Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.10

Jeremy Hartnett, The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome.   New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xv, 380; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781107105706.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Bruce Longenecker, Baylor University (


Studying the Roman street enhances our understanding of the urban centers of the Greco-Roman world. This conviction drives Jeremy Hartnett's careful study that teems with information and insight as it interweaves the literary and archaeological data pertaining to the reconstruction of the Roman street in urban contexts. This contribution to the recent surge of scholarly interest in Roman thoroughfares is an expansion of Hartnett's doctoral research.

With its nine color plates and ninety-three black-and-white figures, the book is organized into three main parts: 1. Repopulating the Street; 2. The Street and Its Architectural Border; and 3. The Street in Microcosm. These main sections are introduced by an initial essay that trains the reader to expect Roman streets to have been vibrantly bustling spaces in which social identities were negotiated. This is the spine that runs throughout Hartnett's intriguing reconstructions, which imaginatively interpret architectural components of the street in relation to the social construction of identity in the public arena. In this project, the streets serve as the structures and props of staging upon which social identities and relationalities are played out. Of course, there was a myriad of social scripts being enacted on Roman streets, which, in Hartnett's work, is precisely what makes the streets so interesting. As Hartnett's investigations repeatedly illustrate, what usually yokes those diverse scripts together is the pursuit of status (either the enhancement of ascribed honor or the accumulation of acquired honor)—that pursuit being the "fire in the bones" (so Carlin Barton) that drove so much of the Greco-Roman world. Hartnett notes potential complications to his enterprise, including urban differences due to spatial or temporal separation. To avoid over-generalization, he selects the urban sites at the base of Mount Vesuvius as his case study, drawing on other archaeological resources when the Vesuvian data run thin.

Three chapters fill out the first part of the book, with its interest in "repopulating the street." The first chapter ("Street Forms, Street Movements") sets out some basic characteristics of streets and what it would have been like to travel along them. Although "there was no 'typical' street" (p. 32), Hartnett reconstructs a general sense of hustling and chaotic busyness as a common experience for these corridors of movement. "Life in the Street" (ch. 2) places people and incidents on those streets, including "the street's role as gathering spot, improvised economic zone, and parade route, among others" (p. 46). Here, Hartnett reconstructs a panoply of situations (e.g., loiterers, sex traders, sellers of goods, public entertainers, beggars, participants in neighborhood devotional practices, people processing for various reasons, etc.), even including sound-scapes and smell-scapes in his analysis. Chapter 3 ("The Street's Social Environment") presses more deeply into the dynamics of social interaction on the street. In many ways, the heart of Hartnett's project pumps most strongly throughout this chapter, as it reconstructs the negotiation of status in characteristic moments of social exchange on Roman streets.

The second part of the book comprises three chapters dedicated to "the street and its architectural border," where architectural decor along streets is explored in relation to the social presentation of identities. "Sidewalks under Siege" (ch. 4) explores the architectural features of residences/workshops along the street (e.g., sidewalks, ramps, street-axis views). In particular, it takes note of various strategies in which householders used those features to stake claims of achievement and status on the one hand and, on the other hand, the ways in which streetgoers sometimes employed counter-strategies to erode the forcefulness of those claims. These emphases carry on into the longest chapter, "House Façades and the Architectural Language of Self-Presentation" (ch. 5), where residential façades are shown to mediate "between interior and exterior, individual and communal, protection and display" (p. 147). Even if interior and exterior spaces were conceptualized as distinct spheres with different aesthetic criteria, they were nonetheless recognized as interrelated spaces, with external façades often interacting with the presentations evidenced in the interior displays (for instance, when exterior walls give clues as to what lay inside; or when a more restrained mode of self-expression is evident on the façade, in muted relation to the displays of the interior). Chapter six ("The 'In' and the 'Out',") extends these interests further, focusing in particular on the phenomenon of streetside benches, with "at least 100 benches front[ing] 69 different properties" in Pompeii (p. 195). Rather than solely being seats upon which clients sat while waiting to see their patrons, benches served a wide range of functions. Most of those functions, however, coalesced around signaling the generosity of a benefactor who kindheartedly provided seating to assist the local populace—signals that often resulted in pushback from others who were less enamored with the implicit claims of status signaled by street benches.

Making up the book's third part are two chapters that "[dig] deeper into the stories of neighborhood residents and their efforts at shaping the built environment at two particular locations" (p. 223). Chapter seven ("On the Edge of the Civic,") reconstructs the mish-mash of life along the (so-called) Decumanus Maximus of Herculaneum, between Cardo III and Cardo IV. Here, Hartnett elaborates archaeological and literary data to reconstruct the life "stories" of three prominent individuals (i.e., an aedile, an Augustalis, and Venidius Ennychus from the House of the Black Salon). In Hartnett's realistic reconstructions, these people were drawn like magnets to this sector of the town, where the interests of the social elite predominated. Hartnett also offers "four additional vignettes" of a less defined quality, drawing out more of the bustle of life within this sector of the town. "A Contentious Commercial Street in Pompeii" (chapter eight) offers a similar reconstruction of life "stories"—in this case, a broader range of stories with a greater preponderance of sub-elite people along one stretch of Pompeii's Via dell'Abbondanza (between IX.7 and IX.11; the stories center around a neighborhood shrine, four barmaids, Gaius Julius Polybius, Paquius Proculus, and various artisans and merchants). Here inscriptional evidence reveals the flux of statuses coalescing in vibrant multidimensional conversations among people of various prosopographic profiles. Notable again, however, is "the impact and visibility of leading figures [who]…permeated the urban fabric and offered reminders aplenty of the power structures" that operated within Pompeii (p. 295), even in a location that had no special civic significance.

A brief epilogue concludes the book with a reiteration of its goal, "to set people and their physical environment in dialogue, to animate the buildings that we encounter on site and to watch people shape them, interact amidst them, and be impressed, frustrated, comforted, intimidated, or bruised by them" (p. 298). In the end, Hartnett captures something of the essence of his contribution in these words: "This was the double-edged sword of the street; it offered both an audience and a set of critics" (p. 301).

There are only a few blemishes in this otherwise robust contribution to the study of the Roman street. The enumeration of figures and plates is on rare occasions incorrect—so the reference to "Figs. 33, 34" should be "Figs. 32, 33" on p. 132, while references to "Plate VIII" should be "Plate V" on pp. 263 and 266. The name "Zmyrina" is misspelled "Zmryina" once on p. 105. And in view of the relatively encyclopedic analysis of everything pertaining to the streets in the Vesuvian towns, it is surprising that Hartnett makes nothing of one "not uncommon" feature found along some Pompeian streets—that is, the single notched step that, in certain neighborhoods at least, was carved into curb stones, allowing pedestrians to step up from roadbed to the pedestrian pavement conveniently, usually at entryways to impressive residences (e.g., VI.6.1 and VI.17.32).

If that is a relatively minor lacuna, it nonetheless has a consequent impact on Hartnett's presentation of a more significant aspect of Pompeian streets—that is, the extent to which filth covered the roadbeds. On this score, Hartnett seems caught in the bind that captures much Vesuvian scholarship. When his argument benefits from filthy roadbeds, there they are (e.g., pp. 39, 70-73); when his argument requires more nuancing, the roadbeds are cleaner and much more accessible to pedestrians (e.g., pp. 125, 137, 238-39). Clearly the streets of Pompeii were not models of cleanliness, but when the full range of evidence is taken into consideration (including the notched steps from roadbeds to pavements in front of elite residences), it seems advisable to err on the side of imagining a functional respectability to the roadbeds in many instances (certainly not always, and certainly not everywhere along them). The complaints of Greco-Roman authors about the filthy conditions of streets operate on the assumption that things should be better—not least, perhaps, in view of the expectation that householders were responsible for the condition of pavements and roadbeds in front of their properties (as in the Tabula Heracleensis II.20-28, which is rightly recognized on p. 123 as having applied "responsibility over the roadbed to individual owners"; see also pp. 125, 201). Accordingly, when first-century audiences read Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, for instance, and heard that the residents of urban centers throughout Asia Minor "flocked in and packed the street to see her [the beautiful Callirhoe]" (Book 4; trans. Reardon), they probably were not to imagine that the masses were in fact standing shin-deep in filth. Hartnett is on fruitful ground when he rightly explores how self-presentation in the public sphere was enhanced for those householders who took their civic-mindedness seriously by ensuring that the roadbed in front of their properties was more respectable than the roadbed in front of the properties on either side (p. 125). Here, the cleanliness of the roadbed is recognized as having been part of the game of status capture. But this only problematizes the somewhat lazy description of roadbeds as inevitably mired in "glop" (p. 73). If there are two sides of this issue, Hartnett exposes both at different parts in his discourse but does not articulate a careful synthesis of them, leaving almost a Jekyll and Hyde situation for his readers to decipher.1

Nonetheless, this is a splendid book that exercises the imagination with regard to the minutiae of social encounters and self-presentation in the public sphere of the Roman street. In Hartnett's work, the Roman street comes alive, populated by people adept at adjudicating status claims and negotiating the register of social honor. Finely written, carefully conceived, and superbly executed, The Roman Street will sit comfortably alongside other stimulating contributions to the study of the Roman world and, in particular, the urban centers of Pompeii and Herculaneum.


1.   For a presentation on Pompeian streets and their cleanliness or otherwise, see Bruce W. Longenecker, The crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-devotion in a Vesuvian town (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), pp. 239-47.

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