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  • El final de las “villae” en “Hispania” (siglos IV–VII D.C.)
  • Damian Fernández
El final de las “villae” en “Hispania” (siglos IV–VII D.C.) Alexandra Chavarría Bibliothèque de l’Antiquité Tardive 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. 313, ISBN 978–2-503–51735–3.

Our understanding of late antique Iberia has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Whereas earlier interpretations concentrated on the devastating effects of the fifth-century “barbarian invasions,” more recent publications tend to argue that the “end of Roman Iberia” resulted from a combination of invisible social changes combined with the historical events from the fourth through the sixth centuries. Within this latter framework, this book by Alexandra Chavarría analyzes the demise of the ubiquitous late Roman rural aristocratic residence, the villa, in the Iberian Peninsula.

Chavarría’s study begins with the complicated issues of property structure, internal economy, and the landowning class in Iberia (chapters two to four). She synthesizes secondary literature on these topics and sometimes illustrates them with Iberian evidence, including the limited number of written documents on which we have to rely. For example, the only concrete evidence we have of property structure in late antique Iberia is the sixth-century testament of Vincent of Huesca. Likewise, the identification of barbarian landowners depends on the ethnic interpretation of artifacts and burials that, as Chavarría herself acknowledges, can hardly be ascribed to a specific group, Roman or barbarian.

The next three chapters are devoted to the description and evolution of villae as archaeological sites. In contrast with the previous section, these chapters show the wealth of archaeological material available for the study of late antique Iberia. Chavarría focuses on residential, leisure, and religious buildings, not because of neglect of other parts of the villa but because excavations unfortunately concentrate mostly on the “seigniorial” spaces. And yet, are these residential areas the only parts of the villa centers? How can we explain the presence, in many villa sites, of artifacts related to centralized production and storage of agricultural products? One should not dismiss the possibility that productive areas and workers’ quarters were built of perishable materials and are therefore archeologically invisible, almost invisible in surveys. [End Page 174] Yet, archaeologists have been able to find traces of wooden huts in other post-Roman sites whereas they usually have failed to find them in late Roman villae.

The following three chapters constitute the core of Chavarría’s thesis, the end of the villa, and are consistent with her many previous publications on this topic. Her analysis is based on an impressive corpus of more than a hundred villae, with different levels of quality in their excavations (the reader will benefit from the detailed catalogue of sites at the end of the book). Chavarría’s arguments can be summed up as follows. The abandonment of villae as aristocratic residences must not be associated with the so-called barbarian invasions of the third and fifth centuries, but with internal evolutionary developments of Iberian society, developments that varied along regional lines. In what we can call “Mediterranean Iberia”—the province of Tarraconensis, the Levantine area, and Baetica—many villae lost their aristocratic residential character during the third and fourth centuries. Their rooms and halls were transformed for production activities. A handful of villae, however, were turned into monumental aristocratic residences, in the same way as in many other areas of the Roman west. Chavarría believes that these changes mirrored property concentration in fewer aristocratic hands, a historiographical topic that has gained considerable ascendancy in recent scholarship. In other words, changes in villa sites would indicate that those who acquired new properties would not have needed more than one residential unit. These few surviving residential villae then were slowly abandoned through the fifth, sixth, and even seventh centuries.

The second region considered in Chavarría’s study includes the interior plateau and the fertile plains of Lusitania. Here, the fourth and early fifth centuries witnessed an explosion of new aristocratic villae. In contrast to the Mediterranean area, newly built residential buildings were the norm rather than the exception. The abandonment of villae as residential areas only...


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pp. 174-176
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