Excavations Shed Light on the Everyday Life of Pompeii’s Middle Class

An ornate courtyard found in an otherwise humble home may have reflected the owners’ aspirational vision of the future

Accent table in Pompeii
A small accent table found in a Pompeii bedroom Courtesy of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Discoveries in Pompeii—from elaborate frescoes to garden shrines—have taught researchers a lot about the city’s wealthiest residents. Until recent years, however, the lives of the lower and middle classes have garnered less interest.

But now, archaeologists have excavated several rooms in a middle-class home partially destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Frozen in time, the rooms provide a snapshot into the lives of everyday people in the ancient Roman city, according to a statement from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, which announced the find on Saturday.

On the lower floor, the team found the remnants of a bedroom. Beside a simple cot, a wooden chest was open, preserved as its owner had left it on the day of the eruption. Inside was a small lantern with an image of the god Zeus transforming into an eagle. Elsewhere in the room, decorative plates sat on a three-legged table, “similar to the accent tables in vogue today,” writes Frances D’Emilio of the Associated Press (AP).

A nearby storage room, also on the lower level, was perhaps the simplest room in the home. Archaeologists found only an earthen floor; it was also the home’s only room without plastered walls.

“In the Roman Empire there was a significant proportion of the population which fought for their social status and for whom the ‘daily bread’ was anything but taken for granted,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the archaeological site’s director, in the statement. “It was a social class that was vulnerable during political crises and famines, but also ambitious to climb the social ladder.”

When archaeologists first found the structure in 2018, they called it the “Larario house,” after a shrine in the home dedicated to the household gods, or Lares, per Reuters’ Valentina Za. They also unearthed a courtyard filled with ornate decorations, which contrasted the humbler appearance of the newly excavated rooms.

“We do not know who the inhabitants of the house were,” adds Zuchtriegel, “but certainly the culture of otium”—or leisure—“which inspired the wonderful decoration of the courtyard represented for them more a future they dreamed of than a lived reality.”

The team found a number of other items throughout the home, including an incense burner in the shape of a cradle and bronze vessels. Some of these objects originally sat on the upper levels but fell to the lower levels when the house collapsed.

In the hallway outside the storage room, researchers found a wooden cabinet with at least five shelves, which held kitchen items like jugs and plates.

To preserve their finds, the team made plaster casts of the objects—a common archaeological method used by researchers at Pompeii. By pouring liquid plaster into the open spaces surrounded by volcanic ash, they create a mold of what the object once looked like.

The ruins of Pompeii were discovered in the 16th century. Archaeologists continue to make new discoveries at the site, often facilitated by new innovations and techniques. Today, only about two-thirds of the city has been excavated.

Researchers have long been interested in the “sumptuous, elaborately frescoed villas of … Pompeii’s upper-class residents,” writes the AP. “But archaeology activity in the sprawling site, near modern-day Naples, has increasingly focused on the lives of the middle class as well as of servants and other enslaved people.”

Last fall, for example, archaeologists unearthed a sparsely decorated room believed to have served as living quarters for an enslaved family in Pompeii. The room contained only a chamber pot, a wooden chest and three beds. Because one of the beds was smaller than the others, researchers hypothesized that it could have been used by an enslaved child.

The middle-class home was found in an area called Regio V, one of Pompeii’s largest districts. Excavations there are ongoing.