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Urbanism and Empire in Roman Sicily

Urbanism and Empire in Roman Sicily

By Laura Pfuntner. Pp. viii + 306. University of Texas Press, Austin 2019. $55. ISBN 978-1-4773-1722-8 (cloth).

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For the seven centuries during which Sicily fell under Roman purview (ca. 250 BCE–450 CE), the island evolved from its Greek and Phoenician roots to an important center for the expanding (then declining) Roman hegemony around the Mediterranean Sea. This book explores, archaeologically, the effects Roman rule had on Sicilian urbanism, as social, political, and economic influences forced the island’s inhabitants to constantly adapt their urban environments.

The introduction rightfully begins with an overview of the importance of Sicily to the Romans before delving into the settlement patterns of the island. The author actively integrates ancient texts (Strabo, Pliny, Cicero, and the Antonine Itinerary) into her discussions and analyses while also being aware that these sources are not without their faults. Pfuntner also makes an important distinction in her use of the word “urbanism” that “is not limited to the externally imposed political/juridical roles of cities as centers of government and tribute extraction,” but instead was “espoused and reinforced by the urban community itself . . . through the construction of public buildings, monuments, and luxurious houses” (12). This idea is central to the arguments in the rest of the text. She ends the introduction chapter discussing deurbanization in the archaeological record—not a simple task, often relying on ancillary evidence or comparanda.

Before discussing how some urban centers adapted to Roman influences, the first two chapters detail the abandonment of settlements from the Late Republic to the High Empire. Focus is on the sites of Heraclea Minoa, Phintias, Morgantina, Camarina, Ietas, and Calacte (all abandoned ca. 50 BCE–50 CE), and Soluntum, Segesta, and Halaesa (all abandoned ca. 50–250 CE). What Pfuntner highlights well in these chapters are the dynamic forces that permanently altered the settlement landscape to the detriment of some urban centers. Macro-level causes of abandonment vary from fluctuating sociopolitical relationships to shifting economies and trade routes. At a different scale, locally diminishing resources or natural occurrences (e.g., fires or earthquakes) could equally encourage a population to relocate. Without a stable economy or wealthy upper class, civic construction and urbanism ceased. Further, evidence does not suggest any association between deurbanization and the increase or decrease of rural settlement. These forces, however, had an opposite effect on the settlements discussed in the next three chapters.

Chapters 3–5 focus on sites that can be discussed with confidence due to the extent of their archaeological exploration. Sites examined are organized geographically: Lilybaeum and Agrigentum on the southwestern coast (ch. 3); Tyndaris and Tauromenium on the northeastern coast (ch. 4); and Centuripae, Catina, and Syracuse on the eastern coast (ch. 5). Although many of these centers are complicated by modern settlement, because there is a plethora of archaeological, historical, and epigraphic material available about these sites, Pfuntner is able to provide a strong analysis of Roman urbanization. At the center of these discussions are the remains of monumental constructions built and financed through the local elite and middle-class citizens. The Roman urbanization of these settlements ultimately came down to a synchronization of economic, civic, and geographical factors. These sites shared complex commercial and industrial systems, allowing for wealth to be funneled into civic construction projects (e.g., amphitheaters, odeons, bath houses), complemented by their strategic locations within land-based and maritime trade networks. Also a factor, although not as important to the author, were benefits bestowed from the imperial office, such as the status of colonia (Tyndaris, Tauromenium, Catina, Syracuse). The evidence Pfuntner presents in the first five chapters, from an absence to an increase in urbanization, outlines quite adequately the forces that transformed Sicily under Roman occupation.

Chapter 6 includes analyses of the commonalities linking the sites discussed in the previous chapters, which the author then compares to the rest of the empire. With the individual case studies considered, a wider view of the island takes shape, and trends emerge. It became common in Roman Sicily for communities to adapt older infrastructure for current uses, for instance in modifying theaters for gladiatorial combats and beast hunts. Also striking is the absence of macella (market buildings), structures common in imperial Greece, Italy, and North Africa. On an individual level, venerations to the imperial cult were not community-wide and instead were attached to existing religious spaces; funerary structures maintained many Hellenistic characteristics (communal, inconspicuous, on the fringes of the urban center) but incorporated new Roman construction techniques. These trends stand in contrast to the rest of the empire. While Roman Sicily modified its ways to a Roman lifestyle, its culture remained distinctly Sicilian.

Chapter 7 returns to settlement strategies, introducing Sofiana, a small urban center that arose in the Roman period, and the possible ruralization of Naxos and Megara Hyblaea. These latter sites were largely abandoned by the time of Roman occupation but found use as small centers of industry and commerce. Pfuntner concludes with a succinct summary, guiding the reader around the island following the Antonine Itinerary.

Pfuntner’s work is a welcome addition to the history and archaeology of Roman Sicily, the most comprehensive treatment since Wilson’s Sicily Under the Roman Empire: The Archaeology of a Roman Province, 36 B.C.–A.D. 535 (Warminster, England 1990). This study includes ample literary and archaeological evidence, while also examining the little studied abandonment of settlements, a less romantic element of archaeological inspection. Summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter make this text a great source for future reference. Descriptions of sites can get confusing (e.g., the location of the agora at Camarina [43]), and there are many issues with site maps that could have been improved (most do not include a north arrow, a 1943 U.S. Army map was used for Centuripe, and no plan of Segesta is included). However, these flaws do not lessen the overall value of the text, which draws needed attention to Sicily at the center of the Roman Empire.

Jerrad Lancaster
Department of Anthropology
University of Akron

Book Review of Urbanism and Empire in Roman Sicily, by Laura Pfuntner
Reviewed by Jerrad Lancaster
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Lancaster

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