Piketty in Pompeii? On measuring inequality in a Roman city

This is kind of a spin-off result from the Building Tabernae project (as it is based on the general database), but I thought it would be relevant to blog about it here anyway. Can we measure socioeconomic inequality in a Roman city? For sure, it is possible to see it: when you walk through the streets of an excavated Roman town, it is hard not to notice how houses differ in size and in wealth, and how traditional Roman-style atrium-houses were just the upper half of a domestic spectrum that includes several types of habitable units on a very small scale, such as tabernae and rental apartments. The question is whether we can translate this visible inequality into something that can be measured, and whether the measurements we can then take actually may mean something, historically. The answer, in both cases, I think, should be a qualified yes. It is possible to reconstruct Gini-coëfficients for Pompeii, and it is possible to give them a historical meaning. The latter, though, is a bit more complex than the former, and will require more work.

Continue reading Piketty in Pompeii? On measuring inequality in a Roman city

Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae

In a letter to Atticus dated 18 april 44 BC, Cicero writes his friend that two of his shops in Puteoli had collapsed, and that he is planning to rebuild the property in a way that allows him to make even more money out of it. It is one of the very few references to a phenomenon that is likely to have been widespread in the cities of Roman Italy: investment in, and ownership of commercial facilities by the elite.

Commercial space was a defining element of the landscape of Roman cities, and the quintessential commercial facility in the Roman world was the taberna – a large room with a wide opening onto the street to maximize opportunities for interaction between inside and outside. Never an independent building itself, the taberna features only marginally in studies of Roman architecture and urbanism, and few scholars have studied the taberna as a socioeconomic phenomenon. Continue reading Forma Urbis: Costruire Tabernae

Micro-urbanism? On the towns of Roman Italy

Looking back on the field trip through Italy, back in June, one thought that remains, is how small many of the Roman cities of Italy appear to have been. I mean, there are exceptions, of course, especially in the coastal plains, and some sites are excavated in a way that induces visitors to underestimate their size, but the general impression left by two weeks of professional sightseeing is that of a peninsula dotted with a near endless quantity of small towns and village-sized settlements that were equipped with town-like monumental architecture.

I mean, take the town Saepinum, with its walled circuit, its monumental forum, and its oddly oversized monumental theatre: it cannot have been a community of more than a thousand souls. Juvanum may have been smaller still, and then, below that, there was yet another category of ‘urban’ settlements, best exemplified by the mysterious non-town of Fagifulae in the hills above the Biferno valley, where a small medieval church and some twenty-four inscriptions attest the existence, in Roman times, of a place deemed worthy enough of a basilica equipped with a portico – and thus, probably, of a forum. Continue reading Micro-urbanism? On the towns of Roman Italy

Does this field trip make sense?

Halfway through the two week field trip, it is time to just very briefly make up a balance: how is it going, and does it actually make sense? First things first: so far, we have been able to do everything as scheduled: we visited Norba, Minturnae, Paestum, Grumentum, Venosa, Herdonia, Pietrabbondante, Saepinum, Juvanum and Alba Fucens. I have already taken 1000-something pictures of things that looked of relevance for the project (or for my understanding of these sites). I have not taken detailed notes on each site as there was no time to do this in a consistent way, but I have written reports of each day summarizing the most elementary observations.  In other words: I have gathered the data I thought I needed, and I spent a little bit of time thinking about what I saw.

So: what have I learnt so far? On the level of details: an awful lot. Particularly, you get, in the field a much better feeling of where you are in the urban landscape than when you are in the library. What seems flat in a book (or even on Google Earth) in reality turns out to be hilly. There is no way you can understand both the location and the preservation of the forum complex in Herdonia if you have not seen the way it is surrounded by two low hills (as happens to be the case in Alba Fucens as well, by the way). It is almost impossible to understand the internal cohesion of the complex until you see that many walls are built in the same techniques and with the same materials – while some are not. On this micro-scale level, the harvest of this trip is incredibly rich, and there is no doubt that many observations will – in some way or another – find their way to project publications.

On a higher level of abstraction, seeing so many sites in short succession of each other evokes an array of questions about Roman urbanism in general, and the role of tabernae in particular. For example, there is the role of the forum, which sometimes was surrounded by tabernae, and sometimes emphatically not. What is going on? I have my thoughts on this (as have some others), but the question seems to have become a bit more urgent through what I saw last week. Another issue concerns the tabernae related to atrium houses: how common was it, outside Pompeii, to have atrium houses with more than two tabernae? In many sites, even houses with two tabernae are rare. What is the economic implication?  Or is it rather a product of the size of houses in these cities?

I have not yet come across evidence that dramatically alters the picture I had in my mind – unfortunately, because in this phase of the project, that would be about the best thing that could happen. If there is any broad impression emerging then it is that at least in the Appennines, private investment in commercial space remained on a much smaller scale than in cities like Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia – and perhaps even on a smaller scale than I already expected. Public investment, however, may – at least in some cities – be a different matter.  There is a lot of work to do, still. First, let’s see what the coming week will add and/or change. So far, however, this adventure seems to make a good deal of sense.

The city with no shops

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…

Moving beyond Pompeii and Ostia

This project, essentially, always was about understanding developments in Pompeii and Ostia in a broader historical context. For this, it is obviously crucial to map, as precisely as possible, local developments in the two main urban sites of Roman Italy, and at the same time invest in understanding what is going on elsewhere as well. That ‘elsewhere’ is, on the one hand, and inevitably, the city of Rome itself, which will be approached mainly through excavation reports, textual evidence, and the third century AD forma urbis Romae, a marble plan that has been fragmentarily preserved. On the other hand, that ‘elsewhere’ is all those other cities of Roman Italy, which often have only been excavated to a very limited extent (and, sometimes, have been proverbially badly published, or not at all), but which are indispensable if you want to understand whether phenomena and developments in and around the Roman metropolis and in the Bay of Naples region were widespread and common throughout the peninsula.

Continue reading Moving beyond Pompeii and Ostia

Starting a project blog. Why?

It is easy to do academic research without anyone knowing really what you are spending your time and money on – and with anyone I do not only mean the outside public, but also the academic community itself. Even in 2014, when the possibilities to show others what you are working on are almost endless, (too) many academics are sticking to the traditional, peer reviewed, and printed media to disseminate their ideas, and share established conclusions rather than work in progress. Many colleagues hardly invest in an online presence. Admittedly, there also is little reward in doing so: the internet does not have a very high status in the ivory tower, you cannot (or will not) be cited from blogs, and demands for excellence are such that it may feel counter-intuitive to share unpolished arguments, loose thoughts, and other ideas that might subsequently prove wrong, misguided and foolish. If you want a smooth academic career, you’d better spend your time on other things than on telling the outside world what you are actually doing. Continue reading Starting a project blog. Why?