British Museum blog

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

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Reading the Romans


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

If you want to find some really vivid stories about ordinary ancient Romans – not just about the toffs, the generals, and the emperors – some of the very best places to look are their tombstones. These give some amazing insights into the lives of real Romans – not those right at the very bottom of the social heap (people down there couldn’t afford a memorial) but those not all that far from the bottom.

OK, the epitaphs are written in Latin – but it’s often very easy Latin. And even if you don’t know a single word of the language, you can get quite a lot out of them with only a very little help.

In the BBC Two series Meet the Romans, we have looked at some really memorable – and quirky – epitaphs. I’m particularly keen on one ex-slave woman we came across: Allia Potestas, who lived in a ménage à trois with her two lovers (she was always the first up and the last to bed of the trio, we’re told – do things ever change?). But my other favourites were poor little Doris, who died in a terrible fire, and a splendidly pushy baker called Eurysaces, who didn’t only tell you what his job was, but even had his tomb built in the shape of a baker’s oven.

We actually filmed one epitaph from the British Museum, which we didn’t in the end use in the series – partly because there was almost too much to say about it. You can find it on the wall in Room 70

It’s a tombstone from Rome (first century BCE) of a husband and wife pictured in the middle. He (on the left) is called Aurelius Hermia and she (on the right) is called Aurelia Philematio (or Philematium, as it’s written a bit further down). They are both ex-slaves, who have at some point been given their freedom.

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

Inscribed stone funerary relief of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philmatium

How do we know that? Well right in the middle of both their names are two give-away letters “ L. L” – short for “Lucii libertus” or “Lucii liberta”, that is, “the ex-slave man or ex-slave woman of a man called Lucius”. One of the most extraordinary facts is that well over half the tombstones discovered from the city commemorate ex-slaves, and most of them are instantly recognizable with the letter “L” or more often the abbreviation “Lib” in their names. Romans owned hundreds of thousands of slaves, but also freed loads of them. Slavery in Rome wasn’t always a life-sentence.

Anyway, the husband takes the left. This side is more battered (as you can see, even a bit of the name has been lost). But we can still work out that he was a “lanius de colle Viminale”, “a butcher from the Viminal hill”, one of the seven hills of Rome. (The word “lanius” is missing its first couple of letters… but if we had, in English, the phrase “…tcher from the Viminal hill”, we’d have little doubt what it meant!).

He goes on to explain that his wife had predeceased him (you can spot the word “praecessit”), and of course that she had always lived devoted to him, as he was devoted to her (that is, she “stood by her man”, “fida viro” on the fifth line from the bottom). That, I guess, is a cliché even of epitaphs today. I don’t think we have to imagine that there was literally never a cross word between this pair.

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

Detail of the right hand side of the tombstone

It’s the woman’s side on the right, though, where things get really curious. It starts off with some fairly conventional praise for a Roman woman. She was “casta, pudens, volgei nescia”, that’s “chaste, modest and unknown to the crowd” – she was “not gossiped about” would perhaps be a better translation. But after that it starts to get intriguing, if not downright odd.

The husband, we are told, “was more than a parent” to the wife (you can spot the word “parens” seven lines up). They had met when she was just seven years old (“septem me naatam annorurum”) and he took her on his lap (“gremio”), and she died when she was 40 (“XXXX”) – meanwhile her husband had flourished under her dutiful care (“meo officio”).

Hang on, we think. He took her on his lap when she was just seven years old? What exactly was Hermia up to with little Philematio on his knee? When precisely did they get married? Of course we don’t – and can’t – know. But explanations tend to fall into two broad camps.

Explanation A. Some people imagine that when this pair had been slaves, the older Hermia had looked after the little girl, just like a dad… and maybe years later when both had been freed by their master Lucius, they married. This was a slave friendship that grew into free married union.

Explanation B. Other people take a rather more dismal view of the partnership. They point out that Roman girls often got married much earlier than we do. In Meet the Romans we find one 12 year old, dying just before her wedding day. Even seven years old is not absolutely unheard of. So forget all those romantic notions of a kindly Hermia innocently befriending the young Philematio in the slave quarters. Slave or free, he had probably marked her out (at least) as his partner at the tender age of seven.

I hope Explanation A is the right one. But we certainly can’t be sure. The dutiful, chaste and modest Philematio may have been, quite literally, a child bride.

Professor Mary Beard presents Meet The Romans on BBC Two at 21.00 on Tuesdays from 17 April

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