Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.25

Paul Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1999.  Pp. 251; 21 color ills., 55 halftones.  ISBN 0-674-68966-6.  $49.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-674-68967-4.  $22.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Parslow, Classical Studies & Archaeology, Wesleyan University (
Word count: 2309 words

P. Zanker's concise, yet remarkably dense, essay Pompeji: Stadtbilder als Spiegel von Gesellschaft und Herrschaftsform (Mainz am Rhein 1988) has been required reading for serious scholars of Pompeii and Roman urban studies since its publication. Similarly, his earlier "Die Villa als Vorbild des späten pompejanische Wohngeschmacks" (JDAI 94 [1979] 460-523) had an important impact on subsequent studies of Pompeian domestic architecture. Both came at important turning points in the study of the material remains of Pompeii. "Die Villa" appeared at a time when the traditional approach of seeing every house as a variation on the prototypical atrium-style house of Vitruvius was being abandoned. Instead, Zanker applied a more "sociological" approach that traced the architectural form and the decoration of houses to the cultural influences and distinct tastes of Pompeians in the last years of the city.1 Pompeji: Stadtbilder likewise dispensed with the purely monument-based approach to surveying the history of the city and focused instead on explaining the historical, cultural and social circumstances behind its development: why certain monuments were constructed where they were, who constructed them, and how their use fit in to the cultural aspirations of the period. If these essays did not directly cause the revolution in Pompeian studies witnessed over the past decade, at least it is clear that the kinds of questions Zanker raised in both influenced its course in very tangible, positive ways.

These two essays are at the core of Pompeii: Public and Private Life, a translation into English of his Pompeji: Stadtbild und Wohngeschmack (Mainz am Rhein 1995). The German text appeared two years after an Italian edition (Pompei: Società, Immagini Urbane e Forme dell' Abitare [Turin 1993]) that first re-printed these essays in toto along with a new introductory essay designed to set the historical background. The Italian and German editions are virtually identical in content and illustrative material, though the German edition included additional color plates. The English translation on the other hand, even though the author apologizes in his preface for leaving the bulk of the main text unchanged, is really a new edition, for in fact he has incorporated into the text the findings from several quite recent fieldwork projects or studies and has completely updated and expanded the footnotes. These features make this the edition of choice for new buyers, and incentive for owners of previous editions to upgrade, while the English translation now makes the important works of this author available to a much broader audience.

The introductory essay, called "Townscape and Domestic Space," effectively smoothes over the gaps inherent in trying to combine two stand-alone essays of such different natures. One aspect that becomes clear here is how well Pompeii can serve as a model for understanding the radical changes that contact with Hellenistic culture and then the expansion of the Roman sphere of influence must have provoked in cities across the empire. At the same time, it underscores how both its geographical situation and the circumstances behind its development made Pompeii a unique Roman city.

The second section of the book, "Urban Space as a Reflection of Society," is the revised text of Pompeji: Stadtbilder. Since this essay already has been widely reviewed, including a review by the present writer, it seems best to focus primarily on topics of ongoing debate, on aspects where Zanker has modified his original text, or where recent archaeological work has made a contribution.

As Zanker rightly points out, Pompeii in its first four hundred years is still poorly understood. One current view holds that the entire city was already walled in the sixth century BCE though only the area in the southwest corner -- the so-called Altstadt -- was built up; the remainder of the land was given over to grazing and agriculture. Evidence for early habitation was confirmed by the discovery of the remains of a rectangular hut, dated to the mid-seventh century BCE, beneath the Casa di Giuseppe II in Regio VIII.2 More recently, excavations by the British School at Rome revealed what is identified as the foundations of an Etruscan structure, dated by the ceramics to the mid-sixth century, which stood well outside the Altstadt in Region I.9.12 but on the same alignment as the orthogonal grid of the later city plan.3 Whether this is sufficient evidence for concluding there was a strong Etruscan influence in the city in this period, however, seems doubtful. Even the earliest Samnites left little evidence for their presence though it is certain they were here. While Zanker and others would date their development of the northeast quarter of the city to the fourth and third centuries, archaeology so far has provided evidence in this area for houses from the third century but streets oriented to the grid and limestone houses with atria dating only to the second century.4

Zanker's main narrative also begins in the second century, when the wealthy Pompeians who inhabited these houses indulged in unbridled luxuria, free of the conservative constraints of their contemporaries in Rome. This period sees the Pompeians actively engaged in the pursuit of Hellenistic culture, as evidenced by the construction of the theater, the Samnitic palestra, and the colonnade behind the theater which Zanker identifies as a gymnasium. The identification of the low wall in the Triangular Forum as a xystus for footraces seems rather forced, however, since it is less than half the required length, as Zanker admits, but the efforts expended on constructing buildings linked to luxuria to the exclusion of buildings of a more political and religious nature in this period are duly emphasized. At the same time, Zanker points to signs of the process of self-Romanization: the adoption of Roman cultural traits in expectation of the formal granting of full Roman citizenship. The evidence centers around two elements which have become points of debate: the main temple on the forum, identified as a Temple of Jupiter in this phase, and the Latin inscription "HAVE" adorning the sidewalk in front of the House of the Faun (Reg. VI.xii.2). The building phases of the temple are in serious need of further investigation to resolve the question of whether its earliest form was altered before or after the arrival of the Roman colony.5 The date of the inscription is based primarily on established chronologies of pavement types which point to its being contemporary with the second century mosaics found inside the house. F. Pesando, like Zanker, sees the inscription as an expression by the owner that he was "into" the political, economic and social network of Rome.6 F. Zevi, on the other hand, has stressed the absurdity of a Pompeian using Latin in such a public place when Oscan was the lingua franca at the time. Zevi therefore would date the inscription to after the Social War, when Romanization already would have been well under way.7

The effects of the arrival of the Roman colony in Pompeii also remain unclear. Zanker depicts the transition as a time of sweeping change and high tension in which the colonists appropriated religious traditions dear to the Pompeians and imposed their own cultural modes. Certainly they built new public buildings like the spectacula which flew in the face of the more cultured pursuits of the Pompeians, and they lined the streets into the city with their trophy tombs. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the officials who dedicated their new amphitheater to "the colonists" (coloneis) were addressing the Roman colonists alone rather than all the citizens of what in fact already had been the Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum for a decade, nor that the same officials built the theatrum tectum as an assembly hall specifically for these same Roman veterans. Zanker now acknowledges that the amphitheater inscription may have been more inclusive than he suggested in his original essay, but he clings to his reading of the theatrum tectum while allowing that this does not exclude its use as a theater, as its name demands. Yet since versions of both building types already existed in Pompeii, the theatrum tectum and the Forum baths could equally be seen as conciliatory gestures by the colonists, if indeed there need be any distinction at all drawn between what is "colonial" and what is "native"; certainly models of neither existed in Rome at that time. Nor has the fact that Pompeii now outstripped all of her neighbors in the sheer number of public buildings devoted to spectacles, and perhaps to bathing as well, been properly appreciated.

Zanker also has had to modify his discussion of where the colonists lived in light of recent discoveries. Initially, he had housed them in the so-called row houses, the modest dwellings characteristic to the southeast part of the city, but archaeological investigations recently have sought to redate these structures to the late third and early second centuries BCE.8 Zevi has suggested they inhabited the villas outside the city where land could be more easily confiscated.9 Whatever the nature of the dispute between the native Pompeians and the colonists to which Cicero was referring (Pro Sulla 60-62), it is unlikely to have left its trace in the archaeological record.

Evocations of Rome were ubiquitous, however, in the monuments built during the Augustan and early Imperial period. Zanker is at his best in this section as he eloquently captures the spirit of this new age which was marked by "manifold and ceaseless activity; the citizens felt the town was 'on its way up' and everyone contributed to the general effort" (p. 118). He emphasizes how well Pompeii can be used to illustrate the growth of the imperial cult in Roman cities at that time, and he highlights the role individuals played in the adornment of the city in the hopes of personal advancement. This was a period of fervent building, in both the public and the private spheres, although it hardly resulted in another "city of marble," as Zanker notes. Zanker concentrates on the buildings on the forum since these illustrate best the rapid development of the imperial cult, and it is here where he has revised his text in part on the basis of several recent studies. But he rightly hesitates to accept fully their findings since none is based on the kind of stratigraphic evidence he realizes is necessary for establishing a precise chronology.10

Much of the current archaeological activity at Pompeii is aimed at filling out the picture of early Pompeii, but it has had the collateral effect of contributing to the story of Pompeii in its final years, after the devastating earthquake of 62 CE. The findings suggest that the traditional view of a city on its knees, barely capable of cobbling together its ruined buildings, should be radically altered; that far more of the city had been rebuilt, and a far greater degree of effort to revitalize the city expended, than previously believed. That excavations could resolve to everyone's satisfaction the question of whether the marble ornamentation of the forum was removed before or after the eruption seems overly optimistic, but it has the capacity to resolve other long-standing debates. Among these is the belief that the earthquake had knocked out the water system and that Pompeii had been without running water for its last seventeen years.11 Yet the private houses equipped with the most elaborate water features are all of the last phase, and the construction of the Central Baths dates from this period as well. Zanker posits that wealthy homeowners had drawn their water from some "other" sources. Recent excavations, however, have revealed numerous, though not continuous, open trenches cut in sidewalks throughout the city, with lengths of lead pipe resting to one side awaiting soldering. This was read as evidence that the system survived the initial temblor but that later earthquakes had caused extensive damage requiring a program of renovation and modification just prior to the eruption.12 Nevertheless, Zanker's narrative of the variety of activities undertaken in these years successfully captures the sense of what must have been a concerted effort to prioritize, rebuild, and re-establish some degree of normalcy.

In his original essay "Die Villa," Zanker had ascribed much of that activity to the efforts of the freedmen class who endured the travails of the ruined city while their wealthier neighbors fled to their country villas. They sought to decorate their houses with architectural and decorative features evoking the cultivated world of Roman aristocrats, even though their diminutive homes required them to "miniaturize" those features whose selection may have been based more on their availability than on their significance. In the last section of this new edition, "The Domestic Arts in Pompeii," he suggests that the taste reflected in the houses of the last period likely represents a general social trend rather than being specific to freedmen. What precisely happened to the social and political makeup of Pompeii in its last years remains a point of dispute, but in reading the size of a house as an indicator of the wealth of its owner, Zanker also had fallen into the trap of equating wealth with good taste.13 This slight modification of his thesis in no way undermines what is perhaps the best introductory essay on the origins and development of Roman villa culture, and how that culture was played out in the late houses of Pompeii. Moreover, included here are detailed descriptions of the decoration found in several important houses for which other sources in English are lacking or deficient: the Houses of the Moralist, Black Anchor, Apollo (here "Apolline"), Ephebe, and the ever-popular Loreius Tiburtinus (or C. Octavius Quartio).

This is a rich and thought-provoking book that will be of interest to students of the public and private life not only of Pompeii but of Roman cities of the early Empire in general. The translation is excellent and the text is generously illustrated, though it should be noted that Figure 67 has been reversed.


1.   The most notable offspring of this approach is A. Wallace-Hadrill's Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton 1994).
2.   P. Carafa, "What was Pompeii before 200 BC? Excavations in the House of Joseph II, in the Triangular Forum, and in the House of the Wedding of Hercules," in Sequence and Space in Pompeii, eds. S. Bon and R. Jones (Oxford 1997) 13-31 and, P. Carafa and M.T. D'Alessio, "Lo scavo nella Casa di Giuseppe II (VIII,2,38-39) e nel portico occidentale del Foro Triangolare a Pompei: Rapporto preliminare," Rivista di Studi Pompeiani 7 (1995-96) 137-52.
3.   Unpeeling Pompeii: Studies in Region I of Pompeii, ed. J. Berry (Milan 1998) 65-66.
4.   M. Bonghi Jovino (ed.), Ricerche a Pompei: L'Insula 5 della Regio VI dalle origini al 79 d.C. (Rome 1984); A. Laidlaw, "Excavations in the Casa di Sallustio, Pompeii: A preliminary assessment," in R.T. Scott and A.R. Scott (eds.), Eius Virtutis Studiosi: Classical and Postclassical Studies in Memory of Frank Edward Brown (1908-1988) (Washington DC 1993) 217-33; the Anglo-American Pompeii Project excavating in the House of the Vestals (Regio VI.1.6-8) reports finding identifiable structures in this area datable to the third century but suggests that the course of the Vicolo di Narciso, which is aligned with the grid in this area of the city, was not defined until the end of the second century (published only in preliminary form; see:
5.   P. Arthur, "Problems of the urbanization of Pompeii: Excavations 1980-1981," Antiquaries Journal 66 (1986) 33, dates the Temple of Jupiter "at least in its present form" to the second century on the basis of his excavations here.
6.   F. Pesando, Domus: Edilizia privata e società pompeiana fra III e I secolo a.C. (Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, Monografie 12, Rome 1997) 84-130.
7.   F. Zevi, "La Casa del Fauno," in Pompei: Abitare sotto il Vesuvio (Ferrara 1996) 39, and, in greater detail, idem, "Die Casa del Fauno in Pompeji und das Alexandermosaik," RömMitt 105 (1998) 21-65.
8.   S.C. Nappo, "Urban transformation at Pompeii in the late 3rd and early 2nd c. B.C.," in R. Lawrence and A. Wallace-Hadrill, eds., Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond (Portsmouth RI 1997) 91-120, and idem, "Alcuni esempli di tipologie di case popolari della fine III-inizio II sec. a.C. a Pompei," Rivista di Studi Pompeiani 6 (1993-94) 77-104. The stratigraphic evidence supporting the dating of these structures still awaits publication.
9.   F. Zevi, "Pompei dalla città sannitica alla colonia sillana: Per un' interpretazione dei dati archeologici," in Les élites municipales de l' Italie péninsulaire des Gracques à Néron (Rome 1996) 130.
10.   In particular, Zanker makes frequent reference in his text to the "Pompeii Forum Project," a project documenting the standing structures on the east side of the forum (see:
11.   For a collection of papers dealing with evidence for at least one more earthquake at Pompeii between that of 62 CE and the eruption of 79 CE, see T. Fröhlich and L. Jacobelli (edd.), Archäologie und Seismologie: La regione vesuviana dal 62 al 79 d.C., Problemi archeologici e sismologici (München 1995).
12.   S. Nappo, "L'impianto idrico a Pompei nel 79 d.C.: Nuovi dati," in Cura Aquarum in Campania (Babesch, Supplement 4, Leiden 1996) 37-45.
13.   Zanker contrasts the conclusions of H. Mouritsen, Elections, Magistrates and Municipal Elite: Studies in Pompeian Epigraphy (Rome 1988) with those of P. Castrén, Ordo Populusque Pompeianus: Polity and Society in Roman Pompeii (Rome 1975).

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