Laura Nissin

Doctoral Researcher

University of Helsinki, Department of World Cultures (Institutum Classicum)

Her dissertation deals mainly with the sleeping arrangements in the Roman house (working title: Cubiculi et lectuli operta prodentur – Sleeping areas and sleeping arrangements in the Roman house). She has acquainted herself with Pompeian studies especially by working as a research assistant in Pompeii with the Finnish project (Expeditio Pompeiana Universitatis Helsingiensis).

The study is connected with recent Pompeian studies of domestic space, which have revealed gaps in previous research. The analysis of material culture[1] has shown that defining the functions of spaces in the Roman houses only on structural basis is insufficient. Especially naming the different spaces by using Latin names found in literature (such as atrium, front hall, tablinum, master’s office, triclinium, dining room and cubiculum, bedroom) might give a very misleading picture of the functioning of Roman / Pompeian house. For example in Pompeii, most of the small rooms off front hall are often identified as bedrooms (cubiculum), even though there is not sufficient data among finds to strengthen this argument. Only little systematic survey of these room labels has been made to establish the functions of certain room types.

The evidence of cubiculum was already studied by Nissin in her MA thesis “Cubicula diurna, nocturna – cubiculum in Latin literature”, in which the functions, physical aspects and use of this space were examined. Texts showed that cubiculum as an appellation is quite flexible: it can be used not only of rooms in an atrium house owned by a wealthy Roman, but also of rooms in more modest dwellings. The name appeared very often also in villa descriptions. The main function of the room is resting, as the name implies (cubiculum refers to a place where one can lie down). This meaning appears among the earliest texts as well as in the latest ones, continuing even in the medieval and modern writings. The late antique texts give also some figurative meanings, but mainly the word refers only to concrete space. Cubiculum had also several other functions, which have been established already in earlier studies such as conducting private business and a place for adulterous relationships.[2] Some of the functions however, such as reception, were not as simple as they are displayed in previous works. According to texts, the space was typically peaceful and dark and it could be closed carefully. The name cubiculum is not used to design the sleeping areas of servants, but the slaves are often depicted sleeping outside a cubiculum. The texts mention the location of cubiculum in a Roman house very rarely. Also the essential feature of this type of room, tranquility, cannot be found in the sc. cubicula of the Pompeian context; especially rooms in front of the house could not have served as quiet and peaceful places to lie down. Due to this insufficiency of knowledge, a systematic archaeological survey of sleeping areas is needed.

The aim of her study is therefore to find out the real functions in these sc. cubicula and to clear how the sleeping arrangements really worked in ancient Roman houses. To find out who slept with whom, where and when and why these arrangements were made, she is analysing archaeological material and comparing it with the written evidence. The methodologically problematic relationship between historical and archaeological material will also be discussed. The goal of this work is to clarify and deepen the picture of the Pompeian (and this way more generally the Roman) house: its functions, use of space and cultural history. The study will also deal with the Roman society on more general level, since the way a society arranges domestic space reveals the underlying values and structures of the society in question. Hence finding out how housing was arranged in the earlier phases of these Campanian towns will reveal more about the growing Roman influence in the area. On the other hand, the spatial analysis of houses in the last years of these towns will elucidate changes in Roman society during early Empire, in times when the social role of individual Roman citizens has believed to have diminished. The work will also be closely connected with the pioneering work on sleeping habits in modern societies done by sociologists in the past few years.[3] Results of her study will then be useful in several contexts: not only in the field of classical studies, but also more generally among scientific research concentrated on sleep and sleeping.

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

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

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

See also The Sociology of Sleep group at Surrey.

Laura Nissin’s webpage.

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  1. Pingback: Translating Pliny’s letters about Vesuvius, pt. 7. An Anxious Night « [quem dixere chaos]

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