Amarna and Pompeii: The Towns
In our previous issue, we set out to compare Egyptian towns with Roman towns and to ask what was the difference? We chose first the town of Amarna in Egypt, the new town built by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and then abandoned after his death,and now the subject of a splendid new book by Professor Barry Kemp, The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People (Thames and Hudson).
We then compared it with Pompeii, the Italian town destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius. We looked at the great buildings in each town and compared the great Temple at Amarna with the forum at Pompeii, and then the palaces of Amarna with the amphitheatre at Pompeii. Now it is time to move out of the great buildings and to look at the towns themselves: how do they compare as living places?
The comparison is perhaps a little unfair because we are comparing a short-lived town that had little time to develop and was still little more than a shanty town, with a long established town that had developed for six centuries or more and was becoming badly over crowded. But the differences are, I think, still very significant.
One of the surprising things about Amarna was that the town consisted of three shanty villages – one to the north and two to the south. As Barry Kemp demonstrates, the original plan envisaged a ‘royal road’ running from north to south in a straight line, the southern terminus being marked by a temple. However the villages to the south deviated badly from the royal road and curved round to run parallel to the curving line of the Nile.
Within each of the agglomerations, a number of blocks could be made up each centred round several wealthy houses, each with a ‘dependent village’. One of the best known of these is that occupied by the sculptor Thutmose at one end: it was in his workrooms that the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti was discovered by the German excavators and carried off to Berlin.
Each of the grand houses lay in its own enclosed space, with a special enclosure to one side that usually contained a well and a chapel and often the entrance. Sometimes there were tree pits, so perhaps we should envisage an entrance into a tree-lined garden with an ornamental pool of the centre and a chapel at the far end. This then led into a larger enclosure with the main house and the granaries.
There were often several such grand houses in the block– the sculptor Thutmose had the general Ramose at the other end of the block, but they were accompanied by a dependent village or villages; there was sculptural debris in some of the houses in the village adjacent to Thutmose, suggesting that they belonged to ‘his’ workers. It is all very much like the feudal system.
It is perhaps surprising that Pompeii on the other hand is laid out on a grid system, or rather two or possibly three grid systems. One always feels that the dictatorial empires of the Near East would have towns laid out on rigid grid systems, and that the democratic societies of Greece and Rome would have towns that have evolved in democratic chaos. In fact the reverse is true and it is the Greco-Roman towns that are laid out on rigid grid systems. Pompeii is no exception though it is very much a matter of dispute when the original grid system was laid out. Certainly there is an area of the town in the south east corner known as the ‘old town’ which lacks a grid system, though again it is disputed as to whether this really is the old town. But the rest of the town was laid out on a rectangular grid: admittedly there are two or three slightly different alignments, but nevertheless there was a grid pattern running throughout the town and the main road, known as the Via del’Abbondanza runs from East to West throughout the town.
The layout of the houses too was very different. The grid pattern meant that the town was divided up into individual blocks known as Insulae, or Islands, each of which formed a habitation block – and very mixed these blocks were. A good example is that known as that of the House of Menander, which was excavated from 1926 to 1935, and has since been studied in detail by a team under Roger Ling (CA85).
This had just two grand houses: both contained an entrance hallway or atrium leading through to the peristyle, the garden courtyard. The original house is known as the House of Menander while the second grand house in the south-west corner known as the House of the Lovers. However as the block filled up, three or four other more modest houses, each with an entrance hallway, were inserted. However by the time of the destruction, it had become very full indeed, with a joiner, a weaver, a fuller, two cafés, while upstairs were several flats, one which may even have been a brothel, — though sadly this is now doubted. But there is no reason to think that the occupants of the shops and flats were the servants of the owners of the big houses. Their relationship may have been purely commercial.
We therefore see a paradox that whereas the city of the highly structured Egyptian society turns out to be a conglomeration of separate villages, the semi-democratic market oriented society is laid out with a regular grid, and in each block of the grid, rich and poor were jammed together in the same block, even if they all had different front doors. The paradoxical conclusion is that democracies are far better at getting themselves properly organised than are absolute monarchies.
We should perhaps also take a look at how the two different cities entertained themselves, – for this is one of the most important criteria by which we should assess any society. For the Egyptians, as always, the main entertainment was death – they were obsessed by burial and spent much of their time in life preparing for their death. Admittedly by the time of Amarna in the New Kingdom, the quite excessive obsessions of the Old Kingdom, the age of the Pyramids, when the whole society was directly or indirectly engaged in building the pyramids – had largely subsided.
Nevertheless, in the cliff face behind Amarna on the edge of the Eastern Desert, there are two groups of grand tombs, numbering some 25 in all, where the elite were buried in highly elaborate rock-cut tombs with lavish decorations which provide us with much of our evidence for life in Amarna.
The Romans by contrast had very different concerns. There was the large amphitheatre at Pompeii – discussed in the previous issue – and also the two theatres in the ‘Old Town’. And then there were the baths, public and private, which were the places where on a day-to-day basis most Pompeians met and socialised. There are no such equivalent in Amarna – the Egyptian entertainment probably came in the form of the processions which are well recorded at Thebes: this was where the Great and the Good, the Pharaohs and the priests made their way by barge down the river and through the town and temples and where no doubt redistribution of goodies took place: if you didn’t turn up, you didn’t get your rations. The Egyptians had their entertainments – but I know which I would prefer!
The preindustrial city
So far, I have been comparing Amarna with the Roman city of Pompeii, but Barry Kemp makes a rather different comparison with what he called the ‘Pre-industrial city’. This is the title of an influential book published in 1960 by the American sociologist Gideon Sjoberg. This analyses a number of cities such as Seoul, Peking, Cairo, Mecca and Florence, but from a sociological point of view which is both infuriating to the archaeologists in its lack of plans and rigour but at the same time fascinating by bringing in all the details of things such as marriage that archaeology cannot deal with.
Barry Kemp makes several interesting comparisons. In religion for instance, there is a difference between the Egyptian society, and indeed the Graeco- Roman world, where all gods were worshipped alike, and the situation in the preindustrial city, where there tended to be a sharp division between different religions, and indeed between the beliefs of the rich and the poor.
He also points out that in the preindustrial city, the rich cluster together around the centre of the city, and the poor spread out along the fringes, whereas in Amarna the houses of the rich are dotted around the city and each rich house attracts its own village of hangers-on. Similarly the preindustrial city is divided up by numbers of guilds, so that each part of the city has its own speciality, whereas in Amarna, manufacturing is scattered throughout the city. Barry Kemp provides distribution plans of both weaving material and of the ceramic moulds used in the manufacture of faience showing that such manufacture was scattered throughout the city – many households seem to make faience: he wishes that similar distribution maps were available for the Preindustrial cities.
I can’t help thinking that it is a pity that he did not analyse the classical cities. The preindustrial cities that Sjoberg analyses are what I would call ‘mediaeval’ cities in that they are in the ‘middle’, between market and pre-market economies; their social structure is mostly feudal, that is a caste rather than a class structure, and though money is sometimes used – there are merchants and peddlers – yet money does not control the economy, so they cannot be considered to be a market economies. I cannot help feeling that it would have been far more interesting to compare Amarna with the Greek and Roman societies economies which emerged as the world’s first full-blown market economies.
To conclude: how far can we distinguish between a city of ‘gift-economy’ Egypt and a city of ‘market-economy’ Rome ? Archaeologists tend to group them all together as being ‘state societies’ but I believe there are very major differences between market economies and pre-market economies, and that this difference is shown up in the designs of the towns themselves. In the premarket economy, the Pharaoh was at the apex of a vast system of redistribution with defined ranks of officials and scribes and workmen beneath them. The main activity was centred round the temples and palaces because this is where the redistribution took place. And with a redistribution society, much perhaps most of the produce was not in fact redistributed, but simply kept to build up around the grandeur of the temples and palaces.
In the market economy however, the town is centred round the marketplace and it is here that the major buildings are focused. There is perhaps an even more important difference in what I call the ‘entertainments’. In Amarna, the entertainment clearly centred round the temples and round the courtyards of the Palaces – and I suspected that my analogy with Moghul India is probably apt here. In Pompeii, the entertainment was centred round the great amphitheatre – the largest single building in the town, and then the baths, though it is not clear how far these were municipal enterprises or how far they were the result of private enterprise serving the general public.
The houses too show a marked difference. In Egypt, each block was centred round one or more grand houses accompanied by a village of subservient workers. In Pompeii there were indeed the grand houses, but huddling within the same block there was a mass of private enterprises, the cafes, the carpenters, the fullers (=dry cleaners?) the doctors. – yes and perhaps even a brothel.
Thus the architecture of the Greek and Roman cities displays a much ‘flatter’ structure, the architecture of an open society where there is a far less rigid social structure. But this is surely the way in which we should seek to analyse towns and cities of the past, by comparing temples and palaces versus markets and entertainments, and to see how far houses reflected private enterprise. Barry Kemp in his splendid new book offers us an opportunity to understand as never before the workings of a great Egyptian town.
This comes to the end of our discussion of the Two cities. Now you can go:
5th February 2014