Abstract: Tales from the Streets of Pompeii


Streets were a vitally important social arena in the Roman city, though they remain perhaps the least studied and understood site of public interaction.  This presentation surveys Roman urban thoroughfares before looking in depth at social contact at one corner.

Urban streets—bustling with activity, rife with noise, and pungent with various odors—were chaotic environments both for one’s sense and one’s social position.  Here, on a daily basis, everyone from slave to senator might come into spontaneous, face-to-face contact while partaking in any number of activities, like fetching water, walking to the forum with dependents in tow, making a sacrifice, or leading pigs to market.  They would see what one another were doing, wearing, or buying, with whom they were on good (or bad) terms.  The narrowness of sidewalks meant that streetgoers not only saw, but also often bumped into, eavesdropped on, and smelled one another. Such interaction within the street’s “open field” potentially threatened social distinctions and thus rendered its space a critical stage for self-presentation, especially among those who wanted to affirm a city’s social order.

Examination of one corner in Pompeii and the interactions among its denizens sheds light on social contact among a diverse cast of characters: slave and free, merchant and moneyed, priest and pauper.  It also reveals the ways that the realms of religion, commerce, leisure, law, and politics overlapped, contended with, and melted into one another in this fascinating space.

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