In AD 79 a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was smothered by 4 to 5 metres of volcanic debris while Herculaneum was entombed in 20 metres of volcanic ash that hardened into tufa rock.


Pompeii was ransacked after the eruption, then the memory of the cities faded, only resurfacing in the 18th century. Herculaneum was first excavated in 1709, so deeply buried that the only way to proceed was by tunnelling. Over the next 40 years a warren of tunnels was driven through the site, yielding amazing discoveries, including wooden objects, foodstuffs, a papyrus library and many marble and bronze statues.

In 1748 excavations began at Pompeii, much less deeply buried, and far easier to excavate. In contrast to Herculaneum’s gloomy tunnels, tourists walked along Pompeii’s streets, and explored houses and public buildings in the light and air.

Pompeii was much larger, almost 66 hectares (163 acres); Herculaneum was a third of that size. Pompeii had around 12,000–15,000 people, with 4,000–5,000 at Herculaneum. Pompeii was busier, with administrative, financial and commercial interests of regional importance. There were slaves, merchants and soldiers from other parts of the Roman empire. The rich were easy to spot by their fine clothing and accompanying servants. Slaves and the free poor were readily recognisable by appearance, such as the simple short tunics that they wore, indicating menial or manual occupations. It was a young population, with most people in their 20s to 40s, and under-10s making up one in five of the population.

Another feature of the human landscape was the visible presence of women. In streets, shops and public areas, women mingled freely with men, unthinkable in some other cultures – and they played a prominent role in the running of the home. Even more surprising was the huge number of ex-slaves – perhaps over half of the population.

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Although Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in an extraordinary way, they were ordinary cities, representative of many others. It is this ordinariness that makes them so important, for they give us an unparalleled glimpse into life in the average Roman home…

Bricks and mortar

Some Romans loved to flaunt their wealth and status through the grandeur of their homes

Roman homes varied from single-roomed apartments to multi-roomed mansions. The classic house – the rectangular, two-storeyed domus – was made of bricks and mortar with a tiled roof. Typical spaces in larger homes included the entrance hall (atrium), anteroom/study (tablinum), bedrooms (cubicula), the dining room (triclinium) and the garden (hortus).

Larger, older houses had a masonry frontage with architectural details, or moulded stucco-imitating masonry. Great doors decorated with bronze bosses spoke of wealth and status, but windows were small, with metal grilles covered with shutters or sliding wooden panels.

The domus housed master and household but others lived over and around it. Shops often fronted the house. Above these and in other parts of the upper storey were apartments with balconies and extensions (maeniana) jutting over the street. These were made of opus craticium – a light but strong structure of timber frame and rubble.

The extended family

A posse of slaves was an essential cog in the well-run Roman household

Each domus housed a familia. More than ‘family’, this Latin word meant a ‘household’ of people linked by blood and marriage. This included the dominus, his wife and their children, but also members of the extended family, as well as slaves and ex-slaves (freedmen). Larger households probably contained dozens of people, with a high proportion of slaves and freedmen.

Slaves were indispensable to daily life. Some were acquired through auctions, while others, vernae, were born to slaves in the home and were brought up there.

Slaves benefited from belonging to the household and probably had more comfortable lives than many poorer, freeborn citizens. Some slaves had particular skills, such as cooking, hairdressing or gardening but many worked generally at whatever was required. They bustled in and about, tending to the household’s daily needs.

Women were an integral part of all areas of the home – which was certainly not the case in every ancient culture. The writer Cornelius Nepos wrote “Matrona versatur in medio” (“The lady of the house is at the centre of things”). From the wet-nurse in the cubiculum and the maid weaving in the atrium, to the cook in the kitchen, the same was true for all women in the home.

Snails and stuffed dormice

While the kitchens of the poor served up mundane fare, the wealthy’s cuisine was far more exotic

Roman dining varied hugely – from fine meals in a grand house, to pies in a tavern or snacks in a small flat. Romans ate breakfast (lentaculum) of bread, cheese and olives; lunch (prandium), at midday, possibly included meat, again with bread and vegetables. They sat down to dinner (cena), at around 6 or 7pm, a grand occasion in wealthy homes. The rich reclined on couches in the triclinium (in Greek, room ‘of the three couches’), while slaves served exotic food and wine with vessels of silver.

Slaves did all cooking in kitchens (culinae) that, even in wealthy houses, were small, dark, smoky and smelly. Many also housed the toilet. Food was cooked on a solid masonry structure in terracotta and bronze pans, cooking pots, jars and casseroles.

Cena had three elements: appetisers (gustatio) included eggs, snails, fish and seafood, vegetables, cheese. There were also dormice, served stuffed with pork mince, dormouse meat, pepper, pine nuts and garum (fish sauce) and cooked under a clibanus, a two-part domed terracotta baking/roasting pot. Main course (mensae primae) was meat – kid and goat, pig meat of all types, prepared meats, game and poultry. Dessert (mensae secundae) comprised fruit, nuts and pastries.

The less wealthy sat at tables and used vessels of pottery and glass. Graffiti from Pompeii shows monotonous diets of bread, oil, leeks, onions and cheese with fish and sausages as treats. But a drain in Herculaneum, serving both poor and rich houses, produced vegetables, including beans, olives and lentils, together with fruit and nuts such as fig, date, apple and grape and hazelnut.

Seafood included scallops, mussels and sea urchins alongside fish such as sardine, eel and anchovy. Chicken, sheep and pig bones were also found, as were seeds of dill, coriander, mint and black peppercorns (imported from India) – an echo of rich sauces.

Cottage industries

Many Pompeians ran businesses from home – and some made a fortune in the process

Some homes hosted businesses. Many shops, workshops and bars were built into the fronts of even the wealthiest houses, and clearly no stigma was attached to commercial premises. They are instantly recognisable by their wide entrances, masonry counters with inset jars, and staircases leading up to living quarters. Businesses were a useful source of income to homeowners, through takings and rents, but were run by slaves and freedmen.

Shops sold local foodstuffs and goods, often made on the premises, as well as merchandise from all over the empire, including luxuries such as silk, perfumes and spices, lamps and glass vessels.

Businessmen could make massive fortunes. One man who did just that was the fish sauce magnate Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, owner of a mansion in western Pompeii, who put mosaics showing his fish sauce bottles into his floor.

What went on in the bedroom…

It seems that the Romans’ idea of appropriate sexual imagery was very different to our own

Rich and poor homes alike provided opportunities to relax and unwind. Families sat and talked, read, played games, dined, drank and made music. For resting or sleeping, people retired to the bedroom, which was a small room sometimes with alcoves or floor patterning – indicating positions of beds – or recesses for a bed end or clothes chest.

The bedroom (cubiculum) was regarded as an appropriate place for love and sex. The Romans were fairly comfortable with nudity and sexual images, and considered the phallus a lucky charm. Many frescoes show couples making love, and some were found on open display in gardens rather than in bedrooms or brothels. Slaves are frequently present in these scenes, reflecting the Romans’ very different ideas of privacy. More disturbingly, it reminds us that some slaves were unwilling participants rather than mere attendants.

In addition to these explicit depictions of human sex and love, there were representations of the gods and other supernatural beings, who influenced the love lives of mortals, such as Bacchus and his followers. Venus, goddess of love and beauty (and patroness of Pompeii), ruled the hearts of gods and men – but not always happily. “I want to break Venus’s ribs with sticks,” scribbled one unlucky-in-love Pompeian.

Cubicula were generally dark, so were lit by oil lamps of terracotta and bronze. The writer Martial gives a voice to such a lamp: “I’m the nice lamp who knows all about your bed – do what you fancy – I won’t say a word.”

Beauty and the beasts

Pompeians took their interior design very seriously, as the finest Roman frescoes ever discovered prove

Roman decorative styles changed through circumstance and fashion, and the chronological and stylistic diversity found in the cities is important.

Poor homes, smaller apartments and rooms such as kitchens and toilets had plain or simply painted walls and beaten earth or tile and concrete floors. In wealthy homes most rooms were finely decorated, in a unity of floor, walls and ceiling. Plasterers, painters and mosaicists collaborated in workshops (officinae). Recurring pictures and motifs indicate they worked from copybooks or catalogues.

Floors were of crushed brick and tile in mortar (signinum), or of mosaic, patterned surfaces made of small cubes (tesserae) of stone and glass. A detailed mosaic panel (emblema) was an indicator of greater refinement. Ceilings of plaster or coffered wood were brightly painted.

Walls could be decorated with wall mosaics, marble veneering or decorative panels but wall paintings (frescoes) were the main feature, painted onto plaster that was wet or ‘fresh’ (‘fresco’ in Italian). The city’s frescoes, the finest and most numerous examples in the Roman world, are divided into four ‘Pompeian styles’.

The first style, imported from the Greeks, used moulded, brightly painted plaster to imitate marble veneer. The second home-grown style had painted simulations of sculpture, and architecture in false perspective. The third style featured blocks of colour with central Greek mythological scenes. The fourth flanked these scenes with winged figures or roundels of still life and portraits. In vogue in AD 79, this style was the most common, partly due to demand from nouveau riche freedmen for fine domestic interiors. But the most striking frescoes ignored styles and filled walls with large-scale scenes of beast hunts or beautiful gardenscapes.

A lotion of lupin and broad beans

A lack of running water was no obstacle to looking good and smelling great

Most people only went to the public baths once or twice a week. What about other days? Rooms had no running water, even in wealthy houses, so people washed in the bedroom using a basin of water, heated, if necessary, in the kitchen.

In this period, most Roman men were clean-shaven and wore their hair short. This was done at home by a slave or outside by a barber (tonsor), using a distinctive folding razor called a novacula and one-piece shears.

Women washed and cleansed with sponges, cloth and abrasive cleansers such as pumice. Among skin lotions and softeners was a cream of broad beans, lupins and wine that made the skin ‘smoother than a mirror’. Unwanted hair was removed with tweezers (volsellae) or creams. Olive oil served as soap. Teeth were cleaned with soda or pumice using fingers or sticks, while breath was freshened with pastilles.

Attention now turned to hair and make-up – for cheeks (white lead), eyes (crocus and azurite) and lips (red lead). Perfumes and oils made of violets, jasmine and roses scented body and hair. The hairstyles of wealthy women changed fairly frequently. Hair, sometimes dressed with the help of a hair slave (ornatrix) was dyed, curled, ringletted, waved, pinned and ribboned or arranged into a hairnet. Clothing and jewellery were donned and arranged.

The members of the household were ready for the day.

Paul Roberts is a senior curator in the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, and is head of the Roman collections.


This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine