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  • The Traffic Systems of Pompeii by Eric E. Poehler
  • Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis
Eric E. Poehler. The Traffic Systems of Pompeii. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xviii, 276. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-19-061467-6.

This study of Pompeii's traffic systems is an important contribution to our knowledge of Pompeii and of how Roman cities managed traffic. It will be of interest to scholars of Pompeii and ancient urbanism. Two key principles underlie the book's arguments. First, scholars should think of traffic systems—not streets. Traffic systems indicate a different way to conceptualize space, drawing the reader from the physical street into a three-dimensional space where pedestrians, beasts of burden, and carts moved. Pompeii's traffic system developed from tensions and negotiations between civic authorities, property owners, and those in the streets. Second, archaeology, as Poehler notes (xv), is really the only way to understand certain aspects of ancient Rome, and traffic systems are one such example. Archaeological data make up the bulk of Poehler's evidence, but his conclusions are also supported through the inclusion of art-historical, epigraphic, and historical evidence.

Chapter 1 provides a useful overview of the current literature about Roman streets and traffic systems and argues for rethinking certain standard assumptions; specifically, that vehicular traffic was banned during the day in Rome and other cities, and that road transportation was inefficient compared to sea transportation. The rest of the book is split into two sections. Chapters 2 to 6 focus on Pompeii's traffic networks, street infrastructure, and the evidence for traffic systems. Chapters 7 and 8 take a macro perspective, examining the experiences of a fictitious mulio (a mule-driver) and comparing Pompeii's traffic systems to other Roman cities.

Chapter 2 discusses the evolution of the urban street network in the context of the debates over Pompeii's development, and Poehler argues compellingly for a refoundation and implementation of a master plan in the fourth century b.c.e., as evidenced by the new grid that the city received. This chapter should appeal to those interested in Pompeii's urban development.

Only then does Poehler examine street surfaces (chapter 3). Beaten ash was the dominant street surface in Pompeii before the first century b.c.e. and remained important thereafter, although it was gradually replaced by lava stones. This is a useful reminder that seemingly ephemeral materials can survive quite well in the archaeological record. Street surfaces had social capital and, as Pompeian houses grew larger, Pompeians competed against each other to build sidewalks and aggrandize the space in front of their homes, vying for the attention of each passerby. This discussion flags an element missing from this section and largely from the book—the people who may have walked in the streets and then later on the sidewalks. The development of sidewalks (and later colonnades in other cities) that Poehler does touch upon suggests that further considerations of [End Page 448] pedestrian traffic, despite the small amounts of evidence, might have informed his discussion and interpretation of wheeled traffic.

Chapters 4 to 6 are necessarily technical, and some readers will find this language and level of detail off-putting. Chapter 4 treats curbstones, stepping stones, and guard stones in short, focused pieces that detail the stones used, dimensions, cutting techniques, and other technical details. Chapter 5 examines the wear ruts on the road surfaces as evidence for traffic in Pompeii and for the interactions between Roman vehicles (two- and four-wheeled carts) and the streets. The first part of chapter 5 (102–23) is highly technical because only through attention to minute details in the ruts' formation can traffic patterns, specifically the direction in which carts moved, be ascertained. The second part of this chapter, dealing with the directionality of traffic as evidenced through the wearing of carts' wheels on vertical surfaces, is less technical and more accessible. In chapter 6, Poehler attempts to extrapolate behavior from six hundred examples of different directional wear. Methodologically he takes a rigorous approach of running the data through a series of three "filters" (139): structural, directional, and chronological. His analysis, supported by charts, demonstrates that the Romans drove...


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