Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga
Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga

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Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga

2.6 Houses at Carthage, Bulla Regia and Thugga

Your next activity is to watch a video on houses of the Roman élite. The video presents houses from different parts of the empire.

Houses of the Roman élite (part 1 (Intro); 2 minutes)

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LISA NEVETT:
Much of our evidence about the Roman Empire tells us how culture and identity were constructed in the public sphere. But what about evidence from the private world?
In this video, we’ll be looking at the housing belonging to wealthy families from several different cities in the Empire.
The organisation and decoration of these houses provides evidence for some of the ways individuals created and displayed their own private identities and cultural affiliations.
Within Roman culture, it seems that the house had considerable symbolic value: its image is one which recurs again and again in art and literature. One of the ways non-Roman peoples are represented is through their dwellings, which are sometimes shown as round and constructed of ephemeral materials. These structures contrast markedly with the distinctive manner in which Roman houses are portrayed, with their square shapes, brick walls and tiled rooves.
But the form of a house had a lot more to say about the identity of its occupants than just whether they were in some sense “Roman”:
Today our picture of the Roman house is dominated by Pompeii. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 not only preserved public buildings but also many private houses.
These reveal some architectural similarities. But they also show how individuals adapted layout and decoration to suit their personal circumstances. Vitruvius, writing in Italy in the first century BC, described, in remarkable detail, how a man’s social standing was related to the size and facilities of his house.
“Magnificent vestibules and alcoves and halls are not necessary for people of low status, he wrote
because they pay their respects by visiting and are not visited themselves.
Advocates and professors of rhetoric should be housed with distinction, and with enough space to accommodate their audiences.
Men of high rank who hold office and magistracies… [should have] princely vestibules, lofty halls and spacious peristyles…
Although centuries of excavation have left many of the buildings themselves empty of their original furnishings, Vitruvius comments suggest that houses of the Roman elite had to accommodate the demands of public life as well as the needs of the household. From the street, there was sometimes a hint of the rich interior which lay beyond.
Through the open door a visitor could take in much of the interior at a glance, although sometimes screens or curtains were used to divide the space. Many houses had images at the entrance, which today may seem more threatening than welcoming. But these images were placed at the threshold to ward off evil or to bring good fortune to the household, like the guardian deity Priapus.
From the entrance the various architectural elements combined to create a monumental impression, as here in the House of the Vettii.
At the centre of the house is a large hall, or atrium, rising to an opening in the roof.
The House of the Ceii has a columned atrium. The opening in the roof or compluvium, let in light, ventilation and rainwater, which was collected in the pool below, the impluvium.
The water was then channelled into a tank beneath the floor and drawn, when needed, from a well head. This house and the house of the Vettii have well preserved atria.
This area was the focal point of the house. The poet Ovid mentions anxious clients waiting here to see their patron, the master, at the customary hour. Whereas the front part of the house was organised around the atrium, the rear centred on a second space - a garden open to the sky.
In the House of the Vettii this was a regular peristyle garden - a roofed colonnade, surrounding the central area of plants.
Socially the garden was a more informal area, decorated with small fountains and sculptures. Although some of this furniture is not original to this garden, it helps us imagine how the space might have been laid out.
In the House of the Vettii rooms off the peristyle include this dining room.
This is a more private space, where invited guests could be received informally or for dinner parties. The walls are decorated with a frieze, depicting cupids undertaking various tasks - gold smithing, wine selling
cloth making and fulling.
It also provides useful evidence for the furnishings which might have been placed in the house itself. Similar examples of furnishings are on display in museums, as here in the Museum of Civilisation in Rome.
A few also survive in situ, like this chest in the atrium of the House of the Vettii.
In the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, beyond the atrium is an additional room - the tablinum. This room was used for greeting guests and holding formal meetings, and the rich decoration, was positioned to impress.
Screen doors which could be open or closed lead out to the garden.
This isn’t a peristyle, but a walled garden with columns only on one side and an elaborate painting creating the illusion of wilderness beyond.
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Houses of the Roman élite (part 2 (Pompeii); 7.5 minutes)

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Narration
Today our picture of the Roman house is dominated by Pompeii. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 not only preserved public buildings but also many private houses.
These reveal some architectural similarities. But they also show how individuals adapted layout and decoration to suit their personal circumstances. Vitruvius, writing in Italy in the first century BC, described, in remarkable detail, how a man’s social standing was related to the size and facilities of his house.
“Magnificent vestibules and alcoves and halls are not necessary for people of low status,
he wrote
because they pay their respects by visiting and are not visited themselves.
Advocates and professors of rhetoric should be housed with distinction, and with enough space to accommodate their audiences.
Men of high rank who hold office and magistracies… [should have] princely vestibules, lofty halls and spacious peristyles…
Although centuries of excavation have left many of the buildings themselves empty of their original furnishings, Vitruvius comments suggest that houses of the Roman elite had to accommodate the demands of public life as well as the needs of the household. From the street, there was sometimes a hint of the rich interior which lay beyond.
Through the open door a visitor could take in much of the interior at a glance, although sometimes screens or curtains were used to divide the space. Many houses had images at the entrance, which today may seem more threatening than welcoming. But these images were placed at the threshold to ward off evil or to bring good fortune to the household, like the guardian deity Priapus.
From the entrance the various architectural elements combined to create a monumental impression, as here in the House of the Vettii.
At the centre of the house is a large hall, or atrium, rising to an opening in the roof.
The House of the Ceii has a columned atrium. The opening in the roof or compluvium, let in light, ventilation and rainwater, which was collected in the pool below, the impluvium.
The water was then channelled into a tank beneath the floor and drawn, when needed, from a well head. This house and the house of the Vettii have well preserved atria.
This area was the focal point of the house. The poet Ovid mentions anxious clients waiting here to see their patron, the master, at the customary hour. Whereas the front part of the house was organised around the atrium, the rear centred on a second space - a garden open to the sky.
In the House of the Vettii this was a regular peristyle garden - a roofed colonnade, surrounding the central area of plants.
Socially the garden was a more informal area, decorated with small fountains and sculptures. Although some of this furniture is not original to this garden, it helps us imagine how the space might have been laid out.
In the House of the Vettii rooms off the peristyle include this dining room.
This is a more private space, where invited guests could be received informally or for dinner parties.
The walls are decorated with a frieze, depicting cupids undertaking various tasks - gold smithing, wine selling
cloth making and fulling.
It also provides useful evidence for the furnishings which might have been placed in the house itself.
Similar examples of furnishings are on display in museums, as here in the Museum of Civilisation in Rome.
A few also survive in situ, like this chest in the atrium of the House of the Vettii.
In the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, beyond the atrium is an additional room - the tablinum.
This room was used for greeting guests and holding formal meetings, and the rich decoration, was positioned to impress.
Screen doors which could be open or closed lead out to the garden.
This isn’t a peristyle, but a walled garden with columns only on one side and an elaborate painting creating the illusion of wilderness beyond.
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Houses of the Roman élite (part 3 (Pompeii continued); 7.5 minutes)

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Narration
Along the border are painted statues and plants, mirroring the real ones in the garden.
Hunt scenes were a popular motif, also used to decorate the small interior garden in the House of the Ceii.
So the decoration on the walls and floors in the main public quarters would have served not only to create a pleasant living environment but also to impress visitors.
Visitors seem to have been present in most areas of the house. Many of the small rooms off the atrium are traditionally referred to as cubicula or bedrooms. But literary sources suggest they had a wider range of uses, including greeting guests or conducting small business meetings.
Further rooms were often situated in an upper storey, like this one, which is still preserved in The House of the Lovers, although we don’t know what the rooms were used for.
In this house the service quarters were grouped along one side of the peristyle. The more functional rooms of the house were usually separated in some way from the more public living quarters.
How this was achieved varies from house to house. Here the service quarters consist of storerooms - some with internal windows on to the court - and probably used for storing food stuffs to be consumed by the household.
Next door is a kitchen with a raised work surface where the food was prepared.
And in the far corner of the peristyle, a lavatory, with a narrow window to the outside.
In the House of the Vettii a service court leads off the atrium. The first room is a smaller atrium and may originally have been part of a separate house. Overlooking the impluvium is a lararium or shrine.
Beyond the second atrium are the kitchen and storeroom.
There is little decoration in these functional rooms, apart from the shrine, a focus for domestic worship by the household.
This shrine displays symbols of cult worship; a snake - here associated with the genius or spirit of the household, who is shown here flanked by household gods or lares.
Images on other shrines reveal an Egyptian influence - this one in the House of the Golden Cupids shows the goddess Isis with the gods Serapis and, on the left, Anubis. These decorative themes reflect the breadth of cultural influences on the household. Also in the House of the Golden Cupids is this more traditional lararium. Its design reflects the architecture of public buildings.
The use of columns, pediments and monumental facades is also seen in wall paintings. The illusion possibly evoked in the visitor the feeling that this space is more than just a private house.
In a room off the peristyle in the House of the Vettii, this illusionist painting is juxtaposed with panels showing scenes from Greek mythology and literature.
The infant Hercules wrestling with snakes; Dirce and the bull; and Pentheus ripped apart by the Bacchae.
In order to understand the scenes depicted, a viewer would have to know the stories and this is a statement about the educated status of the householder, or the image he wished to project. It’s often difficult to identify the actual householders at Pompeii, but it’s believed that this man - Pacquius Proculus - owned this house. It’s interesting to speculate on what he was like, by looking at the architectural features.
Here we have a richly decorated entrance, a large open atrium with views through tablinum to peristyle.
Stairs to an upper storey, an apparent lack of cubicula and an elaborate, predominantly black and white mosaic floor.
Around the impluvium the mosaic creates the illusion of arches, framing nautical images, such as anchors and dolphins, as well as depicting exotic wildlife.
Beyond are two tablina, each with a decorative hearth, leading to a grand peristyle garden, decorated with fountains. All these suggest that Pacquius Proculus was a man of wealth and status.
In the context of Pompeii the houses of the elite were used to create and display personal identity.
But what about houses in other areas of the Empire? To what extent were they also used to create personal identities? And how did those identities differ from those being created by the inhabitants of Pompeii? To address these questions we’ll be looking at housing from four different cities in Asia and the Roman province of Africa.
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Houses of the Roman élite (part 4 (Ephesus); 8.5 minutes)

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Narration
The houses at Ephesus are terraced into the hillside. Conserved under reconstructed roofing are two houses - A and B - excavated and studied in detail. These houses have a history of occupation covering some six centuries and a series of different building phases.
As at Pompeii, the house has a narrow entrance. But here the space is organised somewhat differently - the entrance leads down into a central area; in place of the large atrium with its axial view through the house there’s an enclosed court, although rooms still radiate off here.
At the centre of the court extensive use is made of marble for paving and for facing of low enclosure walls. A marble fountain once played here. There was another fountain in this arched niche by the main entrance.
Diagonally across the court are stairs leading to an upper storey.
Once again decoration is rich and varied. Geometric mosaics paved the floors of the surrounding colonnade and rooms facing the court. The walls are decorated with images of birds and cupids.
Once again characters from Greek theatre and myth feature in the wall paintings: including a tragic mask and Orestes, from the famous trilogy by Aeschylus. As with the Classical images at Pompeii, the allusions can only be appreciated fully by someone with a good knowledge of Greek literature, so the use of these motifs makes a statement about the educated nature of the householder.
But in the context of the Greek world, such themes may also have an additional resonance –evoking the Greek heritage of the area, perhaps making a deliberate statement about cultural affiliation. Once again we have examples of furnishing from the houses, now on display in Selcuk Museum. These, and the artefacts found in the houses, suggest further cultural influences.
This figurine shows an Egyptian priest; Busts of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and his mother, Livia, were found together in a niche along with a bronze snake. These could either have had a secular significance or have been related to the Emperor cult.
The house is also drawn into the secular world of the Empire, through the decorative scheme on this ivory frieze, which once adorned a wall or a piece of furniture. The scene depicts the Emperor Trajan amongst his troops.
The frieze was found in a room which was originally part of house A, but which was later taken over by its neighbour, House B. Here, too, the rooms are organised around a large central peristyle.
The rooms on the north side are large and richly decorated like the court itself.
On the south side, the mosaic floor depicts the sea goddess Amphitrite riding a hippokamp or mythical sea horse, being led by another sea god - Triton. On the wall, painted decoration mimics the dappled effect of marble border panels, imitating rich finishes in poorer materials.
Through this door in the west wall of the peristyle is a service area - a room for food preparation. The amphorae displayed here, once contained foodstuffs from different parts of the Empire.
The paintings on the walls are appropriate to an area used for cookery, although they date to an earlier phase when this area was part of the court. Behind the kitchen is a latrine. Although this is a functional space, located away from the main living apartments, the walls of this latrine have painted decoration.
Among the other facilities afforded by these houses was an under-floor heating system – a hypocaust – a design widely used across the empire. The floor would have been supported on the brick stacks, with hot air circulating underneath and up through pipes in the wall.
At Ephesus, then, as at Pompeii, the facilities and decoration of a house offered the owner a chance to demonstrate his wealth and “urbanitas” – his urban sophistication.
But here domestic space is organised in a more irregular fashion: there are no axial plans and symmetrical vistas.
This evidence suggests that, in contrast with the atrium houses at Pompeii, the Ephesian houses did not serve as formal settings for the reception of clients. Instead they were probably used to receive friends of the family.
So the design and layout of these houses reflects a contrast in the way social relationships were conducted.
This may have resulted from the continued influence of the traditional Greek culture of Asia Minor, in which official public life was conducted outside the home, in the public spaces of the city.
The importance of traditional, pre-Roman patterns of domestic life can be explored further in relation to our final examples, housing from three cities in the Roman province of Africa.
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Houses of the Roman élite (part 4 (Africa); 8 minutes)

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Narration
This is the ancient port of Carthage - the largest city in the Punic world. The name Punic comes from the Latin word for “Phoenician” - a people originally from modern Lebanon, who founded Carthage.
Following the Roman conquest in 146 BC, the Punic city was destroyed and buried under the foundations of the new Roman city. In recent years a number of Punic houses have been excavated.
The houses themselves are modest in size compared with those of Pompeii and Ephesus. The building plots are long and narrow, separated by alleys which give access to the apartments at the rear.
The front entrance leads into a rectangular room, once again the point of water collection - here into underground cisterns. The cisterns were originally covered and the water channelled from the closed roof by down pipes.
The positioning of the rooms and doorways suggests that some attempt was made to follow principles of symmetry and axiality, and the large, central room may have performed some of the domestic functions of a court or an atrium.
Already a form of mosaic floor - composed of small cubes or tesserae, is being used, prior to the Roman conquest.
But how far did houses like these influence the ones built in the area in the Roman period. The city of Thugga is terraced into a steep hillside. As at Ephesus, the entrances to the houses lead off narrow, cobbled streets. As with some of the elite residences at Pompeii, here imposing entrances give some indication of grand interiors within.
Outside the House of the Trifolium, a pair of columns flank the door itself. But the symmetrical vista into the opulent interior of the house, which you saw at Pompeii, would not have been used here.
Instead, a staircase lead from just inside the front door, down to a basement level, and it seems that this was where some of the most elaborate rooms were located.
A central peristyle may have been planted as a garden. Light and air from here filtered through the surrounding porticoes and into the rooms behind.
These rooms would have been offered protection from the hot African summer by the ground floor above – which is no longer well preserved. Although today the houses of Thugga appear quite stark, they would originally have been elaborately decorated.
From the centre of the courtyard of this smaller neighbour of the House of the Trifolium comes an intricately detailed picture of Odysseus withstanding the lure of the Sirens, now displayed in the Bardo Museum.
This use of a theme from Greek literature echoes the use of similar themes in the painted decoration of houses both at Ephesus and at Pompeii. In this African context such representations are evidence of the way in which elements of Greek culture, adopted by the Italian elite, had also reached other geographical areas. Among the other popular motifs are fishermen and fish. The fish are depicted in such detail that it’s possible to identify individual species. In a world without refrigeration these would have been one of the most prized and expensive foods. The fish also symbolise the natural abundance of the sea.
The mosaic decoration from Thugga also includes more distinctively Roman, as opposed to Greek elements, like this motto, from another house near the House of the Trifolium, which reads omnia tibi felicia: all happiness to you.
The mosaic was originally positioned in the entrance of the house , which also has a small peristyle courtyard.
The houses in Bulla Regia reveal more about local patterns of house design.
The House of the Hunt occupies most of an insula or housing block and shows some attempt to conform to the principles of symmetry and axiality.
The rooms at ground level are not well preserved, although there are the remains of a large peristyle. It seems that ground level was where the functional areas lay.
Once again entered from narrow paved streets, it appears the outer rooms were shops and workshops: a large, circular millstone can still be seen in a room near the street corner.
On the third side lay amenities for the use of the householder, including a lavatory with seating for two people, and a bath.
This is stripped of its decoration but a nearby bath gives an impression of what it might have been like.
The latin motto reads: VENANTIORUM BAIAE – the baths of the hunters.
But as at Thugga, some of the most comfortable living apartments lay downstairs in a basement area.
This lower level opens off a small court. The columns of the colonnade are decorated in the Corinthian order, used for buildings across the Empire.
Here, though, the large curling leaves of the capitals give a distinctive local flavour. Attention is drawn to the entrance of the main room by the pilasters, also in Corinthian style. The window at the far end would have provided a through draft in the hot summer months, while a well to one side gave access to fresh water. At the centre is an elaborate rectangular mosaic, known as a “carpet”, with geometric patterns, which would have contributed to the atmosphere of comfort and elegance.
Beyond the threshold mosaic, the plain mosaic floor marks the location of couches, showing that this was once a dining room. The room’s location below the level of the main house would have meant that it was relatively cool and peaceful.
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Houses of the Roman élite - Part Four (Africa)
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Lisa Nevett has presented a wide-ranging investigation of houses in several parts of the empire and shown how they can provide evidence for expressions of culture and identity. Overall the video provides a broad context for the houses you have seen at Thugga and Bulla Regia. They can be seen as having connections with different aspects of the culture of the Roman empire. Some elements are shared, such as the use of the house as a location for display of status and access to Greek culture, or the use of courtyards and axial arrangements, or characteristic styles of decoration. From the evidence presented in the video we can consider the houses in a number of ways. Are the building materials and their decoration the same in all parts of the empire? Is the arrangement of rooms and their sizes and relationships to one another similar in these different places? Did similar parts of the houses have similar functions? Are there the possibilities for the same social interpretations of the houses in different areas? Can we contrast a ‘Roman’ house with an ‘African’ house? We can ask how much they are African or Roman or Afro-Roman.

Activity 5

Consider which of our four models of cultural interaction best fits the evidence from studying the houses in Africa and elsewhere. Write down your choice (or choices), and note down the evidence which supports your choice in your Learning Journal.

Discussion

It's easy enough to see which houses we might call African – either those similar to the Punic houses in Carthage or the later houses in Africa, allowing the geographical location to be the defining factor (see Figure 6). However, what about the houses that might be ‘Roman’? Do we take the houses in Pompeii as typically Roman? And if so, where does that leave the houses in Ephesus? The question is complex because the houses share some features but in other ways they are distinct from one another. We also need to remember that there are chronological differences to consider. The Punic houses were abandoned following the Roman conquest; all the houses in Pompeii were destroyed in AD 79; and the rest of those in Africa date from the second century onwards, with later alterations and reorganisations. It is also important to consider whether the houses are comparable as the homes of élite members of society in different parts of the empire, or whether each is the home of a different class or kind of person. There is more discussion below.

Figure 6
Figure 6 Punic house on Byrsa hill, early second century BC, Carthage. (Photo: P. Perkins)
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