BMCR 1998.01.20

98.1.20, The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii

, , The insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 1, The structures. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997. 1 online resource (412 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780585313917.

This is the first of three projected volumes that aim to furnish a full analysis of one city block of Pompeii: Regio I, insula 10. Whereas this volume concentrates on its architecture and its structural history, the second will consider interior decoration and the third the loose finds. The project began under the directorship of the late J.B. Ward-Perkins in 1978 and continued with a large team of researchers for seven two-month seasons. Never has so much time and expertise been concentrated on any area of Pompeii (not even in the original excavation of the insula, conducted between 1927 and 1933); indeed the Ward-Perkins-Ling project boasted a “dream team” of sorts, with architects and draftspersons to analyze the structures, with archaeologists to date existing walls and floors, and with experts on wall-painting, mosaics, and pottery to study decoration and loose finds. If only that team had been in place during the hurried original excavations! Now Ling’s task is a daunting one—that of pulling together the enormous amount of data gathered during the seven years of study and shaping it into a consistent, coherent account.

The author’s aim, then, is to fill an embarrassing gap in Pompeian archaeology by tracing the history of this block from earliest times to the eruption of AD 79, a gap created by rapid excavations aimed at uncovering and the restoring the structures for a public eager to see Pompeii as it was at the time of its destruction. Pompeii has seen little excavation aimed at tracing what people built on the land over the span of the many centuries of the city’s history. The excavation of Regio I, insula 10—hasty and bound to the year 79—is no exception; furthermore, little was left in the way of documentation. Amedeo Maiuri’s two-volume work on the House of the Menander focussed on the showy house, its painted and mosaic decoration, and its silver hoard, but Maiuri is sketchy and often contradictory in his account of the history of the house, let alone the entire insula. 1 Olga Elia’s lengthy account of the whole insula adheres to higher standards but is essentially descriptive. 2 Neither author addresses the structural history of the insula, and documentation is scant.

To address the lack of documentation the British team produced an archive of drawings at 1:5 of surviving wall paintings, and made plans, sections, and elevations at 1:50 of the architecture. They supplemented the drawings with a full range of color and black-and-white photographs. Indeed, that part of the archive appearing in this volume reveals the high standards of the team and will provide a solid foundation for the second objective of the project: to gain a better understanding of the social life of the city.

Ling’s claim, that his project goes beyond several existing studies, seems a valid one. The magisterial 1936 study of VIII, 2 by Noack and Lehmann focuses entirely on the unusual multi-story architectural structures to the exclusion of their decoration; the ongoing Häuser in Pompeji series has produced careful documentation of individual houses and their decoration to the exclusion of their building history; and the University of Perugia,s study of Regions VI, 3 and VI, 4 establishes stratigraphy, but the insulae are poorly preserved and lack decoration. All fail to look thoroughly at the interrelationships between different properties over time, how schemes of decoration and their iconographies relate to other Pompeian examples, and what the distribution and location of the loose finds can tell.

Ling’s aim—once all three volumes will have appeared—is no less than “to draw some general conclusions about the social structure of the insula, both in its historical evolution and its final form.” (2) Volume 1 contains the kind of information that yields least well to social-historical analysis, whereas the volume concerned with interior decoration and perhaps that on the loose finds and the instrumentum domesticum should provide the needed information to answer questions about patronage, taste, social status, and belief systems.

Ling sets out problems of interpretation and dating at the beginning (17-20) and they are many: existing walls and pavements that disallow excavation beneath them, reused building materials that make newer walls look like older ones, and the fact that Pompeians used incertum and reticulatum contemporaneously. Restorations in the 1930s create further problems, since restorers rarely marked their interventions. The clearest terminus is the earthquake of 62, and some repairs to the structures of the insula can be distinguished.

The most precise dating tools are wall painting and mosaics, and the insula preserves paintings of the First Style (150-80 BC the Late Second Style (45-30 BC the Third Style (15 BC-AD 45), early Fourth Style (45-62) and late, or post-earthquake Fourth (62-79). Pavements offer similar, though less precise, dating ranges, and include the cement floors in opus signinum ( cocciopesto) and lavapesta common in the second and first centuries BC (some decorated with grids of tesserae usually associated with the First Style), true mosaics with polychrome insets or emblemata of the periods of the First and Second Styles, black-and-white tessellated mosaics of the late Second Style, and late first-century BC pavements with fragments of colored marble.

Dating is a consistent concern of the volume, so that at the end of the discussion of each structure, Ling summarizes the building’s phases. The earliest phases are usually associated with opera a telaio (now lowered to third and early second centuries BC rather than going back to the fourth and third centuries BC, as Ling had stated in his preliminary report of 1983). Later phases are then based on the occurrence of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Styles.

The bulk of the book, Part 2, is devoted to the examination of the individual houses (21-219). Ling begins by describing each dwelling in its final state under the following rubrics: ground floor, upper story and roofs, drainage and water collection. He then provides a structural history, ending with a summary of phases. He subdivides the largest house, that of the Menander, by areas: “The Atrium Complex,” “The Peristyle Complex,” “The Kitchen Quarter,” and “The Stableyard Area and Staff Quarters.” He brings this description of the separate parts together in two further sections of the development and functioning of the House of the Menander and on its ownership. These sections make for the most interesting reading, since here Ling proposes solutions, based on the best available evidence, for vexing questions about the radical changes in the house over its long life (200 BC-AD 79).

Ling’s account of the changes to the House of the Menander over time demonstrates how careful observation can provide a detailed history of a building. He shows how the house expanded westward in the early years of the Second Style to include the Casa del Fabbro, so that it became a two-atrium house—an arrangement cancelled in the period of the late Third Style. Around AD 60 the owner was able to demolish the earlier houses in the southeast part of the insula to create luxurious reception spaces along the east wing of the peristyle—including the enormous oecus 18—as well as a stable, stableyard, and service quarters on two stories. Post-earthquake repairs to the caldarium of the bath preserved its late Second-Style floor but replaced the paintings on three of its walls; the remainder of the suite was leveled for rebuilding.

In his discussion of the functions of rooms, Ling goes beyond the usual accounts of the spaces for the master and his family to assess the entire service quarters, demonstrating that it housed a large staff of slaves. He ends this section with a lucid account of how in the period of the Second Style the architect planned axial views. Unfortunately, Ling’s discussion is separated by many pages from the appropriate illustrations, so that one of the most interesting and oft-discussed features of the house is buried. Ling’s is a synthesis of previous scholarly discussions (140-142).

On the question of ownership, Ling rightly rejects Della Corte’s creation of an owner named Q. Poppaeus Sabinus, although he admits the possibility that the owner was a Q. Poppaeus. Counter to Maiuri, he believes that rather than abandoning it after the earthquake of 62, the owner of the House of the Menander was actively completing a large redecoration program at the time of the eruption (142-144).

The other significant houses in the insula, the Casa del Fabbro and the Casa degli Amanti, receive similar, in-depth treatment in this volume, as do each of the smaller, unnamed houses and shop spaces. In part three Ling discusses the insula as a whole (224-253), providing a structural history followed by a full discussion of its implications. With Georgia Clarke, Ling authored Appendix A, a catalogue accounting for all of the rooms within the insula (257-324). Each paragraph is an entry, with room numbers assigned to all spaces save features such as the fauces and atrium. The degree of detail is astounding, and although full description of wall painting and mosaic will be saved for volume two, all of the information needed for accurate dating appears here. Paul Arthur’s Appendix B maps 100 pieces of pottery embedded in walls with the aim of employing this analysis for dating purposes (325-331). He fails to achieve this goal with precision, since it would be necessary to remove the pieces from the walls in order to date them precisely. Lesley A. Ling’s Appendix E attempts to ascertain from the evidence of thresholds and doorways which rooms were locked from the inside and which from the outside (336-341).

This volume, in the end, is for the archaeologist who specializes in problems of chronology. It is the science of archaeology that the author and his team have brought to bear on the remains, not the art of putting human beings back into their shops and dwellings. If the buildings that the British team so meticulously analyzed fail to come to life, it is because they and the author believe that by scrutinizing every detail of the physical evidence one can construct a more accurate history of the insula than that provided by the original excavators. To a certain extent they have succeeded, but the question remains whether the Herculean efforts of his team of experts substantially amplify the conclusions already made on the basis of less perfect and much more rapid work. The author admits throughout the limits of chronological accuracy in the very nature of the dating evidence; without digging up and dismantling existing structures the construction history will continue to pose unanswered questions.

I wonder if the next volume, which will present the decoration of the buildings in the insula, will delve into questions of patronage. After all, the accomplishments of social art history in other periods rest on questioning why a patron paid to have an artist create specific visual representations. I, for my part, have found this line of inquiry to be the best way to understand the acculturation of the ancient Romans. 3 If I find, for example, three central pictures whose subject matter comes from the Trojan cycle painted in ala 4 of the House of the Menander, I can ask questions about the owner’s taste, his literary and artistic culture, and the kind of impression he wished to have on visitors to his house. My experience with this approach has revealed both its advantages and its pitfalls. No art or architecture exists in a vacuum, and it is the task of the social historian to recreate the fullest possible context surrounding the art. He or she must ask: Who paid for it? (patron); Who saw it? (viewer); Who made it? (artist/architect); Under what circumstances did the viewer see it? (reception and ritual); What other artistic forms does it resemble? (iconographic models). Although these questions seem simple, they are difficult to answer well. The art historian must go out on a limb if he/she wishes to pursue such a line of inquiry.

The alternative is to adhere to entirely “scientific”—meaning positivist—methods of gathering hard information and analyzing it with rigor. In this volume we see the results: a refinement of chronology and accurate reconstructions of built forms, but little sense of the lives of the inhabitants let alone their tastes, culture, and beliefs. I hope that the story will get more exciting with the next two volumes, for this one falls short of the project’s most interesting goal, to gain a better understanding of the social life of the city.

1. Amedeo Maiuri, La Casa del Menandro e il suo tesoro di argenteria (2 vols., Rome, 1936).

2. Olga Elia, “Pompei: Relazione sullo scavo dell’ Insula X della Regio I,”NSc (1934): 264-344, pls. 9-13.

3. This was my approach in The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 BC-AD 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration (Berkeley, 1991) where I devoted 23 pages to discussing the meanings of paintings and mosaics of the House of the Menander, and in Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 BC-AD 250 (Berkeley, 1998), where I study the mosaics of the baths of the House of the Menander in detail.