Online Review: Book

Herculaneum: Past and Future

Steven J.R. Ellis

117.4

By Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Pp. 352, figs. 359, map 1. Francis Lincoln, London 2011. $60. ISBN 978-0-7112-3142-9 (cloth).

Herculaneum is an astonishing archaeological site, packed as it is with an abundance of highly detailed information on so many elements of Roman urban life. From shops and houses to monumental public buildings and the essential infrastructure that kept it alive, the streets and fountains and sewers, and so much more besides, even the (indeterminable) fraction of the town we have offers a seemingly unparalleled body of information for reconstructing so much of Roman life. Add to these structures the extraordinary visual and material culture that survives, and one starts to wonder at the endless questions that can be asked (and answered) of this rich and complex archaeological gem. Incomparable though it may seem, Herculaneum is of course something of a victim of comparison, having played a distant secondary role of importance and interest to the much larger, more fully excavated, and more commonly engaged site of Pompeii. That up to now only two English-language books have been dedicated to Herculaneum is a sobering reminder not just of how little we know of the city but of how poorly that information has been synthesized and transmitted; there are at least as many volumes on just the bibliography alone for Pompeii (i.e., L. Garcia y Garcia, Nova bibliotheca pompeiana: 250 anni di bibliografia archeologica. 2 vols. [Rome 1998]; Nova Bibliotheca Pompeiana: 1° Supplemento [1999–2011] [Rome 2012]).

Wallace-Hadrill’s Herculaneum: Past and Future is a brilliant book that could do much to catalyze the (re)birth of Herculaneum studies in the 21st century. On first impression, this could seem hard to imagine: to flip casually through the 350 pages of this large-format book (30 x 25 cm) is to become lost among the brightly colored images, almost 360 of them, that populate almost every page; there are no citations, and the annotated “further reading,” while helpful, is something different than a bibliography. It might thus be mistaken as a coffee-table book, but it is so very much more. The book is a lesson in how to synthesize effectively and contextualize vast tracts of scholarship into an accessible, digestible whole. And a good amount of the information is new, having been inspired by the latest findings of the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP), under Wallace-Hadrill’s direction. Established in 2001 as a collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, and with support of the British School at Rome, the HCP has made incalculable contributions to the site management, conservation, and scientific research of the town.

The first three chapters establish the foundations for understanding the history of the city by outlining the area’s geological landscape (ch. 1) and the history and politics of its (re)discovery, excavation, conservation, and presentation (chs. 2–3). The discussion of the natural topography of the area very effectively demonstrates the city’s relationship with the terrain. This was a landscape constantly in flux, in part because of marine ingression caused by bradyseism but also because of the massive quarrying of the tuff in this area. The importance of the HCP’s research on the natural terrain, and Wallace-Hadrill’s synthesizing of a topic that is too often constrained within specialists’ reports, elevates its role as a central and complex character in the story of Herculaneum’s infrastructure and the making and shaping of a city. Wallace-Hadrill then weaves together something of a prehistory to the usual narrative of the discovery of Herculaneum in the 18th century, showing that unrecorded phases of exploration extend back to at least as early as the 13th century. The causes for the (re)discovery of Herculaneum in the 18th century under Prince d’Elbeuf are then pinned on local and regional political movements more than on any eureka-like moment of discovery. Now thrust onto the public’s imagination, there follows an account of the episodic efforts at excavation, conservation, and presentation of the site. This is a story not merely about the recovery of Herculaneum but also the ways in which Amedeo Maiuri fabricated extensive parts of the site—by a composition of truth more than on very specific factual realties—to present a more immediate experience of a quintessential Roman town.

The following three chapters delineate Herculaneum’s urban development (ch. 4), identify some of its inhabitants (ch. 5), and locate the heart of the town via its public monumental buildings (ch. 6). Wallace-Hadrill reminds us of the truly extraordinary setting of the town—culturally and historically—on the Bay of Naples; as for so many ancient sites, the modern setting can too easily distort our perception of their ancient context and value, for tourists and scholars alike. While the earliest archaeological information lies in the layout of the street system, which he attaches to the fourth century B.C.E., that which is most visible today is the transformation of the town in the second century B.C.E. This latter development was doubtless in the context of nearby Puteoli becoming the principal port for the entire western Mediterranean. Another practically incomparable value of Herculaneum is in the detail and range of information available for such a sizeable proportion of its population: from inscriptions and dedications we have as many as 650 or so named individuals, the actual bodies of 300 or more (of perhaps some of the same people), and then of course their houses and shops. The author’s focus here is on reviving what we can of the identity and status of the skeletons recovered from the seashore, as well as the more obviously identifiable and prominent individuals such as Marcus Nonius Balbus. A lengthier discussion is reserved for the great album of names found near the outer wall of the basilica and whether a group of these names might be identified as Junian Latins. This leads into a discussion of the location(s) of the public, monumental fabric of the city, which may have been more spread out than what we see at Pompeii.

Some of the strongest and most interesting contributions of the book are found in chapters 7–9, which cover standards of living (ch. 7), from the “high life” (ch. 8) to the “low life” (ch. 9). Wallace-Hadrill firstly, and very rightly, recalibrates our otherwise traditional distinction of Roman urban social structure: rather than amplifying the sharp distinctions between rich and poor, which still dominate most discussions of the Roman social structure, he instead unveils the complexity that existed within and across the many grades of urban life. His principal index is the house and the many gradations of size that spread in each direction from the standard plot size of 200 m2. The complexity lies in the fact that larger houses do not, of necessity, have more and better things than smaller houses. Charting the presence of atria—one of the Vitruvian signatures of elite status—in even standard-sized homes, Wallace-Hadrill speaks of emulation in which material culture could “trickle down” some kind of cascading class structure; a more specific example is taken from the discovery of the finest set of bronze statuettes from Herculaneum, which were recovered not from a public display shelf in, say, the sumptuous House of the Stags, but from within a wooden cabinet of a very modest, upper-floor apartment of the House of Wattlework. The proximity of the largest houses to the smallest ones, the most luxurious to the humblest, and the cultural commonalities across several of these gradations, points to an urban community that was much more intertwined than we typically imagine.

Wallace-Hadrill showcases the important research of the HCP on the purpose-built rental apartments and shops at the Insula Orientalis II; here we have the only type of multistory, multiunit block in Herculaneum or Pompeii. The HCP excavations of the sewer, which was built in service for (at least) the entire insula, have been targeted to specific sections of it to allow analysis of not just a giant accumulation of urban waste but more importantly of recognizable differences among each of the properties that fed it. The sum of thousands of pieces of data shows that the Roman urban diet was of a great variety and quality, the lesson from which is that the tired, banal picture of nonelites surviving on dreary cereals alone needs to be altogether rethought.

The final two chapters are about the differences—and the supposed causes for these—between Herculaneum and Pompeii, and not just of their urban character in antiquity but also of their future directions as archaeological sites. The long-standing impression that Herculaneum is merely a smaller version of Pompeii is nothing less than illusion, and one that denies the value that is held in the detail and depth of its information. Striking are the contrasts in streetscape: while Pompeii is laced with practically countless electoral slogans that speak to the vibrancy of its political and social landscape, just a single (and even this is doubtful) example survives at Herculaneum. In greater abundance is decoration, and overtly so. For Wallace-Hadrill, Herculaneum is ultimately a place of greater wealth and sophistication than Pompeii, an impression that is echoed in the relative dearth of urban production in comparison with Pompeii. The last word is on the problems (political and historical) of managing the archaeological site, the many conservation issues, and the climate in which the HCP was established. The focus in the efforts of the HCP on sitewide infrastructure—based on drainage, roofing, and, most importantly, continuous care—is yielding significant results.

The book is impeccably published. The images, although not always directly related to the text (they are not even individually numbered), are of such a high quality and number that it is a wonder the book could be published at such a modest price. The text is remarkably engaging, written in Wallace-Hadrill’s signature style of eloquence and lively articulation. That it eschews academic customs of citations, and even passage references for many of the primary authors, was surely a strategy to keep an uninterrupted flow, and perhaps to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. There is so much of value in this book: new insights, original ideas, and debunking of commonly held views. It should surely reawaken Herculaneum studies, and not just to compare—and compete—with those at Pompeii but to make important contributions to Vesuvian and Mediterranean history more generally. By exploding many of the myths that have crept into our understanding of Herculaneum, and demonstrating a different and more detailed history, both ancient and modern, Wallace-Hadrill has effectively recast the site for a new generation of students and scholars of the archaeology, art history, and Roman-period history of the Vesuvian region; it will equally inspire historians of the early modern period of Naples and those invested in heritage management and conservation more globally. All future work on Herculaneum will depend on this book.

Steven J.R. Ellis
Department of Classics
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio 45221
steven.ellis@uc.edu

Book Review of Herculaneum: Past and Future, by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Reviewed by Steven J.R. Ellis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/1684

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Ellis

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