If there was one word that for us signified the month just gone, it was Pompeii. We visited Herculaneum and Pompeii during our short Naples break, and then last week, while in London for the Charles Lloyd concert, we went to see the British Museum’s blockbuster exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. And already, before we left for Italy, there had been TV documentaries to mark the exhibition; we watched Pompeii expert Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s film The Other Pompeii: Life and Death In Herculaneum in which he described recent scientific investigations into life in the small Roman town before it was destroyed by volcanic eruption.
Today, Vesuvius broods over a new Herculaneum, Ercolano, a working class town built further inland than its Roman predecessor. In the eruption of AD 79, Herculaneum was buried by up to 20 metres of ash which over time hardened into rock. This means that after entering the site, it is necessary to descend many metres by steps and through tunnels in order to reach Roman street level.
It wasn’t until 1709 that Herculaneum was rediscovered, buried so deep it could only be explored by tunnelling. In his TV film, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill began by focussing on 12 arched vaults, once on the town’s shoreline, where the skeletons of 340 people – amounting to 10% of the local population – were found and which are now the subject of a ground-breaking scientific investigation by the Herculaneum Conservation Project. The finds included a toddler clutching his pet dog, a two-year-old girl with silver earrings and a boy staring into the eyes of his mother as they embraced in their last moment. Those found inside the vaults were nearly all women and children, while outside on the shoreline the bodies were nearly all men.
One of the main objectives of the Conservation Project in recent years has to be to protect this old shoreline area which lies several metres below present sea level. Before the vaults where the bodies of hundreds of women and children were found there is now a drainage pool that resounded to the croaking of hundreds of frogs basking in the warm spring sunshine.
What was really fascinating about Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s film was his exploration of the houses of Herculaneum, along with the wooden furniture found in them (including beds and the only surviving baby’s cradle from the Roman world). On our visit, a highlight was the House of the Wooden Partition, a particularly well-preserved example that features an elegant wooden partition, charred but otherwise intact. The partition is composed of a series of panels of which two were hinged and had bronze handles for ease of opening.
The House of the Inn would once have been set in a magnificent waterfront location on the southern end of the town. It was built sometime in the period 27 BC to 14 AD, and because of its large size and the presence of its own private baths, was originally thought to be an inn, though it is now believed to be a particularly sumptuous private house. The building itself is not in a good state of repair, but it has a central sunken garden where the carbonised trunk of a pear tree was discovered during recent restoration work. As a living reminder of its former use, the garden has now been planted as a pear orchard.
Another luxurious waterfront dwelling is the House of the Deer, which has rooms decorated with red panels framed in black separated by geometric motifs, all on a red ground. What I found interesting were the craftsman’s scored guidelines, revealed where the surface plaster had been damaged or removed. The house was constructed around a central courtyard, where usually there are displayed marble statues of a deer assailed by dogs and of a wonderfully observed Hercules, a little worse for wear having a piss. They had been removed but we saw them a week later in the British Museum exhibition.
Recalling our visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the London exhibition, several aspects struck me. Walking around the two doomed towns, with their ordered streets, piped water supply, thriving trades and elegant houses of the wealthy elite, I wondered at the strange trajectory of human history: after the decline of the Roman civilization, it would be at least 1500 years before European towns approached the same degree of efficiently-organised and well-appointed order.
The British Museum exhibition, by concentrating on the story of the everyday, and only having done so, concluding with a dramatic presentation of body casts of those who died, also draws attention to the elements of a stable, well-ordered society which seem not that distant from our own. You can’t help being struck by the exhibits which are presented early in the exhibition: an electoral notice, election slogans posted on the walls of private and public buildings, citizen lists and inscriptions on memorial statues that record the contribution to the public good made by merchants, lawyers and other members of the town elite.
The exhibition draws attention, too, to the position of women and slaves. Women in Pompeii and Herculaneum, while they had no political rights, appear to have been visible and influential in society and the home. They could not vote of stand for civic office, but they could own businesses, possess personal wealth or land, and have an education. The most vivid illustration of this is a quite moving fresco depicting the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. The couple are depicted as equals in their business, their home and in Pompeii society. She wears fine clothing and jewellery and has a hairstyle fashionable in the 60s AD. In her left hand she holds a document made of three writing tablets and in her right a stylus. Neo holds a papyrus scroll and wears a pure white toga, identifying him as a candidate for political office. The scrolls and tablets indicate literacy, learning, and ambition.
Neo was a baker, and one thing that was very obvious, especially walking around Pompeii, was the importance of bakeries in urban life: there was one in every neighbourhood. Each one had its own oven (looking pretty much the same as the ovens in which your pizza is baked in restaurants in the old town of Naples today). Each had several distinctively-shaped millstones of grey volcanic tufa which were turned by slaves or donkeys with the aid of a wooden handle. The bread would be sold across a counter, directly onto the street.
In the exhibition there is a carbonised loaf that survived being buried in the ash of the eruption. It is is divided into sections, with a stamp on one of the sections that says that it was made by a slave named Celer (who may have worked at the bakery or was a household slave who took the raw loaf to the bakery for baking in the ovens). There are many other exmples of carbonised food displayed in the exhibition – including chickpeas, figs, beans and pomegranates.
Another exhibit is one of several that illustrate the variety of food consumed, at least by the better-off members of Pompeii society. It’s a fresco – a still-life – that depicts two figs and a loaf identical to the one preserved through the millenia.
Bread was the main food staple, though the rich volcanic soils around Pompeii were excellent for agriculture, producing grains, fruit and vegetables, olives and grapes from which wine and olive oil was manufactured in the town. Chicken and seafood were widely consumed, and another superb mosaic depicts a typical range of seafood, again very similar to what turns up on your plate today if you order Fritto Misto in a Naples eatery. This mosaic decorated the floor of a dining room and shows a wide variety of sea creatures, all of which might have been cooked and served at dinner parties.
With all this good food around, life expectancy – at least for citizens – was similar to that in modern Europe. It has been estimated that the population of Pompeii was around 20,000, of whom maybe half would have been slaves. The remaining free citizens would have included those who had been born free and those who were previously slaves but had gained their freedom (as many apparently could).
Pompeii had been a major trading centre and port for over 600 years. Goods were traded to and from many regions of the Mediterranean. Imports included wine from Greece, and pottery and glassware from Alexandria. The sea provided an income source, both from the sale of fish, and supplying garum (a fish sauce essential to Roman cookery). Pottery, tiles and garum were exported throughout the Roman Empire. The area around the Bay of Naples was then, as it is now, a playground for the rich and privileged, who built luxurious villas on its sun drenched shores.
Slaves in both Pompeii and Herculaneum may have made up forty percent of the population. Slaves could be bought and sold and were part of a persons property. Freedom, though, could be bought or granted through the patronage of the slave owner. In Pompeii, only freeborn male citizens over 25 with good moral character could vote. Women and freed slaves were not allowed to vote, but women did have the right to support political candidates with election slogans. Public notices found in Pompeii – such as those displayed in the exhibition – indicate a thriving interest in politics.
The streets of Pompeii were paved with irregular basalt blocks – just like Naples today. The pavements were raised so that rainwater and sewage could flow away along the streets. Stepping-stones allowed pedestrians to cross the road without getting their feet wet, while the ruts left by carts remain etched in the cobblestones. Houses, usually two- or three-storey, generally faced directly onto the street, often with small shops or food takeaways in front.
Both cities had a sophisticated water supply and sanitation system. Aqueducts brought water from the mountains to be stored in reservoirs, while underground lead pipes were laid to deliver water to private homes, if paid for by the owners. In both Pompeii and Herculaneum, water was used in toilets located next to the kitchen where food was prepared. The toilet fed into a pit or sewer in the street.
A visit to the public baths was a daily routine. Pompeii – just a small town – had four baths, each with hot bath, warm steamroom and cold bath. They were cleverly designed, with spaces in the floor that distributed hot air into the room, and corrugated ceilings which allowed condensed steam to run down the walls into a channel. This avoided the nuisance of water droplets constantly falling onto patrons. There was no class system within the baths, with the rich and poor using the facilities together. The baths had libraries and gardens for reading, and the Stabian baths in Pompeii had a large swimming pool.
Another meeting place (at least for the men) might have been the brothel. There were probably 25 in Pompeii, each with stone beds with mattresses, each bed set in its own small room. Some were on the ground floor, while larger rooms for wealthier patrons were situated on the first floor, reached by an independent entrance and a wooden staircase. The brothel owner of the bought the girls as slaves, primarily in the East, so not much change there.
All the evidence suggests that the people of Pompeii were in no way prudish: not only was prostitution a thriving, legal industry, but the villas of the wealthy were frequently decorated with erotic scenes conveying auspicious messages of fertility and wealth. In this example, displayed in the British Museum exhibition, a couple are shown making love on a bed covered with luxurious bedding and cushions. It was found in the private garden of a villa, demonstrating the open and straightforward approach Romans had toward sex. Behind the bed stands a female slave. Slaves were in attendance at even the most intimate moments and it was not unknown for them to participate (willingly or unwillingly).
These representations don’t carry the smutty overtones of present-day pornography, they just make you chuckle (although I admit I felt a chill looking at the freize in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii: there seemed to be something dark, violent and misogynistic there, a disturbing sense that unpleasant things had taken place beneath that freize). But, just as you are amused by the statue of Hercules drunk and urinating, you can’t help but laugh at seeing a wind chime that, as it comes into focus, reveals itself to be winged phallus doubling as an oil lamp. Phalluses turn up frequently, both attached and unattached, life-like and comically oversized, in all sorts of places – wall paintings, sculptures, kitchenware, even on an oil lamp. The male member was a symbol of good luck, believed to have protective powers, and was therefore found in most typical Roman homes.
Another example of the reverence for the phallus is to be found in one of the most striking sculptures on display at the British Museum. At first sight it appears to be an exceptionally lifelike representation of a Pompeii banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, that even records the wart on his cheek. Then you notice that the pedestal on which the bronze head is mounted also features – completely disconnected – a detumescent penis. Because this a herm, a head on a marble pillar, most likely erected as a monument to the dead man and an invocation of good luck for the household by adoring relatives.
I did wonder, coming to the British Museum after walking the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whether the exhibition could add anything to the experience. But the curators have done a great job, telling the story of the lives, and subsequent deaths, of the people who lived there told in a really compelling way. We start in a bustling street of shops and taverns, turn into the house of a wealthy citizen – from atrium to living rooms to garden and to kitchen – and only finally come to the famous casts made from the bodies found in the ruins.
Nevertheless, right at the start, there is a startling moving reminder (especially if you’re a dog-owner) of the horror that engulfed Pompeii and Herculaneum on that fateful day in 79AD. It’s the cast of a poor dog, twisted and contorted in agony, tied to a post outside a house, abandoned there by its fleeing owners.
Remarkably, we meet the dog again later on in the exhibition in the form of a mosaic panel that shows a dog tethered on a red lead. The dog wears a red collar ornamented with white or silver beads. Mosaics were commonly found at the entrances of houses and several feature guard dogs, protecting the house. This mosaic was found in the same house once guarded by the sometime dog that became a void and then, when that void was filled with plaster, took the form of the dog that it had once been.
However, the bulk of the exhibition is devoted to the life, and not the death, of the people who lived in Herculaneum and Pompeii. Amongst the most beautiful objects are frescoes that once decorated the garden room of a villa. The first is a beautiful and realistic depictions of lilies, roses, marigolds and poppies in an overgrown garden alive with swallows, blackbirds, magpies, a nightingale and a sparrow, while a second depicts a purple swamp hen. They exude a palpable sense of gaiety and sensuous enjoyment of life.
Whether walking the reclaimed streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or making your way through the British Museum exhibition, the mood induced is that invoked by Charles Dickens in Pictures From Italy (1845):
Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun. Then, ramble on, and see, at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and every-day pursuits; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well; the track of carriage-wheels in the pavement of the street; the marks of drinking-vessels on the stone counter of the wine-shop; the amphorae in private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour—all rendering the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea.
In the end you can’t avoid death, and the tragedy that engulfed the people of these towns on 24 August AD79. There’s a famous vivid account of the unfolding disaster written by Pliny the Younger in letters he wrote a friend, Cornelius Tacitus, a few years later. During the eruption he was staying in the home of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an official in charge of the fleet in the Bay of Naples:
My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. … My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready…
Pliny the Elder set sail across the bay with a fleet of ships, making their way to Stabiaie. There, even while Vesuvius continued to pour out flames, the untroubled Pliny bathed and dined that evening at a friend’s villa, doing his best to calm the people around him. But when morning came, there was no daylight:
They were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.
Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th – two days after the last day he had been seen – his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.
In another letter, Pliny the Younger described what happened to him and to his mother during the second day of the disaster:
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’Let us leave the road while we can still see,’I said,’or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
At the end of the exhibition you are confronted, finally, with death: the charred cradle in which a child died, covered in a blanket. The cast of a muleteer, and the form of the Resin Lady, so called because the void of the body left in ash was filled with clear epoxy resin. This woman died in the basement of a villa near Pompeii. Beside her is displayed her jewellery: a plain gold armlet, a gold ring with its gem stone, the silver pin that she would have worn in her hair.
Finally, there is the sight of a family – parents and two children – who died together, huddled in an alcove under the stairs of a house. One child is on the mother’s lap. Mother and father appear to be falling backwards, reeling from the blast of tremendous heat that destroyed them. A child lies to one side in the ‘boxer’ pose – tendons contracting in the searing heat.
In the modern town of Ercolano, washing flutters below the slopes of Vesuvius. In AD79 people there knew the mountain, but with no eruption in 700 years they had lost all memory that the mountain could destroy. A little fresco from a garden shrine in Pompeii, displayed in the exhibition, shows Bacchus, god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine in front of Vesuvius with the steep peak that was blown away in the eruption. Green, beneficent and tranquil, then as now it was well overdue its next eruption.
The only difference today is that the population density is so much greater, the traffic-choked streets of Naples and its suburbs, and the extension of suburban building developments right up to the foot of the mountain leading international scientists to warn that the lives of 700,000 people could be at risk. The exhibition closes with these words, written in AD 90 by Statius:
In a future generation, when crops spring up again, when this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and people lie beneath? That in days of old their lands lay nearer the sea? Nor has that fatal summit ceased to threaten.
Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition: Guardian preview
Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition: short tour by Alistair Sooke
The Other Pompeii: Life and Death In Herculaneum: Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s documentary
- AD79: Destruction and Rediscovery: excellent website telling the story of the two sites
- Pompeii and Herculaneum image bank: British Museum Powerpoint resource for teachers
- Pompeii Art and Architecture Gallery: BBC
- Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time: clips from BBC Learning Zone
- Herculaneum Conservation Project website
- British Museum to showcase relics from Pompeii and Herculaneum: Guardian
- Herculaneum: the other town buried by Vesuvius: interactive feature (Guardian)
- Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum: sex, death and some very burnt toast: review by Martin Gayford (Telegraph)
- Roman erotica lacks a sense of sin: Jonathan Jones (Guardian)
3 thoughts on “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”
Thank you for this thoughtful article. Perhaps you would be interested in this video series from The Great Courses: