Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The public house and rituals of patronage in Pompei

"The domus or 'private house'... was not 'private' in the sense that we usually mean. For us, 'home' is firmly separated from the world of business or politics ... [In ancient Rome] the domus is treated as part of the public image of its owner, and it provides the backdrop against which he conducts at least some of his public
life. ...

"The Roman elite, those holding public and political office, needed grand 'common' areas of a house.  Those lower down the social spectrum could do without a grand vestibule, atrium, or tablinum (the name given to a relatively large room)...

"The relations between men of the elite and their various dependants [have been re-imagined by] archaeologists [regarding] how one characteristic [of] Roman social ritual might have taken place in [Pompeii]. That ritual is the early morning salutatio,at which 'clients' of all sorts would call on their rich patrons, to receive favours
or cash in return for their votes, or for providing more symbolic services (escort duty, or simply applause) to enhance the patron's prestige. From Rome itself, we have plenty of complaints about this from the client's point of view in the poetry of Juvenal and Martial, who -- as relatively well-heeled dependants -- predictably
enough made the most noise about the indignities they had to suffer in return for a modest handout. 'You promise me three denarii [Roman currency],' moans Martial at one point, 'and tell me to be on duty in your atria, dressed up in my toga. Then I'm supposed to stick by your side, walk in front of your chair, while you
go visiting ten widows, plus or minus ... '

"In Pompeii, it is easy to imagine how such a social ritual might have taken place within the domus: the clients lined up outside on ... stone benches, then -- when the house doors were opened first thing in the morning -- they made their way through the narrow entrance passage, into the atrium, to wait their turn to speak to their
patron proudly sitting in his tablinum [large reception room for the house master], dispensing favours, or not, as the mood took him.

"In all likelihood, that image is rather too grand and formal for what would actually have happened in Pompeii. Even if in Rome itself the ritual of morning salutatio was as regular and structured as the poets imply ... it could not possibly have been so in a small town. ...

" We can all imagine what it must have been like waiting to put one's case to some bigwig who could choose whether to help you or not (with a job for your son, a loan, or a blind eye to the unpaid rent). There must have been anxieties on the other side too. For, in this world of status and show, patrons needed clients almost as
much as clients needed patrons. Imagine the anxiety and humiliation on the other side, for a patron installed in his tablinum waiting for clients -- and not a single one shows up. '

Nonetheless, these rituals of power, dependence and patronage do help to reveal the logic of the Roman house and its arrangements. These were houses meant for show-- and that idea trickled down, albeit in diluted form, even to those properties which consisted of just a few rooms around an atrium.

Author: Mary Beard

Title: The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
Publisher: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Date: Copyright Mary Beard 2008
Pages:100 - 103
The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
by Mary Beard by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

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