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Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was the maestro who remade Rome as a Carrara marble metropolis rivaling Athens and Alexandria and created a burgeoning empire of copycat cities. While his comprehensive conversion of the capital referenced Rome’s birth and the general trajectory of its first eight centuries, the dramatic transformation obscured some of the details of its storied past. A clearer picture of Rome’s pre-Augustan buildings and their striking significance is now beginning to emerge.
In recent years, excavations on and around Rome’s seven hills have revealed such unexpected finds as the remains of a wall possibly dating as early as 900 BCE, seventh-century BCE temples at S. Omobono, and sixth-century BCE residential architecture on the Quirinal Hill. Other archaeological explorations clarify the chronology of some of Republican Rome’s most iconic edifices. The architectural advances of the first-century BCE version of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, for example, like those of Pompeii’s Forum and Capitolium, are now assigned to the patronage of the late Republican general Sulla. With impeccable timing, John North Hopkins’s The Genesis of Roman Architecture is a cohesive and bravura account of Roman architecture from the eighth-century BCE to the Early Roman Republic.
Hopkins’s aim is noted in the introduction where he promises “to reach back, past that traditional temporal barrier in the study of Roman art and architecture, to investigate the earliest monuments and urban shifts in the city and to assess their impact on the history of Rome, its art, and its architecture” (2).
The Genesis of Roman Architecture began as a 2000 University of Texas doctoral dissertation under the direction of John Clarke. With support from the American Academy in Rome and others, Hopkins brings pre-Augustan Rome into sharper focus. Recognizing the significance of this study, Yale University Press allowed ample documentation, filling the book with outstanding architectural reconstructions of buildings and their sculptural decoration and high quality photographs, including many in color. Hopkins observes that the three-dimensional technology used in the book to create the two-dimensional images, today’s equivalent of the eighteenth-century watercolor, is still limited by its two dimensionality, but seems preferable to relying only on fragmentary remains. In addition, since archaeological evidence is not always similarly interpreted, Hopkins encourages members of the scholarly community to continue to consider alternate reconstructions based on sound evidence.
The chapters follow one another chronologically and support Hopkins’s clear and compelling narrative. They are not a dry recitation of the technicalities of urban development, but a refreshing and sensitive exploration of the way human beings comprehend society and its spatial requirements as well as how architecture and civilization are intimately intertwined. When, already on page 12, Hopkins describes early Rome’s “connectivity,” he envisions a vibrant and actively developing capital city in Central Italy, an epicenter that was formed as much by its people and its land as by its interactions with indigenous and foreign cultures. He effectively humanizes the Mid-Italic, Etruscan, and Greek impact on Rome and Central Italy by suggesting that a similar process of urban development was happening simultaneously in multiple places (primarily under local ruling tyrants), and, as time passed, communication and collaboration among these entities increased. Indeed as civilization became more complex around the Mediterranean, these human inhabitants, including those in Italy, came up with practical and sometimes intersecting solutions for creating places to live, bathe, worship, conduct civic life, study, shop, and bury their dead. In this way, Hopkins offers what might be described as a game-changing account of a more inclusive and somewhat less Roman-centric model of Mediterranean development.
The individual chapters focus on a series of fascinating topics that proceed chronologically. Like others, Hopkins starts Rome’s architectural saga with remains of the famed huts on the Palatine Hill, which are now better contextualized than ever before in the first-floor displays in the newly renovated Palatine Museum. His view of what was happening at that time coincides with the above-mentioned theory that archaeologists are increasingly embracing the idea that the Palatine was not the only locale for human hut building, but that Palatine-like villages were simultaneously erupting on such other of Rome’s seven hills as the Quirinal. This approach emphasizes Rome’s municipal connectivity and makes the reader vividly aware of how exciting Rome must have been for these early urban pioneers who in the seventh century BCE, according to Hopkins, located their villages around a forum-like basin, which he characterizes in chapter 1, “The Making of a City,” as Rome’s first monumental communal project.
Hopkins proceeds to decipher how other recent excavations in Rome provide an increasingly lively picture of the various aspects of this new and more collaborative city. He shares his perspective on the significance of the Area Sacra of S. Omobono. This zone, part of the Forum Boarium or former “cattle market,” borders the Tiber River and Isola Tiberina, and has been excavated sporadically since 1959 down to its seventh-century BCE level. This area suggests that, even at that early date, Rome’s inhabitants were locating sacred spaces along trading routes, consistent with Hopkins’s concept of the early Roman interest in connectivity. The same kind of wattle and daub materials that constitute the Palatine Hill’s huts were found here, but what they were used for is as yet uncertain. Over time, temples with sacrificial altars replaced the earlier structures and became the locus of activity in a sacred area. Later temples eventually supplanted earlier ones, including a series of at least two temples in a row. This juxtaposition is noteworthy as the practice of arranging a series of temples side by side is frequent later in Rome (S. Nicola in Carcere, Largo Argentina) and at early Roman colonies elsewhere in Italy (Ostia).
Chapter 2, “Coherence and Distinction,” continues Hopkins’s flair for simple yet elegantly expressive chapter titles. He narrates the S. Omobono saga through the sixth-century BCE and characterizes the evolution of Rome’s iconic Via Sacra. What makes this fascinating reading is that Hopkins not only expands our knowledge of significant Rome landmarks, portraying this development as dependent on human activity, but also attributes the success of this progression to the power of the architecture itself. Since we know that these early attempts set the stage for such later masterworks as the Forum of Trajan and the Pantheon, this theory of a Roman architecture with its own agency is convincing and compelling.
In chapter 2, Hopkins also discusses the sculptural decoration of early temple architecture in Rome. He highlights a pediment from S. Omobono Temple I depicting two heraldic felines flanking a running Gorgon, which he compares to other facing felines above a female protome in the Tomb of the Panthers in Tarquinia of around 600 BCE and with the celebrated sixth-century BCE Gorgon pediment from the Temple of Artemis at Corcyra, Corfu, again strongly suggesting active exchange between Rome and other Mediterranean locales.
Hopkins’s chapter 3, “On a New Scale,” heralds the multi-century mega-commission of early Roman architecture: the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. As apparent above, this temple was kept eternally relevant by its location, scale, and renown. Hopkins is interested in the pre-Sullan structure and situates it within the broader koine of the Greco-Roman world as another example of the exciting interactivity of an expansive Mediterranean.
In chapter 4, “The Continuity of Splendor,” Hopkins makes a convincing case for the continuation of significant building activity in the city of Rome by again focusing on the temples in the S. Omobono area (we might call the S. Omobono excavations “the gift that keeps on giving”), as well as such contemporary examples as the Temples of Saturn and the Dioscuri in the Roman Forum.
Hopkins crafts chapter 5 as the perfect denouement. Cleverly entitling it “The Great Rome of the Romans,” a play on Giorgio Pasquali’s 1936 Grande Roma dei Tarquini, Hopkins notes that while economic and military power strengthened under the Tarquins, “the texts and the archaeological remains do not work as well to uphold a great Tarquin patronage of architecture or urban development as they do to uphold Pasquali’s broader great Tarquin community” (157). He also observes that known sources do not credit to the last three Tarquin kings any major building projects in Rome.
Hopkins’s final, eight-page section, simply called ”Integration,” is more than an afterthought. He evokes an “exceptional” Rome, composed by 450 BCE of hills and slopes dotted with temples, sanctuaries, and private houses. Furthermore, he posits that those structures were likely comparable to their well-preserved contemporaries at places like Selinunte, Syracuse, and Agrigento, reinforcing the probability that the city of Rome was part of a collaborative and mutually advantageous Mediterranean connectivity.
The Genesis of Roman Architecture is itself a grand accomplishment, certain to encourage further excavation in Rome and to familiarize many more scholars and their students with the exhilarating potentiality of what was once an elusive period in the history of Roman art and architecture.
Diana E. E. Kleiner
Dunham Professor of History of Art and Classics, Department of the History of Art, Yale University