Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.17

Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo: Work, Economy, and Society in Roman Italy. Oxford studies on the Roman economy.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 401.  ISBN 9780199659357.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Sandra R. Joshel, University of Washington (


Although Miko Flohr’s The World of the Fullo deals with Roman fulleries and fullers in depth, it is more than a book about ancient laundries and cloth treatment. Flohr also instances how scholars might further understand the everyday work life of “ordinary” Romans by integrating textual sources and the archaeological record and by reading the material remains of workshops as evidence for social relations. Along the way Flohr address some of the major issues that have characterized the scholarship on the economy, trade, and work in the Roman world. Flohr calls his own work “economic history on the micro-level” (5). His book participates in the recent stream of excellent scholarly work on lived conditions in Roman cities, urban infrastructure, and production; it should then be of interest to a wide scholarly audience of Roman historians, archaeologists, and other classicists.

Flohr’s “Introduction” locates his book in the history of modern scholarship on work in the Roman world, the debate on the Roman economy between the “modernists” and “primitivists,” and the current discussion of the quality and quantity of ancient trade. After a brief summary of the economy of Italy in the Empire (his geographical and chronological focus), he surveys the literary, legal, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence (as well as the painted and sculptural representations of fullers). As the material remains of fullonicae are so central to Flohr’s work, they receive careful treatment, especially the criteria for identifying fulleries. His “conservative approach in fullery identification” produces what he calls “a data set of 22 fullonicae in the Italian peninsula” (26). An overview of their locations and the history of their excavation provides a framework for later analyses.

Chapter 2, “The Economy of Fulling,” examines the economic context of fulling within the context of textile production, trade, and consumption. Flohr considers the variety of contexts in which fulling occurred—large elite households, small workshops for external paying customers, and large “industrial” fulleries that serviced cloth traders. Flohr’s discussion of Roman practices of dress and the cultural need for fulling in terms of what fullers actually did nicely places the work of fulling in a larger social and cultural order. Instead of relegating workshops and workmen to a separate and nearly alternative world to that occupied by the elite and other citizens, he integrates the service of fulling into an urban environment of varied social actors.

Chapter 3, “The Rational Workshop,” takes the reader into the details of the fulling process—soaping, rinsing, drying, polishing, sulphuring, and chalking—and describes the necessary materials and equipment, examining in particular the stalls and rinsing basins in the fulleries of Pompeii and Ostia. The latter part of the chapter is concerned with the operation of fullonicae, small and large, including the movements of water, materials, workers, and tasks. Although Flohr himself is well aware of the historical associations of the notion of the “rational factory” in European industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he insists that “rationality itself may be a highly relevant perspective from which to approach these material remains” (97). His knowledge and sharp analyses of the archaeological remains provide a solid grasp of the traffic of work and the water systems in specific fulleries. His attention to physical detail enables him to unpack the process of work and hence the shaping of conditions within the workshop.

In Chapter 4, “Fulling and the Urban Environment,” Flohr engages with the recent studies of urban space to explore the social and material place of fulleries. To understand “the position of a fullonica in its direct environment,” he focuses on the role of architectural typology, the kind of building in which a fullery existed: in a taberna, in an atrium house, or in a large purpose-built establishment (termed “industrial”). Turning to the fulleries in his study, he analyzes how the specific type of structure in which the fullery was embedded shaped its relation to the larger urban landscape. Fulling appears as a “normal element in urban space,” and in fulleries located in tabernae and atrium houses, “living and working could be combined without the one getting too much in the other’s way” (239). Key, however, is the distinction between fullonicae visible to the street and passersby and those larger establishments that were not easily seen or entered. Flohr concludes that “differences within the data set” in terms of the geography and chronology evokes “a picture …of spatial compromises and economic rationality” (242).

Chapter 5, “Populating the fullonica,” focuses on the men and women who worked in, managed, and/or owned fulleries. Flohr is most especially concerned with the social relations on the shop floor. Privileging the material remains over the literary and epigraphic evidence means Flohr turns away from questions about the legal status of fullers and their denigration in literature. For him, the latter approach is problematic “because it asks the wrong questions, and generates an incomplete distorted picture” (243). The “tendency to reduce people to archetypes, such as ‘the slave, ‘the freedman’,” etc. means that “people are studied without regard for their everyday social environment” (244). Rather Flohr focuses on the “micro-scale” and “the social networks in which people operated,” opening a “dialogue between written evidence and material remains” (245). Networks involve interaction and communication, and these “are for the large part determined by the size and spatial organization of the workshop and by the audiovisual circumstances in there during working hours” (247). Based on the size and shape of a workshop and the remains of equipment and physical plant (stall, basins, presses), Flohr plots out the movement of workers and what he calls the “communicative landscape.” Mapping social relations in and through analyses of the archaeological record of fulleries in tabernae and atrium houses in Pompeii and the large purpose-built establishments in Ostia opens up the varying social worlds of the shop floor, introduces questions about the relation between task and hierarchy, and leads to a comparison of the “social climates” in the Pompeian fullery and the Ostian production hall. Worked out in a series of articles over the last few years, Flohr’s incisive use and interpretation of the material remains add a valuable methodology to the practice of a Roman social history engaged with the everyday lives of ordinary men and women.

In his last chapter, “Fullones and Roman society,” Flohr considers the men and women on the workshop floor in terms of the larger urban world outside the fullery’s doors. Topics here include the permeability of the workshop, the question of tenancy, the social ties of fullers with other members of the community, and the interactions of fullers in the city. Flohr deals with the fullers’ collegia and the even more interesting evidence of a fullers’ culture in Pompeii (the paintings near the rinsing complex in the fullery at VI 14, 21-22 and the graffiti involving fullers in house V 2.4).

Flohr’s “Epilogue” summarizes his major contentions. His central argument, he claims, “is that the relation between economy and society in Roman Italy must be seen as fundamentally reciprocal”; the latter is not “subordinated to or to use Polanyi’s term, ‘embedded’ in social, political, and cultural structures” (351). Some Roman economic and social historians may debate some of Flohr’s assumptions in various chapters, others the logic of his terminology. To take one example, his use of the term “rationality” might be questioned, especially since what he means by it seems to be the “efficiency of the production process” (98). In an eighteenth or nineteenth century sense rationality when applied to production involved rather more than efficiency. Moreover, “rationality” carries some particular historical baggage that may not really further Flohr’s analyses as much as his own incisive analyses do. Nonetheless, Flohr’s The World of the Fullo is an engaging case study of an important trade, and it models new productive methodologies for Roman social history.

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