Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.08

Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli Del Franco, Ernesto De Carolis, Claudio Rodolfo Salerno (ed.), Caio Giulio Polibio: storie di un cittadino pompeiano.   Napoli:  Regione Campania - Assessorato Agricoltura: Istituto per la Diffusione delle Scienze Naturali (IDSN), 2015.  Pp. 607.  ISBN 9788895230252.  

Reviewed by Chiara Romano, University of Bologna (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The purpose of this book is to contribute to a better understanding of domus IX 13, 1-3 in Pompeii and its inhabitants. Therefore, it is not a critical account of the architectural and decorative program of this complex, but rather an inquiry into culture and life styles in ancient Pompeii. Since its first discovery (1910-1923 and 1966-1978), the house of Julius Polybius has been the focus of wide-ranging research whose results are presented here. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Annamaria Ciarallo, who was the head of the Laboratory of Applied Research of the Soprintendenza of Pompeii and made some essential contributions to this topic.

The three authors of this volume have accomplished an important project by creating a single work comprising all of the multidisciplinary researches carried out on the domus of Julius Polybius. In the previous years, apart from a monograph relating to the excavation records of the site 1, only papers scattered papers on narrowly focused topics had appeared, leaving the scientific community without a synthesis to give unity and coherence to the work conducted by Ciarallo’s team.

The authors have decided to work backwards by starting not from the house’s discovery, but instead from the more recent studies of the site (pp. 19-64). They begin by recalling the spectacle created for the reopening of the House of Julius Polybius in 2010, a multi-sensory voyage through the space: the visitors were welcomed by the hologram of Caius Julius Polybius, who spoke to them of the mixed fortunes of his residence while "accompanying" them throughout the house. Then, they explain very effectively the work carried out to convert the domus into a museum, and specifically (1) the setting-up of an audio tour generating typical sounds in each room, (2) the reconstruction of the furniture, (3) the micro-environmental reconstruction of the peristyle, and (4) the creation of the holograms of Polybius and of the pregnant woman found in a room connected to the peristyle. Substantive and crucial was the cooperation with the Laboratory of Applied Sciences of the Soprintendenza of Pompeii and the Istituto per la Diffusione delle Scienze Naturali. The entire narrative is permeated by deep feelings towards the long work carried out and the achievements of the researchers involved in the project.

The future, with its multidisciplinary studies and its reconstructions, now makes room for the past, which is presented step by step. The requisite preliminaries are the accurate descriptions of the house’s layout (pp. 65-82), the functionality of the various rooms, and the most important frescoes. Also of great importance is the history of the restorations (pp. 83-94), which enables one to have a more unified view on the vicissitudes of conservation efforts made over time, which in turn link to the issue of “musealization” invoked by the opening section on the 2010 exhibit.

Serious effort has been made to provide the reader with the historical reconstruction of the identity of the domus’s owner (pp. 95-116). The story of the Polybii is anything but simple. The freedmen of the gens Iulia belonged to a humble class but were fairly prosperous. This fact seems also to be confirmed by the shape of his residence: the cobbled floor and the paintings did not undergo major changes in the transition from one owner to another, thus indicating a willingness to buck the trend toward ostentatious display of economic power. Yet Julius Polybius had definite political ambitions, since we find him in the electoral posters of Pompeii.

To this section belong studies on the various aspects of the home: marble, window fixtures, furniture, bronzes (especially important is a statue of the ‘Efebo lampadoforo’; the lamp-bearing ephebe), gold and instrumentum domesticum (pp. 117-374). This makes for exciting reading because it really catapults you into the house of the Polybii in 79 AD

The story of the excavation reported by Maria Oliva (pp. 375-380) is particularly evocative. Prof. Alfonso De Franciscis, in his capacity as Superintendent, gave her the responsibility of directing and documenting the excavation of Polybius' house, via sketches and the excavation diary. Oliva’s words, albeit brief, are full of the emotion felt when a piece of the history of Pompeii was unearthed and of her close relationship with her collaborators, the foreman, the restorers, and the workers.

Oliva’s report is followed by Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli’s retracing of the excavation stages (pp. 381-390), from the discovery of the facade and some rear rooms by Spinazzola (1910-23) to the systematic excavation launched by De Franciscis (1966-78). She relies heavily on the written and graphical documentation done by Oliva, which was so detailed and accurate as to enable to the unearthing of the domus to be reconstructed exactly.

The evidence of geological and biological surveys (mainly devoted to the reconstruction of the surroundings of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD) and research into the eruption of Vesuvius introduce a detailed reconstruction of the destruction of the house of Julius Polybius (pp. 391-438). Since the pyroclastic materials (mainly lapilli) filled the open-air rooms or caused, with their weight, the collapse of many front rooms of the house, the inhabitants sought shelter in the rear rooms of the house, where their remains were then found. The striking history of these events is admirably and vividly presented in the video reconstruction, which will be particularly enlightening for a “non-expert” audience.

DNA testing on the human remains has established the presence of eight boys and four girls. All 12 were seemingly Caucasoid, and six of them shared a common mother. The others were probably relatives who lived in the same house (pp. 439-466).

Thanks to good documentation and to the analyses already carried out during the excavation, it was possible to flesh out the reconstruction of the garden of the house of the Polybii (pp. 467-478). Along with some small plants contained in pots (perhaps exotic plants), there were also some trees belonging to the Rosaceae family (perhaps cherry, apple, or pear trees) and an olive tree recently planted. The garden had a fairly limited area, and therefore, according to this reconstruction, would have looked like a thick wood covered by the foliage of the five trees which were there. It was quite an unusual garden compared with the norm in Pompeii.2 Another victim of the eruption was also found in the garden: a tortoise, an animal that kept the Pompeian gardens free of small invertebrates. It was the only pet, whereas the other zoological remains (pp. 479-486) are related to consumption (pigs, cattle, deer).

Of great interest are the analyses carried out on the wood, textiles, and glass (pp.487-544). As ancient sources describe, the timber trade was very profitable and included the import of exotic species such as ebony and cedar. Because of their value, these woods were used for coating less valuable woods that, instead, were used for the structural parts of furniture and woodwork. The silver fir was employed a lot in Pompeii and Herculaneum, especially for beams, furniture, and tools, as it was at Polybius’ house. Unfortunately, the almost total destruction of the wood structures made it impossible to undertake formal analyses of the wooden furnishings. Therefore, the in-depth testing on the materials has played a key role.

The pages concerning the archeology of food are very innovative (pp. 545-556) and describe culinary and wine habits of the Romans (p. 557-566). Great attention is paid to the ancient sources, allowing for detailed comparison between the data provided by the excavations and the descriptions of ancient authors.

The last part of this book is devoted to a discussion about the dissemination and uses of cultural heritage, also through the new digital technologies available today (pp. 567-98). It is undeniable that modern tools and software allow for enhanced presentations and reconstructions that will attract people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, starting from primary schools. One needs to promote the knowledge of the past from an early stage, by stimulating curiosity for new discoveries and readings. At the same time, it is necessary to set up virtual voyages suitable for families or adults. As said above, this sort of multimedia experience accompanied the 2010 reopening of the House of Julius Polybius, with its new, guided walking itinerary.

The interest in reading this book lies not only in its conception and organization, but also in its detailed presentation of all the increasingly complex data on the house of the Polybii collected in recent years. Nowadays, the multidisciplinary approach is in fact the base for the holistic reconstruction of archaeological settings. While a few chapters include some repetitions in their introductory sections (e.g. the preliminary stages of the history of the excavations), we have to commend the fluency and ease of the analyses, results, and reconstructions. Even a casual fan of archeology can read this book without any difficulties. This is one of the most difficult challenges that our research area deals with, namely to be able to mediate between using the scientific language and finding the right way to popularize the material for a general audience. The iconographic contribution is very rich and essential for a proper overview of the materials examined and the reconstructions carried out, although these valuable images might have been more effective if placed within the text and not only at its end.

In summary, the book plays an important part in contributing to a more well-rounded knowledge of a complex of great importance in both scientific and didactic terms, valuable both for scholars and for visitors to the site. This is a further contribution that we hope will be a prelude to the reopening of the house and its reintegration into the archaeological park at Pompeii. It is the definitive synthesis of what is currently known about the house, and lays the groundwork for all future research.


Prefazione di Ernesto De Carolis e Claudio Rodolfo Salerno 9
Presentazione di Filippo Diasco 10
Transiti di luce di Claudio Rodolfo Salerno 11

Parte I
La musealizzazione della domus di Claudio Rodolfo Salerno e Isabella Amabile 19
Archeologia e Antropologia Sonora di Claudio Rodolfo Salerno e Paola Ricciardi 25
I suoni della domus di Fulvio Liuzzi 41
Il Fuoco, la Vita, gli Dei di Marcello Fiori 45
La collaborazione tra l’Istituto per la Diffusione delle Scienze Naturali e il Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate di Luigi Buffone, Vincenzo Di Martino, Nicola Germano, Antonio Stampone 51
Il laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate: la storia di Luigi Buffone, Vincenzo Di Martino, Nicola Germano, Antonio Stampone 57

Parte II
La domus di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 65
Il restauro di Marisa Mastroroberto 83
Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto: Giulio Polibio di Antonio Varone 95
I pavimenti di Maria Stella Pisapia 117
I marmi bianchi e le pietre colorate di Luigi Buffone, Stefano Cancelliere e Lorenzo Lazzarini 145
Gli apparati decorativi e pittorici di Ernesto De Carolis 181
Infissi ed Arredi di Ernesto De Carolis 219
I bronzi di Umberto Pappalardo 239
Le suppellettili dagli armadi di Mario Grimaldi 269
Gli ori di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 303
Le monete di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 311
Le lucerne di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 329
Tracce di vita quotidiana nell’instrumentum domesticum di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 351

Parte III
Ricordi dallo scavo di Maria Oliva 375
La storia dello scavo di Vincenzina Castiglione Morelli 381

Parte IV
Il territorio vesuviano nel 79 d.C. di Annamaria Ciarallo, Maria Rosaria Senatore, Jean Daniel Stanley 391
Le eruzioni pliniane e l’eruzione del 79 d.C. di Claudio Scarpati, Giuseppe Luongo, Annamaria Perrotta 407
La distruzione della Casa di Claudio Scarpati, Giuseppe Luongo, Annamaria Perrotta 419
Le vittime dell’eruzione di Ernesto De Carolis 439
Skeletal material di Maciej Henneberg e Renata Henneberg 449
Gli studi sul DNA antico di Marilena Cipollaro 463
Il giardino di Marta Mariotti Lippi 467
Studio Zooarcheologico di Angelo Genovese 479
I manufatti lignei di Marco Fioravanti, Rosanna Caramiello, Antonella Faccio 487
Analisi dei materiali organici di Giuseppe Scala, Antonio Stampone, Luigi Buffone 513
I vetri. Caratterizzazione, tecnologie di fabbricazione e provenienza di Stefano Cancelliere e Marco Verità 531

Parte V
Il cibo a Pompei di Antonello Rinaldi 545
Archeologia e cultura del vino di Ersilia e Federico Nappo 557

Auralità aumentata e godimento dei beni culturali di Cristian Fuschetto, Pasquale Napolitano, Stefano Perna 567
I percorsi dell’anima di Toni Afeltra e Isabella Amabile 573
Variazioni sensoriali ed educazione alimentare di Daniele Salerno 577
Appello contro la sofferenza degli animali 599
Curriculum dell’Istituto per la Diffusione delle Scienze Naturali 601
Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto per la Diffusione delle Scienze Naturali 607


1.   A. Ciarallo, E. De Carolis (edd.), La casa di Giulio Polibio - Studi interdisciplinari, Pompei, 2001; M. Oliva Auricchio, La casa di Giulio Polibio, Giornale di scavo 1966/1978, Pompei, 2001.
2.   Usually gardens furnished light and air, and facilitated communications between the various rooms arranged about them. There were trees, flowers and even some vegetables (W. F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii - Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, New Rochelle, NY, 1979, p. 25).

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