Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Glimpse Inside the Roman Home

by Mark Patton


When archaeologists excavate a Roman house in Britain, they typically find only the foundations. The walls, ceilings and roof-timbers have always disappeared and, even if the concrete or mosaic floors remain intact, the buildings had, in most cases, been abandoned by their owners before they were buried, leaving only rubbish behind. It can make it quite difficult to imagine what the domestic world of Roman times was really like, the more so since Roman literature has almost nothing to say about the home lives of ordinary people. (The Satyricon - www.sacredtexts.com/cla/petro/satyr - is a notable exception, but it provides only a few tantalising hints).

                            Roman houses under excavation at Silchester.

The Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition currently showing (until 29th September) at the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) puts some welcome flesh on the normally bare archaeological bones. The focus of the exhibition is very specifically on domestic life and, although it includes objects from across the two towns destroyed by the eruption of 79 AD, the starting point around which everything else is structured is the floor-plan of one specific home, the "House of the Tragic Poet," in Pompeii.

The "House of the Tragic Poet," Pompeii. 1. Entrance. 2. Shops. 3. Atrium (hall). 6. Cubiculae (bedrooms). 7. Tablinum (study). 10. Peristyle & garden. 12-14. Cubiculae. 15. "Living room."

Because of the way in which Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed, objects were preserved that have rarely survived elsewhere, and certainly not in Roman Britain. From kitchen utensils to chamber-pots, food-warmers and portable stoves, wooden stools, tables and a baby's cradle, these objects are like the missing pieces in an ancient and very incomplete jigsaw puzzle.

                                         Wooden bed-side table.

There are some significant surprises, too. It has long been known that religion played a major part in most Roman homes, with domestic altars and shrines to the Lares, or household gods. What is less well known is that the slaves of the household often had their own shrine, typically located in or adjacent to the kitchen.

                               Reconstruction of a kitchen shrine from a Pompeian house.

We might not expect to see graffiti in our own homes, but it is present in many Pompeian ones: was it a subtle means by which slaves could communicate their concerns with one another or even with their masters, without having to take the risk of speaking up publicly and being identified individually?

                              Graffiti from Pompeian houses.

Pompeians of the 1st Century AD seem to have been unembarassed by nudity or by depictions of sex. Early scholars of Pompeii often assumed that a building adorned with sexually explicit images must be a brothel. There certainly were brothels in Pompeii and Herculaneum (and, presumably, in all the major towns of Roman Britain), but there are also plenty of sexually explicit wall-paintings in what appear to have been regular family homes. In some of the imagery, and in the graffiti, one starts to pick up an echo of the sense of humour prevalent, perhaps especially among the slaves, and providing us with a glimpse, not only into the Roman home, but also into the Roman mind.

Mosaic of a skeleton bearing wine to the table. An Epicurean exhortation to enjoy life whilst one may or a statement about householders who work their slaves to death?

Of course, Pompeii and Herculaneum were not Silchester or Caerwent, and we cannot take the analogies too far, or make too many assumptions. I doubt, however, that I will ever look at a family home of the 1st Century AD (whether in Britain or in Italy) in quite the same way again. More than anything, it is the garish colours and the raucous noise of the Pompeian houses that will stay with me and influence my writing.

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Mark Patton's debut novel, Undreamed Shores, was published by Crooked Cat Publications in 2012. His second novel, An Accidental King, will be published by the same imprint on July 5th. Further information can be found at www.mark-patton.co.uk and http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk.

7 comments:

  1. Seeing colour and humour prevalent in the houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, it is very tempting to imagine something similar in Roman Britain. I'd so love to see a full reconstruction of a Roman British house of the 1st century AD, but know how greedy that would be. Good post.

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    1. Hear, Hear! And why not, as we have not only Silchester and Bath and oh so many sites as inspiration.

      Mark, so enjoyed this little essay. Many thanks.

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  2. There's one at Butser Ancient Farm (in Hampshire), but it looks pretty drab compared to what I was looking at in the British Museum a couple of days ago.

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  3. Thank you for such a fabulous post...this is fascinating!

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  4. I have not checked in here for some time because I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts about roman to english dictionary are really great quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend. :)

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  5. The graffitti was something I didn't know about. Fascinating article.

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  6. The graffiti are fascinating. I could have said rather more, but only at the risk of causing offence!

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