Research plan

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

A collaborative study to be executed at the University of Helsinki, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation

Project director:
Dr Kaius Tuori

The aim and objectives of the research

Studies on the domestic space in Roman context have shown that the private house (domus) was the economic and social centre of its owner, his or her family and associated persons. Houses were designed to suit both the private life of its occupants and the demands of public life. Movement inside houses and the use of space was guided with the help of decoration and structures. The Roman house was open for outsiders to a certain extent, which made the division between public and private spaces inside the domus a very interesting topic already to Romans themselves.[1]

The purpose of this project is to explore the public and private spheres of the Roman house from the first century BCE to the second century CE through a re-evaluation of the material remains and literary evidence. As an interdisciplinary enterprise, the project seeks to combine historical, archaeological, philological and architectural analysis to further the understanding of the function of the domus as a place for social, cultural, political and administrative action. Often overshadowed by modern presuppositions regarding the functions of spaces within a home, the tradition of assigning a single purpose to each space has only recently been subjected to serious criticism due to the contradictions of material finds with the assumptions regarding the use of that space.[2]

The orthodoxy in the older scholarship supported a very rigid view of the domus 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 familia with the paterfamilias 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 This division now outdated within the household, the aim of this project is to take a fresh look on conceptions of public and private within the house.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 the suggestions by performative theory, the project sees that the functions of spaces within the house were created by the actions of its inhabitants instead of being predetermined.

The project seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate on privacy in the ancient world and the issues of how the limits between public and private spaces were drawn.[3] Reversing the idea of home as an exclusive space of the family as a modern allusion deriving from the nineteenth century bourgeois house and demonstrating its applicability in the Roman context as limited, the project seeks to utilize comparative anthropological theories on different ways of conceptualizing the private/public interface.[4] The complexity of the issue is demonstrated by the fact that what was originally thought to be the most private space of the house, the bedchamber or cubiculum, was regularly used for public proceedings such as trials, while the gardens that were thought to be quite accessible, had very private functions.[5]

The investigation is carried out on three fronts, the literary sources, 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 3D CAD will be used to configure hypotheses on three case studies on how the Roman house functioned.

Background information

The current research project is the product of several years of unofficial co-operation and studies on the history of the Roman house as a social, cultural and political concept. Dr Kaius Tuori, the project director, is a scholar of Roman social and legal history with a background in history and classical archaeology. He has written several articles on the places of justice in the Roman world and the use of the domus as a place of trial and legal consultation and teaching. He is currently Academy of Finland researcher at the University of Helsinki, starting a book-length project on the Roman imperial legal practices. Ms Laura Nissinen MA is preparing her doctoral thesis on the Roman sleeping arrangements and the uses and functions of cubicula. Mr Heikonen MA, MSc is architect and art historian with an extensive experience with the use of 3D CAD in archaeological projects. Mr Simelius MA is a scholar of ancient history with a background in classical archaology.

The larger context of the project is the ongoing revolution in the field of classical archaeology with the advent of digital mapping and GIS-systems, which have been utilized in the Finnish Jabal Haroun Project (FJHP) and the Expeditio Pompeiana Universitas Helsingiensis (EPUH), where Dr Tuori has worked with the former while Ms Nissinen and Mr Simelius have worked with the latter.

The use of 3D mapping allows for the dynamic rendering of space and its transformations, something that early archaeologists and historians were constrained to leave to low-quality “artist’s views”. Floor plans were earlier studied through art historical methods, leaving uses and social surroundings beyond the scope of research.[6]What the new methodologies offer is the possibility of illustrating precise, reliable and verifiable information and to test various hypothesis on the uses of domestic and public space in social organization.[7]

[1] Vitruvius, De Architectura 6,5.

[2] Lisa Nevett, Domestic Space in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge: CUP 2010; Ria Berg,Il mundus muliebris nelle fonti latine e nei contesti Pompeiani, Helsinki 2010.

[3] Anna Anguissola, Intimità a Pompei: riservatezza, condivisione e prestigio negli ambienti ad alcova di Pompei, Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 2010; Eric Poehler, Miko Flohr and Kevin Cole, Pompeii: art, industry and infrastructure, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, ”Social Space and Symbolic Power”, Sociological Theory 7 (1989), 14-25; J. Carsten, S. Hugh-Jones(eds.), About the House: Lévi-Strauss and beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995; B. J. Bowser and J. Q. Patton, ”Domestic Spaces as Public Places: An Ethnoarchaeological Case Study of Houses, Gender, and Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon”, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11 (2004), 157-181.

[5] Kevin Cole, Miko Flohr and Eric Poehler (eds.), Pompeii: Art, Industry and Infrastructure, Oxbow Books, Oxford 2011; Katharine T. von Stackelberg, The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society, Routledge, New York 2009; Edgar Markus Luschin,Römische Gartenanlagen: Studien zu Gartenkunst und Städtebau in der Römischen Antike, Grin, Norderstedt 2008.

[6] Bernard D Frischer (ed.), Beyond Illustration: 2D and 3D Digital Technologies as Tools for Discovery in Archaeology, British Archaeological Reports 2008; Yehuda Kalay, Thomas Kvan, Janice Affleck (eds), New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage, Routledge 2007.

[7] See, for example the renderings, maps and cross-sections by project member Juhana Heikonen in Eva Margareta Steinbyn (ed.), Lacus Iuturnnae I, Edizioni Quasar, Roma 2011.

[8] Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpicianae, edited by Camodeca (1992); W. Harris ja F. De Angelis (eds.), Spaces of Justice in the Roman World, 2010; Leanne Bablitz, Actors and Audience in the Roman Courtroom (2007).

[9] Dig. 1.12.40pr (Paul., 3 Quaest.): Lecta est in auditorio Aemilii Papiniani praefecti praetorio jurisconsulti cautio huiusmodi.

[10] Bernard Stolte, “Jurisdiction and the Representation of Power, Or the Emperor on Circuit.” In Lukas de Blois et al. (eds.). The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power, (2003), 261-268; Elisabetta Carnabuci, I luoghi dell’amministrazione della giustizia nel foro di Augusto (1996); Birgitta Tamm, Auditorium and Palatium. A Study on Assembly-rooms in Roman Palaces during the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D (1963); Pierre Gros, L’architecture romaine (1996).

[11] Michael Peachin, Iudex vice Caesaris: Deputy Emperors and the Administration of Justice during the Principate (1996), 36-37 refers to Vitr. 6.5.2 who mentions forensesand diserti who need space ad conventos excipiundos. Detlef  Liebs, “Rechtsschulen und Rechtsunterricht im Prinzipat.” ANRW 2.15 (1976), 197-286.

[12] P. Allison, Pompeian Households, An Analysis of the Material Culture (2004).

[13] A. Riggsby, “Public” and “private” in Roman culture: the case of the cubiculum, in JRA (1997), 10  36–56.

[14] E.g. S. J. Williams, The Sociological Significance of Sleep: Progress, Problems and Prospects (2008); See also

[15] L. Farrar Ancient Roman Gardens 1998. P. Grimal Les jardins romains 1984. J. Wakter Graham “Origins and Interrelations of the Greek House and the Roman House”,Phoenix 20:1 (1966), 3–31.


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