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Life and Death in the Roman Suburb

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Life and Death in the Roman Suburb

By Allison L.C. Emmerson. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020. Pp. 304. $90. ISBN 9780198852759 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The central argument of this book is that funerary monuments on the outskirts of Roman cities in peninsular Italy were not imbued with sinister connotations that required them to be isolated from the world of the living, as has often been assumed. Rather, they were closely integrated into their physical surroundings and contributed meaningfully to the lives and activities of the people who moved around them. The approach is applied and tested through close readings of periurban landscapes in which Emmerson explores the relationship between funerary monuments and other forms of land use found in the same contexts, as locations for: waste management, commerce, amphitheaters, and sanctuaries. It engages intensively and productively with previous work that has demonstrated the importance of these areas to Roman urban life, while establishing valuable new insights into both individual sites and the character of these areas overall.

The book is structured around a series of major case studies, supplemented by comparisons from more than 80 additional sites located throughout peninsular Italy. The case studies are carefully selected to encompass a spectrum of cities of different sizes and characters, and Emmerson’s knowledge of each is detailed, up-to-date, and always characterized by a willingness to question established readings and test new interpretations. Indeed, her microreadings of suburban landscapes are the book’s greatest strength, supporting vivid and compelling analyses of the activities and interactions that must have tied their component features together. Some sites do present challenges, though. In chapter 6, the best evidence that gladiatorial games were advertised in neighboring cities comes from notices in Pompeii, which Emmerson notes are found predominantly in the suburbs, where they could reach visitors and travelers. But Pompeii’s amphitheater was intramural, leading Emmerson to bracket the site with Capua in order to bring the advertisements into dialogue with an amphitheater that was also suburban. Here, the connections between the discussions of the two sites sometimes felt strained. Nonetheless, Emmerson’s use of case studies is a pragmatic response to the uneven quality of the available data, which inevitably means that a small core of well-documented sites will dominate any account.

After an introduction that reviews the existing literature and establishes key concepts and vocabulary, chapter 2 examines the Porta Ercolano suburb at Pompeii, the Porta Marina suburb at Ostia, and a recently excavated site at the Via del Tritone in northern Rome, supplemented by some additional examples. Emmerson shows how each functioned as a distinct neighborhood with rich local interactions, while also bringing the examples together to sketch out some typical overall patterns. She argues that in Italy, suburban development on a significant scale began in the late first century BCE and early first century CE in response to population growth, wealth, an emerging ideal of the open city, and the display potential offered by extramural sites. None of these factors was simple, of course. As Emmerson shows, suburban growth could occur while open spaces were still available or even being created within the city, while the idea of peace and security may not always have reflected the reality of intermittent civil wars. Her case that travelers were often obliged to wait before entering urban centers, or chose not to enter them at all, has important implications for the impact of suburban structures, which she develops in further chapters. However, for this reason, I found myself wanting more detail here about the extent to which some cities in this era may have had “ring roads” allowing travelers to avoid the urban center, especially as Emmerson’s notes (49) show that the issue remains debated and underevidenced.

Chapter 3, “Death in the Suburb,” picks up on a key point established in the opening chapter: the notion that death pollution affecting living individuals only appears unambiguously in Late Antique sources. Emmerson makes a convincing case that reconstructions of Roman rituals around death and bereavement rest on sources that need better critical examination, including careful attention to specific contexts of time and place. These observations are crucial within the context of the book, underpinning Emmerson’s argument that suburban tombs are too often viewed separately from—or even at odds with—the living occupation around them. Her suggestions allow her to offer a fresh perspective on the reality of the suburban tomb and its relationship to its surroundings, including acting as a symbiotic spur to other development, being obliterated by it, or persisting as potent local landmarks. But Emmerson’s case for rethinking death pollution will be important for other scholars dealing with Roman death and funerary customs, too.

The discussion of waste management in chapter 4 is likewise astute and is enriched by careful consideration of different kinds of waste and their contexts (94). The category of “provisional waste” in particular allows Emmerson to note that waste was often present in the urban periphery only while in transit from one site to another, as part of service activities. On this basis, she argues convincingly that we should not simply equate waste with marginality and abandonment. It could instead be a marker of a vibrant zone with an important role to play in supporting the functioning of the city. In this chapter, I particularly enjoyed the reinterpretation of known material such as waste deposits in the periphery of Pompeii and the pits (puticuli) excavated by Lanciani on the Esquiline, which Emmerson suggests were not the mass graves of Varro and Horace but rather were cesspits. This is another important contribution that will engage and interest many.

In chapter 5, Emmerson addresses commercial land use in the case study areas, with welcome attention to issues of land ownership, economic incentives, and social drivers. Again, well-trodden material is given a fresh and convincing reappraisal, here bringing to light previously underappreciated interactions between the tomb of Eurysaces in Rome and the actual bakeries nearby. Emmerson’s careful observation of differences between the tombs and other land use on either side of the Via Antiniana at Puteoli also allows her to build thoughtful arguments about the choices pursued by what were almost certainly different property owners.

Turning to amphitheaters, chapter 6 shows that it was common for Italian cities to build these monuments in the urban periphery, and especially alongside major roads. Here, they could advertise wealth and status to visitors while simultaneously positioning the community within a shared cultural network extending across Italy. The author’s attention to issues of visibility and the pragmatic constraints on amphitheater construction ensure strong interpretations of the sites examined. I was not wholly convinced, though, by Emmerson’s arguments about the relationship between the amphitheater at Verona and a potential processional route running from the theater on the north side of the city and along the Via Postumia into its forum. On the south side of the city, the amphitheater is some distance from the Via Postumia, a location Emmerson suggests was chosen partly in order to extend this processional route out of the east end of the forum and toward the area where it stood. But this felt to me like reading too much into a situation that probably arose primarily in response to the presence of preexisting structures closer to the Via Postumia.

Chapter 7, the final full chapter, addresses the cult sites of the urban periphery, which Emmerson notes are identifiable much earlier than most other uses of this space, from the mid Republican era onward. Working with evidence from Minturnae, Hispellum, and the Transtiberim area of Rome, she shows how cult sites acted as focal points for new monumental development, linked cities with their surrounding region, and were often notably persistent features even as their surroundings changed. This leads neatly into an epilogue which considers the effects of the religious, demographic, and political changes of Late Antiquity on the urban periphery, and thus returns us to the book’s central interest in tomb monuments. As Emmerson shows, the tombs of Christian martyrs made sites in the suburbs focal points of interest in this new context. Yet, for precisely this reason, they were often also gradually absorbed into the city itself, while ordinary burials likewise shifted inwards in association with intramural churches.

In sum, this is an important book with a strong central thesis and many individual readings and arguments that will demand engagement and debate. The written style is clear, accurate, and readable throughout, and the text is richly supported with well-chosen photographs and high-quality plans, both often in color. The author deserves particular credit for ensuring that the city plans consistently include contour lines, which can be difficult to achieve for want of suitable source material, but does a great deal to clarify the factors governing the placement of monuments and the relationships between them once built. Here, it particularly enhances the discussions of the amphitheaters at Herdonia and Ocriculum, showing clearly how they responded to the local topography, and how and from where they were visible within the surrounding landscape. I will certainly be recommending Emmerson’s book to my own students, and I expect it to become an important point of reference for all those interested in Roman Italy, funerary customs, and the organization of space.

Penelope J. Goodman
School of Languages, Cultures and Societies
University of Leeds

Book Review of Life and Death in the Roman Suburb, by Allison L.C. Emmerson
Reviewed by Penelope J. Goodman
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Goodman

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