Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 14.

Ian M. Barton (ed.), Roman Domestic Buildings. Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1996. Pp xv + 198, incl. 30 black and white plates, 70 line illustrations, 4 maps, a glossary, a guide to further reading, and an index of sites and buildings. ISBN 0- 85989-415-0. UKú10.95.

Walter Peters,
School of Architecture, University of Natal, Durban.

This is the companion volume to Roman Public Buildings also edited by Barton.[[1]] In their attempt to provide a 'rounded architectural picture' of the Roman world, the authors set out to cover the range from 'the hovels of peasants to the palaces of monarchs' (p. 1). While this book is a deliberate attempt to give attention to buildings other than the grander ones (for which Roman architecture is famous), by the editor's own confession, the book is skewed in the direction of the palaces. Hovels are by nature insubstantial and difficult to preserve, and as much as the balance should be redressed, informal structures, like much indigenous architecture, usually live on in the form of sketches only. However, some caves are included in this volume.

The book begins on the large scale with a chapter on 'Residential Districts (pp. 7-32), which includes even infrastructural aspects necessary to urban life such as the water supply. The author, E.J. Owens, points out that illegal tapping of aqueducts was widespread, and even hampered efforts to contain the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. While the chapter on 'Urban Housing' (pp. 33-64) is generously illustrated with plans, and construction methods are discussed, the heights of the rooms and the qualities of the spaces cannot be properly understood because of the lack of cross-sections. The reader should be given sufficient drawing information to understand the spaces and to imagine the effects of daylighting and ventilation in the house and for this, besides photographs, detailed sections, both latitudinal and longitudinal, are indispensable. We are told that buildings were often extended upwards by way of a further storey (p. 49), yet unfortunately neither plan nor section is provided.

While the Roman garden is an extension of the architecture, the chapter entitled 'The Roman Garden as a Domestic Building' (pp. 121-52) elevates the extension to the level of symbiosis, an interesting concept which presents an overdue look at Roman urban agriculture and garden architecture. Similarly, military buildings had in my vocabulary been restricted to forts and barracks, hence the chapter on 'Military Housing' (pp. 153-82), which even covers timber-framing and tent layouts, was indeed revelatory. By 'Houses in the Country' (pp. 65-90), the author euphemistically refers to farmhouses, and in the chapter on 'Palaces' (pp. 91-120) by the editor himself, not only the well-known examples but also unfamiliar villas are considered.

This volume makes an encyclopedic conspectus of Roman domestic buildings by type. Unfortunately, the presentation is largely two-dimensional, making its objective inherently difficult to achieve. In the same vein, I regret that the glossary is unillustrated, always a problem in architectural communication. However, the index of sites and buildings and the four maps of Europe, the Near East, Italy and Great Britain, are of much help and will, I am sure, be much referred to.

In assessing a book that sets out to provide an 'architectural picture' of the Roman world, I wonder how the contemporary architect, Vitruvius, would have reacted to a book on `Roman Domestic Buildings'. In his de Architectura (1.3.2), he states that architecture must satisfy three distinct requirements: firmitas, utilitas and venustas (which can be translated as 'strength, usefulness and delight'). While the book is not lacking in usefulness and is not for quick absorption, for an architect, delight, which includes all aesthetic requirements, has certainly not been given its proper place, neither in analysis nor in presentation. For the architectural historian the book is also lacking a connecting vision; it is a contribution, but not a definitive work.


[[1]] Ian M. Barton (ed.), Roman Public Buildings (Exeter 1989).