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Pompeii › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 21 March 2018
A Pompeii Bakery (Penn State Libraries Pictures Collection)

Pompeii was a large Roman town in the Italian region of Campania which was completely buried in volcanic ash following the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The town was excavated in the 19th and 20th century CE and due to its excellent state of preservation it has given an invaluable insight into the Roman world and may lay claim to being the richest archaeological site in the world in terms of the sheer volume of data available to scholars.


The area was originally settled in the Bronze Age on an escarpment on the mouth of the river Sarno. The site of Pompeii and the surrounding area offered the twin advantages of a favourable climate and rich volcanic soil which allowed for the blossoming of agricultural activity, particularly olives and grapes. Little did the original settlers realise that the very escarpment on which they built had been formed by a long-forgotten eruption of the now seemingly innocent mountain that over-shadowed their town. However, in Greek mythology, a hint at the volcano's power was found in the legend that Hercules had here fought giants in a fiery landscape. Indeed, the nearby town Herculaneum, which would suffer the same fate as Pompeii, was named after this heroic episode. In addition, Servius informs us that the name Pompeii derives from pumpe, which was the commemorative procession in honour of Hercules' victory over the giants.


Greeks established colonies in Campania in the 8th century BCE and the Etruscans were also present until they were defeated by Syracusan and local Greeks at the battle of Cumae in 474 BCE. From then on the Samnite people from the local mountains began to infiltrate and dominate the region. The 4th century BCE saw Samnite infighting break out into the Samnite Wars (343-290 BCE) across Campania and the beginning of Roman influence in the region. Pompeii was favoured by Rome and the town flourished with large building projects being carried out in the 2nd century BCE. However, Pompeii, with its Samnite origins, had always been independently minded when it came to Roman authority and Sulla besieged the cityfollowing a rebellion and set up his colony of Venus in 80 BCE, re-settling 4-5,000 legionaries in the town. Another period of prosperity followed, a local senate ( ordo decurionum ) was formed and a new amphitheatre and odeion were built with capacity for 5000 and 1500 spectators respectively. After centuries of ups and downs, the town had reached its peak.
Following seismic activity and coastal changes, Pompeii now stands 2km inland but it would have been much closer to the sea and the mouth of the Sarno in Roman times and around four metres lower. The Roman town of Pompeii covers some three square kilometres (one third remains unexcavated) but the outer suburbs were also densely populated. There were also hundreds of farms and around one hundred villas in the surrounding countryside. The population of the town has been estimated at 10-12,000, with one third being slaves. Twice as many people again would have lived in the surrounding farms and villas. The coast of Campania was a favourite playground of Rome's well-to-do and so many of the villas were particularly grand with panoramic sea-side views. Even Nero (reign 54-68 CE) is thought to have had a villa near Pompeii and it is to be remembered that his wife Poppaea Sabina was a native of the town.
Fresco Amphitheatre, Pompeii

Fresco Amphitheatre, Pompeii


The town was one of the more important ports on the Bay of Naples and the surrounding settlements such as Nola, Nuceria and Aceria would have sent their produce to Pompeii for transportation across the Empire. Goods such as olives, olive oil, wine, wool, fish sauce ( garum ), salt, walnuts, figs, almonds, cherries, apricots, onions, cabbages and wheat were exported and imports included exotic fruit, spices, giant clams, silk, sandalwood, wild animals for the arena and slaves to man the thriving agricultural industry. On the subject of food, besides the foodstuffs mentioned above, we know that the diet of Pompeians also included beef, pork, birds, fish, oysters, crustaceans, snails, lemons, figs, lettuce, artichokes, beans and peas.Although, some of these and other delicacies, such as honey-roasted mice and Grey Mullet livers, would only have been within the reach of the better-off citizens.
Pompeii and Mt. Vesuivus

Pompeii and Mt. Vesuivus

The town itself, in the Roman custom, was surrounded by a wall with many gates, often with two or three arched entrances to separate pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Within the walls, there are wide paved streets in a largely regular layout (with the exception of the rather haphazard southwest corner) but there were no street names or numbers. There is also evidence that traffic was limited to one direction in certain streets. The town presents an astonishing mix of several thousand buildings: shops, large villas, modest housing, temples, taverns ( cauponae ), a pottery, an exercise ground, baths, an arena, public latrines, a market hall ( macellum ), schools, water towers, a flower nursery, fulleries, a basilica, brothels and theatres. In amongst all of these were hundreds of small shrines to all kinds of deities and ancestors and around forty public fountains. In short, Pompeii had all the amenities one would expect to find in a thriving and prosperous community.


Pompeii had many large villas, most of which were built in the 2nd century BCE and they display the Greek colonial origins of the town. The typical entrance of these plush residences was a small street doorway with an entrance corridor ( fauceis ) that opened out into a large columned atrium with a rectangular pool of water ( impluvium ) open to the sky and from which other rooms, for example, a bedroom ( cubicula ) or dining room were accessed. Movable screens, often decorated with mythological scenes, separated rooms and in winter kept in the heat provided by braziers. Other common features were a tablinum or hall space where archives and valuables were kept and there was also a place for the ancestor cult ( alae ) so much a part of Roman family life. A striking feature of these residences is their magnificent floor mosaics which depict all manner of scenes from myths to the homeowner's business activities.
Many houses had a private garden ( hortus ) with statues, ornate fountains, vine-covered pergolas, canvas awnings and the whole surrounded by a peristyle. Many private residences even had areas dedicated to viniculture. The House of the Faun is a good example of the typical grander residence of Pompeii.


Many of the larger villas also had a permanent triclinium or eating area in the garden so that guests might dine outside on cushioned benches. Ten such villas even had systems of small canals running between the diners so that as dishes floated past they could take their pick of the delicacies on offer. Those villas without such charms often employed trompe-l'oeil wall paintings to give the illusion of landscape vistas. Indeed, the wall paintings from these residences have also given insights into a myriad of other areas of Pompeian life such as religion, sex, diet, clothes, architecture, industry and agriculture. They also, on occasion, revealed the status of the guests as seating was formally arranged so that the importance of the guest ascended as one went clockwise around the circle of diners and sometimes the wall decoration reflected the status of the guest who ate in front of it.


In complete contrast to the richer residences, slave quarters have also survived and they show the cramped, prison-like existence of this large section of the population. Other more modest architecture included basic two or sometimes three-storied residences, simple taverns and small buildings, nothing more than curtained cubicles, where lower-class prostitutes plied their trade.


The area around Vesuvius received its first warning sign that the mountain was perhaps reawakening when a massive earthquake struck on the 5th of February 62 CE. The quake measured 7.5 on the Richter scale and devastated the surrounding towns; even parts of Naples, 20 miles (32 km) away, were damaged. At Pompeii, few buildings escaped damage.Temples, houses and parts of the thick city walls collapsed, fires ravaged sections of the town and even sheep in the surrounding countryside died from the release of poisonous gases. The death toll was likely in the thousands rather than the hundreds. The water supply to the town was also severely affected with damage to aqueducts and underground pipes. The recovery process was also hampered by the collapse of the bridge over the Sarno. Things were so bad that a significant portion of the population left the town for good. However, slowly, the town made repairs, some hasty and others more considered and life began to return to normal. The civic repairs and improvements must also have been spurred on by the royal visit of Emperor Nero in 64 CE, an occasion which led to the lifting of the ban on gladiator games imposed following the famous crowd riots in 59 CE.
Theatre, Pompeii

Theatre, Pompeii

Seismic activity continued for the next decade but it seems not to have unduly perturbed the population. Life, and repairs from the catastrophe of 62 CE continued until 79 CE. It was then, in high summer, that strange things began to occur. Fish floated dead in the Sarno, springs and wells inexplicably dried up and vines on the slopes of Vesuvius mysteriously wilted and died.Seismic activity, although not strong, increased dramatically in frequency. Something was clearly not right. Strangely, although some people left the town, the majority of the population seemed to still not be too worried about the events that were unfolding but little did they know that they were about to face an apocalypse.
On the morning of 24th of August (traditional date) a tremendous bang signalled that the magma that had been building over the last thousand years had finally burst through the crater of Vesuvius. Fire and smoke bellowed from the volcano. At this point, it may have seemed that the mountain was doing nothing more than offering a harmless pyrotechnic display but at midday an even bigger explosion blew off the entire cone of Vesuvius and a massive mushroom cloud of pumice particles rose 27 miles (43 km) into the sky. The power of the explosion has been calculated as 100,000 times greater than the nuclear bomb which devastated Hiroshima in 1945 CE. The ash that started to rain down on Pompeii was light in weight but the density was such that within minutes everything was covered in centimetres of it. People tried to flee the town or sought shelter where they could and those without shelter tried desperately to keep themselves above the shifting layers of volcanic material.
Then in the late afternoon another massive explosion rang the air, sending a column of ash six miles higher than the previous cloud. When the ash fell it was as much heavier stones than in the first eruption and the volcanic material that smothered the town was by now metres thick. Buildings began to collapse under the accumulated weight; survivors huddled near walls and under stairs for greater protection, some hugging their loved ones or clasping their most precious possessions. Then at 11pm the huge cloud hanging above the volcano collapsed from its own weight and blasted the town in six devastating waves of super-heated ash and air which asphyxiated and literally baked the bodies of the entire population. Still the ash kept falling and relentlessly the once vibrant city was buried metres deep, to be lost and forgotten, wiped from the face of the Earth.
Cave Cavem mosaic from Pompeii

Cave Cavem mosaic from Pompeii


Pompeii was finally re-discovered in 1755 CE when work on the construction of the Sarno Canal began. Local stories of 'the city' were proved to have been based on fact when under just a few metres of volcanic debris lay an entire town. From then on, Pompeii became an essential stopping point on the fashionable Grand Tour and included such famous visitors as Goethe, Mozart and Stendhal. Indeed, the latter perfectly captured the strange and powerful impression on the modern visitor of this immense window into the past when he wrote, '...here you feel as if, just by being there, you know more about the place than any other scholar'.


Besides architectural remains, scholars of Pompeii have been presented with a mine of much rarer historical artefacts, a real treasure trove of data providing unique insights into the past. For example, the quantity of bronze statues has led scholars to recognise the material was more commonly used in Roman art than previously thought. A particularly rich source of data has been skeletal remains and the possibility to take plaster casts of the impressions left by the dead in the volcanic material provide evidence that bad teeth were a common problem - enamel was worn away by stone chips in bread, residue from the basalt milling stone. Tooth decay and abscesses from an over-sweet diet were a common problem and tuberculosis, brucellosis and malaria were also rife. The skeletal remains of slaves, often found still chained despite the disaster, also tell a sad tale of malnutrition, chronic arthritis and deformity caused by overwork.
Pompeii Victim

Pompeii Victim

It has also been possible to reconstruct the daily life of the town through the wealth of written records preserved at the site.These take the form of thousands of electoral notices and hundreds of wax tablets, mainly dealing with financial transactions.The wax of these tablets has long since melted but often impressions of the stylus have remained on the wooden backing.Other invaluable sources of text include signs, graffiti, amphorae labels, seals and tomb inscriptions. Not only are such sources typically unavailable to the historian but also their variety permits an insight into sections of society (slaves, the poor, women, gladiators.) usually ignored or scantily treated in traditionally surviving texts such as learned books and legal records.We know that there were forty festivals of one kind or another every year and that Saturday was market day. Graffiti, for example, tells us how a gladiator was 'the sighed-for joy of girls', a mosaic in the house of a local businessman proudly proclaims 'Profit is Joy' and corrections on tablets reveal the changing status of citizens over time. Something more than names and figures has survived, however. The unique archaeological evidence from Pompeii allows us the rarest of opportunities - the possibility to reconstruct the actual thoughts, hopes, despair, wit and even the very ordinariness of these people who lived so long ago.


Vespasian › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 27 October 2012
Roman Emperor Vespasian (Carole Raddato)

Vespasian was Roman emperor from 69 to 79 CE. Vespasian was the last of the four emperors who governed the Roman Empire in the year 69 CE. The previous three had died either by murder or suicide. Unlike Galba, Otho and Vitellius, Vespasian would die of natural causes in 79 CE. He and his sons, Titus and Domitian, formed what would become known as the Flavian Dynasty.
Titus Flavius Vespasianus was born into “a family of little distinction” in the small town of Falacrina just north of Rome on November 9, 17 CE. The historian Suetonius in his The Twelve Caesars would later describe him as “square-shouldered, with strong, well-formed limbs, but always wore a strained expression on his face…. (He) enjoyed perfect health and took no medical precautions for preserving it.” Although he was raised by his paternal grandmother, Tertulla, he was actually the son of Sabinus, a customs supervisor in Asia (who later died while a banker in Switzerland) and Vespasia Polla. He had an older brother, also named Sabinus, who became a consul and governor. The future emperor married Flavia Domitilla who bore him three children: Titus, Domitian, and Domitilla (she died in infancy). After his wife's death, he “married” his ex-mistress Caenis.The wedding was never official because of her social standing as a slave.
Despite not coming from a noble family, Vespasian served as a colonel in Thrace (north of Greece ) and a quaestor (financial official) on the island of Crete and in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). Before incurring the wrath of Emperor Claudius ’s wife Agrippina (as many did), he was the commander of a legion in Germany and Britain. He fought in over thirty battles and captured at least twenty cities. Later, he served in Africa in the early 60's CE where he suffered the disdain of the local population, often being pelted with turnips. Throughout his time away from Rome during the reigns of Caligula and Claudius, Vespasian found political success but never financial success; he was always in need of money. Although part of Emperor Nero ’s “inner circle,” he disappeared temporarily from public service after he supposedly fell asleep during one of Nero's long and boring concerts. However, when rebellions broke out in Judea in 66 CE, Vespasian, because of his ability to command, was sent with his son Titus to disperse the rioters. In his War of the Jews, Flavius Josephus claimed that Nero could find no one “equal to the task” to “make war with the Jews.” He added, “So Nero esteemed these circumstances as favourable omens, and saw that Vespasian's age gave him sure experience, and great skill, and that he has his sons as hostages for his fidelity to himself, and that the flourishing age they were in would make them fit instruments under their father's prudence.”
Roman Emperor Vespasian

Roman Emperor Vespasian

When Nero died and Galba took the throne, Vespasian and Titus waited in Judea for orders (Domitian was already in Rome).Since he had been somewhat loyal to Nero, Vespasian feared the future; however, Emperor Galba figured him of little consequence and ignored him. To demonstrate his lack of hostility to Galba, Vespasian sent Titus to Rome in late 68 CE;however, when Galba was murdered and the throne was up for grabs between Otho (governor of Lusitania) and Vitellius (governor of Lower Germany), Titus returned to Judea. Before he did anything he would regret, Vespasian decided to wait until a winner was declared. Cassius Dio wrote in his Roman History that “Vespasian was never inclined to be rash, and he hesitated very much about involving himself in such troublesome affairs.”
When Otho committed suicide in order to prevent future loss of life at the First Battle of Bedriacum, Vitellius was named the new emperor. It wasn't long, however, before rumblings against Vitellius began to appear in the West. Vespasian was the preferred choice among many in the army. With this growing animosity for Vitellius spreading to Rome, Vespasian acted quickly and sent troops to Italy to engage the new emperor, while he crossed Egypt and captured Alexandria, cutting off the grain supply to Rome. After Vitellius's loss to the army of the West at the Second Battle of Bedriacum, the soon-to-be-deposed emperor fled back to Rome planning to escape certain death; compromise and peace were out of the question. He now feared for his wife and children. Cassius Dio wrote, “One moment he was inclined to cling to the sovereignty and was making every preparation for war; the next moment he was ready to abdicate voluntarily and was making every preparation for returning to private life.” Vespasian's army dragged Vitellius from his hiding place, tortured and killed him, and threw his body in the Tiber.Much of the city, however, had already been pillaged and fires set throughout. Traveling to Rome, Vespasian was finally enthroned December 26, 69 CE.
The Colosseum of Rome

The Colosseum of Rome

Although some felt him to be “crafty,” Vespasian proved to be an effective emperor. He was well liked (even demonstrating a sense of humour), and his reign was considered a time of peace and calm. One of his first acts was to restore the morale of the army, discharging some and punishing others for what was termed ”indulging in excesses.” Next, he rebuilt many of the homes and buildings burned during the final days of Viterllius's reign. He built new temples and the massive Coliseum ( Colosseum ) - also called “the Flavian Amphitheatre.” Unlike many of those who ruled before him, he held no grudges towards those who had opposed him and executed none of his enemies. Suetonius and Tacitus both commented on his one failing – avarice. Tacitus wrote, “Vespasian showed himself master of the situation. He restored Roman prestige and recovered her shattered finances. It was hard that he should be called 'miser' for his pains.” To bring more money into the troubled Roman treasury, he doubled tributes from the provinces, charged fees from candidates for public offices, and sold pardons.However, he wasn't completely greedy; he paid salaries to those who taught Latin and Greek and awarded prizes to poets and artists.
While visiting outside Rome, he contracted “undulant fever.” Upon returning home, he avoided proper care and travelled to his summer home in Reiti. One night, after a short swim, he caught a chill and died on June 23, 79 CE; he was 69 years old. His son Titus was named his successor but he would only serve two years and be followed by the ill-prepared Domitian.


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