What can the streets of Pompeii reveal about daily life in ancient Rome?
The homes and public buildings that have been excavated from the volcanic ash that buried Pompeii all offer tantalising glimpses into the lives of the Romans living in the city before the terrible eruption of AD 79 – but so do the streets. With a new BBC TV series about Pompeii in the offing, Sophie Hay looks back 100 years to a dig that transformed our understanding of Roman daily life
For 1,800 years, the streets of Pompeii lay dormant. Ever since the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius razed the city in AD 79, its alleyways, corners, shop fronts and crossroads had slumbered under a layer of volcanic debris. But then, in the second decade of the 20th century, something happened that would breathe life back into Pompeii’s once teeming thoroughfares. That something was the appointment of a new superintendent of archaeological works, a man called Vittorio Spinazzola.
For decades, the daily life in ancient Pompeii had been examined purely through the city’s private houses and public buildings: its baths, its markets, its temples and bakeries. The streets connecting these places were often overlooked. All that changed when Spinazzola arrived in 1911.
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The archaeologist was convinced that excavating the streets could yield rich evidence of daily life in the ancient city. His predecessors had concentrated on excavating single properties or insula blocks in the western part of the city. Spinazzola, however, took a different approach. He chose to excavate the remaining eastern half-kilometre stretch of the via dell’Abbondanza – the main east-west road that traversed the city – and the facades of the buildings that opened onto it.
By breaking the seal of the undisturbed volcanic deposits from the top downwards, Spinazzola revealed the upper floors and roofs of buildings that fronted onto the street as well as further evidence of life at street level itself. In the words of his son-in-law Salvatore Aurigemma: “No more monotonous… and deserted Pompeiian streets but windows, balconies, canopies and terraces, one after another, as if all life had no purpose but the street.”
Spinazzola was looking for a window onto Pompeii’s streets and alleys, along which men, women and children – rich, poor and enslaved alike – and animals had once rubbed shoulders in places of constant flux. And that’s what he’d go on to find.
Bustling roads of Pompeii
A glance at one’s feet while walking the streets of Pompeii will soon reveal that it is not just the uneven paving slabs that can cause an ankle to turn – the deep ruts pose more of a threat of injury. During a visit in the 1860s, Mark Twain noted: “I caught my foot in one of those ruts, and the sadness that came over me when I saw the first poor skeleton, with ashes and lava sticking to it, was tempered by the reflection that may be that party was the street commissioner.”
Back in the first century AD, maintenance of the streets and roads was the responsibility of two elected officials known as aediles. Excavations along the via dell’Abbondanza revealed evidence of repairs to the road having been carried out, especially at the crossroads where the wheel ruts (evidence of the relentless grind of metal-rimmed wheels on the road surface) are far shallower. In the less busy side streets, repairs could cover more extensive stretches as they posed less of a disruption to the flow of traffic.
Excavations along the via dell’Abbondanza revealed evidence of repairs to the road having been carried out, especially at the crossroads where the wheel ruts are far shallower
These physical manifestations of now absent carts, wagons and carriages give the modern visitor an immediate sense of busy highways – of a certain commotion of movement and clattering sounds as hooves and wheels pounded the street. There were restrictions as to when goods could be transported by wheeled vehicles into the city but it is easy to imagine, too, that these laws would often have been flouted.
Investigations into patterns of abrasion on kerbs and stepping stones, caused by the contact of wheel on stone, have revealed that a one and two-way traffic system was in place in the town. However, no wheeled vehicle was permitted into the city’s forum: each entrance to the public square was blocked by means of steps or stone bollards.
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Water fountains and shrines
The water required by the inhabitants of Pompeii for drinking, cooking, washing and cleaning was initially provided by public and private wells, or by rainwater collected in the home before being stored in underground cisterns. But following the construction of an aqueduct in the Augustan period (27 BC–14 AD), Pompeii was supplied with fresh, piped water that fed, among other things, public fountains. There are about 40 distributed along the city’s streets, many of them decorated with reliefs of gods, animals and religious symbols at their spout.
Fountains represented much more than just convenient points of water collection; they were important neighbourhood meeting places where conversations were had, stories were swapped and gossip was whispered. But they weren’t the only places where the people of Pompeii congregated along the city’s streets. They would often head to a local street shrine (commonly found near a fountain, and which often took the form of a small altar or niche in a wall), where they would make offerings, sing devotional songs and engage in rituals and slow-moving processions.
More than 30 of Pompeii’s street shrines coincide with the intersections of roads and, as such, each served a particular vici (neighbourhood). Such shrines were the focal point of the religious festival of the Compitalia, which celebrated the gods, or lares, of the crossroads. Ceremonies in Pompeii were presided over by slaves or freemen acting as the ‘neighbourhood officers’. Frescoes associated with some of these shrines depict groups of officials tending to an altar, and ancient sources suggest that, as part of the rites of this festival, neighbourhood households would offer honey cakes.
Frescoes and noticeboards
Successive layers of these frescoes further suggest that the continually changing officials repainted them regularly, often adding their own names. Yet the texts on the facades of buildings were not limited to the names of magistrates of the vici. Many of the facades emerging from the pumice have revealed brightly coloured, painted frontages, some with chequered designs, others with decorative frescoes and coloured sections of wall. Several were emblazoned with painted written notices (dipinti) in red or black elegant lettering.
The vast majority of these dipinti – about 2,500 of them – consisted of political messages (programmata) related to civic elections. These were often painted by professional signwriters on whitewashed plaster, and followed a simple formula: the name of the candidate and the political office he was seeking. Some diverged from this prescriptive form to include the name of the supporter, while personal messages were added to further sway voters. Some may even have been intentional smear campaigns, such as the notice that read: “The late drinkers ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia aedile. Florus and Fructus wrote this.”
Although Roman women were not entitled to vote, they were clearly involved in the campaign process: about 60 programmata feature the names of female endorsers, including those of a group of barwomen. Other painted signs advertised upcoming gladiator games and entertainment in the amphitheatre – one advert promises “a procession, hunt, athletics and awnings” – and the presenter of the games in a number of these notices is identified as “Gn. Alleius Nigidius Maius”.
Although Roman women were not entitled to vote, they were clearly involved in the campaign process: about 60 programmata feature the names of female endorsers, including those of a group of barwomen
Gladiatorial combat was a staple of Roman entertainment in the first century AD, yet here it is conspicuous by its absence. This suggests that Alleius Nigidius Maius was in charge of presenting the games during a ban on gladiators imposed by the Emperor Nero as punishment for a riot that broke out between the Pompeiians and local rivals from Nucera in AD 59. It is quite remarkable that the riot, an event documented by an ancient source and captured in a Pompeiian fresco, is also traceable through the written word on the streets of the city.
Life on the streets
The sheer quantity of painted signs daubed on the walls and graffiti scratched into the plasterwork of buildings suggests there must have been a relatively high level of literacy among the population of Pompeii. There is, after all, little to be gained from communicating with written words if very few people can read them. Graffiti represents the great unedited voice of the people. Far from the formal official language of notices and inscriptions, the doodles and snarky (though often witty) comments etched into the street frontages bring us up close to those pedestrians who once loitered long enough to leave their mark.
And though there is rich evidence to suggest that the thoroughfares of Pompeii were places of continual motion, loitering was also an integral part of street life – whether that was pausing in front of shops to browse their wares, waiting in line to use the water fountain, stopping to talk or gossip with a client or friend, or sitting on the stone benches that flanked the doorways of private houses while waiting to discuss business with the wealthy occupants.
Incredibly, archaeological evidence in Pompeii offers us some further direct proof of those that lingered on the streets. In a winding side street, in the vicinity of a public bath complex, a bar and the entrance to what was perhaps a small brothel, a message painted in white letters reads: “This is no place for idlers; take off, loiterer.” The discovery of a large number of electoral programmata, graffiti and advertisements for games just down the road suggests that those who heeded the warning notice didn’t necessarily travel very far.
The main thoroughfares of Pompeii were lined with commercial outlets such as barbers, cobblers, bakeries, mat makers, pigment sellers, goldsmiths, fulleries, metal workshops, food retailers and, of course, bars. All would have added to the hubbub of city life, with craftsmen hawking their wares, customers browsing, drinkers spilling out from the bars, carts picking their way through the throng and local residents stepping into the fray from the depths of their houses.
And all have been brought vividly to life by the programme of archaeological research that Vittorio Spinaz zola set in train just over a century ago. Pompeii’s streets may have been silenced in the most terrible circumstances in AD 79, but before Vesuvius razed the city they were far from mute. Of all the places in Pompeii, the streets were where the city was most alive. And it is in the streets where we find the best evidence of the communal daily life of all strata of society.
This article was first published in the October issue of BBC History Magazine
Sophie Hay is an archaeologist specialising in Pompeii
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