Prof. John J. Dobbins

70_dobbinsDr. Dobbins is a Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Virginia (retired 2019).  He has excavated in Spain, Greece, Syria and Italy.  He has been the Director of the Pompeii Forum Project for twenty years and has collaborated with Malcolm Bell in preparing the final publication of the Hellenistic theater at Morgantina, Sicily.  He has published on Pompeii, Roman sculpture, lamps, a Roman villa in Tuscany, the Athenian Acropolis, and houses and mosaics at Antioch.  His professional awards and service include Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, a three-year NEH grant, co-director of the Summer Program in Archaeology at the American Academy in Rome, member and chair of the Advisory Board of the Etruscan Foundation, a Mead Honored Faculty Member at the University of Virginia, an All-University Teaching Award, an NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorship, membership in the University of Virginia Academy of Teaching, President of the Charlottesville Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and traveling lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America.

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Public Space and via dell'Abbondanza

237 foroabb d237 plastico d237 stabiana d
Major streets and piazzas (public squares or plazas) are linked components of connective urban architecture that formed the skeletal structure, or armature, of the Roman city.[1] This essay explores the relationships between Pompeii’s most important piazza, the forum, and its most important street, via dell’Abbondanza.  It also examines and considers the nature of the thoroughfare and its structures from the major intersection with via Stabiana to its arrival at the forum.  The goal is to characterize this segment of the street that not only connected prominent locations but also provided public circulation and meeting space for the inhabitants of the city.[2]

360 topo map d350 outcrop dVia dell’Abbondanza was a dynamic element within the urban infrastructure of Pompeii that continued to evolve until the demise of the city.   The story of the street and the forum area goes back at least to the sixth century B.C. when a temple in Etruscan form was constructed on the high volcanic ridge that rose above the coastline to the west and the Sarno River to the south.[3] The topography of the area provided a natural route around the volcanic outcropping by means of a long north-south depression that, over time, evolved into via Stabiana.  Access to the volcanic ridge and its early temple from the lower region to the east must have been by way of a track that is now known as via dell’Abbondanza.  An approach from the north was likely via the route that became via Consolare.  An early precursor of via Marina may have climbed the ridge from the west, but the steep ascent from the south was so precipitous that no road was ever constructed to provide access from the plain below.

360 abbstabmap dThe Temple of Apollo on the ridge where the forum would later develop drew devotees for worship and ritual banquets that followed the sacrifices.  Vendors would have provided votive objects to those wishing to leave gifts in the sanctuary while other shops or temporary booths must have sold food, drink and other items.  The close link between religion and commerce in the forum area and the route that connected those activities to the hinterland to the east was thus established at an early period.  Nonetheless, at that early stage there was no monumental architecture either in the later forum area or along the route of the later via dell’Abbondanza.  Eventually, of course, via dell’Abbondanza developed into a major segment of the armature of the city.

175 sarno dStarting at its far eastern end, via dell’Abbondanza begins at the fortified city wall at the Sarno Gate and extends to the west.  The street passes a variety of commercial, light industrial and residential structures. It is linear for about 600 meters, with a reasonably constant width of six to eight meters between the facades of buildings on opposite sides of the street.  A change is recognized as one approaches the intersection with via Stabiana. It is immediately obvious, even today, that the intersection and its surroundings constituted an important place. Indeed, as the meeting point of Pompeii’s two major streets, it was perhaps the busiest intersection in the city. It was important because it provided access to all parts of the city, including nearby dedicated public spaces and public buildings.  Its busyness was due to the confluence of people who sought near and distant spaces and whose paths intersected there.

The stretch of via dell’Abbondanza after its intersection with via Stabiana is quite different from that lying to the east.  The closer one comes to the intersection, the more telling are the details one sees to indicate the importance of the crossroads and the final 250 meters of the street that leads to the forum at the summit of the volcanic outcrop.   In form, function and presentation the section of via dell’Abbondanza between via Stabiana and the forum divides itself into three distinct, but interconnected zones, or sections.  It would be a mistake, however, to envisage three rigidly demarcated zones because in an important sense the street is a unified element of connective architecture.  Nonetheless, via dell’Abbondanza achieves its linkage to the forum by means of three individual urbanistic phrases, to employ a literary analogy.  To push the analogy further we might say that a common language articulates the street, but that it is structured differently and with different rhetorical emphases in each of the three sections.  Transitions from section to section are smooth, but when one steps back to look at the work as a whole, it becomes clear that one can parse the language of the sections in three different ways.


The three zones of via dell’Abbondanza extending between via Stabiana and the forum are discussed here from east to west as zones 1 through 3:

  • Zone 1, nearest the intersection with via Stabiana, is topographically lower in elevation and is relatively level; this section is defined as Insulae VII, 1 on the north and VIII, 4 on the south.
  • Zone 2, in the middle, proceeds westward and uphill; this section is defined as Insulae VII, 13 and VII, 14 on the north and VIII, 5 on the south.
  • Zone 3 continues uphill along south façade of the Eumachia Building and ends at the forum; this section is defined as Insulae VII, 9 on the north and VIII, 3 on the south.

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[1] William L. MacDonald, The Architecture of the Roman Empire, II, An Urban Appraisal, New Haven 1986.

[2] Recent trends in Roman urban studies have focused on traffic, movement and the formation of Roman place.  See, for example, Alan Kaiser, Roman Urban Street Networks, Routledge: New York and London, 2011; Ray Laurence and David Newsome, eds., Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011; Darian Marie Totten and Kathryn Lafrez Samuels, eds., Making Roman Places, Past and Present, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 89, Portsmouth, RI, 2012.

[3] This was centuries before the forum itself was constructed.