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A Comprehensive Look at an Ancient Roman Craft



Rob Hardy


"Dress for Success" is a maxim for today's workers, and it may have been the attitude even in ancient Rome. A brilliant white toga would have been a power statement, and if the consuls were less formal, they'd still want their colored robes to be brilliant. How did those Romans get their clothes to shine? That was the job of the fullo, or fuller. We have drycleaning and laundry services, but everyone back then knew what the fullo did and how important he was to keeping society clean and bright. His might have been a menial job, but it had craftsmanship and it was essential. So fullones get their due in The World of the Fullo (Oxford University Press) by Miko Flohr. The author is the Assistant Director of the Oxford Roman Economy Project at the University of Oxford, and specializes in Roman cities and their economy, within both of which fullones played a vital role. This book is a detailed academic examination of all aspects of its subject. General readers like me will be surprised that there has been controversy raging among Flohr's fellow academics over aspects of what fullones did and how they were regarded. I am certainly not an expert in the field, but it is hard to imagine that, unless there are many new archaeological discoveries, this comprehensive work will be surpassed. 




We don't go to the local fuller these days, but fullers were busy in medieval times. They were important in the mass manufacture of cloth to go into new clothes. Understandably, we know more about how medieval fullers worked than we do their Roman counterparts, but what we know of the medieval ones seems to have colored our view of the Romans: "Traditional accounts of fulling in the Roman period are often unconsciously pervaded with notions implicitly derived from common practice in the medieval and early modern periods." Most fullones worked on a smaller scale. Their shops are here called fullonicae, and Flohr says that although there is attestation for this term in ancient sources, it is unclear how much it was used back then. There were fullonicae that were huge industrial facilities in the larger cities, but we have more evidence, from say Pompeii and Herculaneum, of smaller shops which took in clothes for a fee, treated them, and had them ready for pick up. It is possible that very wealthy Romans had their wash done at home, but mostly the work went to the fullonicae.  




What was the nature of the work? The consistent hallmark of a site that can be archaeologically identified as a fullonica is the stalls. These were where the clothes were soaked in water and detergents. Detergents came in two kinds (just as they did in the Medieval period). There was fuller's earth, a clay that had to be mined and imported from perhaps hundreds of miles away. It is still used for cleaning, and for cat litter. Flohr says that although traces of fuller's earth have been found in excavated fullonicae, "it has to be said that scholars have tended to overlook the role of these mineral detergents." The reason is that the second detergent seems to have held more fascination: it was urine aged to bring out ammonia. "It is often maintained that fullers collected urine by means of jars that were positioned in front of their shops on the street," a public urinal as it were. Flohr shows that the evidence that this actually happened is minimal, and that collecting from a public urinal would mean that anything else might be thrown in there. Flohr reflects, "If urine is going to used for cleaning clothes, it is important that it is collected in the purest form possible." There's no evidence where the urine came from; it is a good guess that the fullones themselves saved their own urine it at the shop and in vessels at home. 




So into the basin of the stalls went water and detergents, and also the feet of the fuller. The stalls were made so that the fuller could stand in the basin and rest his arms on the top of the half-walls of the stall. He would then stomp around on the clothes within their wash-water, ammonia and fuller's earth included. This was hard work. "When Seneca advises Lucilius to work on the condition of his body, one of the exercises he recommends is to imitate the jump-like movement of fullers at work because it would exhaust the body without delay." In many fullonicae the stalls may have been toward the back of the shop, but still visible to the public from the street, so the movement would have been a familiar one. Dramatists used the motif of the "dancing fuller," although we have only fragments of such use: "The comic potential of one, two or more workers jumping up and down on a theatrical stage must not be underestimated: it provided good possibilities for all kinds of visual exaggeration that may have been highly appreciated by the Roman audience."  




The stomping in the stalls got out the spots; it is the most archaeologically apparent aspect of the job, and possibly got the most attention of onlookers. Complete fulling, however, took more steps. In addition to the basins used for the wash, there were larger basins used for rinsing the detergents out. Some may have been connected directly to the aqueduct system, although smaller shops might have simply used water from a fountain in the street. Then the clothes were brushed to raise a nap; it seems that brushes made of hedgehog skin were just the thing, or brushes made of thorns. Then long shears were used to trim the nap, to make it uniform and new-looking. The garments were pressed in a machine with a screw device to apply pressure. 




Flohr's work is not just about the labor within the fullonicae, although his range of evidence for the process is fascinating. An appendix shows the floor plans for twenty-two shops, small and large, found in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, and Rome. The author has applied rigorous criteria for what could be considered a fullonica, and some of the excavation is his own. There are a few literary mentions of fullones, and there are memorial inscriptions that seem to indicate that a fullo was as good a candidate for posthumous respect as a tailor or a shoemaker. This overthrows the idea that the work of the fullo was regarded as base or dirty. While fullonicae may have been busy with removing dirt, they would have had to have been clean shops themselves to do so, and the problem of smells was slighter than we would think it. Tanners and blacksmiths might have produced more olfactory offensiveness. Significantly, Flohr shows how a fullonica might have been an integral part of an atrium-styled house. Also, there is no evidence that the shops were banned from cities or segregated downwind; anyone who has walked the streets of Pompeii has seen plenty of fullonicae in their places alongside bakeries, taverns, and homes. It may be that Flohr is attempting to increase academic respect for these craftsmen who are the subjects of his research, and he may be partial; his evidence, however, that fullones were not lowly, dirty subjects of contempt is convincing. 




The evidence amassed here on this and diverse other aspects is amazing. Particularly charming is a frieze from Pompeii, showing little cupids busy at the steps involved in fulling. As an example of concentrated academic attention to a small slice of history, The World of the Fullo is excellent. Flohr can hardly be accused of making assumptions beyond the evidence he presents, as he examines not just the work of the fullones, but also their larger place in the Roman society and economy. On almost every page, he explains variations in findings and the limits of how much archaeology, epigraphy, and literary sources can tell us. This gives us a larger view of economy, trade, and work in ancient Rome. The book is a serious academic monograph, with a degree of detail and documentation that keep it from being light reading, but it is an admirable example of how deep and provocative can be the focused academic attention into a small sphere. 




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