Pollution and Propriety:
A two-day conference at the British School at Rome.
Thursday 21 and Friday 22 June 2007.
Keynote speaker: Professor Dame Mary Douglas

Conference Statement

This interdisciplinary conference will examine the significance of pollution and cleanliness in the art, literature, philosophy, and material culture of the city of Rome from antiquity through to the twentieth century. Dirt, disease and pollution and the ways they are represented and policed have long been recognised by historians and anthropologists to occupy a central position in the formulation of cultural identity, and Rome holds a special status in the West as a city intimately associated with issues of purity, decay, ruin and renewal. In recent years, scholarship in a variety of disciplines has begun to scrutinise the less palatable features of the archaeology, history and society of Rome. This research has drawn attention to the city’s distinctive historical interest in the recognition, isolation and treatment of pollution, and the ways in which politicians, architects, writers and artists have exploited this as a vehicle for devising visions of purity and propriety.

As a departure point, then, the organisers propose the theme of ‘Pollution and Propriety’ and the discourses by which these two antagonistic concepts are related. How has pollution in Rome been defined, and by what means is it controlled? How does Rome’s own social and cultural history affect the way states of dirt and cleanliness are formulated? Does purity always accompany political, physical or social change? Does Rome’s reputation as a ‘city of ruins’ determine how it is represented? What makes images of decay in Rome so picturesque? It is hoped that this conference will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines who are interested in dirt, disease and hygiene in Rome in order to examine the historical continuity of these themes and to explore their development and transformation alongside major chapters in the city’s history, such as early Roman urban development, the Roman Empire, early Christianity, decline and fall, the medieval city, the Renaissance, the Unification of Italy, and the advent of Fascism. In addition, papers will explore a wide range of social, political and cultural themes, such as: death and burial; the management and representation of disease and the history of medicine, sexuality and virginity, prostitution, sewers and waste disposal; urban segregation; religions, purity and absolution; public and private morality; bodies and cleansing; decay, decline and fall; ruins and renovation; concepts of pollution.

It is hoped that this conference will be of interest to scholars working in archaeology, cultural history, literature, art history, and the history of medicine. The conference will aim to develop themes in the history of the city of Rome, as well as providing a context for examining general issues of pollution and purity. Papers will be original and not previously published or delivered at a major conference.

Organisers: Dr Mark Bradley (Classics, Nottingham)
Prof Richard Wrigley (Art History, Nottingham)

Further details, and registration:


Email: pollution.conference AT nottingham.ac.uk


Thursday 21 June

PANEL 1: Concepts of Pollution in Ancient Rome

This panel will explore the various manifestations of pollution and purity in the early stages of Roman society. Fantham’s paper will discuss the formulation of pollution and purification in one area of Roman religious ritual and the way this filtered across into the community’s secular life. Barton will approach this question from the quite different angle of Roman psychology and emotion, and will examine literary contexts in which the Romans imagined themselves from the point of view of their enemies as polluters and defilers. This panel will critically assess the terms in which pollution and propriety can be formulated and described, and will set out some initial parameters for understanding and approaching these concepts during the conference.

Elaine Fantham (Classics, Princeton): Passive and active pollution in Roman pagan tradition

Carlin Barton (History, Massachusetts): Compassion and Purity: an Antithetical Pair?

Respondent: Val Curtis (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

PANEL 2: Pollution and Propriety in Ancient Urban Development

This panel will examine the ways in which notions of pollution and purity helped give the ancient city physical shape, by exploring the establishment and negotiation of boundaries at critical stages in Roman historical development. Davies’ paper will discuss urban planning during the Republic when the city was expanding faster than at any other period. This paper will consider Roman attitudes to death and burial, and how these attitudes dictated the relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, between clean and unclean, as well as how Republican politicians directed their professional careers to establishing and reinforcing urban sanitation and cleanliness. Bodel will examine aspects of Roman identity and propriety at the urban peripheries, and how suburban space lent itself to the performance of activities that might be considered inappropriate in the urban centre. Bodel will discuss the development of this difficult relationship between urbs and suburbium from the early principate to the sixth century. Thus this panel will address the full chronological span of ancient Roman urban development and discuss the significance of pollution and propriety in defining the physical shape of the city.

Penelope Davies (Art History, Austin): Pollution, propriety and urbanism in Republican Rome
John Bodel (Classics, Brown): Pollution at the Periphery: Living with the Dead in the Roman Suburbs
Respondent: Mark Bradley (Classics, Nottingham)

PANEL 3. Purity and Symbolism in Ancient Roman Waste Disposal

The third panel will be concerned with the representation of waste disposal in ancient Rome, and will explore how the very process of urban cleansing could be incorporated into the city’s religious and symbolic system. It will do this by examining two of the most characteristic of Roman institutions – the sewer and the public latrine. Hopkins’ paper examines the ambivalent representation of the Cloaca Maxima – a magnificent miracle of engineering for purging the city and a receptacle and focal point for the city’s dirt and impurity. Jansen discusses the function of gods in the wall-paintings of public latrines from Pompeii and Rome. Both papers draw attention to the distinctive symbolic and intellectual currency attached to the process of waste disposal in ancient Rome.

John Hopkins (Art History, Austin): Marking Pollution: Material Evidence for Roman Conceptions of the Cloaca Maxima
Gemma Jansen (Archaeology, Maastricht): Divine help on a Roman toilet
Respondent: Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow (Classical Studies, Brandeis)

PANEL 4: Scapegoats and Heresy from Pagan Ritual to Early Christendom

The final panel of the day will explore historical continuity (and discontinuity) in pagan and early Christian scapegoating and ritual cleansing by looking first at a familiar case-study from the city’s pagan past and then at pontifical documents in seventh and eighth-century Rome. Schultz will revisit a classic problem of Roman religious ritual – the live interment of transgressive Vestal virgins – and consider the traditions of this practise alongside other expiatory rituals in Roman religion that involved expulsion and elimination. Cubitt will examine the expulsion of heretics from Rome in the seventh and eighth centuries and will consider the representation of such acts of cleansing in the Liber pontificalis and other conciliar documents, as well as how this was played out in contemporary visual culture. Above all, this panel will discuss similarities and differences in religious formulations of pollution and purification from antiquity to early Christianity.

Celia Schultz (Classics, Yale): The Proper Disposal of a Polluting Presence
Katy Cubitt (Centre for Medieval Studies, York): The jet-black spiderwebs of heresy: pollution and the language of heresy in seventh- and eighth-century Rome

Friday 22 June

PANEL 5: Treatments of Plague.

This panel will discuss responses to and representations of plague in the city, both in antiquity and in early modern Rome. Arnott will examine the so-called ‘Antonine Plague’ in mid second-century Rome, and assess the difficulties posed by ancient evidence in determining the nature and character of the outbreak – in effect, how ancient approaches to disease and its ramifications differ from modern evaluations. Gentilcore will discuss the Roman plague of 1656 and the attitude adopted by the authorities in treating the outbreak. This panel will consider whether the outbreak of disease, and its effects and treatment, were discussed and evaluated within the city in comparable ways at different stages in Rome’s history.

Robert Arnott (Centre for the History of Medicine, Birmingham): The Antonine Plague: fact and fiction
David Gentilcore (History, Leicester): Negotiating medical remedies in time of plague: Rome, 1656
Respondent: François Quiviger (Warburg Institute, SAS)

PANEL 6: Pollution, the Body, and the Church

This panel will examine the role of pollution in the critical discourse of the Roman Church in the medieval and early modern periods. It will focus on the polluted body: first, the sexualised bodies of tenth-century priests; second, the notion of the diseased body of the Church as it was applied to the city of Rome. Leyser will discuss sexual scandal in the Roman Church in the tenth century, a period that would later earn the city the pejorative tag of ‘pornocracy’. Assonitis will consider the treatises and sermons of Fra Girolamo Savonarola in which Rome is presented as a diseased graveyard for pagan morals and behaviour. This panel will consider a theme that has been integral to the city’s religious and moral identity at various stages in Rome’s history.

Conrad Leyser (History, Manchester): ‘Pornocracy’ and Professionalization: The Roman Church in the Tenth Century
Alessio Assonitis (The Medici Archive Project, Florence): The Miasma of Rome: Fra Girolamo Savonarola on the City of Popes and the Urbs Antiqua

PANEL 7: Sanitation and Renovation from Early Modern Rome to Roma capitale

The panel will examine various efforts in the history of Rome from the early modern period to the late nineteenth century to fix the Rome’s prevailing reputation as a city of dirt, disease and corruption. Stow will discuss the marginalisation of Rome’s ghettoized Jews in the late sixteenth century and the means by which this section of the Roman community dealt with poor urban sanitation. Rinne will survey papal efforts in this same period to improve urban sanitation by renovating the city’s water supply and infrastructure and thereby symbolically cleansing both the city and the Church of vice and corruption. Sansa will explore the social impact of legislation to improve cleanliness and sanitation. Syrjämaa will explore the tensions generated by differing approaches to Rome’s identity, both those formulated by outsiders and those proposed by the internal authorities, once Rome had become the nation’s capital in the late nineteenth century. This panel will highlight the continuing significance attributed to programmes of cleansing and purification in Rome’s modern history and discuss the relationship of these programmes to the city’s long-standing associations with dirt and pollution.

Part 1:

Kenneth Stow (Jewish History, Haifa): Was the Ghetto Cleaner?
Katherine Rinne (Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Virginia): Cleansing Counter Reformation Rome
Respondent: Pamela O. Long (Independent Scholar, Washington, D.C.)

Part 2:

Renato Sansa (Università G. D’Annunzio Chieti Pescara): Playing Dirty: the social impact of legislation on dirt and cleanliness in 18th-century Rome
Taina Syrjämaa (School of History, University of Turku, Finland): The clash of picturesque dirtiness and modern cleanliness in late nineteenth-century Rome
Respondent: Richard Wrigley (Art History, Nottingham)

PANEL 8: Immorality and Deviancy

The panel considers two cases where Rome was associated with physical and sexual immorality: first, by Victorian commentators in mid nineteenth-century England; second, by the legal and political discourses of 1920s Rome. Janes will discuss the city’s representation as a site of physical and moral danger by religious figures of Victorian England for whom Rome had become an evocative lesson about the dangers of decay and corruption. Secondly, Salvante will explore a case study within Rome itself, concerning the regulation of `deviant’ juvenile sexuality – specifically, male prostitution – and its identification with the city’s physical and moral margins. This final panel, therefore, will consider pollution discourses within the city’s more recent history and their role in formulating and shaping Rome’s urban identity.

Dominic Janes (History of Art, Birkbeck): `I hope the ladies present will forgive me’: Victorian clergy and the erotics of Christian antiquities in Rome

Martina Salvante (European University Institute, Fiesole): Delinquency and pederasty: ‘deviant’ youngsters in Rome’s working class suburbs in the late 1920s

Plenary Lecture: Mary Douglas.