Classics Essays - Roman Social Life

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What can the decoration and layout of the Pompeian house tell us about Roman social life?

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD, and the subsequent destruction of Pompeii, and it’s near neighbour, Herculaneum; offers us a unique glimpse into Roman life at the end of the first century AD. There are, however, certain problems that must be understood before a discussion of Roman social life can be attempted.

Pompeii was not a Roman city in the sense that it had not been founded by Roman citizens. At the time of its destruction it was already very old and had been inhabited by many generations of people from disparate backgrounds that came together to form their own uniquely structured society. From the early second century BC it is possible to identify four separate and distinct concepts of urban organisation within the city. It should further be noted that only a relatively small part of the city has been excavated to this point, and so any argument from archaeology will always be incomplete. The literary sources are even more problematic, Ancient authors rarely mention Pompeii before the first century BC and even after this date the sources are far from extensive. The writings of Varro (C.116-27BC), Vitruvius (fl.20-10BC) and Pliny the Younger (C.62-110AD) are our main sources.

Archaeologists working at Pompeii, and indeed elsewhere, have tended to be classically trained scholars. The tendency of such scholars has been to interpret their finds in ways that are analogous to the Latin textual tradition. This is to say that scholars tend to assume that a given room in a given house must have been for an activity typically mentioned in one the sources. From the time of the very first excavations at Pompeii, a similarity was seen between the ideal plan of a Roman house set out in Vitruvius, and the floor plans of the many houses being unearthed. Terms deriving from Varro’s language study and Pliny the Youngers’ descriptions of his own country villas have also been applied to the floor plans at Pompeii. It is indeed common practice to label a room with a Latin term as soon as it is excavated. As a result of this, perhaps natural tendency, the archaeological remains have been interpreted in combination with textual references, and plans of Pompeian houses are general labelled with such terms. Some modern scholars even translate the Latin terms into the assumed appropriate modern equivalent. The implication of this is that we are given the impression that we are far better informed than we in reality are, as to the nature of the activity that occurred in any given room in a Pompeian house.

Some of the terminology used by ancient authors, and followed by modern scholars, was undoubtedly used by Pompeians, but any assignment of labels to rooms should be treated with a due amount of caution. Amongst other problems, this assumes that the function of rooms did not change over time and that individual rooms served only one function, such as they largely do in the modern world.

Relatively recently Wallace-Hardrill has offered a very convincing description of the social structure of Roman houses, demonstrating that the entire space of the house was arranged to present the identity and status of the owner to the surrounding community. This may seem an obvious point, but in relation to the question, it is a vital one to note. The social function of a house determined both the layout of the rooms and the choice of decoration within each room. There are two especially characteristic elements to this social function, namely the different use made of space depending on the type of visitor to the house, and the significance of the extravagant dimensions and the wasted space as an example of conspicuous consumption.

Ancient authors present us with an image of clients waiting in the atrium for an audience with a wealthy patron as a yard-stick of the social status of that patron. He would receive more important guests in smaller rooms closer to the interior of the house. Often more secluded rooms were used if the discussions were considered private. Close friends would come to dinner in dining areas that were specifically and deliberately located at the rear of the garden peristyle. A social pecking order was thus easily established, corresponding to the increasing access given to the interior of the house. It is evident that architects took great pains when designing the peristyles of Pompeian houses, to ensure that a guest would receive the most comprehensive impression of the size of the patrons’ home. An example of the way this was achieved was to locate the largest and most impressive rooms around the peristyle courts so that all would be visible, along with the garden, as a guest was taken to the patron.

The number of reception rooms, and indeed the total number of rooms, played a significant role in determining the rank of the household and the social status of the patron within the social hierarchy of the city. A wealthy homeowner would have a home large enough to receive guests in different areas depending on their numbers, social status, time of the day, season etc. This ability to choose the location of reception was key in establishing ones social status.

Although the amount of money spent on a persons house was not always directly proportional to the individuals wealth, some relationship is certain, as today, it was the most expensive item in the family budget. In order to purchase a large and impressive dwelling, one that would indicate high social rank, considerable amounts of money were required. There were also ancillary costs to consider, high social status was implied from having a large number of slaves and household attendants; all of whom had to be housed themselves.

A measure of the importance of an impressive house in determining social status of the senatorial class is indicated by the amount of debt Cicero incurred in order to obtain his house on the Palatine. The character of Trimalchio in Petronius Satyricon is also not unaware of the importance of a grand house. With his expensive and extensive house he can hope to be held in high esteem. In the description of the house all of the rooms are on a grand scale. Trimalchio relates that when ‘Scaurus’ came to town he preferred to stay with Trimalchio rather than in his own house by the sea. By spending large sums of money, Trimalchio can hope to raise his social status among the wealthy elite; such thinking can no doubt be applied to any town within the Roman Empire, and certainly to Pompeii.

Quite naturally, the preceding discussion only applies to the wealthy and socially prominent. They were the only rank in Pompeian society who needed (or could afford) large atria to receive clients, or large dining rooms to entertain friends. It should be noted the Pompeian society, an indeed Roman society as a whole, was competitive and there was relatively extensive upward mobility, or at least the desire sue such. The social elites created a model for their less wealthy and powerful contemporise through their activities and particularly through the style in which they lived, at least when they placed themselves on ostentatious open display, as was the purpose of a grand house.

Decoration, as well as size and general layout, was also used as a means of indicating, or attaining a certain social status. Thus both architecture and interior design were employed in the competition for social status in Pompeian society. The natural side effects of this were stylistic developments in the various arts and crafts employed in interior décor, especially in painting. It has been argued that room function can be determined from the decorative schemes and that the more elaborate decoration was in rooms that were most likely to be seen by visitors; whilst probably broadly true, as Wallace-Hadrill has shown, arguments based on the premise of a precise relationship between archaeological remains at Pompeii and the surviving textual source tradition are often trapped in circular arguments.

The extensive nature of the decorations in the Pompeian house, and indeed in houses throughout the Roman world, tell us much about the social life of the inhabitants. The fact that Pompeian houses were extensively decorated, and particularly those areas through which visitors would pass, or in which they would stay for extended periods, such as reception rooms and dining rooms, tells us that visitors were common. Houses, therefore, performed a very significant social function. Not only were they areas in which to live, they were also designed and decorated to present the owner in the best possible light, to indicate to the world his wealth and social standing.

The Interpretation of individual rooms is, as already mentioned, problematic. Archaeologists and classical historians tend to interpret the Pompeian house without any consideration of the contents of a given room at the time of the eruption. Whilst it is obvious that some fixtures, such as cooking hearths, shrines, water-catchment areas and garden colonnades provide a good indication of room use, no systematic evaluation of room contents at Pompeii has ever been made. With this in mind, it should be recognised that an understanding of the social significance of decoration in the Pompeian house can never be complete as decoration surely implies the contents of any given room and not just the wall decoration.

One final point that should be made is that decorating a part of a house for the purposes of social display was not a specifically, or even an originally Roman idea. In Greek cities of the classical period the houses of the rich were more elaborately constructed and better furnished and decorated then those belonging to people from a lower social level. A wealthy visitor to an Athenian house of the fifth or fourth century no doubt expected certain standards of decoration in the room where the symposium took place. The decorative style of Roman elite houses drew its inspiration from that of the Classical and Hellenistic period, but soon developed in the competitive climate of the late Republic and early Empire.

The Pompeian house, therefore, served a number of functions. It was somewhere for an individual and his family to live in the first instance. But it also performed a significant social function as a place to receive and impress clients. Its size and exterior adornments were an open display of wealth and social standing, making a claim to be from a particular social class (even if not born into it), and the decoration, both interior and exterior all served to reinforce this impression. The more elaborate the decoration, the greater the social status of the owner.


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