BMCR 2007.02.17

Roman Working Lives and Urban Living

, , Roman working lives and urban living. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005. viii, 224 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 25 cm. ISBN 1842171860 £20.00.

Table of Contents

This volume is a collection of twelve papers written by eleven British scholars and advertises itself as being devoted to issues concerning the life and work of craftsmen in the cities of the Roman world. While this is not completely true, the book contains some very interesting papers offering new insights into the social and spatial contexts of urban production and touches on several topics that are in desperate need of attention by archaeologists and historians. The internal cohesion of the book, however, is rather weak: a good introduction to the overall theme is lacking and some of the contributions seem to be out of place. There is little interplay between the individual articles. As most authors concentrate on either Roman Britain or central Italy, other urbanized areas, such as Roman Africa, Egypt or Asia Minor, are mostly neglected. Thus, readers should not expect a coherent volume that constitutes a systematic contribution to the discussion about urban craftsmen in the Roman world. Nevertheless, on the basis of the individual papers, the book deserves a place in many university libraries.

The first two contributions have a rather loose connection with the central theme. The article of Simon Esmonde Cleary analyses the possibilities of investigating the spatial functioning of ritual practices in Romano-British towns. C. departs from the notion that rituals define, articulate and integrate the urban topography and discusses four general aspects of civic ritual: the religious calendar, the meaning of movement (processions), the evidence for ceremony and the persons involved. C. then goes on to discuss the archaeological material in three examples: Silchester, Colchester and Verulamium. Here, it turns out that C.’s evidential basis is small, so that the over-all picture, though interesting, is in great need of reliable data. C. asks questions his material cannot answer and uses analogies with the Mediterranean world to solve the problem by assuming that Romano-British towns were just like all other towns in the Roman world (7). This undermines his argument.

Dominic Perring discusses the relation between domestic architecture and social discourse in Roman towns. His paper actually might have fit better in a volume on Roman houses, but it certainly is an interesting overview. The main argument starts with the usual idea of reception facilities in Roman houses as being shaped by the needs of political life. P. analyzes this phenomenon throughout the Roman world (though with a slight emphasis on Britain) and argues that regional diversity was the result of the different ways in which the dominant architectural language, which was based on Greek cultural ideas, was locally transformed. While this view is very attractive, it may be suggested that the relation between architecture and socio-political power is very complex and would have needed more elaboration. The almost exclusive focus on socio-political power as a factor in the design of houses, for example, downplays the role of individual desire for private comfort and luxury: you may also want a bath, reception rooms and a peristyle garden because it makes your house a good place to live in. Further, I would argue that P. overemphasizes the role of education: if architectural form may spread itself through imitation (26), no direct access to high-level Greek education is needed to build good Roman-style houses in new Romano-British towns (22).

The third paper brings the reader to Ostia. Janet DeLaine discusses the nature of commercial activities in this city and the possibilities of tracing them in the archaeological record. She departs from the notion that the commercial landscape of the city must be seen as resulting from private and civic needs, and not from state involvement. She discerns three groups of activities: small scale commerce, cargo trade and auctions. D. shows that none of these activities must be related to one specific archaeological form, but that there are many areas in the city suitable for these activities and that, though we do not know for which specific commercial activity a particular shop or market was used, the material remains do enable us to characterize the functioning of commerce and its role in the urban landscape as such. Of particular interest is her treatment of the horrea, where she argues that the ratio between ‘open’ courtyards and porticoes on the one hand and ‘closed’ storage rooms on the other may reveal a lot about the functioning of these complexes: there seems to have been significantly more open space than was necessary for manoeuvring bulk goods. This nuances the widespread idea that horrea were just storage buildings.

Next are two contributions by Ardle MacMahon. The first gives an overview of the evidence of shops and workshops in Roman Britain. M. rightly argues that these were an ‘essential and integral component of the urban environment’ and demonstrates that there is a lot of evidence that needs to be studied in more detail. While most of the article is essentially an exploration of the evidence about certain topics, such as property, layout, and use, certain issues are discussed more deeply. In these cases, M. makes some interesting observations, e.g. about the use of covered walkways to extend the shops into the public sphere (60) and about the presence of decorated rooms in small buildings behind a shop (65). The only serious comment that may be made, is whether or not it is sensible to label all these complexes with the Latin word ‘taberna’, which suggests more unity than there is and may evoke unintended associations with some readers. While it is a personal choice whether or not one prefers to use modern terms like ‘shop’ or ‘workshop’, ‘taberna’ is, in any case, a term that needs a more detailed definition than M. gives.

M’s second article deals with the interpretation of the shop-counters in the ‘tabernae’ of Pompeii and Herculaneum and essentially is a step-by-step deconstruction of the common interpretation of these shops as bars or taverns. M. not only shows that these counters generally were unfit for seated or standing consumption, but also argues that it is highly unlikely that the large vessels in these counters were used for storage of wine or other liquids. Evidence from Herculaneum rather points to storage of grain, nuts and dried fruit (82). A more reliable indication for wine selling would be the presence of amphorae or holes for amphora racks. These features however are not commonly found together with counters equipped with storage vessels. M. refrains from constructing a unifying alternative interpretation of the shop counters, rightly arguing that more detailed research is needed and that a considerable part of the material evidence has yet to be integrated in the discussion (85).

Damian Robinson writes about urban production at Pompeii, a difficult subject, as he acknowledges, that has evoked a lot of controversy over the past decades. R. rightly criticizes recent approaches after Finley by Wallace-Hadrill and Mouritsen for their downplaying of economic activity not directly related to the urban elite and then goes on to analyze the social contexts of identifiable workshops at Pompeii using categorization and statistics. He discusses three types of ‘industries’: textile industry, baking industry and what he calls ‘hospitality industry’. The disadvantage of his methodology is that R. shoves his data into a fairly rigid framework glossing over the many difficulties in identifying certain types of workshops or establishments, particularly in the hospitality industry, and in interpreting social context on the basis of archaeological remains. For example, R. decides to include the so-called ‘lanifricariae’ among the textile workshops, while their identification as wool-scouring plants is extremely uncertain. This corrupts his data. Further, the analytic system of ‘social class’ and ‘property types’ lacks transparency: an appendix listing the workshops and establishments involved with their social class and property type would have added to the cogency of R.’s argument. Nevertheless, he includes an important corpus of material in the debate and his approach may attract others to the subject. The dependence or independence of individual craftsmen in Roman cities will remain a hotly debated topic in the future.

An interesting contribution comes from Shawn Graham, who has been developing new ways of understanding the workings of the brick industry in the Tiber valley between Orte and Rome. G. argues that bricks were transported predominantly by ships and that access to the busy river was of vital importance for the commercial success of entrepreneurs. He draws a comparison with the 19th-century timber industry in the Ottawa Valley. While some of the conclusions drawn from this comparison seem to lack elaboration (e.g., there are no indications from antiquity supporting the claim that brick stamps played an important role in the transport of brick cargo byriver (116)), his methodology for establishing trade connections between Rome and parts of the valley is highly innovative and his maps give a convincing picture of the continuously changing ties between city and hinterland. An important observation is that distance apparently was no critical factor: some areas near the city seem less Rome-oriented than, for example, areas near Orte. G.’s methodology also enables him to show how individual careers developed, though one may argue about the assumed relations between ‘city’ and ‘success’ on the one hand and ‘country’ and ‘failure’ on the other: for individual workshops it might, sometimes, have been more profitable to trade with the country.

The next two articles focus on Roman Britain. Jenny Hall discusses the evidence for industry and production in the urban areas of Roman London. While this article certainly gives a good overview of the excavated remains to the non-expert reader and provides many references to recent reports, it lacks analysis and adds little to the discussion of the lives of the shopkeepers and craft-workers mentioned in the title. Essentially, it is a long enumeration of evidence. The conclusion draws heavily, as the author herself admits, on earlier work of others, most prominently Perring (141).

The article of Jeremy Evans is a highly specialized account about trends in urban pottery consumption of Roman Britain. Even though his text is full of jargon and at some points barely comprehensible for readers unfamiliar with studies of Romano-British pottery, E. succeeds in describing changes in distribution patterns and observes differences between various site types. Some of his trends are interesting, e.g., the gradual Romanisation of pottery assemblages from sites of indigenous origin and gradual de-Romanisation in towns associated with the military (158). What is problematic, however, is that E. does not systematically consider the implications of his data for urban life: the few scattered moments of interpretation do not transcend the abstract level of ‘influences’ and ‘traditions’. In failing to do so, his paper has little to offer for readers interested in the overall theme.

Next, Jennifer Price gives a well-documented introductory overview of one specific craft, glass working, a subject on which she has published since the early 1970s. She discusses production, retail and consumption. In her article, P. does not limit herself to one specific area, period or discipline but covers the entire Roman world and combines all types of data, from archaeology to papyrus texts. Though this limits her possibilities in terms of interpretation, she succeeds in evoking an interesting picture of a ‘new’ craft gradually finding its own place in cities everywhere in the Roman world and manages to avoid bold over-generalizations. Initially located on the outskirts of towns, glass workshops conquer a place within the urban area after the third century. Similarly, while glass vessels initially were sold together with pottery, later evidence suggests an increasing specialization in retail with shops exclusively devoted to glass sale.

Marina Ciaraldi focuses on the role that remains of plants may play for our insight into socioeconomic aspects of the history of Pompeii. While she certainly points at an interesting body of evidence the possibilities of which are only beginning to be exploited, she tends to draw big conclusions from a small amount of data and to neglect existing literature on the subject. To draw the conclusion that medicines were produced in suburban villas and not in the city because of easy access to natural sources and water on the basis of one sample from one villa is simply over interpreting and neglects evidence for e.g. perfume production from the urban area. Moreover, given the Campanian climate and the presence of an aqueduct in the city, it is likely that the access to water was easier there than in the countryside. Furthermore, how can you possibly write about plants and horticulture in Pompeii without any reference to the publications written and edited by Wilhelmina Jashemski? The suggested trends of gradual diversification in the diet and intensification of agriculture are interesting and look at the urban development of Pompeii from a different, hitherto unexplored point of view, but here, too, one wonders how it is possible to draw such conclusions from archeobotanical evidence from two buildings with a predominantly residential function. More explicit discussion of methodological issues would have greatly improved the article.

The final contribution is by Ralph Jackson and concentrates on the daily practice of healing and the daily life of healers in the Roman world. For a large part relying on written sources, most prominently Galen, J. reconstructs the practical working of medical treatment in Roman cities. Partially based on the similarities between recovered sets of medical instruments, he concludes that there appears to be a strong uniformity and continuity throughout the Roman period (218). Healers generally based their work at home but did normally spend a great deal of the day outdoors visiting patients, taking a box with instruments with them, as J. interestingly deduces from the discovery of instrument sets near groups of fugitives in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In conclusion: this book contains relevant articles, interesting articles and a few bad articles. The majority of these add something new to the debate to which they contribute and may become reference points for scholars in the near future. While few will need to read the entire volume from beginning to end, many students and scholars may want to check one of the articles to see what is in there. Thus, this book may not be consistent enough for private collections, but it certainly should be accessible at the local university library.