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Reviewed by:
  • Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East by Ross Burns
  • Alan Kaiser
Ross Burns. Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xvi + 409 pp. 116 blackand-white figs. Cloth, $140.00.

For the last decade or so streets have been having their moment in Roman urban studies. One need only glance through the variety of papers Ray Laurence and David Newsome gathered for Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) to see some of the very creative ways those interested in urban landscapes are restudying and reinterpreting the evidence from Roman written and archaeological sources [End Page 356] in order to define the role of the street in the city in new ways. This was one of the reasons I was excited to read and review the publication of Burns' PhD dissertation on the colonnaded streets of the eastern Mediterranean; I wanted to see where he would take the study of this very specialized type of street. The other reason I was looking forward to reading Burns' book was that most of the work on urban thoroughfares has been at sites in the western half of the Roman world. Very few of the types of studies represented in Laurence and Newsome's volume have been focused on the East despite the area's rich history of urban development while under Roman control. The volume under review stands as one small corrective to this neglect.

The subject of Burns' study is the long, wide, colonnaded streets that acted as a "central unifying element" (vii) of the urban layout primarily among the cities of the Roman East. He summarizes his aim succinctly: "[t]his book seeks to explain the origins of the idea" (vii). An introductory chapter outlines the book's structure and describes the written, visual, and archaeological sources of information for understanding colonnaded streets. Burns divides the chapters in the rest of the book into three parts, arranging them mostly chronologically. Part A, chapters 1–4, examines the disparate threads in the architectural and urbanistic milieu of the eastern Mediterranean between the Bronze Age and the time of Roman dominance in the 1st century b.c.e., tracing how these threads were joined to form the idea of a colonnaded street during the construction of Ptolemaic Alexandria. The ideas expressed in the physical form of that city dovetailed nicely with traditions of the Greek stoa and Roman portico when urbanites from these cultures sought new ways to aggrandize portions of their cities in the beginnings of what would amount to an arms race fueled by civic pride. In Part B, chapters 5–8, Burns details the fits and starts in the development of colonnaded street in the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd centuries c.e. using critically-analyzed evidence from a series of case-study cities in the Near East and North Africa. The evidence often consists of tantalizingly few physical remains and oblique references in written sources; nonetheless Burns teases out convincing conclusions about the appearance and path of the streets he investigates. Although the forms of these colonnaded streets bear a resemblance, Burns discusses the apparent varied purposes and execution between his chosen sites. Chapters 9–12 make up part C, which focuses on the great wave of colonnaded street construction in primarily Near Eastern cities during the 2nd century c.e. Again the heart of this section is the series of case studies that illustrate how urban leaders seized on opportunities presented by stable trade routes, access to sometimes-distant quarries, imperial patronage, reconstruction after earthquakes, and the demands of euergetism to one-up their neighboring cities with ever wider, longer, and/or more-beautifully adorned colonnaded streets. While construction of more colonnaded axes would continue into future centuries at a slower pace, Burns sees the colonnaded street as forming and thriving at a unique moment in time when varied cultural elements came together to encourage the spread of this architectural expression. [End Page 357]

It is impossible to read Burns' work without wanting to compare it to...


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