BMCR 2004.02.22

Case Abitanti e Culti de Ercolano, nuova edizione con gli Indices a cura di Laurentino García y García e Giovanni Panzera

, , , Case, abitanti e culti di Ercolano. Rome: Bardi, 2002. xxxi, 248 pages, lxiii pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 8885699979. EUR 42.00.

Virgilio Catalano’s work on the houses of Herculaneum was first published as a journal article in 1963, and then in book form with a very small print-run in 1966. The book is now very inaccessible (the COPAC catalogue does not list any copies in the U.K.), and Catalano, who died in 1994, was not able to produce a second edition. This new book reprints his 1966 volume with corrections and additions (partly Catalano’s own), to which the editors have added up-to-date bibliography and occasional notes on discoveries made since 1966. Their bibliography largely involves work in Italian, and some additional, mainly English-language items are mentioned below. They have also provided a large number of photographs (63 black and white “tavole” containing nearly 200 photographs) and extensive, well-arranged indexes, including a full “Onomasticum Herculanense” covering all known Herculaneans. There have been some significant archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum since Catalano was writing, at least one of which (the discovery of human remains near the beach) he predicted correctly, and the understanding of Pompeian and Herculanean houses has also progressed considerably. Catalano’s book is not, in fact, the catalogue of houses which the title might imply, but primarily a study of the occupants, as they are known from archaeological finds, graffiti, inscriptions and wax tablets. It is not a full survey of life at Herculaneum, since it does not deal with, for example, the baths or the theatre. Neither is it a systematic study of individual houses in terms of their architecture and decoration, although there is some discussion of layout and function. The work is not underpinned by any particular theory or agenda, and there is no conclusion. Catalano’s characteristic approach is to provide a list of all the examples of whatever phenomenon he happens to be discussing, and his knowledge of Herculaneum was clearly vast; an article about him quoted on the book’s jacket describes him as talking about the house-owners like old friends. As a source of information about the houses and inhabitants of Herculaneum, it is therefore of great value, particularly with the addition of the indexes. In view of the lack of sub-divisions within chapters (and the fact that the content of the chapters sometimes moves a long way from what is suggested by the titles), it is probably a book to be read through rather than dipped in to.

In the Introduction and Chapter I, Catalano discusses the houses and shops of Herculaneum in its final phase, which he regards as having used some more “modern” techniques than those at Pompeii, including anti-earthquake measures. Consequently the houses were losing their traditional Italic character. Herculaneum has the only surviving example of a house made entirely of opus craticium (Casa a Graticcio, III, 13-15), a low-cost building technique. When it was destroyed, the city was in a phase of urban expansion, encouraged by Vespasian and its highly influential resident patron M. Nonius Balbus, a man who had served as proconsul of Crete and Cyrene. Both public and private buildings were being renewed. Changes in architectural fashion included the disappearance of the open atrium, and buildings were being extended upwards. Shopkeepers who could not expand their premises horizontally or vertically might be able to acquire nearby property, and in one case (V, 7) a shopkeeper acquired an existing first-floor room in an adjacent house. The list of items of furniture and domestic equipment (34-39), including marble sundials and a cradle, is now partly superseded by a monograph which is not mentioned by the editors.1 The discussion then moves on to food, domestic animals, human remains and causes of death. When Catalano was writing, the remains of only 32 of the dead had been found in Herculaneum, but he correctly predicted that excavations in the harbour area would produce more; in fact, over 150 were found in 1980.

Chapter II, “Herculanean Demography”, studies the inhabitants: their names; the use of Greek (including Latin inscriptions in Greek letters, a subject which has been studied in greater depth recently); the literacy indicated by the graffiti. He assumes, as was normal when he was writing, that people with Greek cognomina really were of Greek descent. Herculaneum does not have the electoral graffiti which are one of the chief means of identifying house-owners or occupiers at Pompeii, and there are therefore few houses or shops which can be attributed with much confidence to a named individual. Catalano uses the following criteria, which he puts in descending order of reliability: names on seals, if attributable to the owner of the house where they were found; names in the dative on jars of oil, garum, etc.; names in the genitive on jars of goods for public sale; graffiti in the fauces or atrium of a house. There are also seven special cases where epigraphic or archaeological evidence permits identification. He finds some circumstantial evidence that Titus may have visited Herculaneum, due to his family’s close connections with M. Nonius Balbus. Titus’s doctor Apollinaris is recorded in a graffito as having used the latrine in the building which Catalano identifies as Balbus’s accommodation for guests. There is a brief discussion of public hygiene, including an official inscription warning against the dumping of ordure.

Chapter III, “Notes on Daily Life at Herculaneum”, covers a wide range of topics, beginning with prices mentioned in graffiti. Catalano discusses business recorded in wax tablets, including the stoning of a creditor’s house door by a gang of slaves. He interprets the graffiti mentioning public entertainment. The actor L. Actius Anicetus, who seems to be mentioned several times, is also known at Pompeii.2 Catalano suggests that the presence of important actors at Herculaneum might be due to a festival in honour of Balbus, whose cremation spot was marked by an altar erected at public expense (79). Excavation there has now revealed the container of Balbus’s cremated remains.3 Some graffiti from the house of L. Vennidius Ennychus might represent, in Catalano’s view, a dialogue between the actor Paris and Ennychus’s daughter, who had her nineteenth birthday in 79. Other graffiti include a caricature of Caligula and various greetings. According to Catalano, the spelling and grammatical errors in the graffiti and the dialect elements even in official inscriptions indicate “a declining and limited cultural level”, in stark contrast with the elevated philosophy of the Villa dei Papiri. Such a judgment is a sign of the book’s original date, as are his sharp distinction between “mercantile” and “patrician” inhabitants (e.g. 127) and his views on the “decline” of traditional religion.

Chapter IV, “Social and economic background”, begins with a survey of coins, and some discussion of prices using evidence from Pompeii as well as Herculaneum. Slaves cost between HS 600 and 1400, while two men claimed (implausibly, Catalano thinks) to have spent HS 105.5 on one meal. There is a survey of businesses and producers in Herculaneum, then a list of sculptures. This is followed by a lengthy discussion of the Petronia Justa case involving a dispute over whether the woman in question was freeborn or freed, which (apart from Justa’s reincarnation in a television programme) has been the subject of some recent work in English.4

Chapter V on “Public and Private Cult” begins by looking at the city’s religious buildings, the small number of which is attributed by Catalano to the population’s being too small to support temples for a full range of gods. He equates the Oscan goddess Herentas with Venus, and surveys the artistic evidence for the worship of other traditional gods, particularly Dionysus, Mercury and Apollo. The temple of the Mater Deum was restored in 76 by Vespasian, whose surprising involvement in such a minor local cult he attributes to the influence of Balbus. There is considerable evidence for interest in Egyptian gods, and he suggests that Isis was worshipped in the Mater Deum temple. Hercules, who was the source of the city’s name according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus but not Strabo, was also popular. Lararia were found in most houses and shops, showing that traditional religion was still strong. There is some discussion of the presence of Jews and Christians, and Catalano follows della Corte and others in identifying names as Jewish on very flimsy grounds. The book does, however, provide the first published photograph of a graffito reading “David” (191 and Tav.XXXVII.6; it is now CIL iv 10584); Catalano is not aware that there is no other evidence for Diaspora Jews in this period using it as a personal name.

Overall, the book provides a highly informative introduction to Herculaneum, and the editors’ work has substantially increased its usefulness. Some of the author’s ideas about the ancient city now seem rather dated, and the loose structure is not very easy to follow, but the vast range of ancient evidence about the inhabitants of Herculaneum makes fascinating reading.

There are numerous minor misprints in the Italian text, but nothing to impede comprehension. Epigraphic texts are printed with only round brackets, used for both restorations and expansions. Some words which should have been printed in Greek have come out as nonsense (e.g. 100, 141, 154), although most of the Greek is correctly printed (but without accents). T. is printed for Ti. (27). Attis is identified as the son of Cybele (150). A votive inscription reading “Iulia Hygia ex visu” surely gives the name of the female dedicator, rather than indicating an identification of Titus’s daughter Julia with the goddess Hygeia (162-5).


1. S. Mols, Wooden furniture in Herculaneum (1999).

2. See J.L. Franklin, Jr., “Pantomimists at Pompeii: Actius Anicetus and his troupe, AJPh 108 (1987), 95-107.

3. See U. Pappalardo, “Nuove testimonianze su Marco Nonio Balbo ad Ercolano”, μδαἱρα) 104 (1997), 417-433.

4. See most recently E. Metzger, “The case of Petronia Iusta”, RIDA (3rd series) 47 (2000), 151-165.