Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.54

Paul Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. 320.  ISBN 9780199987436.  $45.00.  


Reviewed by Linda Maria Gigante, University of Louisville (gigante@louisville.edu)

The number of publications on Pompeii and Herculaneum is vast, ranging from accounts of their rediscovery in the 18th century and the circumstances of their destruction in 79 CE to current investigations into their pre-destruction history. Thanks to the extensive archaeological remains and abundant documentation concerning these sites, scholars have provided us with an in-depth view of privileged life on the Bay of Naples in the first century CE. In recent years, that picture of Roman culture has expanded to include the more mundane aspects of life and to take into consideration the non-elites who contributed to the vitality of these communities. These scholarly interests have inspired investigations not only into the public but also the private lives of a broad range of inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The objective of the publication under review is to provide an introduction to the art and culture of Pompeii and Herculaneum within the context of a hypothetical single-family dwelling (domus). Although it accompanied an exhibition at the British Museum, this book stands on its own and is much more than an exhibition catalogue. As the reader progresses through the richly color- illustrated text, he/she proceeds through the domus from the atrium into the triclinium, cubiculum and open-air garden resplendent with statuary and water features, finally to areas “behind the scenes” of reception and display: the kitchen, toilet, and baths. In the chapters focused on particular areas of the domus, the various activities that took place in each are discussed and the author makes extensive use of both archaeological evidence and ancient literary sources. For example, in addition to the design and appointments of a triclinium, the rituals of dining and the types of dishes served at dinner parties are mentioned. Similarly, in the chapter on the cubiculum, the author discusses the evidence for personal hygiene and grooming for men and women.

In an effort to bring the domus to life, the author populates these domestic spaces with occupants consisting not only of the family residing in the home but also the slaves and freed persons whose lives were associated with the household in various ways. Among them are tradespeople, most likely the former slaves of the domus’ family, who lived above the shops that were attached to the domus, and the slaves who labored within the household.

The text is divided into nine chapters, each providing a smooth transition from one section to the next. It begins with a brief Introduction (12-19) in which there is an overview of the excavation history of both cities and a concise summary of concerns about their conservation. Chapter I (“The Urban Context,” 22-41), which sets the stage for what follows, includes the mythological origins and early history of the cities, as well as evidence for their political structure and social fabric. The variety of peoples who inhabited this region of south Italy – Oscans, Etruscans, Greeks, Samnites and, finally, Romans – is illustrated by a marble inscription written in Oscan dated c. 150 BCE and found at Pompeii’s Nola Gate (Fig. 11). The Chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the contributions made by public benefactors, like Eumachia in Pompeii, and the role of freedmen in the cities’ commercial enterprises.

Chapter II (“Living Above the Shop,” 44-71) begins with a view of life on the streets and proceeds to the variety of businesses, such as bakeries, workshops, and fulleries, that contributed to the communities’ economic vitality. The production of wine and garum/liquamen receives particular attention and the prominence of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus in Pompeii’s garum trade is noted. Less reputable business establishments (like bars and inns) round out the discussion, with the familiar paintings of customers and a barmaid from Pompeii’s Caupona of Salvius (Figs. 57, 58) reminding the reader that commercial life in the Vesuvian cities was principally in the purview of the non-elites.

In Chapters III through VIII the reader makes his/her way through the domus and is introduced to the design, decoration, and furnishings of the various rooms, as well as to the people and activities associated with them. Chapter III (“Atrium,” 74-115) marks the beginning of the tour and highlights the space’s importance in promoting a family’s wealth and position in the community. In addition to being the location where the strong-box (arca), ancestral images and shrines, and table (cartibulum) where the family’s prized silverware was displayed, the atrium (and adjacent tablinum) was also a place where business transactions were conducted. The survival of financial records, such as wooden writing tablets, and the pictorial representations of writing implements speak to the public nature of a domus and particularly the atrium. One of the more interesting illustrations of this connection between business and the atrium is a masonry lararium (Fig. 105) in Pompeii’s House of the Lararium of the River Sarnus onwhich there is a painting of commercial life at the Sarnus River port. On the exterior of the shrine barges are shown being hauled by mules and goods are being unloaded, all under the watchful eye of the River Sarnus. Inside the niche there is a painted figure of the Genius of the household, shown making sacrifices at an altar. Clearly, the family that worshipped at this shrine offered prayers not only for the protection of the members of its household but also for the success of its livelihood.

Chapter IV (“Cubiculum,” 118-145) provides a glimpse into the less public life in a domus and focuses on the fact that a cubiculum was much more than a bedroom. References to several primary sources (like Ovid and Martial), furnishings (like the carbonized wooden cradle from Herculaneum, Fig. 128), as well as wall paintings with sexual imagery and artifacts for bathing and grooming speak to the versatility of this living space. Mindful of the current view that a woman’s hairstyle was an expression of the wearer’s sophistication (cultus), the author discuss various beauty routines performed by the domina of the household. By way of conclusion, there is the important reminder that most of the artifacts discussed in the Chapter (like a pottery chamber pot, Fig. 136) were used by the household’s slaves identified as “the unseen presence.”

In Chapters V (“Garden,” 148-177) and VI (“Living Rooms and Interior Design,”180-223) the fountains and statuary found in peristyle gardens, along with the wall paintings and floor mosaics in rooms arranged around them, are the focus. Noting that 1/3 of the houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum had a garden of some sort, the author is particularly interested in the mechanical aspects of the gardens’ fountains and water features. For example, he points out that, while shut-off valves did exist in some houses, there must surely have been a great deal of waste-water pouring into the cities’ sewers. Vegetation in the gardens is also considered, with perforated clay pots from Pompeii’s House of the Ship Europa (Figs. 189, 190) probably used to transplant trees and shrubs. Again, the presence of non- elites in these luxurious settings is indicated by graffiti scratched onto the walls of peristyle gardens by slaves (Figs. 198-200). From the garden in Pompeii’s House of the Painters at Work comes a slave’s graffito in slightly incorrect Latin stating that “the bath is cleaned” (balneus lavatur). In Chapter VI, the variety of the decoration in the rooms around the garden is underscored, from floor mosaics whose patterns could provide a visual link to certain spaces in the home to painted marble panels inserted into the walls. The practical side of mural decoration is highlighted by a discussion of painting pigments and the evidence in Pompeii’s House of the Painters at Work for the steps that were taken in painting a room. The author concludes the discussion of a room’s decorative scheme by noting that ceilings were also an important part of the décor and illustrates this point with a painted coffered wooden ceiling discovered in 2008 in Herculaneum’s House of Telephus (Fig. 260).

Chapters VII (“Dining,” 226-245) and VIII (“Kitchens, Toilets and Baths,” 248-269) provide the reader with a picture of both the savory and unsavory aspects of life in a Roman domus. In addition to ancient writers who speak about the ritual of dining and the various foods served, the author discusses the recent excavation of a large drain under Herculaneum’s Cardo V in which remains of vegetables, fruit, seafood, and imported seasonings were discovered. The areas associated with cooking and personal hygiene, unseen by visitors to the home, were almost exclusively the domain of slaves. The author emphasizes the everyday activities in the kitchen by illustrating utilitarian objects like coarse-ware vessels and a pottery jar (glirarium) for fattening dormice (Fig. 313). Herculaneum’s Cardo V drain is described as the “grandest and most extensive septic tank ever discovered (265).” The 2005-6 excavation of this channel unearthed all types of refuse that emanated from chutes in an insula, including food waste, pottery, jewelry, and discarded building materials.

In the final chapter (The Death of the Cities,” 272-301) the author discusses the destruction of the Vesuvian cities, positing that there were probably many earthquakes beyond the one in 62 that preceded the eruption in 79 CE. The fact that Pliny the Younger’s and Cassius Dio’s accounts of the eruption offer different chronologies, the former stating it took place in August and the latter in October, leads the author to focus on certain archaeological clues that may provide an answer. For example, based on the ubiquity of heating braziers and the discovery of remains of certain foods available in the fall, the author posits that Dio’s chronology is a distinct possibility. Following a summary of the volcanic debris’ different courses through Pompeii and Herculaneum, there is a discussion of the 300 human skeletons found in Herculaneum’s ship sheds in 1980, the 74 bodies found in the basement of Villa B at Oplontis, and the remains of two adults and two children found in Pompeii’s House of the Golden Bracelet. The text and accompanying illustrations provide a vivid reminder that these cities were populated with real people, many of whom suffered a painful death.

This book is an important contribution to our understanding of Pompeii and Herculaneum , for the author discusses both cities with equanimity, effectively weaving together the archaeological evidence (much of it recent) with information about Roman culture and always mindful of including the non-elites in his discussions. The illustrations, which are of consistently high quality, have been carefully chosen, ranging from familiar works like the megalographic paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries to less well known artifacts like the debris from Herculaneum’s Cardo V sewer. The inclusion of recent scholarship enhances the text and makes the story of these ancient cities relevant. The author consistently enlivens the visit to a hypothetical domus by reminding the reader that it was not only the venue for a family’s public and private life but also the place where slaves sweated in the kitchen and held their noses when cleaning out the toilet. The only criticism this reviewer can make concerns the discussion of domestic décor, more specifically wall painting. While the author does mention the work practices of wall painters, he frames his discussion of the paintings themselves within the context of Mau’s Four Styles. While this traditional approach is reasonable from the perspective of organizing the material, including some mention of the viewer with respect to Roman wall painting would have enriched the discussion.

All in all, this engaging text – with its , useful notes, list of exhibits, and extensive bibliography – will appeal to a wide readership, from the interested lay person to the university student. In fact, this reviewer would find it a useful text for courses on ancient cities and Roman culture. One can hope that a paperback edition is considered for publication in the near future so that this text can reach a broader audience.

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