Thursday, June 16, 2011


Lisa C. Nevett, Domestic Space in Classical Antiquity. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 178. ISBN 9780521789455. $32.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Roderick B. Salisbury, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site


Nevett's Domestic Space in Classical Antiquity is an extraordinarily useful publication that will be appreciated by both those interested in the classical world and those who study the use and meaning of domestic space in any region or time. As an archaeologist specializing in prehistory, and trained as an anthropological archaeologist, in this review I focus on the author's analysis and interpretations of space. As she states in the introduction, Nevett's prime interest is to provide new insights into the organization of domestic space and the materialization of house and household in classical antiquity by exploring archaeological remains, written accounts and artistic representations. These diverse data are combined to place the house, and the household, in their wider cultural context and to address questions of diachronic social change. Chronologically, the book encompasses the period from the tenth century BC to the third century AD.

In her first chapter, "Domestic space and social organisation", Nevett presents a broad overview of the relationships among houses as physical places, houses as loci of social interaction and identity, and houses as an amalgam of public and private life. She also addresses the ways that the use and organization of domestic space can be analyzed. The blurring of distinction between public and private space has been discussed in detail,1 and Nevett makes clear that the distinction between commercial, industrial and domestic space can be equally blurry. However, readers need examples to draw from, and the introduction lacks cited examples; for instance "as many examples" show (p. 17) would be much stronger with the addition of one or two of these many examples.

Chapter 2 presents the first case study, "House-form and social complexity: the transformation of Early Iron Age Greece". Because there is little written evidence from this period, Nevett relies most heavily on archaeological evidence. She describes four different types of multi-room houses. Little attention has been given to archaeological evidence for the role of domestic space in the development of symposia, or alternating public and private uses of rooms in the classical world, and with this chapter Nevett begins to remedy this oversight. This would be a good place to draw on other evidence from excavated multi-room houses, perhaps from the Bronze and Iron Age of Central Europe or Anatolia. The addition of ethnographic, ethnoarchaeological or prehistoric examples would significantly broaden the interpretations offered in this chapter.

In Chapter 3, "A space for 'hurling the furniture'? Architecture and the development of Greek domestic symposia", Nevett combines textual and archaeological evidence for 'social drinking'-- here, the symposia of ancient Greece -- and goes beyond the usual assumptions by connecting known activities with spatial evidence. Just as other social dichotomies have been broken down using household archaeological analyses, Nevett's analysis of the andron, or symposium room, shows that we cannot make a simple distinction between female/domus and male/polis. In addition to the discussion of the role and spatial arrangement of the andron in relation to the rest of the house, the household, and potential symbolic role of spatial organisation, Nevett attempts to find evidence for the origins of symposia or sympotic space in the pre-classic period.

Chapter 4, "Housing and cultural identity: Delos, between Greece and Rome", considers how interactions with different cultures and complex processes of acculturation can influence expressions of identity and the ways that houses can be used to articulate social relations. In the case of Delos, houses were typically constructed so as to restrict the view of interior domestic space from those outside the house. A small number of large houses, however, were built to display the social standing of the occupants by allowing people on the street to catch a glimpse of certain interior areas.

In the fifth chapter, "Seeking the domus behind the dominus in Roman Pompeii: artefact distributions as evidence for the various social groups", Nevett sets out to identify the function of archaeological features, in this case rooms at Pompeii, through the distribution of artefacts. Her discussion here illustrates her point in chapter 3 regarding the potential pitfalls inherent in relying solely on written evidence. In particular, Nevett finds evidence for the roles played by the various members of the household, including women. In fact, many of the early authors gave preference to males, especially elite males, and one of Nevett's goals here is to present the activities of other household members. Drawing on the distribution of material and on architectural remains, Nevett gives a multi-scalar interpretation of the flexibility built into household space at Pompeii.

The final case study, "Housing as symbol: elite self-presentation in North Africa under Roman rule", shifts the focus away from the ways that social structures shaped houses to the symbolic role that houses play in society, specifically through the expression of occupant's status and values. To do so, Nevett examines second and fifth century AD houses from North Africa, which contain large numbers of polychrome mosaic floors with distinctive iconography. In particular, Nevett considers how the display of power and prestige at the household level yields insight into power relations and social reproduction at the community level.

In the "Epilogue: domestic space and social organisation in Classical Antiquity", Nevett summarizes her work. Two key points deserve mention. First is her assessment that, although there is clear spatial and temporal variability in the character of houses, there are also clear parallels in activities and evidence that allow comparisons such as she makes. Second is that her multi-method approach, requiring expertise in several related disciplines, should bring classical archaeologists and ancient historians into closer collaboration.

As most people instinctively realize, houses reveal a great deal about their occupants. The remains of houses are one of the richest sources of evidence we have for Greek and Roman society, and indeed for any society for which we have architectural remains. Herein lies the cross-disciplinary merit of Nevett's work; she has connected written, archaeological, architectural and representational data to form coherent interpretations. Because of the brief, offhand references to domestic space in ancient texts, which Nevett notes, books such as this, with the author's detailed knowledge of the classical sources, provide an essential resource.

I also appreciate Nevett's concern that scholars sometimes find what we expect to find, so that rooms are sometimes identified as andrones, for instance, regardless of whether or not such an identification is supported by physical evidence, simply because andrones ought to be identified. This theme is most profitably addressed in chapters 3 and 5. Looking for the origins of andrones, or examining and connecting different threads of evidence to determine functionality, are more useful approaches, and I believe that Nevett does this successfully. As Nevett points out, many rooms could have been multi-purpose spaces, some with the ostensible function of housing symposia. In archaic contexts this multi-functionality could have been reversed, with rooms being cleared as needed when one was hosting a symposium, making these spaces more difficult to identify archaeologically. It is worth considering the possibility that the social act of drinking led to the need (or desire) for a formal space, and hence the development of andrones as distinctive rooms. Alternatively, the desire to possess and display an andron could have developed as part of a general move toward more spatial restrictions within the house (see pp. 54-55). Nevett is quite successful in demonstrating the multi-functionality of domestic space, and how in light of this, the written and artistic sources present an incomplete picture of household activities.

There is one rather glaring omission: there is no mention of developments in the analysis of domestic space from social anthropology or other related disciplines. The book fails to achieve its full potential because the extensive work on families, gender, houses and domestic space by Bourdieu,2 Levi-Strauss and his followers,3 Rapoport4 and others are missing.

In spite of what I feel is a lack of theoretical discussion, the book does offer a deeper and more nuanced understanding of houses, households and the use of space during classical antiquity, and Nevett is clearly aware of the theoretical debates surrounding issues of gender, identity and households. This volume should therefore be of great value as a comparative work for archaeologists working in prehistoric or historic periods, as well as for ancient historians and classical archaeologists searching for more holistic and inclusive approaches to their material.

To conclude, this book assembles a great deal of information about households and houses in antiquity. The case studies are clearly presented and suggest areas for future research. The problems Nevett addresses are interesting and, although sometimes lacking a broad theoretical treatment, her approach is stimulating and offers an inclusive study of Greek and Roman domestic space and related social issues. Her argument for greater inclusion of material culture as a historical resource is well-founded, and this book is the perfect case study of why this is needed and how to proceed.

Physically, the book is well-made, and the contents are generally free from errors. The book contains a brief introduction, six chapters and an epilogue, and includes a useful glossary, a bibliographic essay in addition to the reference list, and an extensive index. Fifty black and white figures and tables are uniformly clear and helpful.


1.   For example, Bowser, B. J. & Patton, J. Q. 2004. Domestic Spaces as Public Places: An Ethnoarchaeological Case Study of Houses, Gender, and Politics in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 11, 157-181.
2.   Bourdieu, P. 1973. The Berber House. In: Douglas, M. (ed.) Rules and Meanings. Middlesex: Penguin Books. Bourdieu, P. 1989. Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, 7, 14-25.
3.   Carsten, J. & Hugh-Jones, S. (eds.) 1995. About the House: Lévi-Strauss and beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4.   Rapoport, A. 1969. House Form and Culture, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall. Rapoport, A. 1990. The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach, Tucson, AZ, The University of Arizona Press.

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