Running the Roman Home by Alexandra Croom

Book Review by Melvadius

Running the Roman Home by Alexander Croom, (2011) The History Press 160 pages including 20 colour plates and 34 pages with line drawn illustrations. Alexandra Croom is not only Keeper of Archaeology at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum but she has also been involved with the re-enactment group Cohors V Gallorum for several years. It is obvious in several areas that she has put both sets of knowledge to excellent use in writing this book.

In the introduction the author notes how books on everyday life of the Romans usually describes more specialised events like going to the baths, amphitheatre and evening parties but rarely describes the typical activities of any household such as doing the washing up or taking out the rubbish. This book is the authors attempt to redress this lack with a stated aim to ‘look at the range of activities involved and the amount of time that had to be dedicated to them on a daily or weekly basis’.

Although there are twelve numbered chapters in this book these include the introduction and a one page conclusion. The remaining ten cover; four specific aspects of supply (collecting water, collecting fuel, grinding and woolwork), four on maintenance (cleaning, lighting, doing the washing up and cleaning clothes) and two on disposal (water waste and sewage and finally rubbish).

There is also an eight page appendix with a few lines giving brief biographical details of the 44 ancient sources referred to in the text. In addition there is an eight page bibliography of more modern texts.

The ten topic based chapters provide information on core activities which each Roman household, whether urban, rural or military would have needed to undertake. It discusses variations where even if these core tasks would not have been undertaken on a daily basis they would have been required weekly or less frequently throughout the year.

Each chapter contains a range of secondary information relating to the main topic under separate sub-headings which in some instances are subdivided into further sections. For example Chapter 2 on Supply: collecting water has 7 sub-heading including sources which is in turn subdivided into further sections covering; surface water, springs, wells, cisterns, piped water, public fountains and finally piped water inside houses. The number of sub-headings (and sections within sub-headings) varies within each chapter but normally includes at least ones discussing; the quantities of materials which would have been needed, the equipment required and how long key tasks may have taken.

The book appears to be principally aimed at the general reader but despite being eminently readable it provides a wealth of sometimes surprising information on Roman household activities. Even more academic readers may find it of interest since the secondary sources and discussions of tasks are well and appropriately referenced.

In addressing each topic the author has drawn on a wide variety of sources ranging from; descriptions by ancient authors, archaeological evidence, anthropological comparisons with more recent cultures and experimental archaeology carried out by her local re-enactment group.

A summary table indicating approximate times for each activity and how often they would have been undertaken may have been a useful addition but in my view is not essential given the text discussions of the variability of some of those tasks.

All in all Running the Roman Home is a book worth reading both by anyone who has wondered how the Romans actually ran their homes and a useful resource for anyone interested in more academic research into this often overlooked area.

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