Penelope J.E. Davies

CUP (2017) h/b 366pp £44.99 (ISBN 9781107094314)

This substantial book is a labour of love to be proud of. It should be essential reading for scholars and students in the field of Roman architecture and comes highly recommended also for those with a general interest in the subject. Billed as the first work to deal with the influence of politics on the buildings of Republican Rome, it contains an introduction and seven chapters exploring chronological phases of the period from c. 507 to 44 BC, each methodically arranged with a review of major foreign and domestic political events followed by the three types of construction projects: religious, manubial and civic of the relevant era. Every chapter begins with a map which shows at a glance the new and existing structures of Rome and there are many high quality photographs of relevant sites contributed by the author, along with hypothetical reconstructions of buildings, diagrams and plans, as well as extensive notes, bibliography and index at the end.

We witness Rome’s gradual urban expansion from a small town with few significant public buildings, trace her military expansion into Greece and Asia, which ignited her interest in monumental marble buildings and urbanism, explore the technological advances of ‘the concrete revolution’, leading to faster and vaster building projects, and end with Julius Caesar’s first town planning proposals, which remained largely unrealised at the time of his assassination in 44 BC.

D. also charts the change in outlook from the early days of the Republic when a small number of aristocratic families whose members were elected to office as censors and aediles controlled the commissioning of public buildings funded by the state and supervised by the senate. She shows how wealthy plebeians employed architecture in their struggle to gain political privileges, how magistrates developed strategies to challenge the senate’s authority and the constraints of short terms of office for the purposes of self-aggrandisement, and how increased competition often served to regulate the ambitions of individuals within a constitution with a strong tradition of public service, but relatively few high positions of power.

What also emerges vividly from the pages of this book is a strong sense of Rome’s physical presence throughout the centuries, of its tangible existence as a city with walls, bridges, warehouses, porticoes, aqueducts, sewers, port facilities, basilicae, fora and streets, through which wound the ever more magnificent triumphal processions of victorious generals: of Curius Dentatus over Tarentum and Pyrrhus of Epirus, of Sulla and Pompey over Mithridates and of Caesar over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, North Africa and Spain. The pictorial reconstructions and extensive citation of written sources help clothe the limited archaeological remains of structures like Pompey’s theatre-portico complex with the more transitory glamour of paintings, tapestries, trees and fountains and allow us to admire afresh Julius Caesar’s spectacle of the whole Forum hung with silken awnings.

While the book contains many highly speculative theories owing to the sparse, fragmentary, overbuilt and unexcavated nature of the material evidence, yet it convincingly contextualises Augustus’ claim to have found Rome built of brick, but left it built of marble, and shows that later emperors were not the only ones to use building projects for propagandistic purposes. The difference is that, unlike Julius Caesar, these emperors often possessed sufficient long-term authority and financial resources to see their vast projects through to completion.

Claire Gruzelier

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