‘Spectacular’ Frescoes of Helen of Troy, Apollo and Zeus Unearthed Among the Ruins of Pompeii

Found in an ancient dining hall, the artworks depict characters associated with the Trojan War

Helen of Troy and Paris Fresco
Researchers uncovered this fresco of Helen of Troy and Paris in a newly excavated Pompeii dining room. Pompeii Archaeological Park

Archaeologists in Pompeii have discovered an ancient dining room adorned with a series of stunning frescoes, each depicting a pair of mythological characters associated with the Trojan War.

Measuring about 50 feet long and 20 feet wide, the “spectacular” space features a mosaic floor made with over a million tiny white tiles, according to a statement from the Pompeii Archaeological Park.

“It’s always difficult to judge quality, but what we see is a high degree of care for detail, expression and shadows,” Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the park, tells the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida. “This is very striking, as is the topic of the works.”

One of the frescoes depicts the legendary Helen of Troy and Paris, whose elopement set off the series of events that led to the Trojan War. Helen had been married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, before fleeing to Troy with Paris. (Various versions of the myth differ regarding whether she was abducted or went willingly.)

Full room view
Archaeologists say the ancient Romans painted the dining room black to help cover smoke stains from oil lamps. Pompeii Archaeological Park

In another of the room’s works, an ancient artist has reimagined the Greek god Apollo trying to seduce the Trojan priestess Cassandra. To win Cassandra’s favor, Apollo gave her the power of prophecy—and when she continued to deny his advances, he cursed her so that no one would believe her visions of war.

The walls behind the frescoes are covered in a backdrop of black paint, likely to prevent smoke and soot stains from showing.

“People would meet to dine after sunset,” says Zuchtriegel in the statement. “The flickering light of the lamps had the effect of making the images appear to move, especially after a few glasses of good Campanian wine.”

Apollo and Cassandra
A fresco depicting the Greek god Apollo and Cassandra Pompeii Archaeological Park

The dining room opens onto a courtyard with a staircase leading to another level of the property. On the stairway’s arches, someone has drawn a scene featuring “two pairs of gladiators and what appears to be an enormous stylized phallus,” per the park.

The hall is located in a private residence in the Regio IX area of the city, which archaeologists have been excavating for about a year. The site has revealed numerous discoveries, including a bakery, a construction site and a fresco depicting a pizza-like flatbread. Each one sheds new light on daily life before Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E.

Uncovering and preserving ancient artifacts during digs is no small feat. For example, Roberta Prisco, the chief restorer at the site, recently spent a full day “trying to stop an arch from collapsing,” according to BBC News’ Jonathan Amos, Rebecca Morelle and Alison Francis.

“The responsibility is enormous,” Prisco tells the broadcaster. “We have a passion and a deep love for what we’re doing, because what we’re uncovering and protecting is for the joy also of the generations that come after us.”

Affreschi salone nero
A painting of the god Zeus, who takes the form of a swan, and the queen Leda Pompeii Archaeological Park

Archaeologists have been studying Pompeii for centuries. Despite its hold on the popular imagination, only about two-thirds of the ancient city have been excavated.

For Zuchtriegel, the newly discovered frescoes are not only an important archaeological discovery, but a timeless meditation on what it means to be human.

“The mythological couples provided ideas for conversations about the past and life, only seemingly of a merely romantic nature,” he says in the statement. “In reality, they refer to the relationship between the individual and fate: Cassandra, who can see the future but no one believes her; Apollo, who sides with the Trojans against the Greek invaders but, being a god, cannot ensure victory; Helen and Paris, who, despite their politically incorrect love affair, are the cause of the war, or perhaps merely a pretext. Who knows?”

He adds: “These days, Helen and Paris represent us all: Each day, we can choose whether to focus solely on our own private lives or whether to explore the way our lives are entangled with the broad sweep of history.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.