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"Last Days of Pompeii" depicts an artist's rendering of the catastrophic final hours of Pompeii as the citizens were buried alive in ash. (Karl Briullov)

Resurrecting Pompeii

A new exhibition brings the doomed residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum vividly to life

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Pompeii’s patron deity was Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Small wonder that the city’s ruins were filled with erotic art, perfume bottles and extravagant gold jewelry, including earrings set with pearls, gold balls and uncut emeralds bunched like grapes. “I see they do not stop at attaching a single large pearl in each ear,” the Roman philosopher Seneca observed during the first century A.D. “Female folly had not crushed men enough unless two or three entire patrimonies hung from their ears.” The showiest pieces of jewelry in the exhibition are the catenae: gold chains up to six feet long that wrapped tightly around a woman’s waist, then crossed her chest and shoulders bandoleer-style.

Like the family of four found in the alley with a Cupid statuette and a good-luck charm, Pompeii’s victims often died carrying the objects they valued most. A woman fleeing through one of the city gates clutched a gold-and-silver statuette of fleet-footed Mercury, the god of safe passage. Across town at the city’s colonnaded outdoor gymnasium, where close to 100 people perished, one victim was found holding a small wooden box against his chest. Inside were scalpels, tweezers and other surgical tools. A doctor, he may have grabbed his medical kit to help the injured, expecting the worst would soon be over.

In a small room at an inn on the southern outskirts of Pompeii, a woman of about 30 died wearing two heavy gold armbands, a ring and a gold chain. In a handbag were more bracelets and rings, another gold chain, a necklace and a long catena of thick, braided gold. Roman jewelry was rarely inscribed, but inside one of her armbands, shaped like a coiled snake, are the words: DOM(I)NUS ANCILLAE SUAE, “From the master to his slave-girl.”

“Since its excavation in the 18th century, Pompeii has acquired the reputation of being a permissive, sybaritic place,” says University of Maryland classics professor Judith Hallett. “Throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, slaves had to cater to the whims of the elite. I think all slaves, male and female, were on duty as potential sex partners for their male masters. If you were a slave, you could not say no.”

Evidence of Pompeii’s class system abounds. While many victims of the eruption died carrying hoards of coins and jewelry, many more died empty-handed. During the night of the 24th, the worsening rain of ash and stones blocked doors and windows on the ground floor and poured in through atrium skylights at the House of the Menander, one of the city’s grandest homes. In the darkness, a group of ten people with a single lantern, likely slaves, frantically tried to climb from the pumice-filled entrance hall to the second floor. In a nearby hall facing a courtyard, three more struggled to dig an escape route with a pickax and a hoe. All died. Aside from their tools, they left behind only a coin or two, some bronze jewelry and a few glass beads.

In contrast, the master of the house, Quintus Poppeus, a wealthy in-law of Emperor Nero who wasn’t home at the time, left behind plenty of loot. Hidden in an underground passage, archaeologists discovered two wooden treasure chests. In them were jewels, more than 50 pounds of carefully wrapped silverware, and gold and silver coins. His artwork, at least, Quintus left in plain sight. Under a colonnade was a marble statue of Apollo stroking a griffin as it playfully jumped up against his leg. The statue is in such superb condition that it might have been carved last week.

By encasing objects almost as tightly as an insect trapped in amber, the fine-grained volcanic ash that smothered Pompeii proved a remarkable preservative. Where the public market used to be, archaeologists have dug up glass jars with fruit still in them. An oven in an excavated bakery was found to contain 81 carbonized loaves of bread. A surprising amount of graffiti was also preserved. Blank, mostly windowless Pompeiian houses, for instance, presented seemingly irresistible canvases for passersby to share their thoughts. Some of the messages sound familiar, only the names have changed: Auge Amat Allotenum (Auge Loves Allotenus) C Pumidius Dipilus Heic Fuit (Gaius Pumidius Dipilus Was Here). A half-dozen walls around town offer comments on the relative merits of blondes and brunettes.

Several inscriptions salute local gladiators. The city’s 22,000-seat amphitheater was one of the first built specifically for blood sport. Gladiators came mostly from the region’s underclass—many were slaves, criminals or political prisoners—but charismatic victors could rise to celebrity status. Celadus the Thracian was “the ladies’ choice,” according to one inscription.

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