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Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy

By Seth Bernard. Pp. xvi + 315. Oxford University Press, New York 2018. $85. ISBN 978-0-19-087878-8 (cloth).

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Our image of Rome in the Middle Republic is filling out quickly. In recent years, a flood of important articles and books on architectural production, the political offices that supported and depended on it, public space, urban dynamics, architecture and social memory, and Roman expansion into Italy has augmented, and in some cases provided an entirely new footing for, study of the period. Made possible by (and often reacting to) the previous 30 years of scholarship on topography and social history, the new studies are able to examine the entanglements of the Roman city and state at an impressively complex level that is beginning to rival scholarship on the better-documented empire.  

With this wide-ranging and persuasive volume, Bernard tackles an area that has been in need of new scholarship: the relationship between the Roman economy, labor demands, and the growing urban built environment of the Middle Republic. His central argument is that between 396 and 168 BCE the interrelated effects of expanding territorial reach, land cultivation, increasing militarily activity, dynamic cycles of architectural production, radical social reforms, and attendant shifts to political structure and economic necessity generated a fundamental change from coercive labor systems to a market economy and, consequently, a necessarily different urban construction environment, state infrastructure, and labor supply. In a way, architecture and urban development are merely tools in Bernard’s larger argument for manifold sociohistorical shifts, but because he positions public building projects centrally in the study (cf. esp. the view he endorses at 62–63 and in chs. 4 and 5), he makes a convincing argument that they were a necessary engine for these changes. The copious moving parts mean the study could have been convoluted, but the loosely diachronic, self-contained, quasi-monographic chapters allow the book to be both manageable and increasingly purposeful as one reads. Furthermore, Bernard’s penetrating analysis of textual sources and archaeological remains allows him to sift nimbly through typically dense scholarly squabbles on Roman republican history, topography, or textual criticism. Occasionally, he avoids these disputes by bypassing them altogether, addressing opposition only briefly, or including a simple “contra” in the footnotes, which may frustrate some readers, but the author’s depth of knowledge is, nevertheless, on full display.

After an introductory chapter that establishes the scope of the book and the author’s approaches to archaeological and textual evidence and economic theory, the next chapter provides a helpful synthesis of scholarship on the primary building materials used in the Middle Republic and their sources in the city and the region, with references to some necessary long-distance trade, especially after Roman conquest of the Tyrrhenian coast. It is a welcome overview, and the section on labor organization paints with a suitably broad brush: these resources occasionally came from territory beyond a private individual’s home or estate and required some complex negotiation to obtain. Bernard offers appropriately cautious suggestions and possibilities for organization of that process.

In chapter 3, the author begins the real work of the book by tying together the redistribution of land after conquest of Veii, decline after the Gallic sack of ca. 390, and the resulting social unrest to the debt reforms of the mid fourth century, all setting up a moment of production crisis in the Early Republic. In doing so, he successfully predicates the development both of the Roman economy and Mid-Republican urbanism on the combined events of the early fourth century. Despite a brief treatment of the fifth century, one is left wondering what contributing factors might have predated the conquest of Veii and laid the groundwork for initial expansion as well as so many rapid political, social, legal, and production changes in its wake. The question lies outside the scope the author sets for the book, but it also challenges, slightly, the hard line he draws in the early fourth century to cordon off the previous century from study of what he calls a “distinguishable” (2) Mid-Republican city and social climate. The earlier period is less forcibly segregated and still helpfully contrasted in other recent scholarship. This by no means diminishes the value of this chapter, which is only amplified when read in tandem with the next one.

Chapter 4 provides a useful, up-to-date reconstruction and explanation of scholarship on the colossal size of the republican urban circuit wall and the labor force required to build it. Bernard applies Janet DeLaine’s widely accepted method of assessing construction costs in person-days, with helpful references directly to anthropological scholarship on energetics; in doing so, he establishes a convincing sense of the production effort and its effect on labor, economics, and the shifting tide of demand on the Roman labor force. His argument is in part predicated on a downturn in construction in the fourth century. Though he acknowledges this to be an argument from silence in texts and the archaeological record, Bernard justly pushes forward, emphasizing that such overwhelming silence for such a long period must indicate some kind of downturn. This is probably correct. The author does rely on existing architectural and archaeological scholarship, though, which itself has overlooked the important evidence of architectural protective and decorative elements; these reveal more construction than has previously been reported, and they diminish the picture of extreme decline. That evidence will not, however, topple the author’s suggestion (121) that pubic building was seriously affected in the wake of the city wall’s construction.

Read together, chapters 3 and 4 are nothing short of groundbreaking. Bernard effectively replaces Livy’s four-part history of the period, “destruction [Gallic sack and incendium], rebuilding, debt, anarchy,” with a different series: expansion (to Veii, with the burdensome maintenance of land cultivation); Gallic defeat and its psychological effects; the urgency of the need for a new circuit wall; the disproportionate effects of coercive labor on the nonelite; and  eventual revolt.

The subsequent chapters complete the argument for a resulting, fundamentally changed economy that was generated organically in response to the overburdened labor force. Chapter 5, the fulcrum of the book, examines the entangled nature of censors, who probably began to let contracts for public construction around 300 BCE in the wake of the influential careers (described succinctly here) of Gaius Maenius and Appius Claudius Caecus, and who soon began to express the payment for that construction in monetary terms, which coincides with the introduction of coinage. Thus, the chapter assesses how and when Romans began to shift their urban construction economy to a centralized and monetized urban market led by magistrates. Following the author into the depths of numismatic scholarship pays dividends, as Bernard highlights social negotiation among political classes as the likely root of Roman adoption of coinage. His argument avoids teleology while also succeeding in establishing the emic Roman mechanics of the shift, a deeper material meaning to metal coinage, and the wider Mediterranean social circumstances and some exogenous factors in the new systems.

Chapter 6 explores the influx of non-Roman workers into the labor force. Unbound by the Roman political expectations of previous centuries, these workers required compensation of a different kind, and Bernard argues for a labor market of wages and other remuneration. He carries this supposition into the built environment and the increased discussion in sources of tabernae, forums, macella, and other architectural typologies that seemed to appear all over the city, creating districts and an urbanism of commerce. The seventh chapter, long awaited in the field, corrects a fundamental misconception that architectural technology lacked dynamism in the Middle Republic. Bernard highlights, for example, the incorporation of multiple stone types for different structural needs and important changes in lifting technology. The effects of this chapter will be far reaching, and one hopes it will be applied to study of technological and material change in other craft industries, especially sculptural commissions using similar stone and adjacent metalworking industries, such as the famous bronzesmiths producing mirrors and cistae in central Italy.

Overall, the study demands a shifted perspective in many fields, and historians of Roman architecture, politics, economics, social institutions, topography, and other areas will grapple with its conclusions for some time. It is, furthermore, helpful in providing good English-language syntheses of scholarship on many seminal public projects, especially with regard to construction practice and labor. The book is supplemented by two appendices, one on the cost analysis of ashlar masonry and the other a catalogue of public building projects in the period under study. It is an authoritative addition to the expanding corpus of scholarship that is rapidly changing our understanding of the Roman republican world.

John North Hopkins
Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts
New York University

Book Review of Building Mid-Republican Rome: Labor, Architecture, and the Urban Economy, by Seth Bernard
Reviewed by John North Hopkins
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Hopkins

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