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The Lost City of Pompeii: Pictures of an Alien World, Frozen in Time

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In the year 79 AD, Italy's Mt. Vesuvius erupted with superheated ash that rained fiery death on several Roman cities nearby. But none was hit harder than vacation town Pompeii, which was buried in a thick layer of broiling ash in a matter of seconds.

That ash killed over 1,000 people instantly and buried the town, which was eventually forgotten. But 1,800 years later, explorers and archaeologists discovered Pompeii again. The disaster that had wiped out this bustling town also preserved it like an insect in amber. Beneath layers of muddy ash was a snapshot of everyday life in a Roman town, complete with bank receipts, graffiti, "for rent" signs, public mosaics depicting extremely graphic sex, and penis decorations on street corners. The more we learn about Pompeii, the more it seems that the origins of Western culture are nothing like Western culture today.


What was daily life really like in the Roman Empire? Here's what we know, based on the time capsule of Pompeii.

The most famous aspect of Pompeii's ruins is no doubt the hundreds of plaster casts that archeologists have made of the volcano's victims. When the ash poured down over the city, people were killed instantly, in the exact poses they struck when they noticed their impending doom. As their bodies decomposed, they left perfectly-formed hollows in the ash. Historians can inject these hollows with plaster, recreating the positions of the bodies, and sometimes their terrified facial expressions.


Contrary to popular belief, Pompeii wasn't hit without warning. The volcano had been erupting for almost a day before the deadly ash rushed into the city on winds that some scientists estimate to have been 900 degrees. By that time, thousands had already fled. Those who remained were the holdouts, the unlucky, and probably many people who were too poor to travel elsewhere. Indeed, the city had been emptying out for nearly two decades after a devastating earthquake (also caused by Mt. Vesuvius) hit it in 62 AD. That quake had reduced a lot of the city to rubble. Many homes were still in ruins at the time the ash hit, which indicates that a lot of residents left after the earthquake and never came back.

A vacation spot

Pompeii, founded as early as the 7th century BCE, is in a beautiful region of Italy, and Romans were avid tourists. So the city was a resort town, and many of its villas and apartments were obviously designed for wealthy visitors. It had plenty of public spots for parties, including a generously-sized brothel where anthropologists have found a lot of hilariously obscene graffiti. There were also public baths, an arena, gladiators' barracks, restaurants, and even a hotel.


In this map, you can see the outlines of the city. Green areas are unexcavated, pale blue marks public buildings, yellow marks businesses, orange marks private houses, and dark blue marks temples.

Like many Roman towns, Pompeii was walled. When you entered through the arched gates, you would find yourself on or near one of the three main streets that bisect the town. Most businesses were on these main streets, and took the form of storefronts attached to insulae (apartments) and villas (palatial houses), though there were plenty of smaller shops on side-streets. Many of the buildings in the most modern parts of town were two stories high, with big, floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floors open to the air. There was an elaborate system of pumps for distributing running water throughout the city, and many houses had heat created by sending hot air through hollows in the walls and under the floors.


So how did a centuries-old, prosperous, beautiful city get buried not just by ash but by forgetfulness? It's likely that Pompeii was lost in the cultural shift from Roman values and ideals to Christian ones in the Western world. It disappeared geographically, but also became socially unintelligible as the centuries wore on. In fact, the first people in the modern era to discover the city seem to have taken a few peeks at its pornographic frescoes and reburied them. The city was first uncovered in the sixteenth century by an architect working on digging a canal nearby — he reported seeing some decorated walls, which he then inexplicably reburied rather than investigating. Perhaps he was motivated by time constraints, or perhaps — as some historians argue — he was unsettled by seeing a world where everything we consider private was on public display. Two hundred years later, in the mid eighteenth century, adventurers and scientists began unburying the city in earnest.



Outside one shapely building on a main street in Pompeii, you can see this piece of graffiti: "Hic bene futui," or "Here you'll get a good fuck." It's a brothel, so perhaps there's no surprise that people have scribbled comments like that on its walls. But it was hardly the only place in the city where you'd find sexual references.

Oxford archaeology professor Andrew Wilson, whose pictures of the brothel you can see here, explains that Pompeii's suburban baths contain this bit of graffiti:

Si quis hic sederit, legat hoc ante omnia.
Si qui futuere voluit Atticen, quaerat a(ssibus) XVI.

"If any is sitting here, let him read this before anything.
If he is someone who wants to fuck Attike, he needs 16 asses"


That's asses as in the As, a bronze coin used in Rome. So Attike must have been one expensive lady.


These same baths are full of incredibly detailed paintings of different sexual positions. Here's one of my favorites, of a threesome with two men and a woman. It's interesting to compare this image to threesome porn of today, where inevitably the woman would be in the middle. Here, the man is in the middle, pitching and catching at the same time. Ah, Rome.


Threesome etiquette isn't the only cultural difference between Roman sexuality and our own. Take a look at this Pompeii street decoration of four perky, disembodied penises floating around a chalice. Similar penis imagery was found in most houses, sometimes disembodied and sometimes attached to satyrs or the mythological figure Priapus. Historians are quick to point out that these are "fertility symbols," comparable to a picture of a cornucopia or flowers. That's true, but still doesn't change the fact that Romans were used to thinking of penis pictures as nice decorations. They flaunted the very same body parts that the Christian church would later call dirty, shameful, and best kept hidden.


I mentioned earlier that villas and insulae usually had storefronts in them, which the owners could rent out. It seems that several of these storefronts were rented to sex workers, or so archaeologists guess based on the way decorations in one room would suddenly become extremely pornographic (though sexual imagery was everywhere, actual pictures of explicit fucking seemed limited to the brothels and baths). Here is one such house, where one particular room (marked on the floorplan) was full of explicit pictures of sex. Other rooms in the house didn't have paintings like this.

One conclusion we can draw from this is that Pompeii's residents considered sex work to be like any other kind of work — not the kind of thing you hide away, but something that happens in public storefronts attached to your home.


A very different idea of privacy

The Romans of Pompeii had a notion of public and private life very different from what we see in many Western cultures today. Sexual imagery we would keep hidden was out in the open, but many other parts of private life were open too.


Yale history professor Diana Kleiner explains the ideal layout of a Roman house, which we see at Pompeii, is devoted almost entirely to public areas. The main part of the house, which would have been open to the street, was called the atrium. It was a big public room where the homeowners would conduct business around a large pool designed to collect rainwater from a pool-sized hole in the ceiling. Not only was the center of the house open for public business, but it was literally open to the sky as well.

Another large part of the house would be devoted to a big garden, which was sometimes open to the public too. By contrast, bedrooms — generally located off the atrium — were often small and windowless. These private areas were obviously not places where people expected to spend any length of time. They were subordinated to the public spaces of the house. As Kleiner puts it, Western homes today are considered private sanctuaries. That idea would have been alien to the Romans, whose homes were built mostly as public spaces. Indeed, the "ideal" Roman house, according to Latin architectural writings, would include two or more storefronts (possibly containing sex workers, as we learned earlier). Privacy as we know it now — the kind where you shut your door and close the windows on the world — didn't exist in Pompeii.


Archaeologists know a great deal about the houses of Pompeii and the people who owned them at the time of the volcano disaster. Some have inspired a lot of speculation, such as the so-called "House of the Tragic Poet," a small home packed with tons of art (including this incredible tile floor with "cave canem," or "beware of dog" written on it).


Others are fascinating because they remind us how similar Romans were to today's city dwellers. The house of Julia Felix, one of the largest in the city, advertises baths and rooms:

To let, for the term of five years, from the thirteenth day of next August to the thirteenth day of the sixth August thereafter, the Venus bath, fitted up for the best people, shops, rooms over shops, and second-story apartments in the property owned by Julia Felix, daughter of Spurius.


Like her neighbors, Julia Felix considered large parts of her house to be public. Renting out rooms and baths after the 62 earthquake had left many people homeless made good business sense.


An alien history

The people of Pompeii had many things we would recognize from modern city life, including heated houses and advertising. But they also lived in a culture that was so different from ours that simply seeing the decorations on their houses would be shocking to many sophisticated urbanites. As we excavate the city from the ash that smothered it, we have a chance to visit an alien world — a world before Christian morals dominated the West, and where the line between public and private was often hard to find.

It was also a time when people casually kept slaves, and women who ran their own businesses like Julia Felix were exceedingly rare. Why have some traditions from that time, like "beware of dog" signs, endured into the present almost unchanged, while pretty pictures of penises have vanished from our street corners? Cultural memory is a weird thing.


Though people in Western countries can trace the origins of their societies back to the Roman Empire, it's likely that we wouldn't feel at home in the culture that gave birth to ours. Still, it would be familiar. We come from an alien world.

Further reading:

If you want an introduction to the entire city, its layout, and all the homes and businesses that have been excavated over the past two and a half centuries, you can see them all in detail at AD 79, a website devoted to Pompeii and other cities in the region affected by the disaster.


For an introduction to Roman architectural history, I highly recommend historian Diana Kleiner's Yale lecture series, available on video.

Discovery Channel has a nice timeline of the Vesuvius eruption.

Oxford archaeologist Andrew Wilson has a great set of lecture slides devoted to love and sex in the Roman Empire, which deals a lot with Pompeii.