Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Back in the early fall, I wrote an entry for the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University ‘Archaeology for the People’ competition. The aim of the competition was for archaeologists to sort of translate their scholarly writing into something for the general public without over-simplifying or romanticizing our work.

My entry did not win. Please enjoy my award-losing essay below.

When the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were first rediscovered in the middle of the 18th century, they naturally spurred a passion for the nascent, yet hardly scientific, field of archaeology. The remains of the cities covered by the ash and stone of Mt. Vesuvius–which simultaneously preserved the sites and made them uninhabitable–brought tourists and scientists and artists to the region in droves. Treasure-hunting met Enlightenment curiosity and scholarship in the first phase of rediscovery. More scientific detachment and rigorous, painstaking methodologies came to be applied over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today excavation continues, but at a much reduced pace and scope than in ages past. Tourists flood Pompeii (and Herculaneum to a lesser extent) to see the “city frozen in time,” anticipating a flawless time-capsule of life in the first century CE. It is difficult to say how many have their expectations met by their actual experiences at the archaeological sites, yet most seem impressed by the more eye-catching or titillating features like the large amphitheater and the Lupanare, or brothel.


The priorities of archaeologists and tourists at Pompeii and Herculaneum are, naturally, rather different. And not surprisingly, the priorities of archaeologists working at these sites have changed over time. The questions we ask of these ancient cities have become both more broad and more focused. New interpretations of specific monuments and features in these cities, some excavated more than 200 years ago, are published every year. Most of these new studies never reach an audience beyond the specialized academic community, despite the relative fame of Pompeii and Herculaneum as major archaeological sites. Yet the presence of hundreds of excavated houses at these “cities of Vesuvius,” many astonishingly complete with decoration, furniture, and personal effects, could be the point of entry of so many more members of the general public for explorations of classical antiquity, without the sensationalist baggage of Pompeii’s destruction by a fiery volcanic eruption. Houses are a universal phenomenon. They are built by humans, for humans, on a human scale, for the most human of needs–shelter. Fortunately some astonishing cultural differences between the houses of ancient Pompeii and those of the 21st century western world keep the study of this familiar type of structure from banality. As familiar and accessible The House is as a cultural artifact, ancient Roman houses still surprise, delight, and confound. It’s occasionally tempting to look at ancient peoples and think “They’re just like us!” Viewing the vestibule mosaic in the House of the Tragic Poet at Pompeii is one such occasion: it depicts a somewhat menacing black dog with a red collar, chained to some object outside the frame, with the the legend in Latin “CAVE CANEM,” beware of dog. It’s uncannily expected signage at the front door of a house. Yet the social functions of Roman houses, their semi-public status, the ideology behind their decoration, just the fact that there does seem to be ideology behind the decoration–these are the ways in which at a geographical and chronological remove, the residences of Pompeii and Herculaneum are not as familiar as they seem.


When it comes to the popular study of ancient Roman history and culture, there is something of a bias in favor of Pompeii and Herculaneum. While this preference rankles many specialists in archaeology who feel other regional towns get short shrift, there is good reason for this mainstream partiality. What sets these cities apart from Rome, capital of the empire, is a sort of “democratic” state of preservation. Entire classes of ancient monuments, structures, and artifacts that one cannot visit in Rome can be seen in abundance at Pompeii. Rome, because it has been continuously inhabited for about 3000 years, offers glimpses of the ancient city only when states of preservation, archaeological priorities, and later phases of construction and destruction permit. The Pantheon is hemmed in on all sides by medieval and renaissance palazzos. Piazza Navona’s elongated oval preserves the original shape of the emperor Domitian’s circus, or race track. The most significant temple in all of ancient Roman culture–the Capitoline Temple dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus–can only be perceived of in a few courses of stone foundations, covered as it is by the Palazzo dei Conservatori, built in the middle ages and significantly renovated by Michelangelo. Yet at Pompeii and Herculaneum, structures from the most modest one-room shop to bakeries to elaborate bathing establishments to their own temples to Jupiter and other pagan gods are open to the sky and more often than not, open to the tourist’s gaze. This across-the-board archaeological record which has preserved the mundane alongside the spectacular is what gives visitors to Pompeii the sense of walking through a real ancient city, an impression that cannot be reproduced at Rome, even in its vast Forum or in the Colosseum.


One significant class of monument present in great numbers and in quite a broad range of types and quality at Pompeii is domestic architecture. This further distinguishes the cities of Vesuvius from Rome, as discoveries of private houses and villas among the dense urban fabric of the capitol have been few and far between. Save for the villas of the emperors on the Palatine Hill–the source of our term “palace”–there are no excavated ancient houses one can visit. There are, however, some rather well-preserved examples of residential architecture and decor at Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome about 15 miles to the southwest. Yet when it comes to the state of preservation of paintings, mosaics, statuary, fountains, and even furniture, Ostia cannot compare with the relative completeness of houses and villas in the area around Mt. Vesuvius.


The study of ancient houses is a particularly potent, suggestive field in archaeology if, indeed, a main motivation for this scholarly pursuit is to make the past relevant to the present. Everyone has a home (or has had one at some point). Houses are a point of contact with antiquity which seems more accessible than contemplating animal sacrifice and other rituals of pagan religion, reconstructing trade routes of Egyptian grain, or studying the building phases of an ancient city’s walls through the observation of details in masonry techniques and tool marks. This is not to say that other fields in archaeology are fundamentally intellectually inaccessible or maybe not as relevant to modern audiences as that of domestic architecture; rather the house as an essential and common element of human culture is a fairly straightforward idea to embrace. Archaeologists would credit the presence of diversified architecture as a marker of A Civilization–that is, we recognize Sumerian culture in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE as the world’s first because those people constructed different kinds of buildings, among them houses. We live in homes, we can imagine the types of activities that took place in ancient ones, and see them in some cases as private architectural representations of our own identity. Of all the types of structures and monuments of ancient cultures, the house is arguably the one with the most direct connection to modern life.


Turning back to Pompeii and Herculaneum, the explorers of these cities in the 18th century recognized the significance of ancient Roman houses, if not for any sort of anthropological implications, then for their potential as sources of artistic treasure. Some of the earliest discoveries at Herculaneum were life-sized marble statues removed from the ancient theater, thus indicating the potential of this area for the recovery of beautiful and impressive masterpieces of ancient statuary. Soon enough, a kind of “marble rush” of archaeological prospecting was unleashed on the cities of Vesuvius, more often than not in the service of royalty seeking spectacular artworks for modern palaces.


Further excavation at Herculaneum and Pompeii uncovered frescoes in almost pristine condition–wall paintings depicting mythological scenes well known from Greek drama and Latin poetry. These figural paintings only make up part of the wall decoration as the frescoes cover floor to ceiling with architectural motifs or more organic caprices of scrolling vines or illusionistic gardens, framing the mythological pictures. The rediscovery of ancient Roman painting–most of which comes from houses–was particularly important at the time as so few examples of this genre of art had survived in Rome itself (indeed there are no other Roman sites which can equal the quantity of wall paintings at the Vesuvian cities). Again, it is thanks to Vesuvius and its “democratic” preservation of a broad range of materials that we have entire rooms with paintings on all four walls (and sometimes ceilings), not to mention frequent mosaic floors and occasional pieces of furniture or other decorative objects. Yet while modern archaeologists preserve the original whole of ancient artifacts, maintaining as much original context as possible, the 18th-century explorers of the cities of Vesuvius cut out charming details and attractive narrative scenes from the walls. The fragments were framed like Old Master easel paintings and displayed with pride in the homes of royalty and aristocrats. Bare squares in otherwise complete frescoed walls of villas at Stabia attest to this (fortunately bygone) practice; one has to visit archaeological museums in Naples and elsewhere to see the framed detached panels today. To the early explorers of these sites, the delight at finding so many examples of well-preserved ancient Roman painting–very rare finds at the time–rather mitigated any sense of maintaining the wall paintings’ decorative whole. Imagine if the famous hands of God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel, recognized for their spiritual and artistic significance, had been prised off the ceiling, framed, and hung on a wall at eye level; we could appreciate Michelangelo’s masterwork from a distance of mere inches instead of feet, yet not without doing violence to the original artistic context. These early gestures of archaeological preservation at the Vesuvian sites, grievous though they are, nevertheless demonstrate the tremendous importance of the discovery of wall paintings to the first explorers of these cities. Roman painting in such quantity and quality had never been seen before. And, since to the 18th- and 19th-century scholars of art history, Roman frescoes were effectively faithful reproductions of lost Greek paintings, the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum offered glimpses of masterpieces of even greater antiquity, ones rendered by famous Greek artists whose names had been passed down in ancient texts.


Indeed a great deal of the first century of art historical and archaeological research on ancient Roman works of painting, sculpture, and mosaic was motivated by the tremendous desire to find echoes–if not originals–of the ancient artworks the Romans themselves praised. J. J. Wincklemann, the 18th-century German scholar to whom we can attribute the origin of the term “art history,” admitted that he himself could not always tell the difference between Greek and Roman statuary. He and his contemporaries were looking for the former, believing the latter to be shadows of the original masterpieces. This aesthetic and cultural bias was not without ancient precedent, however. Numerous written accounts from classical antiquity attest to a sort of inferiority complex on the part of the Romans with respect to their Greek neighbors and antecedents, at least as far as the visual arts go. Virgil, for example, writing in Book 6 of the Aeneid states the arts of the Romans will be in teaching peace to the nations they conquer, leaving achievements in art to other peoples. And so it seems that scholars of the 18th, 19th, and even into the 20th century bought into this Roman self-deprecation and only somewhat recently came to appreciate the Roman-ness of Roman artistic production. Little academic work today on the paintings or sculpture from Pompeii and Herculaneum evaluates them as direct evidence for Greek art. The production of coffee-table books dedicated to “masterworks of Roman wall painting” continues apace, yet these densely and lavishly illustrated volumes highlight the frescoes as  Roman painting per se. Most significantly, the suites of decoration from the houses and villas of the Vesuvian region are more often being studied as just that–ensembles of frescoes, mosaics, sculpture, and so forth designed at least in part as a cohesive whole, inseparable from their context in the home of a Roman family.


In terms of sheer square-footage, residential properties make up the largest part of the excavated areas of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And although statuary, painting, and other genres of visual art have been discovered in different types of buildings (like baths, public squares, even markets), most of the more eye-catching finds of these sorts come from houses. There was apparently a tremendous amount of social pressure in antiquity to decorate one’s home with frescoes and statuary, so much so that everyone but the poorest of the poor managed to have wall paintings in at least a couple of their rooms. Those who couldn’t afford actual statuary in marble or bronze made do with trompe-l’oeil versions painted into frescoes of illusionistic gardens, as on the southern wall of the House of Venus in a Shell at Pompeii.


The prevailing ancient taste for decorating one’s home went beyond the expectation to use wall painting and statuary to include the subject-matter of these artworks. Scenes from classical  mythology are the most popular–Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, Castor and Pollux, Bacchus, Medea, Achilles, Venus and Cupid, Zeus and his myriad lovers… The walls and gardens of these houses present an encyclopedia of epic, drama, and myth. There are even scenes which have yet to be identified by modern scholars; perhaps they illustrate lost plays by Euripides or other forgotten ancient texts. While a classical literary education might seem like something which must have been reserved for effete upper-class Romans, such myths were actually accessible to many social classes, even if textual literacy in the Empire was relatively low. These fantastic stories were transmitted to a wide ancient audience through street theater, pantomime, and even mythological allusions in the amphitheater (sometimes condemned criminals had to act the part of Orpheus or the hunter Actaeon before being attacked by wild animals). Yet the expectation that a home of even middling status would be decorated with mythological imagery was so strong that those who had the means to commission wall paintings or statuary requested mythological scenes, even if they didn’t know the stories well. (A painting of Narcissus, for example, in Pompeii’s House of the Large Altar depicts the beautiful youth gazing out at the viewer rather than at his reflection, visible in the painted pool below. The artist apparently didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the myth to paint it accurately; the owner of the house might have been in the same boat, or didn’t care to have it corrected.)


Other types of imagery in the suites of domestic decoration at Pompeii and Herculaneum (and indeed elsewhere in the Empire) can be interpreted in terms of the varied concerns of Roman elite identity, beyond the mythological education and religious piety suggested by the frescoes of the gods. Scenes of hunting and wild animal parks relayed an image of aristocratic outdoorsiness. For the aristocracy–going back, in fact, to Assyrian lion hunts–killing wild game was seen as a safer, yet just as heroic, alternative to fighting in battle. Landscape scenes, while more rare than narrative ones, suggest a kind of perfected nature of a bygone golden age. This kind of imagery was perhaps especially important in a city like Pompeii where there were no urban zoning laws and dirty, smelly, loud industrial facilities sometimes stood next to luxurious urban villas. Wall paintings, mosaic, and sculpture bearing exotic touches in the form of Egyptian motifs could indicate the house’s owner had traveled to distant Roman provinces or was at least fascinated by the imagery of this alien, yet alluring land. Scenes of Bacchus and his followers of wild satyrs and maenads are among some of the most popular imagery in sculpture from Roman houses. But rather than being any sort of commentary on the patron’s personal faith, these depictions of the wine god and his retinue create a convivial atmosphere, that the owner was ready to party.


The social pressure to decorate one’s house, and especially according to certain conventions, resulted from what is to us a rather peculiar phenomenon of the Roman world: houses of the upper class were semi-public in nature. Ancient cities lacked anything approximating a modern office building, so much of ancient business was conducted in the home. Such negotiations could be carried out in the forum of an ancient city, but it was just as common to discuss land rights, resolve commercial disputes, or work out rental arrangements in one’s home, bringing all parties together in what was ostensibly private space. An unofficial practice called evergetism, in which wealthy and/or powerful individuals granted favors or donated money to the less fortunate, also took place within the home. During certain hours of the morning, the front doors of a house were thrown open to the public and folks seeking material or symbolic assistance asked the more fortunate for support, no appointment necessary. Crowded front rooms and a long queue of clients stretching out the front door were, in fact, an indicator of a man’s political potential. Cicero, in a letter to a friend, writes probably one of the world’s first “humblebrags”–he complains that his house is so crowded with clients that he has no privacy. Yet this is an indication that he is an important and resourceful person; had Cicero had no power or influence, no one would come to his door asking for a favor. Some Pompeian homes even have stone benches along the front facade, perhaps to accommodate those waiting for help from a wealthy or politically powerful patron. The ritual known as salutatio in Latin meant your lessers had access to the front rooms of your house as they waited for your beneficence, every day, starting before dawn.


This sort of activity is almost unthinkable for our own houses. It echoes the opening scene of The Godfather in which the immigrant Bonasera meets with Don Corleone in his den, beseeching him for justice after a family tragedy–the famous line goes “..you come into my house, on the day my daughter is to be married…” Yet such negotiations happened all the time in private houses, both in the world of Hollywood mafiosi and that of ancient Rome. Even in that Godfather scene, Corleone notes he’s never been to Bonasera’s house for coffee, as if that would have put him in a better position from which to ask a favor. The house is the source of individuals’ power in a way that cannot be matched by a generic conference room in an office building.


Roman houses were, of course, open to audiences beyond inferiors seeking favors. Given the relative rarity of restaurants (in comparison to the modern world) as well as a conventional opinion that eating out was only for the poor and otherwise ignoble, dinner parties were fairly common. It was an opportunity to show off one’s suites of paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and gardens to equals and betters. This circle of friends and acquaintances had greater access to one’s home: a sort of topography of privacy meant that the more intimate one was with a house’s owner, the deeper one could penetrate into the spaces beyond the front door in his house. No two floor plans for ancient houses are identical, yet there is a surprising consistency in their layouts, perhaps a tool in helping visitors navigate these axes of privacy.Those clients begging favors probably never got beyond the atrium or tablinum, two rooms at the front of the house described in ancient texts as the site of most salutatio activity. Yet because of the semi-public nature of those front rooms, accessible to a broad range of peers, superiors, and members of lower classes, these spaces in particular needed to be decorated in such a way that convinced visitors that the owner of the house was, in fact, one of the guys.


From the writings of Plautus in the third century BCE to the Historia Augusta (possibly) from the fourth century CE, there is a thread running through Roman texts regarding their homes that indicates the status and identity of an upper-class individual was tied very closely to his residence. The location, size, layout, and decoration could all verify (or in some cases undermine) a carefully-curated public image of a Roman citizen. Cicero and the first-century architect Vitruvius, among others, confirm a conventional way of thinking: that the house should be commensurate with the status of the owner, yet one shouldn’t count on a posh property to elevate one’s position if the higher status was perceived as being undeserved. The ancient novelist Petronius plays on such stereotypes in his character Trimalchio; the anti-hero of the Satyricon is a nouveau riche freed slave who tries to buy a high-class reputation with gaudy tableware and bizarre wall paintings. His failures in domestic decoration and hosting a dinner were knee-slapping comedy to elite Romans who despised such social climbing.


In a vivid and violent example of how one’s house could stand in for one’s reputation and even identity, there was an ancient Roman practice of razing the homes of unpopular individuals. This was not an action to be carried out lightly, as the Roman Senate had to approve such a gesture, usually reserved for those who presented a threat to the state. The tearing down of houses was part of a practice called damnatio memoriae, the damnation of memory, and resulted in one’s name being etched out of inscriptions, portrait statues being destroyed, effectively erasing every trace of the condemned person. Demolishing the home of an enemy of the state was worth the effort, apparently, considering the strong connection between identity and the house. Such a phenomenon might not seem so foreign to us when one considers the Brentwood, CA home of OJ Simpson. While this house was not the site of the murders of which he was accused, so strong was the association with so despised a figure that the house, once worth $4 million, was bulldozed in 1998.


Like the archaeological record for Roman houses, with its bias for Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ancient textual record has a specific leaning of its own: we have few women’s voices which survive first-hand from antiquity. We have no evidence it was ancient women who made the decisions about domestic decoration, as the popular perception goes today. Yet the reputation of Roman matrons was usually reflected off their husbands, and most of their daily activities took place within the home, so we may assume they did have some part in arranging decor, and at least must have had some opinion on the appearance of the house, if not any agency in its design. When ancient texts describing a woman’s residence do survive, the taste in decoration and the literary tropes are apparently so entrenched that there is little evident distinction made between, say, Violentilla’s villa in Rome and Felix Pollio’s in Sorrento, both described by the poet Statius. There is no specific “women’s taste” to be gleaned from either the archaeological or the textual record. Indeed a female homeowner must have wanted to participate in the conventional standards of ancient interior design for all the same reasons her male counterparts did.


Regardless of whether a man or a woman was making the choices regarding domestic decoration in Roman antiquity, there are two noteworthy patterns we can identify in the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum: variety of subject matter in a specific space was preferred to any sort of “theme room,” and although this subject matter could be eclectic, certain kinds of imagery were repeated over and over again in the corpus of ancient domestic decoration.  Such repetition of standard themes, even sometimes to the point of banality, is evidence for a kind of shared taste which communicated a sense of belonging and adherence to communal cultural values. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, writing about houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1994, called it “competitive ostentation.” Yet rather than an attempt at outdoing one another with more expensive decoration than their neighbors, this phenomenon was a different sort of “keeping up with the Joneses” in which no one wanted to display a truly unique flair for interior design. Roman homeowners, as far as Pompeii and Herculaneum are concerned, seem to have been more interested in maintaining a shared taste than creating an over-the-top or intensely personal domestic display. Our modern cult of individualism had no place in the Roman city; one asserted a positive public image by complying with shared cultural values and not exercising too much personal taste.


Even if one were someone of a middling class, unlikely to have visitors either requesting favors or enjoying a convivial dinner party, the social pressure to conform to typical standards of fashion was intense enough that one would invest in a downscale version of the kind of frescoes and statuary that one’s more elite neighbors displayed. Wallace-Hadrill, revisiting domestic decoration in 2008, remarked that everyone from Cicero on down decorated in much the same way; the lower classes just had shabbier versions of elite stuff. This again smacks of the modern world as luxury designers like Jonathan Adler and Missoni produce housewares or clothing for the likes of JC Penney and Target.


The ancient textual sources are almost entirely silent with respect to individual homeowners’ personal motivations in choosing objects and images for display in the home, so we are a bit in the dark as far as how individuals thought about their houses and the things in them. But considering the consistency of styles, materials, and subject-matter in the decoration of the houses and villas at Pompeii and Herculaneum, we can rather confidently speculate that a kind of “community taste” was more important than personal expression. One major component of this consistency is conventionalized heterogeneity–a widespread eclecticism in the types of scenes depicted in domestic decoration. These themes speak to the varied concerns of an ideal elite Roman: piety, family lineage, mythological literacy, appreciation of the exotic, and so forth. So even though the subjects and styles were all over the map, so to speak, most everyone included them in their suites of decoration. The combination of themes perhaps permitted enough wiggle room for individualized versions of standardized “packages” of decoration. Ten good hip-hop DJs might choose from the same ten samples from 1970’s funk music, but it is in their individual selection process and their fusion with other musical components, that allows for different sounds to be produced by different artists, even if they are all drawing from the same raw material. Thus while Roman domestic decoration replicated a select body of images and themes, no two houses were alike. Decoration was standardized in its repetition of imagery, yet individual residences mixed and matched an eclectic series of scenes and subjects.


So in addition to the unusual semi-public nature of ancient Roman houses, those residences are different from ours in how we might use the home as a vehicle for personal expression. TV shows and magazines tout the various ways we can individualize our homes, make them our own, reflect our own family stories and interests and preferences and personalities. (Although there is a certain irony in the existence of generic Internet or magazine guides which purport to tell us how to personalize our residences with mass-market furniture and paint.) Houses–at least those of a certain economic class, in the West, in the 21st century–are thought to be a vehicle for exhibiting one’s ideal, yet still personalized and individualized, self. Family photos, children’s drawings, coffee-table books, tourist souvenirs in all their forms create a network of imagery designed in part to put one’s “best self” on display. There may even be a topography of privacy in the reading material we show off in the more public vs. more private rooms of the house when guests are expected–The New Yorker in the living room, but People in the bedroom.


Our modern homes may be a sort of idealized autobiography constructed out of brick and mortar and paint and throw pillows and bric-a-brac. And the tremendous plurality of styles available to us as well as the overwhelming consumer market for domestic decor permit much more individualized suites of decoration than what existed in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Oddly enough, “eclectic” is one of the style archetypes frequently offered by contemporary decorating guides, appearing alongside “Mediterranean,” “Country,” “Mid-Century Modern,” “Southwestern,” and so forth. Eclectic style in interior design, as one decorating website puts it, is a way to create an ensemble that no one else can imitate, providing an opportunity for uniqueness in the home. Yet when the Romans employed eclecticism in the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was a means of going along with everyone else. What is shared, however, between ancient and modern homes is their ability to stand in for the owner and to symbolize both real and aspirational status.


It’s a strange picture, then, that ancient Roman houses could be emblematic of the owner’s status and identity, yet the decoration and layout could be so formulaic and repetitive over an entire city or region. How could the highly familiar mythological scenes escape banality when most everyone was decorating the same way, with adjustments for financial resources? Like the DJs sampling from the same music library, those who decorated ancient houses could innovate on some level by combining the well-known images in new ways. Indeed no ancient houses or gardens present identical groupings of the standardized imagery. Perhaps the most straightforward way ancient homeowners could express their own identity (if not personality) through somewhat uniform decoration is through their own words. It may seem a mundane observation, but the residents of Rome and Pompeii must have talked about the stuff in their houses at least a little bit, providing brief, offhand “house tours” for those myriad guests and clients who came by for work or for play. Scholars tend to agree the mythological statuary, mosaics, and wall paintings in ancient homes had some form of didactic function and could have spurred philosophical debate during dinner parties or walks around decorated gardens. But with such imagery being so pervasive throughout ancient cities, isn’t it possible that personal and subjective stories were told about features of household decor? As Susan Stewart proposes in her series of essays On Longing, the objects we buy and display in our homes act as souvenirs, not necessarily of exotic travel, but of other circumstances of acquisition, of personal connection to the material, subject matter, origin, color scheme, etc. Thus a marble statue of Diana and her hunting dog need not always refer to Roman mores of chastity and bucolic virtue: such a statue could have been displayed for a subjective appreciation for the sculptor’s techniques, the memory of a childhood pet, or for the beauty of an athletic female body in a short skirt (as the goddess is often depicted). If the statue had been given as a gift to the homeowner, that provides another talking point–the piece then becomes a souvenir of a personal relationship. In the Roman world, such tangible evidence for connections to influential people would have certainly enhanced one’s reputation.


So what this kind of interpretation of domestic decoration requires is a personal narrative to round out the more straightforward message of the typical scenes found in ancient Roman houses.  If we can agree that The House is a universal human phenomenon, can we admit that talking about oneself is equally ubiquitous? By acknowledging subjective responses to familiar imagery in Roman homes, we can tackle this dual function of domestic decoration: to enhance the residence with beautiful, yet conventional myths and pictures and to have the house convey a sense of the owner’s wealth, status, and adherence to cultural standards. What better way for the house to demonstrate the material and intellectual resources of its inhabitants than to allow for the family members to discuss their own motivations for displaying Bacchus in a garden or Andromeda in a dining room? Cicero, in a letter to an old friend in Greece, noted he wanted to collect statues for one of his villas that were reminiscent of their days at the Athenian Academy. Such statues might have evoked a sense of the golden age of Greece in Cicero’s guests, but it was up to him to point out not only the specific allusion to the philosophical school, but that he had actually attended it. We can all display miniature Eiffel Towers on our mantlepieces, but we ourselves must supply the souvenir narrative–that object is a memento of one’s own time spent in Paris, rather than something picked up at Target.


The study of Roman domestic architecture and decoration has evolved and benefited from advances in archaeological technology, ethics, and theory. From the earliest Enlightenment-period explorers to today’s university professors, it is often the beautiful formal characteristics of painting, sculpture, mosaic, and the like which captures the eye and mind at first. Yet while our 18th-century predecessors saw Pompeii and Herculaneum as art-quarries, ready to be mined of their original masterpieces, we tend to think of how these suites of decorations functioned in the daily lives of ancient people. Were the frescoes merely background noise, paintings which through the banality of technique and subject-matter hardly ever caught the eye of the house’s owners? Was the life-size statuary of the Villa of the Papyri something to sit and contemplate, for both its narrative content and its technical artistry? Did the floor mosaics in Pompeian dining rooms really spur on intellectual debate in the style of Socratic dialogue? Maybe in these last couple of cases we give the Romans too much credit. When was the last time you sat and pondered the framed pictures on your side-table, or really examined the curated collection of clipped-out articles and children’s drawings on your refrigerator door? We perhaps only really pay attention to these things when someone from outside the nuclear family visits our homes. Like the books on our coffee tables, these displays of “artwork” elsewhere in the house can echo our identity, or at least an idealized view of how we hope to seem. While the functions of houses and the activities which take place within them have changed in the past 2,000 years the role of the house as something of a mirror hasn’t. As Susan Stewart suggested our household collections are images and objects which point to elements of our identity and history. Even the mass-market and packaged elements of interior design reflect individual choices when we can tell our own stories about why we bought that particular tchotchke at that particular point in time. And so it may be the same for the ancient Roman houses. Granted, their knick-knacks were handcrafted on a artisanal scale. Yet the repeated patterns and mythological figures of Pompeian paintings, statuary, and mosaics apparently also managed to not seem banal to ancient eyes, perhaps through the same techniques we use today of personalizing the highly familiar images and styles by means of personal stories.


Augustus, a good Roman emperor, had an austere and tasteful house. Nero, a bad one, had an opulent (tacky?) urban villa decorated with jewels and gold and ivory. And so although they did things differently in the past, in L. P. Hartley’s “foreign country,” the ability of the home to reflect our desired status and to contain a curated collection of our identity is something we today share with the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our family photos and mantlepiece knick-knacks have meaning below the surface, and we ourselves can supply such explanations to our own guests. Yet as visitors to the foreign and ancient cities of Vesuvius we can only imagine such personal narratives of home. Our charge, therefore, is to continue to accept the subjectivity and individual interpretations which characterize human interaction with their built environment, even in Roman antiquity.

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So my mother is very ill. I’ve taken the summer off from my usual research writing schedule to spend time with her and help take care of her. When she is feeling well she can be like a fire-hose of stories and family history; the gravity of her illness means she feels some urgency to relate these stories to others. As a woman who has lived abroad, who has traveled to all seven continents, she has a lot of things to say. I am an only child and the sole receptacle for these stories for the most part.

One project Mom has set up for the two of us is for her to tell me about the furniture, souvenirs, and other objects in her house. In some cases she tells me what family member bought what specific piece of furniture when: my great-grandfather the country doctor whose drop-leaf table is stained with what my mother (as a child) was sure was blood; my great-grandmother who gave away furniture after a family down the road lost their house in a fire, and then had to refurnish her own house. Other stories are of the typical souvenir type: a huge wooden rice bowl purchased in Bhutan; an inlaid stone tabletop from Agra, India, whose package was stamped ‘MARBLE WITH CARE.’ There is also the giant, hexadecagonal painting over the fireplace, painted by Mom’s college art professor, the man who introduced my parents to one another while on a study abroad program in Italy. There are bronzed shoes and a bronzed toy lamb, whose jingle-bell in the tail now just goes THUNK. Framed 19th-century maps of Mom’s native North Carolina. The 1973 puffin decoy awarded to Mom by Project Puffin leader Steve Kress because she was the only volunteer who didn’t throw up on the research boat. And so on.

My mother has really only one serial collection of objects among her souvenirs of life and travel: nativity scenes (some might call them crèches). This is a little odd to me since we are not an overly religious family; our Christmas celebrations are secular. Yet these sets of figurines are what Mom has collected over the course of at least 40 years. She has a knack for finding such scenes in (largely) non-Christian countries: to have scrounged nativity scenes in Burma, Nepal, Turkey, and Egypt (fine, it’s a plastic Coptic icon) is a great part of the fun.

Mom keeps most of these nativity scenes in a corner cupboard (purchased from my second grade teacher’s parents in Pilot Mountain, NC), closed for at least 335 days a year, but open at the holiday season for what she calls ‘instant Christmas.’

Mom's 'instant Christmas' display of nativity scenes from South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Mom’s ‘instant Christmas’ display of nativity scenes from South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. This is just part of the display; there are more nativity scenes in the lower part of the cabinet.

As someone who researches ancient houses, their architecture, and their decoration, this project of listening to and recording Mom’s stories about her ‘domestic collection’ is as fascinating for intellectual reasons as it is for personal ones. I have been working (for too long, actually) on a book about Roman residences as symbols of autobiography and this experience with Mom is a vibrant test-case for some of my theories put forth in the book. That becomes especially apparent when looking at the ‘instant Christmas’ collection. The imagery in the nativity scenes is familiar and legible to just about anyone who has been exposed to the Western version of Christmas. So when Mom talks about her pieces, she naturally doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth, quoting from the gospels of Matthew or Luke. (She would maybe only do that with a child, or with someone clearly unfamiliar with the Christian tradition.)

When Mom shows off her nativity scenes, they are a map and a calendar. They are indexical of her own life, not the life of Christ. Sometimes the materials become part of the narrative–the olive-wood figures from Italy, the hand-made terracottas from Mexico–but these formal qualities of the figurines relate to the map function of the collection. The stories she tells about this collection relate, as Susan Stewart notes in her work on souvenirs, to the circumstances of acquisition, to the exotic, a means of collapsing time and space. Mom’s souvenirs have lost their original didactic value (to tell the story of the birth of Jesus), replaced by Mom’s autobiographical narrative of travel and personal history. (This is to say nothing of the cultural imperialism of tourist art. But that’s another blog post.)

This relates to my own research on Roman domestic decoration by coming around to understanding how people in antiquity might have dealt with the banality of repetitive imagery. Paintings of Narcissus, for example, appear in over 40 wall paintings at Pompeii, entirely in residential settings. Certainly the owners of these houses did not tell Ovid’s story every time some new visitor came to call. Even if frescoes do not lend themselves to narratives on the circumstances of acquisition because of their ‘built-in’ materiality, I think subjective and personalized stories along the lines of Stewart’s souvenir model could have been told. The wall paintings of poor Actaeon were commissioned, then, not only for the ‘moral of the story’ or reference to literature, but for the patron’s love of hunting or dogs. Maybe domestic sculpture would have been better points of departure for ‘souvenir stories’– pieces acquired at specific places and times and brought back home. Gifts are even better ‘souvenirs’ as they symbolize not only time and space, are indexical of the owner, but are also tangible evidence for specific personal relationships.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (in both 1994 and 2008) discussed the banality brought about by social diffusion of typical features in Roman domestic decoration, noting that everyone pretty much had the same kind of stuff, from Cicero on down, but quality and quantity varied according to financial means. Yet–with all due respect!–Wallace-Hadrill doesn’t indicate how the Romans might have gotten over an important problem: How can a residence be symbolic of an owner’s cultural, economic, and social status if it pretty much looks like everyone else’s? I guess a Roman house is both self-portrait and mirror.

But if we allow subjective personal narratives to enter the toolbox of the art historian or archaeologist dealing with ancient interpretations of domestic decoration, then we may find new readings which are appropriate for the ancient climate, enliven repetitive imagery, are accessible to viewers who may not have had an elite literary education, and recognize an abundantly human tendency to talk about oneself. Suites of statuettes or wall paintings in a Roman house then become autobiography, mirror, map, calendar. We don’t have surviving written commentary on how and why archaeologically-known residences were designed the way they were. But we can speculate that an ancient homeowner, like my mother, might tell a personal story about a familiar image type, rather than resorting to overly-complicated literary criticism or intertextual dissections or even just plain old didactic readings.

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On Graceland and Roman elite villas: My post at the Chronicle

This post on David Silbey’s history blog from the Chronicle of Higher Education lays out some of the arguments I’m making in a conference paper (coming up next weekend in ABQ!) and an article. The post also talks a bit about how I arrived at the idea for the research project, “showing my work,” as it were.

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I’ll be presenting this as a paper next month at the Southwest Popular/American Culture conference, and I’m currently writing it up as an article, perhaps for the Classical Receptions journal (though other suggestions for an appropriate venue are appreciated!).

Here is the abstract for the conference paper:

Luxus on the Mississippi: Graceland Mansion as an Elite Roman Villa

Francesca C. Tronchin, Rhodes College

Varro’s criticism of luxury villas, Statius’ encomium through villa description, Pliny the Younger’s autobiography in villa letters, Philostratus’ description of a paintings gallery in a Neapolitan villa: myriad ancient texts describe ideal elite Roman residences. The archaeological record largely confirms the written evidence for the taste of the aristocracy for imported marbles, large-scale statuary, landscape and water features, and costly mosaics in their rural estates. Yet while there is some corroboration between these two primary sources of information from the ancient world, there are no examples of extant villas which are specifically described in the texts–no villa of Pliny’s has decisively been discovered and Cicero’s Tusculanum remains buried. Indeed no archaeologically-known villa from Roman Italy displays all the typical characteristics described in the texts about these sumptuous residences, although the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, among others, comes close.

If an ancient handbook of ideal features in luxury villas existed, it would certainly include the following: imported materials, classicising sculpture, exotica, water features (as evidence for the owner’s ability to “tame” nature), references to the owner’s ancestors, and settings for both otium and negotium. Ideal estates would be extra- or suburban and eventually would come to be monuments to the memory of the most prominent owner of the villa, perhaps even through the tomb itself. Whether written as praise for a villa patron or as criticism of private luxury, these components are included in a great number of ancient descriptions of opulent, rural estates.

As noted above, archaeologists have not found any villa on Roman soil which specifically confirms all the features of villa design mentioned in the written sources.

Perhaps they should have been looking for a quintessential example a luxury villa in Memphis, Tennessee, for Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion is indeed a “better” elite Roman villa than ones around the Mediterranean. Built in 1939, purchased by Elvis in 1957, and modified and redecorated over the last twenty years of his life, the mansion reflects the King’s personal taste, commemorates his personal achievements, and memorializes his loved ones. The residence features a recording studio and office, balanced by zones for otium like the swimming pool and racquetball courts. The Jungle Room, sheathed in green shag carpet, boasts an indoor waterfall akin to the Euripi described by Cicero in de Legibus II.2. Many other decorative features and direct classical references at Graceland evoke antiquity, but the Meditation Garden is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent aspect of the residence-turned-museum’s allusion to Roman villas. As the funerary monument to Elvis and a number of his family members, the Garden is visited by hundreds of thousands of international pilgrims, especially around the anniversary of Elvis’ death.

Graceland, therefore, is the eclectic and personalized architectural autobiography of the King, an enduring shrine to his memory, and a time capsule of (for better or for worse) contemporary taste.

Through this comparison of elite villas and Graceland, this paper interrogates, in part, the usefulness of ancient textual sources with respect to examining archaeological evidence for Roman domestic architecture.

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The sculpture market in late 18th-century Rome was a confluence of a high demand for antiquities (thanks to Grand Tour traffic), the nascent field of art history and connoisseurship within it, talented sculptors who could create works which appealed to both the taste for ancient art and complete, “perfect” statuary, and some techniques in restoration which in retrospect seem at best bizarre and at worst immoral and violent to the historical record.

A single sentence from my current research project, “Reexamining the Authenticity of a Portrait of Augustus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.”

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Now that my research year is coming to a close and I am preparing to move on to my new digs, I am writing up my book prospectus and about to send it off  with a sample chapter to the publisher. So for those of you who aren’t interested in reading a 300-page book or even a 10-page prospectus, here is a word cloud from the proposal, giving you the pithiest and most visually appealing overview of my research.

Word cloud by Wordle.

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Hollow hands clasp ludicrous possessions because they are links in the chain of life. If it breaks, they are truly lost.

Ernest Dichter 1964.

In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart discusses the heirloom as a version of the souvenir. In her definition, the heirloom is an artifact whose value is not directly related to the possessor, but to the object’s history or provenance; the owner is in a vicarious position in terms of renown. One literary example of such an heirloom is the Hercules Epitrapezios owned by Novius Vindex, as described by Martial in Ep. IX.43 and IX.44. Inasmuch as a souvenir–as part of Roman domestic decoration in my research–can be an autobiographical touchstone, the heirloom packs an additional punch. The heirloom is evidence of longstanding family status, venerable ancestry, and because of its age (any heirloom must be at least a generation old) it might also play into a general appreciation for things that appear old (as per the patina system, described by Grant McCracken 1990). If the heirloom has a high intrinsic value, corresponding to the general unwritten rules of Roman collecting and domestic display, then the object has even more potency, permitting its owner to demonstrate knowledge of a variety of antiquarian and aesthetic concerns. Naturally Vindex’ Hercules was renown not only for its status as a work of art, but also for its authorship by Lysippos and its provenance, having once belonged to both Alexander the Great and Hannibal. The value of the statuette was therefore both intrinsic and acquired over time.

For those who inherit an heirloom, the cost of acquisition is time spent waiting:  “‘Earning’ the collection simply involves waiting, creating the pauses that articulate the biography of the collector.” (Stewart 2007, 166). The patina of age and ancestry accrues and appreciates over the generations, falling in line with some typical Roman values–at least as far as we believe we understand generic antiquarian and genealogical concerns. Along with the heirloom itself, the owner inherits a sense of antiquarian good taste which could be valuable social currency to his clients and peers who see the heirloom in its domestic context. The heirloom is a “conversation starter,” permitting the owner to mention the ancestor(s) who passed the object down and thus he can present evidence of his solid family status through allusion. Naturally this is but one personal narrative which could be initiated by the heirloom; others concern formal aspects, subject matter, ideological symbolism, etc.

But what if one’s entire domestic collection is inherited? Does that undermine the display’s function as autobiography, since ancestors would be emphasized over the current patron? If every narrative relating to aspects of a domestic display can be connected to the status of the pieces as heirlooms, how might that raise or lower the owner’s reputation as a collector? I would guess that provided the owner has sufficient knowledge about the objects to be able to tell multiple narratives about the display, that he might maintain a certain level of social capital in his guests’ eyes.

This question of “the problem with heirlooms” came to mind as I am planning to move into a new house. I will have space for more furniture & other things than I have had in a while. My mother has graciously offered up pieces from our own family collection to help me make the house a home. I am happy to have the things, since they have aesthetic and personal value for me. But at the same time, I wonder how I will ever be able to develop my own personal style/taste if all of my domestic display is comprised primarily of heirlooms. This was likely less of a problem for Roman inheritors, since taste in domestic display was far more corporate than our own and the house was not a shrine to individuality as our modern houses frequently purport to be.

(This last issue seems somewhat ironic, given my interpretation of domestic decoration as autobiography. If you want to know more about it, you’ll just have to read the book when it comes out!)

And speaking of heirlooms & the patina system…

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