Toward an Embodied Roman Place (Space): Henri Lefebvre & Roman senses

I presented a paper yesterday, at the Senses of Place conference put on by Sensory Studies in Antiquity at Roehampton Univeristy, London. I was a bit jet-lagged so, my oral presentation was not quite as clear as I would feel it could have been. The presentation was recorded so, when the video is available I will post a link on the blog. The manscript of the presentation is posted below.

Toward an Embodied Roman (Space) Place: Henri Lefebvre’s Interpretation of Roman Senses

Jeffrey D. Veitch

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‘For reasons I am unaware of, I have always preserved a very strong sense of my own body. Stronger than the majority of those I have questioned. It is inspired by a kind of wisdom that can only be called instinctive or organic. My body knows what it wants, what it needs (even in love, although here the causes of the disturbance pile up – which could be said to be alienating). I know which boundaries mustn’t be pushed through work or fatigue, and the stress from eating and drinking. When I exceed these bounds, it’s because something is not right: I want to punish myself, destroy myself. It is to my fortunate bodily makeup that I own my unshakable health and vitality. Neither my lucidity nor my thoughts are foreign to this body; it is my body that reflects, that tries one thing or another, not an ‘I’, a ‘cogito’, a ‘subject’, a cerebrality lodged in my brain. Philosophically, this practical experience is similar to Spinoza’s arguments concerning the unity of space and thought, and the materialist statements found in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and Nietzsche’s aphorisms in The Gay Science.

I owe to this attitude not only a kind of solidity through the labyrinth of contradictions but also an absolute resistance to the external causes of destruction and degradation. This is part of physical and mental health. I believe that it is to this that I owe my long-standing interest in space, an interest whose conceptual and theoretical formulation has taken shape very slowly, but cannot be reduced to that formulation. There is also a poetic side to this, and a poetic practice, that attempts to vivify the entire body with all its rhythms and senses (it is not a question of giving in to a nostalgia for nature or of emphasizing the use of one of our senses – sight, for example – or of exalting the sensory organs in general). In almost methodical fashion, although there is no method in the strict sense of the term, what I refer to as ‘poetic practice’ intensifies lived experience by associating it with the perceived world, by accelerating the interactions and interferences of the body and its surroundings: roads and streets, countryside and cityscape, forests and metal, lakes and streams, and stones’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 34-5).

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Henri Lefebvre was 72 at the time of writing, or more precisely dictating to his wife at the time, this passage and it comes at the peak of his writing on space, when he is most active in 1973-4. This was the culmination of over a decade of writing on space, urban and rural sociology and everyday life in the transition to modernisms urban totality with six books being written between 1964 and 1974. Pointedly autobiographical, the passage draws together a series of theoretical formulations that are central to what I will argue is Lefebvre’s sensory-spatial theory.

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To label Lefebvre’s spatial theory sensory is a bit at odds with common rereading of Lefebvre, which owes more to David Harvey and Ed Soja than to Lefebvre (see Harvey 1973; Soja 1989, 1996). However, at the core of this personal reflection is a theory of the senses and body in the production of space, or place-making (Yi-Fu Taun’s discussion of ‘place’ implies Lefebvre’s spatial triad, Taun 1979).

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I want to suggest that a rereading of Lefebvre, following this autobiographical passage, indicates the way the senses and body are central to his spatial theory and this theory offers key insights into our interpretation of past environments, whether built, natural or imaginary.

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As an example, or case study place, I will draw on one of Lefebvre’s own favourite examples, Rome. ‘Roman space, though encumbered by objects (as in the Forum), was a productive space’, Lefebvre states in The Production of Space (1991, p. 237). Again and again, Lefebvre draws on the ancient world in the formulation of spatial history in both Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, as well as in his other urban writings.

In this paper, I will therefore set out the central pieces for Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, namely 1) the total body, 2) senses as theoreticians and 3) poetic practice drawing on Lefebvre’s own use of Roman space as an examples. At its base level, this is a combined rereading of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space, although I will open up Lefebvre’s own theoretical formulations for conversation with some more recent discussions and other theorists.

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Total Body

The total body, in Lefebvre, is made up of the spatial qualities of the body, which indicate the ambiguity of the body as occupying a space and producing a space (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 149). Lefebvre restates this duality as a natural body (physical, material, using gestures and members) and a social body (using language), as well as another duality of energetic processes (accumulation and expenditure of energy) and infrastructural process (receiving and storing information) (2014, p. 149). These two dualities are useful in setting out the place and role of the senses within Lefebvre’s total body, as well as leading to his critique of the readability of space.

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‘Among the Romans, until their long decline, we find a powerful sense of civic involvement that connected individuals to the city. The most important pleasures were experienced within the social framework; in other words, public and private were not yet separated, and the public did not yet have the unpleasant, almost ridiculous, character it has assumed in our society, where the social and socialisation are generally met with disapproval. […]

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‘Take, for example, the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. This enormous space, covering nearly fifty-seven acres, was a small city in the City of Cities, and surrounded by a vast park. Intended to cultivate the body as well as the mind, the Roman baths are one of the most original architectural creations that history has known. A succession of rooms followed one another along an axis, which served as both hallway and vestibule and which led to a gigantic open-air pool more than half an acre in size. This followed by a vaulted hall, also surrounded by pool. Around the large pool were palaestrae, gyms, and massage rooms, together with a variety of sporting and domestic paraphernalia for the patrons (client, visitor, consumer – none of the words are suitable). Once they had warmed their muscles, the patrons crossed a series of rooms, the heat increasing as one progressed, to ultimately reach the caldarium. Even today, the building themselves appear to be characterized by a degree of luxury to which our own cultural institutions and stadiums appear to descend from barbarians and puritans, more ascetic than they are subpar. What can we say about the interior? The pools were a marble lake surrounded by colonnades, covered with mosaics of which the statues were reflected. The rooms contained flowing fountains, colonnades, niches decorated with statuary; paintings and mosaics adorned the surfaces of the walls, which were covered in stucco and precious materials (onyx, porphyry, marble, ivory). The baths contained, in addition to the gymnasiums and palaestrae, a number of rooms devoted to physical development, promenades, works of art that turned those rooms into museums, and spaces for permanent exhibitions. There was also a park were visitors could meet and talk, and a public library. No one was excluded from partaking in this luxury (women were admitted on certain days) from the slave to the emperor himself, who made the baths his personal project and who was not adverse to making use of the sumptuous palace he had offered the people of Rome’ (Lefebvre 2014, pp. 136-7, emphasis my own).

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For Lefebvre, it was the cultivation of the body and mind within the gestures of bathing that produced the ‘most original architectural creation’. Body and mind within the social framework of Rome marked the spatial practice and activities.

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Lefebvre was not the only one to emphasise these aspects, although the two books shown here mark distinct differences in approach and argued meaning of architectural design. For Lefebvre, the total body of brain, gestures, sensory organs, needs to be considered, and the body’s plurality of interpretative, creative and productive processes recognised. This has implications for understanding space, as space does not present an intellectual representation, arising ‘from the visible-readable realm, but that it is first of all heard (listened to) and enacted (through physical gestures and movements)’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 200). MacDonald, as has been noted, emphasised the movement and action of street space in the second century CE, although I do not think his urban armature gives enough credit to physical interaction in the street space (and is dependent on the visible-readable correlation). Sennett, in contrast, wants to draw political implications for today from the physical heard and enacted space of the city. While an interesting notion, spatial histories, along with sensory histories, are much to pluralistic for such endeavours. What results is an underdeveloped imaginary of city space (in MacDonald’s case) or an overcooked political agenda set out in moral terms (Sennett).

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Lefebvre falls back on a dialectical relationship between spatial practices and productions of space, which entails a pedagogy of the senses and body. The experience of space is first and foremost the sensory perception of space. This is not to place sensory perceptions before the social and cultural spatial relations (‘proxemics’ in Hall’s terms). Certain spaces, led by the total body, provide opportunities for the body to break from the spatial and temporal constrains of labour, the division of labour, localisations of work and the specialisation of places (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384). In this way, the physical body takes on a critical role as generative in the production of space (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 384; 2014, p. 149). In this way, the pedagogy of the body and senses is founded on the second point in Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory, the senses as theoreticians.

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Senses as Theoreticians

Reference is made to Marx and Nietzsche in the opening passage for their materialist approach in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Nietzsche’s aphorisms. These two theorists (and Lefebvre uses them as theorists, more than as philosophers or thinkers) suggest a particular form of theoretical engagement. Although Lefebvre draws them together, I want to focus on what each provides in the next two points of Lefebvre’s spatial-sensory theory. In sum, Marx pushes for the senses as theoreticians, while Nietzsche indicates that the action of such a theorisation is poetic practice.

As active in the production of space, the senses become theoreticians. Lefebvre draws this idea from Nietzsche and Marx:

‘The truth of space thus leads us back (and is reinforced by) a powerful Nietzschean sentiment: ‘But may the will to truth mean this to you: that everything shall be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your own senses to the end. [Eure eignen Sinne sollt ihr zu Ende denken.]’ Marx, for his part, called in the Manuscripts of 1844 for the senses to become theoreticians in their own right. The revolutionary road of the human and the heroic road of the superhuman meet at the crossroads of space. Whether they then converge is another story’ (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 399-400).

For Marx, the senses, and sensory organs, are not passive receptors, simply responding to what is around them. Instead, the senses, like labour, create objects and, in the cases of the senses, create reality, which is a social construction (Marx, 1992, p. 352). Following Marx, the senses are active in the creation of objects, as well as the creation of the human senses (Lefebvre, 2016, p. 127).

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The sensory organs, as conceptualised within Lefebvre’s total body, are critical theoreticians of space. The senses work on an object on the model of human labour working on raw materials. Marx makes a critical distinction between human labour and sensory perception, which is fundamental to each form of work. The distinction is that sensory transformation of the object is in terms of potential meanings, rather than the object as artefact (Feenberg, 2014, p. 46). Lefebvre, for his part, is breaking down this distinction in terms of space; human beings both produce spatial meanings and spatial artefacts. The senses can therefore be conceived as theoreticians, being both produced by the social relationships, the division of labour and gestures of work, and raising these productive relations to a critical level through the sensory perception of objects. For example, noise, as out-of-place sound, can also define the limits of understanding, being unpatterned or unknown sounds, beyond the horizon of meaning, that will in time (through repetition) become known (see Truax, 2001, p. 97).

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The mapping of transmission loss, the amount of sound that passes through a material, can therefore relate to the conceptualisation of geographical limits of auditory understanding, a literal horizon or threshold of auditory perception. In this way, the measurement of acoustic properties of architectural interventions by Augustus become measurements in conceptual and social horizons of audibility.

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Poetic Practice

Nietzsche, for Lefebvre, provides a practical and theoretical model for using ‘the body as a guide’ (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 103; see also 2016, pp. 122-26). Lefebvre comments that Nietzsche’s emphasis on visual metaphors to constitute abstract thought, which over time has reduced thoughts and actions derived from the other senses, is one of ‘Nietzsche’s great discoveries’ (1991, p. 139). We can reformulate Lefebvre’s four points, from The Production of Space, on Nietzsche’s discoveries in relation to the senses: 1) the actions of metaphor and metonymy are guided by the body’s experience of space through the senses; 2) expression of this sensory/spatial experience is constrained by an overreliance on visual metaphors, limiting language’s ability to express the total body; 3) the mental and social architecture of language, constrained by readability-visibility, is constantly reformulating connections due to the limits of its expression; 4) power, in the form of social and political structures, are aligned to visibility by the implicit reason and logic in visual metaphor and metonymy, their ‘common sense’ understanding.

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The twin critique of visual metaphors, what Lefebvre refers to as ‘visibility’, is a critique of ‘readability’. How do we ‘read’ the urban arrangement and architecture of the Roman period? Lefebvre cites Roland Barthes’ five codes for reading a text (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) and applies them to the experience of Venice (Barthes, 1990; Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 160-1). This raises two unexplored areas when decoding is constrained to reading and texts (a visual object): on the one side, the body and, on the other side, the power (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 162). Due to constraints of space, I will leave power for discussion elsewhere, but I find Foucault’s use of ancient sources, especially the Stoicism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, a interesting comparison in terms of the body, governmentality and issues of space/place. Central to the argument here, Lefebvre emphasises the body’s experience of place through the total body of the senses,

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‘[w]hen ‘Ego’ arrives in an unknown country or city, he [sic] first experiences it through every part of his body – through his sense of smell and taste, as (provided he does not limit this by remaining in his car) through his legs and feet. His hearing picks up the noises and the quality of the voices; his eyes are assailed by new impressions. For it is by means of the body that space is perceived, lived – and produced’ (1991, p. 162).

The perception of space by the body is part of spatial and social practices, which are excluded from the codes of reading and writing according to Lefebvre (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125).

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Within this argument is a critique of certain formulations of interpreting urban forms or places. The most common, and referenced in ancient history and classical archaeology, interpretation of urban space and place along the lines of readability and visibility is Kevin Lynch’s conception of ‘urban image’ and ‘mental maps’. Lefebvre is not the only one to critique this formulation and Tim Ingold (2000) critiques Lynch’s ‘mental maps’ directly as a product of a modern cartographic conception of place:

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‘It is rather that the world of our experience is a world suspended in movement, that is continually coming into being as we – through our own movement – contribute to its formation. In the cartographic world, by contrast, all is still and silent. There is neither sunlight nor moonlight; there are no variations of light or shade, no clouds, no shadows or reflections. The wind does not blow, neither disturbing the trees nor whipping water into waves. No birds fly in the sky, or sing in the woods; forests and pastures are devoid of animal life; houses and streets are empty of people and traffic. To dismiss all this – to suggest that what is excluded in the cartographic reduction amounts, in Monmonier’s words, to a ‘fog of detail’ – is perverse, to say the least (Wood 1992: 76). For it is no less than the stuff of life itself. Were one magically transported into the looking-glass world behind the map, one would indeed feel lost and disoriented, as in a fog. But the fogginess is a function not of the amount or density of detail but of the arrestation of movement. Detached from the flow of which each is but a moment, details settle like an opaque precipitate upon the surface of the earth. Little wonder, then, that the cartographer feels the need to sweep them up, or that the navigator prefers to brush them aside in plotting a course!’ (Ingold 2000, p. 242).

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In Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre criticises readability through the reversal of the practice of reading (2014, p. 125). In order to read architecture, there must be an assumed message or code within the building or urban form and since it is addressed to people (another assumption), it can be read and compared to writing (Lefebvre, 2014, p. 125). Lefebvre points out, however, that in practice the operation is reversed (2014, p. 125). It is not the building or space that is decoded, but space decodes the social practices of human beings. Human beings transmit a plurality of codes, which are not all directed at the intellect, such as emotions, passions or feelings. Architectural space refracts messages in the form of injunctions, proscriptions and proscribed acts, rather than signs; that is to say, architecture refracts social and spatial practices (2014, p. 125). Architecture, in this process, intensifies certain messages and transforms them into rules and assigned gestures, spatialising social practices and defining ‘places’ (2014, p. 125). In this case, the senses are not directly referenced by Lefebvre, but can be incorporated into the process. If architecture produces living bodies, part of that production is a range of sensory hierarchies and practices. At the level above sensory perception, language of space (point 2 in the reformulation of Lefebvre’s points) is taken for experience (sensory perception of physical space) and perceived to reflect ‘common sense’ sensory hierarchies, in this case, based on visual metaphors (in modernity). This links the history of the body to the history of space through the development of the senses within a given periods, cultures or other differences in spatial practices (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 195-6).

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The senses as theoreticians and poetic practice critique the architectures of power through the senses, body and gestures. As argued, the senses as theoreticians are tools for critical thought and open up subversive responses to the strategies of the state and power. Foucault and de Certeau hover in the background behind that last sentence and offer comparative conceptions to what I am arguing is at work in Lefebvre. In historical terms, Lefebvre argues that the senses as theoreticians reveal the logic of visualisation that developed over centuries and eventually was built into cities and urbanism and is the central point in the middle of The Production of Space. Poetic practice critiques the actions and gestures that take place within the theoretical space opened up by the total body. For Lefebvre, the issue was to draw out the active, creative and productive side of the senses and body, the total body, to open up space to all its possibilities. At the end of Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment, Lefebvre suggests that the total body, sense as theoreticians and poetic practice set out a direction, echoing the ‘sense’ at the end of The Production of Space, for a revolutionary orientation of life (2014, p. 149). Here Lefebvre brings his own theory to the present situation of capitalism. For us, as ancient historians, archaeologists and classicists, the direction of such interpretations is a conceptualisation of the past. A past understood through the total body of sensory perceptions and imaginary conceptions, indicating hierarchies and strategies of power based on the senses, and enacted in the everyday sensory-spatial practices of ancient peoples.

January Update

This month has been a busy one for me with a move, some writing and lots of books. Here is a brief round up of some of the things that have happened and some things that will happen. As an aside, I am going to try post a monthly review of various academic related activities at the end of each month.


January saw the submission of an article on Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the senses and body in relation to his spatial theory. I have been working on, and using, Lefebvre’s spatial theory and use of ancient cultures for some time with a series of posts on ancient cities as examples within Lefebvre’s urban writings. This article did not go into the ancient sources and instead developed Lefebvre’s idea of the total body as central to his three-part division of space. I also drew out Lefebvre’s critique of readability-visibility-intelligibility as key to understanding his historical work in the second half of The Production of Space. Much of this work involved a close reading of The Production of Space and Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. This article is the first in a larger (and longer) project on Lefebvre, some of which grows out of the posts on this blog.

I also (currently) am wrapping up a chapter on Roman porticoes in Ostia. This chapter is for an edited volume, but has some overlap with the monograph manuscript I am slowly pulling together. I used the conclusions from the Lefebvre article as a theoretical starting point to try and understand the movement, gestures and conceptions of space that were embodied in the experience of street porticoes. I place the archaeological and literary sources for Rome and Ostia in comparison to argue for a transition within the conception of porticoes from enclosed to open spaces following the developments of the Roman streets as the principle public spaces. I use Lefebvre’s discussion of monastic cloisters as a complete space (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment) to bring together the archaeological evidence, which indicates the movements, gestures and bodily practices within porticoes, and the literary evidence, which indicates the perceived, social and moral values of the concept of porticoes.


The holidays were filled with books… I read several new books that all revolve around neighbourhoods, rumours, streets, Roman politics and religion: Public Opinion and Politics in the Late Roman Republic by Cristina Rosillo-López, Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East by Ross Burns, Harriet Flower’s The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome by Jeremy Hartnett, and I reread Lefebvre’s The Production of Space and Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. Many of these books will appear in the coming posts, as well as current writing.

Odds and Sods

I moved back to California as my visa expired and University bureaucracy muddled up an extension. Not what I was planning, but I am making the most my time with family and have been using the UC Berkeley libraries.

I will be back in London at the end of February to present at a workshop. My presentation will develop some bits from my Lefebvre article and connect that work with Lefebvre’s use of Rome as an example of productive space. Like the majority of my presentations, I will post the manuscript on the blog here following the presentation.

Finally, I have started to pull together the manuscript for my Acoustics in Roman Ostia book. I have been continuously and slowly working on it and now I am starting to systematically work through sections and chapters. Bits and pieces of my other writings all feed into this monograph and its been interesting to see it develop.

Books of 2017!

Here is my list of new publications I’ve enjoyed from Urban Studies, Theory & Philosophy (in no particular order, as well as with some late 2016 books):

  1. Shannon Mattern, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, University of Minnesota Press.
  2. Verso Books, The Right to the City: A Verso Report, Verso Books (Free).
  3. Stuart Elden, Foucault: The Birth of Power, Polity Press.
  4. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Seeing Like a City, Polity Press.
  5. Henri Lefebvre, Marxist Thought and the City, University of Minnesota Press.

Here is a round up of highlights in Ancient History & Classical Archaeology (again, in no particular order and some late 2016 books included):

  1. Miko Flohr and Andrew Wilson, The Economy of Pompeii, Oxford University Press.
  2. Arjan Zuiderhoek, The Ancient City, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Steve Walton, Paul Tribilco and David J. Gill, The Urban World and the First Christians, Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  4. Jeremy Hartnett, The Roman Street: Urban Life and Society in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome, Cambridge University Press.
  5. Eric Poehler, The Traffic Systems of Pompeii, Oxford University of Press.
  6. Harriet Flower, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, Princeton University Press.
  7. Sarah E. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, University of Michigan Press.
  8. Eleanor Betts (ed), Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture, Routledge. I have a chapter in this volume…

Here are a few books that are already on my list to read:

  1. Steven J. Ellis, The Roman Retail Revolution: The Socio-Economic World of the Tabernae, Oxford University Press (estimated publication March 2018)
  2. William Fitzgerald and Efrossini Spentzou (eds.), The Production of Space in Latin Literature, Oxford University Press (estimated March 2018).
  3. Ross Burns, Origins of the Colonnaded Streets in the Cities of the Roman East, Oxford University Press.
  4. Penelope J. E. Davies, Architecture and Politics in Republican Rome, Cambridge University Press.
  5. Jacob A. Latham, Performance, Memory, and Processions in Ancient Rome: The Pompa Circensis from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press.

Ear & Stone: Acoustics, Architecture and Art in Ostia, London Roman Art seminar

Yesterday, I presented at the London Roman Art seminar, which I attend somewhat regularly. Unlike the majority of my presentations, the Roman Art seminar was a 45 min presentation and I could layout my argument in more detail. The presentation was a summary of my PhD research with some hints at more recent work along the same lines. Those of you that read my posts regularly will no doubt recognise much of the presentation, although it does draw on much of my recent non-theory architectural work. The Lefebvre work is in the background and due to the audience not discussed in any detail. Instead, I focused on three case studies, which build an argument for the rethinking of internal and external noise as socially manipulated within the city of Ostia. In the presentation, I went off script and walked through the physics behind many of the slides. The Q&A reflects the oral version, which downplayed the literary material and was more focused on internal/external and public/private divisions. The paper is posted below and a summary of the Q&A is at the end.

Ear and Stone: Acoustics, Architecture and Art in Ostia

Jeffrey D. Veitch

University of Kent

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My title is taken from Richard Sennett’s provocative 1994 book Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. I will not discuss this book in any detail and use it namely to point out Sennett’s reliance on sight as a quintessential Roman architectural virtue. For Sennett, Rome was governed by visual order with Hadrian being the epitome (87-123).

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This reliance on Roman visual culture was already beginning to be questioned by studies of social practices, such as Roger Ling’s discussion of way finding in Pompeii (1990). What remained elusive was the auditory character of Roman cities and the ways in which Roman inhabitants experienced architecture.

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Recently, the role of sound in Roman culture has begun to be explored in the epigraphic and literary sources. Initial studies have highlighted the character of social taboos in terms of trades (Bond 2016) and social history of professional musicians (Vincent 2016).

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The sound specific studies draw from an increasing scholarly awareness of movement and multisensory approaches, like that of Eleanor Betts (2017), in shaping social space of Roman places and cities. It is in this context, and specifically Eleanor’s 2013 conference of the same title, that I first began to think about acoustics and Roman social relationships.

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It is worth briefly introducing my own non-academic background in sound production, as it has led my interests in acoustics, social theories and architecture. Acoustics can be approached from a diversity of different fields, shown here. Prior to my undergraduate and postgraduate work in archaeology and ancient history, I worked as a sound engineer for live shows. For just under a decade, I worked for bands and venues producing, what is often called ‘mixing’, sound. This work centres in the ‘auditorium acoustics’ circle in the lower right corner. My first two years of university, I was in the electrical engineering department, before moving into the music department for a year and then transferring into the philosophy, history and religious studies departments, as there was no ‘classics’ department within the institution. So, a decade later, when approaching ancient sounds and Roman archaeology, I was thinking in engineering and arts terms, not life sciences or earth sciences terms represented in the diagram.

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I had originally planned on writing a thesis on the role of social relationships in neighbourhood formation at Ostia, paralleling some work I had done on collegia there. In the first couple months of my PhD, I attended Eleanor’s conference, presented on street blocking along the Decumanus at Ostia and was reaching a dead end with mapping neighbourhood relations. While the there is a wealth of evidence for collegia social networks, neighbourhood groups, and certain architectural boundaries, these forms of evidence are rather challenging to place either geographically in the city or chronologically in relation to one another. The problems of excavation at Ostia, mostly undertaken by Guido Calza in the 1930s, are well known. The poor documentation and simultaneous reconstruction of the site leave a majority of questions unanswered, or raise more questions than they can answer. I had decided to concentrate on a series of studies that focus on the particularities of the site, especially in contrast to Pompeii. In the process of preparing for an end of year review, I realised that sound, used a tool for analysis could help navigate the challenges I faced. With this in mind, I turned to the standing remains in Ostia. Now, sound as tool often gets missed in presentations so, I want to spell out what it entails through my first case study of building materials.

Building Materials
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The uniformity of building techniques at Ostia, even with or without plaster, creates an equal uniformity in acoustic properties. What create auditory hierarchies, in this case, are the dimensions of the space. Differences are evident between opus incertum, used at the Casette Tipo (3.12, 3.13), and opus reticulatum or brick-faced concrete, used in the Insula dei Dipinti (1.4.4). The mass of the wall materials produces transmission loss ratings of 65 dB(A) for opus incertum, 67 dB(A) for opus reticulatum or brick-faced concrete (Veitch 2017). While these are numerically minor differences, namely 2 dB(A), that is enough of a difference for the human body to hear the change.

This suggests that while the difference between opus reticulatum and brick-faced concrete would not be noticeable in terms of sounds, the use of opus incertum was noticeable. This suggests an experiential difference, a difference that could potentially reshape social relations through the wall, and a difference in the chronology of construction techniques. The choices and transitions in building techniques and styles are also choices in the experience of the spaces constructed.

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In this way, the famous line of Augustus finding Rome a city of mud-brick and leaving it a city of marble reflects auditory experiences of changes, as well (Suet. Aug. 29). In the slide, I have converted the construction techniques into their absorption coefficients, measured in Sabins (named after Wallace Sabine founder of the field of architectural acoustics). The Sabin gives the amount of sound energy absorbed by the material, which then is converted into the length of time a sound takes to decrease by 60 dB. Turning to the remains at Ostia, the different construction materials and techniques can be converted into their auditory properties and the acoustic properties compared.

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In this image, the various interactions between a sound signal and a wall are depicted. The sound (s) will strike the wall, reflecting some sound energy back into the room (A) and some energy being absorbed by the material (F). This will happen again as the sound signal encounters another material, until the sound signal passes through the wall (D) at a diminished sound energy level.

Acoustics is the study of the room based on the auditory properties. In this case, sound is not the object of study, but the methodological tool to analyse the characteristics of the room. In cotemporary design, the room’s acoustics are measured through the recording of sound in the room. Absorption coefficient is the amount of sound energy absorbed by a material, while transmission loss is the amount of sound energy that passes through the material. These modern measurements give numerical values for the reaction of sound passing through or reflecting off a given material. Thus, in Augustus transformation of Rome, the experience is one of less sound absorption and more sound reflected. Sound, in this instance, is the tool for measuring the materials and dimensions of the space, rather than the object of study.

The case studies chosen, namely streets and apartments, highlight the distinctive character of Ostia, especially in terms of building materials and acoustic properties. What these case studies help answer are the relationship between street noise, a product of street activity, and internal space. Or more broadly questions about the interaction between internal and external space, the relation between the concepts of public and private in Roman understanding, and the human experience of Roman architecture.

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The density of, and potential for high levels of activity, evident in Ostia would affect internal spaces (see Laurence 2007: 107-9). Hence, do we see evidence for the arrangement of internal space to suppress, or dampen, noise (a modern question)? Or do we in fact need to rethink the boundary between streets and internal space and instead ask, what social function does noise play in Ostia? As Monica Degen, a contemporary sociologists notes, ‘Sound or its absence, can link or divide two separate spaces: inside a house the noise of outside traffic, such as police sirens and beeping cars, disappears or filters through, and questions what is inside or outside, public or private’ (Degen 2008: 44). In answering these questions, I move from apartment arrangement into the streets. Along the way, I will draw on some further research not included in my thesis looking at Mithraea for comparative examples within second century CE Ostia where visibility is restricted into the space.

Apartment Arrangement
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When looking at the arrangement of apartments in Ostia the rectangular shape of the units leaves the long sides facing the street (most often) or internal space. In certain cases, namely the Garden House complex and the Casette Tipo, the apartments are surrounded by neighbouring buildings insulating them from certain streets. Of particular importance is the presence of windows along one façade, which in 14 cases front onto streets. Now unlike brick-face concrete, windows allow for higher levels of noise to pass through (measured in terms of SPL). It is worth commenting on the standard measurement of sound intensity, or loudness, which is the Sound Pressure Level, or SPL. The SPL is a standard unit, which is the base for modern auditory measurements. The human ear can differentiate between SPL measurements of at least 2 dB and can perceive sounds between 20 dB and 120 dB; over 120 dB the body feels pain and can experience immediate damage.

In this case, the acoustics of the internal room affect the level of sound audible in the street. That is to say, in certain rooms, namely the reception rooms at either end of the apartment, the acoustic properties show an ability to amplify the overall SPL levels, making the space sound louder, and enabling higher levels of noise to be heard outside. Now, the level of auditory clarity diminishes, in this case, making the particularities of exact words harder to interpret. We will return to the affect of auditory clarity at the end and the role of noise, understood as unclear auditory information.

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At the scale of the city, it was the location and position of the apartment, in terms of the windowed façade, that suggest forms of ‘noise suppression’, a modern term for the control of sound. Here in the centre of the city, just off the forum and N Cardo Maximus, the Insula of the Painting faces into an internal area, not the street. In contrast, the two apartments in Region 5 form an ‘L’ windows facing onto the street (5.3.3, 4). The acoustic properties of the largest reception room (marked by red diamonds) can be analysed. What results is that 5.3.3 and 5.3.4 have broader frequency response and longer reverberation times, which suggest acoustic properties that make the space seem larger than its dimensions and the ability for higher levels of noise, especially high-frequency noise, to pass through the windows and walls. Where physical location was the only recourse to ‘noise suppression’ the analyses suggest the opposite: the apartments facing the street were potentially ‘louder’, than those facing an internal space. In comparison, the earliest Mithraeum in Ostia, ca. 162 CE, shared a wall with a row of shops and a small courtyard house (3.1.6; see White 2012). In this case, the opus incertum walls acoustically connected these neighbouring spaces, even with visibility complete cut-off.

A contradiction of conclusions can be drawn: first, location was the only form of control over sound, as certain regions or areas of the city could be louder; second, locations were of key social importance for inhabitants. Thus, ‘where’, location of the apartment (or Mithraea), and ‘what’ could be heard were the rhythm of Ostian high-status apartments (or Mithraea) social networks. In either case, apartments or Mithraea, the acoustic properties cannot contain the social groups within, sound emanates out into neighbouring space, creating a wider auditory geography than the physical walls, ceilings, and spaces of social activity.

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The first conclusion needs a clarification, namely how locations within the city can be classified as ‘louder’, ‘noisy’, or more auditorially active. A variety of measurements have been devised for the possibility of street activity since Ray Laurence’s ratio of street length to doorway distance (1994a: 88-96), Space Syntax being the most common and complex. A simple look at the location of shops, in relation to the apartments, offers some insight. Shops surround the Insula of the Paintings, while the apartments in Region 5 are devoid of them. By comparison, Hannah Stöger’s Space Syntax analyses suggest that the streets, on which the apartments are found, are in the lower end of statistical movement analysis (choice and integration) (2011: 213-9). This suggests that these streets were not likely used in getting to other area of the city (integration) or as a potential destination for movement (choice). However, Stöger leaves out any connecting road along the north end of the city, thus creating dead ends where the buildings stop. The importance of a street along the river is evident in the placement of porticoes along streets perpendicular to the river, even lesser streets, and a topic I will be discussing at CA on Friday.

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The reorganisation of the N Cardo and surrounding area between 116-120 CE highlights the continuation of the streets to the river and connections in the east-west direction. Heinzelmann’s geophysical survey of sections north of the Decumanus suggests possible streets along the river (not published yet), as well as Italo Gismondi’s plan in Scavi di Ostia I indicates an intersection by the river and a north-south street across from the Via del Sarapide (on the 1:500 plan). Connecting these to possible streets along the river seems reasonable and would, therefore, alter the integration and choice measurements for streets connecting the Decumanus and river.

In terms of street sounds, similar acoustic analyses can be done based on the building materials and dimensions of facades and pavements. In Ostia, the majority of streets were paved in basalt, which gives a uniform measurement for the paving. This overlooks the reconstructed aspect of street pavements in Ostia, which requires its own study.

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This graph shows the acoustic properties of the three widest streets, all with porticoes along a given section. In this graph, a sound is hypothetical made at the middle of the street (0 along the bottom of the graph). The sound travels down the length of the street in both directions (descending lines from the centre). As the pavement and facades are constructed out of similar materials, the presence of porticoes and the dimensions are the differences shown in the graph (especially evident in the graph of the Via Epagathiana). The dimensions of the street were the primary difference in the acoustic properties, but in this final section I want to turn to another source of evidence for the particular sounds associated with streets and draw some conclusions about the relationship be internal and external space, and the concepts of public and private.

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Latin literary sources make frequent reference to streets and sounds as displayed in this chart. The forum is by far and away the most referenced space associated with sounds, followed by via, vicus, semita. What the chart shows are the total counts of sound root words within 100 characters of the corresponding street term, pulled from the Packard Humanities Library. This is not surprising, as Cicero and Livy form the largest corpus of literary texts in the PHI. What this shows is an association between certain literary spaces, namely forum, via, vicus, and semita, and sound.

What, however, this kind of graphing allows for is the particularities of certain sounds in relation to the way streets are conceived within Roman literary sources. In general, ‘son-‘ words are associated with vicus, ‘clam-‘ words with the forum and ‘silent-‘ with the forum and vicus.

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If we run the same network with a particular sound carried by people, namely rumours (rumor or fama), the trio of forum, via, vicus shift as via and vicus overtake forum. This association of certain sounds with particular places within the city of Rome reflects the experience of streets. As Ray Laurence discussed, rumours were part of the political communication between elite and non-elite in the late Republic (1994b) and, as shown here, were placed in certain streets by the literary sources. In this case, the misinformation associated with rumours could be seen as a diminished level of auditory clarity, noted in relation to the reception rooms within the apartments.

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As noted, the arrangement of apartments was parallel to streets with a central façade and windows predominately along the street. I suggested that this physical arrangement of space created the contradiction of isolating noise through the geographical location within the city and acoustically linking internal noise with the street. As we saw, geographical location and arrangement were evident in the two sets of apartments, however there was no complete sound isolation, or sound proofing. Sounds from the main reception room could be heard in the street at certain apartments. This is in opposition to the way street noise is discussed today (mostly in terms of traffic noise). Today we are concerned with outside, traffic noise, being filtered out or separated from inside noise. What I suggest, in conclusion, is that Roman concerns, both positive and negative concerns, were associated with inside noise being heard outside.

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This experience of the breakdown between inside and outside parallels the social role of rumours in streets. The street is associated with rumours and, as shown, acoustically linked to high-status apartments, in the case of Ostia. Now, references to rumours are primarily from the period before Ostia’s peak. Here, Augustus boast returns. The development of construction techniques, materials and the reconfiguring of Roman cities were experienced through Roman ears. The lack of clear sound isolation or development of sound reducing arrangements in the period between the late Republic and 2nd c. CE suggest that the experience of overhearing inside noise did not develop into a particular architecture, but it held a social importance, which breaks down the division of internal/external space and critically questions the continued utility of distinctions between public and private at the entrance to spaces.

M. Degen (2008) Sensing Cities: Regenerating Public Life in Barcelona and Manchester (London).
R. Laurence (1994a) Roman Pompeii: Space and Society (London).
R. Laurence (1994b) ‘Rumour and Communication in Roman Politics’ Greece and Rome 41: 62-74.
R. Sennett (1994) Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (London).
H. Stöger (2011) Rethinking Ostia: A spatial enquiry into the urban society of Rome’s imperial port-town (Leiden).
M.L. White (2012) ‘The Changing Face of Mithraism at Ostia’, in Balch and Weissenrieder (eds.) Contested Spaces: House and Temples in Roman Antiquity and the New Testament (Tübingen), 435-492.

Q&A Summary:

I had a series of questions about basic physics of sound (does sound travel up or down at the same rate, if so, what about first floors?) and its relation to particular elements, mostly non-fixed elements (like furniture). I will summarise my response to these questions as a group, as many responses overlapped each other: Sound travels in all directions from the source of the sound. In the case of streets, the sound starts at ground level and reflects off the tarmac, as well as travelling upward. In this instance, sound would travel to upper floors, but it would be diminished as it passed through the building materials, same as the ground floor. First floor windows, in many cases, seem to be open with wooden shutters, rather than glass. This would allow certain levels of noise to enter unimpeded, distance from the sound source being the only effect on the sound level.

In terms of internal furnishings: yes, they alter the acoustics of the space and I did include them in certain instances. Room A in the apartments display signs of usage as dining rooms and I analysed the acoustics with three dining couches, using Pompeian examples, and nine adults (three on each couch as is typical of depictions of dining). Other furnishings like tapestries and carpets are evident in certain sources, and would change the acoustics, but as there is no direct evidence for them in Ostia, I did not factor them into the analysis. All these elements can be added to my database, but I started with the basic room.

I had some questions about transmission loss and its relationship to the width of walls. In particular, comparison was made to modern London where wall widths are, in comparison to Ostia, extremely narrow (difference between brick and mortar walls versus wood frames and sheet rock or wood): The transmission loss is measured not by the width, but by mass. So, wider walls are usually walls with greater mass (unless there is a hollow core, in which case you could calculate the transmission loss of each part individually). There are ancient construction techniques that would block out the majority of sounds, however, in the case of Ostia, these were not standard techniques. The use of the older castrum wall in several warehouses, is a case in point.

I had some further questions about particular sounds in relation to rooms and the layout of spaces, especially in terms of household activities. The first question was the relationship between day and night sounds, as certain carts were barred from entering Rome during the day time. This does provide a key piece in understanding the timing of noise throughout the day and night. Although I did not bring it up in my paper, the cycle of sounds throughout the day is one of the most important factors in assessing Roman inhabitants general perception of sounds. Another comment along these lines was about the level to which an average Roman would even care about noise. I think this is a valid point, which I agree with, but that does not invalidate asking the question. In fact, the lack of clear temporal reference to sounds within the literary sources (Martial’s complaint being the exception that proves the rule) suggests that these noises were not unusual, but in fact very usual and part of the lived experience of cities.

There were also a series of questions about windows: Roman window glass are small panes set within a framework, usually wood. The panes themselves are rather thin, 3-5 mm, and were usually not clear, but coloured. This adds an interesting element to the internal/external discussion, as these are not windows through which someone could see what was happening. The activity could be heard, as I discussed, but the participants would only be recognised by the sound of their voice. Window glass has a distinct reaction to certain sound levels, namely short and loud noises. In these instances the glass reflects a greater portion of the high-frequency sound, creating what is called a ‘slap back’, a sound of the energy bouncing off the glass. This effect happens to varying degrees depending on the sounds produced, but it is a particular effect to glass.

The discussion of activities within the apartments was based on a comparison with Pompeii. The Pompeian house is set perpendicular to the street, which effects the depth to which sounds penetrate the space. Several colleagues are looking at these types of questions (Hannah Platts, RHUL, has discussed this in relation to the Villa of Diomedes outside the Herculaneum Gate). I am interested, and this is potential future study, in looking at the arrangement of entry spaces in Pompeii, as well as first floors (likely Herculaneum, rather than Pompeii), to asses the level of sound penetration in comparison to Ostia. As noted in the paper, the distinctive parallel arrangement of Ostian apartments breaks down the internal/external divide in certain instances. Pompeii provides a different arrangement, as well as different building techniques, that are worth comparative analysis. Now, household activities within the apartments are somewhat limited in choice of location. The small rectangular shape leaves limited places for cooking and suggests that noise associated with these activities would filter through the apartment quite easily. Many of the internal walls are thinner than the exterior walls and would, therefore, allow more sound to pass through. By comparison, the Pompeii house arrangement allowed for a certain level of separation, or distance between reception spaces and household spaces. This is one of the few potential ‘sound isolating’ techniques available. By physically separating activities the sound had to pass through more space, which increases the dissipation, lower the SPL once it reaches the destination.

It was a great discussion and I am grateful to Will Wootton for the invitation, as well as to all those present for the rich engagement with my work.

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.

The Roman City in Motion Presentation Kiel, Germany

Image: North Cardo Maximus, facing south towards the forum, at Ostia (Jeff Veitch)

I am in Germany for an international workshop (details here) and presented some of my work on porticoes. Unlike the majority of presentations last year, I presented from a manuscript, as I wanted to stay focused on some key points of discussion. I had not originally planned to discuss porticoes (was going to save it for another paper), but did not have the time to develop my work on the Vicus Iugarius in Rome to a presentable point.  The majority of questions following the paper were aspects of clarification, many of which were due to my ownpresentation style. I continually struggle with a good balance between spatial theory, physics of sound, and my case studies. In this paper there is a clear preference on the theoretical framework, at the expense of the physics of sound and sound analysis. I have included a summary of the discussion following the paper at the end.

The Roman City in Motion: Senses, Space and Experience

Jeffrey D. Veitch, University of Kent

[Title Slide] Thanks to the organisers of the session and to you all for being here.


Image: Lefebvre on Roman space

[Lefebvre Rome] At several points, Henri Lefebvre makes reference to two topics taken up in this paper: the senses and Roman space, although neither is in reference to the other. For Lefebvre, following Nietzsche and Marx, the senses are theoretical tools for understanding space,[1] while Rome serves as a concrete example of the social production of space within Lefebvre’s history of the city.[2] In this paper, I take Lefebvre’s twin suggestions as a starting point for a theoretically informed interpretation of Roman urbanism. That is to say, the senses serve as tools for understanding the reciprocal influence of the body and space in the formation of urban experience.

Using the senses as a theoretical tool, following Lefebvre, I want to make this argument: by placing the sensory experience of street acoustics under the microscope, I argue for an experiential agency of portico space that is shaped by physical architecture, bodily movements and literary perceptions. Each of these aspects will be addressed in that order and set the framework for the argument of this paper. In this way, I draw together the two elements of Lefebvre’s suggestions and argue for experiential agency as sensory perceptions of urban space and its formation of the Roman sensorium.

The Senses as Kinaesthetic Tools

[Lefebvre books] Let us begin by listening to Lefebvre and bringing his insights in line with recent emphasis on kinaesthetic and embodied forms of knowledge. Recent studies of Roman space and spatial concepts have drawn primarily from the work of Henri Lefebvre. Writing in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Lefebvre formulated the groundwork for what was letter termed the ‘spatial turn’(See Harvey, Social Justice and the City (University of Georgia 1973); Soja, Postmodern Geographies (Verso 1989)). Lefebvre suggests a ‘pedagogy of the body’ that ‘would connect the conceived to the lived (and conversely), assumes a form of qualitative knowledge still in a state of germination and promise. Rhythmanalysis, for example’.[7] The invocation of rhythmanalysis draws the senses and times into this ‘pedagogy of the body’, as the rhythmanalist ‘thinks with his [sic] body’.[8] This further elaborates the nature of Lefebvre’s tripartite division of space between the conceived, perceived, and lived. The knowledge derived from the connection of the conceived and lived is sensory knowledge. Lefebvre draws on smells and musical metaphors to describe the rhythmanalist’s methods and emphasises the measurement of space by the body.[9]


Image: Libet Diagram (Source on the slide)

Lefebvre does not develop these ideas into a method and they are scattered throughout his diverse writings. Here I want to draw in some more work, which grounds these ideas in movement and embodiment. [Libet Diagram] By the end of the 1970s, several experiments had verified that between an event and our sensory experience there was a half-second delay.[11] In following experiments it was further confirmed that unconscious reactions had delays of 100 ms, or a tenth-of-a-second delay.[12] What this suggested is that conscious reflection or action based on sensory stimuli was, in fact, a reflection on a past event, all be it a very recent past event.[13] To put this in Lefebvrean terms, lived space precedes conceived space in its mediation by the senses. Or simply, we sense the world before we act, think or reflect on that world.

This places human agency at the start of interactions with the built environment, rather than beginning with language or thought. I like the emphasis on agency; performative acts do ‘something’ to space (I am also keen to keep the ‘something’ ambiguous). Here reflexivity becomes important, especially in terms of atmosphere and the social action of participants. I want to extend the reflexivity to the space of action, as well as the action itself. The reflexivity of architecture coincides with the reflexivity of the senses.[15] In my own work, I stress the role of architecture in social construction based on auditory experience; the human bodies auditory system interprets space in the act of hearing. At the same time, what, where, and how we hear are part of the social and cultural understandings (habitus) we learn through repetitive experience of space.

Interpreting Streets through the Senses


Image: AC & TL Diagram (Veitch 2017)

[AC & TL] The embodied knowledge carried within a cities inhabitant’s places agency as central to knowledge formation.[16] Simply put, human agents create the social, cultural and physical world through sensory experience, first unconsciously and then through cognitive reflection. However for Romans to be social agents a mass of infrastructural material must already be in place.[17] The infrastructural materials can be assessed and measured to analyse the kinaesthetic experience in terms of comparative figures. Physical dimensions and construction materials shape the auditory experience of the streets, which can be measured using modern acoustic design tools.


Image: Eleanor Betts recent publication (Routledge 2017)

[EB Book] In my chapter in Eleanor Betts’ recent publication, I focus on Absorption Coefficient (AC) and Transmission Loss (TL). I explain the physics of these measurements in that chapter and here point out the basic difference as sound reflected, AC, or sound passing through the material, TL.[18] [Augustus] The reflection, resonance and other auditory effects of sound create the experience the body interprets in the half-second delay. These auditory effects are directly related to the dimensions, size and shape of urban space. In particular, I want to look at the basic architectural structure of streets in Ostia, with some comparisons to Pompeii and Rome, to assess the kinaesthetic experience and knowledge potentially created.


Image: Streets and Shops in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Ostia] At the scale of the city, by the second century CE Ostia had developed beyond any formal grid system. However other forms of standardisation were at work within Ostia. Ellis has shown a clear preference in Ostia for shop entrances on the right-hand side of the threshold.[19] Street widths in Ostia display an uneven geographical distribution, same as Pompeii, although with a clear preference in width of 4-6 m.[20] However Ostia has a limited number of streets roughly 8 m in width, the other major grouping in Pompeii.[21] Instead, 94% of the streets in Ostia are less than 7 m in width. The widespread use of basalt on streets across Ostia suggests a certain foundational auditory experience, as the absorption coefficient is low (0.01-0.02) and sound would reflect off the surface.


Image: Streets and Porticoes in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

In terms of auditory experience, the limited range of widths in Ostia suggests building height and architectural elements being prime motivators of auditory differences. Unlike Pompeii, street architecture, such as benches and sidewalks, are primarily reconstructed and there are limited remains for analysis. [Portico map] Porticoes appear in Ostia, although again, in an uneven geographical distribution across the city. Beginning in the early 2nd c. CE, several large-scale building projects, with associated porticoes, began to reshape the city’s urban experience.[22] Unlike benches, fountains, or shrines, porticoes create a space of experience defined by the architecture. The semi-enclosed area is experienced as acoustically separated space from the roadway beyond, even as sounds will pass between the two auditory fields. In this way, the two auditory fields influence each other. Sounds from one bleed into the other. What becomes an issue is the terminology and language of description, which we will return to at the end.


Image: Sound Dissipation on 3 Streets in Ostia (Veitch 2017)

[Sound dissipation] Turning to the kinaesthetic experience of porticoes and streets in Ostia, the acoustic properties of street canyons can be modelled using based on the materials and dimensions of the street. Here the sound dissipation on 3 streets, all with porticoes along some part, is modelled. Measurement is made based on a noise in the centre of the street. The Decumanus is the widest (10 m), while the N Cardo is the only street with porticoes on both sides for the whole length (130 m). What the graph indicates is the steep dissipation of sound in the Decumanus, while N Cardo mimics this experience due to the addition of porticoes. In the case of the Via Epagathiana, with a portico on one side and for a limited length the dissipation is skewed on one side of the graph. However, the experience of sound in all three streets shows similar trends. Chronologically, the N Cardo is the earliest large-scale redevelopment with a portico as a defining feature in Ostia (116 CE). Porticoes are constructed along the neighbouring Via dei Misuratori del Grano and Via della Fortuna the next year (117-8 CE), while the forum is finished in the 120s.[23]


Image: Chronology of Porticoes and large-scale building projects (based on DeLaine 2002)

[Portico chronology] It is worth briefly concluding on the chronology of porticoes and shop standardisation outside of Ostia. Pompeii does not have any porticoes along it’s streets in the 79 CE plan. Rome, on the other hand, sees two distinctive groupings of portico construction, namely the late Republican/Augustan period and the Flavian period.[24] However these porticoes were a distinct architectural form, one that does not continue after the Flavian’s in Rome.[25] In roughly the same time period, the regulation of street porticoes is prescribed following the 64 CE fire in Rome.[26] While the literary sources, from the 2nd c. CE (Tacitus and Suetonius), set the motivation for porticoes in the need to control and prevent fires, it is worth noting that it is in the same time period as the last series of portico structures. Here the distinction between experience, in the streets of the 2nd c. CE, and narrative reflection, instigated in the 1st c. CE, is evident. Returning to Ostia, it is not during the Flavian period that porticoes begin to appear but rather at the start of the 2nd c. CE. That is to say, the experience of the portico street was an experience in Rome that reappeared between Pompeii’s destruction and the start of Ostia’s large scale rebuilding.

That the auditory experience is important is obvious, however the connection of that importance to understandings of Roman space is subtler. At the start of this paper, I drew on Lefebvre’s suggestions to use the senses as theoretical tools and the role of Rome in the production of (social) space. Porticoes, I argue, serve to bring together these two points. I noted the unconscious experience of space as being the first point of interaction between humans and the built environment. In the case of the N Cardo, the two porticoes lining the street created a comparable auditory experience to the wider and more limited portico frontage along the east Decumanus. The Via Epagathiana showed the way portico frontage, in that case on the west side, altered the auditory experience of the street. Further study of other streets and porticoes will nuance these findings further.


[Concluding slide] Finally, I want to end with a brief comment on sensory and spatial metaphors as ways of describing the changes in perception. Out of the experience of space, and in particular the changing experience of streets at the end of the first, beginning of the second century CE, Romans perceived of space differently, although not in complete rejection of previous perception.

The associations and metaphors used to describe this translation of experience into literature give clues to the power these experiences could have. Today, we rely on visual and spatial metaphors to describe social relations and urban environments; cities are images, the public eye, we ‘map’ and ‘explore’ social relations and networks. However, these visual and spatial metaphors reduce spatial and social relationships to static and abstract understandings.[29] In the translation of experiences of space to literary reflection vision is given power over other sensory experience.

In the Latin literary context, the verb incedo and its noun incessus refer to walking, which also carries associations with bearing or how one carries oneself.[30] The association of movement with comportment is key. In moving through the city, inhabitants carried themselves, or, in Bourdieu’s terms, enacted their habitus. By drawing movement and comportment together the metaphor places the power on walking, not seeing. The person walking/carrying themselves is the subject. What are necessary are a need to critically evaluate the experience of space, as I have tried to show, as well as the metaphorical conceptions of space. Non-visual, sensory metaphors offer a way forward in understanding the metaphorical architecture of Roman urbanism.


1. If sounds could happen anywhere on the street or in the portico, why is the model based on a sound in the centre of the street? i.e. carts, sellers in the portico, people walking in the street or in the portico.

The model of the acoustics is based on generic sound (white noise, or sound across all frequencies) in a fixed location. This gives us the acoustic foundation from which we can then move to particular sounds. In this paper, I focused on the architecture along the street and the role of porticoes in altering street acoustics. I was less concerned with the catalogue of sounds possibly produced along the street.

2. As a medievalist, we have evidence for mud and dirt along streets and these would dampen sound. Is there any evidence of this in the Roman period?

Short answer: no. There are anecdotal stories of magistrates not cleaning streets (Suetonius, Vespasian 5), legal regulations of what can be left outside of properties (Dig., duties for magistrates to clean and maintain streets and sewers (Dig. 43.23.1-2). Mud and dirt would dampen the sound dissipation of the streets.

[Later thought: this dampening would suggest that the sound dissipation curves for the N Cardo and Via Epagathiana would decrease at the top, moving closer to the Decumanus curve. In the case of the Decumanus, the dampening would happen at the edges of the curve, due to the streets extended length]

3. I am working on urban ecology, what would be the role of birds in your analysis or are there any studies on bird noise?

I do not know of any studies of bird noises in Rome. Particular sounds, such as bird noises, can be modelled in the street space. These would produce different sound dissipation curves to the ones I showed.

4. a) You do not use the term ‘soundscape’ but surely it plays a part in the social porduction of space; b) you ended with [Latin] words, but these would be aspects of the perceived sense, in a theoretical definition of ‘perception’. For example, my husband could snore and this sound would bother me, but may not bother others.

First, soundscapes: I am growing uncomfortable with the term [although, I have used it in publications]. I find its use unclear in defining its geographical extent and it being associated with cataloging all the sounds in a space (again, without reference to the flexibility of this term). That leads to the second point. Yes, ‘perception’ is culturally constituted and that is why I looked to Roman usage of metaphorical walking was associated with comportment. This offers a critique of our own reliance on visual metaphors to describe cities and urban space.


[1] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 399-400; a point also made by Terry Eagleton but with no reference to Lefebvre, Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 62-3.

[2] cité: Lefebvre, Metaphilosophy (Verso 2016), 142, 209-215; The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 239; see my own review of Lefebvre’s use of Rome and the ancient city at Ancient Noise (blog,

[3] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 103.

[4] Laurence, Roman Pompeii: Space and Society, 2nd ed. (Routledge 2007), 107-9.

[5] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[6] Poehler, ‘Measuring the Movement Economy: A Network Analysis of Pompeii’, in Flohr and Wilson (eds.), The Economy of Pompeii (OUP 2017), 204.

[7] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 149.

[8] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21.

[9] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 21, 27, 33.

[10] Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (Bloomsbury 2013), 32; cf. Lebas and Kaufman, ‘Lost in Transposition – Time, Space and the City’, in Writings on Cities (Blackwell 1996).

[11] See Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[12] Libet et al, ‘Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience: A functional role for the somatosensory specific projection system in man’ Brain 102 (1979), 191–222.

[13] See also Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (Routledge 2008).

[14] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 151.

[15] Lefebvre, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment (University of Minnesota 2014), 41.

[16] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 65-6.

[17] Eagleton, Materialism (Yale 2017), 67.

[18] See Veitch, ‘Soundscape of the Street: Architectural Acoustics at Ostia, in Betts (ed) Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (Routledge 2017), 54-70.

[19] Ellis, ‘Pes Dexter: Superstition and the State in the Shaping of Shopfronts and Street Activity in the Roman World’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 160-173.

[20] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110.

[21] Pompeii, Hartnett, ‘Si quis hic sederit: Streetside Benches and Urban Society in Pompeii’, AJA (2008), 110; Ostia, Veitch, Acoustics in Roman Ostia (unpub. PhD).

[22] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for discussion of large-scale building at this time.

[23] See DeLaine, ‘Building Activity in Ostia in the second century AD’ in Bruun and Gallina-Zevi (eds.) Ostia e Portus nelle loro relazioni con Roma (AIRF 2002), 41-102 for dates.

[24] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274.

[25] Macaulay-Lewis, ‘The City in Motion: Walking for Transport and Leisure in the City of Rome’, in Laurence and Newsome (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (OUP 2011), 274-5.

[26] Tacitus Annales 15.43.1-2; Suetonius Nero 16.

[27] Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell 1991), 40.

[28] Agricola 19-21⁠; Laurence and Trifilò, ‘The Global and the Local in the Roman Empire’, in Pitts and Versluys (eds.) Globalisation and the Roman Empire (CUP 2015), 103.

[29] See Smith and Katz, Grounding Metaphor: Towards a spatialised politics’, in Keith and Pile (eds.) Place and the Politics of Identity (Routledge 1993), 67-83; Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Polity 2002).

[30] Jenkyns, God, Space and City in the Roman Imagination (OUP 2013), 148.

Porticoes, Embodiment and Street Cries: Recent work…

Image: North Cardo Maximus, facing south, towards the forum in Ostia (Jeff Veitch)

Currently, I am working on a variety of different things all at once (presentations, publications, job applications). I have not posted here as much due to these activities and some, like job applications, are not very exciting things to discuss on the blog. However there are a couple of concepts and ideas that are worth briefly discussing, in the hopes that it will motivate me to devote more time to them in the coming months. So, here are a couple of topics swimming in my head right now…

Porticoes: I have two upcoming presentations that I am working on (details here). Originally, I had planned to write two completely separate papers on different aspects of my work (motivating me to write and formulate more particular approaches, ideas, etc). Instead, the two presentations will draw on case studies of porticoes from Ostia. In preparing these presentations, I keep returning to the experienced difference of portico architecture within the social space of streets. At a basic level, the portico is shaded and separated from the street. In auditory terms, the portico and street are different auditory fields, however the two fields influence each other. When the acoustic properties of street canyons are modelled, in instances where porticoes exist, the properties show a marked progression towards the acoustic properties of Ostia’s main street, the decumanus. In a way, certain streets approach the auditory character of the decumanus with the addition of porticoes. The chronology further emphasises the experienced character of the space, which is replicated to various degrees in other places across the city. Streets that could never reach the scale of the decumanus are able to mimic its auditory experience through more controlled and smaller scale developments. I will be testing some of these ideas this next week, when I present in Kiel, Germany.

Embodiment: Several books, lectures and writings have brought embodiment back to the forefront of what I am doing. I picked up Terry Eagleton’s new book, Materialism, and he makes a case for the importance of embodiment in Marx, as well as other forms of materialism. Tied into the emphasis on embodiment is the role of the senses as ways of measuring urban space or embodiment as site of particular forms of knowledge gleaned from the senses. These are not new ideas for me, but they are beginning to crystallise in particular ways (as well as focusing my generally scattered interests). Much of these ideas will appear in my presentations coming up, although they are primarily in the background and theory behind the presentations.

Finally, street cries: Street noise is one of the primary topics in my work and one that I continue dig into. After the winter holidays, I read through a series of books on Paris in the 18th and 19th century. Street criers, sellers and vendors were a part of the landscape of the city in that period and changes to the architecture of Paris were expressed in relation to street noise. There are some parallels with the ancient world, although comparisons need to be cautiously approached. What I find most useful, however, is the theoretical implication of much of this work, which builds bridges between social, political and economic aspects of the senses and their spatial settings. In short, as the topography of Paris changes, the sensorium likewise changes; these shifts produce different social, political and economic spatialities. Rome, I would argue, undergoes parallel changes in many ways. To say that architectural changes that alter the topography of Rome change the experience of the city is obvious. However, what need further study are the particularities of these changes.

How did the addition of porticoes change the way sellers utilised street space? What are the economic implications? Or social? Or political, for that matter? Do street traders change tactics in response to the development of porticoes along streets? Some of these questions have begun to be addressed in various ways. Sarah Bond’s new book, Trade & Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean, address aspects of social stigmas towards criers and auctioneers (praeco). In particular, Bond emphasises the changing nature of such social stigmas from the late Republic to late antiquity. The emphasis on changing stigmas, parallels my own interest in changing urban forms. In a different context, Arjan Zuiderhoek, in The Ancient City (part of the Key Themes in Ancient History series), discusses (briefly) street sellers in terms of a wider understanding of ancient cities. Zuiderhoek covers a similar longue durée of ancient history, although he highlights continuity in city formations, focusing instead more on the archaeological material and current debates. Both are recent publications, which highlight some of the areas for further investigation.

Hopefully, in the coming months some of these ideas will formulate into even more coherent research agendas, possible publications and further blog posts. In the meantime, it’s back to presentation prep and editing a chapter due by the end of the month…

Marxist Thought & the [Ancient] City

This is the first post in a series discussing Lefebvre’s use of ancient Rome in his writings. You can find a brief description of the project here. Page numbers refer to the new English translation by Robert Bononno with forward by Stuart Elden, available here.

Originally published in 1972, Marxist Thought and the City came out in the period when Lefebvre was most occupied with the city and urban questions. As we will see, the majority of writings, which make reference to the ancient city, are from the mid-1960s to mid-70s. It is interesting to trace the strands of thought in Lefebvre that draw on the ancient city, as they weave multiple threads, rather than a single line. My own interests in urban history, Roman urbanism and theoretical approaches to the city made Lefebvre a natural source for critically questioning ideas and concepts of space. It has become common to cite The Production of Space in studies of Roman urbanism, although these citations are never to Lefebvre’s use of ancient materials and rather references to either the challenge in defining space or his tripartite division of space in the first chapter. Therefore, this series of posts hopes to draw attention to the way the ancient city and space are part of Lefebvre’s historical work and, which has more to say about ancient urbanism than is usually given credit.

In Marxist Thought and the City, Lefebvre traces the fragmentary references to the city and urban problems in the works of Marx and Engels. While described as Lefebvre’s most theoretical work on the city, it is heavily indebted to Marxist thought in general, and Marx’s own writing in particular. Lefebvre notes the limited and fragmentary nature of references at the outset (xv). Thus, Marxist Thought and the City forms a ‘thematic rereading’ of Marx and Engels on the city and the urban problematic within the context of historical materialism (xv). Within this thematic rereading, reference is made to the ancient city within the conceptualisation of history and praxis (26-31). In general, discussion focuses on the ‘ancient city’ as a phase in the history of capitalism, rather than the particulars of Greek or Roman cities, as seen in Lefebvre’s other writings (like The Production of Space or Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment). For these reasons, Marxist Thought and the City provides an introduction to one strand of Lefebvre’s engagement with the ancient world, namely the city within the history of capitalism. In some of his other writings, Roman space and cities are discussed as comparative examples in the production of space and as part of the history of the city.

The first chapter, ‘The Situation of the Working Class in England’, looks at the early work of Engels and Lefebvre notes the twofold centralisation within the city that Engels analyses within capitalism: the concentration of population accompanies a concentration of capital (3). All the elements of industry are gathered in the city and, in England, every industrial region is a single city (3). Lefebvre draws out the important differences in Marx and Engels approaches. For Marx, current events clarify the past. The relationship between city and country in the ancient and Medieval periods follows from the differentiation of people from animals through labour in the opening of The German Ideology (6). Engels has a less retrospective view, focusing on modern cities to a level Marx never does (6). Throughout the book, the city of antiquity is seen in contrast to the city of the Middle Ages: ‘Antiquity began with the city while the Middle Ages (Western, European) began with the countryside’ (29). This overarching theme, of antiquity and the Middle Ages, is part of the Marxist tradition inherited by Lefebvre (see his other formulations of the history of the city, Metaphilosophy 2016: 143-4) and the city/countryside conflict is part of Marx’s emphasis in historical materialism (6). Particularities in the Roman or Greek city are not discussed in the book and references remain at the level of ‘ancient city’.

In the second chapter, the division of labour is discussed in terms of its urban aspects. Again, starting from the opening of The German Ideology, production includes reproduction of a way of life (27). The conflict between city and countryside resurfaces, as their separation is the division of labour (28). The quote above on antiquity beginning with the city follows this idea. In antiquity, political cities organised, dominated, protected, administered and exploited their surrounding territories (29). In the case of Greece and Rome, warfare and exchange were exercised to dominate a territory much larger than the cities immediate environment. For Lefebvre, the only major conflict was slaves and citizens in the urban growth of the ancient city (29). In the Middle Ages, these relationships are inverted.

The city serves as the subject of history in Marx and Engels (36-7). The city is introduced by a series of characteristics: a) the city concentrates not only the population, but also that which creates a society (institutions, organisations, instruments of production, capital, needs and pleasures); b) the separation of city and countryside reflects the separation of material and intellectual division of labour. The countryside provides material labour devoid of intellect, while the city provides labour enriched through intellect (37); c) the separation of city and countryside can and must be overcome, same as the division of labour (38). The city-country relationship is a returning theme within throughout the text. Much of the chapter is taken up discussing the city and country division and its relation to the division of labour. There are a number of points worth detailing, but much of it moves way from the ancient city.

Chapter three, ‘Critique of Political Economy’, has the most extensive discussion of the ancient city. Lefebvre begins summarising his argument so far. The transition from the dissolution of the feudal mode of production to capitalism was associated with a subject: the city (60). In comparison with the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, the European West reveals a form of transition from agricultural communities (71-4). The particularities of the Western city’s lineage are tied to the city as a laboratory where nature is an active agent in the development of the city (72-3) and community being detached from nature by nomadism, migration and instability (73-4). The detachment of the social being from nature (nomadism), which leads to warfare as the communal task of such societies (74). In this case, the city is the base of military organisation, while the severing of the immediate connection to nature means the city takes on a characteristic of mediation (75). The ancient urban republics prospered as the individual was placed in a condition were self-substance, the individuals own reproduction as a member of the community, was necessary, not the accumulation of wealth (75).

Drawing on the Grundrisse, the ancient city appears as the second line of development and decline (the first being the oriental city and the third that of the ‘barbarian German’, 77). What separates these lines of development and decline are the forms of ownership (77). The ancient city has two distinct forms of ownership united in the city: private property of the individual and public property, the ager publicus (77). A bipartite relationship is created where an individual is both an equal member of the community (citizen) and an owner. The social unit assumes a communal form, as well as ownership assumes a particular mode of production and relationships among individuals and between their totality and nature (80). What follows is the community as the ‘first great productive force’ (80). The loss of this bipartite relationship is inevitable and in the ancient city it dissolved the mode of production on which the community was based, and with it what made the individual Roman (80).

That is the ancient city politically dominated the countryside, but the countryside economically dominated the city (78). This tension lead to the breakdown of the city (78). Here in using different examples, the dissolution of the relationships between different elements of production gives way to relations of domination (82). In the ancient city, this produced plebeians, ‘demanding bread and circuses’ (82). Relations of domination and servitude are, thus, part of the decay of relations of ownership and production and were, according to Lefebvre, prevalent in Imperial Rome (82).

In the final chapters, Lefebvre turns to ‘Engels and Utopia’ and ‘Capital and Land Ownership’. These studies are full of interesting points, but do not engage with the ‘ancient city’ to the extent of chapter three. In particular, at the end of chapter five (‘Capital and Land Ownership’), Lefebvre lays out how the city is the site, or sites, par excellence of reproduction, which is larger and more complex than production (143). It is apparent in this closing remark that the Lefebvre is thinking in terms of a broader definition of production, one that he sets out in various places. Parallel broad definitions are found in Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment and The Production of Space. For Lefebvre, the city is the site of the reproduction of social relations, as well as the link between the terms of production and labour. In terms of the Roman city, Lefebvre will continue to draw relate the physical city to the social relations, even if at times in a dated scholarly fashion. Marxist Thought and the City offers a good introduction to many of the themes and concepts Lefebvre expands in other writings, as well as placing the ancient city within his own theoretical approach.

Lefebvre & Ancient Space

I have added a new menu item and page for Henri Lefebvre Resources and Lefebvre & Ancient Space. If you follow me on Twitter or have heard me present, then you will be aware of my use and interest in Henri Lefebvre’s work on everyday life, urbanism and production of space. I often begin presentations with a quote from Rhythmanalysis, as it nicely encapsulates several of my interests (below). In my readings of Lefebvre, I have pulled together his references to ancient cities and Roman culture, society, and buildings, which will be part of a side-project on Lefebvre’s use of ancient sources. This side-project draw on some of the theoretical work that did not make it into my PhD and, on the ‘Lefebvre & Ancient Space’ page, I have listed some of the key texts where Lefebvre discusses Roman and ancient space and I will be posting readings of some of these texts throughout the writing process.


I was recently asked why Lefebvre? A question that seems to implicitly ask either do you understand it or why Marx? Lefebvre is challenging, although the more I read his other works beyond The Production of Space the easier I find him to be (creating a nice feedback loop). I find him a useful theoretician for three reasons, which do not answer whether I understand him (I am pretty sure I get some bits of his diverse work) and partially answer why Marx (Lefebvre is doing something quite distinct with Marxist thought so, the simple conflation can be misleading or simply wrong).

First, his spatial schema (Chapter 1 in The Production of Space) has been useful in thinking about the way different types of evidence can be understood. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment is an application of Lefebvre’s own schema to the practice of architecture and the development of ‘enjoyment’ spaces (written the year before The Production of Space was originally published). The schema allows for the separation of different sources into material space, representations of space and spaces of representation, allowing their analysis before being brought back together to understand their dialectical relationship (the later chapters in The Production of Space, although these are more historical developments towards contemporary ‘production of space’). The separation and analysis is useful in asking critical questions about the types of sources and our scholarly assumptions, which we bring to those sources. David Harvey (in ‘Space as a Keyword’) sets up a matrix of spatial categories using Lefebvre and his own categories. Such conceptual tools were helpful in my research into the way different sources address the relationship between sound and ancient urban space.

Second, I encountered Lefebvre through Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies, which I read during my first master’s. At the time, I was working through a variety of critical theories and had a growing interest in geographical questions. I was caught by the adaptability of Lefebvre’s approach to various circumstances, although it took some time to really grasp what Lefebvre was getting at. Later when I started my PhD, I began looking at Lefebvre’s work on everyday life, as my initial PhD project was on neighbourhoods and ‘everyday life’ in the ancient Rome. It was in going through Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life that I started to pick-up on his use of the senses and started to conceive of his urban studies within his work on everyday life.

Finally, I found Lefebvre’s unsystematic, but always present use of the senses inviting. As my PhD research moved into sound and acoustics, I found in Lefebvre a possibility of theorising sensory space. That is, of applying Lefebvre’s understanding of the production of space to the bodies perception of urban space. Lefebvre utilises sensory perception in a variety of his writings and these diverse fragments make-up a considerable ‘theory’ of perception and conception of space. Lefebvre himself never fully develops these fragments, instead they echo throughout his writings. In these ways, Lefebvre provided both a critical tool and opened up a theoretical space for my own work on the role of acoustics in shaping social interaction and the reproduction of social space.

In this side-project, I want to turn to Lefebvre’s historical work and focus on his use of ancient sources. In particular, ancient cities and Rome are a featured case study in the history of the city and urbanism, as well as the historical development of ‘the production of space’. These case studies all come from publications in the mid-60s to mid-70s. Today, in Classical Studies, The Production of Space is referenced (quite regularly) in passing, usually in a nod to the importance of the word ‘space’ or to point out the complexity in definitions of space. Engagement with Lefebvre’s work however is minimal and this project hopes to provide a nuanced and critical reading of the role of ancient Rome in his thought. I will (sporadically) post some commentaries on ‘key texts’ in which reference to ancient cities and Rome appear.

Along with resources for my own work, I have also put several links to Stuart Elden’s blog Progressive Geographies. He has some very useful resources for getting into Lefebvre’s work, as well as his own introduction to Lefebvre, Understanding Henri Lefebvre. It is worth pointing out the most recent issue of Foucault Studies has a themed section on Foucault and Roman Antiquity: Foucault’s Rome, edited by Richard Alston and Shreyaa Bhatt. I have not had a chance to read the articles yet, but they are on my list and will likely have some overlap with my Lefebvre work.

KISS Inaugural Lecture, University of Kent: Alan Penn ‘Architectural Space and Social Action: How does the built environment relate to human society?’

‘Buildings, or cities, are different from different points of view.’ –A. Penn

On Wednesday, I was in Canterbury for the KISS (Kent Interdisciplinary Centre for Spatial Studies) Inaugural Lecture given by Alan Penn, Dean of the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture. The lecture introduced the concept and basic form of analysis know as Space Syntax. I have used Space Syntax in my own research and it serves as a sounding board for the acoustic analysis I undertook in my PhD. Space Syntax is one of analysing, and more importantly discussing, the micro-macro movements of people in space. That is Space Syntax analysis focuses on the relationship between a single space (room, street segment, etc.) and the whole (building, neighbourhood, region, city) in terms of movement. In this reflection, I want to draw out the way the senses serve as critical tool in interpreting the micro-macro experience of space.

To start out, I should be clear that I find Space Syntax to be a very fruitful tool to think about space. The basis of the analysis is movement through space and in time. The combination of space-time is a necessary starting point for any understanding of urban experience. In the field of Classical Archaeology, a professed ‘spatial turn’ has happened (although, many think it is just now starting). The emphasis, therefore is on space, not time. In my own work, time is just as important. Sound happens in space, but, more importantly, it happens in time. Following Doreen Massey, I seek to emphasise the combination, space-time, as the key to understanding urban soundscapes (see Massey 1994). Space Syntax has a slightly different, although parallel focus, on movement in space-time. In Space Syntax terms, ‘integration’ defines the relationship between a single space and the whole. Thus, the integration value also serves as a space-time measure, as more integrated spaces are more easily accessible.

But here I run into one of the distinctive differences between Space Syntax and my own phenomenological approach: do we experience the whole (whether building, city, region, neighbourhood)? Space Syntax seems to say yes, the whole is implicit in the particular, although the whole is made up of all possible ‘points of view’. I am hesitant to agree and I find the senses to be useful critical tools in describing my hesitation.

Sensory experience, in the broadest sense, is a made up of various sensory registers (associated with the different senses). These registers have particular distance decay rates. A sound decays by 3 dB when the distance from the sound is doubled. Smells have different decay rates, which are shorter. Sight covers the furtherest distance and is the central analytical approach in Space Syntax. The decay rate influences the total area perceived and even when all the sensory registers are combined there is a limited range. Now, the limited range is further constrained by conscious awareness. As people move through space, much of what is interpreted by the sensory systems is interpreted unconsciously, often spoken of as ‘experience’. This is not to say that it does not form knowledge, but that it forms a tacit knowledge of urban environments. In particular space-time settings, different sensory registers come into play. In way finding, sight and hearing take precedence, while in food shopping, smell and touch take on greater roles. In this sense, the ‘experience’ of space-time dictates the sensory registers in which we consciously pay attention to. This attention is often fleeting, but it does indicate the way in which human perception of ‘space-time’ as a thing is mediated by the senses. We make sense of the worlds we experience through our senses.

This guiding principle is part of the Space Syntax approach and I assume many in that community would not disagree with it. However, as a historian, as opposed to designer, architect or urban planner, I deal not with future potential, but with analysing the past. This has implications for the source materials at my disposal, as well as for the interpretive questions I bring to those sources. In many ways, this makes me less concerned with the ‘intelligibility’ of a city (a key term in Space Syntax) and more interested in response inhabitants had to the experience of ‘intelligibility’. Take hearing as an example: we will instinctively turn in the direction a sound is perceived to come from, most often based on where we expect the sound to be produced, not where the sound actually comes from. The instinct is not wrong, but built through the experience of urban space, particular objects and habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term). Getting the spatial location right is not as interesting as exploring why I looked where I did. The same goes for the ancient city. I am more interested in the way Roman authors describe places, whether intelligible or not, through their senses, as a way to understand the space of the city. This allows me to push the literary sources further and ask how that experience creates an uneven urbanism, an urbanism of certain space-times and not others, or of certain streets (or buildings, neighbourhoods, on and on…) and not others. ‘Intelligibility’ becomes a comparative tool to understand the descriptive experience, or the fashioning of the historical space-time.

Alan Penn ended with some points on architecture as a discipline and the theoretical/methodological focus, which Space Syntax brings. In particular, two points stood out, namely buildings, or cities, are non-discursive objects and configurations are relational. I make similar points through my own work and both points appear in this post. For me, these points are implicit in a sensory approach to urbanism, or architecture. Movements, sights, sounds, smells and any other sensory stimuli are the product of space-time and social activity. In this way, the senses are the non-discursive interpreters of the built environment, as well as being indicators of the relational character of urban configurations. The senses draw out these points, requiring us to think about the implications for the ancient world.