BMCR 2024.02.49

Space, movement, and visibility in Pompeian houses

, Space, movement, and visibility in Pompeian houses. Studies in Roman space and urbanism. Abingdon: Routledge, 2023. Pp. 276. ISBN 9781472485953.



In the realm of classical archaeology, the examination of the spatial layout of both domestic and urban environments has traditionally focused on visual aspects. Notably, when the Spatial Turn emerged in Campanian studies in the late 1980s and 1990s, pioneering researchers laid the groundwork for comprehending space primarily through visual elements. This involved a meticulous exploration of sightlines, visual axes within residences, and how ornamental features like wall paintings and mosaics played a pivotal role in shaping and defining these spaces. Furthermore, scholars delved into the intricate relationship between social activities within these houses, their functional purpose, the adornments embellishing them, and their architectural configurations. These Roman and Campanian houses were essentially regarded as windows into the social tapestry, where the arrangement of spaces and decorative motifs conveyed a code that not only guided the movements of the family residing there but also dictated the experiences of houseguests.[1]

While sight has dominated the study of Pompeii, recent research has taken another turn, namely the Sensory Turn, which aims at understanding ancient space from a multisensory point of view, giving emphasis not only on vision but other sensations, too. One might ask then, after all the ocular-centric research, is a new book on the role of vision in Pompeian domestic space needed any longer? The short answer is yes. The somewhat longer answer is, yes, and this book currently under review is a long-awaited contribution to Pompeian scholarship.

The book at hand sets out to investigate Pompeian domestic space using computational methods, namely space syntax analysis and GIS. In the early 1990s wave of studies into space usage in Roman houses, space syntax analysis was introduced as a promising new take on understanding ancient spaces. It draws from the work of Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, meant as a theoretical tool for analyzing the interrelationship of architecture and social processes, developed in the mid-1970s and 1980s.[2] However, the publications applying this technique to Pompeian domestic space have been rather few so far. The reason space syntax analysis was not fully employed in the early years of the Spatial Turn in Pompeii seems to be quite simple: without the aid of computer software, the calculations seemed too complicated regarding the expected results. Much has changed since, and computational methods are now a standard feature in the analysis of Pompeian space. Space syntax analysis has not, however, been employed to this extent before in Pompeian scholarship.

The actual analysis begins in the third chapter, “The Analysis of Domestic Space,” presenting the methods and case study houses. The impressive sample consists of 68 houses, selected from different parts of the town. Anderson aims for a statistically valid selection of the houses to be investigated (p. 74), but encounters a problem that no amount of sophisticated computational methods can overcome: the patchy preservation of houses and their contents combined with inadequately documented early excavations does not allow proper statistical analyses of the Pompeian material – a good reminder for all archaeologists who cherish the hope that archaeology can move away from the uncertainties of humanities just by vehemently applying methods borrowed from natural sciences. The chosen houses are analyzed using a space syntax inspired tool called visibility heatmaps, which allows the investigation of the ways the built environment guided the movement of the people inhabiting the houses and those visiting them (p. 83) and the visibility of different areas. Such visibility heatmaps are produced by combining isovists of chosen locations to capture the visual experience of a person moving through a space. In practice, heatmaps show the range of visible areas in chosen houses on a scale of low, medium, and high, illustrated by floor plans gradually changing color from light to dark, (pp.65-69).

The visibility heatmaps form the foundation for further analysis of the activities taking place in the Pompeian houses, in the following fourth chapter, “Visitors, Inhabitants, Space, and Power in Pompeian Houses.” Anderson first tackles the visually imposing vistas from the house entrance throughout the house, a spatial arrangement that is at the core of previous scholarship on Pompeian houses. According to the pioneering studies into Pompeian domestic space, the rooms in the private townhouses were organized symmetrically on two sides of a so-called fauces–atrium–tablinum axis, and thus a passerby, peeking in from the front entrance, would always see the same type of spaces throughout the house. Visibility and control of the spaces were in the hands of the house owner, emphasizing his status. The atrium, as the focal point of salutatio, was at the heart of social interaction, and architecture served both social gatherings and maintaining the social hierarchies between the patrons and their clientes. Thus, an expected starting point for Anderson’s analysis, which quite unsurprisingly confirms that an impressive sightline from the front door towards the interior of the house is a standard feature of Pompeian private housing. For Anderson and several scholars before him, extending a view to areas where outsiders cannot enter without permission highlights the power of the house-owning dominus (p. 92), spatial visibility being thus a major contributor in creating and maintaining the power dynamics of Pompeian hierarchies.

The intricate relationships between clientes, dominus, and friends (amici) certainly played a major part in the arrangements of Pompeian spaces, but was that the only component? As the research has recently moved on to investigating the varied sensorial realities of Pompeian houses, one might ask whether the vistas and interconnected spaces leading up to open areas served other purposes than power performance alone, such as ensuring ventilation. The “necessity of thermodynamic variation” and “seasonal conditions” in Pompeian houses are mentioned (p. 96-7) but in passing, missing an opportunity to look past the needs of elite reception in the architecture to more everyday necessities of ancient building practices. Another opportunity is lost in the discussion of the role of doors and closures in restricting and allowing views inside the houses. Anderson does take up this question in a short subsection of chapter 3 called “The Effect of Closed Doorways” (p. 69) but does not really engage with the research done on the Pompeian doorways. A possibility for furthering of our understanding of Pompeian domestic space is hidden in note 55 (p. 80), where Anderson mentions how “[Taylor] Lauritsen (2011) perhaps goes too far in suggesting that Pompeian houses were generally more closed than open, which fails to account for the clear concern with sightlines documented elsewhere in house architecture.” One would expect that a book that is all about sight and sightlines would engage more deeply in discussion (a debate!) regarding the openness, hence visibility, of Pompeian houses.

After treating elite reception, the rest of the fourth chapter examines other activities taking place in Pompeian houses, bridging introductory chapters to the spatial-visual analysis of the private dwellings. The book begins with an exploration of the research history of Pompeian and is followed by a chapter that attempts to reconstruct activities in Roman (and Pompeian) houses. This chapter begins with a quick review of certain Roman authors and their value as sources for Pompeian domestic life and deems them to be of rather little value (p. 20). Quite interestingly, Anderson does not, however, abandon the literary evidence altogether but turns to Roman comedy and Plautus in particular, in the aim to model the patterns of diverse activities and actors of the Roman household (p. 33). Roman comedy does offer a wealth of information on the different social groups inhabiting households, and therefore I find this attempt commendable, even though it is questionable how representative the plays can be regarding the housing in one provincial town centuries later. Nevertheless, Anderson paints a vivid and nuanced picture of the everyday life in Roman houses to serve as the foundation for his further analyses of the Pompeian domestic space. The real challenge, however, is, as Anderson mentions, to connect the activities to Pompeian spaces (p. 48). The analysis in the fourth chapter attempts to do just that.

The method of doing so, employing the heatmaps produced for the study, manages to confirm results presented in earlier studies: large, open areas such as atria and peristyles were indeed the most visible and dominating spaces, which provided spatial control for heads of the household. Most daily activities and traffic tended to cluster in the open atria, yet differing according to the house size and plan, as in houses with peristyles, these seem to have become the most trafficked areas. This shifted the bottlenecks of movement out of the atria towards peristyles, which Anderson sees as a possible contributor to their popularity in the Pompeian houses (p. 112). Among the rooms of low visibility are the small rooms typically called cubicula (possibly, but not necessarily used for sleeping), storage, and service areas including kitchens. Kitchen-latrine combinations were typical for Pompeian spatial arrangement, and these areas are often isolated from the reception areas, as noted in several previous research.[3] What Anderson’s heatmaps reveal is that, while there is a spatial-visual isolation of these clusters, they also are often located centrally, close to busy spaces. This is explained by the need to cater to elite dinners easily and effectively. The need to hide service areas and manage their nuisances combined with the demands of elite reception creates an intricate and carefully planned internal logic for Pompeian houses.

In the final chapters, Anderson takes a detailed look at the spatial-visual side of two aspects of Pompeian houses, firstly the space in post-earthquake Pompeii and secondly the wall-painting decoration. The discussion concerning the role of the earthquake(s) in the use of houses proves, in my opinion, to be the most important contribution of the book. The chapter includes a discussion of pre-eruption seismic activity in the area and the part this might have played in the patterns of spatial usage we see in the archaeological record. Are the damages and disruption seen in the archaeological material results of an event that took place some 16-17 years before the eruption, or could they be explained by a more recent series of seismic events? Anderson tackles the questions of disruption vs. continuity and persistence vs. abandonment and manages to show that the domestic activities and spatial organization were clearly affected by the earthquake, but daily life was not completely disrupted by it (p. 179, 196-8). The visuospatial analysis scrutinizing the patterns of artifact assemblages shows that there are clear differences in the use of space between house owners who stayed in their homes and continued to live there despite reconstruction work, to that of houses handed over to an overseer of reconstruction. The placement and visibility/invisibility of building materials and salvaged valuables is of particular interest, revealing that in some houses such items seem to have been located out of sight but in easily accessible areas conjoining the needs of everyday activities and rebuilding (p. 182). Some other houses, on the other hand, were more clearly amidst full-on renovations, and the building materials were placed in convenient but visible locations (p. 186). As Anderson concludes the chapter, “The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, therefore, preserved a dynamic, vibrant, and living town that was persevering through difficult times” (p. 200).

Space, Movement, and Visibility in Pompeian Houses informs us not only on the important aspects of the final years of Pompeii, but also showcases what the methodology of spatial-visual analysis can offer. Therefore, I would like to conclude that this is an important contribution to the research into Pompeian domestic space, built on solid methodology. I may have presented some more critical remarks about “lost opportunities,” but I recommend reading them as prompts for further discussion on the senses and spaces of Pompeian houses, rather than outright criticism.



Barbet, A. 1985. La peinture murale romaine. Les styles decoratifs pompeiens. Paris: Picard.

Clarke, J. 1991. The Houses of Roman Italy 100 B.C.–A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jansen, G. 1997. “Private toilets at Pompeii: Appearance and operation.” In Sequence and Space in Pompeii, ed. S. Bon and R. Jones, 121–34. Oxford: Oxbow.

Jansen, G. 2000. “Systems for the disposal of waste and excreta in Roman cities.” In Sordes urbis: la eliminación de residuos en la ciudad romana: actas de la Reunión de Roma, 15–16 de noviembre de 1996, ed. A. Remolà Vallverdú and X. Dupré i Raventós, 37–49. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider.

Hillier, B., and J. Hanson. 1988. The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laurence, R. 1994. Roman Pompeii – Space and Society. London and New York: Routledge.

Laurence, R., and A. Wallace-Hadrill, eds. 1997. Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond. Series Portsmouth: JRA.

Mygind, H. 1911. Hygiejniske forhold i oldtidens Pompeji. København: Koppels.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1988. “The social structure of the Roman house.” PBSR 56: 43–97.

Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1994. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



[1] See, e.g., Barbet 1985; Wallace-Hadrill 1988; Wallace-Hadrill 1994; Clarke 1991; Laurence 1994; Laurence.

and Wallace-Hadrill 1997.

[2] Hillier and Hanson 1988.

[3] E.g. Mygind 1911; Jansen 1997 and 2000.