What was life like in an ordinary Roman city? The best answer lies in one of the biggest disasters in the history of the world, when in AD 79 the volcano Vesuvius erupted and overwhelmed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the prosperous villas that surrounded them. The resulting destruction has been a treasure trove for archaeologists.
The story of the explosion was recorded by Pliny the Younger, whose uncle Pliny the Elder, wrote the great encyclopaedia of natural history. He in fact perished in the disaster having taken a boat out to help rescue the inhabitants, but went too close and was himself killed.
Two towns were overwhelmed: Pompeii and Herculaneum. Herculaneum was the richer town, but was more deeply buried, so only part has been excavated. Pompeii was only lightly covered, and now over two-thirds of it has been excavated including all the public buildings. As a result, Pompeii is the ideal place to see how a Roman city actually worked. Here we can see the forum and the other public places; the baths which were a favourite meeting place for the Romans, and the amphitheatre and the theatres. And we can look into the private houses, both big and small, and visit the ubiquitous bars and eating places, the shops, and the fulleries where clothes were cleaned, and inspect the notices for the elections that were about to take place.
In some ways Pompeii was an odd town: the walls that surround the town were built in the 6th century BC, which was when many of the Greek colonies were being established, though Pompeii appears to have been a native town with Greek and Etruscan influence. But the early walls were rather too big and the early town was confined to the south east corner known as the ‘Altstadt’.
The oldest temple in the Doric style was erected here, though this had long collapsed by the time of the eruption and only the foundations remained.
In the fifth century, a temple to Apollo was built in the eastern side of the town, and it was alongside this that the Forum developed.
However following this early development it seems that nothing much happened, and for the next two centuries, much of the space inside the walls must have been farmland or gardens.
It was only in the second century that it really began to be built up. It presumably became an ally of Rome, though Oscan continued to be the language of the official inscriptions, and it may have thought of itself as being a Samnite town, allied to Rome. However it was highly influenced by Hellenistic tendencies and some of the richest buildings such as the House of the Faun with its Alexander mosaic belong to this second century flowering. It was only with the imposition of a colony in 81 BC that Pompeii became formally Roman.
The forum is often taken to be a typical example of a Roman forum, but it is rather odd. The forum in a Roman town is meant to be surrounded by shops, but in Pompeii the western side is occupied by the temple to Apollo and the butt end of the Basilica.
The eastern side is occupied by half a dozen rather large buildings, dominated by the Macellum or covered market at the northern end and the Eumachia building at the centre.
It is interesting to consider the various public buildings in Pompeii, to see how they were built and how they are financed. Today we are concerned with inequality and feel that rich men should be taxed heavily so that the money should be used by the government to put up public buildings. The Romans however were not worried about inequality, but instead expected that rich people should pay for the public buildings (like the Victorians?) We can perhaps consider this under three headings, firstly the buildings of governance, then the baths and finally, the theatres and amphitheatre.
Religion of course had its role, though as always with the Romans, not too big a role. At the northern end, the short side, there is the Capitolium, the official main temple of the town. It began as a temple of Jupiter, but after Pompeii became a colony after 80 BC, it was rebuilt as a proper Capitolium, that is an official temple of Rome, dedicated to the three gods of Jupiter Juno and Minerva, with triumphal arches on either side, providing a formal entrance to the forum.
The foremost public building was the basilica, a large imposing building strangely rather hidden away in the corner of the Forum and at right angles to the Forum. It was built in the 2nd century BC to judge from the stamped roofing tiles found there. At the far end was a setting for a large formal seat from which judgement could be pronounced. But there are few signs of the rooms where the work of the town council could be carried out. Instead there are three rooms at the southern end of the Forum, each with an apse at the far end, and these are often thought to be the offices of the town administration where the officers could do their work and records could be kept.
The basilica seems to have been essentially a covered version of the forum, where the people of Pompeii could meet and transact their business — and one suspects that business, rather than politics was the main topic of conversation in the Basilica. There are numerous graffiti scratched on the walls everywhere, mostly on mundane subjects And one suspects too that much of the real business of the town was conducted informally and that means in the baths.
The town was ruled by two mayors known as the duo viri, who were elected annually for a single year, just like the consuls at Rome. The Romans clearly had an ingrained horror of being ruled by a single man, so they always elected their chief officers in pairs and only for a single year, while there were also junior officers called aediles. When Pompeii was overwhelmed, it seems that an election was in full swing and election posters were painted everywhere on the houses along the main street. Over 2,500 of these posters have been preserved, many of them from previous years; they were mostly in the form of ‘please elect Lucius Pompedius as aedile’, and was sometimes expanded in the form of ‘The fullers ask you to elect Publius Sittius as aedile, a fine young man worthy of public office’. It is interesting to note that even though the position of emperor had become hereditary, there was still an active democracy at the lower levels. It is very different from China where the chief magistrate of the town was always sent out from Peking.
However being elected to the town council also brought with it its duties: just as in classical Athens the great plays were paid for by the rich performing a liturgy, so in imperial Rome most of the buildings were erected by the wealthy citizens. Later in the 3rd and 4th century, this became a burden and the rich tried to avoid becoming a member of the town council because of the financial impositions that were thereby incurred. But in the 1st and 2nd centuries it was seen to be an honour to finance a building in your native city.
The best example of this was the very large building erected by Eumachia. Eumachia was a wealthy woman. Her father, Lucius Eumachias, was a successful manufacturer of bricks and tiles, and she married into one of the leading families of the town. But it is interesting to see the extent of the powers of a wealthy woman in Roman society.
She was a public priestess of the goddess Venus Pompeiana and patron of the Guild of Fullers (cloth workers), but this was the extent to which Roman women could progress politically. But economically she was able to acquire a crucial parcel of land beside the forum and had the funds to build a large courtyard building surrounded by porticos. No-one knows quite what it was used for: was it perhaps used by the fullers who erected a fine statue to their patron at one side of the square?
Although the Eumachia building was built by apparently by a single individual, it must have been essentially a public building, even though we do not know what it was used for. To its north were two smaller public buildings labelled as the Temple of Vespasian and the Sanctuary of the City Lares, that is the city gods: one doesn’t quite know why what they are doing there, perhaps the equivalent of churches, though churches to the Imperial cult, to show that we are all part of the same team. And just to the south of the Eumachia building was an unroofed building that is usually thought to be the Comitium where elections took place.
But one suspects that much of the real business of the town was conducted informally, and that means in the baths, so on the next page is a visit to the baths.