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The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome

The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome

By Jeremy Hartnett. Pp. xxiv + 329. Cambridge University Press, New York 2017. $125. ISBN 978-1-107-10570-6 (cloth).

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In complaining bitterly about life in Rome, Umbricius paints a vivid picture of the ever-present noise and danger of the city’s streets: the continual traffic, the crowds pushing in from all sides, the ripping of tunics, the dodging of elbows, poles, wine jugs, soldiers’ hobnail boots, and carts precariously carrying building materials, and then at night the perils of falling roof tiles, chamber pots and their contents, drunks spoiling for a fight, and thieves taking advantage of the dark (Juv. 3.236–308). Hartnett’s scholarly yet accessible book paints an equally vivid picture of Roman urban streets, evocatively recreating their sights, smells, and sounds. Theoretically at least, all Romans met in the street, and Hartnett’s book examines the ways in which people negotiated the use of this shared space, how they came into contact, interacted, and presented themselves, demonstrating that the street was a key urban space for social performance and self-presentation as well as being central to political, religious, and economic life. He draws on an impressive variety of material, ranging from ancient literature, inscriptions, and images to the physical remains of Roman streets, together with comparative accounts of the street and contemporary urban theory. He is at his best, however, when examining the material remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The book is richly illustrated throughout, with maps, diagrams, and photographs, as well as a number of color plates (although unfortunately many of the plates are wrongly numbered in the text).

The first part of the book, which seeks to repopulate the Roman street, is particularly successful and will most likely find the widest readership. Hartnett clearly demonstrates that streets were far more than just passageways; they were social places in and of themselves, where people loitered, often in groups (sometimes referred to as circuli), clustered outside bars, around benches, and at crossroads, and where news and gossip spread quickly. Much economic life also took place in the streets, either spilling out from businesses located in the numerous commercial establishments that fronted on the streets or taking the form of genuine street commerce, with stall holders and ambulant traders competing for space with other commercial users of the street, including prostitutes and beggars. He also highlights the visibility of religion, with rituals focused around neighborhood shrines and cult processions; the latter regularly proceeded through the streets, as did processions linked to family ritual such as weddings or funerals.

Part 1 concludes with an exploration of the social environment of the street. Streets were narrow (although Hartnett’s modern points of comparison—Fifth Avenue in New York and Las Ramblas in Barcelona—are hardly representative), and without mechanized transport, movement was necessarily slow, bringing people physically closer and facilitating more interaction than we might expect in the modern street. Yet, as Hartnett notes, the elite could minimize their direct contact with others by riding above their heads in litters, or surrounding themselves with a large entourage, placing a physical and symbolic barrier between themselves and the rest of the crowd. Other outward signs such as clothes could also demonstrate status (although notably not with slaves: Sen., Clem.1.24.1); some wore the toga of the senator, the electoral candidate, the citizen, or the gold ring of the equestrian order, but Hartnett points to the images in the frescoes of forum scenes from the Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii to show that most people, including citizens, probably wore indeterminate dress, such as tunics, mantles, dresses, and hooded cloaks. Even the speed at which one walked could communicate something about status to observers, as slaves hurried about on errands while a free citizen ought to walk at a more moderate pace. However, Hartnett emphasizes that it was not always possible to control self-presentation in the unpredictable environment of the Roman street. This was a space in which private grievances could be addressed publicly, where it was possible to be followed by wronged parties weeping and wearing mourning clothes, or to be openly insulted and harassed, while a politician might equally be applauded and greeted warmly or hissed at and lambasted.

In part 2, Hartnett considers the relationship between streets and the architecture that bordered them. He focuses in particular on private houses, demonstrating that the frontage of a private house was yet another way in which the inhabitants could choose to project a carefully curated image to passersby. Soldiers displayed the spoils of war on the facades of their houses, while births, deaths, and marriages were announced publicly on the external walls. Imposing entranceways and distinctive decoration incorporated into the pavement marked important houses, while architectural features such as portals, benches, and steps often projected out into the sidewalk, meaning pedestrians had little choice but to take notice. Hartnett then goes on to explore the contrast between the austere decoration on the facades and the sumptuous interior decoration in Campanian houses, deliberately displayed through open doorways. However, it is difficult to reconcile his claim that this was part of a calculated aesthetic designed to emphasize modesty and restraint with the luxury visible in the interior of the house, and the conscious attempts to ensure that grand houses were in themselves urban landmarks. Augustus’ house on the Palatine is cited as an example, but the point surely is that it is not just the exterior of Augustus’ house that is supposedly simple but the entire dwelling (see Suet., Aug. 72). Indeed, it is precisely the idea of private luxury that is most problematic in elite discourse. Far more convincing is Hartnett’s argument that a relatively plain but uniform decoration on a facade emphasized a house’s size, solidity, and security, while the continuation of the use of the so-called first Pompeian style stressed a house’s age and permanence as well as forming a link with public buildings such as the basilica at Pompeii. Hartnett concludes this section by revisiting his well-known work on streetside benches at Pompeii, a significant feature of the urban landscape fronting both domestic and commercial dwellings.

The final part of the book offers vivid snapshots of the activities taking place in particular sections of streets, namely a section of the Decumanus Maximus at Herculaneum and the Via dell’Abbondanza at Pompeii. Through a close examination of the material evidence, Hartnett highlights the remarkable mix of urban life found on the streets, with users ranging from local civic dignitaries to citizens, slaves, and freed slaves, to manufacturers, bar workers, and retailers, to divinities and their devotees. Overall, it is this detailed exploration of the streets as a lived environment, populated by a diverse cross-section of the Roman urban population, that is the greatest strength of this impressive and engaging book. Stimulating vignettes enliven Hartnett’s writing throughout and demonstrate not only his deep knowledge and understanding of the material but also an impressive lightness of touch in elucidating his scholarship for what deserves to be a wide readership.

Claire Holleran
University of Exeter

Book Review of The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome, by Jeremy Hartnett

Reviewed by Claire Holleran

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.holleran

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