In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in southern Italy, suddenly erupted with tremendous force and little warning. In less than 24 hours, the once thriving Bay of Naples, which included the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, was buried under metres of ashes and vanished from sight for the next sixteen centuries.
At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was a long-established provincial town of the Roman Empire. Founded in the eighth century B.C. by the Oscans as a small fluvial port on the Sarno River, the settlement subsequently fell under the influence of the Etruscans, the Greeks and eventually, the Samnites, making it a distinctive multicultural society.
By the fourth century B.C., Pompeii was a fully-fledged Roman ally (socius) and it profited from Rome’s immense trading network. Trade rapidly expanded, while the town and its inhabitants grew dramatically in size and sophistication. For over two centuries, people lived in prosperity, but during the Social Wars (91-88 B.C.), they rebelled against Rome and demanded full Roman citizenship. The Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla quelled the insurgents and baptized the colony in his own name: Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum.
Under the authority of the Empire, Pompeii thrived. Emperor Augustus and his successors brought peace and the aqueduct (aqua augusta), while wealthy citizens, mostly freed slaves (liberti) and merchants, endowed the construction of public buildings, as well as funerary monuments.
Paradoxically, the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius contributed to preserving much of the city, which remained relatively undisturbed under metres of ashes for centuries. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Pompeii is an immense gift of antiquity. We can walk through the city’s paved roads, enter buildings, visit temples, private homes and shops, admire works of art and marvel at utilitarian objects, thus getting a glimpse of life as it used to be in this city frozen in time. The vestiges provide a vivid and intimate portrait, unparalleled anywhere else in the world, of Roman society and its many desires.
A DAMAGING EARTHQUAKE
Volcanic eruptions are usually preceded by earthquakes. On February 5 in 62 A.D., a powerful and damaging earthquake rocked Pompeii. From then on, tremors regularly rattled the city. These events signalled that Mount Vesuvius was going to erupt, but many people stayed in the city, because they did not know how to read the signs of volcanic activity.
This marble relief sculpture vividly depicts that powerful earthquake. In the Forum, the Temple of Jupiter and a pair of equestrian statues tilt precariously. On the right, there’s an altar where a pig and bull are being led to sacrifice, their bodies tense with imminent danger. The earthquake was a major event in the lives of all Pompeians, as they were still repairing the damage seventeen years later.
This marble relief, one of a pair, decorated a household shrine (lararium) in the lavish home of banker L. Caecilius Iucundus.
The day of the eruption started as any other. The streets would have been bustling with Pompeians going about their daily business, their faces much like our own. Although we may never know if the people portrayed here were still alive at the time of the eruption, in these portraits displayed in the atrium of the house, their facial traits and personality are vibrantly captured for eternity.
Roman portraits did more than simply capture a person’s likeness. They showed how these people wanted to be perceived—expressing their character, social status and sometimes even a desired relationship to Rome’s rulers. In the late Republic, about 90 B.C., starkly realistic portraits became popular. The result could be unflattering images of elderly men and women, but they conveyed the Roman virtues of hard work and plain living.
In the early Empire, about sixty years later, another style developed. These portraits projected ideal images of youth, beauty and virility, even for elderly people. The emperors led the way in establishing new portrait types.
Portraits could be sculpted in marble, cast in bronze, made as a mosaic or painted. Pompeii provides a rich source of Roman portraiture in all these forms. Portraits were displayed in public areas and in private houses. They honoured ancestors and people who served Rome well—and generally gave Pompeians a way of remembering individuals, living or dead. Being expensive items, only wealthy citizens could afford them. Production involved costly materials and required skilled workers who needed much time to complete their work.
After crossing the Rubicon River, Julius Caesar was declared Perpetual Dictator of the Roman World, but a group of senators called the Liberators assassinated him.
A power struggle followed Caesar’s death. Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, defeated his last rival, Mark Antony, in the naval battle of Actium.
27 B.C.–14 A.D.
The victorious Octavian was granted the title of Augustus by the Roman Senate and he ruled as Rome’s first Emperor.
An earthquake severely damaged Pompeii during the reign of Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian emperors descended from Augustus.
Civil war over control of the Roman Empire brought a quick succession of four emperors—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.
The future Roman emperor Titus (r. 79–81 A.D.) captures Jerusalem and destroys the Temple.
Mount Vesuvius erupted soon after Titus became emperor. Titus rushed to Campania to organize relief for the region around Pompeii.
The city has become a very great emporium, since it has havens that have been made by the hand of man… They run jetties out into the sea and thus make the wide-open shore curve into the form of bays, enabling the greatest merchant ships to moor with safety.
Strabo, Geography V, 6
Pompeii was a vibrant city bustling with economic activity. The front rooms of houses, open to the street, were often rented out as workshops, stores or taverns. The main road to the Forum was a hub of commerce. The city accommodated local needs and welcomed surging crowds of visitors from the neighbouring areas. Customers came in search of finished goods, services, food, wine and entertainment—all readily available from the many shops, bars, theatres and an amphitheatre.
Pompeii’s location near the mouth of the Sarno River made the city an important port for the region. As a point of arrival, imported goods could travel upriver into the hinterland, while those for export flowed downriver to Pompeii either for consumption or trans-shipment abroad. These products included wine, olive oil, wheat, fruits and vegetables. Today, the exact location of Pompeii’s harbour remains uncertain.
Citizenship was extremely important to the Romans. There were rigid social rules, but citizenship was available to different classes of people in the Empire. Male citizens enjoyed full legal and voting rights and could hold political office if they met specific wealth requirements. Women could be citizens, but did not have the same rights as men—they could not vote or hold political office. A slave had no rights. Slaves freed by their master became freedmen, who enjoyed many citizen rights. They took their master’s family name and still owed certain obligations. Some freedmen became rich, owning large houses in Pompeii.
Pompeii’s plentiful water supply system was a miracle of Roman engineering. The system was based on aqueducts—raised water channels lined with waterproof cement. The Aqua Augusta aqueduct brought water into Pompeii from springs to the east of the city. Built between 30 and 20 B.C., it was one of the most ambitious and costly aqueducts ever constructed by an ancient civilization. It ran from the Terminio-Tuoro Mountains and supplied water to eight cities in the Campania region, as well as many private villas, through ten branches. In Pompeii, the water was collected in a water tower (Castellum Aquae) on the highest point north of the city and then redistributed through lead pipes. The steeply sloped terrain kept the water flow at high pressure. Most Pompeians collected their water from public fountains at street corners. But some wealthy citizens had the luxury of running water in their homes, to feed private bath houses and decorative water features in gardens. The earthquake in 62 A.D. fractured the city’s water pipes, and many remained unrepaired when Mount Vesuvius erupted seventeen years later.
THE COST OF LIVING
After the monetary reforms of Emperor Augustus in 23 B.C., Roman money consisted of gold, silver, brass and copper coins. Gold coins paid for costly transactions and were used for storing wealth. Buyers made payments with silver coins, while brass and copper coins became the preferred currency for smaller everyday purchases. In general, the financial system based salaries, food and daily necessities on the sestertius, a brass coin.
Exchange Rates for Coins after 23 B.C.
1 gold aureus = 25 silver denarii
1 silver denarius = 16 copper asses
1 brass sestertius = 4 copper asses
1 brass dupondius = 2 copper asses
A local councillor ought to possess : 100,000 sestertii
Slaves were sold for : 1,000 to 6,000 sestertii
Twelve pints of garum fetched : 1,000 sestertii
A legionary’s basic annual pay was : 900 sestertii
A tunic cost : 15 sestertii
The prostitute Attice charged : 4 sestertii
Half a litre of wine cost up to :1 sestertius
The gods were vital to Roman identity. They were worshipped in temples, at state ceremonies and in homes throughout the Empire. They represented a belief system shared by all.
When Pompeii became Roman in 80 B.C., the Italian temples were converted to house the Roman gods. Pompeians also continued to honour their old, local gods. The wealthy advanced their political and social status by becoming religious officials. Portraits of the emperor on statues and coins enabled inhabitants of the Roman Empire to know what the ruler looked like, as most would never see him in person. In keeping with the Roman principles of portraiture, carefully constructed likenesses of him transmitted the ideals of the Empire and the emperor’s rule. Communicating this message was important to Rome’s leader.
The Imperial cult paid tribute to the emperor’s genius (divine nature). While Augustus refused to be honoured as a god during his lifetime, later emperors, such as Caligula and Nero, demanded it. Augustus was proclaimed a god after his death. This honour was not given to all those who immediately followed him. Eventually, emperors were consecrated during imperial funerals. Apotheosis scenes depicting an emperor flying up into the sky demonstrate this belief in a ruler’s divine nature.
In the second century B.C., the Roman expansion into Greece and Asia exposed Rome to luxury heretofore unknown to this great conquering power. Works of art—paintings, statues, jewellery and silverware—were shipped by the boatload to Rome, where the aristocrats collected them with a passion. They sometimes even went so far as to treat their contemporaries to public showings.
This form of evergetism (private wealth at the service of the common good) thus presaged the birth of the museum. This period also saw the advent of written art criticism, unfortunately lost to time.
The peace that followed Augustus’ victory over the Republicans also led to the development of what could be compared to a middle class, made up of enriched liberated slaves, merchants, former career officers and the like. The nouveau riche (people with new wealth) imitated the aristocracy by collecting in their own right, which led to the birth of a parallel art market—the counterfeit market.
The sheer number of Archaic-style statues found gives us a good idea of the craze to collect these classical works. But were all these statues acquired as acknowledged copies of antiques, or rather as modern works executed in a style of the past? We might well speculate that some of the pieces were sold as authentic Greek antiques to naive collectors.
Horace (65-8 B.C.) introduces us to Damasippus, one of these instant specialists, whose so-called expertise cost his clients dearly:
I [Damasippus] used to love to search for bronze
In which wily Sisyphus once washed his feet, and spot
The works that were crudely carved or roughly cast:
I’d price some statue expertly at a hundred thousand.
Horace, Satires, II.3
The fabulist Phaedrus (circa 15 B.C.–50 A.D.) goes on to add the following:
As some ingenious Artificers of our own Time, who obtain a much higher Price for their Work, if they inscribe the Name of Praxiteles up on any Statues of Marble they have newly carv’d, or that of Myra upon the polish’d Silver ones; for Envy, prone to Slander, favours more the Works of the Ancients, than those of the present Age.
Phaedrus, Fables, Book V.1, “Demetrius and Menander”
MYSTERY CULTS AND FOREIGN RELIGIONS
Exotic mystery cults borrowed from ancient religions found in the far corners of the Empire were fashionable with the Romans. The most popular mystery cult was devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis. A loyal wife, magical healer, protector of women, marriage and birth, Isis looked after newborns and oversaw the fertile fields and rich harvests. As with other mystery cults, such as those of Cybele and Mithras, followers believed she would bestow salvation upon them. The cult of Isis provided believers with, among other things, a sense of special community and a hope for a happy afterlife.
A temple to Isis, established in Pompeii’s theatre district towards the end of the second century B.C., is thought to have reflected the trade and cultural links between the city and Alexandria. Following the earthquake of 62 B.C., the small, damaged temple was completely rebuilt and enlarged by the son of a freedman from a prominent Pompeian family.
Many statuettes of Isis and several sistra (rattles used in her cult ritual) have been found in private homes. More than twenty household shrines were decorated with her image. Several individuals donated statues, which were then placed within the sanctuary enclosure.
Baths, wine and sex corrupt our bodies, but make our lives worth living.
Tiberius Claudius Secundus
Roman moralists of the time believed that their fellow citizens were only interested in wine, gambling and entertainment. Every occasion was a reason for feasting: religious festivals, military triumphs, temple inaugurations and imperial anniversaries kept the population amused all year around.
In Pompeii, leisure activities were an important component of everyday life. They entertained, occupied and created purpose in life. Ludus refers to anything to do with play, such as game boards, sports, training and even erotic games. It also included chariot racing at the circus (ludi circenses), theatrical performances (ludi scaenici) and spectacles in the amphitheatre (munera).
Yet, ludi (games) were also important moments for political propaganda and control. Those who aspired to a political career competed to provide people with the most mesmerizing forms of entertainment. Roman senators and emperors were expected to deliver the most elaborate performances possible. At one point, the Coliseum in Rome was apparently filled with water to re-enact a naval battle, complete with sea creatures.
Rome was an empire built on military achievements. In times of relative peace however, it was important to have as many diversions as possible to quench the Roman appetite for violence and excitement. Those in power feared nothing more than a spontaneous riot, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Occupying the masses with races and gladiatorial games was just one way to counter this potential threat.
The gladiatorial games was a concept unique to the Roman world and one that evolved over time. Originally connected to funeral rites, these games became, under the Emperor Augustus and his successors, an instrument of social control.
Gladiators were usually slaves purchased by a private entrepreneur (lanista) or downtrodden men who wished to change their lot in life. Free men signed a contract that stipulated the length of their commitment, as well as the number of combats they had to participate in. Whether free or enslaved, these men became pariahs with no social standing. To learn how to fight, these men attended gladiator schools (ludus). They were attributed a specialty and were trained in the weapon techniques of that specialization.
When preparing a spectacle, the organizer (editor) would rent gladiators from the lanista. This spectacle would be announced many days in advance—as evidenced by the graffiti still preserved in Pompeii today, listing the names of the combatants and the backer’s name, as well as the place and time of the games.
The gladiator’s goal was not to kill his opponent, but rather, force him to cede the fight and demand missio, a sign that acknowledged defeat. In theory, it was up to the organizer to signal whether the loser would be spared. However, the editor usually let the crowd make that decision. This was the barbaric side of the games, which were organized to give the masses, generally poor people with no political power, the impression that they mattered in society. That is, by inviting them to an event organized by the highest powers and letting them participate in deciding the fate of the losing gladiator. If the loser was condemned, the victor would do the deed and the lifeless body would be removed from the arena with no ceremony. But if the loser was stans missus— that is, “sent away standing” —then he would return to his school and live to fight another day.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF GLADIATORS
Different types of gladiators competed in the games
Displayed here are five pieces of gladiator armour found in the gladiators’ barracks at Pompeii.
All date to the early first century A.D.
SPORTS AND VIRTUS
The palaestra of Pompeii, a large courtyard surrounded by a portico, located near the amphitheater, was a public place used for training or practicing wrestling and other sports. Palaestra has its origins in the Greek word gymnasia, referring to a complex in Ancient Greece that also served for exercise and training.
Emperor Augustus built the first palaestra in Rome. He believed that it was his responsibility to encourage and prepare upper class youth for their future in public service. He felt that the mental and physical condition of these young men could be improved through athletics and games. In his reasoning, training could help the sons of the bourgeoisie nurture wellness, valour and courage (virtus), as well as political loyalty.
Myriad sports were practiced at the palaestra: weight training, wrestling, boxing, swimming and gladiatorial training, to name a few. These sports were thought to bring out the best in young Romans, encouraging their virility and competitiveness. Matches were notoriously violent. In wrestling, for instance, every kind of technique was allowed and victory was ascribed to the athlete who could best his opponent three times. Punching, kicking, tripping, torsions and even strangling was permitted.
Before indulging in exercise, men smeared the oil contained in aryballoi, spherical vases, all over their bodies. The floor of the courtyard in the arena was made of sand, which would eventually cover the bodies of the athletes. After a match, athletes would leave the arena for the bath houses, where they might enjoy a sauna and lounge in the pool. Finally, they would wipe their bodies down using a strigil, a curved metal blade attached to a handle.
One place where everyone, regardless of social background, could be entertained was the theatre. Pompeians had built two theatres, one beside the other, before Rome had even one permanent theatre building.
The Large Theatre—a horseshoe-shaped, open-air structure built in the second century B.C., was often used for pantomimes and one-act plays. It originally seated approximately 4,000 spectators in sections separated according to social status. Renovations paid for by the Pompeian brothers, Marcus Holconius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Celer, increased its capacity to approximately 5,000 during the Augustan period.
A smaller covered theatre (odeum) with a new roof design was built in the first century B.C. Able to seat nearly 2,000 people, it was primarily used for poetry recitals and concerts. Scenes from this theatre appear in houses all over Pompeii. Certain actors obviously had a Pompeian fan club, as evidenced by preserved graffiti from that time.
The two theatres were joined by a quadriporticus, a kind of foyer where spectators could gather and stroll between performances, or take shelter under when it rained.
However, by 79 A.D. both theatres had been idle since the 62 A.D. earthquake, waiting while townspeople slowly repaired more essential buildings, such as the law courts, markets and amphitheatre.
While the ancient Greeks embraced music from the start, people of the Roman Republic were less enthusiastic. At first, musical training was not part of an elite education and professional musicians were not held in high regard.
This situation gradually changed during the Imperial period. Music, influenced by earlier Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian and Middle Eastern sounds, became more respectable and therefore accepted in both professional and amateur contexts. Eventually, musical performances were commonly enjoyed and skilled musicians became highly valued.
Pompeians enjoyed music in the same way people do today. It accompanied almost every social occasion and many religious ceremonies. Music was performed at public events such as funerals, triumphs and spectacles, but it was heard at the theatre and during sacrifices in the amphitheatre as well. Music also provided entertainment during and after dinner.
Roman musicians played a variety of woodwind, brass and stringed instruments, as well as hydraulic organs and percussion. Stringed instruments included harps, lyres, cithara and barbitoi (a type of lute). Among the wind instruments, the syrinx (panpipe) and tibia (a reed flute often played in pairs) were the most common. Horns and trumpets were often used in military and hunting parades. Cymbals, castanets, tambourines and drums completed the repertoire.
Most of the surviving evidence for music in Roman times comprises vocal scores, perhaps suggesting that singing was the most common form of musical activity.
At that time, sex and sexual imagery were an accepted part of everyday life in a way that is hard to imagine today. Romans saw nothing wrong in celebrating a pleasurable, natural act and did not confine sex to the cubiculum (bedroom) or even within marriage. Sex was viewed as a sign of strength, virility and importance and would often be approached with a competitive attitude. People would be judged accordingly.
Painted erotic images could be found throughout Pompeii, but they were not intended to be lewd. Though some perhaps served commercial purposes—for instance, to illustrate which services were available at a brothel—many images featured couples in the bedroom and were displayed in the gardens or peristyles of homes owned by respectable citizens. Some images are very intimate in nature, while others show a wide and creative range of positions and pairings, involving groups and sometimes, even slaves and servants.
Interestingly, most painted scenes were set indoors, in a bed and with luxurious bedding. Sex outdoors was considered very un-Roman; any such depictions usually included dwarves or pygmies and were painted against a very decadent Egyptian setting.
Graffiti found throughout the city also teaches us a great deal about Pompeian sexuality. Aside from crude remarks about the reputations of certain men and women, graffiti providing names, alongside prices and services, can also be found.
IL GABINETTO SEGRETO
When these objects were first excavated, their subject matter shocked archaeologists and kings alike. Deemed inappropriate for viewing, these sexually explicit images were kept hidden from sight in the “secret cabinet” and only scholars and male visitors able to bribe the guards were allowed in. The tenacity with which authorities attempted to hide these artefacts only served to make them more sought after and the Gabinetto segreto became a popular stop for gentlemen on the Grand Tour.
In 1849, the scandalous collection was bricked off and remained famously off limits to women, youngsters and the general public. For a century and a half, they remained hidden, available only during brief periods under Garibaldi and again in 1967. In the year 2000, the Gabinetto segreto was finally opened to the public and the collection was moved into separate galleries in 2005.
Behind plain walls and street-front shops, the typical courtyard-style Pompeian house was elaborately laid out. A public entrance hall (atrium) led to more private rooms surrounding an enclosed garden. The atrium was a place of business, where the home owner met his clientes (people of lesser wealth or status). He gifted money and favours in return for political support and services. Personal business was conducted in the study. The decoration of the house signalled the owner’s wealth and status, just as it does today. The sumptuous wall paintings, mosaics and furnishings displayed here all come from the houses of upper-class Pompeians.
1. Street-Front Shops (Tabernae)
The street-front rooms of many houses were rented out as small businesses and workshops.
2. Entrance Hall (Atrium)
This reception room was meant to impress visitors with the owner’s wealth. In the centre, there was a small open-air pool (impluvium), which filled with rainwater and connected to the house cistern.
3. Study (Tablinum)
The room of the master of the house, used for his business affairs.
Houses had at least two storeys, although most structures did not survive.
5. Kitchen (Culina)
Slaves prepared food at the built-in cooking hearth. Just off the kitchen was the toilet, where all household waste was collected—practical, but not very hygienic!
6. Dining Room (Triclinium)
Privileged guests dined here, reclining on couches arranged along the walls.
7. Bedroom (Cubiculum)
These bed chambers were small, unadorned and functional—rather different than today.
8. Garden (Hortus)
The courtyard was surrounded on three sides by a peristyle colonnade, which provided natural light. A household shrine (lararium) was placed in one corner.
THE IDEAL HOME
Pompeii comprised a great variety of small domestic buildings and apartments, as well as luxurious multi-roomed mansions that occupied most of a city block (insula). Such homes were occupied by the wealthy, who could afford to lavishly decorate their homes in imitation of the larger terraced villas found in the countryside.
Home owners added fresco paintings to personalise their homes. In these commissions, wealthier owners tried to emulate the lifestyles of the most powerful elite in their seaside villas or used the frescoes to illustrate their artistic tastes and cultural ideas. Illustrations of grand villas by the sea were very popular, as were scenes reminiscent of classical Greece and Greek mythology, in particular. These images also acted as backdrops for their art collections and furnishings—reflecting how they wanted to be perceived by guests.
Wall paintings were also used to create the illusion of space. Deep perspective renderings could make more modest homes look larger than they were. Less wealthy home owners who could not afford to purchase an art collection, used wall paintings featuring statuary and the like to create the illusion of a collection.
The idealization of one’s home was extremely important to the Pompeians and they would go to great lengths and expense to create an illusion of something greater and more opulent.
ROMAN WALL PAINTINGS
The standard classification of Pompeiian fresco painting into four consecutive styles was developed by August Mau, a German archaeologist, in 1882. Pompeii and its environs preserved one of the largest groups of Roman fresco paintings dating from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.
The First “Masonry” Style, in vogue from the second century B.C. until circa 80 B.C., replicated jointed stone masonry. It employed painterly textures to imitate a variety of stones and their use in more opulent constructions.
The Second “Architectural” or “Illusionist” Style, predominant in the first century B.C., was known for introducing trompe l’oeil and other three-dimensional architectural effects in order to provide depth and open up the small rooms of the typical Roman home. It is the most influential style in Roman painting.
The Third “Ornate” Style (circa 20 B.C. – 20 A.D.) was more focused on decorative aspects and less on illusory effects. It featured balanced patterns, both horizontally and vertically, with a more subdued use of colour. This style often includes exotic animals, Nilotic landscapes or other scenic images reminiscent of Egypt.
Spanning from 20-79 A.D., the Fourth Style is noted for its great variety, ranging from rooms decorated in one colour with smaller superimposed images and details to rooms that alternated from black to white. This style also continued to use scenery from the Third Style, but as a mosaic of framed panels placed one beside the another. It often imitated First Style masonry for lower portions of walls.
For the Romans, public worship was very important, but the home was also a sacred place, where gods associated with the home and family were honoured. Spirits protecting the house, such as the ancestral genius (the essential spirit of an individual and their clan) and especially the lares, were worshipped daily. The head of the house, the father of the family or pater familias, together with other members of the family, prayed and made sacrifices to these domestic spirits. The rituals took place at a small household shrine called a lararium, named after the lares. The lararium was often located near the hearth or sometimes in the entrance or main hall of the house (atrium). The lalarium could be a simple niche, a wall painting or an elaborate altar. In a wealthy Pompeian home, the lararium held bronze statuettes of the lares, as well as other gods, goddesses and legendary heroes favoured by the family.
The lares were household gods, who looked after the family and home. Statuettes of the lares normally came in pairs and flanked the sides of the shrine. The origins of the lares remain unknown, but several theories exist. In Virgil’s Aeneid, for example, the hero Aeneas brings the lares from Troy.
Although the state eventually assumed maintenance of the Vesta cult, this goddess of the hearth was originally worshipped at home. As were the di penates, or gods of the storeroom, who protected the family’s provisions of food, wine and other supplies. Together with Vesta, the lares and di penates were the most important cults honoured in the Roman home.
Luxury, with its sensuality and delights, naturally extended to eating and drinking. Meals were served in the dining room (triclinium, from the Greek treis, meaning “three” and kline, meaning “bed”), which overlooked the garden. Inside the room, three couches were arranged in a U-shape against the walls.
Providing food was central to being a good host and home owners went to great lengths to surprise guests. Entertainment, such as singing and dancing, would often be included during and after the banquet.
While enjoying food and wine, domestic etiquette dictated sobriety and modesty; there were rules of propriety to be observed for the rich and the poor. Etiquette was important, because unruly behaviour might bring dishonour to the host, the guests and even anger the gods.
Sumptuous dinners became an occasion to boost the host’s social status. The extravagance and expenses incurred for banquets reached such a frenzy that even Emperor Augustus and his successors tried, albeit in vain, to curb gluttony with severe laws.
In Pompeii, the kitchen (culina) tended to be a small, uninviting room tucked away in a dark corner of the house. It was a busy place where slaves cooked meals and prepared banquets for their masters. Cooking utensils were highly practical and would not seem out of place in a modern household.
After food was cooked, slaves brought the meal to the dining area in a wide array of vessels. In wealthier households, the serving dishes, jugs, buckets and strainers were made of bronze. These bronze vessels were often skillfully made and finely detailed.
DIET IN POMPEII
The Roman diet was similar to the Mediterranean diet of today. It consisted of vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains and some meat. Cereals, such as wheat and barley, legumes, olives and olive oil, and wine were all key components. Wheat, barley and pulses might be prepared in porridges or as bread. Quality varied and naturally, the better bread was expensive.
Eggs, poultry and pork, as well as small game like quail or pheasant, contributed to the diet, but meat was too expensive to be common and was largely limited to public sacrifices and festivals. People in Pompeii also enjoyed eating all sorts of fish, seafood and shellfish.
Garden vegetables, especially cabbage, leeks, onions, turnips, radishes and lettuce, as well as fruit like apples, figs, grapes and pears, were on nearly every table. The amount, quality and variety of food that Romans enjoyed was related to their economic status.
FROM THE SEA
The sea played a crucial role in the lives of Pompeians, who relied on it for trade and fishing. Though not prevalent in most Roman diets, fish was an important source of protein in Pompeii. Some shops displayed paintings of the fish they sold, while homes sometimes had mosaics featuring various forms of sea life, to demonstrate the diverse and luxurious food they enjoyed. Garum, a condiment made from fermented fish, was a primary export and a key component of the Pompeian economy. Pompeians recognized that they owed a great deal of their success as a city, despite their relatively small size and population, to the sea and its bounty.
THE ART OF COOKING
The favourite recipes of Apicius, an ancient Roman gourmet, are preserved in his book The Art of Cooking (De Re Coquinaria). It offers a glimpse into the meals of the wealthy, describing hundreds of recipes for exotic meats, fowl, game, seafood and sauces.
More than 100 spices have been identified in ancient sources. The Romans preferred their dishes to be heavily laden with spices and sauces, possibly because it helped mask the taste of food that was less than fresh. Preserving food without refrigeration was also a vital aspect of cooking. Though salt was one common method, there were several other known ways, some of which are described by the Roman writer Cato (234–149 B.C.) in his book, On Farming (De Agri Cultura).
The variety of cookware and ingredients tells us a lot about social and economic differences, and how great an impact they had on quality of life. The diversity of food reflects the extent of the Empire and the ease with which trade was carried out in times of relative peace.
GLASS IN THE HOUSEHOLD
The earliest glass was found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and dates to the middle of the second millennium B.C. Glass blowing developed in the Near East during the mid-first century B.C., making small and simple glass vessels available in large quantities and at low cost.
Most Roman blown glass is thin and greenish in colour, a natural feature caused by the presence of iron in the sand from which it was made. Other colours, such as blue, red, purple and brown, were also made.
Glass could be blown, moulded, engraved, carved and painted to accommodate different shapes and uses, from beads, mirrors, toiletry and medical containers to window panes and mosaic tesserae. Glass tableware in myriad shapes and sizes was ubiquitous in Pompeii, preferred over bronze for its odourless properties. Glass workshops were established in the Bay of Naples to accommodate an increasing demand for glass, particularly blown and moulded glass, as well as glass tesserae.
The role of women in Roman society remains somewhat ambiguous as they are seldom mentioned in the historical records. Throughout the Empire, including the city of Pompeii, women were excluded from military service, did not have the ability to vote, serve or be present at the assembly, and could not take senatorial and city councillor offices, administrative positions or judicial appointments. Although free citizens, women were largely limited in the scope of endeavours they could pursue. Women existed in a sphere entirely removed from men and the clothing they wore reinforced this. Women wore a stola (heavy, straight-cut garment) over a thin, slip-like tunica. In public, they also wore a palla to cover the head and maintain a required level of privacy when outside the home.
By the first century A.D., women began to enjoy more liberties, though still non-political. They were allowed an education (to a lower standard than men) and could participate in public ceremonies and entertainments. Women could also sue through the Roman court system and be appointed to certain priestly offices. Within Pompeii, some women even owned and operated businesses, and played central roles in commercial circles.
ALL THAT GLITTERS…
Jewellery from the Pompeii excavation has been discovered in a variety of places—in safekeeping boxes, a gem cutter’s shop and even on skeletons of victims, who were presumably attempting to flee the city with their most prized possessions.
Close observation of the surviving artefacts reveals the techniques of production. Bracelets and necklaces took the forms of mesh, chain links and hammered or cut-out shapes known as diatrita. This metallic jewellery was often enhanced with stones or gems. Precious stones were imported from around the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean or were found at home in Italy.
Gemstones were believed to have magical and mystical properties, mostly protecting the wearer from bad luck and illness. Some stones were even thought to alleviate bad breath, ensure success in court, ward off storms, aid the milk flow of wet nurses or, with the proper incantations, render the wearer invisible. Diamonds, pearls and emeralds were especially sought after, and were also attributed healing properties.
Perfumes were very popular in Pompeii and were used by both men and women as a symbol of luxus (luxury) and social status. They could be used in solid, liquid or cream form, and would be rubbed or poured onto skin.
The use of perfume and fancy bottles or canisters to house them was only adopted by Romans in the first century B.C. Unguentarii (sellers of perfumes) made a lot of money fighting the overall urban stench, by supplying perfumes to wealthy clients, as well as temples, funerary clubs and public baths. Already then, the power of perfume and its beneficial effects on both body and mind was known, becoming a sort of ancient aromatherapy used in the course of banquets, ceremonies, spectacles and gladiatorial games.
Perfumes were available to all, but quality varied. Cinnamon, cardamom, myrrh and frankincense imported from India, Arabia and Persia were extremely expensive. However, many local ingredients mixed with olive oil were also popular. Rose petals, anise, marjoram and tree-resins such as styrax and calamus roots were among the most coveted.
For wealthier women, make up and hair was an important part of their daily routine. Either on their own or with the help of slaves, women would perform a beauty regimen that consisted of washing, applying moisturizers, make up and perfumes, and then hair styling and dressing. Putting on jewellery was the final touch.
Clear, pale skin was a symbol of the elite in Ancient Rome and a key feature of Roman beauty. Moisturizing routines included the use of honey, vinegar, eggs, poultry fat and even marrow. Though almost no native Romans were naturally fair-skinned, many would apply oils and lead to achieve a paler complexion. The fact that Romans knew of lead’s poisonous nature, yet continued to apply it to their faces is testament to how seriously they worked to achieve ideal beauty.
Make up was made using several interesting compounds. Though pale skin was very much in vogue, light blush was still applied. This rouge was made of vermillion, rose and poppy petals or red ochre. Large eyes with long eyelashes was considered especially beautiful, so women would line their eyes with kohl. Saffron was sometimes added to this black eye cosmetic to improve the smell. Powders made from malachite or azurite were used as eye shadow. Roman women preferred long, dark and tidy eyebrows, and would have them shaped by a servant before filling them in with antimony. White teeth were especially valued, so many men and women had dentures made of bone or ivory.
Many houses in Pompeii had gardens, serving both functional and ornamental purposes. Fruit-bearing trees, as well as small herbs, flowerbeds and tended shrubbery, were often featured.
Pompeian interior gardens provided an alternate realm to the hustle and bustle of daily street life. A garden with a colonnade (peristyle) became the ultimate sign of wealth and status, a symbol conjuring the luxuries of a wealthy countryside villa by mimicking its expansive landscape, access to water and idyllic views.
Theatre masks and statues of mythic characters animated the space, while fountains disgorged water into small pools. The surrounding walls, decorated with large fresco paintings, suggested idyllic scenarios. Exotic flora and fauna, hunters and musicians created the illusion of nature indoors, giving the home owner a sense of luxurious living. Pompeiians nurtured their visual oasis to represent themselves to the outside world.
The playful interaction between landscape, architecture, waterworks and painting defined the interior gardens of the Pompeian home. These luscious gardens, real or painted, created enchanted worlds that suffused everyday life with a touch of the supernatural.
The Roman author Pliny the Younger was very specific about the date in his eyewitness account of the eruption: nonum kal. Septembres (the ninth day before the kalends of September). In the modern calendar, this is August 24.
But other types of evidence suggest that the eruption occurred in the autumn, not the summer.
Various Roman writers have provided eleven different dates for the disaster, ranging from August to early November in 79 A.D. Some manuscripts of Pliny the Younger give different dates.
Archaeological evidence also suggests a later time of year. Carbonized and calcified remains of fruits and nuts that only ripen in autumn, including almonds and pomegranates, have been found at Pompeii.
THE VINE HARVEST
In Boscoreale, just north of Pompeii, the autumn grape harvest had already taken place and newly-made wine filled huge storage jars.
CLOTHING AND HARDWARE
Finally, there are signs that the weather was cooler than summer temperatures on the day of the eruption. People in Pompeii were dressed heavily and portable braziers for heating were burning in many houses.
24 AUGUST A. D. 79
Small emissions from Mount Vesuvius. Seismic tremors shake the land.
The volcano erupts. A cloud of volcanic mate¬rials soars into the sky, taking the shape of a maritime pine tree.
The cloud rises higher. As the volcanic material (lapilli) cools, it hails down on Pompeii.
17:00 - 18: 00
Streets are buried under pumice, lapilli and ash. Roofs collapse under the weight. The cloud, now 25km high, obliterates the sun. Darkness is broken by flashes of lightning.
25 AUGUST A. D. 79
1:00 - 2:00
Scalding mudflows of volcanic debris, mixed with steam, spill from the volcano and down the slopes, choking Herculaneum. Ash, lapilli and pumice continue to rain down on Pompeii. The debris piles as high as the upper floors of buildings.
The volcanic plume begins to collapse, sending roaring waves of superheated ash and gases, called pyroclastic surges, down the slopes. The first flow reaches Herculaneum, killing all the inhabitants.
Strong earthquakes continue. A second, even hotter surge further buries Herculaneum. At Pompeii, the rain of pumice eases, but darkness prevails.
A third pyroclastic surge, the strongest yet, reaches the walls of Pompeii, but it is held back.
6:30 - 7:30
A series of powerful surges overcome the walls and sweep over the town. Pompeii’s remaining inhabitants are instantly killed.
The most destructive surge hits Pompeii, preceded by a storm of fire and lightning. The town’s tallest structures are burned, toppled and buried.
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, a Roman writer who lived from 61 to 112 A.D., wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus in which he narrates how the eruption unfolded, as seen from his house at Cape Misenum, literally across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius. He, his mother and his uncle (the Navy Admiral and famous naturalist, Pliny the Elder) all witnessed the natural disaster.
In his first letter (Epistulae VI, 16), Pliny explains how his uncle died. Pliny the Elder was in his study, when a large, unusually shaped cloud was pointed out to him, coming from the direction of Vesuvius. The cloud is described as an umbrella pine tree, soaring up a long trunk, then splitting off into different branches (now known as a Plinian eruption).
Pliny the Elder, hoping to see the phenomenon up close while carrying out a rescue operation, took his fleet closer, amidst the falling ash and floating pumice. Unable to dock since the waves had retreated, he considered turning back, but uttered the famous phrase “fortune favours the brave” (fortes fortuna iuvat) and pushed onwards.
He finally landed at Stabiae, where he visited the villa of his friend, Pomponianus. By the time they finally decided to flee, the sea was too rough and the air clogged with smoke and ash. Pliny the Elder, along with many others, experienced respiratory difficulties and died that day on the beach.
In his second letter (Epistulae VI, 20), Pliny the Younger describes his own escape from Misenum early the next day. By dawn, Pliny the Younger and his mother decided to leave together with many fellow inhabitants of Misenum. When they looked back, they saw a terrible black cloud spread across the land. Pliny describes it as “Not the darkness of a cloudy night or a night when there is no moon, but darkness as if the light had gone out in a room that is locked and sealed”. Pliny goes on to describe the terror of the people, the screams and cries that rang through the air. Though some prayed to the gods, most felt as if the gods had abandoned them. When the clouds finally cleared and light broke through, Pliny and the others found their world covered by a layer of ash and entire cities, with all their inhabitants, gone.
Fortune favours the brave (Fortes fortuna iuvat)
Early in the morning on the second day of eruption, the column of pumice, ash and gas began to collapse in a series of pyroclastic surges. The fourth and fifth surges descended upon Pompeii, where temperatures of approximately 300°C killed people instantly.
The fine ash adhered to the victims’ skin and clothing and hardened to form a shell around the corpse. Over time, the human remains decayed, leaving a cavity or a highly detailed mould of the deceased.
On February 5, 1863, workmen discovered one of these cavities in the ground. Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of the archaeological excavations, poured a diluted mixture of plaster of paris and glue into the cavity. After the plaster dried, the solid form was removed from the ground. The ash was chipped off to reveal a true-to-life cast of a man at the moment of death.
Fiorelli was startled by what he saw, describing the casts as victims “stolen from death”, whose last breath he captured for posterity. Thanks to myriad photographs that quickly captured the collective imagination, news quickly spread all over Europe and America, helping the prestige of the site to be raised in the eyes of the international community.
Pompeii was transformed into an idealized city, conjured up in romantic novels as an evocative depiction of natural disaster and universal human suffering.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 people are believed to have lived in Pompeii. So far, more than a thousand bodies have been unearthed from the hardened ashes. One third of the city, including the port and the surrounding countryside, still lies beneath the ground. Even though the total number of victims is unknown, one thing is certain: many did walk away.
The last eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred from March 18-23, 1944, when Allied soldiers were stationed in southern Italy during World War II. The presence of these soldiers and airmen provided the opportunity to film the eruption from their aircraft and ground base. This yielded unprecedented footage of an eruption of great magnitude. The Allies also played a considerable role in the evacuation of nearby cities, preventing many human casualties.
Soldiers and airmen of the 340th Bomber Group were stationed just a few miles from the base of the volcano. Many of them kept diaries and recorded the sights and sounds of this major eruption. They describe having to wear heavy shearling and leather jackets, along with “steel pot” helmets, to protect themselves from clouds of ash and pumice.
On March 22, they were forced to evacuate, leaving behind 88 Allied aircraft. The eruption finally subsided a week later. Soldiers and airmen returned to find their airbase ruined. Engines were clogged with ash, control panels were useless tangles of fused wire, canopies had been punctured by flying rocks or were etched to opacity by wind-driven ash. Despite this loss, the most severe human casualty was a wrist sprained during the evacuation.
By April 15, the planes had been replaced and the 340th Bomber Group was back to full strength, operating out of a new base. “We are still the best damned Group there is. Hitler, you self styled ‘Great Rebuilder’ take note
For many centuries, Mount Vesuvius lay dormant, but its fertile soil invited people, who were unaware of the danger, to build towns on the slopes of this volcano. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted, pushing ash, gas and debris over 20 kilometres up into the sky. The collapse of this giant ash cloud smothered Pompeii in deadly pyroclastic surges.
Volcanologists describe this type of eruption as Vesuvian or Plinian, referring to the Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed and wrote about the eruption. Today, Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano. Since 1631, when historical records first started to be kept, it has erupted more than 50 times, most recently in 1944.
Vesuvius is a stratovolcano. This type of volcano is cone-shaped with a main central vent. Stratovolcanoes have very little flowing lava. Instead, the magma (molten rock) is thick and viscous, which traps gases building up inside the volcano. The extremely high gas pressure then causes sudden, violent eruptions, which hurl a column of rock (lapilli), ash and gas high up into the air. When the column becomes too heavy in the atmosphere, it finally falls to earth in a rush of debris and hot gas, the so-called pyroclastic surge.
Archaeologists discovered objects right where they originally stood, preserved by the volcanic ash that buried them. An early twentieth-century photograph captures this artefact standing in the ruins of a Pompeian house excavated circa 1861. The photograph shows the original location of the sculpture in the atrium (entrance hall) of the Roman house.