Friday 3 June 2011

Herculaneum. Past and Future. Part 6: Herculaneum and Pompeii

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)

In chapter 10 AWH considers many of the differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum beyond those of preservation, challenging many frequently held assumptions. He explores the subtleties in the towns’ legal status and identity, their social conditions and economy, as well as significant differences in floor and wall decoration (I hope to look at architecture in another post) contextualised by the picture provided by Pompeii, on which we have tended to depend. This is therefore the kind of discussion that both the academic and the more general reader will benefit from immensely. In this post I’d like to explore some of these differences a bit further and offer some thoughts for further discussion.

One of the principal differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum, as AWH rightly points out is that Herculaneum, as a municipium, had a different legal status to Pompeii (a colony) and that this was seen in Roman eyes as making it less important. Thus we might assume that this pejorative nuance should therefore reflect in differences in the urban community. Here AWH turns, as other scholars have done, to the lack of electoral advertisements at Herculaneum of which only one possible example has been identified. In contrast with Pompeii, where such programmata indicate a lively political scene, AWH suggests that their absence from Herculaneum might be due to the fact that such a close-knit community had less need for such media or that political life in a colony was more competitive than that of a municipium. However, here we might for a moment consider the distinct lack of evidence for façade plaster, the preservation of which is extremely inconsistent across the site, and even where present is not necessarily at eye level (where most Pompeian programmata can be found). Take Cardo V, the principal street to the southern part of the town for wheeled traffic (as the upper decumanus was closed), and presumably ideal for the display of such notices (see image below). However, the façade of the apartment block Insula Orientalis II only retains two small sections of plaster either side of entrance 9. Similarly the façade of Insula V, on the opposite side of the street, bears only a single tiny fragment of plaster on the frontage of the Casa del Sacello di Legno. Elsewhere preservation is sometimes better, such as the east façade of the Casa del Tramezzo di Legno but these are exceptions and at no point in a single insula is preservation as complete as is typical at Pompeii. Presumably façade plaster was lost during the eruption, as the pyroclastic flows surged along the streets (also stripping away pent-roofs and the walls off upper storey balconies) or was destroyed during the Bourbon subterranean exploration of the site (either by the act of tunnelling or by deliberate vandalism). Either way, on this evidence it is difficult to draw conclusions about the absence of political notices, although there is, of course, every possibility, as AWH suggests, that local politics in different towns worked in different ways. Here it would be good to know whether the recent excavation of a street at Stabia, adjoining the Villa San Marco, revealed any evidence of political electioneering.

© James Andrews. Cardo V, from north. Note the absence of façade plaster.

The lack of preserved façade plaster at Herculaneum also has a bearing on other media we might be interested in. There is consequently also little evidence for shop signs, in contrast with the plethora of examples that emerged on the Via dell’Abbondanza at Pompeii, or indeed advertisements for games and the like. Only one well-preserved ‘shop sign’ now survives at Herculaneum and only two notices for games have been identified (one advertising games at Nola and another for a gladiatorial display at Herculaneum although at an unknown location).

AWH makes a number of interesting observations relating to Herculaneum’s economic character. Based on the scale of shops and workshops found to date, AWH suggests that trade at Herculaneum probably had a purely local function (more so than Pompeii), in which produce was for the consumption of the town’s populace (a ‘consumer city’), rather than for export. This does seem to bear true for the excavated area but what of the rest of the town? As Jeremy has already suggested in his post, what we see today may not be necessarily representative of the whole. A number of insula buildings can be reasonably identified from the Bourbon plans in the parts of the town that lie beneath the modern one; these almost certainly were occupied by further shops and workshops. The same might also be said for the lack of properties solely given over to prostitution, which as AWH points out, are absent from Herculaneum. However, at Pompeii such establishments were located in narrow streets in the centre of the city, a picture fittingly consistent with that painted by the literary sources. Could their absence from Herculaneum simply be explained by the fact that the corresponding area of this town has yet to be explored? AWH also draws our attention to the lack of wheel ruts for evidence of the comparative infrequency with which the streets were plied by wheeled traffic serving commercial activity (I noticed that the photograph of a section of street without ruts is included, although this part of the street was at the bottom end leading down to the shore and probably rarely bore carts). As the principal connecting street to this part of the town, we might expect Cardo V to bear some evidence of ruts, although there are indeed very few (see image above). However, as this street was largely re-paved, probably during the construction of the Palaestra in the early 1st century AD, this is hardly surprising. In contrast, the western part of the lower decumanus, paved in an earlier phase, does bear the marks of wheeled traffic, evidently having been exposed to wheeled traffic for a longer period. It is also worth repeating that we are not looking at the principal thoroughfare. Such a street seems to have been identified (as Jeremy has already noted) during the Bourbon explorations of April 1754, to the north of the present ‘decumanus maximus’ and appears to have run on the same alignment. Several columbarium tombs identified in 1750 also lay on this street, presumably outside the city. From this we can infer that this was the principal Neapolis-Pompeii highway, the true decumanus maximus. Unfortunately, the Bourbon accounts tell us little about this road but a through road it must have been heavily plied by wheeled traffic and served a significant role in Herculaneum’s economy (as the Via dell’Abbondanza, Via di Nola and Via Stabiana at Pompeii).

Further differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum relate to architecture and interior floor and wall decorations. According to AWH, it is above all the use of polychrome marbles that stand out the most; at Herculaneum a high proportion of houses bear complex marble pavements, where at Pompeii marble floors are rarer and less complex. Several of the larger houses, such as the Casa dei Cervi or Casa dell’Atrio a Mosaico, boast suites of rooms embellished in this way and such floors are even found in relatively modest houses like the Casa del Apollo Citaredo. Marble panelling was used in several cases for socle zones in the Casa dei Cervi and the Casa del Rilievo di Telefo. There are, as AWH informs us, no parallels at Pompeii, although the Villa San Marco at Stabia had a floor and socle decoration of this type in its most important room. Perhaps in this respect Herculaneum has more in common with Stabia than Pompeii? Marble was far more costly than wall painting and thus can be considered a safe barometer of real wealth; evidently Herculaneum appears to have been better endowed in this regard than Pompeii. Further work on the provenance and quantity of the marbles employed at Herculaneum in domestic contexts would shed light not only on the comparative economics involved in their use but also tell us more about changing decorative tastes.

Differences in wall painting are less easy for the casual visitor to differentiate. AWH points out that examples of the First and Second Pompeian Styles are rare at Herculaneum. I would suggest this was most likely due to the wider urban renewal of Herculaneum in the imperial period that saw most of the town’s residences rebuilt, in many cases at the expense of pre-Roman housing. This trend was itself undoubtedly spurred on by a distinct increase in the town’s wealth (as AWH indicates) as is further born out by the new public buildings erected at this time. Most of the surviving wall decorations belong to the Fourth Style and to a lesser extent the Third Style, although as in the use of marble, there are subtle differences to those at Pompeii. Such characteristics of the Fourth Style paintings include theatrical backdrops, or the use of striking monochrome backgrounds with architectural details reduced to flimsy elements. Such differences strongly suggest the presence of local decorator workshops who simply worked to a different set of guidelines and influences than their counterparts at Pompeii. Might the same explanation also account for paintings of the Third Style that similarly feature a number of deviations from the Pompeian model?

In summary, AWH presents Herculaneum as being less politically active town than Pompeii (at least in public) and less commercially significant. However, at the same time he shows us that many of Herculaneum’s residents were able to lavish greater expense on interior decoration and that some of these decorations were also more sophisticated than those at Pompeii. This again raises many questions. Is our view of Herculaneum rather skewed by the part of the town with which we are presented? If some of the inhabitants were very wealthy but the town’s economy was rather quiet then how did these families sustain themselves? Some surely derived an income from agriculture or viticulture in the estates around the town, but it would be a stretch to suggest this was the case for all. Many of the largest houses at Pompeii, such as the Casa del Menandro, were surrounded by various commercial, rental or productive units on whom they no doubt depended on financially. But this does not appear to be the case at Herculaneum, at least for the largest residences overlooking the shore. If a large proportion of Herculaneum’s population were of servile origin, then how did they make their success? In terms of scale, could it simply be that given the town’s proximity with Neapolis meant that there was less need for larger scale commercial activity, or is it more likely this was located elsewhere in Herculaneum, perhaps on the Neapolis-Pompeii road?

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