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Houses and Society in the Later Roman Empire

Houses and Society in the Later Roman Empire

By Kim Bowes (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology). Pp. 120, figs. 23. Duckworth, London 2010. £12.99. ISBN 978-0-7156-3882-8 (paper).

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Bowes’ reasoning for her contribution to the Debates in Archaeology series is that the study of the houses of late antiquity needs a thorough and immediate revision. Its problems are couched as essentially methodological, since Bowes considers that its findings have been severely circumscribed by (1) an assumption about the rigidity of the sociopolitical circumstances of late antiquity and their perceived direct, unproblematic relationship to domestic architecture; (2) a tendency to form those assumptions by looking forward to the Medieval period as a means of asserting a break with the traditions of antiquity; (3) a tendency to take contemporary literary sources at face value; and (4) the difficulties of working with the plans of houses for which often we have no clear evidence of thresholds, let alone upper stories or artifacts.

In response to these shortcomings, Bowes sets out two main arguments: first, that the reading of the Late Antique house as a space of increasingly formalized and accentuated hierarchy is misguided, a result not of the evidence itself but assumptions about society; and second, that, far from showing the collapse of cities and of competition, the mass renovation of houses in late antiquity is a sign of the vibrancy of cities and of competition for social status among a variety of elites.

To seek out this vibrancy, Bowes adopts some of the approaches that have galvanized the study of earlier Roman housing. These have explored the role of decoration (though that is rather underplayed here) and the spatial syntax of houses to consider how space, architecture, and decoration combine to encourage movement and behavior. They have also considered how the rhetoric of that space and decoration might be subverted by users, a subversion traced particularly through artifact analysis. These approaches have led to a reimagination of the domestic sphere, allowing us to consider in more subtle and dynamic ways the relationships between house, owner, visitor, and urban environment.

Sketches are provided throughout of how these approaches might transform our picture of later houses. On a simple level, Bowes is able to remind us that some of the features deemed so characteristic of Late Antique houses, such as private baths and the adoption of public architectural forms, are present in much earlier domestic settings. Though the forms of those features might change, the motivations might be equally valid, as is demonstrated by reexamination of the apse, often seen as a great example of hierarchical segregation. Here it is considered as an aesthetic form, which might be adopted in a variety of locations while its specific use in a dining context is reconfigured as a sign of social intimacy. Elsewhere, the subjection of the Hanghäuser at Ephesos to a preliminary artifactual analysis shows this approach’s potential to demonstrate the multifunctionality of lived space, another way to undermine the bombastic rhetoric of architecture.

Ultimately, however, the key to Bowes’ reappraisal might lie less in the adoption of these methodologies and more in adopting the assumptions behind those studies, which have employed them to such great effect. Almost all have worked to show that the crucial factor for the growth of complexity and increasing differentiation (or at least differentiation within a fairly tight set of parameters) in houses is the intense social competition that characterized urban society, not just at the level of senatorial or decurionate elites, but—as the best studies have shown—down through society.

Perhaps slightly in danger of swapping one assumption for another, Bowes reads her houses not as evidence of stultifying patronage but as a sign of fierce competition for clients. After all, why bother to impress a captive audience? That competition is given a very precise cause to explain why so many houses seem to undergo renovation in the fourth century C.E. (though she does concede that this reading relies on often vague dating techniques). It is the result of Diocletianic and then Constantinian reforms that first created an increase in elites of equestrian status, gained through employment in an expanding bureaucratic system, and then saw the expansion of both senatorial numbers and possible routes to this status. This model also allows Bowes to reinforce the point often taken for granted in studies of earlier housing, that large houses can only proliferate in an environment with an audience and a platform for self-display. Here, that platform is provided by the many cities that were invigorated as administrative centers in the fourth century and whose public structures were undergoing renovation alongside the private.

The picture that Bowes presents is convincing. To take her position is not to renege on the hard battles fought to establish late antiquity as a distinct period or to deny its formal developments but to recognize that changes in expectations of the roles of houses are likely to evolve or react at a much slower pace than apparently more immediate religious and political changes, to which they are probably related in a much more complex way than has often been assumed. Indeed, this recognition has increasingly influenced discussions of other aspects of Late Antique material and visual culture. At the same time, the opportunity to understand the Late Antique home as part of an evolutionary pattern of domestic space is very timely. In the last few decades, Carandini’s excavations on the Palatine, the publication of domestic remains in colonies such as Cosa and Fregellae, and new stratigraphic digging at Pompeii have helped place those Early and High Imperial houses, which have traditionally been the mainstay of our scholarship, into a broader developmental context, to which could usefully be added (with gains for both periods) the later trajectory.

In linking with these studies, Bowes thankfully appears to have an eye to some of their pitfalls, particularly their traditional reliance on the most obviously canonical houses. Although the book argues at the macro level, suggesting empire-wide attitudes, the argument is constructed so as to offer mini-regional case studies and to note very local peculiarities or dialogues. As Bowes is aware, it is easy to assert the importance of any one set of architectural features if we only select buildings featuring them for our data set. The rhythm of imperial life might now be better served by consideration of more alien types of domestic dwelling. As such, it is very heartening to see here the promise that other house types will be included in a later monograph.

It is inevitable, of course, in the confines of such a short volume that not everything can be covered. Equally, being such a brief and forceful polemic on one side of the debate, this volume does get away with some assertion over sustained demonstration. While the text works excellently within the remit of the series, offering a clearly articulated argument, presented in well-defined chapters with very useful concluding summaries, it does not have time to arm readers with the tools to assess the evidence for themselves. Almost all the illustrations are plans with little explanation of how to interpret them. Again, I look forward to reading the longer monograph that presumably will slow the pace to demonstrate the argument by reanalyzing the architecture, space, and decoration in Late Antique houses. I also look forward to seeing the response.

Shelley Hales
Department of Classics and Ancient History
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1TB
United Kingdom

Book Review of Houses and Society in the Later Roman Empire, by Kim Bowes

Reviewed by Shelley Hales

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Hales

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