Today we visited Pompeii. I will say that there were far more tourists than I was expecting, and I found myself horrified at the behavior of many people. There were employees of the archaeological site whose full time job was to shout at people touching ancient monuments (or worse). The only food in the archaeological site was overpriced, and the lines to get it were really long.

Other people aside, the archaeological site itself was pretty great.


Desirable topographical features

  • The river Sarno (dried up now) made Pompeii a river-port city, and allowed for inland trade.
  • The marine harbor gave Pompeii broad trade opportunities through the Mediterranean.
  • Good water supply (cf. Rome and the Tiber)
  • Also hills for protection. Pompeii was elevated at the end of a plateau. Not as noticeable today because surrounding land was filled in by the eruption.

Early history and soft Romanization

  • Foundation: 6th century BC. Probably by people who came down from the nearby mountains. Samnites/Oscans. Not Greek, and not Etruscan, but certainly traded with both.
  • Took advantage of the extreme fertility without knowing that it was caused by an active volcano.
  • The Romans encounter Pompeii in the 3rd century BC. During this period, Rome comes into conflict with the Samnites in the region. Pompeii allies itself with Rome. From this point forward, Pompeii sends legions and pays taxes, but gets Roman protection.
  • “Soft Romanization” – Pompeiians find some Roman elements attractive, so adopt them.
  • Cf. the Basilica of Pompeii.
  • A prostyle temple in the Roman manner called the temple of Jupiter Vesuvius. The Pompeiians use a Roman god and Roman temple style while putting their own twist on it.

The social ware and hard Romanization

  • 91 BC: Social War.
  • A number of Roman allies rebel, saying, in effect, “you’ve been taking soldiers and taxes, but we’re not getting a lot in return.”
  • Pompeii besieged by the Roman general Sulla.
  • But large walls. Under siege by Sulla for about a year. The Romans never were able to take Pompeii by force.
  • 89 BC: Rome capitulates; the allies become full Roman citizens.
  • Because of their effective resistance, in 80 BC Pompeii becomes a colony under the direct control of the Senate and the people. Pompeii is singled out and punished.
    • It is likely that Rome did not make the fact that this was in the works clear in 89 BC when the Social War ended. Now, nearly a decade later, all the other allies that Pompeii had in the social war have no beef with Rome, so if Pompeii rose up in protest of the bait-and-switch, they would stand alone.
    • Some 2,000 Roman colonists settled in Pompeii.
  • Full name of the colony was colonia cornelia veneria pompeiianorium.
    • Cornelia was Sulla’s family name
    • Venus was Sulla’s deity
  • After colonization, Pompeii undergoes “hard Romanization.”
  • Temple of Jupiter Vesuvius transformed to become like the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva) on the Capitoline, a much more formal symbol of Rome.

The growth of Pompeii, and its destruction in Vesuvius’ eruption of 79 AD

  • Pompeii: thrives under the Pax Augusta until 62 AD when Pompeii suffers a massive earthquake.
  • The traditional view: a Pompeii in decline
    • Watershed moment for Pompeii. After this, Pompeii takes somewhat of a dive economicaly.
    • Elites, aristocrats begin to abandon city; the city falls on hard time.
  • But now, the thought is that Pompeii was working on rebuilding itself to become even better.
    • That is, not only in recovery, but also improving and enlarging itself.
  • The “traditional date” of the eruption of the eruption is August 24, 79 AD.
  • Before 79 AD, Vesuvius was a single peak. During the eruption, the entire top was blown off
  • Relatively little magma, but ash and lapilli – tiny, gray, porous pumice stones.
    • Fills exterior spaces, then accumulates on roofs.
    • Once the weight is great enough on, wooden roofs cannot sustain the weight. A couple hours in, roofs begin to collapse inwards. Then ash/lapilli fill the interiors.
    • This train of events is responsible for the good preservation of the 1st floor of floor of most buildings in Pompeii.
  • Why no second stories?
    • 2nd phase of the eruption: fast moving flows (cf. snow avalanche) that sheared off anything that stuck above the accumulated ash/lapilli.
  • Haven’t found the terminus, which would contain a jumbled mass of roof tiles, beams, and so forth.
  • Very traumatic event for those living in the area – even for those who survived it.
    • Cf. Pliny the Younger’s account concerning his uncle and the eruption.

The porta marina

  • Entry plaza and the nearby hotel we stayed at hotel: originally underwater before 79 AD.
  • The road you come into Pompeii on after getting tickets, the main thoroughfare, was a road that led into the city from the marine harbor.
  • Porta marina = “harbor gate”
    • Two entrances: pedestrians and material traffic (on carts and such). The former is smaller in dimensions, while the latter is quite large.

The current (June 2019) dig at the Temple of Venus


Our group was given a lecture by the lead archaeologist of a dig going on at the Temple of Venus in Pompeii, which was pretty neat. The dig requested that we didn’t take pictures of their archaeological work, so I have respected that request. (The pictures above aren’t of their work specifically). The notes in this section come from the lecture given by the archaeologist, filtered through my small and much-less-knowledgeable brain.

You can see details of this Pompeii dig on the Archaeological Institutes of America website. According to our program’s professor, the work that this dig is doing in the small corner of the site of the Temple to Venus has implications for our understanding of Pompeii in general, as it deals with exactly how Romanization of Pompeii proceeded.

Background on the Temple of Venus in Pompeii

  • Good place to build a temple: nice view of the coast. Good visibility, both inside and outside of the city.
  • First big monument that travelers would see: this temple of Venus. After Romanization, Venus was the patron god of Pompeii.
  • The temple was oriented towards arriving ships so that it is turned outwards from the city itself, with the entrance pointing towards the sea (outside the city) rather than the street.
  • The traditional scholarly view is that a sanctuary was founded by the Romans when they arrived c. 80 BC.
  • Prior to the current excavation, there were two groups excavating at the site: an Italian group, and a group from the UK. (They didn’t agree on much it seems). The Italians thought that the initial sanctuary walls were older, predating the Roman conquest. Proposed earlier date: 130–120 BC.
  • The question of the construction of this sanctuary has implications for understanding how the rest of the city changed under Roman control. Were things in continuity to what came before, or was there radical change?

Evidence from the current excavation

  • There is evidence of a road intersecting the space that the triporticus around the temple occupies. This wouldn’t fit with an early temple construction since splitting a temple triporticus is not something know to be done.
  • Fits with the traditional narrative of Romans arriving, kicking people out, demolishing houses, and then immediately building the temple to Venus.
  • However, there are some indications that the date of the temple construction is a bit later than the traditional date. More late 1st century BC rather than 80 BC.

Archaeological specifics

  • The Roman reconstruction does recycle material: rubble, limestone from the Sarno river for facing, and so on. But they do bring in new building materials as well.
  • As in the city of Rome proper, the chronology depends in large part on stratigraphic layers, particularly as they relate to the foundations of structures (e.g., the temple itself, the triporticus walls).
  • Data from a refuse/trash pile is more likely to accurate in many ways since the dirt from such a location doesn’t get moved around as much in reconstruction.

The temple state as of the eruption

  • There was an imperial phase of construction that was ongoing at the eve of Vesuvius’ eruption.
    • The new temple podium was complete, but not the superstructure. The new cella was never completed.
  • The temple reconstruction probably started after an earthquake in Pompeii in 62 AD.
    • The temple almost collapsed after the earthquake.

The Basilica of Pompeii

  • Here, the walls are painted in 1st style, which uses stucco to simulate “blocks” of stone.
  • Sometimes the blocks are colored: simulate polychromatic blocks of stone.
  • Popular when the Romans were Hellenizing their art, but did not yet always have access to Greek-style full marble construction.
  • Emphasizes solidness of the wall: huge difference between the openness of 2nd style.
  • Raised platform in the Basilica: tribunal.
    • Where judges sit, advocates/lawyers argue from, and politicians give speeches from.
    • Narrow stairs on side: security feature. Protect whoever is standing in the tribunal space.
    • First layer of structure: Corinthian columns.
    • Second layer: holding up a pediment.

The Forum of Pompeii

  • Portico: runs all around the Pompeiian forum.
    • Doric columns, modified Ionic on upper.
    • Square holes: wooden beams for a second level of the covered walkway.
  • The marble stones present in the Pompeiian forum today are original to the paving that was present in Pompeii in 79 AD. This is true of the other paving stones in Pompeii too.
  • Along the sides of the forum there are remains of bases for statuary. Some of the statues were probably of emperors, others of local Pompeiian elite and aristocracy.

The streets and fountains of Pompeii

  • Paved in a volcanic rock called basalt.
  • Sidewalks on most of the main streets.
  • Fountains on every two blocks. Fed by an aqueduct that was an act of public benefaction by Augustus.
  • Ancient streets did not have names, but all the fountains on the streets had different sculptures.
  • Differences in fountain sculpture helped people navigate through Pompeii by cognitive maps.
    • Fountains also served as a good place for travelers to find others and get directions.
  • Residential streets: grow more organically and less regularly. Cognitive mapping becomes more important for navigation.
  • Stones at intersections: so that pedestrians don’t have to walk on the roads dirtied with mud, refuse, and other such things, and also water from heavy rains. When it rained, the filth in the streets would be born up by the water, creating a most foul stream that pedestrians would no doubt want to avoid.
  • Also wagon ruts: a testament to the economic success of Pompeii.
  • By analyzing the ruts, along with wear patterns on the pedestrian stones mentioned above and the raised sides of the streets, it is possible to determine how traffic flowed in th ancient city.
  • Pompeii had an intentionally-designed traffic system with one-way streets, two-way thoroughfares, and so on. In many ways, their traffic system – necessary for the trade traffic coming through the city – is not so very different from the traffic design of today, albeit with wagons in mind rather than motor vehicles. Another reminder that the ancients were by no means unintelligent or primitive, pace certain branches of modern thought that attempt to elevate the homo technologicus of today above all humans of the past.

The theater extension and gladiatorial training ground

  • Extension built behind main theater, so people could take shelter from the elements.
  • After the earthquake of 62, becomes a training place for gladiators.

Temple to Isis

  • Helps us understand part of how freedmen operated in Roman culture.
  • Slaves: the Romans were a slave culture. However, slaves could be freed; freed slaves were known as “freedmen” (note the distinction from “free men” = free-born Roman citizens: the D is important!).
  • After being freed, freedmen had all the same rights as a free-born Roman citizens, but could not hold public office.
  • The children of freedmen (those not born when their parents were slaves; that is, those born of freedmen) have full Roman rights – they are treated exactly the same as the children of free-born Romans.
  • The temple to Isis: the first temple in Pompeii rebuilt after the earthquake in 62 AD.
  • Somebody name Popidius Celsinus pays for the rebuilding.
  • All well and good; it is common for private citizens to pay for public works. But according to the inscription, Popidius is only 6 years old! He also gets appointed to the city council.
  • The thought is that his dad, a freedman, payed for the restoration, and thereby found a way to have a hand in public office through his young son, who was just a figurehead, a farce to follow the letter of the law.
  • There is every indication that the city was happy with this arrangement. After all, they got their temple to Isis rebuilt, and this was an important temple for the economic prosperity of the city due to its relative importance to trade. Freedmen having power didn’t seem to be a problem.

“Fast-food places”

  • Only middle and lower class people would eat here.
  • Elites would dine at home, since they had slaves to cook for them.
  • The counter arrangement is the telling feature.

House of Menander

  • Largest house in Pompeii.
  • Atrium: hole in the ceiling for water, basin below.
  • Peristyle garden.
  • Rooms opening onto the garden could be bedrooms, or even a private bath.
  • The arrangement is similar to the layout of the tombs at Cerveteri: the houses of the elite in Pompeii have the narrow entryway, then a meeting space, etc.
  • Lararium: miniature temple for the lares – household gods.


  • Dipenti were wall-painted election notices, like the political ads of today
  • Allow us to identify important families and important individuals from the city at the time of the eruption.
  • Also tell us a lot about the political system of Pompeii.
    • Name of offices, for example.
  • Also economic life: the bakers, chicken keepers, etc. support certain candidates.
  • The general ad formula: “so-and-so asks you to vote for such-and-such because he is a good man.”
  • Several satire adds that are clearly political smearing: “the late-night drinkers ask you to vote for X because he is a good man;” “the liars and thieves ask you to vote for such and such because he is a good man.”

Amphitheater of Pompeii

  • Oldest preserved amphitheater in the Roman world.
  • Dates to 80 BC – the same year Pompeii became a Roman colony, but the general design probably goes back a couple generations before this, even if we don’t have direct material evidence that this is so.
  • Paid for by Roman colonists elected as co-mayors
  • Simplified compared to the amphitheaters at Rome (the Coliseum) and Puteoli.
    • Fewer entrances and internal passageways.
  • Called a spectacula – a place to see things. The term amphitheater was not even invented yet.
  • These observations show how early this place is in the development of this architectural form.
  • Excavations have revealed houses under the arena: the space was residential before. Cf. the temple to Venus discussed previously.
    • The initial colonization my have involved a degree of force.
  • The amphitheater is early enough that it does not have a substructure.
  • Inscriptions on the balustrade: patrons could replace wooden benches with stone.
    • Could also provide lamps and night-time games!
  • According to Tacitus, the Pompeiians rioted with a neighboring people, the Nucerians, in 59 AD. The two peoples were pulling for different gladiatorial schools. Insults were exchanged, then rocks, and then pointed and bladed weapons. The riot spilled out of the amphitheater into the town of Pompeii itself. As a consequence, gladiatorial games were outlawed in Pompeii for 10 years (although there is evidence of repairs after the 62 AD earthquake in Pompeii, just 3 years after the ban).

Garden of the Fugitives

  • 1800s: an excavator noticed pockets/voids left by decaying flesh of humans or animals (they would find bones at the bottom of pockets that had once also contained organic materials that had degraded over the years).
  • Subsequently, plaster was put in these voids, and casts of the pockets were made.
  • Some of the casts let us see the dying poses of humans caught in the eruption.
  • There are some commonalities between the people that the casts show.
    • People covering their mouths: people die by inhaling superheated air (immediately destroying the alveoli in their lungs), or toxic volcanic gases.
    • The “boxer pose:” muscles fibers contract due to extreme heat, and lead to the pose.
  • This location is important and special (compared to plaster casts in the void) for a couple reasons: it preserves the actual people found at this specific geographic location, and also preserves the spacing and layout of all the people in the area.
  • Recall, fountain sculptures used in cognitive mapping.
  • There are also terra cotta plaques around the city. These two were perhaps used in cognitive mapping.

The House of the Large Fountain

  • Aqueducts were primarily intended for public fountains and bath houses.
  • If you wanted to get water for a private fountain or other water feature, you had to pay a recurring licensing fee. Then you could tap into the public water sources. Doing this was therefore a sign of wealth, and a matter of status.
  • Glass tesserae: would have been reflective: reflect the flowing water.
  • This sort of mosaic shows up in the Renaissance: fountains like these inspire similar Renaissance art.
  • This house also follows the layout discussed before: atrium with rooms branching off.

The House of the Tragic Poet

  • The iconic cave canem mosaic: apotropeic.
  • I couldn’t get a good photography angle and the lighting was bad, so I don’t have any in-person pictures.

Tombs near the walls of Pompeii

  • Land within 100 feet of the city limit: public land.
  • Tombs within this distance = given space on the public land at the order of the town council as an honor.
  • Recall, pomerium: sacred boundary of the city. Tombs are outside of this sacred boundary.

The Villa of the Mysteries


  • Suburban villa: not the first we’ve come across. Cf. Borghese park as a suburban retreat.
  • Luxurious dwelling set just outside the city.
    • Access all the city benefits while being able to get away from the city.
  • Before eruption (ash, lapilli) – overlooked water.
  • Owners must have had grape vines: one of the rooms appears to be dedicated to making wine.
  • Villa vs Roman house: atrium and peristyle switched in position.

The fresco of the mysteries

  • The main attraction and the reason for the villa’s name
  • 2nd style wall painting, but very different, at least on the surface, from the wall painting we already saw from Livia’s villa.
  • Still three-dimensionality, openness.
  • Thought to show initiation into the cult of Dionysius. Lots of theories involving particulars.
  • Seems to mix divine and human elements.
  • Winged figure flinching: thought to be a demonic figure reacting to a apotropeic object.

Plaster casts of architectural elements

  • Plaster cast of ancient Roman door (wood also biodegrades).
  • Actually how the door would have looked in 79 AD.
  • A good example of how we can reconstruct the “details” of a Roman house.