Dr. Damian Robinson

70 robinsonDr. Robinson is a classical archaeologist with research interests both on land and underwater.  His doctoral research examined the social and economic topography of ancient Pompeii.  He co-directed a fourteen year-long archaeological project and field school in Pompeii which, starting in 1994, excavated beneath the AD 79 ground level of Regio VI, Insula 1 in order to investigate and study the process of urbanization in that area.  He is now assisting in the publication of this research.  In 2004 he was appointed to a Junior Lectureship in Classical Archaeology and elected to a William Golding Fellowship at Brasenose College at the University of Oxford.  In 2006 he became the Director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology with research and teaching interests in ancient maritime societies.  He now works in Egypt on the submerged Iron Age/Hellenistic port of Thonis-Heracleion where he is excavating a ship dating to the 5th Century BC.

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The Elite House and Commercial Life along the Via dell’Abbondanza


Walking down the Via dell’Abbondanza away from the forum, one comes almost immediately upon an impressive brick-built doorway with a marble threshold stone that heralds the entranceway to the House of the Wild Boar (VIII.iii.8). The doorway frames a view across the beautiful black and white mosaic flooring in the fauces depicting the eponymous boar, and into a similarly sumptuously decorated atrium and tablinum and through to a peristyle beyond.730 VII-3-8 doorway dTogether, the decoration and the architecture of the house speak clearly to us, this was the home of someone wealthy. Yet immediately next door towards the forum was a shop, while on the other side of the fauces was another. While neither shop had doorways through to the House of the Wild Boar, their wide doorways were clearly built as part of the same phase of development of the main entrance to the house, suggesting that house and commercial units were closely related.730 VIII-3-8 with shops d According to Roman property law you owned the footpath outside of your property and here it is also interesting to note that the latest pink opus signinum covering for the footpath, which was decorated with mosaic tesserae, also ran the length of the two shops. Such visual clues as the imposing fauces doorway and the pink concrete pavement would not have been missed by a Pompeian to whom it would have been clear that the owner of the House of the Wild Boar was both rich and involved in the urban economy

Trade, no place for a gentleman

Progressing further down the Via dell’Abbondanza, the common juxtaposition of houses of wealthy individuals and the world of commerce simply reinforces what we might intuitively think from looking at the archaeology, that the Pompeian upper classes played a hand in its urban economy. Yet, this connection is rather curious if we just look at the epigraphic evidence from the city, which would seem to suggest that the urban economy was almost entirely in the hands of freedmen, rather than Pompeii’s richer inhabitants.[1] It may be that the rich simply left trade to the lower classes, perhaps as a result of an underlying social code that saw agriculture as the only appropriate economic activity for a gentleman.[2] Here the words of Cicero in De Officiis have often be taken as demonstrating this:

‘trade, if it is on a small scale, should be considered demeaning … there is no kind of gainful employment that is better, more fruitful, more pleasant, and more worthy of a free man than agriculture’.[3]

Cicero’s attitude has been adopted by many modern authors and projected back onto the archaeological remains of the city. At their most extreme, they imagine a city in social turmoil during the years following on from the earthquake of AD 62, which is suggested as a crucial turning point in the economic history of the city. This was a time when the newly emboldened freedman class revolutionised the urban economy; their shops ‘brutally invaded all the available space towards the street; they defaced the simple and severe architectural fronts of patrician houses by plastering garish trade signs on their walls; they pressed against the sides of noble portals as if to launch a final and triumphant attack against the whole edifice’.[4] Echoes of such sentiments are also to be found in more recent literature on Pompeii: ‘New businesses were opening up everywhere as tradesmen benefited from the rebuilding of properties either to incorporate shops and workshops into the periphery of domestic properties, or indeed to convert them entirely for commercial use’.[5] In both cases the catalyst for the economic boom of Pompeii was the earthquake and the prime movers of this development were lower class traders.

What would this mean for the Wild Boar and its owners? Were they simply down on their luck members of the urban nobility forced to sell off the land either side of their front door to new businesses? Inside the house, however, the archaeological evidence from the lavish wall and floor decoration would suggest not owners that were down on their luck, but who were enjoying continued wealth and prosperity. Furthermore, the creation of a street front facade that visually joined the house with its shops through the pink concrete footpath (and also most likely coherent scheme of wall decoration), suggests not that the owner of the House of the Wild Boar was ashamed of any links to commerce but actually celebrated them. Was our house owner then a rich freedman, someone who could afford to live a life of luxury and at the same time engage with the urban economy? 


[1]   Mouritsen 2001

[2]   cf. Cato Di Agri Cultura preface; Varro Rerum Rusticarum II.1-3

[3]   Cicero de Officiis I.151

[4]   e.g. Maiuri (1960) is an excellent popular account of this position on elites and trade. Also see Maiuri’s (1958) report on his excavations in Herculaneum, where he explicitly socially categorises properties bases on the presence or absence of associated shops and workshops.

[5]   Butterworth and Laurence 2005, 185


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