Roman Pompeii

Review by C.V. Walthew

University College

Roman Pompeii, - Space and Society by Ray Laurence, London: Routledge, 1994. Pp. xi + 158; 23 plates, 13 figs., 31 maps. Hb [[sterling]]35 ISBN 0 415 09502 6.

Pompeii has been investigated for 250 years and yet remains one of the least understood of ancient cities. The main reason for this paradox, of course, is the inadequate standard of excavation and publication of finds by which the site has been bedevilled until very recently, meaning that the history of Pompeii's growth, especially in its earlier phases, has still to be written. As a result, students of classical archaeology have tended to concern themselves (excessively, some might say) with the fabric of the city's buildings and their interior decoration. During the last decade, happily the situation has improved radically. Prompted by new approaches in prehistory, urban geography and the social sciences writers on Pompeii have turned their attention to the city as an economic and social entity and a succession of outstanding books has appeared from Jongman [1] and Zanker [2] and a series of articles by Wallace-Hadrill, recently reissued in book form. [3] Ray Laurence's book on Pompeii can be reckoned a worthy addition to this list.

Unlike some recent archaeological writers, Laurence proclaims his intention from the outset of giving equal weight to the archaeological and historical evidence for Pompeii, and he is as good as his word, prefacing several chapters and sections within chapters with an impressively thorough review of the literary and historical sources. In addition to summarising some of the newer approaches to Pompeii and questioning older views (e.g. on the implications of the earthquake of AD 62 and the relevance of electoral graffiti to house ownership), the Introduction touches upon the computer data-base recently established for the city and raises the question of the Weber/Finley 'consumer city' model whereby the ancient city is considered to have devoured the agricultural produce of its hinterland, whilst producing little or nothing in exchange. As emerges later (Chapter 4), Pompeii with its extensive evidence for small-scale manufacturing does not entirely conform to this fashionable model.

Chapters 1 and 2 deal with town planning and public buildings, the former showing that the notion of Pompeii as a planned city owes more to early 20th century town planning theory and its preoccupation with street grids than to the topographical realities which strongly influenced the development of Pompeii. Chapter 2 may not have anything particularly new to say, but in rightly identifying the Sullan and Augustan periods as the key ones for public building in the city it shows that Pompeii maintained close links with Rome and was not the provincial backwater sometimes supposed. Overall this chapter represents an excellent summary for English readers, though it is curious that Laurence does not mention Zanker's suggestion that the covered theatre was originally designed as a meeting-place for Sulla's veterans since this would further bolster his arguments.

Chapters 3 to 7 form the core of Laurence's book, focusing as they do on the use of urban space and its social implications. Chapter3 seeks to establish the existence of neighbourhoods (vici) within Pompeii based on the distribution of public fountains and altars of the Lares Compitales at street junctions (Maps 3.1 and 3.2), the latter, in Laurence's view, defining the boundaries between vici. This is interesting and plausible, but does rely heavily on material from Rome rather than Pompeii. On Laurence's own admission there is little evidence for intramural vici at Pompeii and his suggestion that the cult of the Lares Compitales was reorganised at Pompeii, as it was in Rome, by Augustus in 7 BC., rests upon inscriptions from the Pagus Augustus Felix Suburbanus, which, of course, lay outside the city.

In charting the distribution of bakeries, textile and metal workshops (mainly on through-streets, in the area to the east of the forum and away from the northern and eastern residential areas), Chapter 4 and its related series of maps succeeds in demonstrating that Pompeii was a city of small-scale commercial and manufacturing activities and no mere 'consumer city' parasitic upon its hinterland. This important conclusion is reinforced by the nearly 10% of the walled area now seen to have been devoted to agricultural production, especially in the eastern corner near the amphitheatre, but in more densely populated parts too.

Chapter 5 (rather startlingly entitled 'deviant behaviour') is a prime example of Laurence's admirable policy of relating literary to archaeological evidence and covers prostitution together with the closely related running of inns (cauponae) and bars (popinae). Brothels in Pompeii (not as easily identifiable as once supposed) are concentrated in the city centre, east of the forum, where they are found in back streets, associated with the rear entrances of houses rather than their front doors, so as not to offend the 'respectable'. Inns and bars were mainly located near city gates, on through-routes leading from them and east of the forum, but in any case away from the larger houses, presumably for the same reason. Sometimes inconsistencies arise here. The Vicolo degli Scheletri, just east of the forum and described (p. 91) as 'an ideal street for the location of prostitution' is not marked as 'deviant' on Map 5.4. On the other hand, Regio 6, immediately north-west of the forum, is labelled 'deviant', despite its strongly residential character and lack of through-streets, presumably because of a scattering of inns and bars in the vicinity (Maps 5.2 and 3).

Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to a detailed examination of the use of urban space [4], based in Chapter 6, on the number of doorways in each street and the total of graffiti (election notices in particular) occurring on the walls of buildings. Chapter 7 then proceeds to an assessment of the percentage of doorways on each side of insula blocks in proportion to its length, as a means of determining which was/were the dominant facade(s), and to an evaluation of the level of integration between properties on street frontages and the streets themselves. The result of this exercise is to highlight varying levels of activity in different parts of Pompeii, with the emphasis once again on through-streets and those in the vicinity of the forum and theatres, with notably less activity in the north-west and south-east residential areas. Occasionally the analysis is perhaps just too refined and we might prefer to suppose that Regio 6, north-west of the forum with its high incidence of doorways and graffiti and enough inns/bars to be labelled 'deviant' was closer in character to Regio 7 (east of the forum) than Laurence allows, despite the very different planning of the two regions.

Chapter 8 relates urban space to urban time and once again makes skilful use of the literary sources to illustrate the varying time-tables of wealthy property owners, their clients, shopkeepers, artisans and women tied to the home. Not surprisingly, the rich and their dependants emerge as the dominant figures here, covering most ground during the day and making the strongest visual impact on the urban scene as they move from early-morning salutatio to forum, baths and then home to dine. There are, of course, interesting implications for a city like Pompeii in terms of the siting of atrium houses, forum and baths, but it should be noted that Laurence's evidence refers almost exclusively to the timetables of the Roman elite in town and country and that it does not automatically apply to Pompeii. Is it true, for example, that male influence was removed from the household for much of the day? What of male house-slaves and the stewards or bailiffs for whom there is evidence at Pompeii? And might not the substantial amount of agricultural land within the city plus the siting of country villas outside but close to Pompeii perhaps suggest a more varied daily timetable than that observed by the Roman elite?

The final chapter (Chapter 9), entitled 'Urbanism in Roman Italy' serves to draw together the threads from earlier chapters and to lay further emphasis upon the social and spatial aspects of the city, including relations between town and country and the ways in which the layout of urban theatres reflects distinctions of status within the community. Not everything in this book convinces, of course, and there are points of detail on which we might take issue with Dr Laurence, but there is no doubting the quality of the work as a whole. He has managed to pack an amazing amount of archaeological and historical material into what is a relatively slim volume and the numerous distribution maps and histograms are the result of a prodigious amount of research. The book, in short, represents a major contribution to recent trends in Pompeian studies.


1W. Jongman, The Economy and Society of Pompeii, Amsterdam 1988.

2P. Zanker, Pompeji: Stadtbilder als Spiegel von Gesellschaft und Herrschaftsform, Mainz 1988 (also available in Italian as Pompei, Societą, immagini urbane e forme dell' abitare, Turin 1993).

3A. Wallace-Hadrill Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Princeton 1994

4 For a briefer summary see now R. Laurence, 'The organization of space in Pompeii' in T.J. Cornell and Kathryn Lomas (Eds.), Urban Society in Roman Italy, London 1995, 63-78.

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