Pompeii 2

Pompeii – Baths, theatres and Houses

The Baths

Pompeii: Stabian baths Palaestra

The Palaestra in the Stabian baths, the general meeting place and the exercise ground where you could exercise after you had had your bath.

In most Roman towns,  the biggest buildings were not the official buildings, but the places of entertainment, the public baths and the amphitheatre. And the place where most business was done were the public baths.

There were four public baths at Pompeii, the grandest of which were the Stabian baths, near the Stabian Gate. These were the oldest and largest baths, in their final form, an elaborate set of baths for both men and women. They were built originally by the fourth century BC,   but there was a major reorganisation in the second century BC, while in the 1st century BC further rooms were added when a new aqueduct brought running water to the town.

Plan of the Stabian baths. The main entrance is at the bottom and the undressing room seen below is immediately to the right.

The work was done by Gaius Uulius and Publius Aninius the duo viri, ‘in accordance with a decree of the town councillors using the money that the law requires them to spend either on games or a monument’ – an interesting example of how the town councils decided that work needed to be done, but the mayors paid for the work and supervised the construction.

Undressing room at the Stabian baths at Pompeii

The magnificent Apodyterium, or undressing room at the baths.

The circular pool forming the cold baths.

The end wall of the warm room in the men’s baths.

However when the town became a colony in the 80s BC, it was decided that a new more efficient set of baths should be constructed right by the forum, behind indeed the Capitoline temple, though in this case the duo viri undertook the construction at public expense. A third set of baths was also under construction at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius which are known as the Central Baths, even though they are situated in the northern part of the town outside the old centre. Interestingly, they are only a single set of baths with no separate provision for women: was this because women were excluded or did they use the baths at different times? Or had the Romans become broadminded and decided that men and women could use the same baths?


The Suburban baths – with brothel attached

The suburban baths at Pompeii. They were just outside the city walls which can be seen on the far right.

Interestingly there was yet another set of baths built outside the Marine gate that led down to the harbour. These are known as the Suburban Baths, which were only excavated quite recently. These caused something of a sensation when it was realised that there was a brothel attached, with in the entrance hall, a set of paintings which displayed the various attractions offered by the young ladies. One wonders whether this was a private enterprise, built by private individuals for public use as a commercial venture.

The baths are magnificently situated with fine views over the sea-shore. Unfortunately the view is now lost. The baths were covered by a thick layer of ash. The baths have been excavated but the bank of the ash can be seen to the left.

The entrance hall and undressing room. The interesting frescos can be seen in a row at the top.

The well-preserved swimming pool at the Suburban baths.



The entrance hall and undressing room. The interesting frescos can be seen in a row at the top
Detail of one of the paintings – say no more


Theatre at Pompeii

The grand theatre of Pompeii. Note the courtyard behind the stage that formed a meeting ground for spectators. In its final stages it had been blocked out and turned into a training school for the gladiators.

Then there were the theatres. Pompeii did in fact have two proper Greek-style theatres which were down in the old town. The larger was one of the first buildings to be built in the town in the 4th or even the 5th century BC, when Greek influence was strong and every respectable town had to have a Greek style theatre. Adjacent to it a smaller covered theatre was built in the 1st century BC when the town became a Roman colonia. Perhaps it was mainly an intimate concert hall, but was it also a meeting place where the town council met?

Pompeii Amphitheatre

The grand Amphitheatre at Pompeii. Note the division in the rows of seats: the lower seats were for the colonists, the upper seats for the rest of the population.

But the most popular place of entertainment was the Amphitheatre, built in the far eastern corner of the town well away from the formal centre, for Amphitheatres were places where rowdiness was likely to take place so they should therefore be placed well away from the town centre. The Amphitheatre was very much a Roman form of entertainment and was built when Pompeii became a Roman colony. From 91 – 88 BC, Rome went to war with its allies in the so-called ‘social war’. This is the strangest war ever, for it was a war by the allies, the socii, who wanted to be given Roman citizenship. The Romans won the war but promptly gave the allies citizenship which is what they wanted. So the allies having lost the war gained their objectives. It was a war that is somehow typical of the Romans in that they were stupid to go to war in the first place, but having won the war ended up by doing the right thing.

Walls of Pompeii showing damage by seige

The walls of Pompeii. Are the damaged sections the result of the ballista bolts thrown during the siege of 81 BC by Sulla?

However Pompeii having gone through war with the rest of the allies was besieged by Sulla, the great Roman general. The damage to the walls by the ballistae (boulders) hurled by the Roman siege engines can still be seen. However the Romans having won, made Pompeii into a colonia and imposed a group of colonists on the town. The results can best be seen archaeologically by the inscriptions which had hitherto been written in the Oscan language, but are hence forward in Latin, and one of the big results can be seen in the Amphitheatre where an inscription informs us that the Amphitheatre was built by Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius duo viri for the honour of the colony, who saw to the construction of this spectacula at their own expense and gave the land in perpetuity to the colonists: though interestingly inscriptions on the different sections record the names of the magistrates who paid for the seating.

Pompeii inscription in theatre

Inscription in Pompeii in the Amphitheatre recording that it was built by two leading citizens ‘ for the honour of the colony’.

But who were these two duo viri who paid for the whole amphitheatre? Presumably they were new colonists who had grown rich at the expense of the old guard, but who ploughed some of their ill-gotten gains back into the building of the Amphitheatre. But that two men were able to pay for the whole amphitheatre – said to be the oldest stone amphitheatre in the whole of Italy – demonstrates the extent of the wealth in Pompeii in the 1st century BC.

The amphitheatre is the only occasion in which Pompeii appears in the pages of Tacitus prior to the eruption, for in AD 59 a riot occurred and the visiting supporters from the nearby town of Nuceria had a dust up with the local supporters – a painting of this is preserved in one of the houses – and a complaint was made to the emperor and investigators were sent down and games were banned for ten years, which seems a fairly harsh punishment.

It is fascinating to see how the town actually worked: there was no big palace, no house for the governor, no castle, no barracks for soldiers. Instead a number of buildings round the forum, temples and baths, theatres and an amphitheatre — politics and business and pleasure —all mixed up. But the public buildings of Pompeii though fine were not overwhelming and the real wealth of the town was to be found in the private houses.

The houses

Street in Pompeii

Street in Pompeii. Note the high pavements and the stepping stones going across. Arrangements for street drainage were minimal and they were probably usually filthy.

The main street of the town leads out from the south east corner of the forum. It is known as the Via del Abbondanza, and it leads eastwards from the forum to the far end of the town, lined with all the big houses, though in many cases their frontages are taken over by shops and bars, — the Roman equivalent of our coffee shops.

Fast food shop in Pompeii

Fast food shop in Pompeii with storage jars for the food.

Everywhere there are shops – there are innumerable bars or fast food outlets with huge jars (dolia) sunken into the counters from which food could be served.

Plan of the fast food shop with the serving counter at the top. The enterprise was eminently successful for there was a substantial house behind it leading to the atrium at the centre (E) and a small garden at the bottom where herb were grown.

One of them, that of Vetutius Placidus was the front part of a prosperous business with a house behind it and accommodation on the first floor. Perhaps it served as an Inn, as well as an eating place. In one of the serving jars, 1385 coins were found, no doubt change and savings thrown in at the last minute as the shopkeeper fled the eruption.

Bakery at Pompeii

One of the many bakeries in Pompeii with two huge grinding stones and numerous jars for containing the ingredients.

There are also numerous bakeries with the large grinding stones probably driven by a donkey, often with an oven nearby.

Fullery at Pompeii

A fullery at Pompeii with the large tank in which the clothes could be soaked to clean them.

And then there are the fullers, the equivalent of our dry cleaning shops,  where clothes and furnishings were washed in huge tanks.

Shutter groves at Pompeii

Grooves where the shutters ran to close off the shop at night.

Something that every shop needs is shutters to close it off at night.

Note the long grooves along which the shutters would have run to close off this thermololium or bar when it closed for the night.

The town is divided up into insulae or islands, regular blocks of houses. Some insulae were occupied by a single great house of which the best known is the House of the Fawn with the statue of a dancing fawn still in place to greet the visitors.

Pompeii house of the fawn

The house of the Fawn, the grandest house in Pompeii. It is named after the figure of the fawn, that is a man with a tail standing in the middle of the pool at the centre of the atrium.


Plan of the house of the Fawn. Note the double entrance to the right with two separate atriums. The domestic atrium at the top and the grand entrance bottom right. This leads through to the first peristyle which then leads through to the grand peristyle beyond with the mosaic of Alexander the great between them.

This was built originally in the 2nd century, in the ‘Samnite’ period which was in many ways the grandest period of the town. There were two entrances: one a grand public entrance, the other for domestic life, though both were proper atriums with a central courtyard with the roof sloping down to form a rainwater pool at the centre.

House of the Fawn room containing moasaic

The room between the inner and outer peristyle with the mosaic of Alexander the Great.

Behind it there were two grand peristyles: the first was the smaller being surrounded by rooms with facilities for dining, but behind it was a larger peristyle courtyard with a colonnade running round the outside.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great fighting the Persians

Mosaic showing Alexander the Great fighting the Persians. Alexander is the comparatively small figure to the left facing the might of the Persian army with the numerous spears.

Between the two was the most famous mosaic from the Roman world: a picture of Alexander fighting the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela. It is formed from over a million tesserae, and is presumably a copy of a famous painting made at the time. The painting has perished, but the mosaic, now in the National Museum at Naples, is the finest representation of what must have been one of the grandest paintings in antiquity.

Peristyle courtyard in House of the Fawn

The principal in a Peristyle courtyard in the House of the Fawn.

This is the largest single house in Pompeii, and if any house is to be the dwelling of a ruler, this is it. But it is a very odd house. It was built in the second century BC and preserved with few alterations to the time of destruction when it must have been over 200 years old. The two peristyle courtyards would have been splendid for display, but the residential arrangements are on the small side – no grand dining room but a small dining room and even smaller baths on the eastern side of the smaller peristyle. It would have been good for grand occasions — but not a house to live in.

Typical atrium of Pompean house

The most important feature of the Roman house was the atrium, the central hall with the roof sloping down towards the centre.

There are two main features in the grand Roman house. The first is the atrium, which is the grand entrance hall. This is square with the roof sloping inwards to the centre where there is an open water feature which catches the rain water, and in the best houses it then drains away to underground storage tanks, so there is always fresh rainwater available. It makes a grand central feature with rooms opening off on all sides.

Pompeii: peristyle courtyard of house of Marine Venus

The grand peristyle courtyard of the house of the Marine Venus.

But in the grandest houses there is also a garden in the rear known as the Peristyle, a courtyard surrounded by columns, almost like a mediaeval monastic cloister. The grand dining room often opens out onto the peristyle, so you all guests can see the grandeur of your garden.


Insula of the Menander

Corner of the house of Menander. Note the street water conduit installed when Pompeii received its first aqueduct in the reign of Augustus and running water was installed throughout the city.

Most of the blocks in the city were occupied by several houses. A good example of this is the Insula of the Menander, labelled as ‘insula 1,10’, the third block along the Via del Abbondanza from the forum. (It was named after a painting of the poet Menander). This began in the 4th century BC when the first house was built. Over the next two centuries this was gradually extended, but the major change did not come until 50 BC when a second grand house was tucked into the west corner of the block, known as the ‘House of the Lovers’. The rest of the block was then filled out by the original house with a large peristyle courtyard at the centre, a grand dining room on one side and a kitchen apparently on the other.

The layout in the 4th century BC with a grand house at the centre and two smaller houses in each corner.

The development by the middle of the 1st century BC the insula is beginning to fill up. A second grand house known as the House of the Lovers is inserted into the south-western corner and the principal house has now extended with a grand peristyle courtyard centre, with a small set of baths leading off to the left. But note how many other houses there were too. In the top left hand corner No 8 is a house that eventually belonged to a weaver, while adjacent to it No 7, long and narrow, was the workshop of a joiner. while three further houses to the right No 3,18 and 16 were substantial dwelling houses.

The insula in its final stage in AD 79. Note the central peristyle with the grand dining room opening off to the right. The insula was a hive of activity. Top left hand corner house 8 belonged to a weaver, and the long narrow house No 7 adjacent belonged to a joiner and No 6 was a fullery. There were two cafes No 2 and 13. And note the water fountain inserted in the top right hand corner and seen in the photo above.

But it is fascinating to see that the exterior rooms of the house were all monetized and were let out for money and thus individual rooms were let out for a joiner, a weaver, two cafes and apparently a fullery, or clothes cleaning establishment. Indeed one of the rooms constructed above the west side of the atrium is thought to have served as a brothel – a vivid comment on the changing character of this old aristocratic quarter.

No other town in the Roman world, and indeed few other towns anywhere can compare to Pompeii as the example of how an ‘ordinary’ town really worked. There is no grand palace, no castle for the ruler of the town. Instead the town ran itself, the leading citizens proudly contributing to the buildings of the town: the amphitheatre, the buildings round the forum, the baths and the temples; while their own houses displayed their hospitality. The emperors interfered only rarely. It is the workings of the market economy in all its variety, forming a wonderful exhibit of how the Roman world worked at its height.


Here we come to an end of our description of Pompeii, a typical Roman town in Italy. But what was it like outside the Roman heartland?  How did Rome build its Empire and what was it like to become Roman?  We look at four different cases of Spain, Gaul (France), Germany and Britain.

Onto Becoming Roman


29th January 2020