Museum of Material Culture

Roman Material Culture


The House of the Faun, Pompeii


This page is designed to provide a brief introduction to how to analyze Roman Material Culture. Click on any of the below topics for more information:

  1. What is Material Culture?
  2. Why Study Material Culture?
  3. How do I Analyze Material Culture?
  4. Where Can I Find Roman Material Culture?
  5. More Material Culture Sites
  6. Lecture: "My So-Called Roman Life" (L. Arnold)
  7. Essay: "Age, Gender, and Status Divisions at Mealtime in the Roman House" (P. Foss)
  8. The Roman House and Private Art:
  9. Bibliography

    What is Material Culture?

    In his book Material Culture Studies in America, Thomas Schlereth provides the following useful definition of Material Culture:

    1. material culture can be considered to be the totality of artifacts in a culture, the vast universe of objects used by humankind to cope with the physical world, to facilitate social intercourse, to delight our fancy, and to create symbols of meaning....Leland Ferguson argues that material culture includes all "the things that people leave behind....all of the things people make from the physical world--farm tools, ceramics, houses, furniture, toys, buttons, roads, cities." (Schlereth 2)


    Why Study Material Culture?

    One of the problems that Garnsey and Saller cite in writing a history of the Roman Empire is that they fear that their sources are not enough to fully substantiate their analysis: as they note, "Many of the kinds of evidence on which historians of other periods rely never existed under the Principate or have not survived" (Garnsey and Saller 108). However, we can turn to material culture--the objects of everyday life--to help test their hypotheses when traditional sources are not forthcoming.


    Through Material culture (the study of artifacts) we can learn about the "belief systems--the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions--of a particular community or society, usually across time. As a study, [material culture] based on the obvious premise that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of presence of a human mind operating at the time of fabrication. The common assumption underlying material culture research is that objects made or modified by humans, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, reflect the belief patterns of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and, by extension, the belief patterns of the larger society of which they are a part" (Schlereth 3).


    How Do I Analyze Material Culture?

    Thomas Schlereth suggests a number of models for studying material culture, but in this web page I have chosen to emphasize what Schlereth calls the "Art History Paradigm."


    The Art History Paradigm is probably the most useful for us because it is the most familiar. In this paradigm, the interpretative objective of examining the artifact is to "depict the historical development and intrinsic merit" of the artifact (Schlereth 42). An example of this type of analysis can be seen in my lecture on Roman Houses ("My So-Called Roman Life") when I argued that the mythological scenes seen on the walls of the House of the Tragic Poet were indicative of the imperial (but not republican) period. Here I was interested in identifying the historical development of Roman wall paintings.


    If you are interested in doing an "Art History Paradigm" reading of material culture you might look at an object and ask yourself the following questions (taken from Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art). These questions will help us obtain information about the artifact so we can place it in a historical context; for example, you might ask yourself:

    1. What is my first response to the work?
    2. When and where was the work made?
    3. Where would the work originally have been seen?
    4. What purpose did the work serve?
    5. In what condition has the work survived? (Barnet 21-22)

      Let's use this mosaic from the House of the Faun as an example:


      1. What is your response?
        1. Obviously your response is your own, but at least one art historian has suggested that the mosaic made him feel "deeply felt sympathy" for the people under attack. (You may want to click on the picture above to take a closer look.)
      2. When and Where was it Made?
        1. In Pompeii, during the "Tufa Period" (200-80 BC). In their words, BEFORE Pompeii was invaded by the Romans.
      3. Where would the work originally have been seen?
        1. On the floor of a room off of the Peristyle in the House of the Faun (number 18--the small white room to the north of the small green room in the diagram below). Click here for a description in a new browser window of the House of the Faun.

      4. What purpose did the work serve?
        1. This is trickier. Wallace-Hadrill suggests that, in general, mosaics were intended to assert the status and wealth of the owner of the house. This seems certainly to be true of this mosaic since it is the largest mosaic using this technique that has been found in Pompeii: it took more than a million and a half tesserae [tiles] to build! (Clarke 41, 84). No one viewing this could have failed to have been impressed: one nineteenth-century excavator called it "the most royal picture in the world" (Kraus 70). Even today archeologists have pondered who would have commissioned such rich decoration (Clarke 85).

          Yet, while this analysis of status is helpful, it doesn't explain why there would be a mosaic of Alexander the Great in particular. To answer this we need to ask at least two things. 1. What did Alexander mean to the citizens of Pompeii during this era? 2. What does this mosaic say in particular about Alexander? (You'll notice a parallel between these questions and the questions I asked about the Iliad paintings in the House of the Tragic Poet in my lecture.)

          1.As you will remember from Suetonius, Romans of the late Republic and early Empire were obsessed with Alexander. On page 63 of our text, Suetonius details Augustus' pilgrimage to Alexander's tomb and of wearing a ring with his portrait on it. To style oneself as a new "Alexander" was to make claim to also be a great war leader against the East. Pompey went so far as to style his hair like Alexander and to take on the honorary title "the Great" (Zanker 10). Presumably, Alexander would have held a similar appeal to the citizens of Pompeii who had even closer ties to Greece.


          2. But what does this mosaic say in particular about Alexander? The mosaic depicts "Alexander as conqueror and Darius [a Persian king], among his troops, overcome and himself constrained to flee" (Kraus 70). Art historian Theodor Kraus provides the following interpretation of the scene (you might look closely at the mosaic and see if you agree--click here for close-ups in a new browser window).

          The scene as a whole is an expression of Greek ethos. Its subject is not only victory over the foe but also the human destiny of the enemy. To make the central focus of the picture the heroic sacrifice of the Persian nobleman and the tragic helplessness of the Persian king who, indifferent to his own fate, has eyes and ears only for the agony of the man who is giving his life to save him, is entirely in line with the classical way of thinking and is paralleled by the Greek reliefs of battle scenes in which the vanquished are portrayed with deeply felt sympathy. No later epoch of ancient art had the capacity to depict the conquered with such vividly gripping feeling (Kraus 70)

          This interpretation begs a number of questions. Do you, as a viewer, feel this sympathy for the vanquished? Why might the citizens of Pompeii? Have you read about this sympathy for the vanquished elsewhere this semester (or last)? Do you see a decrease in empathy for the vanquished as the texts move from the Golden to Silver Latin periods?


      5. In what condition has the work survived? (Barnet 21-22)
        1. As you can see, the mosaic is in relatively good condition; however parts of it are missing (which complicates our interpretation of the scene). It is believed that at least some of the tiles were lost in the great earthquake that came a few years before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Kraus 70). Although the mosaic is now set into a wall in a museum in Naples, it is worth noting that in its original locale it would have been on the floor (Kraus 70, Clarke 84). Because of the large size of the mosaic it would have been very difficult to view the mosaic in its entirety. What sort of impact would this setting have upon the viewer, who would only have one place (the entryway to the room) that allowed a good--albeit neck-craning view--of the mosaic?

        In conclusion, You'll notice that in order to answer some of these questions I had to do a bit of research; however, some questions I could answer from the information given on the web page of the object or in the readings we have done so far this semester! Below are some links to Roman material culture. You might practice analyzing the objects using Barnet's method.

        Where Can I Find Roman Material Culture?

        There are a number of fine books on Roman Material Culture in the Library (see for example the bibliography to my lecture "My So-Called Roman Life"). However, there are also some resources available on line.

        For a history of how Rome's Ruins have been read click here for Learning to Read Rome's Ruins

        Other Material Culture Sites:

        The following is a list of more general Material Culture Sites 



        • Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1981.
        • Clarke, John. The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Berkeley: U. of Calif. P., 1991.
        • Kraus, Theodor. Pompeii and Herculaneum. NY: Harry Abrahms, 1975.
        • Richardson, L. Pompeii: An Architectural History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.
        • Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1982.
        • Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994.
        • Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan P., 1990.

        This page developed by Laura Leibman for Hum110 Tech.Comments and suggestions welcome. Updated 2/13/2000.

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