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.

The Elite House and Commercial Life along the Via dell’Abbondanza (page 2 of 3)

Trade and the economic potential of urban landholding

Rather than being forced down an interpretative pathway that would view our householder as being not a ‘gentleman’ because of their involvement in the urban economy, we can look to the countryside for alternative way of thinking about this close relationship between shops and upper class houses. The near contemporary agricultural manuals, for example, are full of sage advice to villa owners on how to maximise production. Cato, for example, recommends that if a villa is ‘near a town it is well to have a garden planted with all manner of vegetables and all manner of flowers for garlands’.[1] In the city flowers would always be in demand for the busy cycle of religious festivals that would have taken place in the temples, shrines and along the streets of Pompeii. In a similar way, Columella suggests that if a property was located close to a town then grapes could be produced for sale in the market in the same way as other fruit crops. He particularly recommends the planting of varieties that are early ripening, that look pleasing to the eye, that have a good flavour, and also keep well in winter.[2] Here Columella is clearly suggesting that the grape varieties chosen for planting should be marketable, and hence profitable, for as long a season as possible.

For the rich landowners for whom Cato and Columella were writing, the profitability of land and the role of the owner is continually emphasised. The actions of the elite in the countryside are a world away from the lack of activity inside the walls, indeed it is most unlikely that the economic dynamism shown by rural landowners would have stopped at the city wall. Cicero, for example, was himself a landowner in the vicinity of Pompeii[3] and for all of his rhetorical bluster in De Officiis he also possessed an economic portfolio that included urban shops, workshops, houses, and apartments, to accompany his rural villas and farms.[4] There are even passages in Cicero’s letters to suggest that he also had something of a business approach to the management of his urban properties:

‘two of my shops [in Puteoli] have collapsed and the others are showing cracks so that even the mice have moved elsewhere to say nothing of the tenants … However, there is a building scheme underway, Vestorius advising and instigating, which should turn this loss into a source of profit’.[5]

Obviously, while we should not envision Cicero ‘getting his hands dirty’ in the rebuilding of his shops in Puteoli, nor later serving behind the counter of one of them, as much as he would never have personally worked the lands on his farms, he was nevertheless in control of their economic destiny. It is within this context, where a celebrated consul of Rome could be both rural farmer and urban entrepreneur, that we should approach the House of the Wild Boar and the other large and elaborate properties along the Via dell’Abbondanza and admit that here too the division between businessman and local politician would have been largely artificial.[6]

350 VIII.3.10 dJudging by the bricks used in the rebuilding of the frontage of House of the Wild Boar, it is likely that this was undertaken at some point towards the end of the first century BC or in the early years AD, when it would have replaced the earlier frontage in Nocera tufa, the remnants of which are observable at VIII.iii.10, the doorway that can be seen on the far left of the photograph.[7]  As part of this, the owners were at pains both to retain a grand entranceway into their property but also to maximise the potential of the economically valuable street-front. Cato again, has some wise words of advise that neatly encapsulates this redevelopment where he reminds the potential farmer, ‘in building you should see that the steading does not lag behind the farm, nor the farm behind the steading’.[8] Simply put, Cato recommends that the farmer should never put pleasure before profit. Such a motif that can be observed in some contemporary upper-class villas such as the nearby Villa of the Mysteries or those elsewhere in Campania, such as the Villa of San Rocco near Capua, where this economic potential of the villa is not subsumed beneath its luxury and it remains at heart a money making enterprise.[9] The street frontage of the House of the Wild Boar demonstrates a similar pattern of thinking and indicates that at the time of its construction, the potential to make money from passing trade along the busy Via dell’Abbondanza as potential customers came to or went the forum was just as important as the creation of a suitably imposing view into the house.

The shops that flank the entranceway of the House of the Wild Boar may also have been important signifiers of the wealth of their owners. In many villas, such as San Rocco, the main entrance of the pars urbana is reached by passing through the pars rustica the ‘business end’ of the villa.[10] Such an arrangement would not have occurred through simple chance and it has been suggested that the very visibility of the working parts of the building were as much a part of the social demonstration of wealth and power as the luxurious atrium or peristyle. The productive spaces are all part of a celebration of the capacity of the local landscape, with the villa as the epicentre of profitable production. In a similar way the House of the Wild Boar, itself typical of many other wealthy houses along the Via dell’Abbondanza, with its fauces surrounded by shops and workshops it is also an epicentre of production. The economic development of the street is testimony to the money spinning potential of this area of the city and the willingness of successive owners of wealthy householders to exploit it. The frontage of the House of the Wild Boar is not symptomatic of the social degradation of once great houses[11] but a reflection of its owners will to maximise the economic potential of their local landscape. 350 opus signinum dIndeed the highly visible opus signinum footpath (example shown on left) creates a spatial and architectural unity that indelibly visually links the economic properties with the larger house. In this respect the façade instils a sense of grandeur into these economic spaces and reveals an elite revelling in the productive capacity of their local urban landscape. The addition of shops, particularly those around the front door to a property is not something to be ashamed of but to be celebrated. Shops display the economic power of their owners. Obviously, once rebuilt these commercial properties would either have been rented out or run on behalf of their masters by agents (institores), again though the agents would not have been entrepreneurs themselves but simply managers: ‘the equipment used, the money invested in the business, and the gains that it produced belonged directly to the patron, who was the entrepreneur’.[12]


[1]   Cato Di Agri Cultura VIII

[2]   Columella On Agriculture III.ii.1-4

[3]   Cicero Letters to Atticus 21 (II.1.11); 207 (X.15.4); 420 (16.11.6). Plutarch Life of Cicero 8

[4]   cf. Griffin and Atkins 1991, xix. Parkins 1995, 30-3

[5]   Cicero Letters to Atticus 363 (XIV.9.1-2). Frier 1978

[6]   Garnsey 1998, 70 and note 21

[7]   Here I am basing the dating on my own studies of the architecture of the House of the Surgeon (VI.i.10) where the brick built architecture all dates to this period cf.

[8]   Cato On Agriculture III.2

[9]   Cotton and Métraux 1985, 35-58

[10]   Purcell 1995, 160

[11]   cf. Maiuri 1960, 118 in particular but see 114-140 to place this in context of Maiuri’s wider view of the Pompeii’s urban economy during its last years.

[12]   Andreau 1999, 66

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