Vitruvius, Landscape and Heterotopias: How ‘otherspaces’ enrich Roman identity

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Vitruvius’ work De architectura is its blending of real-world topography and structures with a range of ideals and solutions designed to speak to an audience rapidly developing a distinctively ideological interest in urban morphology. For Rome, the relationship in this era between exurbia and the coherence of space within the city limits was part of a larger debate; a debate which sought to understand how and why people and place might resonate productively, and why certain places might prove destined to support greatness.

As Indra McEwen noted in her ground-breaking study of Vitruvius, ‘the corpus of architectura was, reciprocally, shaped by the body of empire’ (2003: 301); land and people(s), the body politic, are part of one environmental order. As McEwen also points out, Vitruvius was sensible to the politicisation that such a position might indicate. His project was born of an era of relative calm, but with seismic political upheaval still in living memory. This makes De architectura’s systematisation of a necessary compromise between sensibility and knowledge, and interest in how semiotics enables a bridge between the natural and the constructed, especially significant (McEwen 2003: 71-72). As McEwen eventually puts it: ‘The cosmic order of De architectura is a linguistic order, which is also the order of a man’s body or of a temple’ (2003: 73).

Vitruvius in this way primes readers to find significance in even the more ostensibly dry representations of architectural theory and practice: it matters not just how one designs, develops, and decorates spaces and structures, but also how the ‘external’ origins (the aetiologies) of the systems relate a sense of ‘here’ (the place where ‘we’ build and live) to ‘there’ (the sites from which ancestors, booty, ideas, victories, consumer-goods made their way to ‘us’). Vitruvius’ omnivorous interest in the backstories relating to urban planning, typically stories rooting city in country, or Rome in the Mediterranean, makes his book a study of ‘other’ places and their role in cultural self-fashioning: a whole array of alt.Romes.

Exploring the dialogue between alienation and acculturation in this reading draws in Michel Foucault’s theory of heterotopias:

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias. [Foucault, 1986: 24; the material had its genesis in a 1967 lecture].

Foucault talks about an absolute difference. What we can tease from Vitruvius’ often whimsical but apparently pragmatic architectural handbook draws on this differential scheme, but Vitruvian semiotics populates the lacuna between heterotopias and the here-and-now with dynamic aetiological and didactic force. To teach means, in effect, to transmit knowledge from a site of plenty (the author; scholarship) to a site of absence or lack (the reader, student). Exploiting the difference between origins (topographic or chronological), and (ideal) practice shapes the community anew in its own gaze, but also (via textual dissemination) opens it to the consuming gaze of the wider world. From this develops a teleologically aware scrutiny of how peoples and sites interrelate, in turn, modelling the kind of new hybrid landscape which underpinned Roman imperial self-fashioning.

We start with Vitruvius’ excursus on what makes a site right (his locus saluberrimus): a lugubrious, grotesque opening leads via a thoroughly Varronian (de Re Rustica) discussion to the relationship between cosmic forces and the humane landscape (Arch. 1.4). Vitruvius’ segue from how to site, to how to design and build civilisation in (1.5), and takes in the problematic permeability of the boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’ of a city (1.6) where the city of course is part of a wider cosmic order. Next, this paper explores Vitruvius’ philosophy of architecture (2 Pr.) from its primitive, constructivist stage (2.1) to the miracle of pozzolana (volcanic cement; 2.6). To conclude, this paper considers Vitruvius’ part in an ongoing ancient debate with continuing reverberations, viz, how and why geography and climate influence the way humankind lives (6 Pr., 6.1) and the practice of civilisation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Early Medieval Worlds
EditorsRebecca Kennedy, Molly Jones-Lewis
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Print)9780415738057
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


  • Vitruvius
  • Architecture
  • Theory
  • Foucault
  • Rome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Classics
  • Ecology
  • Architecture


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