BMCR 2004.06.31

The Roman House and Social Identity

Hales, Shelley, 1971-, The Roman house and social identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xvi, 294 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521814332 $75.00.

Any book that attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of the Roman house must address two very basic questions at the start: “what do we mean by Roman?” and “what do we mean by house?” As for the first question, the body of evidence for urban housing in the city of Rome itself is primarily literary. Most studies of the Roman house instead turn to the abundant remains from Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are similar enough to available literary descriptions of Roman house design to encourage a cautious collocation. A more complicated proposition is to consider evidence from the whole of the Roman empire; here layers of Hellenizing and native influences (also a factor in the Campanian evidence) stretch the meaning of “Roman” to the breaking point, making it difficult to draw general conclusions about such disparate evidence, much less to speculate about the Roman identity or status of these provincial homeowners. As for the second question (“What do we mean by house?”), most studies choose to focus either on the urban townhouse ( domus) or on the villa, respecting a dichotomy firmly entrenched in the Roman imagination; yet such a division is not always useful, since patterns of influence in decoration and design transcended the boundaries of town and country. Furthermore, the relative paucity of evidence fails to reflect the domestic experience of the vast majority of the ancient population, and skews the focus in favor of the privileged few.

In her book The Roman House and Social Identity, Shelley Hales (H.) opts for a broad view of “Roman” and a narrow view of “house.” Despite the inherent challenges, she attempts to address “the lack of a cohesive empire-wide survey of urban housing” (6). Moreover, as her title suggests, her emphasis is not only on the house but also on the homeowner: how did domestic art and architecture contribute to the self-fashioning of Roman citizens and subjects across the empire? The scope of the book is indeed impressive; successive chapters cover not only the predictable territory — both the literary sources and the abundant Campanian remains — but also houses in diverse cities of the Roman empire (Vasio [Vaison], Verulamium, Volubilis, Antioch, and Ephesus). Such a range requires that H. be selective in her choice of subject matter. Her explicit focus is on what she calls “the art of impression” in elite housing, whereby the homeowner stakes his claim to be included at the rhetorical center of the Roman empire — even though his house may well be situated on the physical periphery. In general, the book attempts to provide a synthesis rather than an introduction; it would not be the first place to direct a student interested in learning about the basic features of the Roman house. Moreover, the book’s tendency to overgeneralize and its rather careless production hinder its usefulness as a resource for scholars as well.

The first chapter, entitled “The Ideal Home,” is an eclectic survey of some of the attitudes to the domestic environment exhibited by various authors. By “ideal,” H. means the qualities that a Roman house should or should not have, according to our literary sources: the aristocratic home should not be too luxurious or uninviting, for example, nor inconsistent with the owner’s social standing. The chapter introduces a theme that will recur throughout the book: how the domestic sphere constructed and reflected the “Romanness” or Romanitas of its inhabitants. (It is perhaps worth pointing out that the Latin word is as awkward as the English one; it is rarely attested in Latin literature, and nowhere before Tertullian.) The usefulness of “Romanness” as a conceptual framework is not always apparent; consider her comment on Anchises’ famous admonition to his son in Aeneid 6:

Unfortunately, a concise definition of Romanness cannot be found in Latin literature. The closest a Roman author comes to defining Roman behaviour is Virgil in the Aeneid. In Book Six, the role of Rome was revealed to be to create empire. His prescription provided a neat definition of the ultimate difference between Roman and Greek, who would instead excel in the arts and sciences. (13)

I cite the passage not simply because the (unfortunately all too common) insistence on putting the words of Anchises into the mouth of Virgil is indicative of a more general carelessness about the use of very loaded passages as a source for Roman (Mantuan? Trojan? Augustan?) mentalité. More to the point (and as H. herself shows) “Roman” can mean many different things to many different people. This extreme adaptability may go a long way towards explaining why there was little perceived need for an abstract noun Romanitas, as opposed to the more specific adjective Romanus. H.’s insistence on interpreting all of Roman literature and domestic architecture in terms of their claims to Romanitas does not always contribute to a clearer understanding of the significance of a particular passage or site. Moreover, a few of the numerous instances in which she refers back to this concept border on the meaningless, such as the claim that the “[t]he family unit became an excellent unit through which to attain Romanitas” (14) or that Romulus was “the founder of Rome and Romanitas” (64).

The second chapter (“The House and the Construction of Memory”) aims, in H.’s words, “to see how the house aided interaction between an individual and the outside world” (40). The main focus of the chapter is a discussion of the way in which the Roman house promoted the memory of its owner by providing the city with “a mnemonic for his public significance” (47). The most powerful evidence for the close association of homeowner and house was the destruction of the domus that often accompanied the most thorough application of what we now call damnatio memoriae; Clodius’ destruction of Cicero’s house on the Palatine made clear his attempt to associate Cicero with other tyrants who had suffered the same fate. H.’s discussion of this episode, and of the ways in which the Roman house promoted the memory of those who lived there, might have taken into account an article by John Bodel ( JRA 1997), who explores the same phenomenon by focusing on the villa evidence in particular.

On a similar note, although H.’s stated focus is on the townhouse rather than the villa, her discussion sometimes conflates the two; on p. 58 she could have been clearer about the fact that Cicero’s letters to Atticus about outfitting his gymnasium with appropriate artworks concern his Tusculan villa, and not his domus.

The third chapter focuses on imperial housing, in particular Augustus’ house on the Palatine, Nero’s Domus Aurea, Domitian’s Domus Flavia, and Hadrian’s Villa. H. argues that the reorganization of the political structure around the dominant figure of the princeps was reflected in the domestic landscape of the town, in which one man’s domus grew to overwhelm those of his competitors; the difference between houses was not just in scale (as in the republic) but in kind. Hadrian’s Villa represents a different trend: the scale and self-sufficiency of the villa, and its status as both seat of empire and escape from Rome, signal the declining importance of Rome as urbs in favor of Rome as empire. While the inclusion of Hadrian’s Villa brings us rather far from the subject of urban housing, the fact that Hadrian evoked in it famous topographical features from around the Roman empire legitimates its inclusion in a book that emphasizes the art of illusion in domestic decoration.

The fourth chapter (“Finding a Way into the Pompeian House”) offers a useful analysis of the architecture of Pompeian houses, with a special emphasis on how architectural elements construct sightlines in an attempt to influence the visitor’s impression of the inhabitants. H. organizes her discussion around three different views: the view of the exterior of the house from the street, the view of the interior from the street and entrance, and the different views within the house proper. The advantage of such a scheme is that it distinguishes the ways in which the Roman house could make a different impression on guests of different status (judged, in this case, by their relative access to various parts of the house). In this chapter and the next H. could have done more to situate her discussion in relation to other Pompeian scholars who have used both architecture and decoration as evidence for the lifestyles of the homeowner and guests, such as Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Bettina Bergmann, and Jens-Arne Dickmann ( Domus frequentata. Anspruchsvolles Wohnen im pompejanischen Stadthaus, Munich 1999).

In the fifth chapter (“The Art of Impression in the Houses of Pompeii”), H. turns to an analysis of the aims of Pompeian house decoration, and wall painting in particular. Here again her focus is on Roman identity, and how home decoration might shed light on the complexities of the relationship between a local elite and central Roman power. Her argument is that wall painting and other elements of home decor (especially gardens) highlight the ways in which “the whole house acted as a threshold between different long-established rhetorical topoi : public and private, town and country, mortal and divine, Roman and alien” (162). She suggests (see especially p. 151) that the homeowner’s “transgressive” attempts to transcend such polarities can be read as evidence for an outsider’s perspective on Roman norms. Yet, at the same time, given the ambiguities inherent in Roman identity, these homeowners paradoxically state their claim to that identity at the very moment that they call it into question.

In the final two chapters, H. turns to the provinces. Deliberately eschewing a comprehensive survey of the evidence, she chooses instead to focus on select cities of varying size and importance, in both the west (Vasio in Gaul, Verulamium in Britain, and Volubilis in Mauretania) and the east (Antioch and Ephesus). She suggests that the relative obscurity of the three western cities offers us a chance to “observe the norms rather than exceptions of acculturation” (169), although it is not clear why that would necessarily be the case. For H., the fact that these provincial homeowners engage in flights of fantasy in their decoration or attempt to manipulate accessibility and sightlines in their design — just as their Pompeian counterparts did — is enough to suggest that they stake some claim to Roman (or Romanized) identity: “The houses of Vasio, then, seem to be fully working Roman houses. The local elites seem to have been grappling with all those tensions played on by elites back in Italy. They appear to juggle their rural and civic sides, to begin to explore the wild and the divine. They use their house both to impress outsiders and reward insiders. They are eager for the public gaze.” (179) Yet we may well wonder whether the category of “Roman” is here painted with too broad a brush: can we imagine an elite house that does not strive to “impress outsiders and reward insiders”? Moreover, as H. acknowledges, it can be very difficult to determine whether even unambiguously Roman features of house design (an atrium, for example) are evidence of cultural identity or merely of an aspiration to a certain social standing.

On the whole, the book is poorly edited. There are a number of awkward or inaccurate statements, and typographical errors recur throughout, particularly in foreign language citations and in the bibliography. Many of these are trivial, though distracting. Others are potentially misleading: H. includes in her list of “family monuments” built under Augustus’ reign the Porticus Octavia (p. 61). Although Augustus did rebuild a second-century portico by that name — in one of the more amusing asides of the Res Gestae, Augustus (né C. Octavius) brags about the fact that he allowed the portico to retain the name of its original benefactor, Cn. Octavius — surely H. intends here to refer to the Porticus Octaviae, built by Augustus’ sister. (And while we’re in the neighborhood, and on that same page, I know of no reference to the Theater of Marcellus as “Theatrum Marcellum.”)

Although this may seem a strange complaint to come from a Latinist, I found H.’s use of Latin words in the flow of the text to be rather distracting; in some cases, there is no apparent advantage over the corresponding English word, and in other cases the Latin words seem to be abused just a bit ( atrium domus cannot mean “atrium house” in Latin, at least not in the way that phrase is normally understood). In any case, given H.’s tendency not to translate key Latin words, a glossary of terms would have been helpful. Citations, on the other hand, are only given in translation, and these are not always accurate. On page 54, for example: “In the senatorial recess, so many senators visited their villas that Cicero was able to write ‘[W]e occupy Cumae as if it were a little Rome.’ (Cicero Ad Att. 5.2.2).” This for habuimus in Cumano quasi pusillam Romam, apparently misunderstanding both the first person plural and the specific meaning of in Cumano (“in my villa at Cumae”). In the end, although H. has some very perceptive observations throughout, the cumulative effect of these slips, combined with the overuse of sweeping generalizations, make the book a frustrating read for student and scholar alike.