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 5 of 5)

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Zone 3  of via dell’Abbondanza (Insulae VII, 9 on the north and VIII, 3 on the south) stands in stark contrast to almost everything that has been observed about the lower two sections.  Indeed, there are two monumental public buildings (comitium and Eumachia Building), atrium houses and shops present, and that in itself is a list of shared features.  The shops, however, are very few (6) and are present only on the south side of the street.  The number of atrium houses (2) is only slightly lower than the numbers for the lower sections.  Most striking about zone 3 is the paucity of doorways and the urban life that would have been associated with them.  The southern flank of the Eumachia Building dominates the entire north side of this stretch of street.  It presents one door into the building itself; the adjacent door opens onto a porter’s lodge. 

100 fountain dIn antiquity the character of zone 3 would have been apparent from deep within zone 2.  The white limestone fountain at the beginning of the zone would have stood in distinction to the basalt fountain in zone 2, and would have drawn one’s eye westward.  The impressive wall of the south side of the Eumachia Building and the steep incline spatially defined the final stretch of the street.  In antiquity the fully preserved Eumachia Building wall, covered with fine stucco that gleamed like marble and the triforal gateway into the forum would have beckoned toward the grand public space that lay beyond.  As one approached the end of via dell’Abbondanza the three stone bollards at the end of the street pavement, the elevated terrace associated with the comitium and the colonnade inside the gateway would have visually announced one’s arrival at the forum.

In spite of its monumentality, this section of street is not an urban “place” where one lingered (an exception being that short stretch of house and shop façades).  It was a trough of space through which one passed in order to reach a destination.  While thoroughfares in Roman cities are usually elements of urban connection, this stretch of street is both that and more.  It is also simultaneously an architecture of “passage” that emphasizes the transition from one space to another, as does an urban arch.  This stretch of via dell’Abbondanza indeed connects zones 1 and 2 of the street to the forum, but it also becomes an extended liminal space that emphasizes one’s passage from the intense street life below to the grandeur that lies just ahead.  This is a zone of urban anticipation from which one foresees the immanent urban monumentality of the nearby forum.

360 forum map dThe forum was the center of civic (i.e., administrative, political), religious, and commercial life at Pompeii.[1]  Via dell’Abbondanza connects to the forum at its southern end close to the buildings that housed the institutions of government.  Three civic buildings line the south side of the square while the basilica and the comitium are located in the southwest and southeast corners respectively.  While it is impossible to assign specific functions to the three civic buildings, it is likely that they served as offices for the two chief magistrates, the duoviri, and other magistrates, as a city council chamber, and probably as a repository for city records.  The basilica was a law court as well as a public building in which one could stroll and discuss all manner of topics.  A comitium is an assembly place.  The building identified as the comitium is large enough to serve as a place of assembly, but it also could have served as a voting precinct.  The Eumachia Building, on the opposite side of via dell’Abbondanza from the comitium is a complex property dedicated by the public priestess, Eumachia, the most influential woman of Pompeii during the Augustan period.  An elaborate inscription, fragmentary on the frieze of the forum colonnade, but complete over the southeast door opening onto via dell’Abbondanza, provides much information, but does not state the function of the building (CIL X, 810).

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The city’s main temple, the Temple of Jupiter, dominates the northern end of the forum while two other cult buildings are located along the east side.[2] Adjacent to the forum on the west, and at one time connected to it by large doorways between piers, is the Sanctuary of Apollo, the city’s oldest cult place whose earliest phase dates to the sixth century B.C.[3] At the northeast corner is the Macellum, the meat, fish, and produce market.[4]  On market days much of the open space of the forum and its surrounding porticoes must have accommodated temporary booths and displays of all sorts of food and items for sale.  The long, rectangular, largely open-fronted building at the northwest corner of the forum is suitably designed as a market hall that could have been used, at least on market days, and possibly on a daily basis to accommodate the vendors who came into the city with their varied produce and wares.  This teeming center of Pompeian life was monumentalized by the colonnade that shaped the open space and by the grand buildings, many sheathed in marble veneer, standing behind the colonnade.  An additional device that emphasized the forum as a space whose character was distinguishable from the surrounding city is its two-step border that sinks it into the earth.  A visitor approaches the forum through the colonnade and steps down onto a broad apron and then down again to the forum pavement.

The devices that emphasized the forum’s special quality were not designed to isolate it from the rest of the city and the numerous activities that took place there.  On the contrary, the major and minor streets coming into the forum, and urban features, such as street widenings, monumental gates, arches, and sight lines emphatically connected the forum to the city around it.  Likewise, for the Pompeians or visitors who were several blocks away from the forum, there were cues to direct them to the forum.  Thus, one should understand the relationship between the forum and the areas around it as reciprocal.  This reciprocity was achieved especially by means of streets, and none was more important than via dell’Abbondanza.

The segment of via dell’Abbondanza between via Stabiana and the forum was unique.  Archaeological evidence shows that in antiquity it probably served a variety of functions:

  • Transportation thoroughfare for pedestrians
  • Traffic control for animals and carts traveling westward
  • Meeting and social gathering space provided by the largo and elsewhere
  • Prominent and unobstructed entrance to Stabian Baths
  • Display venue for elite houses, monuments and inscriptions
  • Center for retail trade
  • Precursor and major entrance to the forum

In sum, as was the case with most other locations in Pompeii, via dell'Abbondanza would have been used by all of the social classes that occupied and visited the city.  The mixed use of the space, combined with the mingled social strata, would have provided a public space that simultaneously connected important locations, provided social interaction, facilitated commerce and delivered a variety of important symbolic messages to those that used it.

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[1] For an overview of the forum, see John J. Dobbins, “The forum and its dependencies,” in John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss, eds, 150-83. The World of Pompeii. London: Routledge, 2007.

[2] The Imperial Cult Building and the Sanctuary of Augustus.  John J. Dobbins, “Problems of Chronology, Decoration, and Urban Design in the Forum at Pompeii.” AJA 98 (1994) 629–94, especially pp. 661-68, 685-88.

[3] Stefano DeCaro, Saggi nel area del Tempio di Apollo a Pompei: Scavi stratigrafici di A. Maiuri nel 1931-32 e 1942-43.  Sezione di archeologia e storia antica 3.  Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1986.

[4] John J. Dobbins, “Problems of Chronology, Decoration, and Urban Design in the Forum at Pompeii.” AJA 98 (1994) 629–94, especially pp. 668-85.