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Framing Public Life: The Portico in Roman Gaul

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Framing Public Life: The Portico in Roman Gaul

By James F.D. Frakes. Pp. xi + 487, figs. 208, fold-out map 1. Phoibos, Vienna 2009. €98. ISBN 978-3-901232-96-1 (cloth).

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Although their importance, indeed ubiquity, in Roman architecture, both chronologically and geographically, has long been recognized—for example by MacDonald (The Architecture of the Roman Empire. Vol. 2, An Urban Appraisal [New Haven and London 1986]), who referred to porticoes as “the urban armature” of Roman city design—the porticoes and colonnades that lined the streets, squares, and most public spaces of the Roman world have received surprisingly little attention or analysis as elements of architecture in their own right. This elegantly produced volume takes an important step toward filling that lacuna. Frakes investigates porticoes in the public architecture of Roman Gaul and demonstrates clearly their signal importance to cities and towns of the “three Gauls” (Narbonensis, Lugdunensis, Aquitania) from the Romanization of these areas (beginning in the second and continuing well into the first century B.C.E.) through the period of the High Empire in the second century C.E. and their seeming disappearance during the third. The book consists of six substantial chapters of introduction and synthetic discussion (1–110), followed by (the real meat of the work) an impressive catalogue of public porticoes throughout Gaul (111–454), bibliography (455–62), and appendices that provide alphabetical, metrological, and chronological concordances to the porticoes studied (463–87). The book is illustrated throughout with clearly drawn and useful street plans, reconstructions, and architectural renderings, in most cases based on earlier publications, but here revised and redrawn.

The discussion chapters set forth Frakes’ methodology, which is based on that of MacDonald, who divided colonnades and porticoes into five types (street porticoes, plaza porticoes, facade porticoes, stoa porticoes, and cavea porticoes) for categorizing the remains (1–17). It then proceeds to treatments of ancient textual references (18–38), porticoes of Augustan Gaul (39–66), artistic representations of columnar space from Gaul (67–78), colonnades in first- and second-century C.E. Gaul (79–104), and a brief conclusion about later antique Gaul (105–10). Chapter 2, on textual references, makes clear the importance that Roman writers attached to porticoes and colonnades, regularly portraying them as carrying political or social messages and thus contributing to the creation of a truly Roman identity in provincial towns. In light of the famed remark by Tacitus (Agr. 21.2) that porticoes were one element that contributed to leading provincials astray toward alluring and very Roman vices, Frakes’ discussion rightly emphasizes their central role in turning Gallic public space into Romano-Gallic public space. He avoids detailed explanation of some terminology, however, which could have been useful, since even the Roman word porticus in and of itself is ambiguous in its usage (can it refer to single colonnades, or solely to duplex and triplex colonnaded surrounds?). Indeed, the whole concept of the porticus in its myriad occurrences throughout Roman architecture needs detailed investigation in its own right, although that is beyond the stated scope of this book.

Chapter 3 (on porticoes of Augustan Gaul) and chapter 5 (on imperial examples) provide the essential introduction to the remarkable catalogue that is at the heart of this book. Frakes seems to believe that the portico appears in Gaul quite suddenly in the first century B.C.E., that the urban impetus to undertake such major building projects came directly from Gauls themselves, rather than from the Romans as they moved into the provinces, and that porticoes were an integral part of this change in the urban environment. The second point is demonstrated clearly by the evidence he provides—porticoes and colonnades clearly became ubiquitous pieces in the Roman reshaping of Gallic urbanism—but there is little if any evidence to support the contention that these were mostly, or even partly, locally driven projects. Inspiration aside, however, Frakes demonstrates with complete conviction the spread of such architectural elements throughout the three Gauls, both in major cities such as Nemausus (Nîmes) and Arausio (Orange)—where it must be admitted, however, that the Roman presence was so strong that a local drive for the building of porticoes seems rather unlikely—and in smaller towns. His discussion of the creation of Lugdunum (Lyon) as a provincial capital reemphasizes the importance of porticoes in such planned architectural elaboration. In every case, discussions of these porticoed and colonnaded places lead the reader to the relevant catalogue entries in the body of the book, which provide the documentation and detail to substantiate the interpretations offered.

It might have been useful if more attention had been given to the possible existence of pre-Roman porticoes, especially in Gallia Narbonensis and in particular at Glanum (St.-Rémy-de-Provence), where there is a good deal of evidence. Here, reference to the work of Heyn (“Monumental Development in Glanum: Evidence of the Early Impact of Rome in Gallia Narbonensis,” JMA 19 [2006] 177–98) would have informed and perhaps nuanced both the discussion and the subsequent catalogue entries on Glanum. Indeed, throughout the book, Frakes is content to accept the chronological assignments that have dominated treatments of Roman remains in Gaul for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, passing in silence by important recent studies such as those of Küpper-Böhm (Der römischen Bogenmonumente der Gallia Narbonensis in ihrem urbanen Kontext. Kölner Studien zur Archäologie der Römischen Provinzen 3 [Espelkamp 1996]), in which a number of colonnades are discussed in relation to the use of arches in Narbonese cities, and in a number of cases, important redatings are suggested. Also missing are Heijmans on the topography of Roman Arles (e.g., M. Heijmans and C. Sintès, “L’évolution de la topographie de l’Arles antique,” Gallia 51 [1994] 135–70); Anderson on both Nîmes and Vienne (“Anachronism in the Roman Architecture of Gaul,” JSAH 60 [2001] 68–79); and Thomas (Monumentality and the Roman Empire: Architecture and the Antonine Age [Oxford 2007]), a book whose discussion of colonnades and porticoes throughout the eastern Roman empire provides admirable comparanda and contrasts for those in Gaul so well described by Frakes, but which also suggests that more questioning of datings and chronologies of the Gallic remains is needed. Indeed, Thomas ([2007] 50) expresses doubt about the Augustan dating of the so-called Temple of Diana and the porticoes of the “Augusteum” at Nîmes, and with good reason, but the problems are not mentioned here (cat. no. 35 [179–83]). While Thomas’ volume may have appeared too recently to have been included in Frakes’ book, earlier research (such as the examples given above) that questions the dating of Romano-Gallic monuments, especially those of Provence, could and should have been consulted.

But too much should not be made of that single criticism. Frakes’ remarkable catalogue of Roman porticoes and colonnades throughout Gaul (111–454) will rightly become a major resource for students of Roman architecture. It is comprehensive, the plans and drawings are of inestimable importance, and the provision of extensive measurements and descriptions is impressive. While individual entries could have benefited from updating of their bibliography (similar to some parts of the discussion chapters), the thrust of the catalogue is overwhelmingly on the physical evidence that remains and how it can be used to reconstruct the urban appearance and importance of these porticoes; in that task, Frakes succeeds brilliantly. Each entry provides, insofar as possible, an excavation history of the portico and its area, a summary of dating evidence (subject to the limitations mentioned in the last paragraph—hence, the datings overwhelmingly favor assignments to the Augustan age and the early first century C.E.), a general description that is always clear and concise, a listing of building materials identified at the site, a discussion of topographical orientation (where known), an index of physical remains from the site and of epigraphic evidence if any, and a specific bibliography (which seldom contains references later than ca. 1999–2000). Frakes is clever in his verbal reconstruction of the remains, often far better than what is provided in either histories of architecture or popular guidebooks, yet detailed and precise in regard both to the remains in situ and to items that have been removed but are convincingly attributed to a particular site. References to 19th-century bibliography about many of the better-known colonnades are welcome, and they sometimes reveal valuable insights, made long ago, that may be brought back into scholarly discussion with profit. The site plans and reconstructions are elegantly drawn and highlight the information provided in the catalogue extremely well.

In sum, this is an admirable and important book that should and will become an important reference source in the history of Roman architecture. Phoibos, in Vienna, should be commended for the fine layout, printing, and production provided to the work, and the author is to be praised for a major and original contribution to both Roman provincial studies and the history of Roman architecture and urbanism.

James C. Anderson, Jr.
Department of Classics
The University of Georgia
233 Park Hall
Athens, Georgia 30602-6203

Book Review of Framing Public Life: The Portico in Roman Gaul, by James F.D. Frakes

Reviewed by James C. Anderson, Jr.

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Anderson

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