City Walls in Late Antiquity: an empire-wide perspective

City walls are the largest structures associated with cities in the Roman Empire, but they seem still to be far from understood – maybe simply because they are such large structures and dating is a topic open to discussion and reinterpretation. This volume is formed from a collection of papers delivered at the 2018 conference held at the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies in Rome and the British School in Rome, with a focus on new developments in the subject by those involved in recent fieldwork. It is intended to have a wider vision than that of a single site. It provides up-to-date case studies and a look beyond single sites, but the reader is left to piece things together from one paper to the next and to observe the different opinions of authors from chapter to chapter, as the editors make clear that not all authors subscribe to their intention of creating a wider vision of fortifications – the subtitle’s ‘empire-wide perspective’.

In the volume’s four regional studies, the authors – quite rightly – reject explanations of the phenomenon of wall-building as a response to historically known barbarian invasions. Instead, agency for wall-building is attributed to the military in the chapter on the towns in Spain, but, in another chapter on Lusitania (Portugal), the agency of local cities is suggested; in relation to northern Gaul, the military needs of the Roman state are seen as the explanation, yet, in the next chapter on southern Gaul, this seems less certain.

Individual case studies in the volume include capitals: Constantinople, Nicaea, and Ravenna; as well as smaller cities: Sens (France), Córdoba (Spain), Segni (Italy), Resafa (Syria), and Zenobia (Syria). These studies are underpinned by the fieldwork of the authors. The construction of walls reshaped cities and urban living in these settlements, including the very process of construction over many years and, in the case of Ravenna, involved the reskilling of the population to produce bricks. The construction of city walls involved massive social changes and heavy collaboration in the project. There would seem to be a series of masterplans imposed on existing cities – for example, at Sens – that totally restructured them.

There is a final section of the book that contains two papers on the afterlife of the Aurelian Walls of Rome in the medieval period and the Byzantine fortification at Isthmia. Both of these papers reveal the ongoing importance of the walls, whether for their utility or as a feature of urban memory.

Readers will find much across this very well-illustrated volume to delight and please them. As the editors make clear, there is still much to be done to understand these major features of the Later Roman Empire.

Review by Ray Laurence.
City Walls in Late Antiquity: an empire-wide perspective, Emanuele Intagliata, Simon Barker, and Christopher Courault, Oxbow Books, £55, ISBN 978-1789253641.