A couple of weeks ago, I went to Hull to give a talk on Roman cities for a joint meeting of the local Classical and Historical Associations. My title was ‘Roman cities from the outside in: the visitor’s perspective’, and my basic point was that if we really want to understand how people in the ancient world experienced their cities and thought about where to place their buildings, then looking at a plan of the city drawn from above is not actually very helpful. People in the ancient world did know how to make city plans, but they were the sort of rare prestige project that might be commissioned by an emperor to form part of the state archives – not something ordinary people would use as they navigated their way around. Instead, most people experienced urban landscapes from the very human perspective of standing on the ground and moving around their environment. As visitors, this meant that they experienced new cities step by step, never seeing the whole city at once but instead viewing each individual building in a sequence, and accumulating insights into the character of the community which they were visiting as they did so. What’s more, local communities clearly knew this, and their small-scale planning decisions reveal a distinct preference for placing prestigious monuments or facilities likely to be attractive to visitors on major through-routes into the city.
Having never been to Hull myself before I went to deliver my talk, I was in a very good position to explain the difference between a map view and a human view of a city by talking about my own journey. As many people do nowadays, I looked Hull up on Google maps before setting off, which gave me an idea of its overall layout and allowed me to see which route I would drive in along. But the map view didn’t convey much of the real texture of the city – things like what actually catches the eye when you are standing in middle of it, which are the newer and older neighbourhoods, or which roads are prone to traffic jams. It wasn’t until I drove in along the A63 that I could really appreciate the scale of the Humber estuary and understand why it has been so important to the development of the city, or experience the mixture of edge-of-town warehouses, 60s tower-blocks and Victorian pubs that allowed me to place Hull in the same category as other cities I already knew like Birmingham or Leeds, and grasp the basic elements of its history and modern character.
My destination was the city’s Danish church – a building which itself says a great deal about Hull’s history as a major international port. There I was welcomed warmly by Sylvia Usher from the Historical Association and Margaret Nicholson from the Classical Association, who took me into town to visit the Hull and East Riding Museum, and especially to see the fantastic mosaics which they have there from a number of wealthy Roman villas in the surrounding area. Google maps certainly hadn’t primed me to expect the 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses which line the High Street in the museum quarter, and suddenly reminded me strongly of nearby York. By the time we’d finished with the museum, eaten a delicious Chinese meal and returned to the Danish church, I felt that I’d really come to know Hull on a human level as a rich and varied city with a very interesting history.
But at that point it was time to turn to some rather older cities. I took Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia as my case-studies, because they are some of the best-known and best-preserved cities of Roman Italy. I showed the audience how the busiest routes into Pompeii and Ostia were lined with lavish tomb monuments, each celebrating the status and achievements of individuals, but also collectively showing off the wealth, piety and social hierarchy of the community as a whole to any approaching visitors who cared to look. Meanwhile, for Herculaneum, we thought about what the seafront terraces must have looked like from the point of view of a boat on the sea, with the buildings rising in stacks above you and an eminent town patron raising his hand as though in greeting. Next, we considered the significance of city walls as markers of the ‘true’ boundaries of the city, and noted that many city gates had niches or altars where the experience of entering into the heart of the community could be marked appropriately via a religious offering.
Once metaphorically ‘inside’ our three cities, we traced the likely routes of visitors through the street network – past fountains and shop-counters carefully placed to catch their eye in Pompeii, or the sophisticated curves of a vast theatre fronting right onto the main street running through Ostia. Finally, we considered the likely main destination of most visitors – the forum (central square at the heart of the city), bustling with activity and lined with impressive civic and religious monuments, many of them consciously designed to signal the close links between the local civic community and the fashionable grandeur of Rome. By the time we got there, we had built up a real sense of the sorts of things an ancient community would want to show off to outsiders – its wealth, its sophistication, its prominent citizens, its entertainment facilities, its capacity for self-government, the goods for sale in its shops and its connections with the capital. Of course not every building in every city was commissioned or located purely to cater to the perspective of the visitor – but it would be hard to understand the design of a Roman city in any real depth without keeping at least one eye on the experiences of real people moving about its streets.
I always love sharing my enthusiasm about the ancient world with other people, and I’m glad to say my audience seemed to enjoy it too. I had a packed house of a good forty or more people, who kept me busy with all sorts of great questions afterwards – like what sort of smells the visitor might have experienced (all sorts!), whether cities in places like Roman Britain would be designed according to the same principles (yes indeed), what levels of social inequality we can detect by looking at things like house sizes (almost always very considerable disparities), and whether ancient communities might also demonstrate their control over law and order by displaying the bodies of executed criminals along major approach roads, Spartacus style (sometimes, yes, especially at crossroads). I must say that last one is one way in which I’m rather glad my visit to Hull didn’t resemble the experience of a Roman visitor! But even today, looking a map can’t replicate the full experience of going to a city and walking around its streets, complete with their sights, sounds and indeed smells. I’m glad to be able to count Hull now amongst the cities which I have visited properly for myself.
Dr Penelope Goodman is a lecturer at the University of Leeds and specialises in Roman urbanism and sanctuaries of the imperial cult. For more information on events like this, you can find your local CA Branch and their programme of events here.