Frank SEAR, Roman Architecture. London: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 288. Pb ISBN 0-415-20093-8.
J. T. SMITH, Roman Villas. A Study in Social Structure, with drawings by A. T. Adams. London: Routledge, 1997. Pp. xxxv + 378. Hb ISBN 0-415-16719-1.
Review by Mark Humphries
National University of Ireland
Here we have two books on Roman buildings, one old and much-respected, the other a new study. First comes Frank Sear?s Roman Architecture, an example of the loot accruing to Routledge following their take-over of Batsford?s Classics list. The book is nearly twenty years old (it was first published in 1982), and although it is still useful, its age shows in a number of respects. The work is framed primarily as a handbook: description is to the fore, and argument is thin, though frequently implicit. The explanations are clear, as are most of the numerous plans and photographs (even if some of the latter have a somewhat Daguerreotype-murkiness to them now), while the discussion of centres like Ostia and Pompeii together with surveys (sometimes rather too brief) of buildings in the African, European, and eastern provinces help to contextualise developments at Rome. There are also helpful chapters on the different types of Roman building, and on architects and construction techniques.
For all its virtues, however, the work as a whole seems generally old-fashioned. In large measure, this stems from Sear?s definition of his subject. His account of Rome in the Republic is short (a mere 19 pages), but for this he is unrepentant: ?by the end of the Republic,? he remarks on p. 28, ?we are not yet in a position to speak of ?Roman architecture?. Roman buildings were still too much of a compromise between late Hellenistic and Italic to be more than hybrid in style ? Only at the end of [Augustus?] reign one can talk about ?Roman architecture?.? Such remarks strike a discordant note to those who have grown used to debates, prompted by literary critics and archaeologists, about the utility of labels such as ?Roman?, ?Italic?, and ?Hellenistic?, and the notion that there was ever something that could be described as purely ?Roman?. Ancient culture indeed any culture as a whole was altogether a more hybrid creature than such strict categories would suggest. Indeed, Sear?s usage of ?Roman? is hardly consist of itself. His description of Pompeii and Ostia in the title of chapter 6 as ?Two Roman Towns? skims over the major differences between them. Of course, Sear is not ignorant of these differences, but he pays them the merest lip service: ?in many ways?, he remarks on p. 118, ?Ostia is a more typical Roman town than Pompeii, which had deep Oscan roots, and whose people never fully accepted Roman ways.? Today?s scholars would surely object that the category ?typical Roman town? is more or less a phantom, while ?accepting Roman ways? is a hopelessly simplistic effort to understand the complex processes of acculturation in the ancient world. Indeed, taken as a whole, Sear?s analysis is paralysed by what must now appear to be the most jejune appreciation of social, historical, and cultural contexts.
These shortcomings are indicative of the massive advances that have been made in the study of ancient architecture in the last two decades. Indeed, a glance at the bibliography (pp. 280-5) will highlight some of the problems with Sear?s book. He wrote before such important, ground-breaking works as Paul Zanker?s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor, 1988) and Mary T. Boatwright?s Hadrian and the City of Rome (Princeton, 1987). The distance between his approach and theirs is really quite staggering: to read Sear is to return, as it were, to an age of innocence. Indeed, nothing shows up the old-fashioned quality of the book more than its chronological limits. We have already seen how Sear gives paltry consideration to the Republic; he is also reluctant to investigate late antiquity beyond the reign of Constantine, at which point he places ?the final [sic!] break with humanism and the Classical tradition? (p. 276). The last twenty years have seen remarkable advances in the study of both the Republic and Late Antiquity; no-one writing today could neglect them to the extent that Sear does. Yet, in the absence of other readily obtainable surveys those by Axel BoŽthius and J.B. Ward-Perkins in the old Pelican History of Art series seem to be out of print Sear looks set to remain the student textbook for the foreseeable future. However, if the promised Oxford History of Art volume on Roman architecture lives up to the promise of those books in the series dealing with antiquity that have already appeared, then we should soon be able to place in the hands of our students an altogether more sophisticated guide to the complex social and cultural functions of Roman buildings.
On the face of it, J. T. Smith?s Roman Villas seems to promise just such a sophisticated treatment of architecture within its social and cultural context, since the subtitle proclaims that the villas will be studied for their social structure. His study sets out to recover ?the structure of rural society in the Roman Empire? by means of analysing ?the innumerable and extraordinarily varied villa plans excavated over the last two hundred years? (p. 3). Even so, the book has its limits. The geographical scope is confined to the European provinces of the Empire, primarily in the north-west, but also in the Balkans. Such a focus may seem surprising to those classicists for whom the Roman Empire is quintessentially a Mediterranean society, with its components huddled round the shores of mare nostrum. Smith?s approach, however, perhaps owes more than its author admits to trends in the study of Roman Britain (a field in which he has had much experience) which have tended to see it as a period of late prehistory (though note Smith?s remarks at p. 275). As Anthony Snodgrass has remarked, in a recent astute appraisal of such scholarship, ?at times it seemed that the Roman Empire in Northern Europe had only existed as a theatre within which the various indigenous cultures could work out their destinies on a new stage? (?Tacitus and Himmler?, The Times Literary Supplement no. 5076, 14 July 2000, p. 26). Such would appear to be the implication of a chapter on ?The Late Pre-Roman Iron Age Background? that concludes with the remark that ?in typological concerns continuity [of villa designs] is certain? (p. 232). That said, however, Smith does include detailed discussion of modes of Romanisation, in which great emphasis is rightly placed on diversity among the various regions he considers (esp. chapters 14 and 16). I wondered, however, if further variety might have been highlighted had the author extended his survey to include the Mediterranean lands, including north Africa. The author?s brief dismissal of these regions (?they add little to the theme?, p. 3) did not convince me that they should be excluded. For instance, Italian villas such as Settefinestre, San Rocco and Posto near Francolise, and San Giovanni di Ruoti strike me as providing excavations that can compare in terms of quality and sophistication with those northern European examples that Smith privileges.
But that is not the book?s most serious problem. Rather more worrying, to me at any rate, is Smith?s means of assessing the social structure of Roman Europe (esp. in chapter 16). He acknowledges that some villas will have been attached to lands worked by slaves, supporting the notion of ownership by a single dominus. More generally, however, Smith prefers to reject this model in favour of villa ownership and occupation by ?kin-groups?, by which he means ?a group of families, each of which was a basic reproductive and economic unit a conjugal family varying in numbers at different stages of the life-cycle? (p. 275). The basic evidence for this social structure comes from early medieval Wales and Germany, which Smith then pushes back to explain pre-Roman Iron Age societies, and then uses to understand the organisation of villas constructed after the Roman conquest (e.g. pp. 5-6, 276-7, 284). Social changes evidenced by the development of villas are then read in the light of similar developments in medieval and early modern housing (e. g. pp. 4-5, 13, 29). Yet this is a dubious way of proceeding: cross-cultural analogies and parallels are no substitute for hard evidence, and much of the time I worry that Smith is building castles (or, rather, villas!) in the air.
This leads me to whit I see as the study?s second major shortcoming of the study. The basis for almost all of Smith?s analysis is villa plans, and about this he is unrepentant: ?It goes without saying that style, ornament, and decoration have much to tell us about the social position of the person who commissioned a house, yet archaeologists rarely realise how closely their interpretation is bound up with plan? (p. 4). But replacing one type of partial analysis with another is, I fear, not good enough. The most impressive studies of domestic architecture in the Roman world produced recently, such as those on Italian material by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and John R. Clarke, have emphasised the need to look at all elements not just at decoration or plan, but also space and attempt to integrate all this material into an holistic view of the house. Similarly, impressive studies of villas, such as that led by A. M. Small on the south-Italian villa of San Giovanni di Ruoti, have emphasised the need to understand them in terms of their relationship to the surrounding landscape, something that Smith tells us he will ignore (p. 20). It seems to me that Smith?s study is hamstrung by its focus on villa plan typology to the exclusion of all other aspects. My assessment, then, is rather negative, but I do not wish to deny that the book has its uses. Plans of villas are important as part of the wider picture, and there are plenty presented here: Smith?s book will be an important resource, therefore, for those seeking to build on his analyses and provide a more nuanced picture of villa society in the Roman world.