Luxury, Prestige and Grandeur: the Mansions and Daily Life of the Social Elite of the Roman Near East during the 1st-6th Centuries CE

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Luxury, Prestige and Grandeur: the Mansions and Daily Life of the Social Elite of the Roman Near East during the 1st-6th Centuries CE, R. and E. Hecht Fellow, Shulamit Miller, W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research
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By: Shulamit Miller, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, R. and E. Hecht Fellow

The time I spent during the past year as the R. and E. Hecht Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research was dedicated to formulating the topic of my dissertation, writing the proposal, and starting to compile the data to be used in my study. Following is a short outline of my field of research, and the topics I expect to address within the framework of my dissertation.

Archaeological research in ancient Palestine and Arabia during the Roman and Byzantine periods has focused mainly on urban planning and monumental architecture. The excavation of ancient cities has contributed greatly to our understanding of urban transformations due to political, demographic and religious developments. When researching ancient cities, the homes of the people who comprised these societies are often neglected, although they are of the utmost importance to understanding the character of the urban centers and their inhabitants.

Both urban and rural mansions have been extensively researched in various regions of the Roman-Byzantine Empire, primarily in Italy, North Africa and Asia Minor. However, a comprehensive study of the mansions and daily life in the Roman-Byzantine Near East has not as yet been attempted, despite an abundance of archaeological data and descriptive material from contemporary Jewish literary sources.

As in Rome itself, the society of the Roman East was hierarchical, headed by the emperor and his officials. In order to advertise their status, members of the social elite emulated the imperial circle, mimicking their actions and competing with one another for power and prestige. The aspirations and competitiveness of the elites are clearly evident in their homes, which are excessively large, elaborate and lavishly decorated with wall paintings, mosaics and sumptuous architectural embellishments. The owners used their homes not only for social and political gatherings, but also to showcase their wealth and social status, effectively creating a common visual language that distinguished the social elite from their surrounding society. The mansions are often located within ancient cities, or along their boundaries, in order to facilitate their owners’ maintenance of social and political positions by remaining in close proximity to the urban centers of power.

Recent studies focusing on mansions throughout the Mediterranean basin, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE, show that in spite of geographical, chronological and cultural diversities, certain architectural, decorative, and stylistic components characterize the homes of the wealthy throughout the Roman-Byzantine Empire.

In the Near East, mansions displaying the characteristics of elite domestic architecture first appear in the 1st century CE and continue throughout late antiquity. They are located primarily in urban centers, but extant examples are also located along the rural margins. Similar to their western counterparts, these are large, lavish complexes, opulently decorated according to the latest fashionable trends. Both private and public wings are centered around a peristyle courtyard. Among the various units found within the mansions are reception and dining halls, bath houses, shops and storage units, all attesting to the wealth and social standing of their resident patrons.

My research addresses such questions as: What were the main characteristics identifying the homes? How and why do the layouts of the homes differ from one another, both chronologically and geographically? What is the location of the mansions within the cityscape? How was the internal space organized? Is there a division between “public” and “private” space, and if so, how does it manifest itself? How do the various units relate to each other, and what may have prompted the patron/architect to organize the space in such a manner? What are the decorative elements used in the homes and how do they compare with similar examples elsewhere in the region? Do the homes have decorative programs, or is each room treated on an individual basis? Can a hierarchy be noted by an analysis of the decorative components, their location, style, and complexity? How (if at all), do the mansions of this region differ from others throughout the Empire, and why? Who used the homes, and how did these dwellings routinely function? Who were the home owners? How did they perceive themselves and how were they perceived by their society? What is the place of women within the home? Were they considered on par with the male patrons, or were they categorized together with the lowlier members of the household, namely the children and slaves? What may be learned from written sources and the archaeological record about the social, ethnic, economic, religious and cultural affiliations of their inhabitants? Are there differences evident in the homes of the wealthy in Jewish cities (Sepphoris, Tiberias) in comparison to Pagan or Christian cities (Caesarea, Madaba)? What may be learned of the daily life of the various ethnic groups, and what was their social standing in relation to one another?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I will endeavor to reconstruct the daily life within these mansions as well as to inquire into the identity and social standing held by their residents within ancient society. In order to achieve my goals, I draw on a number of fields, such as archaeology, art history, social and economic history, social studies, gender studies, Jewish history, Talmudic studies and more, creating innovative debates on the topics covered in my dissertation. My work creates a dialogue among the various disciplines, examining the material with up-to-date methodologies, both practical and theoretical, revealing ideas previously confined to one field or another, but, in effect, relevant to them all.

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