Thursday 19 May 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 5: Herculaneum’s Public Buildings

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Herculaneum. Past and Future.
(Frances Lincoln, 2011; 352 pages, ISBN-10: 0711231427; ISBN-13: 978-0711231429)

(For the introduction to this series of posts about Herculaneum Past and Future, see here)

Posted on behalf of Jeremy Hartnett (who is currently enjoying himself in Rome!):

Herculaneum’s Public Buildings

In Chapter 6, “The Public Face of the Town,” Wallace-Hadrill offers an overview of the principal civic buildings excavated at Herculaneum. In this entry, I won’t summarize his discussion of each of these, partly because doing so would essentially amount to copying verbatim the already crisp prose. I would like to highlight, however, a few compelling suggestions and offer a reaction.

After a survey of Herculaneum’s baths, the seaside collection of temples, and the Palestra, the chapter turns to the three public buildings situated on the Decumanus Maximus. The Basilica Noniana, which the Herculaneum Conservation Project has explored as part of a program of cleaning, continues to bring interesting material to light. Bases of statues have emerged; they almost certainly hosted portraits of Balbus’ family that were taken during the Bourbon tunneling and are now in the Naples museum. Also recently uncovered are two marble slabs with faint traces of painted or inked names. These may have been part of temporary complements to the incised lists (probably of the city’s citizens, it now seems) that Maiuri found in front of this building.

Across Cardo III is a building identified almost since its discovery in the 1960’s as the Collegium of the Augustales. The basis for the identification has been an inscription recording a dedication to Augustus (of what we don’t know) and the celebration of the occasion with a meal for the dedicators, the decuriones, and the Augustales. Wallace-Hadrill is the latest to call into question the building’s association with the Augustales, pointing out that the inscription would fit well on a statue base (and therefore not refer to the dedication of the building as a whole, as some would have it). An archival photo of the inscription at its moment of discovery, reprinted here, strengthens his case: it was discovered “floating” in the volcanic material some meters above the building’s floor. There’s a strong possibility that it was carried from somewhere uphill and deposited here. Graffiti carved into the building’s columns refer to it as the curia Augustana (or Augustiana), and make a reasonable case that this was the Curia.

Wallace-Hadrill employs another inscription, long known but rarely considered, to suggest possible uses for the two idiosyncratic spaces flanking this edifice’s entrance. It records the construction of a “pondera, a schola, and a chalchidicum.” The last of these might be the arcade connecting the Collegium/Curia to the building I will next discuss, which leaves the other two functions to fill the well-decorated room on the east and the columned space to the west. Intriguing.

The last of this group of public buildings, located across the Decumanus from the Basilica and the Collegium/Curia, has endured a whole host of identifications over the nearly three centuries since its discovery. Rich with statues, paintings, and other decoration, the structure takes the architectural form of a porticus, but otherwise defies easy categorization. Wallace-Hadrill notes that it was certainly a meeting point for citizens, and suggests that early scholars perhaps weren’t very far off the mark when they called it a forum. If the space started that way, he writes, it was perhaps monumentalized as a porticus at a later date.

All in all, with this conglomeration of public buildings, we’re clearly on the edge of the city’s center if not, as Wallace-Hadrill intimates, at its very heart. La Vega’s plan located the forum further to the west, and eighteenth-century documents may do the same. Let’s hope that the HCP’s exploration of the Bourbon tunnels turns up something conclusive.

Wallace-Hadrill ends the chapter with an appropriate summary: “…imperial Herculaneum, though small, was disproportionately well-endowed.” On the one hand, the last bit of his sentence is beyond question. At this site, a marvelous array of public buildings has been discovered at one time or another, though many of them still lurk around the perimeter of the excavated area, half-hidden at best. The Palestra alone, as Wallace-Hadrill demonstrates in this chapter and a later one, is a splendid, large, and sophisticated building, whose further study will shed light on the development of mixed-use insula-style structures in Italy. (If, in its work on the sewer that ran beneath the Palestra, the HCP can isolate which refuse came from which latrine, then the results could be especially illuminating.)

On the other hand, in reading this chapter, the wealth of public buildings leads me to question Herculaneum’s perceived size. James will address, I believe, Wallace-Hadrill‘s discussion of the city plan; essentially, Herculaneum is imagined as a fairly small conurbation. Yet here are already a host of substantial public buildings, and the book reminds us of epigraphic evidence for several more: a Capitolium, a macellum (both of which we would suspect around a forum), a temple of the mother of the gods, and likely also a temple of Hercules, the city’s eponymous founder.

No one will dispute that Herculaneum was smaller than Pompeii, but how much of our image of a miniscule Herculaneum is the product of the limited facts on the ground and of a long-standing tradition (undoubtedly a result of the small area thus far excavated) of seeing here a sleepy, quiet neighbor of a famous cousin down the road? We might remember that open-air excavations have only revealed one route through the city, itself a very roundabout passage along the Decumanus Inferiore and Cardo V. Herculaneum’s main artery (or arteries), which may have linked Naples and Pompeii, likely lurks uphill under the modern town. One candidate was found by Karl Weber in 1754, and it may be here that additional public buildings clustered here, perhaps around the city’s forum. My point is that, rich as the site already is, we may be looking at a relatively quiet corner of what was a larger and more vibrant city.

Links to the other posts in this series:

Herculaneum. Past and Future.
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 1: General overview, a response
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 2: Excavation and conservation
Herculaneum. Past and Future: PART 3: Early development and topography
Herculaneum. Past and Future. PART 4: The Villa of the Papyri

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