See the Lavish Pompeii Home Owned by Two Men Freed From Slavery

After two decades, the newly restored House of the Vettii is officially open to visitors

The courtyard of the House of the Vettii
The courtyard of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii Marco Cantile / LightRocket via Getty Images

The House of the Vettii, an opulent home in the ancient city of Pompeii, has reopened to the public after 20 years of restoration work. 

Experts think that the house was owned by two freed enslaved laborers who built their wealth in the wine business. In 79 C.E., the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the site under volcanic ash; archaeologists excavated it in the late 19th century. 

On Tuesday, officials unveiled the newly restored home, welcoming tourists to observe the ancient architecture and elegant frescoes.

Italian Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano (C), cuts the ribbon at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Italy's culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, cuts the ribbon at the reopening of the House of the Vettii. Stringer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This is the house which tells the story of Roman society,” Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological park, tells the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida. “On the one hand you have the artwork, paintings and statues, and on the other you have the social story [of the freed slaves]. The house is one of the relatively few in Pompeii for which we have the names of the owners.”

Those names are Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva. After being freed from slavery, they became rich as wine traders.

Frescoes in the house of the Vettii, in the archaeological excavations of Pompeii, reopened to the public after the restoration.
After two decades of work, the newly restored House of the Vettii is now open to the public. Marco Cantile / LightRocket via Getty Images

In the past, historians thought the two men may have been brothers. But Zuchtriegel says they were more likely unrelated individuals enslaved by the same person, whose name was Aulus Vettius.

“If they were from the same family, the first two names would have been different, and they would have the same surname,” he tells the Guardian. “It was uncommon to have biological siblings who were slaves and then set free, because family ties were cut with slavery so it’s very unlikely they were brothers. It’s more likely that they were buddies during their time as slaves and then set free.”

One of the stunning frescoes on the wall of the ancient home
One of the stunning frescoes on the wall of the ancient home Marco Cantile / LightRocket via Getty Images

Restitutus, the surname of one of the men, means “to give back” in Latin, and was a common name given to formerly enslaved individuals, Zuchtriegel adds.

Once they had secured their freedom, the two men “reached the highest ranks of local society, at least economically,” Zuchtriegel tells the Associated Press Francesco Sportelli. Based on their extravagant home, “they evidently tried to show their new status also through culture and through Greek mythological paintings, and it’s all about saying, ‘We’ve made it and so we are part of this elite.’”

Much of their exuberant decor survives today, including a garden featuring statues and a fountain as well as a number of lavish, sometimes erotic, frescoes. One such fresco, located at the home’s entrance, features Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, with a large phallus balancing on a scale along with a bag of money. More erotic frescoes are contained in a small room that researchers think may have been used as a brothel.

Frescoes in the house of the Vettii
Images of angels run around the wall of one room. Marco Cantile / LightRocket via Getty Images

Other works of art depict various figures and stories from Greek mythology, including a scene featuring Poseidon and another featuring a young Hercules crushing two snakes.

Historically, archaeologists have prioritized studying Pompeii’s elite residents. In recent years, however, they have also started broadening their focus, excavating sites such as a middle-class home and an enslaved family’s living quarters.