The Roman House and Social Identity [Review]

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Book Review

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Any book that attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of the Roman house must address two very basic questions at the start: "what do we mean by Roman?" and "what do we mean by house?" As for the first question, the body of evidence for urban housing in the city of Rome itself is primarily literary. Most studies of the Roman house instead turn to the abundant remains from Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are similar enough to available literary descriptions of Roman house design to encourage a cautious collocation. A more complicated proposition is to consider evidence from the whole of the Roman empire; here layers of Hellenizing and native influences (also a factor in the Campanian evidence) stretch the meaning of "Roman" to the breaking point, making it difficult to draw general conclusions about such disparate evidence, much less to speculate about the Roman identity or status of these provincial homeowners. As for the second question ("What do we mean by house?"), most studies choose to focus either on the urban townhouse (domus) or on the villa, respecting a dichotomy firmly entrenched in the Roman imagination; yet such a division is not always useful, since patterns of influence in decoration and design transcended the boundaries of town and country. Furthermore, the relative paucity of evidence fails to reflect the domestic experience of the vast majority of the ancient population, and skews the focus in favor of the privileged few.


Bryn Mawr College


Bryn Mawr, PA

Publication Information

Bryn Mawr Classical Review