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The Fortifications of Pompeii and Ancient Italy

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

The Fortifications of Pompeii and Ancient Italy

By Ivo van der Graaff. Oxford and New York: Routledge 2019. Pp. xvi + 281. $150. ISBN 978-1-4724-7716-3 (cloth).

Reviewed by

There is an old saying when it comes to walls: “A wall is a wall is a wall: seen one, seen them all.” But for van der Graaff this would be an unenlightened way to approach the subject of the walls of Pompeii. This author prefaces the introduction to his study of the fortifications (armature, enceinte) of Pompeii by quoting Aristotle (Pol. 7.1330b): “If our conclusions are just, not only should cities have walls, but care should be taken to make them ornamental, as well as useful for warlike purposes, and adapted to resist modern inventions.” Van der Graaff seconds Aristotle’s words by citing Vitruvius (De arch. 1.3.2); both support his thesis that Pompeii's “city walls functioned as a civic monument as well as a military structure” (1). This assertion is the heart of van der Graaff’s thesis: the study of the history and development of the enceinte of Pompeii offers “a unique window into how fortifications acquired an inherent symbolism for the city” (3). 

What first becomes obvious, however, from the early pages of this book is that the author’s efforts at marshaling the lion’s share of scholarship about the walls of Pompeii are not simply comprehensive, they are at times, if I may mix my metaphor, elephantine. There is almost too much information. But the book’s great strength lies in the presentation of this information. After a careful sifting and synthesis of the material, van der Graaff delivers a compelling narrative aimed at persuading his readers that they have been thinking about the walls of Pompeii—if they have been thinking about them at all—in the wrong way. For the author, the armature of Pompeii is closely linked to the story of its urbanization; in his opinion, however, it is not urbanization that determines the course of the development of the armature but rather the armature that determines the size and development of the city (3), just as the optician crafts the lens to fit the aperture, and not the aperture to fit the lens. “City walls and gates were the formative elements of an armature, anchoring streets and roads and greeting regional arteries heading toward the heart of the city” (3). This approach anticipates the question of the Altstadt theory, which the author takes up in the first chapter (“Prolegomena to the City Walls of Pompeii”) and revisits in more depth in the fourth (“Establishing an Image for Samnite Pompeii”). It is the best treatment of the subject I have yet read, all discussion of archeoastronomy notwithstanding.

The first six of the book’s eight chapters are organized chronologically following the progress of the city walls from the pre-Samnite period to those of Roman Pompeii destroyed by a Vesuvian pyroclastic shrug in 79 CE. In chapter 7, van der Graaff departs from the timeline to examine other contemporary fortification systems elsewhere in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean before returning his attention to Pompeii to conclude his study. In chapter 8 (perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most inventive of the book), van der Graaff wraps things up with an examination of the city walls and their relationship to Roman religious practice, where he observes, “Fortifications and the divinities protected each other in a reciprocal process. Fortified enclosures built by the populace protected both the community and sanctuaries, whereas tutelary divinities, in turn, shielded defenses and population” (205).

One of the best features of the book is its six-page glossary where one can find crisp definitions of the numerous technical terms encountered in the book; this addendum should prove an invaluable asset, especially to the neophyte who is often and understandably beset by the virtual bee swarm of jargon that has become associated with the study of Roman architecture. It is here that the heterological “fauces” follows the homological “facadism” (defined as the “practice in architecture where the facade of a building is left in place and a new interior is built behind it”). Next stop, the Pantheon!

The book is amply illustrated with 70 black-and-white figures and 32 color plates. While in most instances these complement the text as intended, several of the line drawings among the figures are very difficult to read. Their purpose is to show the different building phases of the various gates using a variety of shading and hashed lines; however, reading the keys, even with the aid of a magnifying loupe (8X), proves nearly impossible, especially where van der Graaff attempted to differentiate for his reader, in some cases, up to six different building phases (Pappamonte, Orthostat, 1st Samnite, 2nd Samnite, 3rd Samnite, and Roman) in a single illustration. The color plates are nicely reproduced and, in many cases, have been retouched by the author with helpful lines and arrows to direct the reader's attention to specific details mentioned in the text. 

But one has to wonder if the time and effort spent by the author and publisher to produce the illustrations—not to mention the added expense that such a complement of plates and figures must add to the price of the book—was indeed worth it, given the woefully poor quality of the bookbinding. Pages started coming unstuck and falling out of the spine already during the course of my reviewing it. If considering adopting this as a textbook, one first has to question whether it would last the semester; if as a field guide, one should soon find herself toting a portfolio through the ruins. My advice: bring along a good supply of rubber bands. The unfortunate substandard quality of this publication is something that was, regrettably, out of van der Graaff's control. Routledge must assume culpability for such slapdash workmanship: caveat emptor. 

Worth a brief mention is the inconsistency of citations in the notes that follow each chapter: see, for example, page 79, note 47: “Livy Ab ur. con. XXIII.15.1–6,” but page 107, note 3: “Livy ab ur. cond. IX.38.2–4.” It seems unclear, at least to these eyes, if van der Graaff was following any single set of conventions whatsoever; he certainly was not consulting the OLD or the OCD.

“Sic deinde, quicumque alius transiliet moenia mea” (So shall it be henceforth with everyone who leaps over my walls). With this quotation from Livy (1.7.2–3), van der Graaff begins the penultimate chapter (174). For the author, the words Livy attributes to Romulus upon committing the fratricide of Remus for his contempt of the future walls of Rome illustrate how, “for Romans, their walls were powerful metaphors of an us-versus-them mentality, where state and social order were defined by the symbolic limit of the city” (174). So, too, for van der Graaff, stand the walls of Pompeii.

Steven M. Cerutti
Department of Classics
East Carolina University

Book Review of The Fortifications of Pompeii and Ancient Italy, by Ivo van der Graaff
Reviewed by Steven M. Cerutti
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Cerruti

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