|thing theory (2008)
presencing and the roman road
chase cohen (columbia university)
During the 1st century B.C. Celtic society underwent a distinct change in the layout of its settlements and of the landscape. This transformation can be best characterized as Romanization. Directly following the Roman conquest of Gaul there were few changes in Gaelic settlements, the process of Romanization did not begin until after the death of Caesar during the period of consolidation period under Octavian, in 39 B.C. The process which began in 39 B.C. was intensified during Augustus’ reign through his efforts to establish a system of imperial administration of the Roman provinces. I propose to examine some of the means by which the Roman Empire maintained its control and presence throughout its extensive empire. In a recent article, Inventing Empire in Rome, Greg Woolf introduced the idea of presencing as ones of the ways the Romans controlled both their subjects and imposed their identity on the landscape. This object study is an attempt to work through the idea of presencing and the relationship between presencing and other thing related theories, specifically object agency and materiality. The discussion will focus on examining the way the Roman roads presences the both individual identity and the landscape within the context of Roman Gaul.
Presencing is the process through which someone or something is made present without physically being in that location. The objects that presence a space could be said to represent some larger thing. We will look at the way Roman architecture, statuary and dedications, and the Roman roads presence the Roman Empire on the landscape. It is interesting to note that when we speak of presencing we speak of objects taking action, of doing something. We inadvertently afford these objects agency when we talk about them presencing the landscape.
We will begin our discussion with a detour through the course of events which led to the establishment of the three Gauls Lugdunensis, Aquitania, and Belgica. As part of this discourse we will examine settlement trends in Gaul before the Roman conquest, and later we will look at the way these settlements changed after Romanization. Then there we will briefly examine the Roman imperial administration of its provinces and colonies. In these first sections I do not propose to detail every nuance of the Roman conquest or settlement, I merely wish to familiarize the author with the generalities of the Roman acquisition of the various Gaelic territories and the status of settlements prior to and following the Romanization of Gaul. Throughout my presentation of post-conquest Gallo-Roman sites I will introduce several ‘presencing technologies,’ those things that enable and assist in the presencing process; Roman Architecture, statuary and dedications, and the Roman roads. After detailing the process of presencing we will shift theoretical gears a bit; in this final section I will attempt to explore the theoretical implications of presencing within the framework of both materiality and object agency.
Roman expansion in Italy took place roughly between 500-200 B.C. following a series of invasions into the heart of Roman territory by the Gauls in Cisalpine Gaul, including the sack of Rome in 391 B.C. this event seems to have directly affected the Romans, and lead to an increasing fear of outside invasion. This fear of attack combined with the Roman sense of glory and honor through military conquest influenced the military expansion of the Romans throughout Italy, where they came into contact with the southern Greek colonies, and Carthage, a Phoenician city state and the other major power in the Western Mediterranean. The relationship between Carthage and Rome was antagonistic, and resulted in three Punic Wars, the first of which started in the mid-late 3rd century B.C. The ensuing defeat of Carthage by the Roman fleet and legions resulted in Carthage paying reparations and tribute to Rome. In the following years, Carthage expanded into Spain, exploiting the Spanish Gauls' silver resources. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal enlisted the aid of Roman enemies by hiring Celtic (Celtic and Gaelic will be used interchangeably throughout this paper) mercenaries, and made his infamous trek through the Alps. In 202 B.C. Hannibal was defeated in Northern Africa by Scipio "Africanus" at the Battle of Zama. This defeat granted Rome control over Spain, Northern Africa and Cisalpine Gaul. In 125 B.C. the Greek colony of Messalia, an ally and trade partner of the Romans requested military aid against the Saluvi, a local Celtic tribe. The Romans defeat the Celtic uprising and effectively establish a new colony, Gallia Transalpina, as a land bridge between Spain and Cisalpine Gaul. Thus is the scene set, with little territorial change, for the Roman conquest of Northern Gaul, Gallia Comata by Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gallia Comata began in 58 B.C. The Helveti, a Celtic tribe in Switzerland began a migration west, into the lands of the Aedui in Burgundy. The Aedui, traditional allies of the Romans, called for aid. This gave the ambitious Caesar a perfect opportunity to invade Gaul. Caesar’s invasion and suppression of the Gauls lasted until 52 B.C. with the defeat of the Arverni chieftain, Vercingetorix at the Siege of Alesia. Thus Rome acquired an Empire while it was still a Republic.
During the following centuries following Roman expansion Rome tried to work out a strategy for ruling the newly conquered provinces. It is clear from the archaeological record that urbanization had only recently begun at the time of Caesar’s conquest, but with minimum and apparently acceptable changes under Augustus the central Gallic authority was absorbed and seems to have flourished under the conditions of the Roman conquest, as did the urban life which had just recently begun to flourish. Over the century following the conquest, the Romans tried to establish an imperial structure, which they achieved through the cultural and economic transformation and administrative reforms of Augustus. It is, however, important to note that the changes in Gaul were generally uniform, though oddly they took place all at the same time. We do not see a marked increase in the rate of Romanization in regions longest under Roman control, Gallia Transalpina Romanizes at the same time as Gallia Comata.
Under Caesar a policy of indirect rule flourished. He established several new urban sites, most importantly Lugdunum, modern day Lyon, on the Rhone river, which became the provincial capital of all Gaul. He populated these new colonies with veteran soldiers from his Gallic campaign, assuring a constant military deterrence against revolt in Gaul. Moreover, he granted local Celtic aristocrats lesser or full Roman citizenship, exempting them from taxes and otherwise giving them incentive to remain loyal to the Romans. This was the traditional Roman approach to its provinces, home rule. The Romans were content to leave the working political structure intact and work through it. Interestingly, Caesar does not force people to abandon the oppida, but we do see a marked decrease in the populations there and a corresponding increases in the lowland settlements.
The Roman ideal province was one with a stable, docile population based either in towns or in villa-type rural estates. Towns were the key element in provincial organization, since administration, business and other aspects of Roman ‘civilized’ life had a distinctly urban focus, from which their influence was felt in the surrounding countryside. For the Romans, these towns would be ideally linked with good communication to encourage economic production and thus allow Rome to recover a satisfactory level of taxes. This idea faced a problem in Gaul, whose population was predominantly rural and potentially very warlike. The Romans did not recognize the traditional oppida settlements as towns, and communications in Gaul were virtually non-existent in Roman terms, as there were no proper roads or a developed water transport system. The Romans, under Octavian, and Augustus, after he was named emperor, began a process of Romanization of Gaul. Augustus began construction of the Roman roads throughout Gaul primarily as a means of troop transportation, but there was an added benefit in the stimulation of trade, and as we will see the construction of the roads also had the unintended consequence of presencing.
At this point I want to shift from the archaeology of the Roman Empire and take the time to work through the concept of presencing. I have already presented a very basic idea of what presencing is, but as it stands that basic definition needs to be expanded. The difficulty of working with the idea of presencing is that it seems to be a rather new idea. I have only ever encountered it in one text and even there it was rather scantily explained. My real introduction to the idea of presencing came through a course I took in the Fall of 2007 with Professor Brian Boyd, The Social Production of Technology. In that class we examined presencing briefly in the Roman context with an emphasis placed on dedicatory pieces and on coinage and it was revisited in a medieval context where it was argued that a medieval church or castle served to presence certain ideologies for the people and on the landscape. I want to start this introduction to presencing by examining what it means to presence and explore how the process seems to work. As part of this we will look at presencing through the lens of two-fold materiality, which will also be discussed and explained. Following this discussion of presencing I will address some of the means through which the Romans presenced their Empire throughout the vast region they controlled, and thus introduce examples of “presencing technologies.” This section will be draw heavily from my synthesis and understanding of ideas presented by Daniel Miller and Tim Ingold. Later in this paper, after looking at technologies we will return to theory and examine the relationship between object agency and presencing, specifically the notion that the process of presencing is actually being one that imbues an object with agency.
“Presencing" technologies, such as the use of coinage, portraiture, inscriptions, and architecture within a "native" context allows for the extension of imperial authority over vast distances, giving the impression of a uniform totality with a singular identity, i.e. "The Empire". When we speak of presencing we are actually referring to specific processes of indexation. One object indexes something else. However, it is not quite this simple. The process of presencing is the process through which the immaterial meanings attached to an object are emphasized.
To explain: The theoretical framework that encompasses presencing is the idea of materiality. Materiality is split into two sides, the rather inaptly named ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial.’ Thus we have two sides, or two-folds. Daniel Miller addresses the point that material forms make manifest an underlying presence and an overarching meaning for the object. When we speak of the two-foldness of objects we refer to the idea that the concept of materiality relies on the presence of people to apply meaning to the thing. We can look at objects in singularity, that is to say that in the absence of a person to apply the meaning objects have physical materiality. All objects have this physicality. It consists of that which exists without people. The physical side of an object is that which is post-human. It exists outside and independent from people. The singular fold is that of the physical, while two-fold is both physical and meaning together. Humans are, almost by definition, ‘meaning-makers.’ This is to say, we attach meaning and ideas to objects. These meanings can be both individual and community-wide. It is in our, human, nature to attach meaning to things. If the an object sitting alone exists in singularity, then when in a human presence we can think of the thing as having a physical side as well as the meaning and ideas together.
The process of presencing relies on a two-fold approach to materiality; the presencing technologies have both a material and immaterial side. In the case of a Roman road it is clear that it exists as a physical association of rock and mortar with the landscape around it. But it also has a series of relationships that relies on humans. Presencing is a human activity. The road cannot presence without humans. The relationship between the road and the landscape (that it cuts through the terrain, that rock was removed from one place and moved to another) is separate from the relationship that it has with people. This has some interesting ramifications. Namely that presencing is a process through which the meanings attached to an object shape the people around it. In other words, the meanings attached to presencing technologies are things that make people! It shapes identity just as it shapes the landscape.
Presencing technologies are objects that permanently change the landscape they belong to. They affect the way individuals think about the landscape and their own identity. This means that in the Roman case the presencing technologies consist of architecture, dedications (statuary) and the roads. An argument could be made for Roman coinage or even Roman ceramics and other goods being presencing technologies, but I don’t think that they are appropriate for the task. Roman coinage and ceramics change greatly throughout the Roman period, and thus lack the permanence of a road. Furthermore there have been many studies of the spread of coinage and ceramics and it is clear that they are both in use beyond the borders of the Empire. Presencing is about imposing identity on specific regions. Roman coinage and ceramics also spread beyond the bounds of the Italian peninsula even before the Roman expansion after the Punic Wars and Caesar’s Gallic Campaign. While both index Rome they do not indicate the same presence as those technologies which shape the landscape.
Presencing is not an intentional process. A road is not built to presence. It is built to enable trade, travel and communication between locations and peoples. Presencing is an unintended, but, for the Romans, helpful and welcome side-affect.
It occurs to me that when we speak of Roman presencing technology we aren’t only talking about this happening during the Roman period. If anything the presencing of the landscape continues though time. Presencing is not static, it is fluid and multi-temporal. The archaeological record can, in itself, serve as presencing technology. The ruins and remnants of Roman sites spread across Europe serves to presence the history of the landscape. When one travels around Europe and see specific types of ruins we can, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, claim that those sites are Roman. The architecture, the roads, and the statuary, all continue to serve their roles as presencing technologies even 1500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, this process is still reliant on people. While it is true that a Roman road is Roman with out without the people present, the presencing of history and of Rome can only occur with people. More specifically, presencing is reliant on individuals who know what Roman is and understand the difference between one non-Roman pile of rock or ruin and a Roman ruin or jumble of rock. This brings us back to the idea that presencing technologies are semi-permanent. A coin can travel and lacks a specific association with the land. A road, on the other hand remains static and thus maintains a relationship with the land and the people. In a recent New York Times there was a story about the via Appia, the oldest of the Roman roads. Many Italians find the land along the road to be highly desirable property for building a home. But their choice of territory is not based on the quality of the land but the location’s association with Rome. Clearly this is the presencing of the Roman identity at work in the modern world.
I don’t want to dwell too long on this next point but I think it does need to be addressed. Presencing is not simply a historical process. Presencing technologies exists today and not just as archaeological ruins. In today’s world we could look at national flags as examples of presencing technologies indicating specific political and social systems. Or we can look at something like the Golden Arches of McDonalds as a presencing technology for economic ideologies.
Presencing technology is not just about the relationship between an object, people and the landscape. Presencing is a way to mediate between objects and people; the focus is on the relationship between them, not just the relationship of people with objects but also how objects act on people.
Now that we have an understanding of the presencing process lets look at one specific technology that accomplish this within the Roman world, the Roman road. Following the successfully conquest of Gaul there was a subtle but profound change to the location of settlements. Or, more specifically, there is a profound change between the pre-Romanization and post/during Romanization settlements. These later settlements are all places along the Roman highway system. After the conquest of Italy prepared the viae were extended from Rome and its vicinity to outlying municipalities, sometimes overlying earlier roads. Building viae was a military responsibility and thus came under the jurisdiction of a consul. The process had a military name, viam munire, as though the via were a fortification. Municipalities, however, were responsible for their own roads, which the Romans called viae vicinales. The development of the Roman road system outside of Italy is generally credited to the various emperors. The body of the road network in the Italian peninsula generally dates to the Roman Republic, with the oldest road being the Via Appia (312 BC). The emergence and development of the roads beyond Italy were essential for the growth of the Roman Empire, enabling the Romans to move armies, stimulate trade and speed communication. At its peak the Roman Road system spanned roughly 53,800 miles.
Like most public construction in the Empire the roads (called via or viae plural) were constructed by the Roman legions, the military. This detail, as we will discuss later, is of central importance to our discussion of presencing. The primary function of the roads was to facilitate travel across the Empire. The roads all vary in style and finish, from plain paths to paved roads. The paved roads were technologically advanced for the day, as they consisted of multiple layers of stone. The construction would begin with a deep roadbed of tamped rubble as an underlying layer which would ensure that the main paving would stay dry, as the water would flow out from between the stones and fragments of rubble, instead of becoming mud.
The best description of construction of Roman roads comes from the scholar architect Vitruvius, whose text De architectura was written during the time of Augustus. De architectura details the entire process by which the Roman road is constructed. I will not delve into that work here, but suffice it to say the Romans took their roads seriously. Before I move on to a discussion of presencing, however, I do want to highlight some aspects of the Roman road. Early Roman law, the Laws of the Twelve Tablets (Lex Duodecim Tabularum), which dates to roughly 450 BC, specifies that a road shall be 2.45 meters wide when straight, and 4.9 meters wide when curved. Roman law established the right to use a road as a servitus, or claim. The jus eundi ("right of going") established a claim to use a footpath, across private land; the ius agendi ("right of driving"), a carriage track. A via combined both types of servitutes. The default width was the latitudo legitima of 2.45 meters.
Early in my study of archaeology I encountered a phrase that has stuck with me all these years. “When you are surveying a region and you encounter a straight line nine out of ten times that is the result of human action.” This quote hold particularly true in the case of the Roman road. Builders aimed at roads which were straight, which often resulted in roads placed along such steep grades that commercial traffic was difficult. It is interesting to consider the importance of the straight and ordered road to the Romans. We might see this as a further ordering and structuring of the landscape beyond the ordered grid pattern we find within Roman and Romanized settlements.
The Roman Via were generally spread across the countryside. Settlements and sites off the via were connected to the via by viae rusticae, or secondary roads. Both the main and secondary roads were often paved, but in some instances were left unpaved, with a simple gravel surface, as is often found in North Africa. These prepared but unpaved roads were viae glareae. Beyond the secondary roads were the viae terrenae, or "dirt roads.” If we had a road map of the empire it would reveal an intricate network of connected roads. Beyond the border of the Empire, however, the roads end, further demarcating the civilized Roman world from the world of the barbarians.
It is clear that the new architectural types that emerge in Gaul illustrate the distinct changes within Celtic society at this time. Before the Roman conquest of Gaul, neither the archaeological record, nor the reports given by Roman or Greek historians imply the presence of theatre, baths with hot and cold water and a hypocaust, or aqueducts. Their presence seems to give concrete evidence of a drastic shift in the local society, a clear Romanization.
But how does a road presence? I think it comes in several forms. The clearest is by thinking about presencing as a process of indexation. The road indexes Rome, more specifically it indexes the Roman military. A Gallic individual traveling along a Roman road in the post-conquest period will have a clear connection between the road they are traveling on and the presence of the legions. The road indexes that individual’s memory of and associations with the legions, and thus with Rome. Roads also serve to presence through the simple fact that as part of the Romanization of Gaul settlements were moved to be on the roads, or roads were built to connect a settlement to a main road. The presence and construction of the roads physically shapes and changes the landscape. We might consider the construction of viae to be the Romanization of the land, the marking of specific territories as belonging to Rome by reason of the fact that Roman roads existed only within the borders of the Empire.
One point that needs to be mentioned is how the condition of the roads themselves affects the presencing process. Once a road is constructed it needs to be maintained. A road whose upkeep is paid and is actively maintained presences Rome differently than a road that has been left to fall apart. The former, the road which is maintained, will presence more and stronger than the latter. Because the maintenance of the Roman road was the responsibility of the local provincial officials the lack of maintenance could be an indication that either the officials lack power, or that they are no longer present. In either case we can see how there are levels within the presencing process, it is multi-dimensional. The road functions as a presencing technology, dictating the ownership of the land by the Roman Empire, but it also serves as a gauge of that presence.
There is also something to say for the ordering of the landscape according to Roman organization. This is something we see across the extensive network of roads, but also within the Gallo-Roman settlements. The Roman had great predilection for construction that consisted of grids and straight lines. A simplistic view of this might simply argue that this is due to the influence of the orderly and regimented legions as engineers and construction crews. But I want to highlight the idea that this ordering of the landscape is an important aspect of the presencing of the Roman Empire. It marks a direct shift and a change in the relationship with the land in Gaul. Where prior to Roman conquest settlements were haphazardly designed with little or no plan and with no developed highway network the introduction of Roman provincial development and rule marks a shift in the identity of the Celtic peoples of Gaul as well as a shift in the land. The tribes were slowly inducted into the ranks of the Roman body of citizens and the land was ordered according to Roman ideology and similarly marked as belonging to Rome.
At several points in this narrative I have brought up the notion that the process of presencing is linked directly with agency and I want to take the time now to develop that idea and to examine the relationship between presencing, agency and materiality. We have already seen how presencing works within a two-fold system of materiality, but I want to try to work out the connection with agency.
The primary emergence of agency within the presencing dialogue comes from linguistics. When we speak about objects presencing we are linguistically affording them a sense of agency. The implication is that the object is actually doing the presencing. And furthermore because of the relationships involved in the process of presencing, a relationship between people and objects, we are seeing the objects acting on the people. We say “the Roman road presences the landscape, and presences the Roman identity onto the people.” In this sentence the object is the Roman road while the subject being acted upon is the landscape.
Now this is a slightly problematic way of looking at presencing technologies. As I understand it agency is a distinctly human characteristic. Throughout the agency literature we see agency as something inherent to humans. Now if this is the case and we say that a Roman road presences, and that this means that the road has agency, aren’t we simply anthropomorphizing the road? We are imbuing it with a characteristic that is generally reserved only for us humans.
This anthropomorphization of the Roman road by giving it agency is not a primary agency. Primary agency seems to be reserved for humans. In this case what we are looking at is a reflected or secondary agency. In Alfred Gell’s work Art and Agency, the author works to seemingly fetishize the object, to make it into a person. This allows us to apply agency to an object as if it had the capacity for agency. Or more importantly it allows us to move from examining what an object means to what it does: but more on that later.
However, looking at presencing technologies as having reflected agency doesn’t really solve our problem, because it places the process of presencing back in the hands of humans. Reflected agency seems to work as follows, an object, like the Roman road, is imbued with meaning by the individual or individuals who construct it. The object contains those meanings and shoots them out into other people who see it. In other words the object is a sort of mirror, but one that constantly reflects specific meanings. In this approach the presencing technology becomes a tool, and as such an extension of the body of the Roman Empire. But I don’t think that presencing technology is quite so simplistic as this. Presencing technologies are non-intentional bodies. They are constructed for specific purposes and through their use and the meanings attached to them come to presence.
Perhaps a better way to look at this discussion might be to turn everything around. It doesn’t matter what meanings the builder places in the object. The focus is shifted instead to the viewer. The important meanings are those that the viewer places on the object, and which the object reflects back onto us. But this is also a problem because now we have an individual imbuing meaning and receiving that same meaning back in a reflection.
This is where the two-fold materiality discussed earlier comes into play. Materiality allows us to attempt a move away from the meaning and away from object agency. We find ourselves instead responding to materiality rather than to meaning. As part of this it is important to understand that two-fold materiality is a balanced equation. We do not privilege the immaterial over the material side. This is expanded by Bruno Latour in his discussion of radical symmetry. I think the presencing discussion is something that Latour could be very interested in. Presencing is about the relationship between objects and people, like Latour, the focus of presencing is not on the essences, but on the relationship and interaction between them. But this could, perhaps, be seen as simply blackboxing the presencing technologies and processes, isolating them away from the world they exist and interact within.
So where do we go from here? It seems clear that the issue of agency, while interesting is fraught with complexities. And the world of two-fold materiality is reliant on meaning. I think one way to do this is to change the question we ask. Rather than asking what does presencing mean? We might ask what presencing does. This shift allows us to access different information and to think differently about the process of presencing. It also affords us the opportunity to move beyond viewing presencing as merely an indexing process. So instead of asking what does the Roman road mean? Well, it means Rome, and because it means Rome it presences. But what does that mean? We can, instead, ask what the Roman road does. It fulfills the specific needs to which it was built be it for travel or communication or trade. But it also does this neat thing we call presencing on the side. And what does presencing do? This critical shift in the way we approach the question of presencing allows us to talk about how the road indexes Rome, but it also allows us to examine issues of functionality, as well as affording us the grounds to examine relationship between people and the road or the road and the landscape around it.
What does this mean for agency? Well I would argue that even with the complexity and the problems inherent in a discussion of meaning and agency we should attempt to work in an “as-if” mode. We should act “as-if” those problems are not really problems at all. We should continue to ask the ‘what does this mean’ question, but we should maintain a radical symmetry in which we do not privilege meaning over materiality or what the object does. Similarly we should not, in our analysis of the relationship and interaction between presencing technologies, people, and the landscape forget to also examine the pieces that make up those interactions.
When I was first introduced to the idea of presencing and presencing technologies it seemed both wonderfully complex and incredibly simplistic. This paper was an attempt to work through the process of presencing, how it happens and through what means. Moreover it occurred to me that the ideas attached to presencing are inherently linked to theories of materiality and object agency. The interaction of three theories, materiality, object agency and presencing, as they deal with the relationship of individuals with objects and notions of imposed and reflected identity fits into the extensive dialogue around the processes of Romanization in post-conquest Gaul. I hope that through my analysis I have been able to flesh out the processes by which the Roman Empire, ideology and identity were imposed not only on the Gallic landscape but on the people themselves as well as addressing the complexity of the relationship between presencing theory and that of materiality and object agency.
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