Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1993: Greek Households under Roman Hegemony: The Archaeological Evidence (pp. 99–110)
Greek households under Roman hegemony: the archaeological evidence
The region covered by this paper is the province of Achaia, which
came under Roman political control during the second century Be. In
comparison with provinces such as Britain, this is a part of the empire
which is well served by written sources (literary texts, legal documents,
and inscriptions], and was the home of a long-established urban culture,
dating back. beyond the classical period (fifth to fourth centuries) for
which our literary evidence is particularly rich. These written sources, together with the surviving monumental public architecture and works of
art, reveal a sophisticated culture based on largely autonomous city
states. During the period prior to the Roman take-over, these states
underwent political changes, in the course of which democratic ideals
of equality between individual citizens, seen at Athens, were gradually
abandoned in favour of a more overtly hierarchical political and social
The culture of classical Greece appears to have been an object of 100 L. NEVETI
admiration for her Roman conquerors, who emulated Greek artistic
achievements and shipped home classical sculptures. Rather less is
known of the effects of the Roman conquest on Greece itself. Achaia has
often been seen as run down and depopulated (Alcock 1993, 2), and indeed evidence from recent archaeological surveys in a number of regions
does indicate shifts in settlement which must have corresponded with
social and economic changes (ibid., 48-49). Nevertheless, because of the
inadequacy of available literary sources, the effect of Roman hegemony
on individual households, and on domestic social relations in particular,
is still obscure. In this paper the material evidence of domestic social relations, namely the remains of the houses themselves, are examined in
order to shed some light on this question.
Early discussions of ancient housing sometimes fitted the dwellings of
both Greece and Rome into a continuous evolutionary scheme, using as a
guide the descriptions of Homer and Vitruvius, together with excavated
remains from late-Bronze-Age Greek palace sites and from the houses of
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Gardner 1882, 281; Gardner and Jevons 1898,
31-48; Rider 1916, passim; Fyffe 1936, 137-141). As seems to have been
the case with the arts, it has been suggested that in its architecture the
Roman house (epitomised by the exceptionally well-preserved examples
excavated in Campania) was influenced by that of its Greek counterpart
(Plommer 1956, 253). Conversely, the use of Latin terms such as triclinium
and impluvium in descriptions of Roman houses excavated in Greece (for
example, Papapostolou 1979, 144; Papakosta 1980, 191) implies some
similarity with Roman houses in other areas of the empire. With a few
notable exceptions (Hoepfner and Schwandner 1986; Wallace-Hadrill
1988) previous discussions of Greek and Roman houses have tended to
concentrate on architecture and decoration. The present paper adopts a
broader perspective which, as far as possible, takes account of the manner in which domestic space was used as well as its construction. As
demonstrated in a range of other disciplines, the organisation of the
household can be viewed as a response to the practical and cultural
requirements of everyday life,l and the archaeological remains of
households can therefore provide a powerful tool for the investigation of
domestic social organisation. An examination of the changes taking place
in the household from the classical through to the early Roman period
should therefore offer an indication of the extent to which household
organisation was changing, and the nature of any changes. GREEK HOUSEHOLDS UNDER ROMAN HEGEMONY 101
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIAL
Before domestic social relations can be investigated, it is necessary to
make some observations about the archaeological assemblages which
must form the basic evidence for discussion of the Roman household,
since the nature of this evidence has a profound effect on the kinds of
questions which can be asked and on the way in which they must be
The most serious difficulty currently to be faced in investigating
Roman houses in Greece is a paucity of excavated examples (McKay
1975, 211). Furthermore, because the locations of modern cities often coincide with those of their ancient predecessors, many of the examples
which have been excavated were uncovered during rescue projects. The
most obvious problem which this causes is that the structures under
excavation often disappear beneath the foundations of a neighbouring
apartment building or office block, so that house plans are often incomplete. Furthermore, the remains which can be studied are often part of a
complex matrix of constructions, resulting from two thousand years or
more of occupation. This means that walls have frequently been re-used
and damaged or obliterated, and it is sometimes difficult to locate the
finds associated with an individual level which might be of help for dating purposes and in establishing the way in which particular structures
were used. These problems mean that much of the available evidence
consists either of partially excavated structures or of individual architectural elements which are often divorced from any coherent context
In sum, complete house plans of Roman date are rare, information on
finds is often scant or absent, and our knowledge centres around those
houses which have attracted attention because of their high level of
decoration, and because they incorporate features such as impluvia, which
are recognisable features from Roman houses elsewhere in the empire.
This raises the obvious problem that our excavated sample is probably
heavily biased towards the wealthier members of society. There may
therefore be a range of houses, probably belonging to less well-off
groups, which are not being excavated and/or recognised as Roman because they lack features which we have come to expect based on the
appearance of Roman houses elsewhere and because, on a complex site, it
is not always possible to link architecture with small finds. Conclusions
drawn on the basis of the material currently available is therefore likely
to represent only a limited range of the total population of the area. 102 L. NEVETI
THE DOMESTIC ENVIRONMENT: A DIACHRONIC EXAMINATION
In comparison with the material from the Roman period, a substantial
amount of evidence is available for the Greek house during the preceding
classical and Hellenistic periods (the best-preserved examples are summarised by Hoepfner and Schwandner (1986)). This material yields a
relatively coherent model for domestic social organisation (Nevett 1992;
1995; in press), and provides a starting point for the investigation of
changes in social relations through time.
As is common in Mediterranean areas today, the classical Greek house
was organised around an open central court (fig. 1), which often
contained a well or cistern. Within this area shade was provided by a
colonnade which could be anything from a simple structure along one
wall to a full peristyle surrounding the court on all four sides. Where information is available, both court and portico have yielded a diverse
range of objects, suggesting that they were the location for a variety of
activities, including food preparation and cooking (Nevett 1992, 73, 82;
Ault 1994). The courtyard arrangement meant that the outdoor space
where this activity took place was shut off from the street, and this isolation is emphasised by the presence of only a single outside door.
Although that door led from the street into the court, it was often placed
so that even when it was open there was no direct line of sight into the
house for passers-by. There is also one instance in which the walls are
preserved to a sufficient height to reveal the windows, which are small
and located high in the walls, also preventing the occupants of the house
from being observed from the street outside.2 This insulation of the
household from the outside world is a common theme of Greek literature
over an extended period and can plausibly be explained as being connected with a separation of female family members from male outsiders
(Walker 1983 passim; Nevett 1992,45-46; 1995; in press).
The division between the household and the outside world is continued inside the house, with the provision of a separate room for the
entertainment of male guests, called the andron, and this is both mentioned in the literature and identifiable archaeologically. The andron
embodies a tradition of hospitality which is deeply ingrained within
Greek culture, and the drinking parties which took place there are depicted in literature and on vase paintings. Archaeologically, the room is
usually characterised by decorated walls, a plaster or mosaic pavement,
drainage facilities, and often by emplacements for couches on which
diners reclined, arranged around the walls (Robinson and Graham 1938, GREEK HOUSEHOLDS UNDER ROMAN HEGEMONY
. …. A ” ..
.. A … … ….
cultivated area or grass
(prostas or pastas)
” ……. A
Figures 1-4. 1: Example oj a courtyard house oj the classical period; Olynthos, house
A VII 4 (adapted from Robinson and Graham 1938, Plate 99). 2: Example oj a Hellenistic
house; Eretria, House oj the Mosaics (adapted from Ducrey and Metzger 1979, Figure 2).
3: Example oj a Delian house; the Hennes house (flooring generally unknown) (adapted
from Delonne 1953, Plate 55).4: Thera, house 6ii (adapted from Hiller von Gaertringen
1899, p 252). 104
• • • • ………….
Figures 5-7. 5: Eleusina, house by the city wall (adapted from Kourouniotis 1936).
6: Athens, house NIl (after Thompson and Whycherley 1972, figure 45). 7: Athens, house
from the north-west shoulder of the Areopagus (adapted from Thompson and Whycherley
1972). Key as above.
171-179). There is sometimes also a small anteroom, decorated in a similar manner, which provides additional spatial segregation for the occupants of the andron from the rest of the house.
A notable feature of this room is its position within the house, which
often brings visitors through the central court where household activity
took place. Bearing in mind the measures just described, which seem to
have been designed to separate household members from outsiders, it GREEK HOUSEHOLDS UNDER ROMAN HEGEMONY 105
seems odd that such an awkward arrangement should have been used,
especially since it could have been avoided by constructing an entrance
to the andron directly from the street or from the entrance passage. The
fact that this was not done may suggest that there was an intention to
display the court to visitors, and this is also supported by the fact that
this is one of the few areas of the house which was usually decorated. In
passing through the court, visitors were shown important aspects of
domestic life: signs of the productive activity vital to the life of the
household, together with the entrances to most of the other rooms, which
generally communicated via this area Separation of visitors from
particular household members could have been achieved through the
temporary withdrawal of the latter group to inner rooms of the house.3
Starting in the mid-fourth century and continuing down to the end of
the Hellenistic era a new type of house can be found alongside that just
outlined. It covered a large area, and the domestic and public functions
were separated by the creation of a second court (often a peristyle),
around which a number of decorated rooms of different sizes were clustered The productive activity of the household was centred on a second,
undecorated area, away from the view of visitors (fig. 2). This increased
the spatial segregation between “public” and “private” areas and
removed the emphasis on displaying the household as a productive unit,
replacing it with a greater direct stress on general wealth as represented
by increasingly lavish and extensive mosaic and plaster decoration. The
appearance of this type of arrangement implies a growth in the importance of the house as a setting for social interaction and as a location for
the display of power and wealth. This is likely to be linked with a growth
in the overt power exerted by the elite and an increase in the importance
of social relations between individuals.
For the transition to the Roman period our best sources of evidence of
domestic architeture are the extensive excavations on the island of Delos
in the Cyclades, which during the second century BC gained the status of
a free port and was settled by merchants from a variety of areas, including Greek mainland cities and Rome.4 The island provides a large
sample of houses, which are very well preserved owing to their stone
construction. A variety of sizes and designs are represented: the largest
examples (see, for example, fig. 3) create an impression of considerable
prosperity, with lavish decoration which includes mosaic floors, coloured
wall plaster, and sculpted figures (summarised in Kreeb 1988).
Given such a high level of wealth it is surprising that these houses
contrast with those of the Hellenistic period described above in that they 106 L. NEVETI
tend to lack the double courtyard arrangement which separated the public and private areas. Instead, a number of richly decorated rooms were
often organised around a single, elaborate peristyle. Where the service
rooms can be identified, these are either located alongside the major reception rooms and entered from the same court or occasionally are
situated behind the main rooms and reached through the entrance
passage. In either case, there is usually no separate court devoted to
household activities. Furthermore, the presence of decorative elements
such as statuary, and particularly of central pools in the courts of many of
these houses, means that the rOle of this space is likely to have been a
largely decorative rather than functional one, since the amount of space
available would have been restricted severely.
Similar patterns of organisation are found in houses of a slightly later
date from Thera (fig. 4). A well-documented example, house 6ii, consists
of a few rooms arranged around a central space (Hiller von Gaertringen
et al. 1899, 252-254; Hiller von Gaertringen 1904, 138-139). Through time
the house underwent a series of modifications involving the insertion of a
pool in the central space and the subsequent erection of partitions in that
space in order to provide extra rooms. As at Delos the earlier type of
courtyard was superseded, and there was a change in the use of space
such that the court was no longer important as a location for productive
household activity. Other less well-documented houses from the same
site are also indicative of an abandonment of the traditional organisation
of rooms in such a way as to lead off a central space, and involve instead
a higher degree of intercommunication between individual rooms, and
even the largest possess only a single court
Indications of a comparable pattern of internal organisation can be
seen in a single house excavated next to the city walls at Eleusina
(Kourouniotis 1936) (fig. 5). As with the Delian houses, several rooms
have lavish mosaic decoration and both these and the service rooms are
reached via a single court, although the two areas are separated to a
certain degree with the mosaic-paved rooms lying to the north and
plainer rooms to the souths
A further source for complete house plans of Roman date is the agora at
Athens. Two published examples each follow a relatively simple arrangement around a single courtyard (Thompson and Whychedey 1972,
183-184) (figs 6 and 7). Their construction and decoration suggest that the
occupants were relatively wealthy, but as in the examples already
discussed, service rooms are located leading off a single court, alongside
the more elaborate reception rooms. In one of the houses the court is a GREEK HOUSEHOLDS UNDER ROMAN HEGEMONY 107
decorated peristyle, which contains a pool to catch rain water, and also
a garden, a phenomenon which is totally unknown in peristyles of the
classical and Hellenistic periods (Carroll-SpiUecke 1989, 19, 49; CarrollSpillecke 1992, 156-157), and which further reduces the possibility of the
space being used for household tasks.
The limited number of houses discussed here present a relatively coherent picture: there is a shift through time in the way in which activities
were distributed around the house, and in particular a change in the role
of the court, the decorative function of which seems to have been increased at the expense of its role as a location for domestic activity. Such
alterations in the use of the court, and in the organisation of rooms in the
house, suggest a corresponding change in the pattern of domestic social
organisation in the household, and this is likely to have been associated
with a change in the relationship between the house and the world outside. By the Roman era, when the area was part of a wider political and
economic network, domestic tasks were no longer on display to visitors,
as in the classical house, or segregated from the more public rooms, as in
the wealthiest Hellenistic examples. In comparison with its predecessors,
then, the Roman house is characterised by a reduction in the constraints
on movement around the house, and this suggests a change in attitudes
towards interaction between individuals within the domestic context
and, in particular, between household members and outsiders. At the
same time there seems to have been less importance attached to the provision of a comfortable working environment for the execution of
household tasks, such activity apparently being carried out indoors all
the year round rather than in the outdoor space provided by the court
On the basis of this information a tentative hypothesis may be formulated, which can be investigated further as more material comes to light
If it is correct to interpret the tight control over spatial organisation exercised in the classical and Hellenistic periods as being linked to a desire to
control access to the women of the house (as suggested above), then it
may be that the new patterns of domestic organisation seen in the Roman
material are connected to some degree with a different attitude towards
women. The lack of features designed to ensure privacy suggests less restriction on interaction between female household members and guests
entering the house, and the less careful provision of space for household
tasks suggests that female family members (as opposed to servants or 108 L. NEVETI
slaves) may have been involved in household activities to a lesser extent
This idea is made more plausible given that such differences in the roles
of women in Greek and Roman society have been commented on by
Roman authors (for example Cornelius Nepos Lives pro 1.6.3).
A question that is difficult to answer is whether the marked difference
between the Roman households and those of earlier period reveals
changes amongst the existing Greek population, or whether, since the excavated sample generally seems to represent the upper end of the economic scale (with the possible exception of the small house from Thera),
these structures would have belonged to elite Roman immigrants. Roman
merchants are known, from epigraphic evidence, to have been present on
Delos (Roussel 1931, passimj, although the identities of the inhabitants of
the majority of excavated houses are unknown. Elsewhere the picture is
more uncertain, and, like many others, this question will have to await
the excavation of more material before it can be resolved fully.
I should like to thank Ross Samson for asking me to look at Roman houses in
Greece, thereby stimulating me to expand my chronological horizons and
investigate a body of material which was new to me. This paper has not
been updated since it was originally submitted for publication in 1993.
1. This research is summarised in Lawrence and Low 1990.
2. These are the classical houses at Ammotopos, described by Hammond
(Hammond 1953, passim). An example has subsequently been excavated
(Dakaris et al. 1976; Dakaris 1984; 1986; Hoepfner and Schwandner 1986,
3. For a full discussion of gender and domestic space in the classical world, see
Nevett 1993; 1995.
4. Commentators have tended to emphasise the similarity between the houses
at Delos and their predecessors elsewhere in the Greek world (for example,
Lawrence 1983, 325; Plommer 1956, 252). In fact, however, the organisation
of the Delian house gives it a strong resemblance to Roman houses found
elsewhere in Greece, and makes it substantially different from its Hellenistic
predecessors. The identification of the Delian house with earlier Greek examples seems to rest more on the fact that there are substantial differences
between these and the houses of Roman Italy, rather than on perceived similarities with Hellenistic Greek examples.
5. A space to the south of the house proper has been identified by the
excavators as a second court or garden (Kourouniotis 1936, 40). The latter
seems a more probable suggestion given the lack of obvious paving or signs
of an arcade or portico, although it should be noted that the organisation of
this part of the house is represented only by robber trenches. The published GREEK HOUSEHOWS UNDER ROMAN HEGEMONY 109
plan also suggests that there may have been further walls beyond this
southernmost area, but these may indicate adjoining houses.
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