Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp. xix + 244, incl. 16 colour illustrations, 67 halftones, 68 line illustrations, 6 tables and an appendix. ISBN 0-691-06987-5. US$49.50/UKú37.50.
University of Melbourne
Wallace-Hadrill has written on houses and households before, but this elegant volume sets out more than a social historian's view of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is a book which sets an agenda. He tilts at the conventional archaeological approach to Pompeii, the obsession with minute chronology in the study of wall paintings. This approach, as he ably demonstrates in this book, deflects study from cultural issues which are more important to a social historian. As he points out: 'Archaeological study has elaborated with great finesse the chronology of decorative fashions, while fighting shy of any systematic investigation of the implications for social history' (p. 65). This is perhaps a way of saying that many Pompeian archaeologists cannot see the wood for the trees. However he is well aware of the importance of archaeology because he acknowledges that it is the best social document Pompeii has to offer. It is his use of archaeology in combination with literary, historical and epigraphic evidence which makes this book such stimulating reading. He is clearly much influenced by contemporary German approaches to culture and society in the Roman world, particularly the work of Paul Zanker.(1) He also regards himself as following in the footsteps of Amadeo Maiuri, 'a towering figure in the excavation of the sites, endlessly energetic, learned and imaginative' (p. 182).
The early part of the book is concerned with the social patterns and rituals which dictated the form and layout of a Roman house. Developing the theme outlined in his introduction Wallace-Hadrill states his view of the house as a stage for these rituals not as a museum of artefacts (p. 7). He then goes on to define the two axes of grand/humble and public/private in a domestic context. These concepts are exemplified in particular types of room, e.g., a large atrium (public and grand), a slave's bedroom (private and humble), a shop (public and humble). The public parts of a Roman house draw upon the splendour of public buildings and use architectural forms like the gable (fastigium), the Egyptian oecus and the peristyle. The language of public and private extends to wall decoration, the degree of elaboration being the key to understanding how a house is to be read. The increasing elaboration of the wall decoration in the Casa del Labirinto at Pompeii is not an indication of different periods or different workshops, as its frequently suggested, but a deliberate hierarchy culminating in the Corinthian oecus with its interior columns and highly developed trompe-l'oeil perspectives. On the other hand low status areas, such as service rooms, are deliberately marginalised in terms of decoration because of the Roman concern to differentiate slaves and free. However the very transparency of a Roman house (there is usually a vista from end to end) suggests that the Romans were not concerned with creating a world of privacy within their houses as the Greeks were. The contrast was between space for invited and uninvited guests. Thus the most public areas are in the front of the house and open off the atrium, while the back, the rooms around the peristyle, are reserved for more private entertainment. This division corresponds to the Roman distinction between morning for business (negotium) and afternoon for leisure (otium).
The author goes on to examine how houses were populated, how space was used and how architecture and decoration were used to underline social status. As a survey of the whole of Pompeii would be out of the question, his evidence is based upon a sample of three groups of adjacent blocks (insulae), two in Pompeii, and one in Herculaneum. This sampling is necessarily provisional, but he demonstrates in a series of tables the validity of these samples in terms of pattern and consistency. Using this evidence he compares plans of housing blocks at Olynthus, where individual house units are extremely regular, with those of Pompeii and Herculaneum where the enormous disparity in house sizes suggests a society with very unequal distribution of wealth. In view of this disparity he classifies Pompeian houses in four groups: small shops or workshops of one or two rooms and an average area of 10-45 square metres; houses or shops with 2-7 rooms and an area of 50-170 square metres; average-sized Pompeian houses with an area of 175-345 square metres; and larger houses with an area of anything between 350-3000 square metres. He firstly attempts by means of a number of analogies, both ancient and modern, to arrive at an estimate of population density, taking as his assumption that large houses were just as likely to be crowded (if only by slaves and dependents) as small ones. A figure of 34-39 square metres per person emerges, or one person per room. However many factors could vary this figure and using it to estimate the total population of Pompeii at any one time is a risky business, precisely because there are so many imponderables, such as our ignorance of the extent of upper floor rooms, changes in house usage and the impact upon population of the earthquake of 62 AD, to name only a few. However Wallace-Hadrill's approach is more scientific than some methods which have been tried, such as relating a town's population to the seating capacity of its theatre or amphitheatre, which have resulted in preposterously high population figures for some ancient towns.
Wallace-Hadrill goes on to examine the questions of house ownership and the use made of houses at different times. The fact that rooms could be let for profit, shops, fulleries or bakeries built into houses, especially after 62 AD, does not necessarily imply the decline ('the invasion by the mercantile class') which so offended Maiuri (p. 122). A house like the Casa del Bicentenario at Herculaneum was thought to have undergone a reduction in status because the front rooms were opened as shops. However, as Wallace- Hadrill points out, this house was close to the Forum, precisely where one would expect shops to be located. The aristocratic houses at the foot of the Palatine in Rome, recently excavated by Carandini, have been shown to have had shops facing onto the street. Even the house of the great Scipio Africanus had a butcher's shop adjoining it. A similar picture of fine houses with shops incorporated into their frontages emerges in Volubilis in Morocco (but Wallace-Hadrill rarely ventures outside Italy). The conclusion here is that just as the houses of the great were thronged by people of every class, in the same way great and humble, commercial and political rubbed shoulders in the towns: 'We must reconstruct a world in which the rich frequently lived in close contiguity with their dependents, slaves and freedmen, clients and tenants, the sources of their economic and social power' (p. 141).
In the final part of the book Wallace-Hadrill analyses luxury and status. The rich have to innovate to keep ahead in terms of luxury, a tendency not confined to Pompeii or to Roman times. By the time fashion has filtered down to the poorest social strata it is time for the wealthy to adopt new fashions. The rate at which this process occurs is a reflection of the stability of the particular society. In a stable society the same luxuries mark the dominant class over a long period of time; in an unstable society with strong upward mobility innovation will be rapid. In Wallace- Hadrill's view, the late Republic and early Empire were unstable societies. He makes his case for social diffusion by showing that the Republican wall decoration styles were exclusively confined to large houses, while the 4th style was quite common even in small houses and shops. In the 4th style former luxury penetrated through the town to the lowest levels. However, although great and small houses drew upon the same 4th style repertoire, the finer houses used richer elements. Thus the 4th style is not to be viewed in terms of a decline in quality, but in terms of an increasing gulf between the bottom and the top of the market (p. 166). He sees a hierarchy of choices in the 4th style patterns. The elaboration of a particular wall is reflected in the complexity of the motifs and patterns employed. At the lower end of the scale imitation becomes banality.
It is difficult in this short space to discuss the ramifications of Wallace-Hadrill's thesis. The agenda it sets is a lengthy one: epigraphy, art history and archaeology should not be used in isolation; many classes of evidence must be brought to bear in order to contruct the social identity of Pompeii's inhabitants; it is also implicit in this book that this study must ultimately involve towns other than Pompeii and Herculaneum. However, as Wallace-Hadrill points out, there is another dimension to Pompeii and Herculaneum which has not yet begun to be explored: 'It is not until the true excavation of Pompeii starts--which will dismantle walls and examine beneath floor levels--that a credible picture of pre-imperial Pompeii can be reconstructed' (p. 161). That is a very formidable agenda in itself and one which Wallace-Hadrill is now embarking on.
(1) P. Zanker, 'Die Villa als Vorbild des spaten pompejanischen Wohngeschmacks', JdI 94 (1979) 460- 523.