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Urbaner Ballungsraum im römischen Nordafrika: Zum Einfluss von mikroregionalen Wirschafts und Sozialstrukturen auf den Städtebau in der Africa Proconsularis

Urbaner Ballungsraum im römischen Nordafrika: Zum Einfluss von mikroregionalen Wirschafts und Sozialstrukturen auf den Städtebau in der Africa Proconsularis

By Paul Scheding (Studien zur antiken Stadt 16). Wiesbaden: Reichart 2019. Pp. 297. €98. ISBN 978-3-95490-313-9 (cloth).

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The chosen region of study for this well-written book, today lying in northern Tunisia between the Medjerda and Miliane Rivers, is a part of what was once the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis. The vast territory of Roman Carthage, the pertica Carthaginiensis created in the mid to late first century BCE, strongly influenced the development of urbanism in this area. While many of the urban centers here possessed a significant level of monumentality, most remained subordinate to Carthage, not being granted municipal promotion until after the great colonial territory was dissolved during the reign of Septimius Severus.

The author has benefited from substantial fieldwork experience in Tunisia with teams lead by Philipp von Rummel and Stefan Ritter. The book is the result of a reworking of Scheding’s doctoral dissertation undertaken at the University of Köln, begun in 2013. Two related research questions are tackled: Was there a distinct form of urbanism in the hinterland of Carthage during the first quarter of the third century CE? And, if so, can the formation of townscapes in this region be explained in terms of a socioeconomic environment that was unique to this region? The answers Scheding provides to his chosen research questions are highly interesting, and his detailed firsthand knowledge of the material adds strength to many of his insights.

One of the chief merits of the book is its methodological and theoretical approach. It has been clear for some years that a postprocessual archaeology, influenced by developments in sociology and anthropology, has a great deal to add to our understanding of the formation of towns under the Roman empire. John Creighton’s excellent book Britannia: The Creation of a Roman Province (Routledge 2006), for example, demonstrated that an examination of the organization of space within and around ancient towns can provide significant insights into the nature of their populations, as well as into the broader economic and political structures within which they existed. Drawing such meaningful conclusions from the spatial syntax of townscapes is, however, extremely difficult, and it is rare to find a regional study of this nature with so much that is significantly new to say about the nature of urbanism during the Roman period. Like Creighton, Scheding operates with a set of analytical tools drawn from sociology and anthropology; his emphasis is on the social processes behind the monumental, built aspects of townscapes, and the differences that can be identified between his region and other parts of North Africa.

The book has four main sections. The first, which serves as an introduction to those unfamiliar with the subject matter, contains two parts. Part A of section 1 explains the rationale behind the author’s micro-regional approach, the sociological influences he is drawing on, and his aim to study the cultural ideas of the inhabitants of towns within the hinterland of Carthage. In explaining his application of the concept of “micro-region” to the study area, Scheding makes close reference to Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s influential work The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Blackwell 2000). Part B introduces the geography and climate of the study area and its administrative and economic structures.

Section 2, where Scheding presents the main body of data, is an in-depth study of a number of towns within the hinterland of Carthage. It is divided into three parts. Part A describes the archaeological evidence in five case studies: Thugga, Thuburbo Maius, Thignica, Uchi Maius, and Mustis. Each of these towns is illustrated with photographs and plans, although the availability of illustrative material varies widely. Part B discusses more generally the subjects of sacred architecture, spectacle buildings, public baths, mercantile and administrative buildings, arches, fountains, and aqueducts. The five case studies provide the main examples, but data from other towns are also brought in to flesh out the discussion. Part C focuses on subjects such as the position of public buildings within the cityscape, the location of smaller public spaces, the structure and organization of the forum, the facades of public buildings, streets, porticos, and terraces. The more traditional subject of decorated architectural fragments is brought to bear on the subject of social networks within the region, again with additional examples (Djebel Moraba, Numlulis, and Carthage).

Section 3 is far shorter. In order to underline the existence of a unique form of spatial organization in the towns within his micro-region, Scheding examines a number of other, medium-sized towns in North Africa: Cuicul (158–63), Mactaris (163–70), and Bulla Regia (149–57). The fourth and final section explains how the contrasts Scheding has observed between the towns examined in Sections 2 and 3 relate to the social networks of the region and the dynamic between the municipal elites of Carthage and those of the towns within its hinterland.

Scheding introduces the problem of Roman North Africa’s economic boom for the specific forms of urbanism he has observed within his region of study. How did the growing wealth of North Africa influence the development of towns? Outside of the pertica Carthaginiensis, Scheding asserts that towns often possessed streets that were significantly wider than others, and which were sometimes colonnaded. In a significant number of these settlements population growth and increasing wealth eventually led to the construction of several additional open public spaces. Monumental building in this kind of town tended to be located facing onto these same main streets and public plazas. A town like Bulla Regia, for example, eventually had four monumental public plazas all linked by a single main road, with its public monuments clustered around these spaces (171).

Scheding concludes that many towns outside the hinterland of Carthage had public-facing architecture precisely because they served as regional centers and needed a certain level of public infrastructure in order to provide the population of their own territories with adequate services. The spatial architecture of such towns made it easy for groups that visited the urban center only on certain occasions—market days and religious festivals, for example—to navigate the cityscape. In the case of Mactaris, Scheding finds that certain forms of architectural decoration were unique to the town and its surrounding settlements. He suggests that this indicates that the urban center provided a model to visitors from its hinterland; over time, regional group identity came to be expressed through the common use of decorative architectural motifs (172).

Scheding is successful in demonstrating a strong contrast in the spatial organization of the townscapes constructed by the subordinate communities of the Carthaginian pertica. Such communities did not reflect the prosperity of the times through the creation of multiple public plazas, or main streets equipped with colonnades. Rather than the maintenance and monumentalization of broad thoroughfares, with pavements that separated pedestrians from other traffic, Scheding observes the gradual narrowing of streets during the late second and early third centuries CE, due to a gradual encroachment of the built environment. Each town in this region possessed only a single forum; the absence of a basilica in each case demonstrating the fact that judicial and administrative proceedings were probably held at Carthage. A considerable number of these towns, however, became highly monumentalized. Scheding notes that if one simply counted the number of monuments constructed in towns like Thugga and Thignica, there would be few noticeable differences from other medium-sized, monumentalized towns of North Africa, such as Bulla Regia or Mactaris (215). The interest in facing all public monuments onto main thoroughfares and public squares noted at Bulla Regia and other towns outside of this region was, however, entirely absent. Public buildings in these subordinate towns were, by contrast, distributed throughout the townscape. Each of these towns had grown organically, without the construction of an orthogonal street grid, and, unlike some of the other towns of North Africa, there is little evidence for entirely new districts being added during the High Empire.

The epigraphic corpus reveals that the public buildings in these towns were commonly erected by individual benefactors on land that they had owned privately, prior to the construction works. Located away from the forum, these buildings had simplistic, austere exteriors, and were often accessed only via narrow alleyways; entrance to many of the temples, for example, was gained through a single, narrow threshold. It appears that these enclosed public spaces were tucked away, the luxurious architecture, shady porticos, and gardens only becoming apparent once the visitor was inside.

In conclusion, Scheding contends that the provision of public space in towns subordinate to Carthage reflected the intentions of those commissioning the buildings: the local municipal elite. Rather than providing for the populace of a large hinterland, their public spaces, added to temples, baths, and theaters, were used to entertain select local groups at meetings, banquets, and religious festivals. The importance of local aristocrats, who also held positions on the city council of Carthage, is also demonstrated epigraphically. As we do not know the exact extent of Carthage’s large territory, which may not have been contiguous, it is difficult to define precisely the role it played in the formation of the townscapes that are characterized so well within these pages. In part, Scheding argues that the social networks which produced this unique form of urbanism were a result of the broader ecology and geography of the micro-region. The agricultural wealth of the region supported a high density of towns that were within walking distance of one another, but whose streets and public spaces did not need to accommodate periodic influxes of visitors from the populations of large hinterlands. Those living in the countryside around a town like Thugga would have been able to visit a number of similarly monumentalized urban centers without having to travel far. The overarching political structure put in place by the Roman administration, combined with preexisting social hierarchies, produced competing interests between local patrons. These interests, in turn, led to a segregation of public space within such townscapes; the public buildings erected were not just gifts to the inhabitants or monuments to the wealth and prestige of their benefactors, they were spaces in which elites not only displayed but used their power and influence on specific sections of the local population.

This is an important book. It deserves to be read, and its ideas considered in detail with regard to other recent work on Roman urbanism, not least that on the subject of regional urban hierarchies. For English-speaking readers two recent books chapters summarize some of the arguments made in this book. More on Scheding’s methodological approach appears in his chapter in Regional Urban Systems in the Roman World, 150 BCE–250 CE (L. de Ligt and J. Bintliff, eds., Brill 2020), and his contribution in For the Love of Carthage (JRA Suppl. 109, forthcoming) describes the social networks that existed between the elites of Carthage and those of the subordinate towns of this region.

Matthew Hobson
University of Leicester

Book Review of Urbaner Ballungsraum im römischen Nordafrika: Zum Einfluss von mikroregionalen Wirschafts- und Sozialstrukturen auf den Städtebau in der Africa Proconsularis, by Paul Scheding
Reviewed by Matthew S. Hobson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Hobson

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