Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.22

Eric E. Poehler, The Traffic Systems of Pompeii.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xviii, 276.  ISBN 9780190614676 (hb).  $85.00.  


Reviewed by Peter Keegan, Macquarie University (peter.keegan@mq.edu.au)

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What every reader who engages even cursorily with this book will recognise very quickly is how invested in making thoroughgoing sense of his subject Poehler is. The Traffic Systems of Pompeii reflects not only the technical prowess he brings to bear on identifying, analysing and evaluating a set of complex material data collated across sites in the Mediterranean Roman world, but also his close, critical attention to and contextualisation of the meanings and implications of the less-than-transparent legal, literary, epigraphic, historical, and art-historical sources. But Poehler’s achievement is more than simply descriptive and technical: his abiding enthusiasm for the unique capacities of archaeology and the site of Pompeii to answer particular historical questions, his desire to provide a heuristic methodological paradigm for classifying typologies of traffic system in the wider Roman world, and his convincing demonstration that the culmination of a project two decades in the making will inspire other researchers to seek out the gaps in history—altogether, these various parts speak to a nuanced, stimulating, and profoundly larger whole.

A closely argued introduction takes to task the manifold myths that have evolved (wilfully or incidentally) about ancient traffic: what constituted the base elements of the thoroughfare in antiquity, how ruts in the surface of the street were formed, what regulations (if any) existed to govern the movement of vehicles or the activities associated with different types of road transport, to what extent people in the ancient world evinced particular attitudes to wheeled transport, and the degree to which streets and traffic were subject to civic management.

Chapter Two outlines the development of Pompeii’s urban street network, the layout of streets defining the shape of the city from the archaic age to the colonial, Augustan, and post-earthquake/s periods. This overview of the city’s development in relation to the formal organisation of street alignments includes a compelling reformulation of the traditional model of Pompeii’s evolution, which eschews the problematic theories of irregular civic planning (from Altstadt to Neustadt) and cultural factors (in the main, chronological and topographical) in favour of “a single master plan for all of Pompeii at the beginning of the fourth century BCE” (p.63).

The next three chapters provide a dense micro-archaeological study of the form of the Pompeian street. Chapter Three examines the gradual development of street surfaces (beaten ash, cobblestones, lava stone, debris) and the social imperatives mitigating their use and substitution. It is interesting to note the extent to which some (certainly not all) residents of the city selected particular surfaces (like cocciopesto or pebble) to express ideas about personal and family status (wealth, ownership, influence, and even aesthetic discernment). Chapter Four considers how questions about the physical contours of the urban fabric and the varying ways in which land was used over the long period of settlement of the site impacted the architectural shape of Pompeii’s streets. Poehler’s close study of street architecture—curbstones, stepping stones, and, in particular, the 370 enigmatic stones standing against the city’s curbstones, which the author calls guard stones—demonstrates neatly and effectively the existence and spread of traffic circulating through the city, the attention paid to personal safety and care for civic infrastructure, and the ways in which the street environment evolved and improved over time. Chapter Five studies the relationships between the movement of vehicles and the primary elements of the Pompeian streetscape. This study comprises a technical analysis of very particular data about ruts, rut pairs, and varieties and patterns of wear on street features, contextualised in relation to evidence for the types and construction of Roman two- and four-wheeled vehicles and Oscan/Roman measurements. Poehler is careful here to temper his claims about the usefulness of the Pompeian data—namely, to determine the sizes of vehicles using the streets and the direction in which traffic moved through the city—with a discussion of how less clear evidence affects interpretative certainty. In all, the chapter succeeds in its aim to provide “a kind of detachable handbook for the identification and evaluation of evidence for traffic at other archaeological sites” (p. 103).

Chapter Six moves beyond the purely descriptive to explore the concept of Pompeii’s traffic as belonging to a system (or systems) in historical terms. This is not a simple task, given that the idea of a traffic system cannot be interrogated in the literary sources. That said, Poehler approaches the research problem from a typically archaeological perspective, construing the data compiled in the preceding chapters as an assemblage of information through which to view the structure of the street network, the one- or two-way directionality of street movement, and the evolution of this system during the periods of city settlement.

The following two chapters build on the archaeological heart of the preceding ‘assemblage’ to assay the degree to which the available evidence supports understanding of “how such a complex system might have been created and maintained” (p. 188). Chapter Seven takes an imaginative turn, coopting Sabinus the muleteer (the subject of the tenth poem of the Vergilian Catalepton) as the reader’s guide to the world of the mulio. Poehler uses Sabinus to observe three situations, otherwise unattested directly in the surviving epigraphic, literary, or historical record, that help to reconstruct civic management of Pompeii’s traffic system: that is, by means of social networks, by seeing and interpreting the streetscape and associated activity, and through access to sources of relevant and related information (inscriptions, maps, hired guides). Chapter Eight applies this imaginative template to the wider Roman world, exploring the relationship between Pompeii’s traffic system and urban history. Doing so entails comparison of evidence for traffic found at 24 Mediterranean sites—located in Algeria, France, Greece, Italy, and Turkey—in relation to questions about which side traffic moved on two-way streets and if there were streets limited to a single direction. Such a wide-ranging comparative study affords Poehler an opportunity to formulate a brief history of Roman traffic management in law and practice—a significant contribution to the broader history of Roman urbanism during the republican and imperial periods.

A brief conclusion situates the value of the preceding examination of archaeological evidence for the traffic systems of Pompeii within the history of urban spaces in Roman Italy and the provinces, and points the way forward to confirming the presence of such systems both at already excavated city sites and at others still to be unearthed. A concise, carefully curated bibliography, a general index, as well as 76 figures (maps, photographs of archaeological sites, architectural features, and elements of street construction) and 13 tables of data (street feature distribution and correlation, evidence for street driving preferences and directionality), supplement the text.

In sum, The Traffic Systems of Pompeii is an exemplary product of Poehler’s long-term engagement with the archaeology of urban spaces, his particular focus on the streets of Pompeii, and his desire to understand an aspect of human behaviour in socio-historical and cultural terms. Grounded in a corpus of evidence that simultaneously circumvents the lacunae of the literary, epigraphic, and documentary record and enhances knowledge derived from such sources, this volume should be mandatory reading for every student of the ancient world who despairs at the apparent insolubility of historical questions, who argues against the subordinate position of archaeology in discussions of human activity, and who seeks a theoretical and methodological guide to best practice in making sense of the past.

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