Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.6


Ian M. Barton, Roman Domestic Buildings. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Pp. xv, 194; 70 figs., 4 maps, 30 b&w plates. £10.95. ISBN 0-85989-415-0.


Reviewed by Michele George, Classics, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 4M2 Canada, georgem@mcmail.cis.mcmaster.ca.

This volume is a companion to Roman Public Buildings, also edited by Ian Barton and published by the University of Exeter Press in 1989. That book was expressly aimed at an undergraduate readership; the present effort presumably shares this intention. Its potential use in the classroom is therefore the main aspect for consideration here.

The book is a survey of Roman domestic architecture of all kinds, and comprises six chapters, each with a different focus and author. Ch. 1, "Residential Districts" (by E.J. Owens), summarizes ancient urban arrangements, ranging from Greek predecessors like Olynthos and Megara Hyblaea to the major Republican colonial examples such as Cosa in Italy and the imperial versions at Thamugadi (Timgad) and Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) in the provinces. Using the well-known sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia, several issues are touched on, such as the diffusion of industrial and commercial space, its relationship to residential structures (including Ostian insulae), civic administration, and public sanitation. Ch. 2, "Urban Housing" (by A.J. Brothers), offers a recitation of the standard approach to Campanian domestic architecture: the possible Etruscan origins of the atrium; the commentary of Vitruvius; the Pompeian atrium-peristyle house in its component parts and their possible functions. The insulae and late imperial houses of Ostia are also discussed here in contrast to the Campanian evidence. The only provincial houses included are from Roman Britain (Verulamium, Venta Silurum), an understandable choice in view of the book's British origins, but one which ignores the wealth of comparable evidence from provincial sites: Vaison-la-Romaine and St. Romain-en-Gal in southern France, Timgad and Volubilis in North Africa, Ampurias in Spain or indeed houses in the Greek half of the Roman world (e.g. Ephesus), to mention only the most obvious examples. The absence of this material seriously weakens the chapter, and reduces it to a revisiting of well-trod terrain. The strip and corridor houses of Roman Britain deserve attention, to be sure, but their significant differences from houses in the rest of the western empire raise the question of their relevance to a general treatment of Roman domestic buildings. When placed within a wider context, however, their distinctiveness gains greater meaning. A more integrative approach might have provoked valuable discussion of the role of climate, regional tendencies, and cultural influence in the evolution of domestic architecture.

A similar criticism might be made of the next chapter on "Houses in the Country" (by John Percival), in which only two Italian sites (the villas at Francolise) are considered and discussion of Romano-British villas are privileged over others. Percival covers Gaul but give passing mention to villas in the other northern provinces and Roman Spain. Throughout the chapter, however, he provides useful background to the role of the villa in Roman economic and social life, including plentiful incorporation of pertinent textual sources such as Cicero and Pliny. In Chapter 4, "Palaces", I. M. Barton presents a survey of familiar imperial examples from Rome itself (structures on the Palatine, Domus Aurea) and beyond (Tivoli, Split, Piazza Armerina).

Chapters 5 and 6 are perhaps the most interesting, in that they offer new material. Nicholas Purcell's overview in Chapter 5 of "The Roman Garden as a Domestic Building" stands out for its scholarly and thoughtful tone, and for the literary and archaeological evidence it contains. The chapter roves diachronically through several thematic issues surrounding Roman gardens, including both the small-scale market gardens of Pompeii and the elegant horti of imperial Rome. Although less explicitly didactic than the rest of the book, the chapter gives the student reader much food for thought without neglecting the physical evidence. The material in the final chapter, "Military Housing" (by David P. Davison), ranges from the legate's praetorium to the barracks of the lower ranks, and includes everything in between. In discussing an aspect of domestic architecture which is rarely broached Davison combines the archaeological evidence with a clear explanation of both the military hierarchy and the conditions of army life.

What of the book's value in teaching? This reviewer can give only a qualified recommendation. It has a glossary and site index, but an inadequate bibliography; its photos are of poor quality, but the plans are good. As an instructor in undergraduate courses on Roman urbanism and domestic architecture in a North American institution, I would use it only with significant additional material. The only other general book on Roman domestic architecture is A.G. McKay's Houses, Villas and Palaces in the Roman World, now some 30 years old. Despite its age, however, McKay's book is still more synthetic, and draws from a broader canvass for its evidence. The current book could have made better use of recent scholarship, and given coverage to more provincial sites, thereby enabling attention to a wider range of architectural features and issues within the study of Roman houses. The need for an up-to-date, comprehensive, well-illustrated undergraduate text for Rome domestic architecture therefore remains.