What was life like in ancient Pompeii? Mary Beard shares an A-Z guide
Buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and gradually disinterred from the middle of the 18th century, Pompeii is probably the world's most famous archaeological site. But what was life like for the Romans who lived there, pre-eruption? Not that different from our own, as Mary Beard reveals in her A to Z of the ancient town, complete with yob culture, nightlife and plonk...
A... is for artists at work
House makeovers? Style gurus? Des res? Painters and decorators did a roaring trade in Pompeii, transforming dark and often pokey interiors with a lavish coat of paint much as they do today. And we now have a precious glimpse of how the painters operated. In one house, recently uncovered, a team of three or four decorators were interrupted by the eruption almost in mid-brush stroke, scarpering as the ash fell and abandoning their tools, 50 pots of paints, and a bucket of fresh plaster precariously balanced up a ladder. The assistants had been busy slapping on the plaster and the broad washes of colour, while the masters had drawn out the design in rough sketches and were painting the figures and the fiddly bits.
B… is for banking
The Romans didn’t have cheques or credit cards, but there were money lenders, the banks of the day. The most famous Pompeian banker is Lucius Caecilius Jucundus (now best known as the hero of the early parts of the Cambridge Latin Course). Some of his records and receipts, stashed away in the attic of his house, give an idea of his business activities. Banker is actually a bit of a euphemism – he was mainly an auctioneer profiting on both sides of the transaction, charging the seller a commission and then lending money to the buyer at a healthy rate of interest.
- Read more about Pompeii: how much of Pompeii was preserved after the devastation? When was Pompeii first excavated?
C... is for cafe culture
The latest estimate reckons that there were about 200 cafes and bars in the town altogether – about one for every 60 residents. A counter usually ran along the street to catch the passing trade, selling cheap takeaway food from large jars. Wine was stacked up behind it and there were tables in a back room for sit-down eating and drinking. It was the reverse of today’s society, where the rich eat out and the poor cook up at home. In Pompeii, the poor, living in tiny quarters with no facilities, relied on cafe food.
The highlight of Pompeii is walking the streets. Try to find a deserted side street – it’s still possible even with the crowds of visitors – and, clichéd as it is, you’ll feel as if you’re back in the Roman world. Otherwise don’t miss the Villa of the Mysteries, just outside the town walls, for really impressive painting (though touched up in the early 20th century rather more than is usually admitted). The brothel still does a roaring trade and is worth a look.
D… is for diet (and dormice)
Rich Pompeians did occasionally eat dormice. Or so a couple of strange pottery containers – identified, thanks to descriptions by ancient writers, as dormouse cages – suggest. But elaborate banquets were a rarity and just for the rich. The staples were bread, olives, beans, eggs, cheese, fruit and veg (Pompeian cabbages were particularly prized), plus some tasty fish. Meat was less in evidence, and was mainly pork. This was a relatively healthy diet. In fact, the ancient Pompeians were on average slightly taller than modern Neapolitans.
- Read more about the surprising foods eaten in ancient Rome…
E… is for education, education, education
One of the puzzles of Pompeii is where the kids went to school. No obvious school buildings or classrooms have been found. The likely answer is that teachers took their class of boys (and almost certainly only boys) to some convenient shady portico and did their teaching there. A wonderful series of paintings of scenes of life in the Forum seems to show exactly that happening – with one poor miscreant being given a nasty beating in front of his classmates. And the curriculum? To judge from the large number of quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid scrawled on Pompeian walls, the young were well drilled in the national epic.
Listen: Daisy Dunn revisits the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
F… is for faith
The official religion of the town sponsored solemn sacrifices and raucous festivals celebrating Jupiter, Apollo, Venus and the Roman emperor, who was to all intents and purposes a god himself. But alongside this, happily co-existing so far as we can tell, were all kinds of other religions. One of the most impressive sights at Pompeii is the little temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis, once tended by its white-clad, shaven-headed priests. We have evidence, too, for Jews and worshippers of Cybele, known as the Great Mother. There is no clear sign of any Christians, but in one house an ivory statuette of the Indian goddess Lakshmi has turned up. Souvenir, curiosity or object of devotion? Nobody knows.
- Read more about religion in ancient Rome…
G... is for garum
No Roman cooking was complete without garum – a disgusting concoction of rotten fish. A more generous interpretation sees it as a version of the spicy fish sauces that are part of modern Thai cooking, and it was popular in Pompeii, which had at least one garum shop. One of its richest families made its fortune in the trade – and advertised the fact by decorating their front hall with a design of garum jars in mosaic. Garum traders were canny businessmen, with an eye on different markets. A kosher version (guaranteed to contain no shellfish) was produced for the local Jewish community.
H... is for hygiene
Pompeii boasted at least six public bathing complexes – some owned by the city council, some by private enterprise operations. Only a few of the very richest houses had their own facilities. The vast majority of the population would have exercised, scraped down, sweated and taken a dip in one of the communal establishments. As you might imagine, they were hotbeds of germs and infection. The plunge pools had limited water circulation, no chlorination and must have been full of the usual sort of human effluent. Ancient doctors recommended not going to the baths with an open wound – it could lead to gangrene.
I... is for illness
Illness struck the young hard. Over half of Pompeii’s children were dead by the age of ten. And the telltale marks left by childhood infectious diseases are clearly visible on the teeth of many of the victims of the eruption. But the good news was that if they survived into adolescence, ancient Pompeians could expect a life not much shorter than our own. For those who fell sick, the doctors would try out a diagnosis and cure – equipped with many of the same instruments, everything from tweezers to gynaecological specula, that you find in a modern medical surgery.
J... is for job seekers
Dozens of trades and professions are found at Pompeii: carpenters, actors, surveyors, gem-workers, architects, inn keepers, perfume-sellers, laundry men. There is even a “public pig keeper” by the name of Nigella. Occasionally there was big money to be made, but mostly these were low profit margin occupations, and many of those involved were ex-slaves. One of Pompeii’s heated baths. There were at least six in the ancient town or slaves still working to add to the fortunes of their masters. If you didn’t have a job, what then? One of the paintings of Forum life shows a beggar (plus dog) taking hand-outs from a grand lady. Mostly, though, the poor did not exist. In a world without social care, those without means of support simply died.
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K... is for kitchens
Even in the grandest houses, Pompeian kitchens could hardly have cooked up a banquet. They are mostly small, dark, and equipped with just a hearth and a cauldrons to mousse-moulds and industrial-scale sieves. For those occasional banquets, we must imagine preparations extending well beyond the kitchen. One ancient novel talks about a slave shelling peas on the front step, while doubling as hall porter. Large joints of meat would have sizzled away on portable braziers, perhaps in front of the guests.
L... is for lavatories
The usual place for a Pompeian lavatory was in the kitchen. Hygiene aside, it presumably functioned as a convenient waste-disposal unit, in addition to its more familiar function. A few had shafts that dropped down into a running water supply, though the truth is that rich Pompeians were more interested in using piped water to run ornamental fountains than to make their ablutions more efficient. Many went directly into cesspits, and the remains still lingering in them today are a favourite target of archaeologists wanting to find out what really went in and out of Pompeian stomachs.
- Find out more about ancient toilets with our historical A-Z…
M... is for mains drains
Why are there so many stepping stones in Pompeii’s streets? The answer is simple. There were hardly any public drains to take rainwater and sewage out of the city. Most water, and a lot else, no doubt, flowed out through the streets, which must have become rather unsavoury rivers in a downpour. There were no such features at the nearby town of Herculaneum, where there was a developed system of underground drainage.
N... is for nightlife
When the night fell in Pompeii, it was very dark indeed. The thousands of oil lamps discovered can hardly have made much impact on the gloom. All the same, the bars kept on serving. Some hung welcoming lamps over their front doors. One striking example is in the shape of a pygmy with an enormous phallus, lights dangling from every extremity. And a group of mates signing themselves ‘the late drinkers’ left their message on a Pompeian wall. Sign writers too were busy in the dark. A man called Celer posted up an advertisement for a gladiator show,“written,” it says,“by the light of the moon”. Add to this the noise of all the guard dogs barking, the horses bellowing and the odd wakeful, honking pig: it was probably noisy as well as dark after hours in Pompeii.
O... is for one-way streets
How did two carts pass in a Pompeian street? A few of the major thoroughfares were wide enough for two-way traffic, but the vast majority were definitely single track. Reversing would be next to impossible with a horse-drawn cart, never mind all the stepping stones in the way.
One solution was to ring a loud warning bell, or send a boy ahead to make sure the way was clear.
P... is for plonk
One of the best-known products of the land surrounding Pompeii was wine. The excellent Roman premier cru, Falernian, came from nearby. And one amphora of Pompeian wine was prized enough by someone that it found its way to England, probably as a gift or a souvenir, rather than evidence for a flourishing wine trade with the northern provinces. But much of the really local wine was bottom of the range. One Roman writer complained that it gave you a hangover till midday.
Q... is for quality of life
Life was comfortable for the wealthy, living in large – albeit often rather dark – houses, with gardens and shady colonnades. One house in the centre of the town was as big as some of the palaces occupied by the kings of the ancient world, and a few spectacular multi-storey properties on the western side of the town enjoyed marvellous views over the Mediterranean. For the slaves and the poor, however, things were bleak. They lived in cramped service quarters or in single rooms above their shop or workshop – with not much more space than a family would need to sleep. Hence, in part, the attraction of cafes and bars where there was room to stretch out.
R... is for real estate
Despite the occasional fortune made in the garum trade, land was the main source of wealth in Pompeii. Every owner of a grand house in Pompeii would have had a country property too, growing vines or olives, or grazing sheep. Not many of these properties have been found – unlike the town itself, it’s harder to know where to look for them. But the country burial ground of one well-known Pompeian family has been discovered, next to what is presumed to be their country house. And a magnificent estate, which may have belonged to the family of Nero’s wife Poppaea, survives at Oplontis, a few miles from the town.
S... is for sex workers
The ancient brothel – a rather grim corner property, with five cubicles, a series of erotic paintings and a lavatory – is now one of the most visited sites in the town. Ironically, it is more frequented now than it was in the Roman world. That said, hundreds of bits of graffiti from satisfied Roman customers survive on its walls, as well as a learned post-coital quotation from Virgil. But sex was almost certainly for sale in all kinds of other parts of town, in bars or seedy one-room lodgings. For the rich, sex was a service provided by slaves.
T... is for theatre-goers
Pompeii had two theatres and one amphitheatre. The amphitheatre (the earliest to survive anywhere in the world) featured occasional gladiator shows and wild beast hunts, with boars and goats rather than lions. No less popular were the heatrical performances – plays, mimes and ancient pantomime, a combination of music and dance that is the ancestor of modern ballet, rather than our traditional Christmas entertainment. Fan clubs supported particular artistes, proclaiming their enthusiasm on the walls of the town: “Come back soon, Anicetus”.
U... is for upstairs, downstairs
What happened upstairs is another big Pompeian puzzle. Many houses had upper floors, but most were destroyed by the force of the eruption. The telltale surviving stairways, leading up from the ground floor, give away their presence even when all other trace has gone. There are all kinds of guesses about how these quarters were used – perhaps storage, slave dormitories or rental apartments for lodgers.
V... is for voting
Pompeian men went to the polls each year to vote for four officials to take charge of town business: a senior pair called ‘the two men for delivering justice’, and a junior pair of aediles, officials who took care of markets, city property and streets. Painted slogans indicate where support lay, for example “The bakers are supporting Caius Julius Polybius”. Negative campaigning (“Don’t vote for…”) was not the custom. But slogans like “The slackers say vote for Polybius” probably amounted to much the same.
W... is for writing on the wall
Pompeian walls, outside and sometimes inside, were covered with notices and graffiti. These included adverts for shows, electoral campaign posters, as well as personal messages of every sort: “Please, no shitting here”,“Successus the weaver’s in love with Iris and she doesn’t give a toss”,“A bronze jar has gone from this shop – reward for its return”. How far the ability to read and write spread through Pompeian society is a matter of dispute. Some historians put it as low as 20 per cent of the adult males, but the sheer prevalence of writing and the simple everyday information conveyed by it (including price lists) suggests that it was considerably higher.
X... is for xenophobia
Pompeii was a surprisingly cosmopolitan town. With graffi ti in Hebrew, ivories from the Far East, Egyptian statues, and traces of exotic spices, interaction with other nationalities clearly took place. That did not necessarily mean that the locals embraced foreign cultures with easy-going tolerance. One favourite theme in painting was the imaginary life of pygmies on the Nile: these strange diminutive creatures were depicted getting up to all kinds of weird practices, from cannibalism to group sex.
Y... is for yob culture
Antisocial behaviour was a feature of ancient life as much as our own – not to mention binge-drinking and sports hooliganism. The most infamous case of this occurred in AD 59, when a riot broke out in the amphitheatre between Pompeians and visitors from nearby Nuceria. In part this was a clash between home and away supporters. But Tacitus, the Roman historian who describes it, refers darkly to “illegal gangs”. The upshot was a complete ban on gladiatorial games in the town for ten years.
Z... is for Zanker and other books on Pompeii
I have read a book, Pompeii: The Life Of A Roman Town (Profile Books, September 2008), which focuses, as the title suggests, on its daily life. I can also recommend Paul Zanker’s Pompeii: Public and Private Life (Harvard UP, 1998) for the development of the town and its architecture, and Alison E Cooley and MGL Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2004). The latter, among other things, collects together and translates some of the most evocative of the Pompeian graffiti.
Mary Beard is professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and author of Pompeii: The Life Of A Roman Town (Profile Books, 2008)
This article was first published in the September 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine
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