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Roman Architecture and Urbanism: From the Origins to Late Antiquity

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Roman Architecture and Urbanism: From the Origins to Late Antiquity

By Fikret Yegül and Diane Favro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xvi + 897. $300. ISBN 978-0-52147-071-1 (cloth).

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Yegül and Favro have delivered a major reappraisal of the exceptionally rich record left by builders and city planners from the Early Republic to the end of the Roman empire—the first to appear in the English-speaking scholarship since the early 1980s. They incorporate new discoveries and, to varying degrees, perspectives that have reshaped the debate among classicists and archaeologists in the last few decades, but they place the emphasis on aspects of concern to present-day architects and designers: “structure, space, light, experience, sequencing, order” (vii). Making reference to the works of modern giants like Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and Eero Saarinen throughout the book, the authors ask whether Roman-era practitioners were able to fulfill the architect’s obligation to develop what is offered under the social, political, cultural, legal, as well as environmental conditions operating at any given time into “perfect and permanent moments of design” (861). To answer that question, they bring readers on an extended tour across three continents, selecting monuments whose architectonic qualities they see as the “secret” of Roman architecture (ix).

Previous generations of scholars were generally interested in tracing similarities between provincial architecture and that of Italy in order to demonstrate the role that provincial builders played in the diffusion of Roman culture to the conquered peoples, a view that reflected an implicit bias toward the values of the conquerors. The authors confront the question of romanization more explicitly in the introduction (1–6). The narrative, however, remains centered on the “bright side” of the Roman conquest: admiring the achievements that this brought to the conquered territories. In addition to the imperially sponsored programs, projects financed by native patrons (via summae honorariae or private benefactions) are showcased to celebrate the upward mobility that the system allowed (though civic euergetism was not a uniquely Roman phenomenon, having been a long-established practice of Greek urbanism). The authors do acknowledge that a world “less fortunate existed beyond the reaches of aqueducts” (3), but this is left largely unexplored (for suggestions on how to correct the picture, see M. Fernández-Götz, D. Maschek and N. Roymans, “The Dark Side of the Empire: Roman Expansionism Between Object Agency and Predatory Regime,” Antiquity 94, 2020, 1634–35).

As can be gleaned from the table of contents and index, the book follows the model of J.B. Ward-Perkins’s Roman Imperial Architecture (Penguin Books 1981) both in terms of chapter topics and sites examined, with some adjustments in depth and breadth (particularly for the eastern Mediterranean). In the first half, Yegül and Favro trace architectural developments in Rome and Italy chronologically from the origins of urbanism to the Antonine period (chs. 1–6 and parts of ch. 7); they then turn their attention to the periphery (chs. 7–11), covering well-known buildings that appear in previous studies of provincial architecture; finally, they return to Rome to deal with the period from the Severans to Constantine, with a short detour to Tetrarchic Split, Trier, and Thessaloniki (ch. 12, which also features brief concluding remarks in lieu of a final synthesis). Chapters 1–3 and 5 are organized thematically (i.e., republican town planning, religious architecture, building technology, and residential architecture, respectively); chapters 4 and 6 describe monumental projects in Rome following the traditional sequence of emperors. Chapters 7–11 are organized by region (Italy and the West, North Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, and the Near East, respectively), and treat architectural and civic contributions by building categories (e.g., forum-basilica ensembles, gates and honorific arches, dynastic monuments, spectacle buildings, public baths and bath-gymnasia, fountains, libraries, tombs). The choice of type sites varies in different chapters depending on the specific imperial themes or regional phenomena that the authors wish to highlight, touching on the process of transfer, adaptation, and transformation of Roman construction and architectural models. There are, however, some overlaps, as well as shifts in the order of presentation of the material, both chronologically and geographically. Thus, the discussion of the beautification program of Pompeii’s forum in chapter 1 precedes that of Augustan-era prototypes in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, while chapter 8 introduces Severan architecture in North Africa ahead of the more comprehensive survey of that class in chapter 12. The engineering marvels included in chapter 3 span from aqueducts and dams in Spain to Herod’s harbor in Israel, whereas chapter 5 summarizes the diffusion of both domus and villa architecture in the provinces, from North Africa to Britain.

Chapter 1 anchors some of the underlying themes to Rome’s urbanization process and the Republican-period colonization program. Over time, Rome did not dictate but “helped filter and strengthen evolving styles through its unifying, permanent presence” (9). Innovations in design are tied to Rome’s “culture of conquest” (27–30 on the relationship with triumph and military symbolism; cf. also ch. 2, 87–91 on manubial temples). Roman town planning evolved as a means of “control, consolidation, and development” (33). The layouts of the four best-researched Middle Republican colonies (i.e., Cosa, Fregellae, Paestum, and Alba Fucens) are discussed to highlight commonalities in physical configuration (36–48), which the authors relate to the promotion of shared governmental structure and way of life rather than to the export of specific building forms originating in Rome. Examples of architectural “inventiveness” at the local level are also emphasized (e.g., the early second century BCE baths of Fregellae, precursor to the Roman-style type). The chapter concludes with a lengthier account of Pompeii’s urban development to 79 CE (49–77), introducing salient features of Late Republican architecture (e.g., atrium-peristyle houses, basilica, freestanding theater, forum with axial temple), and elucidating the range of spatial transformations occurring at sites with a preexisting urban tradition during and after the transition into the Roman political sphere (although the proposed dates appear problematic in places; for the state of the evidence now, see M. Osanna, ed., Atti del convegno Studium erga populum: Studium erga sapientiam. In ricordo di Enzo Lippolis, Studi e Ricerche del Parco Archeologico di Pompei 45, L’Erma di Bretschneider 2021).

In chapter 2, the history of the Roman republican temple-building tradition begins with the controversy around the architectural form of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline, whose influence on the creation of subsidiary temples in colonial towns like Cosa is also noted (85), despite the dubious identification of many of those (J. Crawley Quinn and A. Wilson, “Capitolia,” JRS 103, 2013, 117–73). The “theater-temple” ensembles of Tarracina, Tibur, and Praeneste are given prominent space to show how Late Republican architects could mold local topography and ritual “into complex architectonic wholes” by exploiting the opportunities offered by concrete technology (98). The significance of these achievements for Yegül and Favro is such that they entertain the idea that “the sense of axial order and formality” of contemporary Hellenistic architecture in the Greek East might have derived from Roman practice (110; but the possibility that the architect of the sanctuary in Praeneste came from Asia Minor has been suggested by F. Zevi, “Considerazioni vecchie e nuove sul santuario della Fortuna Primigenia. L'organizzazione del santuario, i Mucii Scaevolae e l'architettura mariana,” in Le Fortune dell'età arcaica nel Lazio ed in Italia e loro posterità: Atti del 3º Convegno di studi archeologici, Palestrina 15–16 ottobre 1994, Palestrina 1998, 137–83). Their “emphatic sense of scenographic composition” may have also inspired the formal ordering of the so-called forum-temple-basilica complexes in the western provinces (421).

Chapter 3 surveys the elements of Roman construction through the stages of design and planning, procurement of materials and labor, and execution. The authors highlight the supervisory role, almost military in nature, played by Roman architects (a category that includes members of the profession from the provinces who would be called to Rome) in order to make the process smooth and efficient (120). The authors attribute the spread of methods and specialties such as roads, bridges, waterworks, and baths to the needs of Roman colonies and military foundations, which gave rise to the construction tradition seen subsequently in major civilian projects (558, with reference to Roman Greece). Military personnel supplying expertise and manpower could be made available even when the imperial administration was not the source of funding. As part of this process, the Romans may have been able to “encourage and establish a system of education and training” across their empire (179); innovative techniques unknown in Rome did in fact emerge independently (e.g., L.C. Lancaster, Innovative Vaulting in the Architecture of the Roman Empire: 1st to 4th Centuries CE, Cambridge University Press 2015). 

Chapter 5 eschews the quest for any single, original template for “the Roman house” or “the Roman villa.” Famous examples from Pompeii, like the House of the Menander, whose basic components and sequences were achieved without orthogonal regularity, suggest that residential design was “determined by the experience of the spaces, not the drawing board symmetry of the plans” (252). Whether the reason for the fortune of the peristyle house in the provinces derives from the fact that its internalized landscape “promoted relaxed networking between elite Romans and locals, mediating the atrium’s patron/client formality that might have been considered more oppressive” (258) remains more difficult to prove.

The authors’ own expertise can be appreciated throughout the rest of the volume. Chapters 4 and 6 are clearly informed by Favro’s research. Taken together, they offer a compelling reconstruction of the imperial building programs that reshaped the metropolis, integrating recent work on canonical monuments: for example, the alternate reconstruction proposed for the Basilica Aemilia and its annexes (196); the revised sequencing of the House of Octavian/Augustus and the Temple of Apollo Palatinus (202–3); the problem of the Domus Aurea (e.g., the so-called coenatio rotunda in the Vigna Barberini, 237–38); the development of the Flavian Palace and Domus Severiana (315–28; 801–2); new renderings of the imperial fora (296–97 for the Flavian phase; 337 for the Trajanic phase); and the debate about the Pantheon (355–70). Yegül’s mastery of bath architecture big and small is showcased throughout the various chapters; most of the new entries for Gaul, North Africa, and Greece in contrast to the sample examined in Ward-Perkins are indeed represented by sites that incorporate bathing components or nymphaea. 

Chapter 10 on Roman Asia Minor represents the most extensive addition to previous studies (110 pages and 124 figures). According to the authors, the less intrusive nature of Roman intervention in Anatolia curbed Italian influence, allowing for a continuation of local construction methods and traditional building types. Significant exceptions do exist, such as the Roman walling techniques attested at Elaiussa Sebaste and other Roman colonial sites in Cilicia (608–9), or the unorthodox design of the Temple of Artemis at Sardis in its Hadrianic phase, which departs from the local Hermogenean canon, perhaps reflecting a conscious “Italification” (644–46). The creative adaptations of the grid system seen in cities that display irregular plans offer “exceptional opportunities for architectural and social analysis” of structures that negotiate different alignments (619, with reference to the diagonal vistas framed by porticoes in the Pamphylian cities of Perge and Side; 620–26 for the Pisidian sites). Monuments such as the stoa-basilica and the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias are described as a Roman interpretation of Late Hellenistic models “made possible by the transformative vitality of the city’s culture,” unlike romanization in the West (653–56). The concluding section on housing and residential architecture provides a comparison with the pattern seen in Pompeii and Ostia (e.g., the Hanghäuser at Ephesus, “modern day condominiums,” 697–99).

In chapter 12, Yegül and Favro address the deceptive impression of the deeply rooted Greek identity of the Roman Near East, biased by the fact that Greek remained the lingua franca (709–10). Paying homage to William MacDonald in the initial discussion of city plans and the architecture of colonnaded avenues and crossroads (712–24), they move on to discuss Herod’s visionary building program, pointing out how he was able to incorporate the practices he saw and learned in Rome and elevate the Hellenistic tradition of planning to heights that surpassed Augustus’ achievements (736; contra B. Burrell, “A Hemicycle with a View,” MAAR 63–64, 2018–19, 137–67, who argues for a stronger Roman influence). The many variants of the Roman Corinthian order are described in all their complexity. Ba’albek, Petra, Bostra, Gerasa, and Palmyra, too, are lavishly illustrated with an impressive array of photos collected by the authors over four decades of practice in the field. On a hopeful note, the journey concludes in the so-called Dead Cities west and southwest of Aleppo, where the modest architecture offers a glimpse into the ordinary yet prosperous daily lives of agricultural groups living in a land now ravaged by war (790–96).

The scholarly community will benefit greatly from what is poised to become the main reference work for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on Roman architecture. The one unfortunate aspect is the excessive number of typos, especially for Latin names and foreign technical terms. The price point makes the book hardly affordable to students and contingent faculty, but every university library should own a copy. The framework will hopefully encourage a more thorough engagement with critical themes in republican architecture than is normally included in general surveys. The extensive glossary and the beautifully produced plans and drawings will be extremely useful tools for teaching a subject that, as Yegül and Favro ultimately prove, can be appreciated from both practical and theoretical angles with equal joy.

Marcello Mogetta
University of Missouri, Columbia

Book Review of Roman Architecture and Urbanism: From the Origins to Late Antiquity, by Fikret Yegül and Diane Favro
Reviewed by Marcello Mogetta
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Mogetta

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