CJ Online Review: Kaiser, Roman Urban Street Networks

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Alan Kaiser, Roman Urban Street Networks. Routledge Studies in Archaeology 2. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xvii + 249. Hardcover, $125.00/£80.00. ISBN 978-0415-88657-4.

Reviewed by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Brandeis University

The bulk of Kaiser’s book focuses on four well-known ancient cities, Pompeii, Ostia, Silchester, and Empúries, in order to provide an innovative consideration of their urban street networks. While interest in Roman thoroughfares and traffic movements has been growing in recent years (see, for example the work of Ray Laurence and David Newsome, Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford, 2011)), Kaiser claims to have made the first analysis of Roman streets to combine archaeological and philological evidence (p. xv).

Kaiser’s quantitative methodology for assessing the organization of street space derives from the world of urban geography. Concepts such as “access analysis” and “space syntax,” for example (see Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (Cambridge, 1984)), provide a way to study accessibility and connectivity across a Roman city. While Kaiser’s study largely confirms older suppositions about the organization of space and street networks, his data creates a conversation among these four cities through the comparisons drawn between and among them that is the most valuable feature of the book.

The introduction and the first two chapters lay out the historiography and methodology for the rest of the book. Kevin Lynch’s five elements of an urban network—“paths,” nodes,” “edges,” “landmarks,” and “districts” (Kevin Lynch, Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass., 1960)) —serve as the basis for Kaiser’s argument that the Romans came to understand their cities through “paths” (streets) leading from one type of urban environment to another.

Chapter 1, “Textual Evidence for Roman Perceptions of Streets and Plazas,” shows that the Latin names for urban thoroughfares were more culturally charged than today’s words for streets, such as alley and boulevard (p. 45). Modern names of streets are based more on physical characteristics, whereas the Romans tended to divide streets into two types: main roads (via and platea) and side streets (angiportum and semita). The Romans used main streets for social displays and categorized them accordingly.

Kaiser’s second chapter “Defining and Analyzing Street Networks in the Archaeological Record,” attempts to sharpen such generic labels as “main streets” and “side streets” by applying simple numeric data to draw conclusions about a street’s role in its city network. The first index for a street is its “depth” from outside the city in terms of how many other streets or squares one must pass through to move from the city’s edge to the street under consideration (p. 53). A street leading directly from a city gate would have a depth of one. Depth from the forum is his second index, and this involves counting the number of streets away from the forum (p. 54). The number of intersections a street shares with other streets serves as Kaiser’s third index for determining “how well a particular street integrates or segregates the streets of the city” (p. 56). Finally, Kaiser’s fourth index undertakes, to the degree the archaeological evidence allows, to assess how much a given street was open to cart traffic. Kaiser’s primary analytical tool for the depth and intersection data is a comparison between the number of different types of buildings (residential, commercial, etc.) along a given street and the number we would expect if there were an even distribution of those buildings throughout all streets of a city. To give one example of how this data plays out in terms of how streets knit cities together: at Pompeii we find that shops are disproportionately concentrated on streets with a lower depth from the city gates.

Each of the subsequent four chapters investigates a single city and puts Kaiser’s analysis to the test. Pompeii (chapter 3) Ostia (chapter 4), Silchester (chapter 5), and Empúries (chapter 6) all have a majority of their intramural area exposed through excavation. Kaiser proceeds formulaically as he outlines historical background, layout, and topography for each city; discusses the structure of the city’s streets; and then assesses how well we can identify uses of buildings along the streets from the archaeological record. Kaiser then devotes a section of each chapter to analysis of the city’s street network on the basis of the four indices spelled out above (street depth from city gates, street depth from the forum, the number of intersections a street had, and its accessibility for cart traffic). Finally, each chapter identifies and discusses the primary and secondary streets along with the forum and any plazas. Extensive tables supplement plans of the cities, and color-coded maps showing different uses of space are available at an online supplement to the book (http://faculty.evansville.edu/ak58/streets/).

The concluding chapter 7, “Streets, Space, and Roman Urbanism,” argues that the example of Neapolis/Ciudad Romana illustrates the potential for applying the book’s methodology to urban sites that are only partially excavated. The organization of space at Neapolis differed markedly from the other case studies, since the role of its agora was an integral space through which traffic moved. Kaiser hypothesizes that this phenomenon resulted from Neapolis’ Greek heritage, a point strengthened when he compares Neapolis to its immediate neighbor, Ciudad Romana, whose sparse remains nevertheless echo the previous case studies. When statistical anomalies arise in the Neapolis case study, however, Kaiser explains them away with reference to specific circumstances, which weakens his overall argument. Furthermore, the rigorous statistical analysis throughout the book might have yielded more results if used to explore tensions between the urban ideals laid out in texts and the realities played out on the ground.

Nevertheless, Kaiser’s strongest contributions come from his comparative analyses of Roman cities. Individual chapters will help scholars specializing in each city, but the book as a whole reveals urban dynamics that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Kaiser provides critical context for sites like Pompeii that can occasionally be taken as “typical” or paradigmatic for Roman urbanism. All in all, Kaiser brings a new and scientific approach to these cities and offers other scholars of Roman urbanism a strong set of tools for exploring other street networks and the placement of buildings along them. It is unfortunate that the book is so expensive and so completely bereft of photographic images of these cities. Kaiser’s approach, however, gives us new perspectives on Roman urbanism, even if some angles he pursues must remain elusive. He convincingly elucidates many problems that can arise when modern assumptions are used to explain anything in the Roman city.

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