Dana Robinson on Hendrik W. Dey’s Afterlife of the Roman City
The fall of Rome was an urban affair. Alaric’s sack of the city in 410 CE may have been more emotionally jarring than genuinely disruptive, but its long echo down the corridors of history testifies to the imaginative power that the city of Rome held over citizens of its empire and their medieval descendants. But Rome was not the only city on whose monumental stage the empire played out its fate. The transformations that Late Antiquity wrought were enacted in urban microcosms from Gibraltar to the Euphrates. But even after they ceased to be ruled by a Roman emperor, communities at opposite ends of the Mediterranean seem to have maintained similar patterns in the built environment to embody the rituals of authority and ideals of civilized life associated with Rome at its height. The family resemblances among these architectural specters have inspired recent scholars to start mapping the “fall” of Rome in the patterns of construction and use of urban architectural features. Gregor Kalas’s recent book, The Restoration of the Roman Forum in Late Antiquity, for example, traces the shifting relationship between Roman elites and their urban environment in the restoration, re-use and maintenance of a single iconic site.
In The Afterlife of the Roman City, Hendrik Dey draws our attention to colonnaded streets as an essential feature of late Roman urbanism and, in so doing, takes a provocative stance in debates regarding the fate of cities in the post-Roman world. Outdoor ceremonies like the adventus (the formal arrival procession when an emperor or important official visits a city) or Christian festival liturgies took place on a central avenue — like the Via Sacra in Rome or the Mese in Constantinople — aggrandized with monumental two-story colonnades or porticos, conducting participants along an itinerary built to impress. Building on the work of Sabine MacCormack and John Baldovin on urban ceremony, Dey asserts that the architectural spaces in which these rituals occurred have been under-appreciated for the role they played as concrete embodiments of the concept of a city. In his view, these streets also sustained a vital core of urban social and political function from Late Antiquity well into the Middle Ages.
Dey seeks to answer three primary questions. What is the relationship between public performances of political and religious power and forms of urban architecture? What is the effect of late antique architectural priorities on the “urban habit” during a period of time when political and economic fragmentation is generally supposed to have brought an end to the vibrant urbanism of the empire? What can porticated streets tell us about the perennially vexed question of whether the events of the so-called “Dark Ages” represent continuity or catastrophic change? Previous answers, Dey argues, are inadequate because scholars have tended to view people, events, and places — especially cities — as inevitable byproducts of impersonal forces. It is time, he asserts, to reaffirm the role of human agency in historical change over the long term.
Dey narrates a new story of Roman urbanism that becomes more speculative as it advances deeper into Late Antiquity. He connects the administrative overhaul of the Tetrarchic period with new styles of public buildings and urban layout. When Diocletian and his third-century colleagues centralized the tax system and expanded the imperial bureaucracy, revenues that had previously been available to local officials for civic projects were diverted to the imperial system. This economic restructuring meant that the emperors and high-ranking imperial officials became the primary sponsors of public building, and chose to prioritize the structures that best expressed their increasingly autocratic style of rule. Rather than the classical urban infrastructure which consisted of the forum, the theater, and the marketplace (often scattered throughout the city according to the whims of private patrons), Dey sees the new Tetrarchic city as defined by the imperial residence, associated bath and circus complexes, and most importantly, the sequence of city walls, gates, triumphal arches, and monumental street colonnades that connected them into a coherent processional unit.
During the period 300-600 porticated streets come to define the very notion of a functioning city. The richness and variety of evidence available for these centuries enables Dey to paint the most comprehensive picture of the urban paradigm he will pursue through the rest of the book. Constantinople, as an ambitious new imperial capital, is the model par excellence (for Dey and his late antique city planners) of this new style urbanism, in which one or two main streets, emphasized with monumental colonnades, create the itinerary used by imperial and religious authorities alike. In addition, literary and artistic depictions use porticated streets as descriptive shorthand to represent a city in its entirety. The rhetorician Libanius’ Oration 11 (dated to 356 or 360 CE) in praise of Antioch, for instance, gives a famous descriptive itinerary of late antique Antioch which emphasizes the city’s monumental avenues. Material culture does much the same. The Madaba Map, a sixth century floor mosaic in Jordan, depicts Jerusalem in stylized form with two prominent avenues connecting the primary churches of the city.
Following Charlotte Roueché’s work on ceremonial inscriptions, Dey also populates these streets with the local inhabitants, shopkeepers, and guild members who would have lined the processional way as the necessary audience for ceremonial performances. The particularly numerous inscriptions along the main street of Ephesus appear to mark the placement of certain audience members and record the phrases they shouted in acclamation during an imperial procession. These details bring the streets to life and hint at the interaction between commercial and ceremonial activities, as well as the important role of the urban population.
There were also connections between the ceremonial enactment of political (or religious) power and the maintenance of late antique porticated streets in the seventh to ninth centuries, or at least Dey so speculates. He presents a series of regional case studies, moving systematically from Visigothic Spain to the Umayyad Levant, which stitch together literary references to urban ceremonial with (often regrettably scanty) archaeological evidence to suggest the survival, if in abbreviated form, of this urban pattern into a period when the archaeological remains show that many cities experienced serious depopulation and economic decline. Urban ceremonial came to represent the Roman cultural past most consistently because it could be recreated under very different political and economic conditions, and thus made imperial grandeur available to anyone with the political will and financial resources to exercise it. Along similar lines, he suggests, the urban skeleton consisting of a monumental street connecting city gate with church and palace could be maintained even when economic resources were scarce in general, if they were a priority for the wealthy minority that patronized a city. Dey hypothesizes that the survival of late antique public ceremonies, and the ideology that views cities as the appropriate place for the public display of authority, necessarily requires the maintenance of the physical structures that staged them.
Dey concludes his narrative in Carolingian Francia, where the monastery of Centula, built with liturgical processions in mind, and Charlemagne’s palace-city of Aachen both draw on the now-familiar pattern of monumental avenues linking sites of ecclesial and royal power. All of them seem to replicate architectural features of Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, but Dey suggests that this is not so much a conscious or stylistic imitation as a reflection of how deeply these structures have come to embody urban-centered power expressed through public ceremony. This brings us back to the central (and controversial) point of the book: these architectural structures represent the late Roman urban ideal so consistently because they in fact remained in use as literal corridors of power and civic solidarity.
By highlighting the surprising ubiquity and persistence of porticated streets across the Mediterranean, Dey raises new and productive questions about the definition and survival of late Roman urbanism. His model of an urban core defined by monumental processional avenues, even while the rest of the city may be falling apart around it, suggests continuity where more traditional measures of urban vitality (such as population or economic activity) might see decline. The schematic site plans throughout the book make this pattern emerge vividly. But these selective images also conceal from view the cities’ other activities and topographical situation. The result is that urbanism is redefined in such a narrow sense that he begins to identify as “urban” places which cannot really be considered urban by any typical definition, like the miniature “cities” of Justinian’s palatial foundation Justiniana Prima and the Carolingian monastery of Centula. It remains noteworthy that late antique people themselves seem sometimes to have identified cities in a similar schematic form in mosaics and manuscript illustrations, but how attenuated can a city become on the ground before it ceases to be a city?
On the theoretical side of his argument, Dey engages in a delicate balancing act. On one hand, he critiques traditional approaches to Roman cities for being too reliant on “deep structural” models of economic and environmental forces. If the same structural processes are at work everywhere, they are, in his judgment, inadequate to explain the different trajectories of decline or survival in various post-Roman provinces. And yet the most vivid result of his own argument is the appearance of surprising similarities in places that otherwise look very different. He invokes the power of human agency as an intervention in the structural impasse, but uses it to explain similarity in terms that are often equally universal. Processional ways survive in Damascus and Toledo alike because “if there is anything people love…it is a good parade.” To some extent, the necessary geographical breadth of the survey obscures the complexities and nuances of regional variation.
But the questions raised are no less compelling for this slight tendency to over-generalization. Dey offers scholars of late Roman urbanism a new set of tools: a predictive model for archaeologists deciding where to dig, a heightened sensitivity to maintenance and reuse along major urban corridors, an alternative metric for assessing continuity and change. For non-specialists, the central interest of the book is the sharpened focus on important performative aspects of Roman cities during a lesser-known period of their development. This specific historical question encourages readers to think more broadly about how cities function as political stages, as architectural expressions of cultural values, as tangible markers of the constant interplay between change and continuity, as products of human agency that sometimes resist environmental pressures far longer than anyone expects. Cities are not static; they are organisms. Then as today, urban changes stand as a testament to the complex social interactions that shaped them and vice versa.