Between Aesthetics and Investment. Close-Reading the Tuff Façades of Pompeii

Flohr, M. (2022). ‘Between aesthetics and investment. Close-reading the tuff façades of Pompeii’, in M. Trümper and D. Maschek (eds), Architecture and the Ancient Economy. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 155–172 (you can buy the volume here).

Why did Pompeians suddenly - in the mid second century BCE - start building houses with façades of finely polished tufa ashlar?  his chapter offers a reassessment of the economic rationale underlying the transformation of building practice in mid-second century BCE Pompeii, when local traditional building practice based on carefully stacked blocks of travertine was replaced by a much more varied building practice that combined mortar with a number of regional building materials, including tuff ashlar. The chapter observes that the new practice partially started from aesthetic considerations, but emerged with a clear economic rationale that both minimized costs and anticipated upon return on investment. Putting these developments in a broader Italic context suggests that the emerging building practice was facilitated by the unique local material circumstances at Pompeii: the developments in building technology were to a large extent local in nature, and should be seen as independent of architectural change. This, in turn, transforms our understanding of technological development in building practice in late Hellenistic Italy. 

Article: Artisans and Markets: The Economics of Roman Domestic Decoration

Pompeii, Casa del Poeta Tragico: East Wall - Fourth-style wall decoration with panel pictures, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, east wall of oecus 15. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2018])

Miko Flohr, 'Artisans and Markets: The Economics of Roman Domestic Decoration', American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019), pp. 101-125.

This article investigates how consumer demand shaped markets for high-quality domestic decoration in the Roman world and highlights how this affected the economic strategies of people involved in the production and trade of high-quality wall decoration, mosaics, and sculpture. The argument analyzes the consumption of high-quality domestic decoration at Pompeii and models the structure of demand for decorative skills in the Roman world at large. The Pompeian case study focuses on three categories of high-quality decoration: Late Hellenistic opus vermiculatum mosaics, first-century C.E. fourth-style panel pictures, and domestic sculpture. Analyzing the spread of these mosaics, paintings, and statues over a database of Pompeian houses makes it possible to reconstruct a demand profile for each category of decoration and to discuss the nature of its supply economy. It is argued that the market for high-quality decoration at Pompeii provided few incentives for professionals to acquire specialist skills and that this has broader implications: as market conditions in Pompeii and the Bay of Naples region were significantly above average, the strategic possibilities for painters, mosaicists, and sculptors in many parts of the Roman world were even more restricted and, consequently, their motivation to invest in skills and repertoire remained limited.

Read the full article here.

A fantastic new inscription from Pompeii – but what does it mean?

Pompeii: Temple of Jupiter - (Photo: Miko Flohr [2018])

Despite the spectacular new excavations that are currently unfolding in the northern part of the city, the most significant discovery at Pompeii in recent decades was made just over a year ago, outside the main southern city gate, where a large and well-preserved funerary monument was dug up alongside the road that probably connected Pompeii to its harbour. It contained a uniquely long inscription, which, so we knew, was a detailed eulogy for an unnamed individual who had done incredible things for the Pompeian community (the name probably featured somewhere on the monument, but it has not been found back). 

What does this text mean, and what does it tell us about Pompeii? I have brought together some preliminary observations and a (rough) English translation in this blog. I argue that it changes our perspective on Pompeii a little bit, and it offers a very powerful illustration of the impact of Pompeii's central location on its social, economic and political history. It is a fascinating text that has a very bright scholarly future.

Read the blog here

Innovation and Society in the Roman World

Rome, Via Appia: Landscape of Innovation - Early imperial tombs along the Via Appia. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

M. Flohr (2016), 'Innovation and Society in the Roman World', Oxford Handbooks Online. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.85

One of the most eye-catching tombs along the Via Appia stands some four miles outside the city, close to the Villa dei Quintili, on the east side of the road. Essentially, what remains of it is just an enormous mass of concrete, meticulously deprived of its stone facing at some point between antiquity and modernity. Its construction date is unknown, but to judge from its size and its use of concrete, it is probably early imperial, perhaps Julio–Claudian or Augustan. It is a large example of the monumental Roman tomb architecture that emerged in the late republic and of which the development cannot be seen apart from the development and spread of opus caementicium, which made it possible to construct larger, architectonically more daring monuments at a reasonable price, making them available to much larger groups of people—as the first miles of the Via Appia attest. Not far from the tomb is the point where there was, in antiquity, a good view from the Via Appia over two aqueduct bridges that were built to cross the plain between the Alban Hills and Rome. The lower of the two aqueduct bridges dates to the second century bc. It was built for the Aqua Marcia but had the Aqua Tepula and the Aqua Iulia superimposed on it later. It was made of tufa and had low, wide arches. The higher, more monumental aqueduct bridge stood out with its elegant, high arches in tufa. It was built between ad 38 and ad 52 and carried the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus. Critical to both aqueducts is the arch, an innovation that became increasingly widespread from the second century bc onward. At the time they were constructed, both aqueducts presented a clear innovation in hydraulic engineering: the Aqua Marcia was the first Roman aqueduct with such a long section above the ground, and the Aqua Claudia was unparalleled in its height. Obviously, the Via Appia itself also presented an innovation when it was constructed in the late fourth century bc in the way it was imposed on the landscape, running in an almost perfectly straight line between Rome and Terracina, with the exception of a short section near Ariccia, where it had to divert in order to successfully cross the southern part of the Alban Hills. What for modern viewers might look like a landscape of memory may very well have looked differently through Roman eyes: as an environment, the Via Appia, in the early imperial period, was not a romantic relic of a faraway past but a clear manifestation of Roman achievement. Especially in the first century ad, it was a landscape of innovation at least as much as a landscape of memory.


Building Tabernae: emerging commercial landscapes in Roman Italy

Ostia, III 7, 3-4: Domus Fulminata - Tabernae surrounding the main entrance of this house just outside the city walls of Ostia (Photo: Miko Flohr [2012])

Building Tabernae is an NWO Veni Project based at the University of Leiden (2013-2017). The project focuses on urban commercial space in Roman Italy and deals with the impact of economic growth on urban communities in the late Republic and the Imperial period (200 BCE – 300 CE). It will investigate how favourable economic circumstances under the Roman Empire fostered the emergence of new and more ambitious forms of investment in commercial space, and it aims to understand how this transformed the physical and social fabric of the cities of the Italian peninsula. 

The project will use archaeological and textual evidence and belongs to the field of ancient history as much as it belongs to that of classical archaeology. Thematically, it operates on the interface of social and economic history and explores to which degree economic developments fostered social change. It specifically attempts to connect two highly vibrant debates: the debate about Roman urbanism and that about Roman economic life.

Both debates have seen significant development over the last decades. Discourse on Roman urbanism has moved away from the traditional emphasis on (monumental) architecture and urban planning towards studying urban landscapes in a more integrated manner (seminal is Laurence 1994). Discourse on Roman economic life has developed beyond the consumer city debate that dominated the field in the 1990s (e.g. Mattingly 1997; Erdkamp 2001), now focusing more and more on the social and spatial contexts of economic processes (Mouritsen 2001; Robinson 2005; Flohr 2007).

Yet, while these debates play a central role in Roman scholarship and thematically increasingly overlap, they interact only to a limited degree. Consequently, the relation between economic developments and developments in urbanism is not well-understood. This significantly impedes our understanding of Roman history. This project will contribute to filling this gap.