Our Suggested Guide of Pompeii, Part 1

Excerpts "“POMPEII: ITS LIFE AND ART”, by German archeologist August Mau

By August Mau

Amalfi Coasting selected excerpts from “POMPEII: ITS LIFE AND ART”, by German archeologist August Mau, which is considered one of the best books ever written about Pompeii in terms of historical narrative and archeological facts and explanation. This is Part 1 of our excepts.


How shall I undertake to convey to the reader who has not visited Pompeii, an impression of the beauty of its situation? Words are weak when confronted with the reality.

Sea, mountains, and plain,—strong and pleasing background,—great masses and brilliant yet harmonious colors, splendid foreground effects and hazy vistas, undisturbed nature and the handiwork of man, all are blended into a landscape of the grand style, the like of which I should not know where else to look for.

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When Pompeii was founded we do not know. It is more than likely that a site so well adapted for a city was occupied at an early date.

The oldest building, the Doric temple in the Forum Triangulare, is of the style of the 6th century B.C.; we are safe in assuming that the city was then already in existence.

The founders were Oscans. They belonged to a widely scattered branch of the Italic stock, whose language, closely related with the Latin, has been imperfectly recovered from a considerable number of inscriptions.

The Campanian Oscans, sprung from a hardy race, became civilized from contact with the Greeks, who at an early period had settled in Cumae and later in Naples.

When toward the end of the 5th century B.C. the Samnites, kinsmen of the Oscans, left their rugged mountain homes in the interior and pressed down toward the coast, the Oscans were unable to cope with them.

In 424 B.C. the Samnites stormed and took Capua, in 420, Cumae; and Pompeii likewise fell into their hands. But they were no more successful than the Oscans had been in resisting the influence of Greek culture.

How strong this influence was may be seen in the remains at Pompeii. The architecture of the period was Greek; Greek divinities were honored, as Apollo and Zeus Milichius; and the standard measures of the mensa ponderaria were inscribed with Greek names.

In less than a hundred years new strives arose between the more cultured Samnites of the plain and their rough and warlike kinsmen in the mountains. But Rome took a part in the struggle, and in the Samnite Wars (343-290 B.C.) brought both the men of the mountains and the men of the plain under her dominion.

Although the sovereignty of Rome took the form of a perpetual alliance, the cities in reality lost their independence.

The complete subjugation and Romanising of Campania, however, did not come till the time of the Social War (90-88 B.C).

In the year 80 a colony of Roman veterans was settled in Pompeii under the leadership of Publius Sulla.

Cicero later made a speech in behalf of Sulla, defending him against the charge that he had taken part in the conspiracy of Catiline and had tried to induce the old residents of Pompeii to join in the plot. From this speech we learn that Sulla's reorganization of the city was accomplished with so great regard for the interests of the Pompeians, that they ever after held him in grateful remembrance.

We learn, also, that soon after the founding of the colony disputes arose between the old residents and the colonists, about the public walks (ambulationes) and matters connected with the voting; the arrangements for voting had probably been so made as to throw the decision always into the hands of the colonists.

The controversy was referred to the patrons of the colony, and settled by them. From this time on, the life of Pompeii seems not to have differed from that of the other small cities of Italy.

After the establishment of the Roman colony, Pompeii was named Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum, from the gentile name of the Dictator Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix) and from the goddess to whom he paid special honor, who now, as Venus Pompeiana, became the tutelary divinity of the city. This goddess is represented in wall paintings. In that she appears in a blue mantle studded with golden stars, and wears a crown set with green stones. Her left hand, which holds a scepter, rests upon a rudder; in her right is a twig of olive. A Cupid stands upon a pedestal beside her, holding up a mirror.

From this time the highest official body, as in Roman colonies everywhere, was the city council, composed of decurions.

The administration was placed in the hands of two pairs of officials, the duumvirs with judiciary authority, duumviri iuri dicundo, and two aediles, who were responsible for the care of buildings and streets and the oversight of the markets. All these officials were elected annually by popular vote. The candidates offered themselves beforehand. If none came forward, or there were too few,—for the city officials not only received no salary, but were under obligation to make generous contributions for public purposes, as theatrical representations, games, and buildings,—the magistrate who presided at the election named candidates for the vacancies; but each candidate so named had the right to nominate a second for the same vacancy, the second in turn a third.

The voting was by ballot; each voter threw his voting tablet into the urn of his precinct. No information has come down to us regarding the precincts (curiae) into which the city must have been divided for electoral purposes. The election of a candidate was valid only in case he received the vote of an absolute majority of the precincts.

Apart from commerce, an important source of income for the Pompeians lay in the fertility of the soil. In antiquity, as now, grapes were cultivated extensively on the ridge projecting from the foot of Vesuvius toward the south. The evidence afforded by the great number of wine jars, amphorae that have been brought to light would warrant this conclusion; and lately wine presses also have been discovered near Boscoreale, above Pompeii.

Pliny makes mention of the Pompeian wine, but remarks that indulgence in it brings a headache that will last till noon of the following day.

The olive too was cultivated, but only to a limited extent; this we infer from the small capacity of the press and other appliances for making oil found in the15same villa in which the wine presses were discovered. The working up of the products of the fisheries formed an important industry. The fish sauces which so tickled the palate of ancient epicures, garum, liquamen, and muria, were produced here of the finest quality.

The Pompeians turned to account, also, the volcanic products of Vesuvius. Pumice stone was an article of export. From the lava millstones were made for both grain mills and oil mills, which were apparently already in extensive use in the time of Cato the Elder; he twice mentions the oil mills of Pompeii. In Pompeii itself the millstones of the oldest period are of lava from Vesuvius.

To the sources of revenue which contributed to the prosperity of Pompeii we may add the presence of wealthy Romans, who, attracted by the delightful climate, built country seats in the vicinity. Among them was Cicero, who often speaks of his Pompeian villa (Pompeianum).

Salve lucrum, 'Welcome, Gain!' Such is the inscription which a Pompeian placed in the mosaic floor of his house. Lucrum gaudium, 'Gain is pure joy,' we read on the threshold of another house.

A thrifty Pompeian certainly did not lack opportunity to acquire wealth. How large a population Pompeii possessed at the time of the destruction of the city it is impossible to determine.

A painstaking examination of all the houses excavated would afford data for an approximate estimate; but the results thus far obtained by those who have given attention to the subject are unsatisfactory.

Fiorelli assigned to Pompeii twelve thousand inhabitants, Nissen twenty thousand. Undoubtedly the second estimate is nearer the truth than the first; according to all indication the population may very likely have exceeded twenty thousand.

This population was by no means homogeneous. The original Oscan stock had not yet lost its identity and from the time when the Roman colony was founded additions continued to be made to the population from various parts of Italy.

The Greek element was particularly strong. This is proved by the number of Greek names in the accounts of Caecilius Jucundus, for example, and by the Greek inscriptions that have been found on walls and on amphorae. The Greeks may have come from the neighboring towns; most of them were probably freedmen.

Thus far there has come to hand no trustworthy evidence for the presence of Christians at Pompeii; but traces of Jewish influence were found. An interesting bit of evidence is a wall painting, which appears to have as its subject the Judgment of Solomon. On a tribunal at the right sits the king with two advisers; the pavilion is well guarded with soldiers. It is not certain that the reference here is to Solomon.

A somewhat similar story is told of the Egyptian king Bocchoris. However, the balance of probability is in favor of the view that we have here the Jewish version of the story, because this is consistent with other facts that point to the existence of a Jewish colony at Pompeii. The names Maria and Martha appear in wall inscriptions.

The assertion that Maria here is not the Hebrew name, but the feminine form of the Roman name Marius, is far astray. It appears in a list of female slaves who were working in a weaver's establishment, Vitalis, Florentina, Amaryllis, Januaria, Heracla, Maria, Lalage, Damalis, Doris. The Marian family was represented at Pompeii, but the Roman name Maria could not have been given to a slave. That we have here a Jewish name seems certain since the discovery of the name Martha.

In inscriptions upon wine jars we find mention of a certain M. Valerius Abinnerichus, a name which is certainly Jewish. As we learn from Pliny, these fish sauces, prepared for fast days, were used especially by the Jews.


Previous to the terrible eruption of 79, Vesuvius was considered an extinct volcano. "Above these places," says Strabo, writing in the time of Augustus, "lies Vesuvius, the sides of which are well cultivated, even to the summit. 

It has a cindery appearance; for the rock is porous and of a sooty color, the appearance suggesting that the whole summit may once have been on fire and have contained craters, the fires of which died out when there was no longer anything left to burn."

Earthquakes, however, were of common occurrence in Campania. An especially violent shock on the fifth of February, 63 A.D., gave warning of the reawakening of Vesuvius. Great damage was done throughout the region lying between Naples and Nuceria, but the shock was most severe at Pompeii, a large part of the buildings of the city being thrown down.

The prosperous and enterprising inhabitants at once set about rebuilding. When the final catastrophe came, on the 24th of August, 79 A.D., most of the houses were in a good state of repair, and the rebuilding of at least two temples, those of Apollo and of Isis, had been completed.

Our chief source of information for the events of August 24-26, 79, is a couple of letters of the Younger Pliny to Tacitus, who purposed to make use of them in writing his history. Pliny was staying at Misenum with his uncle, the Elder Pliny, who was in command of the Roman fleet. In the first letter he tells of his uncle's fate.

On the afternoon of the twenty-fourth, the admiral Pliny set out with ships to rescue from impending danger the people at the foot of Vesuvius, particularly in the vicinity20of Herculaneum. He came too late; it was no longer possible to effect a landing. So he directed his course to Stabiae, where he spent the night; and there on the following morning he died, suffocated by the fumes that were exhaled from the earth. The second letter gives an account of the writer's own experiences at Misenum.

With the help of the letters of Pliny, in connection with the facts established by the excavations, it is possible to picture to ourselves the progress of the eruption with a fair degree of clearness. The subterranean fires of Vesuvius pressed upward to find an outlet.

The accumulations of volcanic dust and pumice stone that had been heaped up on the mountain by former eruptions were again hurled to a great height, and came down upon the surrounding country.

On the west side of Vesuvius they mingled with torrents of rain, and flowed as a vast stream of mud down over Herculaneum. On the south side, driven by a northwest wind as they descended from the upper air, they spread out into a thick cloud, which covered Pompeii and the plain of the Sarno.

Out of this cloud first broken fragments of pumice stone—the average size not larger than a walnut—rained down to the depth of eight to ten feet; then followed volcanic dust, wet as it fell by a downpour of water, to the depth of six or seven feet. With the storm of dust came successive shocks of earthquake.

Such was, in outline, the course of the eruption. It must have begun early in the morning of the 24th, and the stream of mud must have commenced immediately to move in the direction of Herculaneum; for shortly after one o'clock on that day the admiral Pliny at Misenum received letters from the region threatened, saying that the danger was imminent, and that escape was possible only by sea.

Even then the Younger Pliny saw, high above Vesuvius, the cloud, shaped like an umbrella pine, which was to rain down destruction on Pompeii.

Toward evening, the ships off Herculaneum ran into the hail of pumice stone, which, during the night so increased in violence that the admiral Pliny was obliged to leave his sleeping room from fear that the door would be blocked up by the falling masses.

Early in the morning of the 25th there was a severe shock of earthquake. Then the dust began to fall, and a cloud of fearful blackness, pierced through and through with flashes of lightning, settled down over land and sea. Herculaneum was covered with the same materials; they were not, however, deposited in regular strata, but were mixed together, and being drenched with water, hardened into a kind of tufa which in places reaches a depth of sixty-five feet.

Excavating at Herculaneum is in consequence extremely difficult; and the difficulty is further increased by the fact that a modern city, Resina, extends over the greater part of the ancient site. The excavations thus far attempted have in most cases been conducted by means of underground passageways.

The statement that Herculaneum was overflowed by a stream of lava, though frequently repeated, is erroneous. With the dust a copious rain must have fallen; for the bodies of those who perished in the storm of dust left perfect molds, into a number of which soft plaster of Paris has been poured, making those casts of human figures which lend a melancholy interest to the collections in the little Museum at Pompeii.

The extraordinary freshness of these figures, without any suggestion of the wasting away after death, is explicable only on the supposition that the enveloping dust was damp, and so commenced immediately to harden into a permanent shape.

If the dust had been dry and had packed down and hardened afterwards, we should be able to trace at least the beginnings of decay. From the number of skeletons discovered, it has been estimated that in Pompeii itself, about two thousand persons perished.

As the city contained a population of twenty thousand or more, it is evident that the majority of the inhabitants fled; since the eruption commenced in the morning, while the hail of pumice stone did not begin till afternoon, those who appreciated the greatness of the danger had time to escape.

Of those who remained in the city part were buried in the houses—so with twenty persons whose skeletons were found in the cellar of the villa of Diomedes; others, as the hail of pumice stone ceased, ventured out into the streets, where they soon succumbed to the shower of dust that immediately followed.

As the bodies wasted away little except the bones was left in the hollows formed by the dust that hardened around them, and the casts already referred to, which have been made from time to time since 1863, give in some cases a remarkably clear and sharp representation of the victims.


The first excavations at Pompeii were undertaken by the survivors shortly after the destruction of the city. As the upper parts of the houses that had not fallen in projected above the surface, it was possible to locate the places under which objects of value were buried. Men dug down from the surface at certain points and tunnelled from room to room underneath, breaking through the intervening walls.

From this we understand why comparatively little household furniture of value has been found. Not only were rich house furnishings in demand,—the excavators carried away valuable building materials as well. So eagerly were these sought after that large buildings, as those about the Forum, were almost completely stripped of their marble.

In the Middle Ages Pompeii was quite forgotten. Possibly some remains of the ancient buildings were yet to be seen; at any rate it seems to have been believed that a city once existed there, for the site was called La Civita.

In the years 1594-1600 Domenico Fontana was bringing water from one of the springs of the Sarno to Torre Annunziata, and in the course of the work cut an underground channel through the site of Pompeii and discovered two inscriptions; but no further investigations were made.

The indifference of Fontana may be explained by the fact that the water channel was not dug out from above, but was carried as a tunnel through the hill on which the city stood, so that the workmen came to the ancient surface at only a few points.

The excavation of the buried Campanian towns began, not at Pompeii, but at Herculaneum, where in 1709 the workmen of the Austrian general, Count Elbeuf, sunk a shaft, reaching the ancient level at the rear of the stage of the theater. The statement that Elbeuf discovered the site of Herculaneum by accident, his workmen being engaged in digging a well, is erroneous.

The location of the city was already known, and Elbeuf was searching for antiquities. At first little was accomplished, but after 1738 excavations were carried on by King Charles III in a more systematic manner.

The director of these excavations, Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubierre, in March, 1748, had occasion to inspect the water channel mentioned above, and learned that at the place called La Civita—which he thought was Stabiae—objects of antiquity were often found.

He came to the conclusion that this site was more promising than that of Herculaneum, where the excavations just then were yielding little of value; the result of his recommendation was that on the 13th of the same month excavations were commenced at Pompeii, with twelve workmen.

The parts excavated were not left clear until after 1763, when the discovery of the inscription of Suedius Clemens, on the Street of Tombs, had established the fact that the site was that of Pompeii. Important discoveries were made soon after.

In the years immediately following 1764 the theaters, with the adjacent buildings, and the Street of Tombs, together with the villa of Diomedes, were laid bare. The excavations were conducted slowly and without system, yet with scientific interest fostered by the Herculaneum Academy (Accademia ercolanese), which had been founded in 1755.

Under Joseph Bonaparte and Murat, 1806-15, the work received larger appropriations, and was prosecuted with greater energy, particularly in the quarter lying between the Herculaneum Gate and the Forum.

In the same period the Forum was approached from the south side also. In 1799, at the time of the Parthenopean Republic, the French general Championnet had excavated, south of the Basilica, the two houses which are still called by his name.

From these, in 1813, the excavators made their way into the Basilica, whence, in November of the same year, they pushed forward into the Forum. However, the excavation of the Forum itself with the surrounding buildings, prosecuted less vigorously and with limited means in the period of the Restoration, was not completed till 1825; by this time the temple of Fortuna and the Baths north of the Forum had also been uncovered.

The following years, to 1832, brought to light the beautiful houses on the north side of Nola Street—the houses of Pansa, of the Tragic Poet, and of the Faun—and those on Mercury Street; later came excavations south of Nola Street and in various parts of the city. The fall of the Bourbon dynasty and the passing over of Naples to the Kingdom of Italy caused another interruption, which lasted a year, from December 5, 1859, to December 20, 1860.

On the last date the excavations were resumed under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli, a man of marked individuality, who left a permanent impress upon every part of the work. To him is due the present admirable system, excellent alike from the technical and from the administrative point of view.

We owe it to him, that better provision is made now than formerly for the preservation and care of excavated buildings and objects discovered; the earlier efforts in this direction naturally left room for improvement.

Fiorelli put an end to haphazard digging, to excavating here and there wherever the site seemed most promising. He first set about clearing the undisturbed places lying between the excavated portions; and when in this way the west part of the city had been laid bare, he commenced to work systematically from the excavated part toward the east.


The streets of Pompeii must have been laid out according to a definite system; an arrangement on the whole so regular and symmetrical would scarcely be found in a city that had developed gradually from a small beginning, in which the location of streets had been the result of accident.

Two wide streets that cross the city very nearly at right angles give the direction for the other streets running approximately north and south and east and west, Mercury Street with its continuations, and Nola Street. The former probably served as a base line in laying out the city; this we infer from the fact that while it is exceptionally broad, and the Forum lies on it, there is no gate at either end, and it could have been little used for traffic. Nola Street has a gate only at the east end; the west end opens into the Strada Consolare, which follows the line of the city wall and leads to the Herculaneum Gate at the northwest corner.

The public buildings of the city form two extensive groups. One group lies about the Forum with this we may reckon the Baths in the first block north, and the temples of Fortuna Augusta and Venus Pompeiana. The nucleus of the other is formed by the two theatres and the large quadrangular colonnade which, designed originally to afford protection for theatre-goers against the rain, was later turned into barracks for the gladiators. There are in addition only four public buildings that need to be mentioned. Two are bathing establishments, the Stabian Baths, and those at the corner of Stabian and Nola streets. The third is a small building near the Herculaneum Gate, consisting of a hall opening on the street, with a base for a statue near the rear wall; this on insufficient grounds has been called a custom-house. The fourth, the Amphitheatre, lies in the southern corner of the city.

As the public buildings were thus located in clearly defined groups, it is not probable that many yet remain in the portion of the city which has not been excavated. We may expect to find only bathing establishments, and perhaps one or two temples. There were priestesses of Ceres and of Venus, but the sanctuary of Ceres has not been discovered. Mention is made also of a priest of Mars; but the temple of Mars, according to the precept of Vitruvius would be outside the city.


Exclusive of wood, which was more freely used in Pompeii than in Campanian towns to-day, the principal building materials were Sarno limestone, two kinds of tufa (gray and yellow), lava, a whitish limestone often called travertine wrongly, marble, and brick.

Bricks were used only for the corners of buildings, for doorposts, and in a few instances, as in the Basilica and the house of the Labyrinth, for columns.

The masonry with limestone framework dates from the earliest period. The walls were built without mortar, clay being used instead. We may now turn to the architectural history of Pompeii, which, as we shall see, falls into six periods.

The first period is that to which the Doric temple in the Forum Triangulare and the city walls belong. From the style of the temple, we may safely conclude that it was built in the 6th century B.C.; the evidence is too scanty to enable us definitely to fix the date of the walls. The building materials used were the Sarno limestone and gray tufa.

The second period may be designated as the Period of the Limestone Atriums, so characterized from the peculiar construction of a number of houses found in different parts of the city. On the side facing the street these houses have walls of ashlar work of Sarno limestone, but the inner walls are of limestone framework.

Almost no ornamental forms belonging to this period have come down to us; so far only a single column has been found, built into the wall of a house. It is of the Doric style, and once formed part of a portico that ran along the west side of the small open space at the northwest corner of Stabian and Nola streets.

We may assign the houses with the limestone atriums to a period just preceding this war; reckoning in round numbers, they were built before 200 B.C.

In the third, or Tufa Period, came the climax of the development of Pompeian architecture prior to the Roman domination. The favorite building material was the gray tufa.

All the public buildings of Pompeii that do not belong to the time of the Roman colony have a homogeneous character; a list of them would include the colonnade about the Forum, the Basilica, the temples of Apollo and of Jupiter, the Large Theatre with the colonnades of the Forum Triangulare and the Barracks of the Gladiators, the Stabian Baths, the Palaestra, and the outer part of the Porta Marina with the inner parts of the other gates. Closely associated with these public edifices is a large number of private houses; as a specially characteristic example, we may mention the house of the Faun.

All these buildings are similar in style and construction; they evidently date from a period of great building activity. It must also have been a period of peace and prosperity; for the whole city, from the artistic and monumental point of view, underwent a transformation. Certain Oscan inscriptions, an early Latin monumental inscription, and a few words, dating from 78 B.C., scratched upon the plaster of the Basilica, oblige us to place the Tufa Period before the time of the Roman colony; yet not long before, for the next oldest buildings date from the first years of the colony. The time of peace that furnished the background for the period can only have been that between the Second Punic War and the Social War, about 200 to 90 B.C.; the Tufa Period was approximately the second century before Christ.

The Tufa Period was a period of monumental construction. Buildings and public places are adorned with colonnades of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. The simple and beautiful forms of the Greek architecture are used, sparingly indeed, but without petty detail and with evident fear of excessive ornamentation. Columns and architraves are white, with only slight suggestion of the earlier Greek polychrome decoration. A variety of color, however, is laid on the walls, and with this period the history of Pompeian wall decoration begins.

The fourth period covers the earlier decades of the Roman colony, from 80 B.C. to near the end of the Republic. According to inscriptions which are still extant, soon after the year 80 a wealthy colonist, Gaius Quinctius Valgus, built the Small Theatre, and afterwards the Amphitheatre also. Several other buildings in which the same style of masonry is found without doubt belong to the same period—the Baths near the Forum, the temple of Zeus Milichius, a building just inside the Porta Marina, and apparently the hall at the southeast corner of the Forum, which we shall identify as the Comitium; with these should be included also the original temple of Isis, which was destroyed by the earthquake of 63 A.D.

Villa of the Mysteries

From the aesthetic point of view the fourth period falls far below that just preceeding; the exhaustion of resources and the decline of taste due to the long and terrible war are unmistakable. Theatre, Amphitheatre, and Baths were alike built for immediate use, with crude and scanty ornamentation; and where richer ornament was applied, as in the case of the temple of Isis, it could not for a moment be compared with that of the Tufa Period in beauty and finish.

The fifth period extends from the last decades of the Republic to the earthquake of the year 63 A.D. In the entire period, covering more than a century, we are unable to distinguish a series of buildings which may be classed together in style and construction as constituting a homogeneous, representative group.

House of Vettii, fresco from the first century A.D.

The sixteen years between the earthquake of 63 A.D. and the destruction of the city form the sixth period in the architectural history of Pompeii. The buildings belonging to it can be easily recognized, not only from their similarity in style and ornament, but also from certain external characteristics, as newness of appearance, unfinished condition, and the joining of new to broken walls. The only important building wholly new is the large bathing establishment, the Central Baths, at the corner of Stabian and Nola streets. For the rest, effort seems to have been directed toward restoring the ruined buildings as nearly as possible to their original condition. The wall decoration throughout is of the Intricate Style. 


Our chief sources of information regarding the domestic architecture of ancient Italy are two,—the treatise of Vitruvius, and the remains found at Pompeii. The Pompeian houses present many variations from the plan described by the Roman architect; yet in essential particulars there is no disagreement, and it is not difficult to form a clear conception of their arrangements. The development of the Italic house can be traced at Pompeii over a period of almost four hundred years.

The earlier form consisted of a single series of apartments,—a central room, atrium, with smaller rooms opening into it, and a garden at the rear; an example is the house of the Surgeon. Later, under Greek influence, a court with a colonnade and surrounding rooms was added.

This was called peristylium, 'peristyle'; it is simply the more elaborate inner part of the Greek house, andronitis, joined to the dwelling of Italic origin. We find the union of atrium and peristyle with their respective groups of apartments fully accomplished in the second century B.C., the Tufa Period; the type of dwelling thus developed remained in vogue during Roman times and is often called the Roman house. The double origin is clearly indicated by the names of the rooms.

Those of the front part are designated by Latin words,—atrium, fauces, ala, tablinum; but the apartments at the rear bear Greek names,—peristylium, triclinium, oecus, exedra. In large houses both atrium and peristyle were sometimes duplicated.

The houses of Pompeii impress the visitor as having been designed primarily for summer use. The arrangements contemplate the spending of much time in the open air, and pains was taken to furnish protection from the heat, not from the cold. The greater part of the area is taken up by colonnades, gardens, and courts; from this point of view the atrium may be classed as a court.

The living rooms had high ceilings. In summer they were cool and airy, in winter difficult to heat; they were dark and close when the door was shut, cold when it was open. With a single exception the arrangements for heating so often met with in the remains of houses discovered in northern countries are found at Pompeii only in connection with bath-rooms.


The vestibulum was the space between the front door and the street. The derivation of the word (VE + the root of stare, 'to stand aside') suggests the purpose. In many houses there was no vestibule, the front door opening directly on the sidewalk; and where vestibules did exist at Pompeii, they were much more modest than those belonging to the houses of wealthy Romans.

Roman vestibules were often supported by columns of costly marbles, and adorned with statues and other works of art. The passage inside the front door was called fauces, or prothyron.

According to Vitruvius the width of it in the case of large atriums should be half, in smaller atriums two thirds, that of the tablinum; at Pompeii the width is generally less than half. The vestibule and fauces were ordinarily of the same width, and were separated by projecting doorposts with a slightly raised threshold and heavy double doors.

Sometimes, as in the house of Epidius Rufus, there was in addition a small door at the side of the vestibule opening into a narrow passage connecting with the fauces. In such cases the folding doors, which on account of their size and the method of hanging must always have been hard to open, were generally kept shut.

They would be thrown back early in the morning for the reception of clients, and on special occasions; at other times the more convenient small door would be used. In several instances the volcanic dust so hardened about the lower part of a front door that it has been possible to make a cast by pouring soft plaster of Paris into the cavity left by the crumbling away of the wood; there are several of these casts in the little Museum at Pompeii.

The doorposts were protected by wooden casings, antepagmenta, which were made fast at the bottom by means of holes in the threshold. The folding doors swung on pivots, which were fitted into sockets in the threshold (β, β) and in the lintel.

The pivots were of wood, but were provided—at least the lower ones—with a cylindrical cap of iron or bronze, and the socket had a protective lining of the same metal. Both caps and sockets,250especially those of bronze, are found in the thresholds in a good state of preservation.

It seems strange that ancient builders did not use smaller pivots of solid metal, on which the doors would have turned much more easily; but a conservative tradition in this regard prevailed against innovation.


An atrium completely covered by a roof was extremely rare. With few exceptions, there was a large rectangular opening over the middle, compluvium, toward which the roof sloped from all sides.

Atrium house of the silver wedding

In the floor, directly under the compluvium, was a shallow basin, impluvium, into which the rain water fell. The impluvium had two outlets. One was connected with the cistern; a round cistern mouth, puteal, ornamented with carving, often stood near the edge of the basin, as in the house of the Tragic Poet. The other outlet led under the floor to the street in front, carrying off the overflow when the cistern was full, and also the water used in cleaning the floor. In the better houses a fountain was often placed in the middle of the impluvium.

The edge of the compluvium was frequently ornamented with terra cotta waterspouts, representing the heads of animals. In a house near the Porta Marina the projecting foreparts of dogs and lions were used in place of the heads.


The tablinum was a large room at the rear of the atrium, opening into the latter with its whole width.

The posts at the entrance were usually treated as pilasters, joined above by a cornice; architecturally the front of this room formed the most impressive feature of the atrium. Between the pilasters hung portières, which might be drawn back and fastened at the sides.

In the house of the Silver Wedding the fastenings were found in place,—bronze disks from which a ship's beak projected, attached to the pilasters.257 In early times the tablinum ordinarily had an opening at the rear also, and could be closed by broad folding doors.

In winter the doors were probably kept shut. In summer they were left open and the room, cool and airy, served as a dining room, a use which harmonizes well with a passage of Varro explaining the derivation of the name. "In the olden time," says this writer, "people used to take their meals in the winter by the hearth; in summer they ate out of doors, country folk in the court, city people in the tabulinum, which we understand to have been a summer house built of boards."

The derivation of tabulinum, of which tablinumis a shortened form, from tabula, 'a board,' is obvious.


The alae, the 'wings' of the atrium, were two deep recesses in the sides. In the Tufa Period the entrances were ornamented with pilasters, and treated like the broad entrance of the tablinum.

The Italic house in the beginning was not a city residence shut in by party walls, but the isolated habitation of a countryman.

The design of the alae, as of the recesses in the Low Saxon farmhouse, was to furnish light to the atrium, which, as we have seen, was completely covered by a roof, there being only a small hole to let out the smoke.

The large windows in the rear of the alae of the house of Sallust may be looked upon as a survival; but in city houses generally light could not be taken in this way from the sides.

After the compluvium had come into general use, a conservative tradition still retained the alae whenever possible, though they no longer answered their original purpose.


In front there were rooms at either side of the entrance, ordinarily fitted up as shops and opening on the street, but sometimes used as dining rooms or sleeping rooms, or for other domestic purposes.

On each side of the atrium were two or three small sleeping rooms; in narrow houses these, as well as one or both of the alae, were occasionally omitted. At the rear were one or two rooms of the same depth as the tablinum, used in most cases as dining rooms. The andron was a passage at the right or the left of the tablinum, connecting the atrium with the peristyle.

The name was used originally to designate an apartment in the Greek house, but was applied by the Romans to a corridor. In modern times the passage has often been erroneously called fauces. The andron is lacking only in small houses, or in those in which a different connection is made between the front and rear portions by means of a second atrium, or other rooms.


A few Pompeian houses, like those of the olden time, are without a peristyle, having a garden at the rear. In such cases there is a colonnade at the back of the house, facing the garden; this is the arrangement in the houses of the Surgeon, of Sallust, and of Epidius Rufus.

In the large house of Pansa, we find both a peristyle and a garden, the latter being at the rear of the peristyle; and in many houses a small garden was placed wherever available space could be found.

The peristyle is a garden enclosed by a colonnade, or having a colonnade on two or three sides. When this was higher on the north side than on the other three, as in the house of the Silver Wedding, the peristyle was called Rhodian.

Peristyle House of the Vettii

In the Tufa Period the colonnade was frequently in two stories, on all four sides or on the front alone. A separate entrance, posticum, usually connected the peristyle with a side street.


The small, high rooms about the atrium were in the earlier times used as bedrooms; and such they remained in some houses, as that of the Faun, down to the destruction of the city.

The place for the bed was sometimes indicated in the plan of the room. In a bedroom of the house of the Centaur, a narrow alcove was made for the bed at the left side; the floor of the alcove is slightly raised, and the ceiling, as often, is in the form of a vault, while the ceiling of the room is higher and only slightly arched.

A similar arrangement is found in several other rooms decorated in the first style. In several houses, as in the house of Apollo, there is a sleeping room with alcoves for two beds. In bedrooms with a mosaic floor the place for the bed is ordinarily white, being separated from the rest of the room by a stripe suggestive of a threshold.


As long as it was customary to sit at meals any fair-sized apartment could be used as a dining room. When the early Italic house was extended by the addition of a peristyle, and the Greek custom of reclining at table was introduced, it became necessary to provide a special apartment, and the Greek name for such a room with the three couches, triclinium, came into use.

The couch at the right of the table was called the upper couch; that at the left, the lower; and that between, the middle couch. With few exceptions each couch was made to accommodate three persons; the diner rested on his left arm on a cushion at the side nearer the table, and stretched his feet out toward the right.

In summer the Pompeians were fond of dining in the open air. In order to save the trouble of moving heavy furniture couches of masonry were not infrequently constructed in the garden, and have been preserved; such a triclinium is that in the garden of the tannery. In many gardens we find about the triclinium the remains of four or six columns.

These supported a frame of timber or lattice-work. The couches were ordinarily not provided with backs, but the outer ends of the upper and lower couches sometimes had a frame to hold the cushions. In the dining rooms small movable altars must have been used for the offerings, such as those of terra cotta or bronze not infrequently met with in the course of excavation.

In accordance with an ancient custom the children, even those of the imperial family, sat on low stools at a table of their own on the open side of the large table. In an open-air triclinium in the ninth Region the children's seat is preserved, a low bench of masonry about forty inches long connected with the projecting arm of the lower couch.

In one respect the ordinary dining room was far from convenient; those who had the inner places could not leave the table or return to it in the course of a meal without disturbing one or more of those reclining nearer the outside. In a number of houses we find a large, fine apartment—designated by the Greek word oecus—which seems often to have been used for a dining room, especially on notable occasions. A specially interesting example is in the house of the Silver Wedding. In this case only the inner part, designed for the couches, is set off by columns.

In the more pretentious Roman houses there was sometimes a dining room for each season of the year; when Trimalchio in Petronius's novel boasts that he has four dining rooms, we are to understand that he had one each for winter, summer, autumn, and spring.

In the case of the Pompeian houses we are warranted in assuming that dining rooms opening toward the south were for winter use, those toward the north for use in summer. Other airy apartments, with a large window in addition to the wide door, may well have been intended for summer triclinia.


In the Pompeian house the kitchen had no fixed location. It was generally a small room, and was placed wherever it would least interfere with the arrangement of the rest of the house. The most important part of the kitchen was the hearth. This was built of masonry, against one of the walls. It was oblong, and the fire was made on the top.

The cooking utensils sometimes rested on rectangular projections of masonry, as in the kitchen of the house of Pansa, sometimes on small iron tripods, as in the house of the Vettii.

The hearth of the latter house was found undisturbed, with a vessel in place ready to be heated. In one house the place of an iron tripod was taken by three pointed ends of amphorae set upright on the hearth. Underneath there was often a hollow place in which fuel was kept.

Sometimes we find near the hearth a bake oven, not large enough to have been used for bread, and evidently intended for pastry; bread must ordinarily have been obtained from the bakers.

In one of the cellars of the house of the Centenary there is a larger oven, which may have been used to bake coarse bread for the slaves; the heat was utilized in warming a bath above.

From the small size of the kitchens and of the hearths in even the largest and finest houses, we may infer that the luxury of the table prevalent in the Early Empire had made only slight progress at Pompeii.

Close by the kitchen, frequently forming a part of it and next to the hearth, was the closet; a separate closet of good size is found in the houses of the Faun and of Castor and Pollux. In many large houses there is a bath, generally too small to have been used by more than one person at a time.

These baths ordinarily include only a tepidarium and a caldarium, but occasionally there is an apodyterium, less frequently still a small frigidarium.

The heating arrangements are similar to those found in the public baths, and more or less complete according to the period in which the bath was fitted up, and the taste of the proprietor.

In connection with this group of rooms we may mention the storerooms, which are found in various parts of the houses and may be identified by the traces of the shelves that were fastened to the walls.

Comparatively few houses were provided with cellars. In the house of the Centenary, however, there are two.


In ancient Italy each household worshipped its guardian spirits and tutelary divinities, which formed a triple group, the Lares, the Penates, and the Genius. In Pompeii the remains associated with domestic worship are numerous and important.

Many Pompeians painted representations of the household gods upon an inner wall, often upon a wall of the kitchen, near the hearth. There was usually a painted altar underneath, with a serpent on either side coming to partake of the offerings.

In a large number of houses a small niche was made in the wall, in which were placed little images of the gods, the Lares and the Genius being also painted on the back of the cavity or on the wall at the sides or below. Such a niche may be seen in a corner of the kitchen in the house of Apollo.

Frequently a more elaborate shrine was provided, a diminutive temple raised on a foundation, placed against a wall of the atrium or of the garden. An example is the one at the rear of the peristyle in the house of the Tragic Poet.

In rare instances a small, separate chapel was devoted to the domestic worship, as in the house of the Centenary. In a house of the ninth Region there is such a chapel in the garden, a niche for the images being placed in the wall. The Lares are the guardian spirits of the household.

Originally but one was worshipped in each house; they began to be honored in plurality after the time of Cicero, and at Pompeii we invariably find them in pairs. Simple offerings were made to these beneficent spirits,—fruits, sacrificial cakes, garlands, and incense,—and at every meal a portion was set aside for them in little dishes. When a sacrifice was offered to the Lares, the victim was a pig. With the worship of the Lares was associated that of the Genius, the tutelary divinity of the master of the house.

The face of the Genius in the house of the Vettii bears a decided resemblance to that of Nero. Here the shrine was placed in the rear wall of the smaller atrium. It consists of a broad, shallow niche, the front of which is elaborately ornamented to give the appearance of a little temple, while on the back are painted the household divinities.

The Genius stands with veiled head between the two Lares, holding in his left hand a box of incense and pouring a libation with the right. In the original painting the features were unusually distinct. The Penates were the protecting divinities of the provisions or stores, penus, and the storerooms of the house; under this name were included various gods to whom the master and the household offered special worship.

At Pompeii the Penates, as the Lares and the Genius, appear in paintings, and are also represented by bronze images placed in the shrines. In the shrine of the house of Lucretius were diminutive bronze figures of the Genius and of Jupiter, Hercules, Fortuna, and another divinity that has not been identified.

Statuettes of Apollo, Aesculapius, Hercules, and Mercury were found, together with those of the two Lares, in another house; in a third, Fortuna alone with the Lares.


With few exceptions the houses of pre-Roman Pompeii were built in only one story; where the peristyle was in two stories, there must have been rooms opening upon the upper colonnade.

In Roman times, as the population of the city increased and more space was needed, it became a common practice to make the rooms about the atrium lower and build chambers over them. A complete second story was rare; small rooms were added here and there, frequently at different levels and reached by different stairways.

Houses with three stories were quite exceptional, and the rooms of the third floor must have been unimportant.

Along the steep slope of the hill, on the west and southwest sides of the city, a number of houses are found that present the appearance of several stories. The upper parts of the Pompeian houses in most cases have been completely destroyed; in a few, however, there are traces of a second story apartment that was probably used as a dining room.

One of these houses is near the temple of Apollo. It is painted in the second style, and dates apparently from the end of the Republic. At the rear of the atrium are two rooms and a passageway leading to the back of the house.

Room decorated in the second style

Over these was a single large apartment, closed at the sides and rear, but opening on the atrium in its entire length; along the front ran a balustrade connecting the pilasters—ornamented with half-columns—which supported the roof. In a corner of the atrium at the rear a narrow stairway led to the second floor.


The outer parts of the houses fronting on the principal thoroughfares were utilized as shops. The shop fronts were open to the street. In the houses of the Tufa Period the shops, as the front doors and the rooms about the atrium, were relatively high. Those of the house of Caecilius Jucundus measured nearly 16 feet; those of the House of the Faun, 19 feet.

In Roman times the shops, as the inner rooms of the house, were built lower, and over them small closed rooms were made, which were called by the same name as the open floor, pergula. These rooms were frequently accessible from the street by a stairway, and in such cases could be rented separately.


The walls were covered with a thick layer of plaster and painted; the preparation of the stucco, the processes employed in painting, and the styles of decoration are reserved for discussion in a later.

The floors were frequently made of an inexpensive concrete, consisting of bits of lava or other stone pounded down into common mortar.

A much better floor was the Signia pavement, opus Signinum, so named from a town in Latium. This was composed of very small fragments of brick or tile pounded into fine mortar.

The surface was carefully finished, and was sometimes ornamented with geometrical or other patterns traced in outline by means of small bits of white stone.

In the Tufa Period a floor was often made by fitting together small pieces of stone or marble, and bedding them well in mortar.

The colors are white and black,—slate is used in the floor of the atrium in the house of the Faun; sometimes also violet, yellow, green, and red appear with white and black. Pavements of square or lozenge-shaped and triangular pieces of colored marble and slate, like that in the cella of the temple of Apollo, are occasionally found in houses.

In the time of the Early Empire floors paved with larger slabs were not uncommon.

The mosaics of the Pompeian floors—using the term mosaic in a restricted sense—may be divided into two classes, coarse and fine.

In the former the cubes, tesserae, are on the average a little less than half an inch square. The patterns are sometimes shown in black on a white surface, sometimes worked in colors.

The finer variety, in which the pictures appear, is not often extended over a whole room, but is usually confined to a rectangular section in the middle, coarse mosaic being used for the rest of the floor.

The windows at the front of the house, as we have seen, were ordinarily few and small. From the Tufa Period, however, large windows were often made in the rooms around the peristyle; in the house of the Faun they range in width from 10 to 23 feet, and are so low that one sitting inside could look out through them. Windows were ordinarily closed by means of wooden shutters.

Small panes of glass were found in the openings of the Baths near the Forum; had the Central Baths been finished, glass would undoubtedly have been used for the windows of the caldarium. The window of the tepidarium in the villa of Diomedes was closed by four glass panes set in a wooden frame in the other houses a narrow pane is occasionally found, but invariably set in masonry.

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Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum are just 30 to 50 miles from one of the most beautiful areas in Italy, the Amalfi Coast. Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, are its most well-known towns, but at the heart of the Costiera is a fourth jewel, Praiano, a much less hectic and more authentic town, where many discerning tourists have begun to stay, using a a base for their Amalfi Coasting. Try Praiano, trust us!

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