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Beyond the Salutatio: Looking at Archaeological and Literary Evidence for the Tablinum in the Houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Ambra Spinelli

University of Southern California

This paper investigates the possible activities and cultural experience of the domestic room known as the tablinum in the atrium houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Directly visible from the street, the tablinum was a pivotal room within the house acting as visual shorthand for the dominus in presenting himself as bonus vir (that is, as a good citizen). The tablinum has been usually referred to as the main reception space for the presentation of the paterfamilias to his clients and friends during the formal morning greeting, or salutatio, despite the fact that no primary literary source mentions the tablinum in connection with this daily ritual. The perception that the principal use of the tablinum was for the salutatio has not only prevented a fuller discussion on this space but has also conditioned the way in which scholars have sometimes interpreted its decoration.

                  The primary goal of this study is to expand our understanding of this domestic room beyond the salutatio, by considering the tablinum not just as a separate space within the house but also as a room intrinsically related to its domestic architectural and decorative context. By looking at the tablinum in ca. 140 atrium houses and examining its spatial location, layout, and architectural and decorative features, as well as contextualized artifacts, I explore the role of this space in meeting domestic, social, and cultural needs.

              Through a careful examination of the full range of archaeological evidence both remaining in situ and recorded by previous excavators, I demonstrate not only how the tablinum was framed within the context of the house as a whole but also what this visual experience would have meant fideologically and symbolically to a male-dominated Roman society and culture. This project, in particular, opens up innovative perspectives on the strategies and mechanisms of self-presentation within the domestic context. It also offers new insights on domestic behaviors and practical and ideological needs of the household during the last decades prior the emption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., helping to shed light on broader questions about changes in tastes, customs, and socio-economical structure in the Early Empire.

Session/Panel Title:

Herculaneum: New Technologies and New Discoveries in Art and Text

Session/Paper Number

3.2

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