BMCR 2021.05.36

Anthropology of Roman housing

, , Anthropology of Roman housing. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. 340. ISBN 9782503588605. €90,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Housing, that is dwelling in man-made accommodations, can be considered an anthropological constant. Though the topic of Roman housing has been studied for a long time, research so far has concentrated more on the houses of the rich and mighty (with a clear emphasis on architecture and the representation of status) and less on houses as lived-in spaces. There are by far fewer studies on “more modest dwellings” and their inhabitants, as the editors Alexandra Dardenay and Nicolas Laubry rightly argue in their introduction, but some of that scholarship could have been cited.[1] They advocate for a “dévitruvisation”[2] of domestic spaces, i.e. emancipating the interpretation of Roman domestic spaces and their functions from the Vitruvian terms that have long been exceedingly influential. This is an important point which also constitutes something like a connecting link between the individual papers, regardless of whether they specifically refer to Vitruvius or not.

In this respect, the contributions by Sandra Zanella and Antonella Coralini read like an extension of the introduction. Zanella rightly stresses the dominant influence of Vitruvius on both the early and later excavators of Pompeii who in turn established connections between Vitruvian architectural terms and specific rooms or parts of buildings. However, these connections are in many cases not as certain as is often assumed. Especially with regard to the use and function of the rooms, following Vitruvius rather obscures than clarifies the view. Instead, Zanella proposes the application of the so-called ‘Space syntax’-method. In short, this is about the accessibility and visibility of the individual rooms which in turn discloses their hierarchy in the house and shows their more private or more public character. Coralini emphasizes the importance of looking through archives and excavation reports in order to establish how earlier results were determined and to identify possible misconceptions. For example, many buildings have been interpreted as domestic so far, though in fact their use and function was perhaps more complex. She cites the example of Insula IX in Pompeii that was a large domus in Augustan times. However, after the earthquake of AD 62, it lost its residential function and became a hybrid complex of which only some rooms were used effectively, primarily for the purpose of business.

The hierarchy of rooms as indicated by their accessibility and visibility is also addressed by other contributions. James Andrews turns his attention to the upper storeys of houses in Herculaneum, which research has rather neglected. His observations reveal a much more complex and highly dynamic use of these rooms which complement other conclusions made by other papers in this book. A similar outcome emerges from the ‘urban villas’ along the Pompeian city walls which are analysed by Anna Anguissola. These houses appear to be a mixture of urban domus and rural villae. By taking into account their paths of movement and communication, she offers another perspective for understanding the use of these dwellings by their inhabitants beyond the traditional view centered on the Vitruvian paradigm.

In this way, the occupants of the house come closer into view. Some of the following papers add more. Alain Bouet turns to an essential human need by analysing the different forms and developments of Roman latrines. These were clearly segregated spaces and a sign of the Romans’ cleanliness on the one hand, but on the other hand did not necessarily improve the public health conditions by very much. Some insight into the thinking of the inhabitants and their perception of their living quarters can be reached by way of looking at domestic religious spaces, as Marin Mauger argues with regard to the lares and their representation in the individual houses. They not only structure the house by delimiting the domestic spaces (e.g. from commercial parts of the building), but they also establish a link between those two parts. Two papers deal with the female household members and their use of the house. As Polly Lohmann points out for Pompeii, graffiti offer few insights into their lives, as female household members are quite underrepresented in graffiti from domestic contexts. More information can be gained by female toiletry articles and their find-spots in Pompeian houses, as discussed here by Ria Berg. The findings divide into two contexts: the majority of these items were found in storage, but the second group’s find locations seem to indicate the place of their use. They were discovered in the living quarters of the houses, predominantly in the tablinum or adjacent oeci, to use the Vitruvian terms. Thus, Berg plausibly suggests that the activities of the materfamilias were not in more secluded rooms such as the cubicula, but rather in the central parts of the house.

The last three articles widen the perspective beyond the cities at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Mantha Zarmakoupi’s paper addresses the blurring of the boundaries between public and private in the Roman houses of Delos. She describes how the Italians in Delos present themselves as Roman in their houses by way of altars for the Lares Compitales at their entrances as well as by inscriptions and graffiti inside, which reflect both their Italian or Roman identity and their commercial background. In his article on houses in Roman Celtiberia, Jesús Bermejo Tirado demonstrates the usefulness of the above-mentioned ‘Space syntax’-method. He can discern three types of houses which he calls the “paterfamilias”, “vernacular” and “local non-traditional” models and connects with different household forms. The first model fits a “Roman” household with a nuclear family around the paterfamilias and some other residents such as servants and guests. The second and third models would relate to different types of households, in the case of the “vernacular” model to rather small ones, whereas the third model seems to pertain to local and complex kinship households.

A different approach is taken by Nathalie Baills-Barré and Mélissa Tirel in the final article on Roman Gallia. They are concerned with the dead instead of the living, that is with the burial of infants and very young children within the context of the house. In their view this has nothing to do with infanticide or the like as has sometimes been stated for such finds. Instead, they suggest that these buried children were meant to find a resting place near their families, especially near their mothers. In this way, they relate after all to the living inhabitants of the houses.

The book under review is meant to present current research perspectives and to indicate new areas of study as well as innovative methods. In this regard the volume succeeds without question. One might disagree with one detail or another, or challenge the results of individual contributions. But such quibbles do not affect the overall positive impression of the book which offers rich insights and provides many cues for further research. There is much work to be done for which this volume presents a good starting point.

Table of Contents

Alexandra Dardenay and Nicolas Laubry, Toward an anthropological approach to the Roman living space (7–20)
Sandra Zanella, L’archéologie des espaces domestiques à Pompéi: un point sur la question (21–52)
Antonella Coralini, Lucrum facere? Strategie d’uso degli spazi domestici nell’ultima Pompei (53–86)
James N. Andrews, Rooms with a view: status, spatial hierarchy, and seasonality in the upper floors of houses at Herculaneum (87–114)
Anna Anguissola, Tra domus e villa. Spazio e società nelle abitazioni lungo le mura di Pompei (115–146)
Alain Bouet, With all mod cons? Latrines in domestic settings (147–163)
Marin Mauger, Sanctuaires et marges de l’habitat: perception et délimitation de l’espace domestique (165–192)
Ria Berg, Locating the use and storage of female toiletry items in Pompeian Houses (193–217)
Polly Lohmann, Where are the women? Approaching domestic space through graffiti (219–236)
Mantha Zarmakoupi, Between public and private: the Italian houses of late Hellenistic / Roman Delos (237–257)
Jesús Bermejo Tirado, House form and household structure: the social analysis of urban domestic architecture in Roman Celtiberia (259–292)
Nathalie Baills-Barré and Mélissa Tirel, Des morts chez les vivants? Les enfants en bas âge inhumés dans les espaces domestiques de Gaule romaine (293–317)


[1] This is especially true for the seminal paper of Zvi Yavetz, “The Living Conditions of the Urban Plebs in Republican Rome”, Latomus 17, 1958, 500–517. As for literary sources on living in insulae, the collection in S. Priester, Ad summas tegulas. Untersuchungen zu vielgeschossigen Gebäudeblöcken mit Wohneinheiten und Insulae im kaiserzeitlichen Rom, Rome 2002, 240–278 is particularly valuable. The editors instead settle for Martial as their main source alongside a reference to J.-M. Pailler, “Martial et l’espace urbain”, Pallas 28, 1981, 79–87.

[2] Cf. J.-P. Guilhembet, “Normes romaines et résidences pompéiennes: remarques historiographique”, in: Contributi di archeologia vesuviana III: La norme à Pompéi (Ier siècle avant – Ier siècle après J. C.), Rome 2007, 93–107.