BMCR 2007.08.37

Roman Pompeii: Space and Society. 2nd edition

, Roman Pompeii : space and society. New York: Routledge, 2007. xvi, 216 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415391269. $39.95.

In this book, Ray Laurence (RL) argues that it is high time to use literary and archaeological media synthetically. There is a reflexive relationship between the two: “Literary sources,” writes RL, “can inform us about the ‘social rhythms’ that underlie the material culture” (8). The relationship between space and society is evidenced not only in Pompeii but in every developed society: people are born into space, operate within space, and their activities are promoted or prohibited by space. At the same time, people structure and re-structure space. A synthetic approach can only supplement our understanding of Pompeii’s physical and social contexts. Accordingly RL states his project: “The book concentrates on the implications of the reflexive relationship of urban space and urban society, so apparent in Pompeii, and uses this relationship to establish a more coherent and all-embracing view of the Roman city than has been presented to us by those using the literary texts” (11).

This is a second edition of a 1994 publication. After 13 years, RL has made changes and additions, incorporated scholarship that has appeared in the interim, and taken into consideration reactions to the first edition in order to “produce a clearer vision of the original document” and to “demonstrate the impact of relevant work on the original text, whilst preserving the original thesis on the interaction of space and society” (xiii). The big question, then, is whether or not RL succeeds in his mission. This review, then, focuses on the changes and additions, with greatest emphasis on the two new chapters (8 and 10), and on an overall evaluation both of the book as a second edition, and of its place within current Pompeian discourse.1

On a more structural note, although (or perhaps because) the endnotes in his first document were scant, RL has eliminated them altogether in version two; he has added 9 figures, 6 maps (having eliminated 1), and 2 plates (with 1 plate discarded); and his bibliography has grown from 9 to 15 pages, thereby evidencing his inclusion of work that has gone on between editions. This plumper bibliography includes notable work produced on artifactual assemblage (P. Allison, J. Berry), on visual representation (J.R. Clarke, J. Elsner), on prostitution (T. McGinn), Pompeii’s economy (N. Morley, R.P. Saller), literary analysis (D.H. Berry, B.W. Frier, A.M. Riggsby), archaeology proper (F. Coarelli, J.J. Dobbins, F. Zevi), and on the spatio-social aspects of the city (A. Wallace-Hadrill, M. Grahame, R. Ling). RL has also consulted older publications for use in his new chapters (M. Della Corte, M. Jaczynowska, M. Rostovtzeff).

More substantial are the alterations and additions. RL has considerably revamped chapter 2. Under a new title (“Reshaping Public Space” — previously “Public Building and Urban Identity”), RL lays less emphasis on the impact of Pompeii’s public structures on inhabitants and visitors, opting rather to focus on an historical perspective. Thus, he examines pre-colonial, colonial, Imperial, and post-earthquake architecture at Pompeii, and shows that physical transformations occurred in Pompeii because of political, ideological, religious, topographical, and other changes. RL’s reoriented approach is more in keeping with the book in general, and with his work on temporal logic (chapters 9 and 10) in particular. Still, the possible (or probable) impact that public architecture had upon inhabitant or visitor remains important, especially for a book dedicated to “space and society”, and yet this element is relegated to a bit of a back-burner: to wit, concerning work in the period between 62 and 79 C.E., RL claims that buildings associated with the imperial cult added a “further impression of grandeur” when marble replaced tufa and new wall decoration was adopted (35). And at the end of the chapter, he comments, “What we see at Pompeii is a response to the cultural changes” (38). One is left not quite seeing the society impressed with grandeur or affected by cultural change.2

RL has also altered chapter 3, on “Local Identity: Neighbours and Neighbourhoods”. He has expanded and moved the section on electoral notices (one paragraph in the first edition [42], placed before his discussion of fountains, has become three long paragraphs [54-60] in the second, placed now following the sections on fountains). In addition, RL has added an analysis of traffic flow in Pompeii (52-54). He notices an “interesting pattern” to streets which intervene on traffic flow (especially around the forum, amphitheater, Large Palaestra, and regions 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9) before concluding (rather flatly) that “there were streets that were integrated into the traffic system and areas of the street grid that were isolated from it as a consequence to the blocking of streets” (54). In a chapter that examines the placement of altars and public fountains in Pompeii’s vici and what effect these structures had on the formation of smaller pockets of community and local identities, RL’s treatment of traffic flow is an appropriate and important addition.

The biggest change to the second edition comes by way of two new chapters. Chapter 8 considers the possibility of urban land rent, and of differing property values within the city. RL here proposes that ” insulae in Pompeii were created for the maximisation of rental income, by persons not necessarily living within the property themselves” (134). Since (1) most properties tended to be assumed through inheritance and as dowries, (2) the elite tended to be the biggest owners, and (3) properties were an investment, RL makes his self-described “diagnostic assumption” about the likelihood of rented spaces. He uses the two extant rental notices from Pompeii (for the Insula Arriana Polliana and the praedia of Julia Felix) as well as some literary sources in order to show the sorts of properties and leases to be had in Pompeii. RL provides seven factors that evidence the possibility of rentable property (140). Other factors, to consider in tandem, are the location of the insula in the city, and the nature of the market (demographics, supply-demand, etc.). Consideration of all the above suggests that at Pompeii it was possible for the elite to have earned income from owning and renting out insulae.

RL next examines ideology and practice, which involves analysis of literature and archaeology. Book 6 of Vitruvius’ de architectura provides, in RL’s opinion, advice to his elite readers on rentable property. This text, as well as literature in general, he argues, show not reality as much as ideology (authors’ views demonstrate “how they wished to articulate the form of the city and its material culture via language and in writing” 141). Thus it needs to be seen whether the ideological is somehow reflected in architecture proper. Wallace-Hadrill’s work on “public-style architecture” in actual houses (at Pompeii and Herculaneum) demonstrates ideology in practice. The areas of a house which were more likely to have public-style architecture were, unsurprisingly, the more public parts, such as the atrium. Therefore, RL considers the atrium in terms of artifact assemblage, drawing mostly from the works of P. Allison and J. Berry. The assemblage of various items reveals two things: first, domestic space could be adapted according to demands for display, activities, and segregation; second, there is potential in these (albeit preliminary) artifactual studies to identify rental properties and practice. Ultimately, there is undeniable evidence that, whether rented and/or owner-occupied, houses were “in a constant symphony of change” (151).

This is a valuable chapter that does succeed in showing the potentiality of rented spaces within the city as well as the possible impact that rental units might have had on the city’s economy. Yet I harbor some concern with RL’s use of the literary record. His reading of Vitruvius is too brief. This text has received much new attention in the past decade or so; there are now many new ways of reading both the text and Vitruvius’ agenda. By my lights, nobody (until RL) has proposed that 6.5 constitutes advice from author to elite reader on rental income. Even if such an interpretation has surfaced, it still here merits textual engagement, analytic rigor, and reference to other scholars in the community. As it is, RL claims that “The greatest problem for the discussion of life in the city is how we should view the only surviving treatise on architecture written by a single author” (141); but with reference to only one scholar (Wallace-Hadrill) and with a quick proposition that we read Vitruvius as advice-giver, RL has done away with this “greatest” of problems in but one paragraph. Here, and in general, when it comes to his use of literature, RL needs to substantiate his claims with passages from, and engagement with ancient texts in order to pack persuasive punch. Sometimes more is more.

The second new chapter is the tenth, wherein RL examines the “production of adult citizens”. Thus there is, as in chapter 9 (“The Temporal Logic of Space”), a temporal aspect to his analysis, but with respect to a child becoming an adult, and how, over time, he both gained the freedom to explore and “learn” the city, and was transformed by the city’s spatial and social structures. Spatial arrangement affected the development of a child first into the institution of Iuventus and thereafter into adulthood; it played a role in forming his sense of citizenship and urbanitas. Before Pompeii was a colony, the Triangular Forum was the central locus for the physical, mental, and social training of iuvenes. There, structures provided a temporal context: through the Temple of Hercules, for instance, Pompeii’s mythological past was a place for the training of citizens who would ensure the city’s future vitality. The temporal aspect remained in effect after Pompeii was colonized, but in the 1st century C.E., there was a “spatial shift” of youth-culture away from the Triangular Forum to the amphitheater and Large Palaestra. These structures became the locus of a new virtue, in leisure (172).

Other structures involved in the production of citizens were the household and the baths. In houses, the production of normative gender roles might be found via interior wall decoration. Mythological scenes (such as of Pasiphae and the bull, in the House of the Vettii) showed young viewers social and sexual roles and expectations. In this way, the house was an important locus for the production and reproduction of male sexuality. The baths were another important locus. In the newer baths especially, the combination of mixed bathing and the brightness afforded by window glass made bodies more visible to one another. Thus the shaping of the body was inevitably wrapped up in visibility and performativity at bathing complexes.3 Here too, wall decoration played a formative role. In the Suburban baths there were erotic images located high up on the walls such that they could only be viewable once a person was tall (i.e. old) enough. Images representing sexual behavior outside of the norm (where the norm shows the male as active and the female as surrendering) can provide an opportunity for learning “the dangers of or deviance associated with uninhibited sexual congress and humiliation” (176). Of course, they could just be a means of stimulating sexual arousal. (While I understand RL’s main point that wall-paintings in houses and bathing complexes could have affected normative male sexuality, I find it odd, or perhaps ironic, that the only specific domestic image referenced was that of Pasiphae and the bull. RL is right to point out (following Wallace-Hadrill) that the scene shows the socially appropriate chaste female being sexually dominated by the male; yet I find myself wondering how the Suburban baths’ depiction of, say, men together can be somehow less normative than bull and beauty.)4 Regardless, we see that bathing complexes, like the house, were loci for producing normative male sexuality. Additionally, graffiti, spread throughout the city, could have played a part. Public and private space was thus involved in the continuous production of the next new citizens.

In the last two sections of chapter 10, RL looks at tomb imagery, and the role that the freed slave played in the urban and social fabric of the city. In each, we are offered further perspectives on the production of citizens. These sections, especially those on the freed slave, are interesting, to be sure, but short; and because of that they feel rather tacked on. The chapter would profit from more in-depth analysis of these two aspects of citizenship-production. Generally, though, this chapter is a valuable and relevant addition to the book, as it threads together the bigger themes of time, space, and social life.

Such, then, are the alterations and additions to RL’s book. We can now address the big questions: has the author produced a “clearer vision of the original document”, and has he shown the “impact of relevant work…whilst preserving the original thesis”? To the latter, yes, RL has succeeded here. In addition to the larger bibliography, RL has supplemented his bracketed references within the body of his text, and he has tweaked his arguments in places so as to incorporate new information and interpretations. All this he has done without compromising his original thesis, which accomplishment is formidable considering the amount and scope of work that has emerged since 1994.

To the former question, I hazard a frustrating ‘yes and no’. The additional chapters, as well as the changes to chapters 2 and 3 render the book’s vision clearer. In keeping with RL’s main agenda, chapters 2, 8, and 10 each involve space, time, and society. Beyond that, they work well alongside the other chapters to form a clear and overarching perspective of space and society in Pompeii. On the other hand, I identify three problems, each of which was mentioned in reviews of the original publication, and none of which has been, by my lights, addressed. First, there is the issue of terminology. In chapter 7 especially, terms like “spatial generators”, “morphic language”, “Relative Asymmetry”, and “mean depth” threaten to leave the reader overwhelmed and confused. With little effort RL could eliminate such risks to his readers, by explaining the methods and terms more fully.5 Second, despite emphasizing the importance of the literary record at the start of his book, RL engages ancient sources only superficially. Roger Ulrich took issue with RL’s reference to Martial in what is now chapter 9 (formerly 8; Ulrich 384). I have already mentioned a problem in chapter 8 vis-à-vis RL’s unsubstantiated interpretation of Vitruvius. Similar criticism might be applied elsewhere, such as his reference to Pliny the Younger in chapter 9 where RL uses this author to make broad statements about the structuring of time in the countryside (164). In some instances, RL’s reading seems just wrong, but in others it seems under-engaged. Either way, fuller engagement and more in-depth analyses of these valuable records would only profit RL’s arguments, fulfill his intention of working the archaeological with the literary, and be more palatable to the reader.

Finally, in several chapters, often after the application of complex theoretical methodology, RL’s conclusions fall rather flat.6 I noted several places where RL’s conclusions are simplistic or fail to take other interpretive options into consideration (e.g. 92, 116, 122, 132, 145), but one example can here suffice. In chapter 9, RL addresses the temporal logic of space by showing the typical routine of an elite male in Rome (where and when he went, and what he did throughout the course of a day). The elite male determined how the city’s space was used, and his agenda affected those of lesser status. RL then asks whether the temporal framework he has noted in operation at Rome might apply to Pompeii. He answers that yes, “The temporal framework outlined above would appear to have been standard for most cities in Italy” (165). Yet there is neither explanation nor substantiation offered for the reader. This sort of broad statement does not suffice, and it does not persuade. As possible explication to his generalized claim, RL does reconstruct a likely day for one M. Obellius Firmus. Yet after only one page, he draws three conclusions about Pompeii:

By understanding the temporal sequence of the elite, we can account for the dispersal pattern of elite houses, which needed to be separate from one another to facilitate separate processions of clients to the forum during the first and second hours. Also, the separation of the forum from the baths was important to allow further processions of the elite and their clients later in the day. Finally, the baths were located at a distance from the homes of the elite because there was a final procession from the baths home (166).

These conclusions may be correct; but it seems risky to me to make such broad statements after analyzing one man and his house, and to do so without any substantiating evidence. (Indeed, RL writes “Presumably, Obellius Firmus spent time in the forum until the sixth hour, when he may have departed with his clients to the baths” (165). Words like “presumably” and “may have” are not terribly persuasive.)

These problems are not insurmountable, were a third edition ever to appear. All three seem to suggest potential, asking as they do for further explanation and exploration. Michele George said of the first publication, “Contrary to Callimachean wisdom, in this case a bigger book would probably have been a better book”. RL’s second edition is bigger, and it is better; but perhaps it should grow yet more, not by the addition of new chapters, but by expanding upon the potential of the ones already written. As it is, however, this new version will find a ready place amongst contemporary scholarship on Pompeii. It is up to date, engaging, well researched, and full of a wide range of information that is at once valuable and provocative.


1. For a chapter-by-chapter outline, reviews from the first edition can be consulted: Michele George, BMCR 95.10.19; David Small, AJA 100.2 (1996) 430; Roger B. Ulrich, Journal of Field Archaeology 24.3 (1997) 382-385. I also have extensive notes on each chapter; if interested, please email me.

2. On the book in general, David Small writes, “We have space, but no “society” (430).

3. RL makes an odd comment here: “The emphasis on the shaping of the male body, including the penis, in childhood only makes sense if the body was on view at the bath” (175).

4. RL does reference the image of Hercules as a child, but not in the context of male sexuality. Rather, he uses it as an exceptional example of a wall painting that does not represent young adults (vid. 174).

5. George, on chapters 6 and 7; Ulrich 384. It is possible that RL figures that terminology and analytic methodology from 1994 is now common parlance, and so decided against explanation, though I think that such an assumption would be wrong.

6. Michele George described RL’s conclusions as “succinct…, with little elucidation” and “at times simplistic”. Robert Ulrich describes them as ranging from “very interesting” to “rather obvious” to “questionable”, and suggests that RL be “willing to argue his case more fully, scrutinize ancient and modern commentary on the subject, and convince the viewer that his point of view should now prevail” (384). And David Small worries, “Laurence fails to use these new architectural techniques to elucidate Pompeian society, the important part of his foundational premise” (430).