- Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity
Greece and Rome’s Surveys typically serve as introductions to current trends in the scholarship of broad subjects (volume 31 is on Greek Historians; 38 is on Epigram). In this volume, Diana Spencer comments on the compact, albeit expanding, field of Roman landscape. The book is divided into two major parts: a topical survey of major subjects within landscape study, and two focused studies that incorporate each of those subjects presented in the first section.
Spencer synthesizes the treatises, poems, and letters of Varro, Cicero, Vergil, Columella, Statius, and Pliny with modern semiotic, spatial, and cognitive approaches. All of this in only 180 pages of text makes for a multifarious but at times frustratingly brief presentation. In her introduction, the author describes landscape as a defined space and distinguishes it from terms like environment and nature through a range of methodologies. Especially helpful—and frequently employed in this chapter—for the novice landscape reader is her glossary of interdisciplinary terms like ethnoscape, space syntax, and episteme. Despite the swift pace of the book, Spencer is focused throughout on bringing her reader along.
After the introduction, three survey chapters move briskly through a wide variety of approaches. In the first, she traces major philosophical and pragmatic concepts about the cultivation of nature. This is an enormous question, and Spencer admirably digests it for us. She shows that the idealistic concept of landscaping nature to create a pastoral locus amoenus becomes a multifaceted practice that intersects practical aspects of farming with literary convention. In the second chapter, Spencer turns to agricultural treatises and the Georgics to demonstrate the balanced approach we must take when reading descriptions of villa estates during the mid- to late-Republic. Real agricultural efforts were required, and it is fruitful to keep in mind the necessary balance of labor and otium although one or the other is often minimized for effect. Evander’s description of future Rome and the Roman calendar as presented by Varro and Ovid frames the third chapter, but it primarily provides a substructure for modern approaches to space and time. Tour-guide Evander’s description is seen as a “hypertext” (50) of Rome, and the spatial presentation of the city in Aeneid 8 creates a textual layering effect on the Roman topography of Vergil’s day.
The next two chapters are case studies that combine many of the interpretive methods from the introductory chapters. In the first chapter of this section, [End Page 147] Spencer examines functional villas in the literature of Cicero, Varro, and Columella alongside the utopian villas of Statius and Pliny. Spencer effectively contrasts these to modern villas and landscapes to demonstrate the complicated relationship between fecundity and felicity demonstrated by wealthy estate owners. In the final chapter, Spencer turns to depictions of landscape in ancient art. Again drawing on modern examples, she demonstrates the sociopolitical impact that realistic, urbanized, or controlled representations of landscape contain. A brief envoi takes us to the Villa Adriana, where we see the villa as art overpower the nature–landscape relationship described in the first chapters.
This is a difficult book to evaluate. The first four chapters read like a non-alphabetized encyclopedia on a wide variety of topics. Spencer moves quickly, and helpful but disconnected perspectives of more contemporary thinkers such as Thoreau appear and disappear in a single quote without context (e.g., 40). Her notes are exceedingly helpful for further study, but at times she omits important references that are in her bibliography. One cannot, however, expect the same depth as breadth in this series.
These picky objections aside, I enjoyed this brief work, and although she is writing a survey, many of Spencer’s own assertions are insightful. This book, with its full bibliography and webography, is a timely resource for anyone beginning a study on Roman landscape.