Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.04

Kaius Tuori, Laura Nissin (ed.), Public and Private in the Roman House and Society. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplementary series, 102.   Portsmouth, RI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2015.  Pp. 198.  ISBN 9780991373062.  £90.00.  

Reviewed by Anna Lucille Boozer, Baruch College, City University of New York (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

As is evident from the title, the present work explores the public/private dichotomy in Roman houses. A single volume providing case studies and a call to move forward on a narrow focus can do much to change the course of study. The introduction, a brief seven pages, introduces scholarship surrounding past and present studies of public and private in Roman houses as well as an overview of the papers included in the volume. Tuori, the author of the introduction, explains that the book aims to resolve the public/private quandary by examining Roman houses (1) as dynamic structures and (2) as evinced by written and material evidence (p. 12). Although both of these goals are hardly unique in the realm of domestic studies in recent decades,1 they offer a worthwhile approach to understanding the public/private dichotomy. While the stated focus is useful, the individual contributors do not tackle these goals evenly or consistently, although the themes of dynamism and public/private do echo throughout the volume.

A significant impediment to achieving the second aim, joining archaeological and written evidence, is that the archaeological evidence is rarely explored as thoroughly as it ought to be for a volume that aims to combine these two sources of evidence. Most of the contributors orient their scholarship towards textual sources, with only a minority having a central research focus upon archaeology or art history. While focused specialization is not problematic in and of itself, it hinders a volume that aims to integrate text and archaeology. The result is a volume with a number of strong papers that relate primarily to what texts tell us about Roman houses but which do not necessarily speak to a common theme or to the goals presented in the introduction.

The first section explores domestic space in Rome itself. Fertik offers an exploration of how Seneca’s De Clementia explains the populist aspects of the Domus Aurea; living in the public eye offered a mode for expressing the emperor’s power. This argument is certainly worth exploring more deeply in future studies, namely through a study of the Domus Aurea’s emplacement within the city of Rome. Steinby takes a longue durée approach to the archaeology of public space in the southeast corner of the Forum Romanum. Her contribution is, by far, the most archaeological among the selection of papers and it is unique for the chronological depth her study adds to this volume. Her argument, that private individuals shaped public monuments over a long period of time in the city of Rome, would have been strengthened by a lengthier theoretical engagement with the public/private theme. Russell’s article investigates the relationship between the domestic basilica and the better-known civic basilica, questioning the distinctions between the two. This contribution is one of the strongest in the volume, in particular because Russell emphasizes that the transfer of styles between “public” and “private” architecture goes in both directions. This intimate relationship suggests that there may also be closer links between “public” and “private” spaces, in this case between domestic and civic architecture, than is often explored. Her call to study both in tandem is a breath of fresh air.

“The dilemma of private homes and public functions” is the most cohesive section in the volume. This section offers one of the most natural methods of breaking apart divisions between public and private, exploring the use of domestic space for “public” functions and purposes. Bablitz and Perry both offer strong contributions that investigate the role of law in the home. Bablitz explores where legal hearings and judgements may have occurred within domestic settings. The House of the Faun offers an extended case study, although Bablitz is mindful that these spaces remained multi-functional. Perry explores Roman notions of public and private through the lens of the paterfamilias. In so doing, he investigates how private matters intertwine with public surveillance and engagement. Speksnijder’s chapter departs from the legal theme to explore salutationes. He argues that this ritualized morning greeting cannot be easily reduced to a public/private dichotomy. Rather, he explores salutationes from the more malleable perspective of visibility and accessibility. Contributions such as Speksnijder’s offer a productive and enlightening way out of self-imposed dichotomizing between public and private, an issue to which I will return at the end of this review.

The third section, “Re-examining domestic arrangements at Pompeii”, narrows focus to a single site, although the first contribution is actually concentrated on nearby Herculaneum. Nissin examines sleeping areas in houses from Herculaneum in the first chapter of this section. Although she acknowledges that most rooms were multi-use, she relies upon the label of “bedroom” throughout her contribution (p. 106). Problematic data collection by early excavators, the reinterpretation of both objects and contexts over the years, the multifunctional use of space in houses, and the multifaceted uses for a bed—all of which she mentions—should have generated more caution about using simple terms to label rooms. Despite this terminological flaw, the data Nissin gathers about bed placement itself remains useful. Simelius’ chapter also suffers from terminological awkwardness, using the term “private” throughout the contribution, even though he himself acknowledges in his final paragraph that the term is often problematic. Simelius finds scant evidence for the activities he would like to place in the peristyle, although he could have benefited from engagement with Bablitz’s chapter on legal activities in houses (or at least a cross-reference to the paper). Green’s chapter on the relationship between the human body and cooking duties offers a uniquely embodied focus for this volume and for Roman houses more broadly. Using a rich data set consisting of objects, architecture, and visual data, she argues convincingly for putting the body back into the domestic world. In so doing, she suggests a new method for understanding how Romans received and interpreted status. While Green’s study is satisfying in and of itself, an integration of what literary sources tell us about the bodies and postures of servants would be a useful follow-up study.

The fourth section asks the straw man question, “Were there ‘Roman houses’ beyond Italy?”, which remains unanswered and unexplored. I will live dangerously and say “yes”. The first of two chapters in this section, by Cribiore, examines a Late Roman house from Amheida, Egypt. Her chapter begins by focusing on a room with a dipinto relating to education. She constructs a convincing argument that these texts are vehicles for expressing paideia and discusses the value that education held among elite householders living in the Roman Empire. Like others in the volume Cribiore argues that other rooms within the house proper were multifunctional, but falls into the trap of using labels such as “dining room”, “bedroom” and so forth. The way out of the labeling problem depends upon descriptions of how inhabitants used rooms, which, in turn, depends upon using the full suite of evidence at our disposal.2 Engagement with the archaeological evidence would have helped Cribiore avoid errors such as the one she makes in her fourth footnote, in which she erroneously claims that there are no houses of more than one story in Egypt.3 Despite these problems, Cribiore’s discussion of education at the start of her chapter is convincing. The second contribution, by Hilder, uses space syntax analysis to examine Late Roman houses at Volubilis in Morocco. Space syntax analysis is a wonderful tool for determining the integration (or segregation) of spaces and suggesting show how likely it was for individuals to encounter one another in passing. Hilder demonstrates that central courtyards, for example, offer accessible hubs for encounters, while commercial activities were typically more segregated. Such an analysis introduces the inhabitant’s own perspective on expectations of privacy. This contribution suggests that the scholarly divide between public and private may be less nuanced than it ought to be.

Wallace-Hadrill rounds out the volume with an epilogue entitled “What makes a Roman house a ‘Roman house’?”. This query is timeless and yet it is useful to pause once again and question what we mean by a broad typological category that ranges across time, environments, peoples, and traditions. Wallace-Hadrill offers useful musings on some of the central issues that we grapple with when dealing with such philosophical queries. His observation that “what we call ‘Hellenization’ makes the Romans not less Roman but more so” (p. 181) is apt and reminds us that mutability and entanglement are critical components of any culture. In fact, change defines culture and allows us to capture it, if only fleetingly (p. 178). Wallace-Hadrill concludes his chapter by providing insights into the common use of elite houses as a means of communicating power among the elite across the empire, suggesting that this common usage is what makes a Roman house a ‘Roman house’. This conclusion connects to Cribiore’s own contribution, which suggests that elite householders used their houses, and the spaces adjacent to them, to cultivate and communicate status.

While “Public and Private in the Roman House and Society” offers a number of very strong papers on houses and their role in Roman society, the volume falls short of its stated goals to integrate archaeological and textual evidence and to illuminate the public/private dichotomy. Several contributors have shown, however, that there are often more pertinent questions to ask of Roman houses. For example, exploring the integration and segregation of rooms helps us to determine connectivity in a household or community (Hilder), while the visibility of visitors (Speksnijder) and the postures of domestic servants (Green) illuminates the performative and embodied aspects of domestic life. Likewise, the contributions that query divisions between public and private architecture (Russell) and “public” law in the home (Bablitz, Perry) suggest the benefits of seeing beyond rigid academic categories. These new insights are worth exploring more deeply in future studies because they center upon the experiences of the inhabitants rather than our own self-imposed categories of analysis. Indeed, in light of such arguments, it is worthwhile wondering if public/private is the right question ask of Roman houses.

The volume contributions are well-written and illustrated. There are a few copyediting mistakes but none are grievous. The chapters from this volume would be useful for graduate and select undergraduate teaching in addition to specialist research. In sum, this book offers a useful addition to studies of Roman houses, although perhaps not in the way that was intended.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Investigating public and private in the Roman house, Kaius Tuori 7
Interaction of public and domestic space in the heart of Rome
2. Privacy and power: the De Clementia and the Domus Aurea, Harriet Fertik 17
3. Transformations of public space at the Lacus Iuturnae, Eba Margareta Steinby 31
4. Domestic and civic basilicas: between public and private space, Amy Russell 49
The dilemma of private homes and public functions
5. Bringing the law home: The Roman house as courtroom, Leanne Bablitz 63
6. The paterfamilias and the family council in Roman public law, Matthew Perry 77
7. Beyond ‘public’ and ‘private’: accessibility and visibility during salutationes, Simon Speksnijder 87
Re-examining domestic arrangements in Pompeii
8. Sleeping areas in the houses of Herculaneum, Laura Nissin 101
9. Activities in Pompeii’s private peristyles: the place of the peristyle in the public/private dichotomy, Samuli Simelius 119
10. Cooking class, F. Mira Green 133
Were there “Roman houses” beyond Italy
11. Multifunctionality of spaces in a Late Roman house in Egypt, Raffaella Cribiore 149
12. Inner space: the integration of domestic space at Volubilis in the 3rd c A.D., Jennifer Hilder 161
13. What makes a Roman house a “Roman house”?, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill 177
General Index 187
Index of sites and individual houses 189
Index locorum 192


1.   On merging archaeology and text in Roman domestic archaeology, see: P. M. Allison, “Labels for Ladles: Interpreting the Material Culture of Roman Households,” in P. M. Allison (ed.), The Archaeology of Household Activities (London, 1999), pp. 57-77; L. C. Nevett, Domestic Space in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, 2010). On the dynamic nature of Roman households, see: M. Harlow and R. Laurence, Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life Course Approach (London, 2001).
2.   In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the archaeologists who excavated this structure and authored portions of an interim report, a dissertation, and publications on this house. For a full list of publications relating to this house and other houses at Amheida, see
3.   Karanis and Soknopaiou Nesos, among other sites, have numerous multistory houses: A. E. R. Boak and E. E. Peterson, Karanis: Topographical and Architectural Report of Excavations during the Seasons 1924-28 (Ann Arbor, 1931); E. M. Husselman, Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt, 1928 -1935: Topography and Architecture: A Summary of the Reports of the Director, Enoch E. Peterson (Ann Arbor, 1979); A. E. R. Boak et al., Soknopaiou Nesos: The University of Michigan excavations at Dimê in 1931-32 (Ann Arbor, 1935).

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