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People and Plants in Ancient Pompeii: A New Approach to Urbanism from the Microscope Room

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

People and Plants in Ancient Pompeii: A New Approach to Urbanism from the Microscope Room

By Marina Ciaraldi. Pp. 183, b&w figs. 75, tables 17. Accordia Research Institute, London 2008. £36. ISBN 978-1873415-30-6 (paper).

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In this volume, Ciaraldi studies the development of urbanism at Pompeii by linking plant remains to the growth of city life between the sixth century B.C.E. and 79 C.E. Following a seven-page summary of the book in Italian, she devotes the first two chapters to detailing her approach to the study of plants—describing the geology, climate, and vegetation of the area around Pompeii and setting the ancient city in its historical context. The latter is the least satisfying part of this section since the close attention to detail evident throughout the rest of the book is absent here. So, for example, Ciaraldi does not distinguish Oscans from Samnites, recognizes only two Samnite Wars (rather than three) between 343 and 290, and dates the Punic Wars to 217–205 in one place (24) and to 218–210 in another (33). In addition, I do not see the connection that the author claims between Campanian agriculture before 79 C.E. and the alimenta, a system not instituted before the reign of Nerva (96 C.E.) at the earliest (26).

In the following three chapters, the author reviews previous work on plant remains, including pictorial evidence, previous excavations, and recent studies on Campanian archaeobotanical material, especially Jashemski’s work on gardens. Ciaraldi is suspicious of the use of root cavities to identify plant species and hesitates to rely on pollen evidence to determine whether a particular plant belongs to a specific context. Indeed, she seems dismissive of all identifications not based on macro plant remains. She identifies four ways by which plant assemblages occur: as a direct consequence of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, primary refuse (such as occurs in cooking areas), secondary refuse (consisting of material discarded away from its point of use), and ritual deposits. She also stresses that how plant material survives, whether as charred remains from burning, waterlogged samples, or mineralized deposits, can determine the kinds of information the assemblage can provide. So, for example, charred cereals can provide information on crop processing, and mineralized materials can be related to social status (47). Her approach to the plant material is eminently practical and commonsensical, such as when she stresses the importance of care in recovering and processing samples, whether in “spot” samples datable to 79 C.E. or in stratigraphic excavations. Turning to the problem of the quantity of seeds recovered, she wisely cautions against the tendency to equate numbers of seeds with the frequency of species and their economic importance (60).

In chapters 6 and 7, Ciaraldi discusses two spot samples, the Villa Vesuvio at Scafati and the House of the Chaste Lovers (III.4.2–3) in Pompeii. Calling upon the list of medicinal plants recorded by Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder, she identifies more than one-half of the waterlogged material found in a dolium in the farmhouse at Scafati as pharmacological. Consequently, she sees this assemblage as a “pharmacy in the Pompeian countryside” and cautiously claims for it a type of “craft specialization” associated with the city’s developed urbanization (158). The House of the Chaste Lovers yielded charred fodder, no doubt food for the mules or donkeys whose bones were discovered in the manger. Noting the similarities of this plant material with that found at the Villa of L. Crassus Tertius, she argues that mixing various fodder plants to yield a high-quality feed represented evidence for crop rotation. She also concludes that feeding animals on high-quality fodder within the city displays Pompeii’s continued connection with the countryside despite the level of urbanization it had achieved by 79 C.E.

Chapter 8, comprising the bulk of the book, is a diachronic study of plant assemblages from two Pompeian houses, the House of the Vestals (VI.1.7) and the House of Hercules’ Wedding (VII.9.47). Plant assemblages in these two structures fall into three time periods. The House of Hercules’ Wedding provides evidence for phase I and transitional period I/II, dating to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Large amounts of charred grains and chaff indicate that cereals probably grew in open spaces between houses and were processed and stored on-site. Ciaraldi sees a close relationship between a city that was little urbanized and the countryside, where small-scale subsistence agriculture concentrated on a limited range of local food plants (154).

Assemblages in both houses document phase II, from the fourth to the mid second centuries B.C.E. Finds of walnut, peach, citrus, almonds, and spices such as pepper indicate a high-status diet, a market economy, and economic links with the long-distance food trade centered at Puteoli. Comparison of ritual deposits in both houses indicates a standardized selection of plants for religious ritual.

Phase III covers the period from the mid second century B.C.E. to 79 C.E. Lack of chaff finds in the houses, Ciaraldi argues, indicates that cereal processing took place elsewhere and reflects the nature of the food supply generally, wherein the city relied on the countryside and lacked any centralization in the distribution of cereals (150). She sees for this period a general trend toward a wider range of plant species, especially imports and the cultivation of new species such as peaches. Fruit, generally, may have become part of a “plantation agriculture.” Finds of different plants in the religious deposits of phases II and III may indicate a change in religious practices or a focus on foods aimed at particular groups such as Isis worshipers.

The text is marred somewhat by misprints, usually omitted words, and “Italianisms” that betray the author’s native language (e.g., “Miseno” for Misenum, “colonia Sillana” for colonia Sullana). The photographs are generally poor to good, but photographing plant material, especially charred seeds, is notoriously difficult. Figures, photographs, and charts are integrated well into the text. The system of in-text citation of sources only by author and title, with no page numbers, however, is a bit irritating. Citations of this kind are usually not a big problem for articles, but for books, omitting page numbers renders the citation almost worthless. Augmenting the text is a lengthy bibliography.

Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602

Book Review of People and Plants in Ancient Pompeii: A New Approach to Urbanism from the Microscope Room, by Marina Ciaraldi

Reviewed by Robert I. Curtis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Curtis


As a gardener I have always been fascinated with plants. I've read some literature on carbonised plants in Pompeii, but there is not much online. Glad you guys actually took some time to make and share this review with us, people of interest.
Keep the good work up!

Steward Blake, gardener for

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