In AD 79 at the beginning of the reign of Titus there occurred one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of the world with the eruption of the volcano of Vesuvius, which overwhelmed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as numerous villas in the countryside. It was a disaster for the inhabitants, but it has proved to be a treasure house for the archaeologists.
Herculaneum was deeply buried however Pompeii was more lightly buried and as a result two thirds of it have been excavated making it the best known town in the Roman Empire; one of the few towns where the total layout can be seen and argued over.
As a result, Pompeii is the ideal place to see how a Roman city actually worked at the prime of its power. Here we can see the forum and the other public places too; the baths were a favourite meeting place for the Romans, and also the amphitheatre and the theatres. And we can look into the private houses, both the big ones, and the smaller ones, and find out how they actually worked.
In some ways Pompeii was an odd town: the walls that surround the town were built in the 6th century BC, which was when many of the Greek colonies were being established, though Pompeii appears to have been a native town, though with Greek and Etruscan influence. But the early walls were rather too big and the early town was confined to the south east corner known as the ‘Altstadt’. And for the first two centuries it seems that much of the space inside the walls must have been farm land or gardens; and it was only in the third century that it began to be built up. It seems that it never officially became a Roman town, but remained a Samnite town, speaking the Oscan language, even though in the second century, it was highly influenced by Hellenistic tendencies and some of the richest buildings such as the House of the Faun with its Alexander mosaic belong to this second century flowering. It was only with the establishment of a colony in 81 BC that Pompeii became formally Roman.
In the fifth century a temple to Apollo was built in the eastern side of the town, and it was alongside this that the Forum developed. The forum is often taken to be a typical example of a Roman forum, but it is rather odd: on the one long side in the west is the temple to Apollo with the Basilica tucked into the south western corner. But the forum in a Roman town is meant to be surrounded by shops, but in Pompeii the western side is occupied by the temple to Apollo and the butt end of the Basilica, and the eastern side is occupied by half a dozen rather large buildings, dominated by the Macellum or covered market at the northern end, and at the centre a very large building erected by Eumachia.
Eumachia was a wealthy woman. Her father, Lucius Eumachias, was a successful manufacturer of bricks and tiles, and she married into one of the leading families of the town. But it is interesting to see the extent of the powers of a wealthy woman in Roman society. She was a public priestess of the goddess Venus Pompeiana and patron of the Guild of Fullers (cloth workers), but this was the extent to which Roman women could progress politically. But economically she was able to acquire this crucial parcel of land beside the forum and had the funds to build a large portico square. No-one knows quite what it was used for, was it perhaps used by the fullers who erected a fine statue to their patron at one side of the square?
Although the Eumachia building was built by apparently by a single individual, it must have been essentially a public building, even though we do not know what it was used for. To its north were two smaller public buildings labelled as the Temple of Vespasian and the Sanctuary of the City Lares, that is the city gods: one doesn’t quite know why what they are doing there, perhaps the equivalent of churches, though churches to the Imperial cult, to show that we are all part of the same team.
But it is interesting to consider the various public buildings in Pompeii, to see how they were built and how they are financed. Today we are concerned with inequality and feel that rich men should be taxed heavily so that the money should be used by the government to put up public buildings. The Romans however were not worried about inequality, but instead expected that rich people should pay for the public buildings (like the Victorians?) We can perhaps consider this under three headings, firstly the buildings of governance, then the baths and finally, the theatres and amphitheatre.
Religion of course had its role, though as always with the Romans, not too big a role. At the northern end, the short side, there is the Capitolium , the official main temple of the town. It began as a temple of Jupiter, but after Pompeii became a colony after 80 BC, it was rebuilt as a proper Capitolium, that is an official temple of Rome, dedicated to the three gods of Jupiter Juno and Minerva, with triumphal arches on either side, providing a formal entrance to the forum.
The foremost public building was the basilica, a large imposing building strangely rather hidden away in the corner of the Forum and at right angles to the Forum. It was built in the 2nd century BC to judge from the stamped roofing tiles found there. At the far end was a setting for a large formal seat from which judgement could be pronounced. But there are few signs of the rooms where the work of the town council could be carried out. Instead there are three rooms at the southern end of the Forum, each with an apse at the far end, and these are often thought to be the offices of the town administration where the officers could do their work and records could be kept.
The town was ruled by two mayors known as the duo viri, who were elected annually for a single year, just like the consul at Rome. The Romans clearly had an ingrained horror of having been ruled by a single man, so they always elected their chief officers in pairs and only for a single year, while there were also junior officers called aediles. When Pompeii was overwhelmed it seems that an election was in full swing and election posters were painted everywhere on the houses along the main street. Over 2,500 of these posters have been preserved, many of them from previous years; they were mostly in the form of ‘please elect Lucius Pompedius as aedile’, and was sometimes expanded in the form of ‘The fullers ask you to elect Publius Sittius as aedile, a fine young man worthy of public office’. It is interesting to note that even though the position of emperor had become hereditary, there was still an active democracy at the lower levels. It is very different from China where the chief magistrate of the town was always sent out from Peking.
It is fascinating to see how the town actually worked. There is no big palace, no house for the governor, merely three rooms for the storage of records and work rooms. However being elected to the town council also brought with it its duties: just as in classical Athens the great plays were paid for by the rich performing a liturgy, who also included paying for a warship, so in imperial Rome most of the buildings were erected by the wealthy citizens. Later in the 3rd and 4th century this became a burden and rich tried to avoid becoming a member of the comitia because of the financial impositions that were thereby incurred. But in the 1st and 2nd centuries it was seen to be a honour to finance a building in your native city.
The basilica seems to have been essentially a covered version of the forum, where the people of Pompeii could meet and transact their business — and one suspects that business, rather than politics was the main topic of conversation in the forum.. And one suspects too that much of the real business of the town was conducted informally and that means in the baths.
There were no grand public baths at Pompeii. The oldest and largest baths were the Stabian baths near the Stabian Gate: in their final form, an elaborate set of baths for both men and women. Excavations have revealed that they began in the 4th century BC as rows of hip baths, but there was a major reorganisation in the second century BC, while in the 1st century BC further rooms were added when a new aqueduct brought running water to the town. The work was done by Gaius Uulius and Publius Aninius the duo viri ‘, in accordance with a decree of the town councillors using the money that the law requires them to spend either on games or a monument’ – an interesting example of how the town councils decided that work needed to be done, but the mayors paid for the work and supervised the construction.
However when the town became a colony in the 80s BC, it was decided that a new more efficient set of baths should be constructed right by the forum, behind indeed the Capitoline temple, though in this case the duo viri undertook the construction at public expense. A third set of baths was also under construction at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius which are known as the Central Baths, even though they are situated in the northern part of the town outside the old centre. Interestingly, they are only a single set of baths with no separate provision for women: was this because women were excluded or did they use the baths at different times or had the Romans become broadminded and decided that men and women could use the same baths?
Interestingly there was yet another set of baths built outside the Marine gate of the town that led down to the harbour. These are known as the Suburban Baths, which were only excavated quite recently. These caused something of a sensation when it was realised that there was a brothel attached, with in the entrance hall, a set of paintings which displayed the various attractions offered by the young ladies. One wonders whether this was a private enterprise, built by private individuals for public use as a commercial venture.
Then there were the theatres. Pompeii did in fact have two proper Greek-style theatres which were down in the old town. The larger was one of the first buildings to be built in the town in the 4th or even the 5th century BC, when Greek influence was strong and every respectable town had to have a Greek style theatre. Adjacent to it a smaller covered theatre was built in the 1st century BC when the town became a Roman colonia. Perhaps it was mainly an intimate concert hall, but was it also a meeting place where the curia, the Roman town council met?
But the most popular place of entertainment was the Amphitheatre, built in the far eastern corner of the town well away from the formal centre, for Amphitheatres were places where rowdiness was likely to take place so they should therefore be placed well away from the town centre. The Amphitheatre was very much a Roman form of entertainment and was built when Pompeii became a Roman town. From 91 – 88 BC, Rome went to war with its allies in the so-called ‘social war’. This is the strangest war ever, for it was a war by the allies, the socii, who wanted to be given Roman citizenship. The Romans won the war but promptly gave the allies citizenship which is what they wanted. So the allies having lost the war gained their objectives. It was a war that is somehow typical of the Romans in that they were stupid to go to war in the first place, but having won the war ended up by doing the right thing.
However Pompeii having gone through war with the rest of the allies was besieged by Sulla, the great Roman general. The damage to the walls by the ballistae (boulders) hurled by the Roman siege engines can still be seen. However the Romans having won, made Pompeii into a colonia and imposed a group of colonists on the town. The results can best be seen archaeologically by the inscriptions which had hitherto been written in the Oscan language, but are hence forward in Latin, and one of the big results can be seen in the Amphitheatre where an inscription informs us that the Amphitheatre was built by Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius duo viri for the honour of the colony, who saw to the construction of this spectacula at their own expense and gave the land in perpetuity to the colonists: though interestingly inscriptions on the different sections record the names of the magistrates who paid for the seating.
But who were these two duo viri who paid for the whole amphitheatre? Presumably they were new colonists who had grown rich at the expense of the old guard, but who ploughed some of their ill-gotten gains back into the building of the Amphitheatre. But the two men were able to pay for the whole amphitheatre – said to be the oldest stone amphitheatre in the whole of Italy – demonstrates the extent of the wealth in Pompeii in the 1st century BC.
The amphitheatre is the only occasion in which Pompeii appears in the pages of Tacitus prior to the eruption, for in AD 59 a riot occurred and the visiting supporters from the nearby town of Nuceria had a dust up with the local supporters – a painting of this is preserved in one of the houses – and a complaint was made to the emperor and investigators were sent down and games were banned for ten years, which seems a fairly harsh punishment.
It is fascinating to see how the town actually worked: there was no big palace, no house for the governor, no castle, no barracks for soldiers. Instead a number of buildings round the forum, temples and baths, theatres and an amphitheatre — politics and business and pleasure —all mixed up. But the public buildings of Pompeii though fine were not overwhelming and the real wealth of the town was to be found in the private houses.
The main street of the town leads out from the south east corner of the forum. It is known as the Via del Abbondanza, and it leads eastwards from the forum to the far end of the town, lined with all the big houses, though in many cases these frontages are taken over by shops and bars, — the Roman equivalent of our coffee houses.
The town is divided up into insulae or islands, regular blocks of houses. Some insulae were occupied by a single great house of which the best known is the House of the Faun with the statue of a dancing faun still in place to greet the visitors. This was built originally in the 2nd century, in the ‘Samnite’ period which was in many ways the grandest period of the town. There were two entrances: one a grand public entrance, the other for domestic life, though both were proper atriums with a central courtyard with the roof sloping down to form a rainwater pool at the centre. Behind it there were two grand peristyles: the first was the smaller being surrounded by rooms with facilities for dining, but behind it was a larger peristyle courtyard with a colonnade running round the outside. Between the two was the most famous mosaic from the Roman world: a picture of Alexander fighting the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela. It is formed from over a million tesserae, and is presumably a copy of a famous painting made at the time. The painting has perished, but the mosaic, now in the National Museum at Naples, is the finest representation of what must have been one of the grandest paintings in antiquity.
This is the largest single house in Pompeii, and if any house is to be the dwelling of a ruler, this is it. But it is a very odd house. It was built in the second century BC and preserved with few alterations to the time of destruction when it must have been over 200 years old. The two peristyle courtyards would have been splendid for display, but the residential arrangements are on the small side – no grand dining room but a small dining room and even smaller baths on the eastern side of the smaller peristyle. It would have been good for grand occasions — but not a house to live in.
But most of the blocks in the city were occupied by several houses. A good example of this is the Insula of the Menander, labelled as ‘insula 1,10’, the third block along the Via del Abbondanza from the forum. This began in the 4th century BC when the first house was built. Over the next two centuries this was gradually extended, but the major change did not come until 50 BC when a second grand house was tucked into the west corner of the block, known as the ‘House of the Lovers’. The rest of the block was then filled out by the original house with a large peristyle courtyard at the centre, a grand dining room on one side and a kitchen apparently on the other.
But it is fascinating to see that the exterior rooms of the house were all monetized and were let out for money and thus individual rooms were let out for a joiner, a weaver, two cafes and apparently a fullery, or clothes cleaning establishment. Indeed one of the rooms constructed above the west side of the atrium is thought to have served as a brothel – a vivid comment on the changing character of this old aristocratic quarter.
No other town in the Roman world, and indeed few other towns anywhere can compare to Pompeii as the example of how an ‘ordinary’ town really worked. There is no grand palace, no dwelling or castle for the ruler of the town. Instead the town ran itself, the leading citizens proudly contributing to the buildings of the town: the amphitheatre, the buildings round the forum, the baths and the temples; while their own houses displayed their hospitality. It is the workings of the market economy in all its variety, forming a wonderful exhibit of how the Roman world worked at its height.