Making sense(s) of Roman neighbourhoods

(Suomenkielinen tutkimussuunnitelma omalla sivullaan)

Research plan


This post-doctoral study investigates the experiences of coexistence in urban quarters of ancient Roman towns by finding out how the inhabitants sensed their immediate neighborhoods. The research questions of the study are what kind of sounds, smells and sights surrounded urban dwellers, what kind of tasting and touching experiences they encountered, how these sensations were perceived and dealt with and how they influenced the constructions of spaces. I use a multisensory approach,[1] but the work focuses on sensory nuisances or ‘the senses of conflict’, i.e. the irritating smells and sounds, unwanted touches, the role of darkness in the use of space and the disparity of diets. The sensations, often considered as solely physiological phenomena, are in fact deeply influenced by culture. [2] One key element of this study is hence to find out what were the Roman cultural concepts associated with senses.

Without understanding the sensory landscape of ancient societies, our knowledge of the past remains inevitably limited. The past couple of years have witnessed some significant contributions to the research of ancient Roman sensorium, such as the Senses in Antiquity publication series, with articles on senses in Graeco-Roman literature and philosophy, as well some introductory outlines on sensations in urban and domestic space.[3] However, our understanding of senses in the Roman townscape is still in rather early stages. My work, which uses both Latin literature and archaeological material from recent excavations, will thus be a timely contribution to the scholarship of urban space in ancient Rome.

In my dissertation, Roman sleep: Sleeping areas and sleeping arrangements in the Roman house I investigated the Roman sleeping culture and the use of space after dark by using both literary material and archaeological evidence. In the current work there will be a broader goal of investigating the interplay of light and dark in the Roman houses and how the use of space in houses, their neighboring dwellings as well as on the streets was arranged from dusk till dawn. In addition to the investigation of the different lighting solutions, also visibility allowed or restricted by different structures (sight-lines) is studied. The investigation of the dichotomy of public and private has been a key theme in my previous studies and this one is no exception. I have shown in my PhD dissertation, that elite Romans appreciated the possibility to withdraw to their private sleeping areas and personal privacy could be acquired by internal boundaries.[4] However, as the passage from Cicero’s letter … the candidate Marcellus snored so loud, I could hear him next door[5] reveals, the sounds did not always respect these boundaries, and the Roman housing in densely packed urban quarters created unsolicited intimacy even in the elite quarters. Also, smells—whether those generally considered as good ones, such as the aroma of freshly baked bread from a bakery nearby or (allegedly) less pleasant from the laundries and dye shops or latrines around the corner—might have invaded even the elite dwellings.[6]

I am building the work on my previous experience combining it with the new approaches to the studies of the past. This investigation draws inspiration especially from the studies of space as well as the sensory studies, the former being firmly established in the field of Campanian archaeology and social history since the ground-breaking works of Pompeianists in the 1980s and 1990s,[7] and the latter a rapidly growing framework for the studies of the past.[8]


The aim is to form a comprehensive understanding of how ancient Romans used and perceived the immediate urban space and environment they lived in, and how the sensory nuisances influenced the domestic and urban space. The broader objective is the comprehension of Roman society on a more general level; the way a society arranges lived space reveals the underlying values and structures of the society in question.[9] Hence finding out how living in built-up city blocks (insulae) was arranged and how these arrangements were sensed will elucidate the social relationships of ancient society, and distinguishing the sensory experiences well lead to a better understanding of how cultural norms, use of space, environment and physiological necessities influence each other. One key element of this proposed study is to investigate how the sensations were evaluated and how culture influenced these assessments. Distinguishing ancient cultural concepts of sensing will help understand even the modern world by questioning the dichotomy of biology vs. culture. The results of my study will then be useful in several contexts.

Data and methods

The investigation is carried out on two fronts: by analyzing evidence from Latin literature, as well as archaeological material from three different sites—Ostia, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. Combining different types of material can be challenging, but also very productive, especially when the evidence reveals contradicting facts. I have strong background in both Latin literature studies and Classical archaeology,[10] and I used literary evidence in combination with archaeological material successfully in my PhD dissertation. I am thus confident that this kind of interdisciplinary approach suits best also this current study, especially since it allows much deeper exploration of the ancient sensory encounters than using just one type of evidence.

Literary evidence is studied by using source critical text analysis and archaeological research concentrates on examining the remains of the aforementioned towns, using the methods of buildings archaeology as well as GIS technology for mapping the relevant structures. In addition to using materials and methods of two disciplines of Classical studies, the sensory history is closely connected to anthropological and other social sciences and I have a strong interest in developing methodological solutions for combining different types of data and approaches in the most fruitful way.

The research consists of two sections

  1. An analysis of passages in Latin literature with vocabulary associated with senses and appearing in the context of lived environment and experiences of coexistence. The texts include a wide range of literature from archaic plays to late-antique legal texts, allowing an in-depth exploration of sensory encounters in urban contexts. Epigraphical material from the case study cities will also be used when relevant.
  2. Case studies of three houses and their relationships to immediate neighbors: other private houses and apartments, shops and bars, workshops, latrines, baths, stables or other animal shelters, religious structures, buildings and rites, streets, and other such urban elements. The case study houses in question are House of Marcus Lucretius IX,3,5 in Pompeii, Casa del Tramezzo di legno III, 11 in Herculaneum and Domus delle Muse III,IX,22 in Ostia. Also, a larger city-wide survey of zoning of different urban functions (e.g. general sanitation, waste management and drainage) is taken in these towns to better understand their impact on city planning.

I have gathered most of the written material and currently their analysis in on the way. Archaeological material is collected mainly from excavation reports and research literature.[11] I have acquainted myself with Pompeian studies especially by working in the Finnish Pompeii project, which has re-examined the Insula IX,3 in recent years. Thus, the Pompeian material consists not only on the findings of the original mid-19th century archaeological investigation, but also on the (thus far unpublished) material from recent excavations.[12] Therefore my work will offer a detailed insight of the living conditions in this city block, based on first-hand archaeological evidence and this is the main reason for choosing this city block as a case study. The two other houses serve as interesting points of comparison to the house and insula of Marcus Lucretius in Pompeii. The material from Herculaneum I know well from my dissertation project and the chosen case study house has been investigated in detail by the Public and Private in the Roman house (PPRH) project, in which I worked as a junior researcher.[13] The main evidence is drawn from the unpublished excavation reports, Giornale dei Nuovi Scavi di Ercolano,[14] offering again a meticulous analysis of the original finds. I have also familiarized myself with the archaeological remains of Ostia especially during my stay in the Finnish Institute in Rome as a PhD fellow. However, understanding and mapping the structures, checking the data and hand-written excavation reports and sensing the space as it is today, requires an on-site survey and thus I will arrange fieldwork period to Ostia and Campanian towns.

Collaboration, publication plan and future prospects

The first stage of my project lasts three years. I started the work in January 2019 at the University of Kent, where I worked as a Visiting Research Fellow year 2019. After the first period, I plan to form a research group of my own and organize excavations in Pompeii (in insula IX,3, concentrating on the latrines as well as the thus far unexcavated street on the N side of the city block). In addition, I aim to expand the project towards digital humanities and incorporate possibilities of modern 3D modeling and virtual/augmented reality tools to the study. This would allow experimenting with sensory encounters, such as distribution patterns of smells as well as different lighting and acoustic conditions in the insula. The main aim would be developing non-invasive and scientifically rigorous archaeological tools for researchers. Besides, 3D and VR models can be used to present results to wider audiences as well and can even be developed further to apps and other commercial products. This part of the work will be executed in collaboration with specialized engineers and other specialists.

Ethical issues

As the research subjects of this study consist of people from past cultures, with no living relatives, as well as of inanimate objects, the ethical issues concerning research subjects are limited. The fieldwork will be carried out with permission and guidance from the Italian National Board of Antiquity and the Superintends of the ancient sites (La Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma for Ostia Antica, and Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia for Pompeii and Herculaneum).

See the bibliography here.

[1]  Cf. the traditional, ”Aristotelian” five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting (Aristotle, De anima II, 7-11), vs. such recent scholarship as S. Butler & A. Purves (eds.) Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses which has taken a more well-rounded approach to the sensory experiences, focusing on the overlaps of sensory stimuli.

[2] For the theoretical background see Classen et al. (1994, 3) according to whom ”smell is not simply a biological and psychological phenomenon [but] cultural, hence a social and historical phenomenon” and Day (2014, 3) who asserts that “the senses …. are as much culturally constituted as physically given”.

[3] Platts 2019 and Koloski-Ostrow and Morley in M. Bradley 2015. See also articles in Betts 2017 and Skeates and Day 2019. Senses of Antiquity series:

[4] Nissin, 2016, 56-7

[5] Cicero, letter 4,3,5 to Atticus (“… Marcellus candidatus ita stertebat ut ego vicinus audirem…”).

[6] See Flohr 2012 on discussion whether the smell in laundries (fullonicae) was as foul as previously thought. See also discussion of senses and social status in Toner 2014, 4-7 and senses in the urban Roman context in Aldrete 2014.  One of the aims of this study is to find out how different sensations were valued by the Romans.

[7] Especially Wallace-Hadrill 1988, Wallace-Hadrill 1994, Clarke 1991, Laurence 1994, Laurence and Wallace-Hadrill 1997, also Grahame 1997, Hales 2003, Allison 2004.  See also Kent 1990 for the theoretical approach on space in archaeological research and Lefebvre 1991 for theoretical pondering of space studies in general.

[8] Especially Purves and Butler 2013, articles in Day 2013, articles in Classen 2014, articles in Bradley 2015. Also articles in Betts 2017 are investigating these issues. Pioneering works on the cultural history of the senses: Classen 1993 and C. Classen, D. Howes and A.Synnott 1994. Sensory history in Finland, e.g. Salmi & Johnson 2012, Syrjämaa, 2008. In addition to the sensory studies in historical research, see, e.g., ERC Grant Project Sensory Transformations and Transgenerational Environmental Relationships in Europe, 1950–2020 (SENSOTRA) at the University of Eastern Finland.

[9] See Kent 1990, 2-3, for theoretical background on the relationship between culture, use of space and


[10] My MA and PhD degrees are in Latin language and Roman literature with minor in Classical archaeology. In addition, I have wide experience in archaeological research as outlined in attached CV.

[11] E.g., such works as Fiorelli 1862, 1864 & 1875 (and other original reports), CTP II-V, PPM I-X, PPP I-III, Castrén et al. 2008, Castrén 2008, Eschebach 1995 for Pompeii, Maiuri 1958, Pesando and Guidobaldi 2006 for Herculaneum and Scavi di Ostia series, Packer 1971, Hermansen 1981, Cervi 1998, DeLaine 1999,  Gering 2002 etc. for Ostia etc.

[12] For EPUH, see more in

[13] For PPRH, see more in

[14] Giornale dei Nuovi Scavi di Ercolano, unpublished excavation reports of Herculaneum, (1927—), available as a text file transcript at the Soprintendenza of Herculaneum. Earlier period excavations have been published in Ruggiero 1885.