P. Scheding: Urbaner Ballungsraum

Urbaner Ballungsraum im römischen Nordafrika. Zum Einfluss von mikroregionalen Wirtschafts- und Sozialstrukturen auf den Städtebau in der Africa Proconsularis

Scheding, Paul
Studien zur antiken Stadt 16
Wiesbaden 2019: Reichert Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
294 S., 18 Pläne
€ 98,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Monica Hellström, University of Oxford

This richly illustrated volume derives from Scheding’s PhD dissertation (University of Köln, 2013/2014). It examines the urban topographies of five communities in Roman North Africa (Thugga, Musti, Thignica, Uchi Maius, and Thuburbo Maius) located in the hinterland of Carthage and politically dependent on that city. Scheding establishes differences in how their urban areas were articulated, in comparison with otherwise comparable independent towns. He discusses these differences with a view to socio-political factors, notably how subordination affected elite ambitions, and the related question of the towns’ roles within the microregion. The book consists of four parts; (I) provides background on the topography, economy, and power dynamics of the microregion as well as a discussion on method; (II) is the actual examination; (III) discusses comparanda; while (IV) extracts points from earlier chapters and adds a discussion on elite agency. This is followed by summaries in German, French, English, and Italian, a catalogue of locations mentioned, bibliography, indices, and a generous collection of maps. The standard of production is commendably high, including proofreading and translations.

Scheding’s book is a welcome contribution to the larger discourses on townhood and provincial elites, as well as North African studies. It reinforces the value of regional studies, forming a complement to larger overviews (most recently by Andrew Wilson)[1] as well as single-town studies. He knows his material well, having participated in multiple campaigns in the area (detailed on p. 11). Analysing the cityscapes in ways reminiscent of Alan Kaiser[2], he identifies patterns that challenge established ideas on what processes shaped Roman provincial towns. Importantly, he reformulates the link between elite ambition and urban monumentality, underscoring regional elite competition and mutual emulation rather than local pride or imitation of Rome. He also questions the notion that these towns were ends in themselves: the individuals and families that affected their physical aspect the most had their ambitions set on Carthage, which is also where many of them resided.

The author observes (part II) that public buildings in the sample towns tended to form enclosed, negative spaces that were scattered across the agglomerated cityscapes rather than gathered around public spaces and major roads. Their unadorned façades hid their presence from outside view, while movement within was limited and directed by monuments. These nuclei, Scheding argues, served as show-spaces for the families of their builders. Meanwhile, the towns’ public spaces were small and irregular in size, and lacked alignment with major streets. By contrast, public buildings in independent towns selected as comparanda (Bulla Regia, Simitthus, Cuicul, and Mactaris) were generally free-standing and permeable, with ornamental external façades facing large, often multiple fora and major roads, which aligned to form recognizable monumental cores. He associates (part IV) these differences with the aims of local elites, aims which in sample towns were directed mainly at Carthage. Moreover, the close proximity of towns in the microregion and their small territories preclude a function as focal points for a dispersed rural population, leaving the towns without the mechanisms that are usually assumed to have driven urban development.

That Scheding privileges archaeology over epigraphy is refreshing, and his arguments are both interesting and convincing. That said, these arguments could be made more effectively. There are repetitions across sections (e.g. part IV, sections 1.1–3), and some of the (very full) orientational material in part I and the appendices is more distracting than helpful. Black-and-white plans printed with their respective discussions would have been more useful than the full-colour ones in the appendix, which are so low in contrast as to be hard to read (at least in my copy). The chart of the area’s administrative organization (fig. 16, p. 45) omits the arguably most significant entities for the argument pursued: the regional elite, and the council of Carthage. Christophe Hugoniot’s study of Carthaginian elites[3] would have been relevant here. The discussion on economic production includes activities that were not located in the microregion (e.g., the production of salsamenta and purple, by default on the coast) and/or did not coincide with the early-Severan horizon identified as the period of study (e.g., ARS D pottery, which is a late antique phenomenon). Neither of these discussions are entirely necessary for the overall argument, and a less ambitious, but more focused, publication would arguably have been more impactful.

I also question some details of the examination, such as the substitution of the comparanda for other towns for some discussions (Thamugadi for agency, Sufetula and Thysdrus for how towns related to their hinterlands). These do not share the essential traits necessary for the comparisons: Thamugadi was a top-down, colonial foundation in Numidia, with different leadership strata at both the micro- and macro-level. Sufetula and Thysdrus were located in unusually non-urbanized semi-arid zones, and had particular roles tied to logistics and the imperial administration. This could have been turned to an advantage; in a way, Scheding does not go far enough and acknowledge the diversity of urban settlements within this area, all defined by supra-urban networks in various ways. One would be hard pressed to identify a single “model town” that served as the political, commercial, and cultural centre for a rural hinterland, and, as such, as the ideal counterexample to the towns in the sample.

The distinction between sample towns and others is also somewhat overstated; for instance, the discussion on the absence of epigraphically attested amenities such as libraries, horrea, and curiae (p. 181–184) ignores that these are extremely rare overall.[4] Similarly, decurions were privileged in gift distributions (p. 188–189) also in the rest of Africa and beyond.[5] Amenities such as the baths in Bulla Regia and the theatre in (independent) Madauros arguably served as show-spaces for their (private) builders’ families quite as much as their counterparts in the sample towns. To not acknowledge this is a lost opportunity, as it would have allowed him to discuss why such, on the face of it, similar benefactions were manifested so differently in terms of architecture.

The study is the most convincing when it concentrates on the towns’ physical properties, independently of inscriptions. The reservations expressed above do not detract from the value of the overall argument, and most of them could be constructively accommodated. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in African urbanism, and more generally in the relation of provincial elites to their towns.

[1] Andrew Wilson, Mediterranean Urbanisation in North Africa: Greek, Punic, and Roman models, in: Martin Sterry / David Mattingly (eds.) Urbanisation and State Formation in the Sahara and Beyond, Cambridge 2020, pp. 396–437.
[2] Alan Kaiser, Roman Urban Street Networks, London 2011.
[3] Christophe Hugoniot, Decuriones splendidissimae coloniae Karthaginis. Les décurions de Carthage au IIIe siècle, in: Marie-Henriette Quet et al. (ed.), La ‘crise’ de l’Empire romain de Marc Aurèle à Constantin, Paris 2006, pp. 385–416.
[4] For instance, only one African building inscription mentions a library (AE 1908.12, Thamugadi).
[5] e.g., Arjan Zuiderhoek, The Politics of Munificence in the Roman Empire, Cambridge 2009, pp. 33–34.

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