BMCR 2000.10.09

Roman Housing

, Roman housing. London: Duckworth, 2000. 224 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715628771 £40.00.

Despite the reawakened interest in the study of Roman domestic space, there has been no general introduction to the topic since Alexander McKay’s Houses, Villas, and Palaces in the Roman World 25 years ago. Recent monographs on the topic, though exemplary, have been limited in scope by region (Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum) or housing type (Mielsch’s Die römische Villa), and almost always exhibit a bias (understandable, given the archaeological record) towards upper-class housing. Simon Ellis’ ambitious new book, based on over twenty years of research, is an attempt to fill in these gaps; indeed, the work claims to be “the first empire-wide, overall introduction to Roman housing, covering all provinces and social classes, from the origins of Rome to the sixth century AD.” (1) The breadth of focus is certainly to be admired, but there are real drawbacks to a book that attempts to cover so much ground in less than 200 pages of actual text. At times, keeping up with Ellis’ breathless tour, from house to house, and province to province, becomes a real test of the reader’s stamina; the regrettable infrequency of visual aids makes the tour even harder to follow, and all too often our patience is tested as we listen to a detailed analysis of a house for which no architectural plan is provided. In spite of these shortcomings, both scholar and student can learn a good deal from this book, which offers a wide-ranging and up-to-date survey of many of the important issues in the archaeology of the ancient Roman house.

The first chapter serves as a general introduction to the topic, both acquainting the reader with the vocabulary of the Roman aristocratic dwelling, and setting out some of the primary interpretive questions that await the student of the Roman house. Chief among these questions is the very possibility of the category “Roman housing.” Since the Roman empire encompassed such a variety of ethnicities and cultural traditions, not to mention climates (clearly a factor in ancient housing, and a topic that Ellis might have addressed in greater detail), it is rather difficult to pinpoint a set of characteristics that defined the Roman house. The OCD, for example, has no single entry on Roman housing; the Italian townhouse, so familiar from Pompeii and Herculaneum, is treated under the heading “housing, Italian”, while a discussion of housing in the provinces is left to the “villa” entry. But, as this book makes clear, not all Roman-style provincial houses can be categorized as villas; most of the African evidence, for example, is urban. Aware of these difficulties, Ellis offers a working definition: “The Roman house, which most citizens of the Roman Empire aspired to, was one with a large richly decorated reception room opening onto a central colonnaded courtyard or peristyle” (10). Inevitably, this definition will exclude certain vernacular styles of housing that were contained within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, but that is perhaps appropriate. More problematic is the fact that this definition excludes the dwellings of the many Roman citizens who could not afford a house of such design, leaving us with a definition somewhat narrower than the book’s stated focus. These are problems that Ellis is quite aware of, and I only mention them to give the reader a sense of how difficult a problem he has tackled.

Also in the introduction is Ellis’ justification for his emphasis on the material remains to the virtual exclusion of the copious literary commentary on Roman housing. Since ancient authors did not write with future archaeologists in mind, their testimony is rarely reliable or concrete enough for us to be able to reconstruct the environments they are describing. Yet the fact that we cannot escape Pliny’s agenda when reading his tour of the Laurentine villa (Ep. 2.17) does not make that letter any less valuable as a commentary on Roman housing. As Ellis himself acknowledges, ancient authors have much to say about how Roman domestic spaces were experienced, and archaeologists sometimes underestimate the value of this testimony; on the whole, greater attention to the literary evidence would have been particularly helpful in a book where the visual production leaves much to be desired.

At 50 pages, the second chapter (“Houses of Pretension”) represents just over a quarter of the book’s length. By using such an inclusive title (transcending boundaries both urban and rural, Roman and provincial), Ellis is not only able to draw together a wide range of disparate archaeological evidence but can also attempt to connect two important developments that are not usually considered in tandem: the decline of the atrium house in Italy at the end of the republic and the diffusion of Roman architectural features — in particular, the peristyle and richly decorated reception room — as both instrument and evidence of the Romanization of the provinces. Although it is for us the most familiar feature of the ancient Roman house, the atrium in fact fell out of use at the end of the republican period and almost completely disappeared from houses of new construction by the end of the first century AD. Gradually the focal point of the Roman house became the peristyle, an open space with a colonnaded walkway ( porticus) on at least one side. Despite the fact that the peristyle later became a marker of Romanitas in the provinces, the form is actually Greek in origin (hence the term, peristylium) and its rise coincided with the Hellenization of the Roman aristocracy. In his treatment of the topic, Ellis includes an interesting discussion of the peristyle in the Greek domestic context, although he never makes it clear whether he believes that the Roman domestic peristyle is a direct descendant of its Greek counterpart. In any case, the influence of Greek public spaces — the stoa and the gymnasium in particular — seems underemphasized. A look at the literary testimony would have been helpful in this regard; Cicero, for example, ( De Oratore 2.20) seems to suggest that Roman aristocrats were consciously emulating Greek public architecture in order to advertise their pursuit of Greek-style activities — philosophical disputation, in particular — in their free time.

The second part of chapter 2 is devoted to the spread of the Roman house to the provinces. The survey proceeds chronologically, addressing developments of the late republic and early empire (primarily in France and Spain), the high empire (most provinces), and the late antique period (primarily Syria and Britain). Ellis argues that the essential elements of a Roman house — “a peristyle, and a reception room opposite the entrance” (71) — can be found all over the empire by the end of the first century AD, and that we can also trace the development of distinctly provincial characteristics to this period. His ability to synthesize evidence from all over the empire, all the way down to the sixth century and sometimes beyond, is certainly one of the book’s greatest assets. In practice, however, the accumulation of evidence makes it difficult to trace the chapter’s argument; the linearity of the chapter is furthermore interrupted by two sections on palace architecture, an important topic that might have been better served by its own chapter. On the whole, the book would have benefited from a greater number of shorter, more tightly-focused chapters; leaving out the introduction and conclusion, the book has only five chapters, and the distribution of topics among chapters is rather uneven.

The third chapter, “Town and Country”, is a bit of a hodgepodge; basically the chapter covers all housing types that could not be classified as “Houses of Pretension:” apartment buildings, taverns, shops, village housing, factories, farmhouses, and other miscellaneous houses. The resulting chapter is somewhat less successful than the previous one; separate treatments of domestic life in the city and in the country might have been more useful. Furthermore, given the fact that the vast majority of the inhabitants of Rome lived in large apartment buildings normally known as insulae, Ellis’ few pages on the topic seem inadequate. He compensates for this shortcoming, however, with a detailed look at urban housing in the provinces, as well as a discussion of the similarly dense habitations (not strictly urban, but with interesting points of comparison) in Syrian and Egyptian villages. In one of the chapter’s most significant contributions, he suggests that there was in some instances a kind of trickle-down Romanization, as evidenced by certain features of more modest provincial housing, such as mosaics and reception rooms.

The next chapter, entitled simply “Decoration,” builds on the largely architectural analysis of the preceding chapters to give a sense of what these houses actually I like — a discussion of wall painting, mosaics, and sculpture. It is typical of Ellis’ scope that his analysis of painting includes not only a serviceable introduction to the traditional four Pompeian styles but also an interesting discussion of painting through to the late antique period. Included in this chapter are brief discussions of the use of water in the ancient home, and domestic cult. These topics certainly relate to the decorative schemes of ancient houses, but their awkward placement means that they don’t get the full attention they deserve. Given his special concern with the post-classical period, one might have expected Ellis’ discussion of cult to have included more on Mithraism and Christianity, two religions which flourished especially in the domestic context. Arrangement into shorter, thematically unified chapters could have eliminated this unevenness and lack of cohesion.

The fifth chapter is an introduction to Roman furniture, an aspect of ancient housing about which we know relatively little, mainly because much of the evidence has not survived. Ellis takes us on a room-by-room tour of the aristocratic home, giving us an impression of how furniture was used in different parts of the house. Included in this tour is a discussion of the uses and effects of light in the Roman house; the discussion in part centers around a tool called ‘ray tracing’ that gives us a computerized rendering of two ancient rooms as they would have looked in antiquity, one lit by artificial light and the other by daylight. The use of computers for this effect seems potentially very productive, but the discussion is hindered not only by the fact that the poor quality of the two images doesn’t give much of an impression at all, but also by the bewildering absence of any mention of these rooms in the accompanying discussion of lighting (150).

The final chapter is entitled “The House and the Family.” The focus of the chapter is somewhat broader than the title would suggest, offering a very interesting discussion of some of the social aspects of the Roman house. Ellis rejects the notion that the house can be strictly divided along social lines (master vs. servant, owner vs. guest) and proposes a more dynamic model, one that takes into account the relative openness of most Roman houses. His analysis of the Roman family is largely concerned with questions of demography, which might disappoint readers drawn to the chapter by its title. Furthermore, the mere page on women and children in the Roman house comes across as somewhat of an afterthought, although the realities of the archaeological evidence may be partly to blame; as Ellis points out, the Roman house did not have different spaces devoted to men and women (along the lines of the Greek andron and gynaikonitis, for example), nor is there any evidence of space dedicated to children, either. Ellis makes the intriguing suggestion that the real division was one of time, not of space: in the morning, much of the public part of the house would be given over to the morning salutation, and other business conducted by the paterfamilias; in the afternoon, when her husband had gone out for the day, the materfamilias would be in charge. Also included in this chapter is a discussion of ownership, an important topic (especially in connection with urban housing) that is not always addressed in the literature.

In addition to a general index, the book has a helpful index of sites discussed. There is also a map of the Roman empire (192-3) to assist the reader in locating these sites; given the emphasis on provincial architecture elsewhere in the book, it might have been helpful to indicate the provinces on the map. All bibliographical references are to be found in the endnotes only, which is a real drawback; in an introductory book such as this, one would have liked at least a separate bibliography, if not one organized by subject. There is also a glossary (193-6), which is useful although not perfect; we are told, for example, that the “semicircular or circular table used with the stibadium couch” is known as a “sigma”, but we are not in fact given a separate entry for “stibadium”. More disturbing is the complete absence of essential terms like “villa” and “insula.” Such omissions are not simply isolated cases; elsewhere the book reveals a need for more careful editing. While some errors are trivial (Chapter 2 lacks a section 17), some are more serious (on p.14, Vitruvius’ De Architectura is dated to the second century AD). There are also occasional errors of Latin (“domus publicus” on p.194; “cryptoportici” on p.46).

As an introduction for “the student and the general reader” (2), the book has many shortcomings. Many of these are problems of production, and were perhaps out of the author’s hands. The discussion of the atrium and peristyle house — an essential aspect of any introduction to the topic — is accompanied by not one diagram or picture to help the reader to visualize these features. Far too often we are left to our own devices as Ellis describes for us house after house, and we are not given so much as a plan to help us in our understanding. Ellis’ descriptive powers are quite good, but there is just no substitute for looking at a plan when discussing architecture, particularly if you want to engage your readers in the development of theories and hypotheses — an important exercise for student and scholar alike. Moreover, the visual aids that are included are only occasionally helpful: it’s not always clear what we are supposed to be looking at in the photographs, and on most plans none of the rooms is labeled, even when they are discussed in some detail. There is the occasional phantom reference, such as on page 153, where a discussion of the finds in shop E19 at Sardis refers the reader to figure 14, which has the plans for two completely different buildings. In one peculiar instance, we are in fact given a nice plan of a villa in Centcelles (124) — but it is in reference to a discussion of its wall mosaics, not its architectural features! I would urge the author and the press to consider a revised paperback edition that would both improve the visual elements already provided and add new ones in the many places where they are lacking; the result would be much closer to the up-to-date general introduction to Roman houses that is still sorely needed.