Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 13, 2023
Samuli Simelius Pompeian Peristyle Gardens Routledge, 2022. 268 pp.; 28 b/w ills. Hardback $128.00 (9780367649951)

Ever since the influential book by Wilhelmina Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas destroyed by Vesuvius (‎Aristide D. Caratzas, 1979), the gardens of Pompeii have been in the spotlight of archaeological research. Besides questions about the cultivation and use of garden areas, the often lavishly decorated peristyles, in particular, attracted attention. In the Book Pompeian Peristyle Gardens: Studies in Roman Space and Urbanism, Samuli Simelius has now, for the first time, undertaken a compelling comparative analysis of all two hundred fifty-two Pompeian peristyle gardens excavated in Pompeii, which were visible in 79 CE. The analysis examines how they were designed to represent the socioeconomic status of their owners.

Methodologically, he discusses the extent to which the development of peristyle gardens was influenced by a top-down model, as proposed in a still influential article by Paul Zanker (De Gruyter, 1975). To find an answer to this question, Simelius compares the design and different decorative elements in the peristyles used by different social groups. In this context, he distinguishes between three social classes. In addition to the elite and the lower class, he also speaks of a “middle class“ (8). However, the term is only used to characterize the prosperity of a group that stands between the extreme social layers. With this pragmatic attitude, he tries to distance himself on the one hand from the modern concept of the middle class, which would require a culturally and socially connected group, and on the other hand to be able to be faithful to the archaeological findings in which such a group is not tangible. His conception of a Roman “middle class“ thus differs from that of Emanuel Mayer, who, in his book The Ancient Middle Classes Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE–250 CE (Harvard University Press, 2014), postulated that this class was also distinguished from other social classes by new shared forms of décor.

The brief introduction follows a definition of Pompeian peristyle gardens as “an open space with a garden that featured a colonnade, at least on one side” (19). Simelius’s definition is pragmatic since it excludes columned Corinthian atriums and includes extensive gardens with only one portico. However, whether it includes smaller peristyle courtyards with a masonry triclinium, an extravagant feature, but no garden as in House IX 5,11.13 is questionable. He also provides information in this chapter about the evaluated components of the peristyle. Besides architectural elements, he considered functional elements such as drainages, triclinia, and lararia and decorative elements such as sculptures. Here Similius follows his red line because he evaluates the latter only according to their quantity since he argues that it is impossible to make statements about how the inhabitants of Pompeii perceived quality. However, the author mindfully has to admit that quality may very well have played a role concerning the socioeconomic status of the house owners and that his analysis cannot take this aspect into account. 

At the beginning of the discussion of the archaeological material, the book provides the reader with a definition of multifunctionality, a term rightly criticized as increasingly meaningless, to clarify which activities can be assumed based on features. The author concludes that the function of the peristyle, both as a circulation space and as a dwelling room, would make it an ideal place to demonstrate the socioeconomic status of the owner.

The heart of the book is the extensive quantitative analysis of the features of the peristyle courtyards. Regarding the individual features of the peristyle, the author arrives at different assessments in terms of his research question. Concerning the planting, he has to conclude that a quantitative evaluation is impossible due to the poor preservation and documentation in the old excavations. In addition, the masonry techniques and the material used do not allow further assessment, as they were usually plastered and invisible. Looking at the plaster, he notes that “85 percent” (82) of the peristyle had plastered walls without specifying whether this means all the peristyle walls. However, regarding the question of the socioeconomic status of the owner, it makes a significant difference whether only one wall still showed plaster remains, or all walls were covered.

Therefore, Simelius bases his analysis primarily on size, number of porticos, and furnishings. In this way, he can show that the peristyle’s size correlates with the house’s size. While this statement is not spectacular initially, he can also provide evidence that large houses that omit a large peristyle usually compensate elsewhere by having a spacious garden or a high atrium. About height, he notes that a high or two-story peristyle can appear exceptionally representative, but due to the few surviving upper stories, a quantitative evaluation is not possible. Consequently, the book does not consider this critical aspect in its analysis. The number of porticos, in turn, often correlates with the size of the peristyle area and the adjacent rooms. Exceptional are the houses that have only one portico, as these often owned a large garden. Finally, the book looks at the decorative elements for which the author analyzes water basins, fountains, sculptures, wall paintings, and pavements and discusses each of the object groups critically. In doing so, it becomes clear to the reader that it is challenging to find quantifiable categories for the decorative elements that allow us to examine the extent to which they were used as status symbols. For example, while Simelius can separate the water basins into those that are merely plastered and those that have marble elements and are painted, it is almost impossible for him to develop a gradation for the wall paintings. Simelius notes critically that even wall paintings in red and white cannot automatically be understood as simple paintings but rather as a practical solution for spaces exposed to the weather (96). Thus, he states that mythological motifs, still lifes, landscape depictions, and large hunting scenes are all appropriate means of representation.

The categories of analysis form the foundation for the often hierarchical differentiation of various peristyle groups based on their display of representative features. From the beginning, Simelius makes it clear that his categorization is artificial and an analytical tool that the inhabitants did not perceive. One group can also include different architectural solutions. For example, the author uses the term “imitation peristyle” both for houses that pretended there were four porticos and those with four porticos but within a limited space.

The examinations of the different groups occur in two separate chapters, in which Simelius discusses the questions he posed at the beginning. First, the book addresses the question of what the different groups of peristyles say about the economic success of the owners. The evaluation of the large data set leads to some interesting observations, of which two can be exemplarily referred to. First, it shows that the first group of the “opulent peristyles” and the second group of “large full peristyles” seem to belong to a different economic class. This difference is particularly evident in the proportion of space, which is, on average, over six hundred square meters smaller in the second group than in the first. However, the function of the two groups differed little since the display of wealth played an essential role in both cases (138). The second observation concerns the peristyles, which perform an imitation. Simelius notes that both types of imitation were designed to create the impression of a full peristyle, which was apparently considered a status symbol and imitated by an economically aspiring class. In this context, the absence of decor would be functional since the “imitation peristyles” would have been conceived more strongly as a circulation space. Despite his in-depth observations, Simelius concludes at the end of the chapter that it is impossible to make detailed statements about the social status of the house owner based on the peristyle alone. Especially in the smaller houses, the peristyle was a status symbol in itself, attractive to the middle class (162).

The following combination of Simelius’s peristyle groups with possible owners brings an exciting result. Due to the few owners that are archaeologically and epigraphically evident, he can conclude that the two most prestigious peristyle groups were probably found in houses of the urban elite. 

Consequently, the fruitful book comes to the convincing conclusion that the peristyle was not created primarily to reflect the socioeconomic status of the homeowner. Instead, several different types of peristyle courtyards could be distinguished based on their functionality. No further statement can be made about a “middle class,” since the mere possession of a peristyle says nothing about the socioeconomic status of its owner. Therefore, Simelius concludes that, in the overall Roman context, the owners of Pompeian dwellings belonged neither to the wealthy elite nor to the lower social strata and thus can probably be addressed as middle class. Although the book comes to a rather general conclusion, it raises many important questions for the reader. For example, what conclusions can we draw from a detailed comparison, and how did the perception and representation of the “middle class” change over time and geographically in the Roman Empire?

Christian Beck
PhD, Scientific Researcher, Fachbereich III, Universität Trier