A modern-day visitor to Pompeii, enjoying blue skies and the warmth of the Italian sun, will find it hard to imagine the devastation which fell upon this ancient town almost two thousand years ago.
A town frozen in time
The Forum of Pompeii at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, via Dorling Kindersley
An important eyewitness account by Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113) offers us a glimpse of that fateful day in A.D. 79 when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried an entire town and most of its inhabitants. Pliny, whose uncle died in the disaster, vividly describes sheets of fire and enormous pumice stones raining down from the volcano as well as people running desperately towards the sea, terrified for their lives.
Pompeii lies just five miles from the foot of Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples, approximately 250 kilometers south of Rome. But its precise location was not re-discovered until 1763, when an inscription naming the town was unearthed.
Over the centuries, archaeological excavations across this vast site have revealed an incredible degree of preservation. The layers of pumice stone and ash from the eruption had acted like a seal against decay. Voids were also left, where human bodies had once fallen, allowing archaeologists to create plaster casts as records of their final moments. Excavations continue to this day and gradually the life of a town, frozen in time, has emerged, from lavishly furnished houses to popular shops and inns with carbonized food still sitting on tables. But, undoubtedly, the most beautiful treasures to have been discovered at Pompeii are its frescoes.
What makes these frescoes so special?
Aside from their unique preservation, one of the reasons why the frescoes retain such bright and original colours today is due to the painting techniques used by their creators. A thin layer of limestone plaster, known as intonaco, was spread over the wall surface and then painted on while it was still damp. The paint pigments mixed with the intonaco and, on drying, the paint was sealed into the wall. This process produced colours with a distinctive radiance and vividness which has largely withstood the test of time.
What makes these frescoes particularly invaluable to us today is the range of subjects and styles depicted within them. The painting styles are classified into four categories, including the early First Style, which recreated marble-like textures, and the popular Third Style, which divided walls into panels depicting various scenes, such as the paradise garden below. Each style period displays an abundance of detail and provides us with a fascinating snapshot of cultural life in the Roman world.
Many Romans saw the philosophy, art and literature of the Greek world as symbols of great sophistication. As a result, the wealthy inhabitants of Pompeii, like those in Rome, sought to align themselves with aspects of Greek culture. One of the ways in which they did this was in the decoration of their private houses and frescoes of scenes from Greek mythology were particularly common.
The Death of Pentheus portrays the final, most tragic scene of the story in which Pentheus, king of Thebes, is murdered by his mother, Agave. Agave, a follower of the god Bacchus, is acting in a frenzied trance on behalf of Bacchus, whose cult Pentheus had tried to suppress. This scene is often viewed as a warning to mortals about the perils of defiance against the gods. Perhaps that is the message the owner of this particular fresco was trying to convey.
Greek mythology and life after death
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia portrays a scene from Homer’s Iliad, in which Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, is sacrificed to appease the gods and secure safe passage for the Greeks on their journey to Troy. Agamemnon can be seen on the left, hiding his face in shame, and above is a depiction of the deer into which Iphigenia was later transformed by the gods. This fresco expertly combines different elements of the story in one scene and also aligns its owner with a great epic of Greek literature.
Religion and cults
Religion was an important aspect of life in a Roman household and many homes had their own personal shrines to various gods and goddesses. The choice of deity often reflected the identity and ideals of the inhabitants. For example, a merchant family might worship Mercury, god of travel and money. A wonderful example of this religious affiliation can be seen in the Murecine complex in Pompeii where the goddess Victory is portrayed on a vermilion background, often referred to as ‘Pompeian Red’. Perhaps this implies that the homeowner was a military man.
Mysterious cults with complex initiation ceremonies were also popular in the Roman world. One example was the cult of Isis, a mother goddess originating from Egypt who was associated with salvation and life after death. Initially, the cult attracted people on the edges of society, such as slaves and foreigners, and was forbidden by authorities. But the cult spread quickly across the Empire and eventually even emperors were sanctioning the building of her temples. Pompeii had its own temple to Isis and beautiful frescoes from the interior have been discovered. Below is one such example, where Isis (seated right) is welcoming the heroine, Io. Egyptian motifs can be seen such as the coiled snake and the attendants’ rattles.
Women held a low social status in the Roman world. The feminine ideal was a woman who provided a legal heir and ran her household efficiently. It was also rare for girls to receive an education beyond the age of thirteen when they were expected to prepare for marriage. With this in mind, the Portrait of a Woman found at Pompeii provides us with an unusual and fascinating image.
The well-dressed woman looks directly at the viewer with a thoughtful gaze. She holds a pen to her lips and a writing tablet in her hand. All elements of the fresco present her as an educated woman in the middle of a literary task and, as a result, we become intrigued about her rarefied identity and the life she must have led.
Erotic images were commonplace in Roman and Greek culture and were displayed far more publicly than today. The image of the phallus was particularly common and was seen as a symbol of good luck and fertility. This fresco from the entrance hall of the House of the Vettii shows Priapus, the god of fertility, balancing his enlarged phallus with a bag of money on a set of scales. It has been interpreted as an image displaying the high value placed on fertility and the good fortune it may bring to a household.
Frescoes of a more pornographic nature have also been discovered at Pompeii. The House of the Centenary includes many in one particular room, such as the example below. This room also includes various apertures for voyeurism. Historians are undecided as to whether this room was a private sex club or merely a bedroom.
The Pompeian frescoes are therefore so much more than wall paintings from an ancient world. They are vivid expressions of personal aspirations, ideals and titillations. Tinged with tragedy, they present beautiful snapshots into the lives of people not so very different from us, two thousand years later.