Last week was very much a week where all sorts of things seemed like very good ideas on their own, but in aggregate started to look just the tiniest bit over-optimistic. One of those things was attending the conference Between Words and Walls, organised by April Pudsey and Jen Baird of Birkbeck. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference before where I have had to explain why I’m there quite so often – and, let’s be honest, perhaps it’s not immediately obvious why I was there. The conference wanted to examine the study of ancient housing, how to combine the archaeological sources with the literary sources without privileging either, and consider new methodologies for studying the ancient house. It is an entirely fair question to ask how all that links in with what I do.
However, there is actually a very nice link between my stuff and ancient housing. A lot of the study of ancient housing has started looking at what, for want of a better term, you might call the sociology of living – that is, how the shape and layout of houses reflects the hierarchies of the families living in them, and what we might extrapolate about kinship relationships based on the space that families inhabit. This is where the link with my research comes in – although my work on Seneca’s concept of the family is currently based on his representation of the idealised philosophical family, I can’t discuss that without a good grounding in the social history of the Roman family, of which the study of housing forms a part. I told you it made perfect sense.
From mthat perspective, there were a couple of very interesting papers. Jen’s paper on houses at Dura-Europos included as a case study the records of a house which was given to four brothers as an inheritance, and the process of splitting one oikos into four oikoi - but within the same building. This is kind of mind-exploding from an ancient housing point of view, because when we think about houses, there’s a tendency to assume that one family unit inhabited one building, and that each building was a single oikos. If you have the sense of multiple households living in a single structure, that changes a lot of our assumptions about life in the ancient world – population density, the hierarchy of shared spaces within the shared structure, the practicalities of living in such small quarters, not to mention the difference between what the legal document says and what may have actually happened. The paper given by Heather Baker offered a brilliant counterpoint with evidence from Hellenistic Uruk, with tablet documentation of parts of houses being sold off to family members, or records of habitation that suggest multiple households in a single building again. Heather also bought out the evidence this gives us for female economic activity in this period, which for various reasons is not as well documented in other spheres of life.
Those were the two papers that got me thinking the most about the sorts of assumptions I make in my work – but part of that is because I tend to look at Rome, and what happens at Rome is not typical of what happens everywhere else. Two papers focused on this discrepancy – Simon Speksnijder talked about attempting to identify a vestibulum, and Samuli Simelius tried to track down a Corinthium atrium in Pompeii. The conclusions of both these papers were essentially that it is hard to spot features of elite housing in the less high-status housing that has survived, but features of elite architecture were adapted for less prestigious settings. This is one of those timely reminders for me as I teach that not everything happens at Rome – things happen differently even only a few miles down the coast in the Bay of Naples. Lynley McAlpine’s paper on Augustan wall painting and the changes between the second and third style, in particular the disappearance of painted representations of luxury stones such as marble, also highlighted the difference between what one could get away with in town and in the country, particularly in terms of the country villa as a space for pushing the boundaries of the more morally restrictive capital.
I don’t think I can really give a summary of each conference paper, so if I haven’t mentioned something, it’s not because I didn’t find it intellectually stimulating! However, the last thing I want to pull out as a take-away is how much I learned about methodology. There are some really interesting ways of looking at this material, some of which I simply did not know about. Jennifer Hilder did some brilliant things with space syntax analysis to analyse houses in Volubilis, Morocco, to look at patterns of accessibility and the integration of domestic housing. Maeve McHugh has been tramping all over Greece with GIS equipment to look at how isolated farmsteads actually were, and just how all those Athenians could have had farms out in the country but still participated in civic life. Kathleen Lynch read deposit pits of domestic pottery from the Athenian agora in parallel with the stelai recording the possessions confiscated and sold from those convicted of the mutilation of the herms before the Sicilian expedition (did you know we even had those? I didn’t) to compare elite possessions with what was in the deposit pits and thus extrapolate on the status of the agora housing. Janett Morgan offered a completely new way to read religious artefacts found in the Greek house, changing our view of what religion looks like from a fixed to a fluid space. Finally, in the keynote, Lisa Nevett offered some thoughts on why the issue of housing becomes an important political point for Demosthenes to critique, in terms of modern luxury versus ancient simplicity – it’s a trope that appears in Roman literature as well, of course, but there appears to be no Greek Statius to offset it.
So I came away with my head buzzing about all these Interesting Things that I have heard, and with a definite sense that I want to do something with Cicero’s De Domo Sua (or On His Own House) at some point in the vague future. My thanks to Jen and April for organising such a stimulating and thoughtful conference, and to all who acted as respondents and participated – I’m sure I’m not the only person who left with a head full of ideas beating their wings.