Saturday, November 23, 2013


Mark Bradley (ed.), Rome, Pollution, and Propriety: Dirt, Disease, and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. British School at Rome studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 320. ISBN 9781107014435. $99.00.

Reviewed by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Brandeis University (

Version at BMCR home site

Mark Bradley (with Kenneth Stow), editors and contributors to this new academic inquiry into cultural patterns dictated by pollution and propriety, put forth in their Preface and Introduction a huge challenge for themselves—to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the history of pollution within one city (Rome) over a long period of time (antiquity and the Renaissance through the early twentieth century) in order to situate approaches to pollution in Rome more broadly within cultural anthropology and the history of ideas. This tall order has been well met by the volume.

Rome holds a special status in the West as a city intimately associated with issues of purity, decay, ruin, and renewal. The pollution and/or cleanliness of the urbs aeterna therefore have long been significant factors in the city's art, literature, philosophy, and material culture.

The present publication had its origins on June 21-22, 2007, when Bradley and Stow organized a two-day conference, "Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in Rome from Antiquity to Modernity," at the British School at Rome. 1 An international audience of nearly a hundred people attended. The distinguished British anthropologist, Mary Douglas,2 whose core definition of pollution—or dirt—as 'matter out of place' has been so influential to our understanding of how societies establish social order and cultural systems, was to be the keynote speaker, but she died one month before she was to arrive in Rome. The conference proceeded nevertheless, and the research presented both honored Douglas and provided an opportunity to test her ideas about the organization of space and the maintenance of social systems in multiple contexts.

About twenty-eight papers were delivered, but Bradley and Stow judiciously selected only fourteen, plus a short final chapter, for publication. The book spans approximately two thousand years of history in the city from the Republic to the early decades of the twentieth century, and Bradley structures chapters broadly in chronological order.

Bradley's "Introduction," (pp. 1-10) written with Kenneth Stow, contextualizes the plan for the book, outlines the chapters that follow, and identifies the key themes that unify such a diverse discourse on purity and pollution across the history of Rome. Part I. "Antiquity," includes seven chapters, and in many ways is the stronger half of the book for its cohesion and interdisciplinary dialogue.

In chapter 1. "Approaches to pollution and propriety," pp. 11-40, Bradley provides an excellent summary of research from antiquity to the modern period on matters of pollution and propriety. He highlights the impact of Mary Douglas on studies in anthropology and sociology that touch on pollution, analyzes different approaches to pollution in antiquity (for ancient Greeks, Jews, and Romans), and summarizes much new work on pollution in Rome after antiquity. The chapter provides an important framework for the arguments in the chapters that follow and offers an overview of the whole volume and area of research.

"Pollution, religion, and society in the Roman world," chapter 2, pp. 43-58, by Jack Lennon, reveals the close connection between pollution and religion in Roman society, covers such topics as birth and death, sex, blood, and cleansing the city, and clearly demonstrates how much more work needs to be done on these topics. Acknowledging that Robert Parker's work, Miasma (1983) closely examined the nature, causes, and effects of pollution on both gods and men in Greek society, Lennon lays the foundations for a solid study of these topics in relation to Rome.

Chapter 3, "Purification in ancient Rome," pp.59-66, by Elaine Fantham, argues that pollution was averted by burying or drowning it. In chapter 4. "Pollution, propriety and urbanism in Republican Rome," Penelope Davies makes a strong case that while urban sanitation was no doubt better in Republican Rome than later in the empire, certain factors, such as strict restrictions, religious taboos, and rites, probably hindered rather than promoted efforts to achieve cleanliness.

"The 'sacred sewer': tradition and religion in the Cloaca Maxima," pp. 81-102, by John Hopkins, demonstrates that the Cloaca Maxima, the oldest sewer in the city of Rome, held multivalent meanings for Romans who lived and built around it. Although its waters were certainly polluted with soil, dead animals, and human waste—it was covered over only in the middle Republic, p. 102—the contents of the sewer remained inherently and continually tied to an ancient sacred stream that passed through the later Roman forum, hence its irregular path. The vaulted corridors of the sewer apparently reflected the earliest and most sacred history of Rome, ultimately the capital of the world.

In Chapter 6, "Crime and punishment on the Capitoline Hill," pp. 103-121, Mark Bradley considers the high and low points of the topographical landscape of Rome to show how Roman writers engaged with movement upward and downward to articulate metaphorically the high and low points of Roman life and history. Bradley focuses on how the city represented, policed, and eliminated its most threatening criminals, removing them like sewage. The Mons Capitolinus, with its temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus at the top, the Tarpeian rock from which criminals were thrown to their deaths, and the Carcer Tullianum, the place for punishment by execution rather than detention built at the bottom of the Gemonian Stairs below the Capitoline Hill in the Forum, represented the physical manifestation of how to rid the city of its criminal refuse. Bradley concludes that Rome becomes a monumental interface on earth between heaven and hell for a variety of educated Roman literati.

While chapter 6 focuses on the crimes and punishments of parricides, tyrants, renegade slaves, and corrupt emperors, Celia Schultz, "On the burial of unchaste Vestal Virgins," pp.122-135, investigates the methods of handling ritual impurity within the priesthood of Vesta for the Vestal Virgins themselves. While ritual murder, broadly defined, was not unfamiliar to the Romans (it occurred twenty times between 230 and 80 B.C.E., p. 135) with many similarities between the methods for hermaphrodites, convicted Vestals, and for pairs of Gauls and Greeks, the three types of ritual murder did not serve a single purpose. In the case of hermaphroditic children and Vestals, their removal needed to be bloodless and permanent, so as not to taint the Roman state as a whole.

The second part of the book, Modernity, takes a long leap from antiquity to the fifteenth century, but continues to view the evidence through the work of Mary Douglas and "matter out of place". Alessio Assonitis's chapter 8, "Fra Girolamo Savonarola and the aesthetics of Roman pollution," pp. 139-152, begins with the life and writing of the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, in the late 1400s. He held great disdain for Rome and what he perceived as the corruption of the Church, which he demonstrated with metaphorical references to filth and pollution and bodies decayed by plague.

Although Savonarola never set foot in Rome, he considered Rome the foremost site of pollution, and pursued a project of radical reform to restore spiritual purity and morality in the Church by using Rome and the imagery of disease within it to instill in his comrades a perception of close and unavoidable ruin if the Church in Rome did not change its corrupt ways. He was executed in 1498, and his work was carried on into the sixteenth century by his dedicated follower, Fra Zanobi Acciaiuoli, who was later appointed librarian of the Vatican by Leo X de' Medici.

Assonitis shows us how Savonarola's writings about Rome's miasmas actually affected plague control in this period. Savonarola's emphasis on his own purity systems, predicated on the paupertas and simplicitas of early Christianity, as interpreted from the early constitutions of his Order, led the authorities of the city to measures to save as many Romans as they could during plagues by seeking to limit the spread of contagion through enforcement of boundaries separating the ill from the healthy. Essentially these were attempts to keep people in place to maintain a moral, spiritual, physical, and material order within the city in times of crisis; hence Douglas's formula is manifested anew, although derived directly from Savonarola's own powerful desire to rid Rome of ecclesiastical contamination.

In chapter 9, "Purging filth: plague and responses to it in Rome, 1656-7," pp. 153-168, David Gentilcore continues to explore the critical theme of the effect of disease on politics and urban management as well as the exploitation of disease for social and political control (cf. chapter 1, pp. 28-31, where Bradley elaborates these ideas). Gentilcore focuses on the plague of 1656, its character (in Rome and other cities), and how the authorities were willing to risk the health of Rome's inhabitants to one particular Neapolitan alchemist for the treatment and control of the outbreak. Both Assonitis and Gentilcore review how the outbreak of plagues was evaluated and tackled within Rome in comparable ways at different historical periods.

The next three chapters (Kenneth Stow's chapter 10, "Was the ghetto cleaner...?" pp. 169-181; Katherine Rinne's chapter 11, "Urban ablutions: cleansing counter-reformation Rome," pp. 182-201; and Taina Syrjämaa's chapter 12, "The clash of picturesque decay and modern cleanliness in late nineteenth-century Rome," pp. 202-222) return to the theme of sanitation and renovation, ideas explored in Part I for antiquity. These chapters delve into the spatial aspects of cleaning and sanitation within Rome, and the association of particular areas with perceived sources of pollution from local populations: ghettoized Jews in the late sixteenth century (Stow); papal efforts to improve sanitation by means of an improved water supply, also in the late sixteenth century (Rinne); and visual and literary evidence from nineteenth-century Rome (Syrjämaa). All these chapters highlight the continuing relationship of programs of cleansing and purification in Rome to the city's longstanding associations with dirt and pollution.

The final two chapters may seem odd addenda to this volume upon first glance, but they provide a vivid acknowledgement that deviant sexual behaviors, including the crimes, disease, and immorality resulting from them, also deserve consideration in Rome's relationship with the dangers of decay, corruption, and the seductions of the flesh. In chapter 13, "Vile bodies: Victorian Protestants in the Roman catacombs," pp. 223-240, Dominic Janes informs us of the representations of Rome by religious figures of Victorian England for whom Rome had become a site of physical and moral danger. Martina Salvante's chapter 14, "Delinquency and pederasty: 'deviant' youngsters in the suburbs of Fascist Rome," pp. 241-257, explores a particular case from the Fascist era, that of male prostitution, and its identification with the city's physical and moral margins. We learn how discourses about pollution in the city's more recent history played a major role in formulating various aspects of Rome's current urban identity (cf. p. 10). Judith L. Goldstein's short concluding discussion, "Envoi. Purity and danger,: its life and afterlife," questions the enduring significance of Mary Douglas's approach to pollution by reviewing the role of dirt and cleanliness in modern Italian investigative writing and crime fiction set in Rome and elsewhere in Italy.

As with any hefty collection of essays on the same topic, some repetitions inevitably occur, but the editors must be congratulated for keeping them to a minimum. Omissions in the time line and in subject matter do exist—late antiquity, the origins of Christianity, and developments in the medieval Church—but Bradley is aware of these (p. 5) and acknowledges much recent work from these perspectives, despite the fact that no chapters explore them.

While the seven chapters in Part I on antiquity and the seven chapters and envoi of Part II on modernity are very well integrated within their separate halves, more work could have been done to integrate the two parts together to convince the reader that they belong in the same book. Nevertheless, within this volume Rome has become an excellent test study for the examination of theoretical approaches to pollution and purity that should be sought after by students and scholars in anthropology, classical art and archaeology, and social and cultural history.


1.   In full transparency, I was at the original conference in 2007. I presented a paper that is not in the current volume, as it did not focus on the specific concerns covered here.
2.   Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (London: Routledge 1966, reprinted 2002 with additional preface).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.