BMCR 2011.05.65

The Classical Greek House. Greece and Rome Live

, The Classical Greek House. Greece and Rome Live. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2010. xiv, 193. ISBN 9781904675754. $25.00 (pb).

It has been over twenty years since Michael Jameson’s two articles in which he identified numerous misconceptions about Greek domestic architecture and private space.1 The misunderstandings Jameson noted were due to an approach to houses that was filtered primarily through the lens of Greek literature, with little regard for the material remains of the architecture and domestic assemblages. He argued that the archaeological evidence needed to be given at least equal weight with the literary, especially because the material remains of houses and their attendant assemblages sometimes contradicted the written record. Jameson fundamentally altered the discourse on Greek houses by applying methodologies developed in the social sciences; it is no surprise that one of his two papers was published in a collection dedicated to the cross-cultural study of domestic architecture.

We are now in an age when scholars, fully steeped in the lessons taught by Jameson, are bringing a new light and life to the interpretation of Greek houses. Lisa Nevett’s volume was an important overview of Greek domestic space.2 She was followed by Nicholas Cahill, who applied a spatial analysis to the finds from the houses at Olynthos, and by Bradley Ault, who produced a volume which is both a primary publication of the houses at Halieis and an analysis of the domestic assemblages.3 All three of these publications are worth noting because the first serves as the background and the latter two as source material for Janett Morgan’s The Classical Greek House. Morgan walks a fine line between her allegiance to the material and written evidence for houses, and while she appears at different points in her book to prefer one source of evidence for houses over the other, ultimately Morgan’s study pays homage to the text. Her collation and use of the written sources on houses are both a strength of the volume and a pitfall, as she often relies too closely on the texts.

Morgan writes in a very approachable style, and after an excellent introduction to the urban setting of the Greek house, she examines in successive chapters the social aspects of Greek private life as they are manifested in the buildings we have long called houses. Each chapter begins with the literary and documentary testimonia. The book focuses exclusively on buildings at three Classical sites: Athens, Olynthos, and Halieis. Athens is a natural starting point, not because of its cultural and political prominence in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., but rather because almost all of the surviving literary accounts of houses were penned by Athenian authors. Olynthos recommends itself for the study because 102 buildings identified as houses were excavated there and the findspots of the domestic assemblages were mapped, a practice which was without parallel in most Mediterranean excavations until well after the Second World War. Morgan’s inclusion of the Halieis houses was doubtless because they were carefully excavated, with near total recovery of the finds, and well published.

The social issues examined by Morgan revolve around the family, both as a whole, and as an aggregate of the individual members. Gendered space in the home is considered, as are the activities of the inhabitants, including the conduct of their daily lives, their economic support, their religious practice, and their contact with the community as a whole. While Morgan never states so overtly, the organization of her study reflects Aristotle’s view that the oikos was the fundamental building block of the polis.

The houses discussed in this volume date to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. The fourth century was a time of tremendous change, when the simple abodes of the classical polis gave way to the mega-mansions of the Hellenistic city. E. Walter-Karydi’s significant study of the evolution in Late Classical domestic architecture should be referenced on this topic.4 Especially as Morgan discusses houses whose plans changed over this period (e.g. the houses on the Areopagus in Athens pp. 49-51, p. 103), she needs to be very careful with dates; unfortunately, she is less than conscientious in this regard, and her imprecision leads to some confusion.

Morgan is the author of a dissertation on Greek domestic religion, from which she drew two articles which focus on aspects on household cult, especially as it pertains to women. In one article, Morgan attempted to reconstruct how the landscape of the home was temporarily altered by word and action to become sacred space.5 The insightful contributions made by these two works cause the reader to wish that the present study had domestic religion as its primary focus, for it is when Morgan writes about religion that her book is at its strongest. It has been decades since Greek household cult came under scholarly scrutiny, and then only in two articles;6 two recent chapters have returned to the topic but it still deserves a book-length study.7 Above all, the surviving material evidence needs to be considered in the discussion of domestic religion, as F. Rumscheid has so masterfully done with the terracotta figurines from Priene.8

There is an underlying polemic that runs through much of Morgan’s book. While she frequently and correctly calls on the reader not to view ancient houses through the lens of modern residences and daily life, Morgan also questions whether every building which has been called a house correctly deserves its identification. She contends that the ancient material culture, both architectural and artifactual, has been over-interpreted and that the structures we have called houses had multiple uses. While Morgan does not exactly throw the baby out with the bath water, the reader is sometimes left with the impression that we have little to no idea what defines an ancient house. While the flexibility of space is by now a nearly universally accepted aspect of Greek domestic architecture, Morgan does not fully allow that conception of ancient Greek conception domestic space to reign in her identification of what constitutes domestic space. She argues that only limited portions of the buildings usually identified as houses can be called such. Morgan uses the published assemblages to her own end, e.g., to recognize taverns, without considering the other domestic impedimenta, such as loom weights, that might contradict her identifications of space. Her use of the Halieis material is especially problematic, as the finds there were not recovered from a primary deposition.

Leaving the reader with the impression that much of what we have previously assumed about Greek houses is false is all the more puzzling, given the likely audience for this book. There are no footnotes here, and the parenthetical notes are to a valuable but limited bibliography. While recent scholarship is included amongst the titles, so too are textbooks.9 If Morgan’s book is itself intended as a textbook on Greek houses for either undergraduate or graduate students, it lacks the overview of the topic and the detailed presentation that would allow a student to engage with the underlying polemic. Adding to the question of the intended audience are the nature and paucity of illustrations. The few photographs are of middling quality and the only objects illustrated are a funerary monument and a simply drawn vase, both used to depict Athenian women. Any student given this volume as a text on Greek houses would need another fairly thorough introduction to domestic assemblages. The house plans are deceptively simplified and continue the unfortunate practice of substituting solid lines where walls have been restored but are not certain. For all houses discussed here, the reader is cautioned to turn to the excavation reports and final publications for actual state plans.

If the volume is intended for a more sophisticated audience, its bibliography needs considerable expansion and potential objections to the author’s approach must be addressed. The bibliography is better suited to the student who is first encountering the subject of Greek houses; it does not refer to excavation reports and only three titles are not in English. The substance of several uncited articles appears to form part of the discussion in the present volume.10 Other articles which support Morgan’s point of view are also neglected.11 While there are no footnotes in which the author can engage with the scholarship on houses, there should be, e.g. page 65, where Morgan seems to take issue with Lisa Nevett’s identification of the single-entrance courtyard house as the prevailing model in the Classical period.

A few errors and omissions should be noted, because, as they give a mistaken impression to the reader. The author of the Oeconomica is generally considered to be Pseudo-Aristotle, not the founder of the Lyceum himself. Mudbrick fortification walls, presumably thicker than the house walls similarly breeched in Menander’s Phasma and Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusai, could be excavated through in just one night (Xen. An 7.8.14). Thus the thinness of actual house walls should not be overstated. In her discussion of the Adoneia, Morgan does not take into account Charles Edwards’ refutation of the identification of scenes of that festival.12 Both of these passages illustrate the author’s general ignoring of the material evidence for house construction. Demosthenes’ statements about the modest quality of Athenian houses MUST be read in the context of his political agenda, i.e., the condemnation his contemporaries with a charge of tryphē, precisely the sort of “ideological purpose” which Morgan herself notes on the following page (46). The so-called Flügelhof houses on the Pnyx have now been proven by Gerald Lalonde not to have been houses at all.13

An overview of Greek houses for an undergraduate audience is sorely needed and, despite this volume, remains to be written. The present study could be used for such an introduction, only if it were accompanied by better plans, many images of architecture and artifacts, and a more balanced and evenhanded approach to the factual evidence.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. House and City, Public and Private: The Urban Landscape
Chapter 2. House as Home: Viewing the Classical Greek House
Chapter 3. The Family at Home
Chapter 4. Working from Home: House and Economy
Chapter 5. Gender Ideology and the Classical House
Chapter 6. Religion and the Classical House
Final Observations and Thoughts


1. M. Jameson, 1990. “Private Space in the Greek City,” in O. Murray and S. Price eds., The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford, 171-198. Id., “Domestic Space in the Greek City State,” in S. Kent ed., Domestic Architecture and the Use of Space. Cambridge, 92-113.

2. L. Nevett, 1999. House and Society in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge.

3. N. D. Cahill, 2002. House and City Organization at Olynthus. New Haven and London. B. A. Ault, 2005. The Excavations at Halieis: vol. 2: The Houses: The Organization and Use of Domestic Space. Bloomington.

4. E. Walter-Karydi, 1994. Die Nobilitierung des Wohnhauses. Lebensform und Architektur im spätklassischen Griechenland (Xenia: Konstanzer althistorische Vorträge und Forschungen 35.

5. J. Morgan, 2007. “Women, Religion, and the Home,” in D. Ogden Ed., A Companion to Greek Religion. Malden MA AND Oxford, 297-310. Id., 2007. “Space and the Notion of Final Frontier: Searching for Ritual Boundaries in the Athenian Home,” Kernos 20, 113-129.

6. M. P. Nilsson, 1954. “Roman and Greek Domestic Cult,” OpRom 1, 77-85. H. J. Rose, 1957. “The Religion of the Greek Household,” Euphrosyne 1, 95-116.

7. D. Boedeker, 2008. “Family Matters: Domestic Religion in Classical Greece,” in J. Bodel and S. M. Olyan eds., Household and Family Religion in Antiquity. Oxford, 229-247. C. A. Faraone, 2008. “Household Religion in Ancient Greece,” in Bodel and Olyan eds. op.cit. 210-228.

8. F. Rumscheid, 2006. Die figürlichen Terrakotten von Priene: Fundkontexte, Ikonographie und Funktion in Wohnhäusern und Heiligtümern im Licht antiker Parallelbefunde. Wiesbaden.

9. E.g. M. Beard and J. Henderson, 2001. Classical Art. From Greece to Rome. Oxford.

10. E.g. L. Nevett, 2000. “A Real Estate Market in Classical Greece? The Example of Town Housing,” BSA 95, 329-343.

11. E.g. W. A. MacDonald, 1951. “Villa or Pandokeion?” in G. Mylonas ed., Studies Presented to David Moore Robinson on his Seventieth Birthday. St. Louis, 365-373.

12. C. M. Edwards, 1984. “Aphrodite on a Ladder,” Hesperia 53, 59-72.

13. G. V. Lalonde, 2006. Horos Dios. An Athenian Cult of Zeus. Leiden. P. 20