Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.14


Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Pp. xix + 244. $18.95/£14.95. ISBN 0-691-02909-1.


Reviewed by H. Parkins, Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, hmp24@cus.cam.ac.uk.

The publication of this paperback, coming as it does hard on the heels of the original hardback edition, bears witness to the book's appeal. No changes have been made in the transition from hardback to paperback edition, except for the photograph on the front cover. The standard of production generally is high; Houses and Society is lavishly illustrated, with both the author's own photographs, and numerous house and insula plans. Results and data from the author's house sampling are clearly presented in the form of tables and bar charts.

Houses and Society is essentially the reworking of a series of four substantial and related articles, two published in Papers of the British School at Rome, one in City and Country in the Ancient World (eds. J. Rich and A. Wallace-Hadrill, 1991), and one in B. Rawson's (ed. 1991) Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome. They are, however, considerably reshaped and organized into eight chapters so as to make a more coherent whole. The book in addition contains an Appendix, a detailed catalogue of all the Pompeian and Herculanean houses surveyed by the author. This is in itself valuable for, as any researcher of Pompeian houses will already be aware, previous publications of houses and insulae from both sites contain many inaccuracies; this catalogue, then, adds corrections made on the basis of the author's own observations.

The arguments This book is essentially an investigation into the 'social significance' (p. 6) of Roman domestic architecture; the house is thus interrogated as a social document. The first part of the book, 'The Social Structure of the Roman House' (Chapters 1-3), establishes a working methodology, setting out the way(s) in which the house should be 'read'. In 'Reading the Roman house', W-H takes as his starting-point attitudes expressed about both social status and houses in Roman literature. From these it is clear that ostentation in itself neither articulated nor generated social status: in order to be effective, it had to be precisely targeted. This is what Trimalchio fails to understand, and is why his attempts to show off his material assets provide the subject of satire. He does not speak this form of social language, and thus the social status and respect that he so obviously craves is destined always to elude and mock him.

Using Vitruvius as his guide, W-H establishes the backbone of a grammar for the house. This resolves a potential confusion in Vitruvius's account -- that men of status should have grand rooms, structured and decorated accordingly, commensurate with that status in which to receive common callers, i.e. that their grandness is defined simultaneously by their commonness. At the same time, men of rank needed degrees of privacy and grandness for the entertainment of invited guests. This is explained more thoroughly by W-H than can be given justice here, and is summed up neatly in two 'counterposing' axes, public:private, and grand:humble, along which 'it is possible to move in either direction along either of the two ... at the same time' (p. 11). The rooms in a Roman house are thus arranged, and can to be understood as a product of this axial movement. He finds little or no evidence, however, for gender and age divisions, concluding that these could not have been the primary axes of the Roman house's organization. This is a point at which some readers will no doubt want to differ; nevertheless, the proposition as set out here -- that the main axes of spatial arrangement converged principally on the very public life of the paterfamilias -- is strongly persuasive.

Having ascertained in Chapter 1 that architecture and decoration, rather than size alone, were responsible for articulating the social status of the Roman house owner, Chapter 2 explores the 'language of public and private' in greater detail, and in particular the way in which it was employed to establish gradations of status around the house. The most important technique, argues W-H, was that of allusion to the public sphere -- the realm of the successful Roman citizen -- through use of a variety of architectural features and wall decoration. Columns, for example, alluded to the public/civic buildings -- basilicas, fora, temples -- associated with the life of the man of rank. A variety of artistic devices in wall-painting, too, contributed to the effect in different ways over time; W-H makes special reference to the use of colour, motifs, and frameworks in the so-called Fourth Style to illustrate how this was achieved.

Chapter 3 deals with 'the articulation of the house': that is, how different social groups were guided around the house, expressed in 'degrees of access' permitted to outsiders. Of similar importance was the differentiation of free and servile areas. W-H shows how this was accomplished with subtle use of architectural and decorative technique. By focusing on these two media W-H is able to trace, too, a change in use of space, and in how that space was articulated, from the late Republic to early principate. He interprets this change as being the expression of a greater desire by the elite to protect and retreat into their private life of luxury, and 'an attempt to impose greater control on the exposure of the master to the public' (p. 52). One might also argue that it reflected the fact that the political competition had by this stage effectively been won (by Augustus), thus obviating the elite's need to consume publicly and conspicuously.

Chapter 4 takes the reader into the second part of the book, 'Sampling Pompeii and Herculaneum'. W-H's survey of two regions of Pompeii, together with Herculaneum, gauges the 'urban texture' of the sites, of houses and their sizes, and of the relationship of this data to the prevalence of atria and peristyles -- a survey, in effect, to establish wealth and its distribution, and to provide the 'hard' evidence for the rest of the chapters in the book. At this point W-H gives his reasons for not incorporating small finds into his analysis, namely careless past excavations and lamentable lack of publication. He suggests that small finds have the potential to add to the picture of Pompeii and Herculaneum that he puts forward. Penelope Allison's work, based on painstaking sifting through of the old excavation diaries, has already done much in this respect, and one might have expected more engagement with her work to date, and with the methodological issues it raises.

The figures from Chapter 4 regarding house size are used in the next chapter to estimate Pompeii's population. The number of Pompeii's inhabitants has long occupied the thoughts of historians, with estimates ranging from about 6,000 to 20,000. Using the data obtained from his sampling, taken together with a variety of comparative evidence from other periods about household sizes, room/house size, and expected density for numbers of inhabitants:room, W-H's population estimate -- of around 10,000 -- is much more thorough and convincing in its methodology than previous reckonings. But more importantly, what also emerges in the course of this investigation into population size is that residential space in Pompeii was characterised by large households, or 'housefuls', comprising not just kin members, but slaves, freedmen, tenants, and other dependants.

This finding leads neatly into the next chapter on 'houses and trade'. Here, W-H seeks to understand why it is that a large number of apparently 'grand' houses incorporated commercial establishments, some linked directly via a doorway to the main part of the house. The problem of interpretation is raised by the conflict with Cicero (De officiis 1.150-1), and other moralising writers, who despise trade and traders, particularly if it is small scale, while championing the life of the rural landowner. The apparent distaste for trade expressed in the sources led that famous Pompeianist, Maiuri, to conclude that shops, workshops, and so forth within 'grand' houses could only have been the product of the vulgar classes moving in. Maiuri dated this process from the earthquake of AD 62, an event he believed prompted the Pompeian elite to leave the town. W-H points to the 'housefuls' delineated in the previous chapter to overturn the Maiurian orthodoxy, and to propose a very different scenario. The key to understanding the intermingling of 'grand' houses and shops, W-H believes, is the mutually dependent relationships that characterised Roman society. In this respect 'we must reconstruct a world in which the rich lived in close contiguity with their dependents, slaves and freedmen, clients and tenants, the sources of their social and economic power' (p. 141). Moreover, as W-H observes, this also explains why those like Cicero could afford outwardly to despise trade, since via their network of dependents they actually reaped every kind of benefit from their urban interests while maintaining an ideological distance by the virtue of rural landownership.

Having firmly established in preceding chapters the ways in which ostentation, and with it social status, were articulated through the use of luxury, W-H traces in Chapter 7, the most explicitly diachronic of all the chapters, the process of its diffusion. This chapter owes much of its essential methodology to recent anthropological and sociological studies of consumption; these are employed to good effect to illustrate in detail the diffusion of luxury through the ranks of Roman society. It has, of course, long been understood that the Roman elite expressed and maintained their social status through conspicuous consumption, particularly via their acquisition of novel commodities. But W-H shows precisely, stage by stage, via Pompeian domestic architecture and wall decoration, how their acquisitive behaviour filtered down through the rest of Roman society, to even the very lowest strata. The rate at which it did so, however, is argued to be indicative of the relative stability of society; put crudely, the longer it took for imitation of the top order to occur, the more stable the society. The period of the very end of the Republic and early principate, by this token, was relatively unstable, as W-H argues from the apparently rapid dissemination of the Fourth Style of wall-painting. Nevertheless, the elite still managed to maintain their grasp on status. This time, however, differentiation between the elite and lower social groups was expressed not through the former group's monopoly on novelty, but through the greater number of better quality components employed in the wall-paintings that decorated their houses.

The achievement of this book is beyond a brief summary. With deceptive ease W-H breaks down long-held assumptions about social use of space within and outside the house to expose flawed assumptions about social organisation; his conclusions, if correct, have far-reaching implications for our understanding of Roman social, cultural and economic behaviour, and particularly about cause and effect of change in behaviour. The test of the thesis, and of W-H's construction of a 'grammar' for the Roman house, lies ultimately in studies of other towns and of other layers of Pompeian history (p. 161). The results of the current project to (re)excavate Regio I, insula 9 of Pompeii, in which W-H is involved, should therefore be all the more eagerly awaited.

More broadly, W-H's contention is that there should be greater dialogue between different academic disciplines in order to reach a better understanding of Roman society; with its adept fusion of archaeology, art history, and ancient history, together with a variety of approaches borrowed from the social sciences, this book could hardly be a better example of how such dialogue might be achieved.