Irrigation in Roman Western Europe

Anna Willi, Irrigation in Roman Western Europe, Deutsche Wasserhistorische Gesellschaft 17. Clausthal-Zellerfeld: Schriften der Deutschen Wasserhistorischen Gesellschaft, 2021. 9783869487533.

Reviewed by Daniel Plekhov, Brown University, daniel_plekhov@brown.edu

Willi’s Irrigation in Roman Western Europe is a comprehensive study of the archaeological, textual, and epigraphic evidence for irrigation within Western Europe during periods of Roman rule. As an encyclopedic review of available sources, this book is welcome. It provides a clear synthesis of decades of research on irrigation in the western Roman world—research that has otherwise remained thematically siloed and geographically restricted. Yet Willi’s goals are not merely to summarize previous research, but to harness it to critically evaluate the prevalence and operation of irrigation systems in Roman Western Europe. With some notable exceptions (mentioned on 16–18), scholars have largely overlooked irrigation in Western Europe and indeed assumed it to be far less common (or simply absent) than in more arid parts of the Mediterranean, such as North Africa or the Near East. The perception that irrigation in temperate Western Europe is unnecessary, as well as traditional views of Roman farmers as disinclined to make material investments in agricultural infrastructure (9–11), risks ignoring what may have been socially and ecologically significant aspects of rural life. Through the use of diverse sources, Willi is convincing in demonstrating the prevalence and importance of irrigation in many parts of Western Europe during the Roman period, arguing that irrigation was not only present, but in fact widespread and common.

In the introductory chapter, Willi provides an effective synthesis of the state of research on Roman irrigation in the form of succinct summaries of relevant topics, including the various functions of irrigation, the relative roles of top-down and bottom-up forces, and the economic orientation of Roman agriculture and rural production. For each of these issues, Willi offers extensive citations and discussion in footnotes, many of which draw productively on non-Roman and non-Mediterranean studies. More than a summary of debates, however, Willi takes clear positions on each point and uses this space to articulate her own arguments and introduce the reader to material that is fleshed out further in later chapters of the book.

These later chapters are organized according to the types of evidence available for discussion. In Chapter 2, Willi provides an overview of the archaeological evidence for irrigation, focusing almost exclusively on Roman Hispania. She presents the material as a case study that is meant to allow detailed discussion without becoming too overwhelming, but one gets the sense that this is also the region in which the most archaeological research has been conducted. Sections pertaining to archaeological evidence in Italy, Gaul, and Britain are, in total, less than ten pages (out of a total of forty) and do not touch on more than a few examples. Yet Willi is also clear that the focus of her work is primarily on written evidence, which indeed takes up the remaining four chapters of the book. With this focus in mind, the presentation of evidence from Hispania is sufficient and detailed enough to understand the kinds of material evidence available as well as some of the challenges involved in its interpretation. Moreover, despite the detail with which archaeological evidence is reviewed, Willi emphasizes that it remains difficult to distinguish water infrastructure in general from that which was used specifically for agriculture. The many miles of Roman aqueducts that remain preserved and, in some cases, still operational today certainly attest to sophisticated water management, but do not necessarily relate to irrigation practices. Material remains are also often not informative about who financed, used, maintained, or managed those irrigation systems.

The remaining chapters of the book deal with the textual evidence for irrigation in Roman Western Europe. Willi surveys a vast array of sources to specifically address the various social, political, and administrative aspects of irrigation. She breaks this evidence into four categories, each of which is given its own chapter. The first category, reviewed in Chapter 3, in many ways provides the least information about the development or operation of the practice of irrigation, focusing instead on the etymological, metaphorical, and ideological aspects of the concept of irrigation. As she explains, the various contexts in which the Latin irrigare (from which “irrigation” derives) is used make it difficult to determine whether uses of this verb, and its various cognates, refer to natural or artificial irrigation systems. Frustrating though this may be, Willi demonstrates that the frequency of literary and figurative references to irrigation is, by itself, indicative of a broad expectation on the part of many Roman authors that their audience would be familiar with or themselves engaged in irrigation. To give but one example from this chapter, Manilius employs irrigation metaphorically to note the ways in which poets draw on the work of previous authors, writing that “All posterity channelled the flows spilled from his mouth into songs and dared to lead the stream into narrow furrows, fertile through the assets of one man” (Manil. 2.8–11, trans. Willi). Though water itself has a much broader figurative usage (e.g., “thirst for knowledge”), the additional mentions of furrows (rivi) and fertility (fecunda) in the passage quoted above reflect precise references to irrigation in an agricultural context. A reader looking for quick references or case studies on Roman irrigation practices may therefore easily overlook this chapter, but doing so would miss an important, if subtle, aspect of Willi’s work. By demonstrating the many ways in which irrigation is used symbolically and allegorically in texts about ideal Roman values, such as that of the good farmer (94), Willi also contributes to a broader understanding of how otherwise utilitarian agricultural practices take on social, political, and religious meanings.

Chapter 4, as its title makes clear, gets “down to business.” Here Willi reviews the considerable body of Latin literature explicitly concerning agricultural practices and techniques, written particularly for farmers (albeit mostly wealthy ones) and often by those with clear experience in these practices themselves. Her subsequent review of relevant sources is detailed, multifaceted, and almost historiographic, exploring the economic and sociopolitical contexts in which each author was working, the audience to whom they were seemingly writing, and ultimately what their work tells us about Roman irrigation practices. The impression gained from this review is that irrigation was inextricably connected to concerns for soil quality, terrain, and the kinds of crops grown, such that references to irrigation are often made obliquely and in passing. These references also indicate that irrigation took many forms, including for meadows, fields, vines, olive trees, fruit-growing trees, and gardens. Each of these forms is treated in its own subsection of the chapter, each of which also ends with a helpful summary table of attested authors and principal citations. Useful as these agricultural treatises are for gaining insight into the (suggested) organization of agricultural production on small farms and large estates, Willi notes that these texts actually say very little about irrigation infrastructure itself, focusing more on the water that is added rather than the means by which it is stored or conveyed (175). The authors are also silent about the social obligations and legal frameworks that would have structured water-sharing relationships, seeming to instead assume cases where water sources are public or owned by the farmer themselves (166).

Chapter 5 addresses cases where water sources are not public, but must instead be accessed through the negotiation of water rights from neighboring landowners. As Willi reviews (180), anyone hoping to use water to irrigate their land required (1) ownership of a suitable water source or the right to use water that belonged to someone else, (2) the infrastructure necessary to convey the water, and (3) a set of agreements and regulations that determined how the water was distributed. No coherent body of Roman legislation exists that can be described as “water laws,” however. Evidence for the social aspects of irrigation management must come from surviving legal cases that pertain to disagreements over the ownership of water sources, infrastructure upkeep, and watering rights. Indeed, the legal cases that are most informative about Roman legislation concerning water laws are judicial debates over the terms and privileges associated with accessing water, frequently for the purposes of irrigation (196). It is in the context of these legal disputes that we gain our best evidence for the intricate details about and social negotiations around the allocation and scheduling of water access.

Chapter 6 focuses on the actual operation of specific irrigation systems, drawing primarily on epigraphic evidence from around Rome, central Italy, and Hispania. Though fragmentary and often difficult to reconstruct, the details that these inscriptions provide are valuable and discuss explicitly the scheduling of irrigation, organization of maintenance, and administrative structure of irrigation communities. In some cases (such as CIL VI 1261 and CIL VI 31566), irrigation channels are depicted and annotated with the names of landowners and the precise hours of the day during which they were permitted to draw water (231). Based on such evidence, Willi discusses how the actual day-to-day practices of irrigation varied and were, in some cases, directly contrary to the rules and regulations outlined in the legal sources reviewed in Chapter 5. Her underlying argument here is that irrigation ultimately required flexibility and likely emerged organically, such that we cannot speak of any one type of Roman irrigation system, despite the top-down legal frameworks and systems in which many irrigation systems functioned.

A concluding chapter summarizes the book and reasserts its central arguments. As Willi writes here, the evidence for irrigation in Roman Western Europe is “scattered and biased” (306) and above all else scarce. Yet despite such constraints, there is a “subtle ubiquity” (301) to irrigation that makes it difficult to claim that it was uncommon or rarely practiced. Even so, because the evidence does not permit us to describe a standard or typical Roman irrigation system, after reading this book one has more questions than answers about how irrigation systems were actually developed and how they operated through time. I say this largely as a positive comment, however, echoing Willi’s own call to action for more detailed regional analyses of irrigation practices that consider infrastructure in context with settlement and land use (306). Two brief appendices, summarizing categories of irrigation systems and terminology used to describe irrigation infrastructure, round out the book and provide additional helpful resources for further study.

This work stands as a sturdy foundation for future research on irrigation in the Roman world and will be of great value to anyone working on topics pertaining to its archaeological, literary, judicial, or epigraphic evidence. In covering so many different kinds of evidence, and in such detail, the book does feel slightly like a catalogue in parts, but even then is easily navigable due to frequent cross-referencing and is overall well integrated. One recommendation aimed at increasing the accessibility of the book, particularly to non-Classicists, focuses on the Latin and Greek quotations which, while plentiful, are not always translated. Nevertheless, by drawing attention to regions and time periods that have long been overlooked by scholars of irrigation, and by employing such a vast and diverse array of sources to investigate how irrigation systems functioned in those places, Willi succeeds in laying the groundwork for future comparative and interdisciplinary research projects.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1–22)
2. Archaeological evidence for Roman irrigation in Western Europe: the inconspicuous monument (23–64)
3. Irrigation in a literary context: talking about irrigation (65–112)
4. Irrigation in agricultural literature: down to business (113–178))
5. General legislation: protecting water rights (179–229)
6. Regulations pertaining to individual systems: documenting construction and usage (230–300)
7. Conclusions: irrigation in Roman Western Europe (301–8) Appendices (309–14)

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