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.

Public Space and via dell'Abbondanza (page 4 of 5)

237 zone2 n d237 zone2 se d237 zone2 sw d
We now come to an examination of zone 2 itself of via dell’Abbondanza.  This section of the street is defined as Insulae VII, 13 and VII, 14 on the north and VIII, 5 (east section) and VIII, 5 (west section) on the south.  It is clear from the statistics that shops dominate the street frontages.  Along the south side, six non-shops punctuate the line of sixteen shops.  These six include the four traditional atrium houses already mentioned (VIII,5,28; VIII,5,9; VIII,5,5; VIII,5,2, the later two actually constituting a double-atrium house) and two properties that are neither simple shops nor traditional atrium houses (VIII,5,24; VIII,5,20).  Property VIII,5,24 is a relatively large reverse-L-shaped structure that includes an impluvium, but it is not configured as an elite atrium house.  Its numerous small chambers and larger rooms suggest that it served the living and sleeping needs of numerous people, and was possibly an inn.  Several sources refer to the building as the house of a doctor or surgeon (See Research - Names Catalogue).  VIII,5,20 fronts via dell’Abbondanza with a shop-sized front room from which a somewhat smaller room opens and also from which a corridor leads to an atrium-sized back room with a staircase. The threshold of the front room is a restoration and therefore does not tell us if this space once opened in the manner of a shop.  The spaces are ambiguous enough to imagine a front shop with a second room immediately behind, an unarticulated open space in the rear and living spaces above.  The arrangement of spaces does not preclude a small inn, however.  Considering the nature of the street, it would appear likely that the space is at least partially commercial (shop and residence) or fully commercial (inn).

The north side of zone 2 presents eighteen shops and six non-shops.  The space at VII,14,14 opens with a broad front like a shop, but the space is much larger than a shop.  Its threshold is a restoration and therefore does not tell us if this space once opened in the manner of a shop.  Beyond a corridor is a space with an impluvium, and there are two openings onto vicolo del Lupanare, and many small chambers suggesting that this too could be an inn.   Several sources refer to the structure as olive oil production and shop attached to a house (See Research - Names Catalogue).  Of the other five non-shops one is a long narrow passageway leading to a staircase (VII,14,4).  The remaining four are large spaces whose scale is commensurate with that of atrium houses, but whose internal configuration of space, along with considerable evidence of revisions of internal spatial divisions argues that they are not grand residences (VII,14,9; VII,14,5; VII,13,8; and VII,13,4).  They, too, appear to be inns, but ones of considerable size.

A word on inns.  While there is no proof that the spaces under consideration are inns, it is clear that they are not a number of things: elite residences, simple shops, industrial establishments, or sacred spaces.  The possibilities for identification are therefore narrowed.  A definition of “inn” should be sufficiently flexible that it will cover a number of conditions that we cannot read specifically in the archaeological evidence.  A visitor coming into Pompeii may have required lodging for one or two nights and found it at an inn.  Others may have been long-term non-residents who came to Pompeii to find work in the extensive rebuilding effort that took place after the earthquake of A.D. 62.  Some of the building efforts were still underway in A.D. 79 requiring places to house workers.  Workers not from Pompeii and requiring long-term lodging probably found it in facilities that became in essence residential hotels.  In any case, it would be anachronistic to apply twenty-first century models of motel/hotel accommodations to first-century Pompeian inns.  The spaces would have been crowded and one rented a bed, not a room.

The research of Scott Craver on property investment at Pompeii can inform our examination of zone 2 of this section of via dell’Abbondanza.[1]  Craver’s contention is that properties were bought, sold, and modified by Pompeii’s elite for investment purposes.  Craver conducted a comprehensive assessment of the entire city and identified 516 individual properties in Pompeii, including those on the section of via dell’Abbondanza investigated here.  His description of space is different from the single-entrance Fiorellian system, but he does not seek to overturn Fiorelli’s useful system.  The Craver system seeks to identify property ownership in A.D. 79, not individual owners, of course, but discrete properties owned by someone.  Under one owner there may be several different types of contiguous spaces.

On the north side of zone 2 Craver identifies five properties: VII,13 (1-5, 15-18, 22-25); VII,13 (6-14); VII,13 (19-21); VII,14 (1-7, 17-20); VII,13 (8-16).[2]  Reducing the north side of zone 2 to five properties simplifies our assessment of the nature of this side of the street.  Four units resemble atrium houses, but, as discussed, they are inconsistent with the ostensibly elite atrium houses on the south side of the street.  They are VII,13,4; VII,13,8; VII,14,5; and VII,14,9.  One can easily believe that the atrium houses on the south side of zone 2 (and zone 1 as well) were owner-occupied.  The owners invested not in commercial property in these cases (except for the shops on their northern edges), but in prestige property where they could present themselves in one of the most important zones in the city.  Were the atrium-like houses on the north side of the street owner-occupied?  There are arguments against this proposition.  Apart from the corner property at VII,13,19-21, the remaining four properties are large and would have been expensive to purchase.  Only investors of means could have acquired them, and such individuals would probably have resided in atrium houses that more appropriately proclaimed their status.  It is unlikely that they would have resided in these spaces.  Proposing wealthy freedmen who might have bought these properties and then lived in them is unprovable.  Perhaps it occurred, but property investment on an urban scale was most likely the domain of the wealthy elite.

This discussion brings us back to the question of how the cores of the four properties were used.  An investor would not have allowed such large spaces to be underutilized.  We cannot identify the specific activities performed in these spaces.  I have posited that inns are a possibility for the cores.  The peripheral shops (as rented space) could have accommodated anything.  In theory, the interior rooms could have accommodated shops as well, but the inability to lock these spaces, as in a taberna, argues against such a use.  We are left with the proposition that these are commercial spaces, however they were used.  

The commercial nature of the spaces on the north side of zone 2 is illustrated by a telling detail in unit VII,13,4.  A small part of the north side of this property was reconfigured to construct two cellae meretriciae, prostitute cribs, opening onto vicolo degli Scheletri that runs along the north side of Insula VII,13.  These are spaces VII,13,15 and 16.  Each crib contains a diagnostic masonry bed.  McGinn is correct that a masonry bed is not an essential criterion for the identification of a space as a cella meretricia (because masonry beds may not have been used), but the masonry bed is diagnostic, as in these cases.[3]

The masonry chronology makes it clear that the two cribs were late additions to the fabric of the property.  Door VII,13,17 is part of the new configuration.  The installation of the cellae meretriciae, and their connection to the property, argue that the owner of the property of which VII,13,4 is a part exploited available space for commercial purposes, taking advantage of a financial opportunity.  This example is also interesting vis-à-vis the study of prostitution at Pompeii because it documents a pair of purpose-built prostitute cribs in a property otherwise not devoted, in any overt way, to prostitution.  A third crib is located at VII,13,19.[4]  Of interest in this line of investigation is the presence of a relief carving on a tuff block of a phallus high on the east-facing wall at the northeast corner of Insula VII.13.  

Eschebach concludes his study of the House of Ganymede (VII, 13,4) by saying that he could not rule out its use as a brothel.[5]  The significance of that statement is that Eschebach does not assign an elite function to the house either.  It was commercial space, but I see no need to identify it as a brothel.  The large rectangular room at the rear of the house is identified as a triclinium on the basis of parts of a bed and other furnishings recovered, but there is no reason to preclude the possibility that it accommodated a large number of sleepers.[6] 

Zone 2 of via dell’Abbondanza lacks many of the monumental qualities of zone 1, with the exception of atrium-house portals.  Nonetheless, the consistent march of shops up the street serves as an important link that unites the lower and middle sections.  Shops proceed past the pinched-in zone of the lower section, continue along past vicolo del Lupanare to the north and via dei Teatri to the south, and run the entire length of zone 2.

Counting and measuring features can be accomplished easily enough archaeologically.  An assessment of the overall presentation, sounds, sights, smells and character of a street and its façade is a complex matter for us, while an astute observer in antiquity asking the right questions could have accomplished this task easily.  Therein lies the frustration.  The answer was once apparent; it is now hidden.  We can’t enter a time machine; we must deal with the surviving evidence.  Counting doorways and measuring street frontages is not the same as counting people, identifying activities, or explaining the character of a street whose distinctiveness also derived from the number and kinds of people present, the activities they performed, and the kinds of shops and their wares.  There is much that has been lost, but an attempt is worth the effort for it will bring us closer to the reality that we seek.

237 zone2 crowds dWe are justified archaeologically in populating via dell’Abbondanza with a lot of people.  The shops, houses, bath, upper stories and probable inns supply adequate evidence for that.  Moreover, as the destination of via dell’Abbondanza was the forum, the street supported the heavy flow of pedestrian traffic to and from that destination.  The question is how many people, in actual numbers?  The following assessment is based on assumptions, not facts, and claims no demographic validity.  It is merely a suggestion.  Let us assume that each of the sixty-four shops in zones 1 and 2 of via dell’Abbondanza was operated by a couple that had two children.[7] Children would have helped in shop chores and would have run errands, thereby being a presence in the street and on the sidewalks.  There is considerable archaeological evidence for reconstructing a mezzanine level above the shops where the shopkeepers lived.  Stairs leading up, beam pockets for a second floor, and terracotta pipes embedded in walls that served second-floor toilets all argue for second-storey residences above shops along the street.  Four people for each of the sixty-four shops yield 256 people dwelling in shop contexts along the street and being present because the shop is where they worked.  If one person per day brought supplies to the shop that would add another 64, but they would not be a permanent presence and are not counted in the total below.  Two customers per shop at any one time yields 128 people.  The baths are large and could easily accommodate 200 people at any time during their peak hours.  People in transit on this busy street might have numbered 50 at any given time.  People going to and from the Eumachia Building and the forum in general might have numbered 100 at any given time.  The inns and atrium houses are problematical because their inhabitants would not have been a constant presence in the street.  A low estimate of 25 for the whole group at any one time might not be an exaggeration.  The total comes to 759 people in the street at any one time.  As most of these people would have been present in zones 1 and 2 of via dell’Abbondanza those two sections would have seen especially dense crowds throughout the day until the baths and shops closed.

The diverse status of people using the street and the varied activities they carried out guaranteed that the character of the street was quite mixed ranging from day laborers to elite residents who may have been duoviri (chief magistrates) or decuriones (members of the city council).  Such a mixed-use nature is not unusual for a Pompeian street or neighborhood and is not a surprise here.  Perhaps what is noteworthy, however, is the presence of archaeological evidence documenting the mixed use of Pompeii’s most prominent street, even in sections where urban monumentality grants it a special character.

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[1] Scott E. Craver, Patterns of Complexity: An Index and Analysis of Urban Property Investment at Pompeii, Dissertation at the University of Virginia, 2010.

[2]  Identifying individual properties is fraught with difficulties.  I have evaluated Craver’s criteria for recognizing property divisions and I accept his reading of the north side of zone 2.

[3]  T. McGinn, “Pompeian brothels and social history,” in T. McGinn, P. Carafa, N. de Grummond, B. Bergmann, and T. Najbjerg,  Pompeian Brothels, Pompeii’s Ancient History, Mirrors and Mysteries, Art and Nature at Oplontis, & the Herculaneum ‘Basilica.’ JRA Supplement 47, 2002, 7-46; see also idem, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History & the Brothel, Ann Arbor, 2004.

[4]  McGinn, 2002, 10; see his n. 34.  The present author has not examined it in person and cannot comment on its masonry chronology.  In its entry for VII.13.19 Pompei Pitture e Mosaici, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, Rome, 1997 (Vol. VII, 652) reports that the space now occupied by the cella meretricia was originally part of the shop at the northwest corner of the block (VII.13.20-21).  PPM also reports that the cellae meretriciae at VII,13,15-16 were originally probably part of the House of Ganymede, VII,13,4, and made separate spaces after the earthquake of A.D. 62 (PPM, Vol. VII, 652).  The plan of the House of Ganymede, however, depicts the cribs as separate entities (PPM, Vol. VII, 616).  Also, the address given is that of the house adjacent to the House of Ganymede.

[5] H. Eschebach, “Die Casa di Ganimede in Pompeji VII 13, 4: Ausgrabung und Baugeschichte,” RM 89 (1982) 229-277; also see Pompei Pitture e Mosaici  (Vol. VII, 617).

[6] Pompei Pitture e Mosaici  (Vol. VII, 617).

[7] One or two of the children in any family might have been infants with no impact on street life. Two people might have run a shop.  On the other hand, a couple with four children might have run a shop.  The estimate of four provides us with a working number.