Ashes to ashes

Early visitors to the remains of Pompeii entered the city through its cemeteries. We now buy our tickets, maps, guidebooks and bottles of water in a modern ‘visitor centre’, which could just as well be the entrance to a busy train station as to a buried city. Our eighteenth-century predecessors usually followed one of the ancient roads into the town, lined as they were with imposing and affecting monuments to the dead.

Romans kept the dead out of their towns. There were no city-centre cemeteries or village graveyards, putting the dead in the middle of things. Instead, here at Pompeii just like in Rome itself, the memorials to earlier generations hugged the routes in and out of the town outside the walls. Ancient travellers entered Pompeii past the often imposing residences of those who had lived decades, maybe centuries before. For although cremation was the normal funerary practice during the heyday of Pompeii (at least since the arrival of the Roman colonists in the early first century BCE), this did not discourage extravagant memorials. Tiny urns holding the ashes of the dead were lodged in a whole range of grand designs – in the shape of altars, elegant semi-circular seats or benches, (convenient resting places for the living too), multi-storey constructions with columns and statues of the departed.

For the early tourists this set the tone for their visit. Pompeii was a site of human tragedy, a city of the dead. The tombs they first saw as they started their visit (albeit the memorials of those who, likely as not, had died safely in their beds) offered the prompt to a good deal of reverie on the transience of human existence, and on the inevitabity of death for all of us, high or low. Dust to dust, and – appropriately for Pompeii – ashes to ashes.

But, of course, death and commemoration was anything but equal in ancient Pompeii. The memorials reflected exactly those hierarchies and inequalities that we have seen repeatedly in the life of the town. We already spotted (pp. 2–4) the irony of that little party of unsuccessful fugitives, with some 500 sesterces between them, being finally overwhelmed next to the tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus, aedile and duumvir, whose funeral alone had cost ten times that amount. His tomb was typical of the grander designs, though by no means the most splendid: a simple walled enclosure, within which the single urn was buried, with a terracotta pipe installed next to it, to channel offerings made to the dead man by his descendants. Unless they had been convinced by the more optimistic claims of some of the newer religions, most Romans had, it seems, a rather hazy and grey picture of what happened after death. Nonetheless, as here, they might take the trouble to provide some kind of sustenance for their ancestor – though how often the tube was used we do not know.

Other members of the Pompeian elite, both male and female, were commemorated with more flashy monuments than Obellius Firmus. In fact, the tomb of the priestess Eumachia is the biggest so far uncovered, standing high above the road on its own terrace and including – a wry reflection on her gender, as it must now seem – a marble sculpture of Amazons (mythical female warriors), a large seating area and the burial plots of Eumachia herself and some of her relations and dependants. On some, the honours or benefactions of the deceased were displayed in images as well as words. We have already seen (Ill. 72) the bisellium or seat of honour carefully carved onto the tomb of the Augustalis Caius Calventius Quietus, as proud an assertion of status as any made by the richest aristocratic landowners. Others carry sculptures or paintings of gladiatorial contests – presumably intended to represent those financed by the dead man during his lifetime.

Many of these monuments ended up marked with graffiti of the usual demotic type, or covered with publicity notices for games and shows. Their plain walls must have provided a convenient space for messages and adverts in a prominent roadside location. But it is hard not to suspect that there was also an element of ‘getting your own back’ at work here. How satisfying it must have been to deface these aggressive memorials to wealth, power and privilege.

Needless to say, the poorer sections of Pompeian society did not enjoy such luxurious final resting places – unless they were among those slaves and ex-slaves lucky enough to be granted space in their masters’ monument. For the rest, some would have been able to afford a small part of a large communal tomb. The ashes of others ended up in cheap containers inserted directly into the earth, marked with just a simple stone. Even that would have been too good for those at the very bottom of the social pile. At Pompeii, as elsewhere in the Roman world, their bodies were probably unceremoniously dumped or burnt, with not a funeral celebration or permanent marker at all.


112. Street of tombs. This engraving captures the approach to the city for the early visitors. Entering the city by the Herculaneum Gate, they came face to face with the monuments of death. On the right, just visible is the semi-circular seat which formed the memorial to the priestess Mamia – celebrated by Goethe in his account of a visit to Pompeii.

Quarrels beyond the grave

It was not only the inequalities of Pompeian life that left their permanent mark in the cemeteries outside the town. Occasionally the quarrels and disputes of the living city extended beyond the grave. In fact, one of the most vivid glimpses of the rough realities of ancient society, a sad story of friendship made and lost, comes from a large tomb outside the Nuceria Gate, located near the monument of Eumachia. It is the memorial of an ex-slave, Publius Vesonius Phileros, who built it well in advance, during his own lifetime, for himself and for two others to share. It is a nice indication of the fluidity of relationships and affections, cutting across the formal hierarchies of Pompeian society. For Phileros built a tomb to include also the remains of his one time owner, a woman named Vesonia, and his ‘friend’, a free-born man by the name of Marcus Orfellius Faustus. Full-length statues of all three of them – sadly missing their heads – still look down at the passers-by from a niche on the upper storey of the façade.


113. The tomb of Publius Vesonius Phileros and his one-time friends. The circumstances remain a mystery, but after this tomb was commissioned, the two men fell out – and ended up in litigation (as the added plaque on the façade explains). What had been intended as a monument to friendship became a 2000-year memorial to a quarrel.

Phileros made two adjustments to the monument after it had been completed. He must have become an Augustalis late in life, and was proud enough of that status to have added the word to the plaque that had already been inscribed with the names of the threesome. There was not much space left, so ‘Augustalis’ appears in smaller letters. The other adjustment involved adding an additional plaque to explain that he had since fallen out with the erstwhile friend, Faustus. It runs:

Stranger, stop a little while if it isn’t too much trouble and learn what to avoid. This man that I had hoped was my friend – it was he who produced accusers against me and started a court case. I thank the gods and my innocence that I was freed from all this trouble. May neither the household gods nor the gods below receive the man who lied about our affairs.

The circumstances remain baffling. Why, for example, add this extra notice, rather than simply remove the other man’s name from the first plaque and get rid of his statue? And can we be quite sure that the writer was Phileros? Is it not possible that the injured party was not Phileros but Faustus, who attached this notice to the monument built by his one-time friend? But whatever the exact details, it is a rare story of a friendship between two ordinary Pompeians – which ended not just in recriminations, but in the local courts.

Even the memorials to the dead can throw precious light on the Life of a Roman Town.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!