The textbooks say that atrium houses canonically had entrances surrounded by shops, and indeed there are many atrium houses where this is the case – alongside many houses where this is not the case. The general idea is that houses along busy streets tended to have shops, whereas houses in less frequently visited areas had closed façades – there is no point in building shops if no one is going to visit them anyway.
Norba, however, complicates the picture. Norba is an exceptional site. Situated on a high hill overlooking the Pontine plain, it was destroyed in 81 BC and does not seem to have known a significant population afterwards. Except for the volcano, the site is a bit of a Pompeii, only that its evolution stopped 160 years earlier.
Yet, whatever we think of early first century BC Pompeii, it is hard to avoid the idea that its streets at that point probably were lined with shops, and perhaps even to a similar extent as in 79 AD. Not Norba. Norba is much less well known, but part of the city has been relatively well-excavated and shows how the city knew atrium houses rather similar to those at Pompeii, Herculaneum and elsewhere in Italy. Yet not a single one of them has shops.
Initially, I thought this must have had to do with the fact that these houses were situated in a marginal location, but I could not really judge from maps whether this was the case. In the field today, however, it emerged that this idea is not so easy to maintain: rather, the excavated houses seem to have been in the heart of the city center, along some of the major roads: though it probably was not the main street, it certainly seems a road over which enough people passed by to make shops an interesting form of investment. That they were not built, thus, is puzzling, and raises all kinds of questions – not only about Norba, but also about the cities on which our expectations have primarily been based.
To be continued…