The ancient city of Pompeii has been investigated for 250 years but still remains one of the least understood ancient cities. Historians have attributed this to the inadequate standard of excavation and publication of finds, however this has greatly changed in the past decade. As a result of new approaches in prehistory, urban geography and the social sciences, writers focusing on Pompeii have turned their attention toward the city of Pompeii as an economic and social entity. The inter-relationship between structure, decor, furnishings and allocation and use of space, is the culmination of the work of many scholars and historians over several years. One of the most important aspects of the research in this area is the manner in which the Romans utilized the space they inhabited and the extent to which archaeological and textual evidence increases our understanding of the Roman domestic environment.
An intense, intricate study of domestic architecture in ancient Pompeii has been used by classical archaeologists and historians to trace aspects of domestic space and social relations in the Roman world. The wealth of the material evidence uncovered at Pompeii offers an almost unparalleled opportunity to explore the domestic life of a past society through archaeological evidence. The archaeological site at Pompeii has been noted by archaeologists and historians working on other ancient civilizations as the site that exemplifies ideals in terms of the manner of its destruction and the exceptional standard of preservation. Many authors have argued that such archaeological evidence aggressively supports an alternative approach to the use of literary sources for activity in the Roman household which can assist researchers in constructing a clearer and more detailed picture of Roman attitudes to spatial organization as well as some of the factors that helped to shape domestic space in different types of dwelling. The material in this area is well-linked, as several different specialists have been writing in response and reaction to each other. This paper will review the links and differences in the approaches and conclusions of Paul Zanker, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Ray Lawrence, and Mark Grahame on this subject.
Archaeological Excavation at Pompeii
Historians present the argument that despite all the advantages offered by archaeological evidence at Pompeii, in many ways it has yet to be exploited to its full potential. It would be virtually impossible for an archaeologist to write a history of Roman cities comprehensive and detailed enough to satisfy modern-day interests and answer the types of questions currently being asked. The bulk of the research contends that Roman houses were a deliberate construct, particularly for wealthy or aristocrats. All four of the authors discussed in this paper agree that Roman houses were used as venues for personal expression representing the owners' perception of social status and standing. Other writers have pointed out that trends of cultural expression were so pervasive in ancient Pompeii that it can become almost impossible to distinguish the social status of an owner based on archaeological evidence alone. This is due to the possibility that either the owner, architect or painter could have exerted the most influence over the design and presentation of a particular house. Additionally, since the Roman houses were constrained by the local community and society at large, it is difficult to determine whether the social factors came first or whether they were adapted later.
Recent research has focused on the manner in which the Roman houses were used, emphasizing that Roman houses were used most often for businesses. Shops were the smallest formal residential unit, and had a bedroom or living quarters attached. The two types of Roman houses examined are the atrium house and the peristyle house. The most common form, as cited by all the authors discussed here is the central peristyle house, which was completely surrounded by many different ranges of rooms, with the main reception room located directly opposite the homes' street entrance. Research indicates that local and individual expression varied; for example, reception rooms could only identified after thorough examination. Further, the authors agree that the omnipresence of the peristyle house indicated a single aristocratic culture. Recent excavation at Pompeii reveals that the Roman house not only consisted of spaces dedicated to particular activities, but also different spaces devoted to display in a social context.
Only in rare cases, however, are we able to analyze the overall organization of space in a city and see it in relation to the society that inhabited it, drawing connections between the use of space and residents' particular lives, habits, and needs (Zanker, at 1). Zanker makes these connections through the study of a townscape, a concept used to describe the outward appearance of a city, meaning not so much the architecture of single house as their function within the total context of public space. According to Zanker, a townscape represents the framework within which urban life takes place; it not only shapes the inhabitants but is also shaped by them, for the buildings and spaces, having been constructed to embody certain messages and values, continue to communicate these same messages to succeeding generations. The other authors have typically used the theory of the townscape in exploring domestic space and social relations in ancient Pompeii.
At the time of its destruction in A.D. 79, Pompeii was already an old city and had been inhabited by many generations of people from different origins, each with its own uniquely structured society (Zanker, at 3). Although Pompeii was only a medium sized country town, the structures it contained in its public space are very characteristic of other Italian cities and the western provinces of the late Roman Republic and early empire. One of the most noticeable aspects of urban public space in the Roman Empire was the subdivision by neighborhood and social class. In the townscapes of the second century A.D. this development occurred not only in baths but also in other types of buildings as well. Houses differed in town and country and between the rich, less prosperous, and the poor. Inside a typical home in Pompeii, the main room was called the atrium, a name originally connected with the dark smoke from a fire. Next to the atrium was the dining room, called the triclinium. The triclinium was arranged with three couched around a square table, with the fourth side left open for serving food. The couch on the left was used by the family and the other couches were reserved for guests. An alternative arrangement, often found in later years, was a semicircular couch that seated six to eight people.
Houses at Pompeii
Historians have indicated that Pompeii was a small, rather insignificant town with never more than 20,000 inhabitants, buried in 79 AD by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which preserved its structure. This preservation has offered scholars one of the most intact examples of an ancient city along with a complete record of the social, domestic and cultural life of its citizens. The form of the Pompeian townhouse was derived from Greek and Hellenistic designs and varied greatly in size and elaboration, from two or three rooms to large buildings with many rooms arranged around courtyards. The houses were entered from a narrow street facade that was plain and windowless. The most common style of house conformed to a standard rectangular plan, organized around a central atrium, or interior court, which held the shrine of the house gods. The atrium is covered by a roof that has an opening in the center, below which a water pool received the rainwater from the gutters. The tablinum, the main living room where the family dined and received guests, occupied the side opposite the entrance. Beyond the tablinum is the garden which lacks the elaborate porticoes and colonnades of the Hellenistic house.
Later on the colonnaded peristyle, derived from the wealthy houses of the Hellenistic cities, was assimilated in the primitive Pompeian house. The peristyle was added onto the central axis beyond the tablinum, but rather than being paved in the Greek manner, it was planned as a colorful garden in the depth of the house. The tablinum ceased to be the general living room and was occupied by the family archives. Its former place was taken by the triclinium, one of the rooms opening off the peristyle. The characteristic dwellings of the fully developed style are generally planned on a narrow rectangular site, extending a long way back from the road, with rooms that are grouped around two main quadrilateral spaces. The atrium at the front served for formal occasions as well as normal domestic use; and the peristyle at the rear was used for more private occasions, and the tablinum was located between them.
The rooms of the typical Pompeian house provided large areas for decoration; and mosaics, marble slabs, stucco and painted decoration covered a large area of the walls, ceilings and floors. The houses of all classes were decorated, because most rooms were extremely small and dark. The blank walls were covered with…
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