a detailed chrono-stratigraphical analysis of two boreholes, 18 radiocarbon dates, and other analyses, the authors allow the reader to fully appreciate the evidence behind their conclusions. Their reconstruction includes an interesting consideration of ship draft and the practicalities of maintaining a harbor that was prone to siltation. Lagoonal harbors, of which Ostia is one example, are the focus of another chapter that examines the processes of harbor transformations on a millennial scale. By surveying numerous examples from across the Mediterranean, Morhange et al. highlight the paradox of lagoons: the geomorphological characteristics that make these landscapes suitable harbors—relatively low-energy environments that provide semi-protected access routes between river and sea—directly contribute to sedimentation processes that ultimately complicate harbor operations. This descriptive survey provides helpful context for questions of harbor location and the realities of unstable landscapes that can offer diminishing advantages and increasing challenges over time.

As editor, Franconi ensures that the quantification and qualification of fluvial landscapes is not isolated from the human experience of these environments. Although one might assume that such inferences must rely on voices preserved in the literary record, this book shows how a consideration of varied evidence (archaeological, geomorphological, palynological, modern analogues, among others) can go a long way to illuminating the lived experience of these often mercurial landscapes. In his chapter on the hydrological history of Rome’s German frontier, Franconi employs a blended data set to demonstrate how “the Rhine was no passive element of its landscape but a prime mover in determining many aspects of life within its basin” (94). Although at risk of seeming deterministic, this theme of “rivers as agents” (14) in history proves to be an evocative approach to questions of past human-environment interactions. Franconi’s hydrological discussion is framed by inscriptional dedications to Pater Rhenus. The river god, in the minds of the dedicants, had the power to dramatically impact, for better and worse, their lives and livelihood. One may take Franconi’s argument a step further by interpreting such ritual activities as one method of adaptation that enabled ancient inhabitants to be resilient in a landscape that could both facilitate prosperity and impose devastation.

Other papers in the volume further explore this subject of human adaptation to riverine environments by integrating a variety of historical evidence. Campbell’s chapter elucidates how Romans viewed rivers, while highlighting their unique treatment: in an often reactive and passive administrative system, rivers warranted proactive initiative from government officials charged with improving the riverine environment, exploiting the resource, and protecting urban infrastructure from floods and sedimentation. In a similar vein, Haug capitalizes on an exceptional papyrological record in order to reveal the range of adaptive strategies employed by the inhabitants of Egypt’s Fayyūm. In compelling fashion, he illustrates the mix of benefits and challenges to lives that were inextricably linked with the perennial irrigation regime, as they sought to capitalize on an exceedingly fertile region while also cope with periodic shocks and stress. 

Two complementary chapters take regional approaches—Wilson on North Africa and Whiting on northwest Syria—while challenging preconceptions of fluvial landscapes as they existed in antiquity. Wilson provides an extensive overview of the modern hydrological conditions in North Africa, where seasonal watercourses, or wadis, exist most often as dry riverbeds subject to flash floods following extreme and irregular rainfall. Refuting the common assumption that rainfall in the Roman period must have been more abundant in order to support the documented scale of settlement, Wilson argues that there has not been significant climate change in the region since antiquity. This premise provides the necessary framework to make analogies between the arid landscape and water management strategies in modern North Africa and comparable conditions in the Roman period. Conversely, Whiting presents the landscape of the Orontes River as extremely prone to change over time, as a result of both the river’s high-energy flow and human activities. Working with a keen awareness of substantial alterations made to the river’s course since the 1950s and limitations in both the archaeological and historical records, Whiting provides a reasonably cautious account of the form and impact of the Orontes in late antiquity. She challenges common assumptions that the river was once navigable and ultimately calls for more interdisciplinary investigations into the environmental history of the region.

In the brief concluding chapter, a self-referential Purcell rightly notes the dominance of maritime studies of the Mediterranean and emphasizes the important yet underappreciated role of rivers in ancient life. He underscores two themes emerging from the various authors, river connectivity and landscape management, as particularly relevant to “the fiscal, extractive topographies of the polities of the Roman empire” (163). In sum, while this volume represents a worthy and foundational contribution, it remains apparent that more work in this vein will be necessary in order to understand fully the multifaceted role of riverine environments in premodern societies, as well as the human experience of these dynamic landscapes. In the case of the Roman world, there is an opportunity to bring together an expanding corpus of scientific and historical evidence to provide an instructive account of human resilience in fluvial systems—one that could provide an invaluable perspective for modern communities facing a future of significant river change as a result of both rising sea levels and increasing urban development.

Andrea L. Brock
School of Classics
University of St Andrews 

Book Review of Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World, edited by Tyler V. Franconi

Reviewed by Andrea L. Brock

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.brock

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