Book Note | Urban Dreams and Realities in Antiquity: Remains and Representations of the Ancient City

by Jordan Conley in

Adam M. Kemezis, ed. Urban Dreams and Realities in Antiquity: Remains and Representations of the Ancient City. Leiden: Brill, 2015.


What is an ancient city? This is the deceptively simple query that runs through the diverse set of essays collected in the volume Urban Dreams and Realities in Antiquity: Remains and Representations of the Ancient City, edited by Adam Kemezis. The nineteen contributions—from scholars of classics, archaeology, religious studies, and anthropology—are organized into four sections, with the first pair addressing “space” and the second “identity.” The volume’s structure mirrors its theme, as the groupings themselves reflect qualities of a city—cohesive and planned, yet organic and sprawling.

Part 1, “Remains on the Ground,” constitutes the longest and most eclectic section of the volume, though the essays share an archaeological focus. Matthew Maher’s assessment of the involvement of certain fortified cities in the larger defensive strategy of the Arkadian League (formed in the fourth-century BCE in the wake of Sparta’s defeat at Leuktra), demonstrates the value of attending to broader geo-political networks in archaeological inquiries. In a concise and similarly-focused essay, Fabio Colivicchi combines insights from studies of urban planning and sacred topography to investigate an underground chamber and its associated complex in the Etruscan city of Caere and argue for the structure’s function as a civic focal point with both practical and sacred significance. Offering slightly more open-ended observations, LuAnn Wandsnider draws on “signaling theory” in her analysis of monumental civic architecture in the Hellenistic and Roman-era Asia Minor. Approaching citizens and structures as mutual entities in the sphere of intra- and inter-city communication and influence, she locates the monuments within dynamics of alliance and competition.

The second set of essays in Part 1 all interrogate underutilized artefactual evidence in order to consider how ancient peoples lived in and thought about cities. Tanya Henderson’s essay serves as a compelling case study for using epigraphic and other material evidence as a means for reconstructing ancient perceptions and navigations of civic spaces. Here, she approaches the small collection of eituns inscriptions from Oscan (pre-Roman) Pompeii, identified as instructions for the urban militia regarding the relative locations of assembly points, as indicative of how the city’s inhabitants “defined, communicated routes through, perceived, and interacted with their urban landscape” to construct a material and conceptual cityscape of the Pompeii in the early 1st century CE (100). Next, Aloka Parasher-Sen raises incisive questions about what constitutes a city by looking at the site of Kondapur on the central plateau of India. In analyzing the site’s specific characteristics as well as its broader locational context, she critiques the privileging of certain types of data, and attends to the ways in which such impulses can distort the (admittedly perplexing and/or inconsistent) “realities” of the remains themselves. Steven Hijmans too seeks to complicate established approaches to material evidence by focusing on the issue of “unviewable imagery” of the Roman landscape, such as “inscriptions that cannot really be read, detailed friezes too long and too small for viewing, and columns and arches bereft of any architectural function, adorned with vast number of highly detailed images that nobody could see” (154). Arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the ontological status of such features as Trajan’s Column and Augustus’ Res Gestae stelae, Hijmans suggests that Romans tended to perceive images as embodiments of that which they depicted, with, for example, Trajan’s Column not merely representing or narrating the events of the Dacian victories, but rather “making present” the distant war in both a temporal and spatial sense.

The four essays in Part 2, “Landscapes in Literature,” share a focus on representations of urban environments in the Latin literature of Virgil, Seneca, and Augustine. Both Eric Kondratieff and Darryl Phillips explore the spatial dimensions of the Aeneid, identifying the various allusions to the material, political, and cultural landscape of Augustan Rome in the text. Daniel Unruh identifies echoes of the urban city in Seneca’s writings, comparing his depiction of the impregnable yet fundamentally chaotic Palace of Atreus in Thyestes to Nero’s imposing Golden House, suggesting that both structures demonstrate an “exploitative relationship to nature” and a hostility towards the citizenry (267). As such, they are indicative of broader associations in both “real” and “literary” landscapes between tyranny and architectural megastructures. Owen Ewald challenges interpretations of Augustine’s life and, especially, his conversion, as rural and monastic, and instead seeks to situate transformative events in the Confessions within their urban context. Focusing on Augustine’s spatial metaphors for memory and the dichotomy between “places of motion” and “places of rest,” Ewald argues that the “vertical and omnipresent features of God” should not preclude a more horizontal, situated, and material approach to the Confessions. In so doing, he demonstrates that “grounding” Augustine’s rhetoric not only grants it additional texture, but also yields insights into the urban environments of Augustine’s Carthage, Rome, and Milan (290).

Part 3, “Cultures in Stone,” returns to material culture, but marks a shift in emphasis from the “space” of cities to the associations between cities and communal identity. Megan Daniels and Josef Wieshöfer both focus on cities as sites of cultural interaction and negotiation. For example, Daniels challenges the “marginal” status of trade settlements and argues for a more elastic notion of ancient “urban communities.” Using religious cults as a lens for cross-cultural contact, she suggests that the settlements’ emphasis on trade or exchange did not detract from a sense of communal identity, but actually constituted the basis for communal identity. Looking at Greek poleis within the Arsacid Parthian realm, Wieshöfer also reconsiders “contact zones,” complicating any understanding of the Greek cities as fundamentally ethnically and/or culturally distinct from the Iranian context. Christer Bruun and Raymond Capra attend to the navigation of civic identity by urban communities serving within a broader Roman context. Bruun, looking at the Roman port city of Ostia, argues for the presence of a clear “Ostian” communal identity (evidenced primarily in dedications related to rituals) as both distinct from and yet also related to a broader sense of Romanitas, while Capra considers how both the practices of sports (particularly horse and chariot racing) and structures connected with spectacle (particularly the circus) reflect the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary aspects of imperial and local identity in the Roman provinces (especially Roman Spain).

The fourth and final section, “Communities on Paper,” consists of five essays that continue the discussion of the spatial and civic dimensions of communal identity. The first two essays concentrate on depictions of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible in order to consider how cities are not just physical entities but also discursive constructs. Ian Douglas Wilson locates Isaiah 24-27 within broader ancient Near Eastern concepts regarding the “ongoing and persistent interplay between the city, its king, and its god(s)” (398). Reading Isaiah diachronically, he argues that the text reflects shifting sociocultural discourses on the city and royal rule in the peripheral areas of the imperialized ancient Near East during the late Iron Age and beyond (407). Here, the associations between human and divine kingship, and central and holy city, emerge as the foundations of core social memories and collective constructs. Likewise, Ehud Ben Zvi treats Jerusalem as an object of social memory and a focal point for “shared imagination” and the structuring of the central narratives of the community (413). In attempting to reconcile the centrality of the material and conceptual space of Jerusalem with the lack of attention granted to David’s conquest in the narratives, Ben Zvi identifies an aversion to narratives of disruption or discontinuity and a corresponding preference for highlighting the continuity of Jerusalem as the sacred center of the world, “the place destined to be the site of the only legitimate temple of YHWH well before David conquered it” (429).

Edward Dandrow, attending to the memory of one individual—Strabo—analyzes his classification of hundreds of cities across the Mediterranean world according to their status as Hellenic or otherwise, suggesting that, for Strabo, “Greekness” and memory are connected in that “what is memorable defines a community’s place within the broader pan-Hellenic world” (444). Such a reading complicates prevailing approaches to the categorizations as descriptive, and instead underlines Strabo’s anxieties related to the maintenance of identity in the face of dissipating civic boundaries and the decay of collective memories. Ralph Korner focuses on two (textual) civic entities in the New Testament Book of Revelation: an ekklesia and a “hegemonic, eschatological polis called the New Jerusalem” (455), arguing that that the author’s usage of ekklesia, while certainly political, is not necessarily anti-imperial, but rather reflects normative usages in the Roman East. Instead, Korner suggests, it is the author’s markedly spatial (cubic, vertically-inclined) designation of “New Jerusalem” as an alternative, non-civic “kosmos-polis” that would have resonated with a broader Jewish audience and been perceived as explicitly counter-imperial (485).

The final essay of the volume takes us into the nineteenth century and beyond, with Emily Varto suggesting that ancient ideas of civic identity (or, rather, nineteenth century perceptions of ancient ideas) remained salient as the modern social sciences developed. Though her task is merely to identify these influences rather than problematize them, her essay generates important questions about the ways in which myths regarding the origins and developments of the ancient “city” serve as foundational models through which other histories are comprehended (506). In this way, the volume’s concluding observations echo a point raised by Kemezis in the introduction: that studying ancient peoples who lived in cities “creates odd problems of perspective for the moderns who study them,” as we identify cities above all with modernity and the modern academic is “for the most part an urban creature “(1). Each contributor embraces a different aspect of this problem, interweaving dynamic questions about definitions and perceptions of the ancient city with an attention to the ways in which the “city,” as simultaneously an object and a category of analysis, both shapes and is shaped by various conceptual and methodological negotiations across time and space.

Since each essay stands on its own, it is possible to approach the collection selectively. However, to do so is to risk missing the insights tucked away deep within and between the contributions. The volume as a whole functions as an extended meditation on the epistemological and theoretical problem referenced in the title—the relationship between urban “dreams” and urban “realities.” Although each author displays preferences for certain types of evidence (remains or representations), no one takes the “dreams” either more or less seriously than the “realities.” Indeed, central to the volume are two implicit acknowledgements: 1) that the ancient urban “realities” are inaccessible to the modern scholar except by means of imaginative approaches, and 2) that urban “dreams” no less “real” than their material counterparts. 

Jordan Conley is a PhD Candidate in Ancient Christianity at Boston University.
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