The ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near Naples in Campania, is an archaeologists’ dream. In the summer of 79 AD the nearby volcano of Vesuvius erupted destroying the city and providing a perfectly preserved time capsule of Roman life. But what has Pompeii taught us about the daily life of the Romans
10 things Pompeii
about Roman life
“Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room,” wrote Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the cataclysm from across the Bay of Naples,” wrote Pliny the Younger about the disaster that would wipe out a number of cities including Pompeii, Herculaneum, Opolontis, Stabiae and Nuceria.
Pompeii was rediscovered in 1599 but the first real excavations were begun in 1748, with most of the successful work done in the Victorian era. It is a huge site of 160 acres and astonishingly two thirds of it remains underground, un excavated, partly because of funding but mostly because it remains the best way to preserve it.
Pompeii was a raucous place to live, much of the population were freed slaves. The streets were full of human excrement, dumped from chamber pots that was carried away in sewers by overflowing fountains and springs within the town. The streets would have been a riot of colour and noise and not the safest place to be either. As much as life for people Pompeii differs to ours there was much we have in common. From what we have dug up in Pompeii, here’s what we’ve learned about the inhabitants.
Archaeologists recently learned from excavating latrines and other waste sites in poorer working class neighbourhoods of Pompeii discovered that on top of the basic staples such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs that were eaten by the hoi polloi, other more exotic ingredients from as far away as Indonesia were consumed. Shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe were discovered and indicate the richness and variety of the Roman diet but also the far-reaching and cosmopolitan nature of the Roman Empire.
Those randy Romans
A good deal of the artistic artefacts excavated at Pompeii was of a highly erotic nature. The Romans had a completely different attitude to sex and eroticism.
Modern attitudes and sexual morality can be traced back to the Victorians but for the Romans things were very different. Phallic imagery appeared regularly as a symbol of good luck, and countless frescoes depicted sexual scenes involving orgies and even bestiality. As a lot of the excavation was carried out in the Victorian era, a lot of the artefacts were spirited away to a Secret Museum in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which was then bricked up for good measure. The collection is open to the public today and among the museum’s most popular attractions.
The public baths in Pompeii was discovered in 1958 and since fully excavated and restored. There is only one communal changing room in the facility meaning it was shared by men and women. Some of the most explicit erotic Roman art was discovered on the walls of the changing rooms with murals depicting scenes of generic male-female sex, a woman performing fellatio on a man, a man performing cunnilingus on a woman, a lesbian duo with a phallus shaped sexual aid, a threesome, a foursome and a naked man with huge deformed testicles. They are unusual in Roman art for their explicitness and as they appear over what are believed to be lockers for bathers’ clothes it is thought that the images served as visual reminders for those who could not read, perhaps slaves, who were permitted to use the baths.
Women of influence
While it is generally accepted that the Roman Empire was a man’s world, Eumachia, the public priestess of Venus in Pompeii serves as a good example of how a woman could come from inconsequential begins to dominate public life. Eumachia was a self-made woman, making money as a successful matron she married into one of the older families of Pompeii and became the matron of the Fullers Guild, an economically strong union in Pompeii of dyers and weavers. Using her wealth and status, she funded the construction of a large building next to the public forum in Pompeii. This is an example of the idea of euergetism, the socio-political phenomenon of voluntary gift-giving, which exerted an influence on the wealthy people of her time.
The footprint of slavery
A footprint in a terracotta tile and signed with the name ‘Amica’ was discovered at Pompeii and a powerful reminder of the huge section of society that sometimes remains ‘invisible’ to our views of Ancient Rome. The layout of the town shows a ‘two-tiered’ social structure, with the main houses having large front doors for the owners and many side and back doorways that lead into a network of smaller streets and back alleys that were used by the slaves. Slaves were not immediately recognisable by their clothing as everyone wore a simple tunic. Togas were reserved for citizens but were mostly worn on formal occasions. The streets would have been noisy and raucous places with the city’s elite carried aloft on litters. The slaves came from Africa, Greece, somewhere born in Pompeii to become slaves, the wide open forums of the big houses in Pompeii usually contained much utilities, equipment and a water fountain, if they were luck enough. The slaves would have been extremely active and involved in the running of the household and not ‘in the background’ as we might assume. It is thought that up to half the population of Pompeii were freed slaves.
The Romans loved to scrawl on every available surface and not elegant words of wisdom but the same kind of crass toilet humour you might see scrawled on a nightclub toilet wall. SO prolific were the Pompeian graffiti writers that the city would not have looked like a glistening white marble monument, but more like a New York Subway car in the 80s. Everything was written on walls, from political complaints, to the price for prostitutes’ services and asinine observances, almost like a Twitter.
Most died swiftly
At first it was thought that the inhabitant of Pompeii died slow deaths due to suffocation form the ash-filled air over several days or even weeks but The Garden of the Fugitives tells a different story. Hollow spaces were found in the hardened ash where bodies had once lain, the spaces were filled with plaster, leaving a plaster cast of the people in the exact moment they died. The casts lie in situ and provide probably the most powerful visual reminder of the disaster the struck and the human cost. The bodies lay with in a twisted ‘spasm’ which indicates they probably died instantaneously, probably as a result of a volcanic wind of between 300-600°C.
The discovery of a group of skeletons in a basement in under a large agricultural depot in the little suburb of Oplontis served as a refuge to a group of Pompeian fleeing the eruption. The skeletons teach us much about the state of the residents’ heath. On average they were taller than the average modern Neapolitan and contrary to popular belief they lived until middle age. Childhood was by far the most dangerous time the diseases and viruses we vaccinate against claimed as many as half the under-10 population. Two children at the scene display signs of having congenital syphilis, which would have required constant, round the clock care, proving that a strong family and support network was essential to survival. The discovery of medical instruments among kitchen complements prove that ordinary families had a good knowledge of first aid and health care. Probably the stitching of wounds, setting of bones and treatment of skin disorders was done by family members with doctors only called for fevers and other diseases.
Man’s best friend
One of the most famous plaster casts from Pompeii is the dog that was left chained to a post to guard the House of Orpheus when the occupants fled. The bronze studs around its neck are all that remains of a collar. As the pumice fall-out deepened, the dog climbed higher — until eventually it ran out of chain and was suffocated. Along with the many murals of guard dogs found in Pompeii we can see that they were an important part of a household. Pompeii was a noisy and raucous place, compared to its more affluent and peaceful neighbour Herculaneum. It was full of brothels and bars, and it probably would have been a dangerous place to wander at night, meaning most people stayed safely locked up at home once the sun went down.
There is a written report of how in AD 59, a gladiatorial match in the Amphitheatre in Pompeii sparked a riot between the home fans and the visitors from Nuceria. Starting with an incident in the ring, the two sets of opposing fans began to taunt each other, stones were thrown and eventually swords drawn. Many were killed, including children and the Senate in Rome ordered an investigation. Gladiatorial exhibitions were banned in the city and we can see from the ruins of the amphitheatre in Pompeii, that there was an increase in dramatic theatre and other uses in the decade before the disaster. It is quite likely that may of the gladiators were freed, and there is evidence to suggest that at least some of them capitalised on their celebrity status in Pompeii and went on to own prosperous households, often with large mural of their past achievements on the walls. In 2010 the House of the Gladiators, a place where they trained and stored weapons collapsed due to erosion and poor maintenance.
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