Abstract: Tales from the Roman Street


Streets were a vitally important social arena in the Roman city, though they remain perhaps the least studied and understood site of public interaction.  Urban thoroughfares—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 emperor 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.  In contrast to other urban spaces, such as theaters or houses, which either excluded or stratified those who entered, the street was both more inclusive and less structured.  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.

This presentation examines how Roman city dwellers sought to cut through the street’s inherent confusion and to assert their own social position before the widest audience possible.  A series of three case studies follows the push and pull between chaos and control.  The first episode uses the House of the Faun at Pompeii to consider how house owners deployed façade architecture to broadcast messages of social dominance and exclusion to streetgoers.  The following two episodes then add layers of context and detail.  While Roman law prohibited obstructions to free passage in streets, many people did not adhere, but sought to disrupt, inconvenience, or bruise the shins of their fellow city dwellers by building structures into the thoroughfare.  The second episode traces the contours of such symbolically-powerful behavior.  The final case study considers one corner in Pompeii, where a number of individuals and groups promote themselves and vie for control.

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