BMCR 2011.03.68

Cities of Roman Italy: Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia. Classical World Series

, Cities of Roman Italy: Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia. Classical World Series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2010. 123. ISBN 9781853997280. $23.00 (pb).

Guy de la Bédoyère participates in the UK version of the popular archaeology television show “Time Team” and teaches at Kesteven and Sleaford High School. He has published many books on a wide variety of topics and periods. 1 The purpose of Cities of Roman Italy is to provide a short introduction to themes about status and buildings in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia for school and university students.

While information about Pompeii is widely accessible in print and electronic media, the same cannot be said for Herculaneum and Ostia. De la Bédoyère’s aim, therefore, is commendable. In six slim, sharply focused chapters, he addresses the historical background of each city, the political and social context within which these communities were founded and how they developed over time, shared and city-specific civic institutions, private expressions of social identity, the relationship between social condition and commemorative funerary practices, and matters relating to their destruction, excavation and preservation in the modern age.

De la Bédoyère’s first chapter (pp.9-20) comprises overviews of each city’s history in the wider context of Rome’s emergence as a Mediterranean power. The pace is breathless and the detail, of necessity, skeletal. Significant chronological markers are touched on—for example, Ostia’s imperial associations, Pompeii’s Etruscan, Greek and Roman heritage, and Herculaneum’s resort status.

Chapter 2 (“Government and Social Structure,” pp.21-38) offers broad outlines of the structural framework of Roman politics (distilled to the elite monopoly of state magistracies), civil society (citizens, Latins, provincials; the familia) and civic government (administrative positions, official qualifications and duties, the town council, electioneering), and public obligations ( munificentia and its commemorative rewards). Brief items on the status and roles of freedmen, suburban and commercial organization (the pagus and collegia), and the social condition of slaves, round off the chapter. Throughout this overview, De la Bédoyère includes illustrative examples of polity and civil practice, drawn mainly from epigraphic sources associated with each Roman city.

In the next section (Chapter 3: “Public Institutions and Identity,” pp. 39-60), De la Bédoyère explores the topography of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia, with a view to identifying the socio-cultural meanings inherent in public spaces in urbanized Roman Italy. State cult, commercial activity, entertainment and leisure, religion, and civil service all find expression in the familiar architectural spaces of forum, basilica, theatre, amphitheatre, bathhouse, gymnasium, temple, barracks and warehouse.

Chapter 4 (“Private Expressions of Social Identity,” pp. 61-85) focuses on the socio-spatial dynamics of domus and insulae within the urban fabric. Martial’s description of the Roman day ( Ep. 4.8.1-6) establishes a temporal context for the exposition of architectural features and associated functions. De la Bédoyère (by way of Vitruvius) glosses the primary elements of the traditional atrium house, as well as building and decorative techniques (wall-painting and flooring). His exemplary case studies include Herculaneum’s Samnite House (V.1-2), the House of the Stags (IV.21) and House in Opus Craticium (III.14); Pompeii’s Houses of the Menander (I.10.4), A. Umbricius Scaurus (VII.16.15) and Loreius Tiburtinus/Octavius Quartio (II.2.2) ; and Ostia’s House of Apuleius (II.8.5), Garden Houses (III.9), and the House of Diana (III.3.3-4).

Due to the dearth of archaeological or epigraphic material relating to burial at Herculaneum, De la Bédoyère confines the subject of Chapter 5 (“Status and Prestige in Death,” pp. 86-94) to a brief tour of Pompeii’s cemeteries outside the Herculaneum and Nucerian Gates and tombs at Ostia’s eastern perimeter and the Isola Sacra complex. The reader learns about a range of burial types (primarily the Pompeian schola and altar tombs) and the dedicatory, commemorative, and prestige functions of funerary epigraphy and tomb decoration, notably relief panels.

Chapter 6 (“Destruction, Excavation and Preservation,” pp. 95-102) covers the well-known accounts of Vesuvius’ eruption and the annihilation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, notes in passing Ostia’s historical continuity as a commercial way-station between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the city of Rome, and then treats in synopsis the histories of discovery and conservation associated with each city. De la Bédoyère concludes his account with a précis of the modern archaeological sites: what the modern traveler will find, the best ways to reach each site, and visiting protocols (including contact details for obtaining permessi).

Reference materials appended to the main body of the text comprise a glossary of Latin terms (pp. 103-5), select texts and inscriptions (pp. 106-114), commonly used abbreviations for pertinent epigraphic corpora and (irregularly annotated) suggestions for further reading (pp. 115-118), and a general index (pp. 119-123).

It is disappointing that a significant percentage of the text is keyed directly to material relating to Pompeii. There is no doubt that this information will be useful to many readers (and certainly to the students at whom this text is aimed); but it feels as if an opportunity to explore aspects of urban life reflecting socio-cultural difference as well as continuity might have been taken up with greater vigour. It is unexpected, for example, not to find any mention of the waxed tablet archives of L. Caecilius Iucundus, the Sulpicii, or the tabulae Herculanenses, the widespread incidence and in situ /conserved evidence for graffiti practices, or the fact that the prevalence of campaign programmata in Pompeii is found in no other Roman city in Italy or elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Oddly, too, in a work of this kind, there are no site plans of the cities. While particular topographical quadrants (the Claudian and Trajanic harbours at Ostia, the Pompeian forum) and structural plans (baths and houses) provide reference points to the relevant items of descriptive text, visual representations (in map form or as aerial/satellite images) would have enhanced the archaeological contexts of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia.

All in all, as “a one-stop introduction” to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia, “designed for students of classics and archaeology A-level or first-year university courses,” (back cover) this book—part of Duckworth’s Classical World Series—fulfils its objectives. De la Bédoyère’s accessible prose style, relevant selection of literary, documentary, and archaeological sources illustrating and supporting his text, and useful appendix of additional print and electronic resources, combine to good effect in introducing the interested non-specialist and beginning student of classical archaeology to the premier urban sites of Roman Italy.


1. The most recent: De la Bédoyère (2002), Architecture in Roman Vegas; id. 2006, Roman Britain. A New History.