Private and Public Sphere in the Roman House: Semantics, Archaeology and Performative Theory

The purpose of this project is to explore the public and private spheres, the areas of the house primarily intended for private or for public use and access, of the Roman house from the first century BCE to the second century CE through a re-evaluation of the material remains of the houses themselves and literary evidence that tells of life in them.

As an interdisciplinary enterprise, the project seeks to combine historical, archaeological, philological and architectural analysis to further the understanding of the function of Roman house, the domus, as a place for social, cultural, political and administrative action. Questioning the modern presuppositions such as that of a home as a purely private area reserved for the family and their friends and relatives, or that of regarding the functions of spaces within a home as single purpose, such as a bedroom or a living room, to each space, the aim is to show the contradictions of material finds, the things that archaeologists have found in each room, with the assumptions regarding the use of that space.

The older scholarship supported a very rigid view of the Roman house as divided between a public and private sections, with the same division acting as a gender marker for the male political activities within the political sphere and the female activities of nurturing and housekeeping within the domestic sphere. Thus the house would have followed the pattern of the family with the head of family with his sons taking care of the outside relations and the women taking care of the home. This division now outdated within the household, the aim of this project is to take a fresh look on conceptions of public and private within the house. Drawing from new theories in social studies, the project sees that the functions of spaces within the house were created by the actions of its inhabitants instead of being predetermined.

The investigation is carried out on three fronts, literature, the archaeological finds and the architectural outline. Through the study of literary sources will be mapped the historical uses of the Roman house as the center for the public and private lives of its occupants. The survey of archaeological finds from houses in Pompei and Herculaneum as well as Rome and its environs will help to identify the functions of rooms and who occupied them. Architectural reconstructions made with computer imagining (3D CAD) will be used to configure hypotheses on three case studies on how the Roman house functioned.

While the earlier projects have been focused on archaeological fieldwork, the current project offers a pioneering analytical study to bridge the gap between historical and archaeological knowledge. The multidisciplinary approach of combining historical and archaeological data using 3-dimensional reconstructions, still in an experimental phase, has promise. The ultimate aim of this project is to find out whether these prospects may be realized. As a research project involving graduate students preparing their doctoral theses, the project has distinct aims of researcher education in the field.

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