- Studies in Hellenistic Architecture
Frederick E. Winter's book is a survey of Hellenistic architecture with ambitions to remedy some outmoded but persistent trends in classical architectural history. Winter brings an extraordinary command of the subject to this admirably concise yet inclusive treatment of the architecture of the Greek Mediterranean, ca. 350–50 BCE.
Winter treats not only Greek sites, but also includes Roman, Punic, and eastern monuments that were part of the larger architectural dialogue under Greek hegemony. This approach, combined with his documentation of the experimentation and innovation of Hellenistic architects, combats biases toward the classical fifth century in treatments of Greek architecture, even as it provides a nuanced discussion of how Roman architecture came to use Greek forms to express its own power. Finally, Winter brings considerable travel experience to the table, a factor that this reviewer greatly appreciates – knowing the importance of topography to a reconstruct an ancient site's effects.
The book is mainly an architectural typology, its first eight chapters treating temples and sanctuaries, entranceways, stoas, tombs, theatres and stadia, gymnasia and baths, covered halls and storehouses, and residences. Chapters 9–11 take up themes left dormant during the preceding analyses. The first deals with style in Italy and Sicily, the second with setting and vista in the Hellenistic design process, and the third with columnar orders. A final chapter offers conclusions on the significance of Hellenistic architecture, mainly a defence of [End Page 215] Hellenistic creativity that reads rather as an apology. The volume is (within disappointing publishing constraints) fully illustrated.
Dr Winter has achieved his major goals with admirable learning, yet some occasional problems crop up. The first concerns his odd ambivalence. Although he passionately defends Hellenistic design throughout, Winter often accepts the premises of his supposed antagonists – those who see Hellenistic architecture as inept imitation of classical greatness or as an incubator for more perfected Roman designs. In his conclusion Winter meekly suggests that criticism of Hellenistic architectural practice may be justified, but must be chosen with an eye to positive contributions. He states, '[W]e have to set beside their failures a truly remarkable enrichment of the Greek architectural experience, and one that contributed much to the subsequent achievements of the Romans.' Failures? Certainly there were varied levels of success, but it would be better to describe actively what Hellenistic designers were achieving in their structures. If our goal is to understand these phenomena, we must not look to the principles of other eras to determine them. Greater familiarity with the philosophical, political, religious, and aesthetic principles of Hellenistic societies would offer better ground for this type of assessment.
Another problem concerns structure. Each chapter is informationally dense, yet it is very difficult to read. There is here a desire to couple the catalogue format that would supply complete knowledge of a monument (its measurements, orientation, state of repair) with a narrative that connects the monuments. Too frequently the latter is subsumed by the former in a way that muddies rather than clarifies the subject. Perhaps the architectural details could have been presented in an appendix available to the interested reader, leaving the story of (for example) the regional influence of Pytheos, the architect of Priene, unclouded by minutiae. A dedicated reader will find what is needed (to be sure, it was easier to follow Winter when it came to discussion of sites known personally to this reviewer), but a casual reader will be frustrated. The problem of narrative flow may also come from Winter's writing style, as the chapter on tombs (guest-written by Janos Fedak) follows the same structure without losing clarity. Similarly, Winter might better have connected his text to the images, which often do not seem at all to illustrate the points he is making.
In spite of these criticisms, Winter's book is a valuable contribution to all the architectural and classical fields. It presents an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, and the presentation of so much material in one place will certainly stimulate valuable work by scholars of all sorts.