Overplaying the Senses

I have been working on a chapter discussing sensory approaches to Roman cities and urbanism using Pompeii as a case study. In the final section, I decided to tackle a topic I keep running into, which constantly bothers me. There is a distinctive approach to ancient cities that empahise the dirt, disease and waste as simple ways of distancing the ancient from the modern. This approach brings with it an emphasis on the ‘sordid nature’ and, if you take literary sources at face value, the smelliness of the ancient world. Now, I do not think that the ancient and modern can be directly correlated, but I also do not think we need to overplay certain senses, in this case most often smell, to makesuch claims. I have continually argued that the Romans lacked the ability to sound proof their buildings. However, this argument does not suggest that Romans were unable to acoustically differentiate space or that they were simply loud or thatthey did not care about sound and noise. That is to say, we need to be more nuanced and careful in treating the ancient world, or we risk implicitly reinforcing a view of the ancients as ‘not as smart as me’ (an implicit academic egotism, for sure). Anyways, below is that section of the chapter…

Overplaying the Senses

The discussion above has produced a city that has different geographical sensory features, but as indicated at the start, these do not correspond to generalities across the city. While individual sensory characteristics were experienced more regularly in certain areas, this does not extend beyond a certain distinct area. This is a picture of differentiation; certain senses are peaked in certain areas of the city, like the area around the Via degli Augustali. This interpretation of the sensory geography derives from the approach taken, which emphasises the kinaesethic experience of city-dwellers. Movement and mobility are at the base of such an approach and mark the city at different scales, whether the city and countryside, local neighbourhoods, or specific street segments.

However there is another line of thought that sees the city itself, especially Rome, in terms of filth and disease. This is a reading of the city founded on a lack of efficient sanitation, breeding disease, which produces nauseous smells and general detritus across the city. Drawn primarily from ancient satirical sources, especially Horace, Juvenal and Martial, mixed with anecdotal stories from the likes of Lanciani, this tradition is not new (Morley 2015, p. 112). The reading of Roman cities as unhealthy continues through the classic works of Yavetz (1958) and Scobie (1986; cf. Laurence 1997). For Scobie, in particular, a contemporary U.K. poverty survey forms the standard by which to asses Rome (1986). Rome is as the satirists describe it, filled with noise, crowds and dirt, which correspond to contemporary urban problems. In this interpretation, ancient urbanism was the carrier of contemporary urban problems and maladies, and to some scholars, therefore, loud and malodorous. This line of thought overplays the sensory impact of literary descriptions, especially in terms of sound and smell, and reads those impacts back into the archaeology. Unsurprisingly, Scobie comes to a Hobbesian conclusion that life in Rome was short and often violent (1986, p. 433). This view of Roman life has been extended to the sensory realm, suggesting that Roman cities stank with waste, dead bodies and putrid diseases (Koloski-Ostrow 2015; cf. Veitch 2017). Difference is highlighted in this interpretation, over and against the ways in which a plurality of stimuli are experienced continually by the body (Morley 2015, pp. 112-3).

In contrast, the Roman city was more than just waste, dirt and disease. The movement of goods, people and ideas went hand-in-hand with the movement of waste and disease. Mobility was central to the experience of Roman cities and what is needed is a focus on the ways these various elements (dirt, disease, waste, water, people, animals, etc.) moved through the urbanism of the Roman empire. Critical engagement with the archaeological remains enables the politics of literary moral judgements to surface without recourse to anecdotal overemphasising the sensory characteristics. Yes, Rome was loud, but that simple notion does little to help us understand the ways in which the city was experienced. In the case mentioned above, smell is used as a ‘common sense’ argument over and against nuanced interpretations. This line of reasoning brings with it limitations. The question ‘did the ancient world smell worse, than today?’ hides the more important questions of cultural, social and political judgements about everyday existence in the Roman world, paralleling the work of Bourdieu on judgements of taste (1979).

In short, Roman cities were filled with places of sensory experiences that elicited social, economic and political responses to that stimulation, which were part of the reproduction of Roman society. To be a proper Roman was to smell, sound, move, gesture and dress in a particular way that fluidly changed over time; while deviations from this were the source of literary criticism or moral degradation (see Corbiell 2004, O’Sullivan 2011, Harlow 2013, Laurence 2015). Overemphasising the senses risks limiting our understanding of ancient social relationships, reducing the complexity to straightforward readings of the literary sources. Like so many other topics, the material remains evoke complex relationships between inhabitants, environments, urban structures, which further complicate Roman, or any other, social and cultural relationships (see Urry 2003). Therefore, we need to be cautious and nuanced in applying sensory methodologies, as well as in interpreting the various forms evidence available for any given period.



Corbiell, A. (2004) Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Harlow, M. (2013) ‘Dressed Women on the Streets of the Ancient City: What to Wear?’ in Hemelrijk and Woolf (eds.) Women and the Roman City in the Latin West (Leiden: Brill), 225-242.

Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. (2015) ‘Roman Urban Smells: The Archaeological Evidence’ in M. Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 90-109.

Laurence, R. (2015) ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE – 100 CE)’ in I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, and J. Bjørnebye (eds.) The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London: Bloomsbury), 175-86.

Laurence, R. (1997) ‘Writing the Roman Metropolis’, in Parkins (ed.) Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City (London: Routledge), 1-20.

Morley, N. (2015) ‘Urban Smells and Roman Noses’, in Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 110-119.

O’Sullivan, T. (2011) Walking in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Scobie, A. (1986) ‘Slums, Sanitation and Mortality in the Roman World’ Kilo 68: 399-433.

Urry, J. (2003) Mobilities (London: Polity).

Veitch, J. (2017) ‘Making Sense of Antiquity’, The Senses and Society 12: 103-108.

Yavetz, Z. (1958) ‘The living conditions of the urban plebs in republican Rome’, Latomus 17: 500-517.

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