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Architecture Romaine d’Asie Mineur: Les monuments de Xanthos et Leur ornementation

Architecture Romaine d’Asie Mineur: Les monuments de Xanthos et Leur ornementation

By Laurence Cavalier. Pp. 324, pls. 92, maps 2. De Boccard , Bordeaux 2005. €35. ISBN 2-910023-63-X (paper).

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Courtyards and gardens of archaeological museums and excavation houses all over the Mediterranean are repositories of architectural fragments—column capitals, pieces of entablature, statue bases—that are often picturesquely arranged in Piranesi-like assemblages and used as benches under trees and porticoes. The fragments are sometimes casual, unprovenanced finds brought in for safekeeping, or pieces reused in buildings quarried from earlier ones, or else pieces from known buildings that have lost their place. These disjecta membra are not often the subject of scientific analysis, but the French excavation team at Xanthos-Letöon in Lycia under the direction of J. de Courtils gave Cavalier the unpromising task of doing so. To this task she added analyses of the architectural ornamentation of the Roman buildings of Xanthos for her 2002 doctoral dissertation at Bordeaux. The result is a fine, coordinated work of architectural connoisseurship, convincing dating, and a solid contribution both to the building history of the city and to its affiliations with towns in Lycia and Asia Minor.

The book is divided into four parts, the first (27–116) on the Roman buildings, either extant or known from inscriptional references. The only securely datable one (68–69 C.E. by its inscription) is the little arch of Sextus Marcius Priscus (27–9), which combined a Doric architrave and frieze with a cornice molded in the Ionic manner; its metopes bore busts of Leto, Apollo, and Artemis, in polite reference to the divinities of the nearby Letöon. Cavalier’s analysis of the building includes an interesting discussion of other “Doric-revival” buildings in Asia Minor (Patara, Perge) in the late first century. Such connoisseurship is generous because it suggests to other scholars (or to herself) a whole topic of investigation in ancient architectural history.

Sometimes big buildings or complexes present architectural and dating mysteries. Such is the West Agora (31–44), a porticoed quadrangle of which the remaining fragments—bases, some column shafts of limestone, granite, green marble, and Corinthian and pilaster capitals—can only be dated by profile and ornament comparisons to buildings at other sites, but a satisfactory date in the late first or early second century C.E. is convincingly proposed. A similar comparative method is used to disentangle the architectural history of the scaenae frons of the adjacent theater; here, a detailed analysis of components (e.g., shape of acanthus leaves, anthemia, and egg and darts) reveals the history of the building. Originally of indeterminate Hellenistic date, it was then restored shortly after an earthquake in 143 C.E., then again in Severan times.

Three other buildings—the Stoa-Basilica complex (67–87) and the quadri-porticoed Lower Agora (89–94)—present the same mysteries, but Cavalier makes a good case for dating them to the end of the second century or the early years of the third on the basis of the very few fragments of architectural decoration that come from those buildings. The rest of the first part of the book is devoted to buildings whose reconstruction is even more debatable: a nymphaeum (95–100; a few fragments may date it to the late first century) that stood as the focus of the town’s decumanus (101–4), of which a few fragments of porticoes survive; a dipylon (105–7, still under investigation at the time of writing); and a few other buildings attested to by inscriptions to which certain architectural fragments may have belonged.

The second part of this study—at first glance, the least promising—is of architectural fragments not securely tied to known buildings or else of fragments reused in later ones. Few could be attributed to Hellenistic buildings, but parts of an Ionic frieze (120–23) and a considerable number of pieces belonging to a Doric colonnade (125–26) indicate a spurt of building in the third century B.C.E. The largest number are of Roman imperial date and indicate, in general ways, the architectural habits of Xanthian builders: pedestals for columns in several types and sizes were in common use, Attic-Ionic bases were almost universal, and the Corinthian capital predominated over either the Ionic or Composite forms. Dating of the fragments is arrived at on the basis of dated buildings at other sites in Asia Minor, and the picture that emerges is of considerable building in the late first century C.E. under the Flavians, and another in Severan times. The author is careful to indicate findspots for reused elements, with the result that a general picture of the state of the city and its buildings at the time that the Christian churches were built in the fourth to sixth centuries can also be formed: big buildings of a public nature were evidently being used as quarries for later construction.

The third part of Cavalier’s study (173–89) is devoted to building materials and techniques as well as to the typology of building; this last constitutes the panoply of colonnaded streets, honorific arches, theaters, agoras, basilicas, and thermal establishments that were obligatory in Roman cities, and Xanthos was no exception.

More interesting is the fourth part on the decorative formulas and motives of Xanthian architecture as well as their stylistic development (193–219). It is here that Cavalier’s meticulous archaeological descriptions are put to use in convincing, detailed consideration of, for example, the precise style of acanthus-leaf decoration and its development over three centuries. Such precision is welcome because it gives local accent both to architecture and to how the municipalities of Asia Minor participated in the general development from classical to Byzantine forms of architectural ornament. A city’s history and identity are bound into its architecture and its details, and the details of Xanthian architecture are expertly presented here.

The text is clearly illustrated with fine drawings of many of the fragments as well as adequate photographs; maps of Lycia and the site are welcome. Cavalier is to be complimented on a fine achievement in undertaking a hard task and bringing it to a good conclusion.

Guy P.R. Métraux
Department of Visual Arts
GCFA 235
York University
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Book Review of Architecture romaine d’Asie Mineur: Les monuments de Xanthos et leur ornementation, by Laurence Cavalier

Reviewed by Guy P.R. Métraux

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.Metraux

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