Online Review: Book

The Making of Pompeii: Studies in the History and Urban Development of an Ancient Town

Pedar W. Foss


Edited by Steven J.R. Ellis (JRA Suppl. 85). Pp. 196, b&w figs. 76, color figs. 18. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2011. $99. ISBN 978-1-887829-85-4 (cloth).

The Making of Pompeii collects papers on the (largely pre-Roman) development of that Campanian city. Given the last two decades of subsurface excavations, this results in a book that is essential for Pompeianists or anyone interested in Italic urbanization. In his preface (7), Ellis explains three threads that connect all the contributions: methodologies that blend data from studies of architectural and archaeological stratification; the contextualization of individual project results within the scope of studies made in Pompeii’s hinterland as well as inside the city walls; and a desire to characterize and summarize in one volume and one language (English) the results of recent stratigraphic excavations. Ellis succeeds in all three. Each chapter offers a distinctive and fascinating study that sheds light on the growth and transformation of the town. All that is lacking is a summary chapter that synthesizes the current best understanding of this development. Guzzo’s opening essay (11–17) does provide a brief overview of issues and questions, but it relies on the few ancient literary sources and on previous publications more than on the other chapters in this book, which seems a missed opportunity. Connective cross-references that occur from time to time are counter­balanced by inevitable interpretive disagreements. Accordingly, it is largely left to the reader to integrate a narrative for Pompeii’s making (assisted by a detailed index, it must be said).

Nevertheless, certain "truths" and stubborn "problems" emerge. Chief among the latter is the question of the Altstadt, an urban nucleus first postulated for Pompeii by Haverfield (Ancient Town Planning [Oxford 1913] 63–6). Trouble for this hypothesis first emerged in 1985 when De Caro ("Nuove indagini sulle fortificazioni di Pompei," AION 7 [1985] 75–114) revealed that the town’s final footprint had already been marked out by a circuit wall in the early sixth century B.C.E. Esposito et al. (128–33) offer perhaps the clearest account of the new narrative, in which the original town, large in area but perhaps not in population, shrinks into the Altstadt area in the early fifth century. In other words, the Altstadt is really a Neustadt (see also Pedroni’s chapter [158–63], which relies more speculatively on a presumed no-build area just outside the fortification line of the Altstadt).

One reason for this reassessment of the Altstadt as urban starter yeast is that foundations or terracing in pappamonte (local soft lava cut easily into blocks, loosely laid) represent the first (early sixth-century) building of the town in permanent materials, and such building blocks are being found broadly outside the Altstadt zone (color fig. F179). Our understanding of these pappamonte walls, however, is not perfect: they might either be building foundations or blocks laid to terrace portions of the urban space for development (or both, in some cases). Holappa and Viitanen’s chapter considers the evidence for these early structures on a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) they generate for the urban terrain and the anthropogenic changes wrought on it (esp. 175–81). While that DEM offers a topographic template for the city for the first time, its necessary generation from 79 C.E. levels does limit usefulness. Any future effort to collect widespread elevations at virgin-soil level (174)—the Bronze-Age gray-ash paleosol (120)—would be welcome.

Holappa and Viitanen (181 n. 25) and Carafa (93 n. 13, though seemingly contradicted in n. 14) question the interpretation of a pappamonte structure and potentially associated ditch found (by Jens-Arne Dickmann and Felix Pirson) beneath the Casa dei Postumii (VIII.4.42–3), taken as evidence for a fortification around the Altstadt by other authors in the volume (e.g., Guzzo [15]; Esposito et al. [131]; Coarelli and Pesando, more skeptically [47]). The upshot is that we cannot yet be sure of the presence or nature of an Altstadt fortification, though an early fifth-century compression of the town seems likely, just before a (late fifth-century) hiatus in evidence for activity until the late fourth century, especially of votive materials in the Sanctuary of Apollo and of Athena/Hercules in the so-called Triangular Forum (treated by Carafa [89–111]).

Carafa carefully lays out the evidence for, and reconstructs the topography and layout of, the "Triangular Forum." His post-62 C.E. dating of the Doric portico enclosing the sacred precinct runs counter to most standard accounts that rely strictly on the presumed chronology of materials and decoration (90–1, 99–100, esp. n. 46), but it is supported by stratigraphic excavations. Carafa thereby reveals a consciously archaizing renovation strategy in that sector of the city after the earthquake. Unfortunately, Carafa does not address one nagging question: whether the Doric temple itself was in ruins after 62 C.E. If so, why had the temple not been rebuilt (why enclose a ruin with a fine new [but old-looking] portico?); if not, then how came the temple to its present state?

On the "truths" side, development of the extant street grid to the late fourth–early third centuries B.C.E. earns consensus (Guzzo [15–16]; Coarelli and Pesando [50]; Pedroni [161–62]), with the course of important roads dependent on natural constraints in the terrain (Holappa and Viitanen [181–83]). Those roads sometimes matched alignments or traces of earlier routes, for instance, at the Quadrivio di Orfeo at the intersection of the Via Stabiana and Via di Nola, which may have been marked as a sacred spot in the Archaic period by a travertine votive column (Coarelli and Pesando [41–2]).

Three other chapters stand somewhat apart. Robinson usefully summarizes the pre- and protohistoric evidence for human activity at Pompeii and in the Sarno Valley (19–36). Ellis examines the development and changing fortunes of the salted fish industry both in the neighborhood of the Porta Stabia and the town as a whole (and so exemplifies the "contextualization" of project results highlighted in his preface). Expanding the context a bit further might have suggested another explanation for the apparent decline in intraurban salted fish processing at Pompeii during the Augustan period—the very period when freshwater fish farming boomed in Italy (J. Higginbotham, Piscinae: Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy [Chapel Hill 1997] 39–40). It would be tempting but speculative to wonder whether the water basins located by Grimaldi, in his chapter on the Insula Occidentalis (155), below the Casa di Marcus Fabius Rufus (and operating in the Augustan period), could have served any piscicultural purpose (esp. so near to the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, garum-king of Pompeii). In any case, Grimaldi provides a welcome summary of residential development in the area atop the southwest city wall.

While a few dusty habits still recur, such as the easy use of Latin literary terms for domestic spaces (e.g., 116) or the association of atrium-style houses with elite residences (59–60), The Making of Pompeii takes a forward-looking approach to the early urban history of the city. Its translations and editing are of fine quality, and it contains many new and insightful illustrations (with gratitude for the color figures, esp. the earliest-known [fourth–third-century B.C.E.] true mosaic at the site [color fig. D58]). Above all, it brings together powerful new archaeological studies that are changing our understanding of how Pompeii was made.

Department of Classical Studies
DePauw University
Greencastle, Indiana 46135

Book Review of The Making of Pompeii: Studies in the History and Urban Development of an Ancient Town, edited by Steven J.R. Ellis
Reviewed by Pedar W. Foss
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118 Number 1 (January 2014), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Foss

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