Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.25

Lisa C. Nevett, House and Society in the Ancient Greek World.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xi + 220.  ISBN 0-521-64349-X.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Gill, David W.J., University of Wales Swansea (
Word count: 1995 words

This welcome volume is based on Lisa Nevett's Cambridge (UK) doctoral thesis, Variation in the form and use of domestic space in the Greek world in the classical and hellenistic periods (1992) and reuses some previously published material such as her 'Gender relations in the classical Greek household' which appeared in the Annual of the British School at Athens 90 (1995) 363-381. Four main types of houses are discussed, the prostas house, the pastas house, the peristyle house, and the Herdraumhaus (pp. 22-25). Axonometric reconstructions of the different types are extremely helpful: Abdera (house C), Olynthos (house A.VII 6), Delos (maison de la colline), and Ammotoppos (house 1). It is the second type, the pastas house, which is prominent at Olynthos, the central case study in this book.

There are three main introductory chapters exploring the nature of the Greek oikos, a review of earlier studies of Greek households and an interpretation of the material culture. It is no easy matter trying to relate structures described in legal speeches or household equipment listed in documents such as the Hermokopidai lists to the archaeological record. For example, N. highlights the problem of trying to link sympotic and other household vessels mentioned in literary texts to the commonly used archaeological names of pottery vessels found in the excavations of houses (pp. 41-42). To add a further example to the list which she provides, the graffito ΣΚΥ, presumably a shortened form of σκύφος, can be read on the underside of a silver mug from a fifth century BC tomb at Dalboki in Thrace and now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (acc. no. 1948.104: A.J. Oliver, Jr., Silver for the Gods: 800 years of Greek and Roman silver [Toledo: Toledo Museum of Art, 1977] 30, no. 5). Yet the name skyphos is usually applied by archaeologists to a steep-walled drinking cup with two horizontal handles mounted at the rim. N. also attempts to try to link certain shapes with different types of individuals on Athenian red-figured pottery (e.g. pp. 43-45). It would have been helpful to have tabulated more information about the sample of 600 (p. 43). Are the sampled pots excavated from Athens, said to be from tombs in Etruria, or without any recorded find-spot? Would a sample taken from, say, graves at Athens differ from the sort of images from graves at Spina? How many Athenian red-figured pots are known? How many would have been made? Without such information, the presentation of 'multi-dimensional scaling of painted scenes showing the combinations in which decorative motives co-occur' (p. 44, fig. 7) is perhaps meaningless.

Although one of the introductory chapters is entitled, 'From pots to people: towards a framework for interpreting the archaeological material', there is little attempt to engage with the issue that some Greek fine pottery, notably Attic red-figured pottery, was intended to evoke gold and silver plate. There is no apparent mention, for example, of the fragments of an Attic red-figured krater from the remains of the Dema House in Attica, which may have contained an andron, though N. admits that it is a feature which 'is difficult to verify' (p. 84). Does the presence of such a sympotic vessel suggest that the house belonged to and was used by a member of the Athenian social elite? Or does it suggest that the person who used the Dema House emulated luxury symposia with low value pottery? However N. does accept that 'the traditional perception of painted pottery as a luxury item has recently been discredited' (p. 77), and thus feels unable to use painted pottery as an index of wealth.

At the heart of N.'s study lies a long overdue re-evaluation of the evidence of housing from Olynthos in the Chalkidiki (chapter 4: 'The city of Olynthos: a detailed case-study in domestic organisation'). Some 100 houses were excavated during the four seasons of excavations which concluded in 1938. The archaeological world soon recognised the value of the work, and in 1940 G. Mylonas ('The Olynthian house of the classical period', Classical Journal 35 [1940] 392) was able to comment that D.M. Robinson's work would 'become the main source of our evidence for the study of the Greek house'. N. accepts that Olynthos was largely abandoned after its destruction in 348 BC, though there may have been a limited amount of reoccupation (p. 58). The one significant weakness with the information is that it was not always possible to relate artefacts to specific rooms, depending on where the archaeological trench was cut (p. 59). This is a serious restriction on the interpretation of the pottery.

The study of housing at Olynthos could have been strengthened by the presentation, in tabular form, of the dimensions of the houses and the housing blocks, as well as the average house sizes. At Olynthos the houses were approximately 17m by 17m, often in two rows of five houses, back to back (p. 56). The lack of clearly presented data does lead to some confusion. At one point the average size of the Olynthian house is quoted as 290 square metres (p. 56), though a histogram 'showing the range of ground-floor areas covered by different houses at Olynthos' (p. 65, fig. 11) suggests that perhaps only one house was this large. The same histogram suggests that approximately 40 houses at Olynthos have a ground-floor area of between 230 and 250 square metres, suggesting that the earlier comment about the 'average' house was too high. It is also not clear why if some 100 houses were excavated, only some 65 houses are represented by the histogram (which is itself hard to read exactly). Yet the sample size for the study is given as 52 houses (p. 61; marked at p. 55, fig. 9. Some estimate of the overall number of houses at Olynthos ). would also have been helpful so that the value of the statistics can be applied to the whole city. Such an imprecise approach weakened what could have been a valuable quantitative study.

N. also discusses the impact of rented rooms, shops, or workshops on the space available in houses at Olynthos. She suggests that perhaps some 20% of the houses may have had a reduction in the domestic space available. This is presented in a histogram which is intended to demonstrate 'the variation in the amount of probable living space' (p. 76 fig. 13). The result is that more than 30 houses seem to have had some 210 to 250 square metres as living space. Interestingly the larger houses (apparently one at 290 sq. m, two [or could it be three?] at 330 sq. m, one at 450 sq. m) seem to be unaffected by such rooms. Does this mean that wealthy households did not see the need to rent out space? Or are these atypical houses? Could they have had some other use? The study could have been strengthened by a detailed study of each of the houses, along with a ground-plan of each and illustrations of significant finds.

The housing at Olynthos is placed in context by a study of housing from various sites around the Greek mainland and the Aegean islands from the mid-fifth century to the mid-third century BC (chapter 5). N. notes the limited number of fifth-century houses which are available for study (p. 81). To the list could be added the so-called 'house by the city wall' which appears to fill a complete block in the eastern part of the Greek settlement of Euesperides in Cyrenaica (M. Vickers, D. Gill and M. Economou, 'Euesperides: the rescue of an excavation', Libyan Studies 25 [1994] 132, fig. 3) which has been the subject of a detailed study by David Sturgeon (The House by the City Wall and the Use of Fine Pottery from Domestic Contexts at Euesperides, Cyrenaica. Unpublished MPhil. thesis, University of Wales Swansea, 1999). Reconstructions of houses might have been helpful, such as those available for Houses C and D situated by the Great Drain in Athens; see R.E. Wycherley, The Stones of Athens [Princeton 1978], (p.89, fig. 19). Further plans of houses are provided by examples from the colonies of southern Italy and Sicily (chapter 6).

N. looks beyond urban housing to structures found in the countryside. These include the Dema house in Attica (p. 84, fig. 15), and a 'rural house' or 'farm' at Karystia on Euboia (p. 85, fig. 16). The latter seems to have a very simple structure, and until it is fully published its proper function must be in some doubt. The late classical house near the Cave of Pan at Vari is also included (p. 96, fig. 24). It perhaps should have been noted that with the general lowering of the chronology for fourth-century BC black-glossed pottery (see, e.g. D.W.J. Gill, in C.B. Mee and H.A. Forbes (eds.), A Rough and Rocky Place: the landscape and settlement history of the Methana peninsula, Greece. [Liverpool 1997], pp. 69-72), the house may well equally be described as early hellenistic. (Significantly the ceramic assemblage from such a rural house seems similar to that identified as surface scatters for a number of late classical to early hellenistic rural sites on various intensive field-surveys in Greece.)

A study of houses placed in an orthogonal city plan -- at one point N. even calls such a scheme Hippodamian (p. 75) -- might have expected to have included some detailed discussion of houses from carefully planned cities or suburbs. There is a tantalising glimpse of the houses from Halieis in the southern Argolid (p. 99, fig. 26), now studied by B.A. Ault (Classical houses and households: an architectural and artifactual case study from Halieis, Greece. Doctoral thesis. Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1994). Fourth-century housing in the upper part of Euesperides (Sidi Abeid) seems to have consisted of four houses in one block (c. 18m by c. 20m) (see J. Lloyd, 'Some aspects of urban development at Euesperides/Berenice', in G. Barker, J. Lloyd & J. Reynolds (ed.), Cyrenaica in antiquity [Oxford 1985], p. 56, fig. 5.2), whereas housing in the southern extension, built over the salt marsh which started to dry out in antiquity, seem to have consisted of two houses (each 29 m by 45 m) in long strips (29m by 90m) (G.D.B. Jones, 'Excavations at Tocra and Euhesperides, Cyrenaica 1968-1969', Libyan Studies 14 (1983), pp. 109-21). On the Sidi Abeid, the houses appear to have covered some 180 square metres, whereas that in the lower city covered some 1305 square metres. The smallest would be comparable to the smallest at Olynthos (p. 65, fig. 11), though the largest are considerably larger than those identified by N. Moreover, Lloyd has observed that at Euesperides the proportions of the houses are related to the dimensions of the blocks, which are in the ratio of 1:3 (c. 25m by 75m; 29m by c. 90m). Perhaps more could have been said on the development of the Greek house within the context of a planned city as opposed to the replacement of older houses in some of the cities with long-established (and haphazard) plans.

The study concludes with a consideration of the 'origins and subsequent development of the Classical oikos' (pp. 158-66). An archaic house, perhaps dating to at least the early sixth century BC, has been identified in one of the deepest layers on the Sidi Abeid at Euesperides. This linear house with clearly defined hearth appears to have been an integral part of the planned city. In form it recalls a type of house (undiscussed by N.) found in the hellenistic city of Lato in eastern Crete (V. Hadjimichali, 'Recherches à Latô III. Maisons', Bulletin de correspondence hellénique 95 (1971), pp. 167-222). Is the unusual form of housing at hellenistic Lato a development from archaic housing on Crete, adapted to keep the inner parts of the house cool? What was the antecedent of the Euesperides house? Such questions will be answered through further careful fieldwork informed by this stimulating study which draws together diverse evidence.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:58, Friday, 03 April 2009