‘Reading’ Pompeian houses for ‘statements’ about status and culture is the current fashion. But were all Pompeians simply identikit types, or should we also be looking for a measure of diversity, choice and personal preference? Mark Grahame has been studying the design and decoration of Pompeian houses and sees a unique history and a succession of very individual owners represented by the remains of each one. Pompeian interior design, it seems, was partly about what today’s colour supplements call ‘lifestyle choices’.

At the northern end of the Vicolo dei Vettii, there is a small house – one of many scattered throughout Pompeii – known as the ‘House of the Compluvium’. After prolonged exposure to the elements, most small houses in Pompeii are in a sorry state, but the House of the Compluvium is fortunate in having an unusual enough atrium to have warranted reconstruction. Even so, the house lies mostly forgotten: it rarely features in scholarly works and is not on the itinerary of most tourists. The weeds pushing through the floor speak eloquently of its neglect.
A short walk down the Vicolo dei Vettii is the House of the Vettii, one of Pompeii’s finest houses. With its cavernous atrium, four-sided peristyle garden and cycles of marvellous paintings, it has received considerable academic attention and normally throngs with visitors. The handful of grand ‘show houses’ like this have done much to shape our understanding of the Pompeian house. Their imposing architecture and opulent decoration seem to reflect effortlessly the power and grandeur of the Roman elite. Surely such lofty dwellings were just the sort of places where a Cicero, a Pliny or a Seneca might have lived?
Ever since its rediscovery in 1748 Pompeii has carried a burden of expectation. The site is required to conform to an idealised vision of ‘the Grandeur that was Rome’, and the study of Pompeian houses has been driven by art history with its concern for classification, style and chronology. The houses have been grouped into types based on changing architectural styles. The finest have been singled out as exemplars of each type. Surely it is these that best express the values of Roman society and allow us to enter the Roman mind?
But what if we see the houses not as exotic works of art but as the once lived-in products of long and deep-rooted cultural processes? From this standpoint, each house has its own history, its own story to tell. Its architecture and decoration are not just expressions of commonly held cultural values, but also represent the cumulative result of successive owners shaping and reshaping space according to their own personal values and tastes.
This does not mean the houses are purely products of individual imagination. Similarities arise because of shared ideas and experiences – the result of a process of ‘argumentation’ in which the people of Pompeii ‘discussed’ through the architecture and decoration of their houses how best to live. People use material things to express aspects of their identity. Differences in the way objects are used point to varying interpretations of that identity. Consequently, we must not neglect the variations in design and decoration that make each house unique, and even where similarities occur we must not assume that they always indicate the same underlying ideas.
The atrium, the central hall of the house, is a case in point. Let us return to the House of the Compluvium. Its atrium, while striking with its four columns, is relatively small and is quite clearly an intimate and rather ‘personable’ space. It lies at the core of the house, which has only six other rooms. All movement from one room to another would have meant passing through the atrium, making it a highly social space: a ‘centre’ towards which the household would have gravitated naturally.
The atrium of the House of the Vettii provides a contrast. With its imposing entrance, spacious interior and long view into the peristyle, it conjures a completely different impression. With the peristyle providing a second area for circulation, the atrium is no longer the physical and social centre of the house. Indeed, the atrium seems to look outwards rather than inwards. Its impressive proportions and the shorter spacing of the columns at the far end of the peristyle create the illusion, when viewed from the front door, that the house is larger than it actually is. Instead of being an intimate and personal space, the atrium of the House of the Vettii is part of a careful orchestration of space, architecture and decoration designed to communicate the wealth, power and status of the owner to visitors.
The atrium is manipulated to create diverse effects in the two houses. Such diversity is apparent generally in Pompeii. In a sample of 107 properties, 28% are like the House of the Compluvium. The atria of these small ‘atrium houses’ averages around 50 sq m in size, about 24% of the ground-floor area. In contrast, atrium-peristyle houses like the House of the Vettii are a smaller proportion of the total (20% of the sample), and their atria are larger, averaging 80 square m, but occupy only around 15% of the property.
Does mean that there were two distinct classes of house? Not really. The House of the Great Altar shares the same basic layout as the House of the Compluvium, but its atrium is somewhat more open and it is exquisitely decorated. It still evokes the intimacy and sociability of the House of the Compluvium’s atrium, but it has its own particular ambience. Far too few of the small atrium houses have been reconstructed, so the differences between the House of the Compluvium and the House of the Great Altar can only hint at the variety of possibilities which this group of houses must have exhibited. If these differences are any indication, then similarity in plan disguises multifarious, if subtle, variations in design and decoration, which must point to the action of different ideas and values.
The same is true for atrium-peristyle houses. The House of the Vettii lacks a tablinum (a reception-room), while the atrium of the nearby House of the Gilded Cupids is dwarfed by a massive peristyle. The House of Sallust with its austere atrium decorated in the First Style of wall-paining contrasts with the sumptuous Fourth Style decoration of the atrium of the House of Menander. These two houses are often taken to represent opposite ends of an evolutionary process, but both were occupied in AD 79.
Peristyles usefully illustrate the differences between various atrium-peristyle houses. A four-sided peristyle is usually assumed to be the ideal – as found, for instance, on Greek Delos – but constraints of space and (presumably) money meant that owners often had to settle for smaller three-, two- or even single-sided ‘pseudo-peristyles’. However, a poor correlation between the total area occupied by a peristyle and the number of its sides (28%) implies that space and cost may not always have been the deciding factors and that a peristyle with fewer sides may sometimes have been a deliberate preference.
The Pompeians were manipulating the designs of their houses to create different effects. The motive for doing so was to communicate their identities. While the desire to display one’s status or even one’s adherence to Rome may have played a part in the choices made, we should never forget the powerful role of individual preference in the creation of culture. The Pompeians were speaking for themselves, even if they were speaking though a ‘language’ of house design that they shared with others.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 4. Click here to subscribe

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