Amarna versus Pompeii

Amarna and Pompeii: a Tale of Two Cities

 (and the review of a book)

Is there any real difference between a Roman ‘classical’ city, like Pompeii, and an Egyptian city like Amarna? If Pompeii is the best known of all Roman cities, its counterpart in Egypt is surely Amarna, the city founded by the ‘heretic’ Pharaoh Akhenaten, and then abandoned after his death, and never re-occupied, so that it can be explored by the archaeologists. How do they compare?

Akhenaten: Note the exaggerated elongated face and nose – typical of his style

Let us start with Amarna. Amarna is the best preserved of all Egyptian cities.  It is the city erected by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten to escape from the old capital of Thebes, though it was abandoned soon after his death and then remained virtually untouched till the archaeologists moved in.  Barry Kemp, the former Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge,  has been working at Amarna all his life and has now written for Thames and Hudson a splendid book The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People in which he sums up most magnificently his life’s work, and this page is based on it.




Amarna sprawled out along the side of the River Nile. The residential palace is at the top, the main palace, the great Temple and the central city are at the centre, while the people were living in the suburbs north and south.

Amarna lies halfway between the northern capital of Memphis – modern Cairo – and the southern capital of Thebes – modern Luxor. Basically it sprawls along the banks of the River Nile. At the centre are the main buildings, the Palace and the main temples. Then to either side, North and South, there are rather scraggly conglomerations of villages, while yet further to the North are two more palaces.









Model of the Great Temple:the pylons at the front formed an impressive entrance which then led through to a series of courtyards. But note to the right the huge array of offering tables – over 700 of them: only the bases are shown.




Plan of the temple enclosure with the Great Temple itself to the left and the mass of offering tables beneath it. There was probably a similar collection of offering tables to the north. To the right is a smaller temple and adjacent to it the square animal enclosure where the animals were tethered awaiting to be sacrificed.

This illustration from one of the tombs shows an offering table bottom left, piled high with offerings and incence burning on top of it. To the right is Akhenaten making the offering. Behind him is the his queen, and behind her their baby daughter waving a rattle. Top left is the sun god sending down his rays on the offering and on the pharaoh.

At the centre are the great public buildings, the main palace, and the temples. The main temple was simply enormous.  It is called the Great Aten temple and was dedicated to the Aten or sun god.  This was a huge enclosure over 800 metres long and 300 metres wide.  At the centre of the enclosure by the entrance was the temple itself – a string of courtyards full of pillars – the Egyptians never learnt to make an arch so they could not span any substantial space, so all their temples tend to be forests of columns.  Adjacent to the temple however was a huge area given over to what are described as ‘offering tables’ – tables on which offerings were piled: the bases were found by the excavators, and paintings in the tombs reveal the tables piled high with offerings – joints of meat, poultry, vegetables, loaves of bread, flowers and bowls of smoking incense to please the gods, while adjacent  were jars of water or beer. There were the bases of over 700 such tables in the temple itself, but outside it to the right were more than 900 such bases: there were indications that there may have well been a similar number in the area to the north, so there could have been 2,600 in all,  which on the feast days if all had gone well would have been piled high with displays: this was a society where the ruler displayed his wealth and his power; and presumably after display came redistribution when the food would have been lavishly given away to the favoured few and perhaps the cheering multitudes.

But the temple and offering tables only occupy the near half of the enclosure.  The back half was occupied by a cattle enclosure, marked by a number of tethering stones to which the cattle would have been tethered while waiting to be slaughtered as part of the offerings.  And at the back of the enclosure was a second smaller temple.  Admittedly this arrangement is somewhat unusual as no other temple has this huge number of offering tables –  this is a speciality of Akhenaten.  But it is our first indication of the priorities in the layout of an Egyptian town.



The Forum at Pompeii. At the far end (centre) is the rather small official temple the Capitoleum. To the left behind the restored facade is the ancient temple of Apollo. To the right is the entrance to the Macellum or market hall.

So, what is the equivalent in Pompeii? The centre of Pompeii is surely the forum, or market place. I thought I knew all about the forum, having visited it a number of times, but on studying it in rather more detail I realised that I had not understood it at all. One thinks of a forum as being an open space surrounded by shops but the Pompeii forum was not like that at all. It may have housed a number of shops in its earlier existence, but by the time of the eruption,  few remained. The forum was dominated on its west side by the Great Temple of Apollo, which was originally built in the 6th century BC, making it the oldest building in the forum and, indeed, in Pompeii as a whole.

Plan of the Forum. The basilica is fitted in rather awkwardly below the ancient temple of Apollo.

The origins of Pompeii are still fiercely debated though it appears that it was probably established in the great splurge of city foundations in the 6th century BC. This was a period when cities were being founded throughout Italy and much of the Mediterranean: some Greek, some Etruscan, and some founded by the native Italians. It is difficult to know into which category Pompeii falls, possibly a little bit of all three, for each has its supporters. But three aspects of this original town survive. Perhaps most surprisingly, the walls of Pompeii go right back to this early foundation, enclosing an area which for several centuries afterwards would have been essentially open ground – fields and orchards situated in the town. In the south western corner in what is known as the ‘Old Town’ lie a conglomeration of monuments that do not fit in with the layout of the rest of the town, some of which probably date to this early period. And there was the Temple of Apollo that occupies the position in the centre of the town which was to become a forum, but which was originally essentially an isolated temple.

In early Greek and Etruscan towns, the temples were the foremost structures, and we must think of the earliest civic functions taking place alongside them. However, following this early start, Pompeii declined in the 5th century BC, and when it revived in the 3rd or 2nd century, a formal forum was laid out next to the old temple, which was left somewhat incongruously forming the western side of the new forum.

At the same time, another temple was erected at the northern (narrow) end, originally dedicated to Jupiter. But, around 80 BC, Pompeii found itself on the losing side in the Social War, and a colony of Roman citizens was imposed upon it. So, the Temple of Jupiter was made into the ‘Capitolium’ – a temple to the three gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. The adaption was done cheaply: three small rooms were inserted at the far end where the cult statues to the three gods were placed, side by side, in a single temple.

The Basilica at Pompeii – large, but fitted in awkwardly sideways on to the forum

The main problem was how to fit in the civic buildings. The biggest priority was a Basilica or Town Hall, and the problem was solved by erecting a large and splendid hall in the wrong place, at right angles to the forum in the south-west corner adjacent to the Temple of Apollo. Then, on the narrow south end of the forum were three small rooms that housed the civic officials, while next to it on the south east side was the comitium, where elections were held.

Eumachia, the wealthy lady who erected a very large hall, presumably a market hall on the east side of the forum and made certain that her statue was proudly displayed there.

In the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, when the forum first received its grand form, it appears that a row of shops ran along the east side, as is normal in a proper forum. But then in the 1st century AD, under Augustus, grand new ideas were put forward. At the north-east corner a fine macellum – usually assumed to be a market for perishable goods such as meat and fish – had already been erected. However, grandest of all was a another large building erected by Eumachia, a wealthy Roman lady who left a statue of herself and an inscription telling us that she had paid for it. However, she does not tell us what the building was for: an inscription was erected in it by the guild of fullers (cloth merchants), but it was probably for general business.

There were also more temples, one to the genius of something or other (crucial word missing), the other traditionally ascribed to the Lares. The forum was badly damaged in the earthquake of AD 62, but by now it had reached the final form in which we see it today.  There were few small shops surviving, and perhaps more temples than one expects. But, importantly, the temples were not like those in Amarna; they were not places where the crucial economic functions of receiving tribute and, presumably, redistributing it was carried out, Instead, they were places of ceremony and sacrifice – there is a famous statue of an ox being brought to sacrifice. Furthermore, there is increasing emphasis on the role of the emperor. But the main business of the forum was clearly business.


Amarna’s palaces

So far we have compared the great temple at Amarna with the forum at Pompeii and found them to be very different. Let us now consider the second most important buildings in each town: let us compare the great palaces at Amarna, with the second most important building in Pompeii, the amphitheatre.

There are three palaces at Amarna. The main one lies on the Nile side of the long straight road that bisects Amarna – inevitably called the Royal Road – and directly opposite the great Amun Temple. It has a bridge – which was highly unusual – that connects it to the administration across the road.

The grand palace at Amarna, lying sideways on to the main axis. The Nile is to the right, the Royal road runs along the left, with the bridge to the administrative quarter at the top left. The entrance to the Palace would have been at the bottom.

This palace is a little difficult to understand. The main block with the throne room was directly across the road approached by the bridge. However, one suspects that the normal approach for visitors would have been from the north. Visitors would have entered into the huge courtyard, which was  probably divided into two. On the far side there would have been the massive main block with a projection that formed the main feature, the Window of Appearance. This, rather than the throne was the main feature of an Egyptian palace for it was here that the pharaoh appeared and gave out gifts to those in favour. Did the palace perhaps resemble those of the great moguls in India, in Delhi, or Agra, which are dominated by the great courtyards where the durbars (state receptions) were held, where the rulers could be seen by their subjects and display their wealth?

Window of appearance. The pharaoh top left is distributing gifts to his nobles: bottom right much smaller who are piling up all the gifts in a basked in front of them.

Were perhaps great feasts held there, with the pharaoh dining on the platform which also served as the Window of Appearance?  The big mystery is where they actually lived, for there is little sign of accommodation or indeed of kitchens for preparing food. Perhaps food was brought across from the central courtyard on the other side of the Royal road.





Model of the North Palace probably occupied by the pharaoh’s daughter Myritaten. The entrance would be top left, then pass through the two courtyards before coming to the Royal Appartments bottom right

Far more comprehensible is the North Palace. This probably belonged to Meryetaten, Akhenaten’s eldest daughter, and consists of two great courtyards with a throne room complex at the far end. This throne room was rather small and would not have contained a big audience. Far more imposing, as with the main palace, was the ‘Window of Appearance’. To one side of the throne room were what appear to be private apartments, with a very small bedroom, bathroom, and toilet, as well as accommodation for a number of servants and staff.

An impressive approach divided in half by the usual pylons dominated the outer courtyard. To either side there was further accommodation, with kitchens on one and rooms for animals on the other – something which is perhaps a little unusual in a palace.

The pharaoh probably actually lived at the third palace, known as the North Riverside Palace, which today is mostly eroded away by the river and by cultivation. This was well away from the main urban area, and was sensibly removed from public gaze. Perhaps the pharaoh  only came down to the main palace, by barge or in the Royal Chariot, for ceremonial visits.

The palaces probably mark the biggest difference between the Egyptians and the Roman world. In the Classic Greek world, palaces are conspicuous by their absence: democracy had taken a firm hold. There was a building, called the Basilica – the word itself derived from the Greek meaning a King’s Place, but in the Roman world, the term Basilica had simply come to mean the town hall. Admittedly, as the Roman Republic turned into the Roman Empire, palaces – or at least very grand houses – began to be built, notably under Nero with his ‘Golden House’. But it was not until the end of the 3rd century under Diocletian that purpose-built palaces, as at Split in Dalmatia, began to be built.

The central city. The palace is to the left and a bridge over the Royal road leading to the house presumably of the Vizier, or Prime Minister. behind are the offices of the administration. One of them, presumably the Foreign Office contains the “Amarna Tablets”: letters from the ruler of Mesopotamia written in cuneiform script. Note the rows of bakeries at the top producing on a commercial scale.


The most interesting part of Amarna, however, was what Barry Kemp calls the Central City. This lay opposite the palace and was linked to it by the bridge. At the end of the bridge was an opulent house known as the King’s House, though it was probably the official dwelling place of the Vizier, or Prime Minister. Behind it lay the bureaucracy, the workshops that provided the hidden machinery of the Egyptian state. Most interesting – and key to the whole area – was the discovery of what can surely be called the ‘Foreign Office’. Here in 1887, one of the most famous of all discoveries came to light: the Amarna tablets. These clay tablets of Mesopotamian type, written in Akkadian cuneiform, are the correspondence between the Pharaohs and the rulers of Mesopotamia – the Babylonians, the Akkadians, the Hittites, and even the Canaanites. This was surely the storeroom of the ‘Foreign Office’, where communications from foreign princes was stored – and kept for a period of up to 30 years.

Beyond and around was an amazing collection of the working parts of a royal court: accommodation for the clerks, a huge bakery with rows of mass production ovens; an area full of quernstones for the grinding of flour; there were jars for storing meat, stables for the horses, and barracks for the police. To the south was another temple, smaller than the grand temple, but still enormous. It all gives a fascinating insight into the workings that underpinned the functioning of an Egyptian court.


Pompeii’s amphitheatre

If the palace was the second most important place in Amarna, what was the second most important place in Pompeii?

We have already discussed the civic centre of Pompeii, which was centred round the forum: the squashed-in basilica, the rather miserable comitium where elections took place, and the three rather small rooms at the end of the forum that were the municipal offices. Perhaps it is wrong to look for a palace in Pompeii, which is, after all, an ordinary town rather than a capital city. Nevertheless, even in Rome at this time, the palace was merely a glorified house, and the civic centre was the senate house where the senate was formally the main law making body. One of the characteristics of the Roman town is the absence of any external governing force: there was no castle as in the Middle Ages, no military force to control the populace.

The amphitheatre at Pompeii

No, instead the second most important, indeed the largest, of all structures at Pompeii is the amphitheatre, and then the baths. Yet, just as the forum at Pompeii is unusual, so is the amphitheatre. It was built at the other end of the city, far from the forum in a corner of the walls that had only been lightly occupied before. But the amphitheatre is surprisingly early: it was built around 70 BC and is the oldest known permanent amphitheatre anywhere.

Amphitheatres developed first not around Rome but in Campania – the area around Naples and Pompeii. The amphitheatre was erected following Pompeii’s defeat in the Social War when a colony was imposed on the city. There are two inscriptions that tell us that the amphitheatre was erected at the expense of two rich colonists Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius “in honour of the colony”. One wonders whether, as colonists, they had been allocated rich lands of the conquered peoples and used their ill-gotten gains to build the amphitheatre. Nevertheless it is an impressive structure, even today: one is reminded that amphitheatres and theatres are forms of architecture unknown in Egypt – or, indeed, in any of the pre-market economies of the Near East. Is this whole concept of having a large built structure where the citizens could watch plays and spectacles something that is specifically part of a market economy, just as a modern football ground is the product of our western market economy? (Admittedly, modern dictators sometimes build prestige football stadiums: but did Hitler or Stalin ever play football? Though both in fact held Olympic games . . . )

Plan of Pompeii with the forum to the left and the amphitheater in the right hand corner.

The other big public buildings at Pompeii were the baths. Here again, Pompeii is slightly unusual at least to the eyes of the Romano-British archaeologist. In Britannia, we are used to the idea that there is a single large public bath in Roman towns, often adjacent to and complimentary to the forum, as at Wroxeter. At Pompeii, however, there were four sets of baths, all of middle size. The only one that was a definite public bath was that known as the Forum Baths where an inscription states that they were built at the expense of the town. The oldest baths are the Stabian Baths, which developed over several centuries. Were these a commercial, rather than a public, enterprise, privately owned but profiting from entrance fees charged to the population? Then, there were the Suburban Baths which lie outside the walls, and are best known for the pornographic wall paintings that had been covered over by the time of the eruption but which have led some scholars to wonder whether they may have acted as a brothel as well as baths. And finally the fourth set of baths,  the Central Baths, were under construction at the time of the eruption. Were these built at public expense, or were they yet another example of commercial enterprise?

The concept of public baths continues down into the Muslim empires that followed the decline of the Roman Empire, and were a common feature of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the idea that baths and bathing should be a popular fixture of a town appears to be something that was introduced by the Greco-Roman civilisation. Again, is this a feature of the market economy, where the attention and spare time of the citizens is no longer concentrated on the processions and gift distributions that typified non-market societies?


But what happened in the actual towns where people lived?  Read on!

Further ReadingThe City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People, by Barry KempThames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0500291207


28th August 2013, revised 29th January 2014