Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 23.

Frank Sear, Roman Architecture. London: Routledge, 1998 (first published London: Batsford, 1982). Pp. 288, incl. 93 black-and-white photographs, 35 line drawings and 55 plans. ISBN 0-415-20093-8. UKú16.99.

Tom Stevenson
Department of Classics, University of Auckland

When this book was first published in 1982, it was designed to meet the need for a reliable and clear introductory book. Sear makes his intentions plain in his foreword (p. 6):

'I have aimed to be clear rather than comprehensive, I have selected what I regard as the most significant buildings of each era or province, and have in each case attempted to put them into their historical or cultural context.'
His book does fulfil these aims to a fair degree. My students continue to use it as an introductory account. In the realm of such books, Sear now seems to occupy the middle ground for clarity and comprehensiveness between (say) Thorpe on the more simplified hand and Anderson or Robertson on the other.[[1]] However, Sear has not taken the opportunity to answer criticism of the kind levelled by Small in a JRS review of 1983.[[2]] In this new version there are relatively few revisions to the text, the bibliography includes very few items later than 1982, and there are some problems of approach and detail which make the decision to reprint a questionable one.

I feel somewhat disloyal in saying this, for Sear has appeared as a matter of course on all my booklists since undergraduate days; and it will continue to do so. Its 183 illustrations, which include axonometric reconstructions and line drawings, plans and black- and-white photographs, remain a valuable resource. Helpful also are the 'List of Illustrations' (pp. 8f.), the 'Glossary' (pp. 277-79), the 'Index' (pp. 285-88), the 'Architectural Terms' (p. 288), and the '(Ancient) Authors and Pages Cited' (p. 288), though I would be inclined to incorporate the architectural terms into the glossary and add some terms apparently considered self-evident, such as 'NAO/J' and 'nave' (cf. p. 22). The 'Bibliography' (pp. 280-85) seems about the right length for beginning undergraduates, who would not notice the absence of footnotes. However, the bibliography should have been properly updated and new approaches noted. There is probably room for a competitor in the middle ground and I would like that competitor to give some attention to the following areas.

The first point relates to the grouping of material. Sear has a blend of thematic, chronological and regional chapters, and some such combination probably remains advisable.[[3]] There are certainly factors which seem to demand a thematic treatment. After basic forms and designs such as the dome had been established, Roman architecture produced a constant repetition of themes on standardized buildings. The fundamental forms continued to be utilized for hundreds of years. It is therefore often difficult to draw a line between successive periods. Sear's preoccupation with Trajan's image as a soldier leads him to describe Trajan's forum as a glorified army camp (pp. 159f.), whereas Ward-Perkins demonstrated long ago that its plan is by no means unique or innovative.[[4]] A basilica across the short end of a forum can be traced back to early Imperial towns such as Saepinum, and the library in the Temple of Peace is a better forerunner of Trajan's library than the archives of a Roman camp. This is a case where a particular concentration upon the planning of civic centres in the early Empire would have significantly altered the presentation.

On the other hand, Paul Zanker's treatment of the Augustan age brilliantly demonstrates the potential rewards in examining a chronological period.[[5]] A sure touch is required to carry this off. Sear's analysis is not of the same order as Zanker's, though of course it can hardly be, given the exclusive focus upon architecture. The problems this causes are compounded where the architectural record is less than substantial. For instance, Sear thinks that the Neronian period exhibits features which amount to a 'Roman architectural revolution' (p. 96). Yet for all the grandeur of the Domus Aurea, it is possibly not as innovative as it is presented.[[6]] The peristyle was conventional, and Ward-Perkins does not sense experimentation in the octagonal hall, with its assured use of barrel vault lighting in the exedrae; he thinks that this feature probably echoed examples in other villas.[[7]] Such a conclusion should be credited more, especially because our evidence for Neronian architecture is rather patchy and certainly dwarfed by what we know of (say) the Augustan period.

As regional studies go, chapter 6 on Pompeii and Ostia is in general a solid discussion, but it noticeably (and surprisingly) lacks any examination of interior decoration. Chapters 10 and 11 on (respectively) the European and Eastern provinces tend to downplay the reality and strength of local traditions. In describing the sanctuaries at Baalbek (pp. 245-248) and Jerash (pp. 252f.), the degree to which these are manifestations of strong local traditions is not given sufficient emphasis. They follow on from the early temples at Si and Samaria, as well as the peripteral temple at Petra. This means that they could have been described as resisting Roman influence to a significant extent. Lyttleton, who is cited (e.g.) on pages 248 and 253, argues that the 'unique' features of the temple of Zeus at Baalbek are actually products of a regional style.[[8]] The same could be said of the theatre at Aspendos (p. 245), which, like the Odeion of Herodes Atticus (p. 239), stands as a type of theatre that challenges the dominant Roman form.

Over and above all this looms the fundamental question of 'propaganda' or 'influence'. It is implicit in Sear's analysis that influence is being radiated (even imposed) from the centre upon largely passive and malleable recipients. Surely, a decade after Zanker, the nature of imperial patronage and provincial aspirations requires more sophisticated consideration. Zanker has the centre giving a lead, which is subsequently picked up and independently transmitted through various media and a variety of transactions to the provinces, not as imperial fiat but as a choice from below. The centre is even capable of responding to initiatives from below and thereby renewing momentum in the process.

But here we have Augustus, 'after an initial experimental period at the beginning of his principate' (p. 49) making a mature decision to take Classical and Hellenistic art as his model (Zanker, famously but I think wrongly, has Augustus rejecting that which is 'Hellenistic').[[9]] Hadrian is said to have 'personally planned a large temple to Venus and Rome on a high piece of ground between the Colosseum and the Temple of Peace' (p. 182), even though Dio's well-known passage states only that he sent plans for a large temple to Venus and Rome to Apollodorus. At numerous other points, Roman buildings are seen as the ultimate inspiration for a variety of provincial buildings, despite matters like standardization and developments prior to the supposedly inspirational Roman building. The thematic/chronological/regional tensions require a more sophisticated picture of the manner and degree of influence.

Finally, students (or mine at least) tend to complain that architecture is a bit dry. On the other hand, they respond rather well to what might be termed the 'space and social ritual' approach, apparently because people and people's behaviour become part of the equation. In this respect Sear's book is more about buildings than people, and a replacement for it could profitably be more balanced in this regard. What is really needed is a book which reflects some of the exciting developments of the past two decades.

In particular, I'd like to see the work of the following scholars incorporated into an introductory textbook. The larger picture can be obtained from Tomlinson.[[10]] As a supplement to Sear's chapter 4 on 'Roman Architects, Building Techniques and Materials' (pp. 69-85), White's Greek and Roman Technology contains useful information on the crafts and technology associated with architecture.[[11]] For the forms and impact of a Roman city, the second volume of Macdonald's The Architecture of the Roman Empire is a rich and stimulating account of the elements of urban architecture and the way they contribute to the total effect of the Roman city.[[12]] The collection edited by Barton, Roman Public Buildings, has chapters on town planning, on the different types of buildings to be found in a Roman city, and on aqueducts.[[13]] On the latter, Hodge holds sway at present, and there is a quite useful little guidebook by Aicher, which is pitched at an introductory level though probably of greater use to the traveller than to the scholar in his/her study.[[14]] Some recent work emphasizes the dual architectural character of the Pantheon.[[15]]

It was Brown who first developed the thesis that Roman architecture was the 'art of shaping space around ritual'.[[16]] To my mind this is an exciting insight which has been subsequently developed in a variety of studies connected primarily with Pompeii and Herculaneum. Richardson provides a full and detailed account that is unfortunately marred by poor illustrations, a lack of plans, and an inadequate treatment of the social context of architecture.[[17]] A superior book is that by Clarke, who furnishes a careful study, lavishly illustrated and giving attention to interior decoration, of particular structures from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia.[[18]] Other fine works in this vein have been written by Ling and Wallace-Hadrill, whose powerful discussion is perhaps the most stimulating investigation of the relationship between space, social ritual, and the layout and decoration of Pompeian houses.[[19]]

In conclusion, therefore, while glad of Sear in the past I can see ways ahead and would have preferred Routledge to commission someone to write a replacement.


[[1]] M. Thorpe, Roman Architecture (London 1995). See my review in Prudentia 28.1 (1996) 77-83; W.J. Anderson and R.P. Spiers (rev. T. Ashby), Architecture of Greece and Rome, vol. II: The Architecture of Ancient Rome (London 1927); D.S. Robertson, Greek and Roman Architecture (Cambridge 1974).

[[2]] D. Small, JRS 73 (1983) 223f.

[[3]] Thematic: chapter 2, 'Roman Building Types' (pp. 29-48); and chapter 4, 'Roman Architects, Building Techniques and Materials' (pp. 69-85). Chronological: chapter 1: 'Republican Rome' (pp. 10- 28); chapter 3, 'The Age of Augustus' (pp. 49-68); chapter 5, 'The Julio-Claudians' (pp. 86-102); chapter 7: 'The Flavians' (pp. 134-53); chapter 8: 'Trajan and Hadrian' (pp. 154-84); and chapter 12, 'The Late Empire' (pp. 255-76). Regional: chapter 6, 'Two Roman Towns: Pompeii and Ostia' (pp. 103-33); chapter 9, 'North Africa' (pp. 185-209); chapter 10, 'The European Provinces' (pp. 210-30); and chapter 11, 'The Eastern Provinces' (pp. 231-54). In contrast, Small [3] 224, thinks that 'a full thematic treatment is preferable.'

[[4]] J.B. Ward-Perkins, 'From Republic to Empire: Reflections on the Early Provincial Architecture of the Roman West', JRS 60 (1970) 1-19 (esp. 6- 10, 17-19).

[[5]] P. Zanker (tr. A. Shapiro), The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor 1988).

[[6]] Sear writes that 'in terms of painting and architecture the building was undoubtedly revolutionary' (p. 98).

[[7]] J.B. Ward-Perkins, cited by Small [3] 224.

[[8]] M. Lyttleton, Baroque Architecture in Classical Antiquity (London 1974); cf. Small [3] 224.

[[9]] See my remarks in 'The "Problem" with Nude Honorific Statuary and Portraits in Late Republican and Augustan Rome', Greece and Rome (1998) 45- 69 (esp. 54f.).

[[10]] R. Tomlinson, From Mycenae to Constantinople (London 1992) (contains useful chapters on the building history of Rome, Pompeii, Leptis Magna and Palmyra).

[[11]] K.D. White, Greek and Roman Technology (London 1984).

[[12]] W.A. Macdonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire, Vol. I: An Introductory Study (rev. ed., London, 1982); Vol. II: An Urban Appraisal (New Haven 1986).

[[13]] I.M. Barton (ed.), Roman Public Buildings (Exeter 1989).

[[14]] A.T. Hodge, Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply (London 1989); P.J. Aicher, Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome (Wauconda, Illinois 1995). See my review in Prudentia 28.2 (1996) 45-47.

[[15]] P. Davies, D. Hemsoll, & M. Wilson Jones, 'The Pantheon: Triumph of Rome or Triumph of Compromise?' Art History 10.2 (June 1987); P. Godfrey, D. Hemsoll, 'The Pantheon: Temple or Rotunda?' in M. Henig and A. King (edd.), Pagan Gods and Shrines in the Roman Empire (Oxford University Committee for Archaeology 1986).

[[16]] Frank E. Brown, Roman Architecture (London 1968).

[[17]] L. Richardson Jr., Pompeii, an Architectural History (Baltimore 1988).

[[18]] J.R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy: Ritual, Space and Decoration (Oxford 1991).

[[19]] R. Ling, 'A New Look at Pompeii', in Barry Cunliffe (ed.), Origins (London 1987); A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton 1994). See my review in Prudentia 28.1 (1996) 77-83.