Beneath your feet

Every modern visitor to Pompeii remembers the streets: their shiny surfaces pieced together out of large blocks of black volcanic rock; the deep ruts formed by years of cart traffic (and perilous to twenty-first-century ankles, as they must surely have been to first-century ones); the high pavements, occasionally as much as a metre above street-level; and the stepping stones carefully placed to allow pedestrians to cross the road without an inconvenient jump down, while being just far enough apart to let ancient wheeled transport through the gaps.

It is the sense of immediacy that makes the Pompeian street scene so memorable. The ruts are almost the equivalent of an ancient footprint, the indelible mark of human movement and of the passage of carts that once went about their daily business down these very streets. And when we hop across the stones, from pavement to pavement, part of the fun is knowing that we are treading in the very same path as thousands of Roman pedestrians before us. Or at least, it is part of the fun for most of us ordinary visitors. When Pope Pius IX made a celebrity visit to the site in 1849, it was thought best ‘to save His Holiness from a long walk in the ruins’, so a number of the stepping stones were removed to allow his cart – which obviously had a different wheel span from its Roman ancestors – to pass through. Some were never put back.

This chapter will take a close look at the streets and pavements of the ancient city. As so often in Pompeii, the tiniest traces preserved beneath our feet, often unnoticed by most of those who now wander through the town, can be pressed into service to reveal all kinds of intriguing and unexpected aspects of Roman life: a picture that is simultaneously familiar and deeply alien. We shall find pedestrianised areas, one-way streets, traffic-calming, roadworks, loiterers and litter; and some sharp detective work will give us a glimpse of the private enterprise involved in the upkeep of the city and its highways. Yet we shall also find all kinds of surprising things going on in Pompeii’s streets and squares (including a very nasty bit of corporal punishment meted out to an unfortunate schoolboy), not to mention the disconcerting presence of water wherever we go. In fact, Pompeii was rather more like Venice than most of us realise.


19. A characteristic Pompeian scene. This street leads to the Vesuvius Gate and the castellum aquae (‘water castle’), just visible at the end. Regular series of stepping stones cross the street between the high pavements.

Much of the evidence for this comes from the very building blocks of the city’s fabric, the ancient traffic bollards, the marks made by generations of carts hitting the kerb, or by generations of hands pressing on the street fountains. But we can also draw on an extraordinary series of paintings which offer an image of street life under the colonnades of the Pompeian Forum.

What were streets for?

The first question is one that we often forget to ask, as we jump across the stepping stones from pavement to pavement. Why were the sidewalks in the town so high? There are two answers to that question. Both open up a vision of the Pompeian streets strikingly at odds with their condition today, regularly cleaned, neat and tidy – sullied only by the occasional discarded water bottle or lost site plan.

The first is filth. Historians are divided about quite how dirty we should imagine the average Roman city to have been, largely because – as usual – the evidence we find in ancient writers cuts two ways. On the one hand, we have the complaints of the poet Juvenal, a Roman satirist who made a profession out of indignation and directed his bile towards, among other things, the condition of the streets of the capital itself. He offers a vivid rant on the dangers of a nighttime walk, between the high-rise apartments on either side:

There are various other nocturnal perils to be considered:

it’s a long way up to the rooftops, and a falling tile

can brain you. Think of all those cracked or leaky vessels

tossed out of windows – the way they smash, their weight,

the damage they do to the side-walk! You’ll be thought most improvident,

a catastrophe-happy fool, if you don’t make your will before

venturing out to dinner. Each upper casement

along your route at night may prove a death-trap:

so pray and hope (poor you!) that the local housewives

drop nothing worse on your head than a pailful of slops.

Even less savoury is the story told by the biographer Suetonius about an incident early in the career of the emperor Vespasian, who died just a few months before the eruption of Vesuvius. Vespasian, it was said, was sitting one day having his breakfast, when a stray dog ran into the house and dropped under the breakfast table a human hand which it had picked up from the nearby crossroads. This was not, for Suetonius, an indictment of the state of the neighbourhood, but an omen of Vespasian’s future rise to greatness (for the Latin for ‘hand’, manus, also meant ‘power’).

But for those who would resist the lurid picture of Roman streets as filled with stray dogs, excrement dumped out of flying chamber pots, and human body parts mixed into the detritus, there is other, conflicting, evidence that can be pressed into service. Just a few lines after his tale of the human hand, Suetonius tells of another incident in Vespasian’s early life. He was just thirty and had been elected to the office of aedile (aedilis), which had responsibility for the upkeep of the city of Rome, from public buildings and temples to brothels and streets. The story goes that Vespasian had sorely neglected the cleaning of the streets, and as punishment the emperor Caligula exacted appropriate punishment: he had him covered in mud, dressed in his official toga. Suetonius, unconvincingly, sees another omen here. But presage of power or not, it assumes some considerable interest on the part of the highest authorities in the cleanliness of the city.

We can also point to occasional hints from local communities in the Roman empire of ingenious improvisation in the daunting task of rubbish disposal. Some three centuries after the destruction of Pompeii, in Antioch (in Syria), we hear of a clever scheme by which the country people who had brought their produce into the city to sell at market were forced, on their return journey, to use their animals to carry building rubble out of the city. It didn’t work. The farmers objected to this imposition and their complaints reached the emperor.

Where the streets of Pompeii stood on this spectrum between dirt and cleanliness, we do not know. No archaeologist has ever systematically examined the material that was lying on the surface of the street when the pumice fell. And, although we assume that the aediles at Pompeii had some of the same functions as those officials at Rome, we have no idea whether street hygiene was top of their agenda, nor whether they would have had the will, let alone the necessary resources, to keep the town clean. There are reasons, as we shall see, for imagining that householders took some responsibility for the pavements bordering on their property. But my guess is that the roadways themselves were much messier than most wholesome modern reconstructions of Pompeii tend to suggest.

For this was not a community with regular municipal rubbish collections. Even if huge quantities of commercial or domestic waste were not dumped in the street (though, presumably, some of it was), the horses, asses and mules that were the main means of transport would have dropped plenty of their own refuse. And it is hard to believe that all those Pompeians who lived in a single room above their shop, with not always adequate lavatory facilities, never found it convenient simply to piss into the streets. Some proportion of the human faeces and urine produced in the city (6,500,000 kilos of it a year on a very crude estimate) presumably ended up in the public highway. It was certainly enough of a problem for the occasional warning notice to be posted up: ‘Shitter – make sure you keep it in till you’ve passed this spot’. Stepping down onto the road surface risked more than a twisted ankle; it most likely involved treading into a smelly mixture of animal dung (each horse producing up to 10 kilos a day), rotting vegetables and human excrement – which was, just to complete the picture, no doubt covered in flies.

Filth, however, cannot be the only answer to the question of those high walkways. If it were, we would be faced with the unlikely conclusion that the burghers of nearby Herculaneum (where we do not find stepping stones or particularly high pavements) were a cleaner and neater lot than their neighbours at Pompeii. In fact, anyone who has visited the city during a rainstorm will have seen an overriding reason for the Pompeian arrangement: that is water. When it pours with rain, the streets turn into torrents. For the city is built on land which slopes, in places quite steeply, from north-west to south-east (the Stabian Gate is 35 metres lower than the Vesuvius Gate); and unlike Herculaneum, it has few underground drains. It was the function of the streets to collect the rainwater and channel it out of the city through the walls, or towards such internal drains as there were, mostly around the Forum. Even when it was not raining, water – supplied, for the last hundred years or so of the city’s existence, by aqueduct – spewed into the roadways from the incessant street fountains, and as the overspill from houses and baths.

The streets, in other words, doubled as water channels, as well as refuse dumps. One thing that can be said in favour of this arrangement is that the occasional downpour, and the rush of water that it caused, must have helped flush away all that decaying rubbish.

Boulevards and back alleys

Most ancient Pompeians, like most modern visitors, would have spent a lot of time on their city’s streets. This was not simply a consequence of the warm weather or some laid-back ‘Mediterranean lifestyle’. Many of the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii had little choice but to live outdoors. They had nowhere else to go. True, the super-rich families had plenty of space in their large houses and palaces: quiet retiring rooms, shady gardens, showy dining rooms, even private bath suites. Others who were not in that league lived comfortably enough in houses of half a dozen rooms. Further down the scale of wealth, many of the town’s inhabitants lived in a single small room above their shop, bar or workshop, with no ‘mains’ water supply, and often no means of heating or cooking – except perhaps for a small brazier (which must have doubled as a serious fire hazard). Compact quarters for a single occupant, this kind of apartment would have been little more than a cramped dormitory for a family of three or four. For almost all their basic needs they would have gone outside: for water to the street fountains, for a meal – beyond bread, fruit and cheese, and whatever simple concoction could be brewed up on the brazier – to one of the many bars and cafés which opened directly onto the pavements (Plate 4). Pompeii offers a striking reversal of our own social norms. For us, it is the rich who visit restaurants, the poor who cook economically at home. At Pompeii, it was the poor who ate out.


20. The ubiquity of the phallus. Here a phallus is carved into the paving stones of the street. But does it really point, as some claim, to the nearest brothel?

The streets of Pompeii came, as you would expect, in many shapes and sizes. Some of the back lanes were not even paved at all, but remained dirt trails or unprepossessing alleyways between blocks of housing; and earlier in the town’s history many more would have been muddy or dusty tracks, rather than solid, carefully engineered highways. Some of them, particularly the main routes across the town, were comparatively wide, others could not take a single cart. That said, all the streets were narrow in our terms, most less than three metres across. To judge from the size of the cart found in the House of the Menander – or, more strictly, the iron wheel trims and fittings found, combined with impressions of the wood in the volcanic debris – only a few roads would have been wide enough to let two vehicles pass each other. And, when the buildings were standing to their full height, often with upper storeys, even the wider streets would have felt much more cramped and confined than they do now.

They were also much brighter, gaudier and more ‘in your face’. Crude paintings marked out local religious shrines, often where streets intersected. Phalluses decorated the walls, moulded on terracotta plaques or, in one case, carved into the street surface itself. (Modern explanations for this range feebly from ‘an expression of good luck’ to ‘protection against the evil eye’; the line spun by the tourist guides that the phallus on the street is a directional sign to the local brothel is certainly wrong.) Many of the houses were originally richly coloured – in reds, yellows and blues – and provided a convenient surface for electoral slogans (often one on top of another), ‘For Rent’ notices, advertisements for gladiatorial games, or just the scribbles of Pompeii’s graffiti artists. ‘I am amazed that you haven’t fallen down, O wall / Loaded as you are with all this scrawl’, as one popular piece of Pompeian doggerel ran – scratched up in at least three places in the town, and so adding to the phenomenon it deplored.


21. The woolworkers’ trade. On the left a man is busy combing the wool at a low table. In the centre, four men are engaged in the messy business of making felt from a mixture of wool and animal hair, held together with a sticky binder. (This gave the Romans their equivalent of a ‘water-proof’.) On the far right, past another comber, the finished product is displayed by a man named in small letters underneath Verecundus. The large letters above are part of an electoral poster.

Shops and bars often used their street façades for painted signs, advertising their business, blazoning their name (rather like an English pub sign) and normally parading some usefully protective deities. The pictures of Romulus and Aeneas that we saw in the last chapter enlivened the outside of a fullery. Just a couple of blocks away, what we assume to have been an establishment of cloth-makers and cloth-sellers made an even bigger splash (assume, because the building has not been excavated further back than the frontage, so we cannot be certain what went on inside). On one side of the doorway Venus, the city’s patron goddess, rode in a chariot pulled by elephants; on the other Mercury, the divine protector of commerce, stood in his temple grasping a fat bag of coins. Under Venus was a scene of workers busy combing the wool and making felt (with the boss himself, presumably, showing off a finished product on the right); under Mercury, the lady of the house, or perhaps an employee, is busy selling her wares (which appear now to be largely shoes).

Sadly, one of the most striking examples of this type of painting – and one which captured the imagination of nineteenth-century visitors – has now disappeared completely, a victim of the elements. Decorating the front wall of a bar, near the town gate leading to the sea, was a large picture of an elephant with a pygmy or two – and a painted sign saying ‘Sittius restored the Elephant’. Sittius was probably the last landlord, and he had restored either the painting or maybe the whole place (‘The Elephant Bar’). If so, he had a good name for a barman, so good one suspects that it may have been a ‘trade-name’. For the best English translation of ‘Sittius’ would be ‘Mr Thirsty’.

Different streets – and different stretches of the same streets – had noticeably different characters. Part of this is a difference between the main roads on the one hand, lined with shops, bars and the front doors of private houses great and small, and on the other the back streets, narrow, little-trod and interrupted only by the occasional service entrance. One of these, running between two city blocks that face onto the Via dell’Abbondanza, carried so little traffic that it could be partially blocked with a water tower and then effectively ‘privatised’ by the owner of the large adjacent house – and the only one with a door opening directly into it. Whether with permission from the town council, or simply with the self-confidence that went with wealth then as now, he walled off each end of the street, so creating a private annexe (storage area, animal pen or cart park) accessed from his service basement.

But there are also noticeable clusters of activity that characterise particular areas. Entering the city from the north, for example, just inside the Herculaneum Gate, you would have found a street dominated by the hospitality business – an array of roadside bars and inns, all trying to persuade the passing travellers to part with their cash in return for a drink and a bite to eat. And there is a similar pattern at the other northern entrance, the Vesuvius Gate, and at the Stabian Gate to the south. Not so at the other city gates, which suggests that the routes from north and south carried the majority of traffic in and out of the city: for bars tend to follow the crowds rather than vice versa. Or, to put in another way, only a Pompeian fool would have set up a retail outlet where there was little passing trade.

Enterprising archaeologists have even tried to work out what direction the bar owners expected their customers to be coming from – on the basis of the exact position of the counter, and from where the potential client would get the best view of the food and drink on offer. Whether this is one step too far in trying to second-guess the behaviour of the Romans, I am not sure. But the conclusion was that the establishments around these two gates aimed primarily at those coming into the city, catering to hungry travellers who had just arrived. The couple of bars, however, on the road leading from the Forum to the Marine Gate to the west had their eye (according to this logic) on people leaving the city, or at least coming away from the Forum.

There are also notable absences from the street scene which signal the different character of different areas. To continue the theme of bars, there are relatively few in the area of the Forum itself (though not quite as few as it now appears: ironically three once stood a few metres from the Forum on the site of the modern tourist refreshment centre). Walking away from there along the Via dell’Abbondanza to the east, there are perhaps two at the most until you reach the intersection with the Via Stabiana. At that point, they start to appear again in significant numbers (in fact more than twenty food and drink outlets in 600 metres have been identified), giving that eastern stretch of the Via dell’Abbondanza a very different ‘feel’. This has led to all kinds of speculation, including the idea that the Pompeian authorities actively prevented the opening of such establishments with their discreditable associations in the main formal and ceremonial areas of the city.

Maybe. But what is certain is that the Forum of Pompeii, with its public buildings – temples, shrines, markets and so on – was not like the central square of modern Italian towns, with a café at each corner, designed for pleasure and relaxation as much as for business. It was, no doubt, this image of modern Italy that persuaded Sir William Gell, bon viveur and one of the leading authorities on Pompeii in the early nineteenth century, that the building in the Forum that we know as the market or macellum functioned partly as a restaurant – the booths down one side being intended for semi-private dining. After all, how could you have a central piazza without a place to get a meal?

More significant, though, than the differences between the various areas of Pompeii are the overall similarities of the urban landscape across the town. In this respect Pompeii is quite unlike many modern Western cities, where what social geographers call ‘zoning’ tends to be the rule. That is to say, particular activities (whether commercial, industrial or residential) tend now to be concentrated in different parts of the urban area, and the character of the streets changes accordingly: the roads of a suburban residential area are recognisably different, not just in their size, but in their planning and their relationship to the adjacent buildings, from those in the commercial centre. There also tend to be definite divisions within this arrangement between the rich and the poor, and sometimes between different races. By and large, even in relatively small conurbations (country villages are another matter) those with money live separately from those without. High-rise tenement blocks do not rub shoulders with the detached mansions of the wealthy; they are in a different part of town.

Valiant attempts have been made to detect some kind of ‘zoning’ in Pompeii. Archaeologists have pointed to the ‘entertainment areas’ for example (though that hardly means much more than Amphitheatre and the theatres, nothing remotely like a ‘Broadway’ or ‘West End’). They have argued, not implausibly but not conclusively, that the north-western sector of the city contains more than its fair share of large, rich houses, as does also the far western strip with its marvellous sea views. And they have attempted to pinpoint, if not a red-light district in the modern sense, then at least areas associated with various forms of ‘deviant behaviour’, from commercial sex to dice games (a project complicated by long-running modern controversies on how many brothels there were in the city, and how we can now identify them; (below, pp. 232–3; 236–8).

But the simple truth is that Pompeii was a city without the zoning we have come to expect, and without significant distinction between elite and non-elite residential areas. In fact, it is not just that the richest domestic properties existed side by side with much more humble establishments. The elegant House of the Vestals, for example, had its main entrance in the midst of all the bars near the Herculaneum Gate and was, in fact, almost next door to a couple of noisy blacksmiths’ workshops. More than that, it was the standard pattern in the city for even the grandest residences to have small commercial units built into their street façade – an integral part of the main property, although usually no doubt managed not by the proprietor but by his dependants or tenants. So visitors to the palatial House of the Faun would have found its two main entranceways leading back from the street, between a row of four shops. This is not unlike the pattern in early modern cities. In eighteenth-century London the mansions of the rich in Piccadilly rubbed shoulders with chemists, shoemakers, hair-dressers and upholsterers. And, despite our general assumptions about zoning, it is what you find even today in Naples. The Neapolitan workshops and stores occupying small units on the ground floor of grand mansions are the closest we can get to an impression of ancient Pompeii.

How such striking juxtapositions of function and wealth were experienced by the town’s inhabitants, we can only guess. But my suspicion is that the rich occupants of the House of the Vestals would have found it easier to ignore the constant hammering of the blacksmiths and the noise of the late-night clientèle at the bars, than the poor shopkeepers would have found it to ignore the vast wealth and opulence of those living on the other side of their shop walls. Divisive as it may seem, zoning has its advantages: at least the poor do not always have their noses rubbed in the privileges of their rich neighbours.


22. At this crossroads we find both a street fountain and one of the dozen or so water towers in the town. The water from the ‘water castle’ was fed into a tank at the top of each tower, and then distributed to nearby properties. The point of this was to reduce the pressure of the water, which otherwise came down from the castellum with much too great force.

Water features

The stories of the Pompeian streets – glimpses of how they were used and by whom – can still be recovered from the traces that remain on the ground. Sometimes these are clear for all to see. We have already noted the stepping stones across the water and mire; these were strategically placed at junctions, other popular crossing points, and occasionally leading directly to the portals of the largest houses, for the convenience of the rich owners and their guests. Almost as memorable features of the street scene for most modern visitors are the water towers and, especially, the street fountains – more than forty of them surviving – that were spread all over the city, to be within easy reach of everyone; it has been calculated that very few Pompeians lived more than 80 metres from a fountain.

Both towers and fountains were elements in a complex system, supplying piped water through the town, from a ‘water castle ’ or castellum aquae (itself fed by an aqueduct from the nearby mountains) just inside the city walls, next to the Vesuvius Gate – an innovation replacing an earlier system of supply which relied on deep wells and rainwater. This new service (immortalised more or less accurately in Robert Harris’s best-seller Pompeii) has usually been dated to the 20s BCE, and the reign of the first emperor Augustus. But recent work has suggested that the first Pompeians to benefit from a piped public water supply of some sort, even if it was improved under Augustus, were the Sullan colonists some sixty years earlier.

The water towers, a dozen or so built of concrete faced with local stone or brick, up to six metres tall, and holding a lead tank at the top, were sub-stations in the system, distributing water by lead pipes which ran under the pavements to the public fountains and to nearby private residences, whose owners must have paid a fee for the privilege. Something must have gone wrong with this system of supply on the eve of the eruption. For it is clear from the empty trenches filled with volcanic debris that, at the time of its destruction, the pavements in various places in the city had been dug up and the water pipes removed. Most likely this was an instant attempt to investigate and repair the damage done to the water system by earthquakes that occurred in the run-up to the final eruption.

Archaeologists have speculated that similar problems might explain why, down one back alley (running beside the House of the Chaste Lovers and the House of the Painters at Work), the cess pits filled by the domestic latrines had been dug up and their contents left piled up unsalubriously in the pathway when the disaster struck. Though why seismic movements should affect the operation of cesspits is less clear. Perhaps this is more of an indication of the regular state of a Pompeian backstreet.

Beyond simple distribution points, the water towers fulfilled a more technical hydraulic function too, offering a nice example of Roman engineering expertise. The steep gradient down from the water castle, which was built at the highest point in the town, meant that the water pressure was, if anything, too strong, especially in the low-lying areas to the south. The towers, by collecting the water in the tank at the top, and letting it down again, acted to reduce the pressure. They also added to the water in the streets: the deposits of lime still visible on the outside of some of the towers suggest that they not infrequently overflowed.

Fountains are an even commoner feature than towers. Most of them followed the same general plan: a large spout, with constantly running water; a tank beneath, to catch some of the flow, made out of four large blocks of volcanic rock. Usually placed at junctions and crossroads, some jutted out from the kerbside into the line of traffic; so, to protect them from damage by passing carts and trucks, sturdy upright stones were set in the ground next to them, the ancient equivalent of traffic bollards. No one with a private supply of water at home would rely on this public service, but the less wealthy did – in large numbers, to judge from the heavily worn surfaces of the stone, on either side of the spout. One of the tricks of the local guides in Pompeii today is to demonstrate just how that distinctive pattern of wear must have been formed, as Pompeian after Pompeian over a century or more came up behind the spout, rested one hand on one side of it and held the bucket under the stream of water with the other.

Whether or not they became the centre of organised neighbourhood associations, as some modern scholars have suspected, these fountains were certainly informal meeting places for the more humble local residents. In fact, on one occasion, we get a glimpse of a nearby house owner taking advantage of the throngs that such a facility was expected to attract. When a new fountain was erected so close to his little house that part had to be demolished to accommodate it, the owner responded by turning his front room into a shop.

One-way streets

Scratch the surface of the streets below the stepping stones and the fountains, look more carefully at the layout of the city’s network of routes and thoroughfares, and there are other, even more intriguing stories to be reconstructed of street life in a Roman town. The tiniest hints on the surface of pavement or road open up some of the most fascinating pieces of history.

In many ways the schematic plan of the Pompeian street system, so often reproduced, is misleading. For, just as today many motorists find that a simple map of an unfamiliar town may fail to warn them of the pedestrianised precincts or the one-way streets, so this plan tends to conceal the actual pattern of movement around ancient Pompeii. The picture of free circulation implied by the diagram is contradicted by the evidence on the ground. Here too we find traffic-free zones and, it seems, some control of the direction of traffic flow. Recent work – looking very carefully again at the ruts and stepping stones – has even suggested that we can begin to reconstruct the Pompeian one-way street system.


23. Traffic barriers old and new. These three stone blocks emphasize the ban on traffic travelling between the Forum, which lies behind us, and the Via dell’Abbondanza, which stretches into the distance. On the left, the modern site authorities use plastic fencing to keep visitors from buildings under restoration.

The streets of Pompeii could be closed to wheeled transport by simple devices: by large stone bollards fixed in the roadway, by the placing of fountains or other obstructions across the traffic path, or by steps or other changes of level that were impassable to carts. Every one of these was used to ensure that, at least in its final phases, the Pompeian Forum was a pedestrian area. We should put out of our minds any fanciful reconstruction of the central piazza criss-crossed by chariots and carts. Each entry point to the Forum was blocked to wheeled traffic: at the Via dell’Abbondanza by three bollards and a high kerb, at the south-east entrance by a strategically positioned water fountain, and so on. Interestingly, it was not only wheeled transport whose access to the Forum could be controlled. At every entrance point, fittings for some form of barrier or gate can still be made out, closing the area off even to those on foot. The precise purpose of these gates is unknown. Perhaps they were to close the area at night (though they would have to have been formidable barriers to put off a determined vandal). Perhaps, as one recent suggestion has it, they were used when elections were taking place in the Forum, as a means of controlling entrance to the elections and of excluding those without the right to vote.

A pedestrianised central square is one thing. But the Pompeian traffic schemes went beyond that. For the Via dell’Abbondanza is also blocked to wheeled transport almost 300 metres further along, at its junction with the Via Stabiana, where an abrupt drop of more than 30 centimetres makes it impassable to even the most sturdy cart. This stretch of the street between the Forum and Via Stabiana was not completely traffic-free, as it could be accessed from some of the intersections to north and south. But it obviously did not provide the easy through-route across the town that the map at first sight suggests. Its comparatively shallow cart ruts also indicate that it did not carry a large volume of traffic (although one sceptic has argued that the relative absence of ruts is equally well explained by the road having been repaved not long before 79). There are other signs too that this piece of road was in some way special. Part of it, the section in front of the Stabian Baths, is unusually wide: in effect it forms a small triangular piazza at the entrance to the Baths. And it was, of course, this stretch of road where, unlike the section to the east, we noted the almost complete absence of bars and taverns.

Exactly what was ‘special’ about it is harder to say. But one good guess is that it has something to do with the position of this stretch of the Via dell’Abbondanza between the theatres and ancient Temple of Minerva and Hercules to the south and the main Forum, with its temples and other public buildings. Little-used for day-to-day traffic, and not the main transport artery that most people now imagine, perhaps it formed part of a processional route from one civic centre to the other, from Forum to Theatre, or from Theatre to Temple of Jupiter? Processions were a staple of public and religious life in the Roman world: a means of celebrating the gods, parading divine images and sacred symbols before the people, honouring the city and its leaders. The details and calendar of these ceremonies at Pompeii are lost to us, but we maybe have the traces of one favoured route.

There are, however, still more road blockings along the Via dell’Abbondanza. Moving from the Via Stabiana towards the eastern gate (the Sarno Gate, so called after the river which flows on this side of the town), most of the road intersections to the south and some to the north are either completely impassable to carts or steeply ramped but still – as the ruts running over them make clear – accessible to wheeled transport. Part of the purpose of this must have been traffic control, but the other part was, once again, the control of water. The Via dell’Abbondanza runs across the town about two thirds of the way down the slope on which the city rests: the streets below it must have been particularly liable to nuisance and damage by the torrents flowing down from above. Hence these ramps and blockings, which would have prevented much of that water flowing into the lower region of the town, directing it instead into the Via dell’Abbondanza and channelling it out at the Sarno Gate. Part of this street may have been a ‘processional way’; another part was certainly a major drain.

Pompeian traffic was then reduced or, in modern terms, ‘calmed’ by the creation of cul-de-sacs, and other kinds of road block. But there remains the more general problem of narrow streets and what would happen if two carts should meet in those many roads which were wide enough only for one. Needless to say, reversing a cart drawn by a pair of mules, down a road impeded by stepping stones, would have been an impossible feat. So how did the ancient Pompeians avoid repeated stand-offs, between carts meeting head-to-head? How did they prevent a narrow street being reduced to an impasse?

One possible answer is a combination of loudly ringing bells, shouts and boys sent ahead to ensure the path was clear. The horse trappings found with the cart in the House of the Menander certainly included some harness bells which would have made a distinct jingle to warn of approaching traffic. But there are signs that a system of one-way streets was in operation in the town, to keep the carts moving freely. The evidence for this comes from some of the most painstaking efforts in Pompeian archaeology over the last decade or so, and from the clever idea that the precise pattern of the street ruts, and the exact position of the marks produced by carts colliding with the stepping stones, or grazing the kerb at corners, could tell you which way the ancient traffic was moving along a particular stretch of road.

One of the most convincing examples of this occurs in the north-west part of the town, on the way from the Herculaneum Gate to the Forum, where the road we now know as the Via Consolare meets the narrow Vico di Mercurio (Fig. 5). Here the combination of the collision marks on the south-west side of the stepping stone in the middle of the Vico di Mercurio and the precise pattern of grinding on the kerbstone to the north indicates that traffic was coming along the Vico di Mercurio from the east and mostly turning north when it met the two-way Via Consolare at the junction. The Vico di Mercurio was, in other words, a one-way street, running east to west. Traffic coming down the Via Consolare, wanting to take a left turn towards the east, would have to wait until it reached the broad Via delle Terme – which was a two-way street. Similar evidence has been taken to suggest that there are clear distinctions on the north–south streets in the area too: the Vico di Modesto and Vico del Labirinto carrying northbound traffic, the Vico della Fullonica and Vico del Fauno southbound.


Figure 5. The road system in the north-west of Pompeii: the conjectural lay-out of one-way streets.

Whether the degree of systematisation is quite so rigid as the most enthusiastic modern archaeologists would have us believe, I am rather doubtful. When they write, on the basis of apparently conflicting evidence in some places, that the Vico di Mercurio had originally carried traffic in the other direction and that it ‘underwent a reversal from an eastbound to a westbound route’, it is hard to imagine how such a reversal would have been brought about. Who decided? And how would they have enforced the decision? Ancient cities had no traffic police or transport department. Nor have we found any trace of traffic signs, in a town where there are plenty of other kinds of public notices. Nonetheless, there seems little doubt that there was a pattern of traffic direction generally observed, even if only enforced by common usage. By following the agreed routes, the cart drivers of Pompeii had a better chance of avoiding a complete jam than if they merely rang their bells loudly and hoped that nothing was coming round the corner.

Pavements: public and private

The pavement was the borderland between the public world of the street and the more private world behind the thresholds of houses and shops – a ‘liminal zone’, as anthropologists would call it, between outside and inside. At busy taverns, facing onto the street, the pavement provided overspill space for customers who ‘propped up the bar’, or waited for food and drink to take away. For drivers of animals, making deliveries or simply taking a break, and for visitors arriving on horseback at large houses, it also offered convenient tethering posts, or rather tethering holes. All over the city, in front of bakeries, workshops, taverns and stores, as well as at the entrance to private residences, you can still find small holes drilled through the very edge of the pavement, hundreds of them altogether.

Puzzling to archaeologists, these were once thought to be the fixing points for sun blinds to provide shade for the open premises behind – an idea drawn in part from the practice in historical Naples of draping awnings over shop fronts. If this were the case, it would have turned the pavements, on sunny days at least, into a forest of fabric, and dark, makeshift tunnels between shop and kerbside. Maybe that is how it was. But a much simpler idea, and one that fits better with the distribution of these holes, is to think of them as places to tie up animals (and if not here, then where else?). Even this would hint at another awkward picture of Pompeian street life: the delivery man’s donkeys, tethered to the edge of the narrow street, being forced to join the pedestrians on the pavement in order to clear the way for a cart squeezing its way through.

Awnings or not, the sun must sometimes have made the city’s pavements unpleasantly hot, even if two-storey houses on both sides of the road (especially where the upper storeys were built out at an overhang) did offer more shade than weary visitors find in the ruined streets today. Unsurprisingly some householders took remedial action. Across the frontage of some of the larger residences canopies once jutted out from the façade, providing extra shade not only for those entering the property, but for any passer-by. Stone benches were sometimes added on either side of the front door, also taking advantage of the shade provided. Exactly who we are to imagine sitting on these depends on our view of the mentality of the Pompeian elite. They may have been installed, partly at least, as an act of generosity to the local community: a resting place for one and all. They may, however, have been intended solely for visitors waiting to be admitted to the house itself. In fact, it’s not at all difficult to picture the porter emerging from behind those vast front doors to chase off the riff-raff who had chosen to sit down there uninvited.

Walking around the town today, we can spot all kinds of other examples of private property, and its amenities, encroaching onto the pavement. Some owners turned the pavement in front of their houses into a ramp, to allow carts easy access inside. That, at least, was how the landlord of one of the inns or lodging houses near the Herculaneum Gate catered for the needs of his guests – allowing them easily to bring their carts, belongings and merchandise into the security of the inner court. Others used it to construct themselves even more monumental entrances than usual. One large property at the far east end of the Via dell’Abbondanza, now known as the Estate (Praedia) of Julia Felix, after the woman who once owned it, was given a pretentious stepped walkway, built right over the pavement. Further up the same street towards the Forum, the front door of the House of Epidius Rufus opened onto an extra terrace, more than a metre high, which was set on top of the already elevated pavement – giving the house a lofty remoteness from the life of the street beneath. With a more practical aim in view, the owners of the House of the Vettii inserted a series of bollards into the street along the side wall of their mansion. The roadway was narrow and there was no pavement to act as a barrier between house and road. They must have been worried about the damage that might be done by passing carts, carelessly driven.

Some of these encroachments may have received permission from the town council or the local aediles. A handful of painted notices found on the outside of the Amphitheatre suggest that it was the aediles who authorised the street vendors plying their trade underneath the monument’s arches, and assigned their pitches: ‘By permission of the aediles. Licensed to Caius Aninius Fortunatus’ etc., as the faint and fragmentary Latin seems to say. Maybe the better-off made a similar application to the authorities. Or maybe they simply assumed the right to do much as they pleased with the pavements in front of their houses.

The householders might have had good reason to make that assumption – to judge from some tell-tale traces in the pavements themselves. Most city pavements, ancient or modern, are much less homogeneous than the casual passer-by tends to recognise. Their surfaces have been laid at different periods; they have been repaired in patches, often with not much care to make a match with the surrounding material. This is as true of Pompeii as it is of modern London or New York. Yet in Pompeii a closer look reveals rather more systematic discrepancies. In some streets the pavements seem originally to have been laid in different materials (volcanic rock, limestone, tufa) – and in stretches corresponding to the frontages of houses. In places there are even blocks set into the pavement marking the division between one property (and its pavement) and the next.

The conclusion is obvious. Even though they must have been planned by some central city authority, their width and height fixed to an agreed standard, some of these pavements were paid for on a private basis, by an individual householder, or by a group of them clubbing together – the choice of material to be used left up to those who were footing the bill. It is logical to imagine that their upkeep was similarly privatised. That idea is supported by a surviving Roman law (inscribed on bronze and found in the far south of Italy) which gives the regulations for, amongst other things, the upkeep of roads and pavements in the city of Rome itself. The basic principle was that each householder was responsible for the pavement frontage of his own property, and if he did not maintain it properly the aediles could themselves contract the maintenance work out and then recover the cost from the defaulter. Interestingly, an additional obligation on the householder at Rome was to make sure that water did not collect so as to inconvenience people in the street. It was not only Pompeii that had trouble with overspills.

The people in the streets

So far the people in the Pompeian streets have been rather shadowy figures. We have spotted the traces they left behind them: the scrawls on the walls, the hands on the fountains, the scratches and scrapes left by the carts on the kerbsides. But we have not seen the men, women and children face to face; we have not caught them at their daily business.

We can in fact get one step closer to them, thanks to an extraordinary series of paintings found in the Estate of Julia Felix. At the time of the eruption this large property, with its imposing entrance that we have already noted, covered the whole of what had once been two city blocks not far from the Amphitheatre. It included a number of different units: a privately run, commercial bathing establishment, a number of rental apartments, shops, bars and dining rooms, a large orchard and a medium-sized private house. One large room in this establishment (an inner courtyard or atrium, just over 9 metres by 6) was decorated with a painted frieze, two and a half metres above the ground, apparently showing scenes of life in the Pompeian Forum. This was uncovered by eighteenth-century excavators who removed to the museum about 11 metres of it, in small, broken sections, leaving just a couple of fragments on the wall. What happened to the rest, or even how much more there was (it’s only an assumption that it once extended around the whole room), we do not know. But it is a likely guess that much of it fell victim to the robust excavation techniques of the time.


24. This eighteenth-century engraving preserves details of the now faded painted scenes of life in the Forum. Behind the traders it is interesting to see how the bare columns of the Forum colonnade might have appeared in the ancient world itself: decorated with hanging festoons and used to support temporary partitions and gates.

The paintings are now badly faded. Even so, they offer as vivid a picture as we could hope for of life on the Pompeian streets – particularly when combined with engravings of them made soon after they were found which help to throw light on some of the murkier sections. They are not, of course, strictly realistic. The background architecture is a rather rough-and-ready version of the two-storey Forum colonnade (though the position of the statues and their relationship to the columns matches up quite closely to the remains on the ground). The intense bustle of activity at every point almost certainly goes well beyond what would be found even on the busiest market day. This is not daily life, but an imaginative re-creation of it. It is a Pompeian street scene in the mind’s eye of a Pompeian painter: beggars, hucksters, schoolkids, fast food, ladies out shopping ...

In one of the most detailed sections (Ill. 24) we get a glimpse of a couple of street traders at work, with varying degrees of enterprise. On the left of the scene is a dozy ironmonger. His table is set out with what look like hammers and pincers, which he has brought to his stall in the baskets lined up at the front (or are they metal jars for sale?). He has a couple of customers: a young boy with an older man, shopping basket on his arm. A sale is in the offing. But it looks as if the ironmonger has nodded off, and needs a wake-up call from the man behind him. On the right, a shoemaker in a bright red tunic is doing much more active trade, pitching his wares to a group of four ladies and a baby, who sit on the benches he has provided for his customers. Behind him, his range of shoes are on show in a way that baffled our eighteenth-century copyist (who depicts them floating in mid-air) and is now impossible to make out on the original. Most likely he has fixed up some display stands, propped against the columns behind. These run all along the back of the scene, festoons hanging between them. On the right, behind a couple of diminutive statues of men on horseback (in this position, probably local bigwigs – emperors would be given a more prominent setting), the space between two columns is closed by a gate. All of this is a good antidote to the austere, uncluttered, lifeless appearance of the colonnade today.


25. Buying and selling. On the left a couple of women are negotiating for the sale of some cloth. On the right a man, who has come shopping with his son, is buying a pan.


26. While a lady gives a handout to a scruffy beggar (plus dog), in the background a pair of children play peek-a-boo around a column. In the foreground is one of the many statues that stood around the Forum.


27. Methods of transport. On the right a donkey or mule is laden with a heavy saddle (note there are no stirrups). On the left is the kind of cart that once trundled the streets of the town.


28. A couple of men sitting on a bench under the Forum colonnade are perhaps adjudicating some legal case. Three men behind watch the proceedings with some care, but in the background is a more domestic scene: a Pompeian toddler asks his mother or carer to pick him up.

We are given plenty of other vignettes of buying and selling. In one section (Ill. 25), women negotiate with salesmen over pieces of cloth; a man (one of the relatively few characters here to be dressed in a toga – although it is red rather than white) chooses a metal saucepan, while his young son carries the shopping basket; and a baker serves a pair of men with what appears to be a basket of rolls. Elsewhere, in the shadow of an arch, a greengrocer has a magnificent collection of figs for sale, while a food vendor has rigged up a brazier and is busy selling hot drinks or snacks. But it is not only commercial activities that the painter has shown. There is a touch of low life (Ill. 26): an elegant lady, plus slave or child, appears to be helping the homeless, by offering cash to a very ragged beggar with a dog. And there are several glimpses of the Pompeian traffic in the shape of mules and carts (Ill. 27). Given that, as we have seen, the Forum was a pedestrianised area, is the cart artistic licence? Or were there ways – ramps over the steps perhaps – of allowing wheeled transport into the area on some occasions, or at certain times?

Local politics too plays a significant part in this vision of Pompeian life. In one scene (Plate 7), some men are reading a long public notice, written on a board or scroll, which has been fixed across the bases of three more equestrian statues (this time, perhaps members of the imperial house, shown as military heroes). Elsewhere it looks as if some kind of legal case is going on (Ill. 28). A couple of men, dressed in togas, are seated, concentrating hard as they are addressed by a standing figure – often identified as a woman, but the traces are too ambiguous to be sure of the sex. He, or she, is making a particular point, gesturing to a tablet held by a young girl who stands in front. Whether, as some have thought, this girl is meant to be the subject of the case (an issue of guardianship perhaps), or whether she is merely a convenient prop for the evidence in question, it is impossible to tell. Behind looms another of those ubiquitous equestrian statues.

But the most arresting section of all depicts a scene from a Pompeian classroom (Ill. 29). One of the puzzles in the archaeology of the city has been how and where the children were educated. We have plenty of evidence of writing and literacy (even practice alphabets scratched onto walls at child height), but – despite all kinds of implausible and over-optimistic identifications – there is no trace of a school as such. That is because Roman schoolmasters did not regularly operate in purpose-built premises, but would sit down with their class in any convenient location where there was some space and shade. One such location in Pompeii was very likely the large open space or exercise ground (palaestra) near the Amphitheatre, For it was here, on a column of its colonnade, that a schoolmaster inscribed his gratitude for payment, and by implication his frustration at the still outstanding bills: ‘May those who have paid me their school fees get what they want from the gods’. Some archaeologists have even guessed that the list of names and sums of money scratched up on the same column was a list of the poor man’s receipts.

The paintings from the Estate of Julia Felix depict a lesson going on under the colonnade of the Forum. A man, dressed in a cloak, sporting a pointed beard, appears to be supervising three pupils who are studying tablets on their knees. Other pupils or the children’s minders watch what is going on from under the colonnade. What none seem to be observing is the nasty scene to the right. One boy has had his tunic lifted to reveal his bare buttocks (or has even been stripped down to a waistband – the painting itself is not clear). Suspended on the back of another, while his feet are held tight, he is being given a good lashing. It seems a peculiarly brutal form of punishment, even by the toughest standards of the recent past, and the awkward, helpless position of the boy only serves to accentuate the cruelty. Yet interestingly, this may well have been the normal style of schoolboy beating in the ancient world. A light-hearted poem by Herodas, a Greek poet of the third century BCE, describes a mother’s attempt to reform her no-good son, Kottalos, who has been neglecting his studies in favour of gambling. She arranges for the schoolmaster to give him a hiding – and the description of the other boys lifting the unfortunate Kottalos onto their shoulders is strikingly reminiscent of what we see here.


29. Rough justice in the Pompeian classroom. One schoolboy miscreant gets a hiding, while the rest of the class get on with their work, keeping their eyes carefully on their tablets.

The frieze, fragmentary and faded as it now is, offers all kinds of precious hints about how we might begin to repopulate the Pompeian cityscape: and not just with men in white togas (indeed there are rather few of those). It prompts us to imagine children at their lessons, beggars plying for cash, traders and hucksters of all kinds, or local officials at their business. Women are prominent too, out on the streets on their own, or with their children, haggling, chatting, buying, even distributing the occasional largesse to those less fortunate than themselves. But more than that, the paintings hint at the colour, clutter and bric-a-brac of urban life that tends to get forgotten when we stare at the now bare ruins: the bright clothing, the portable tables and braziers, the wicker baskets, the garlands and all those statues. One estimate has it that in early imperial Rome live human beings outnumbered statues by a factor of only two to one – which would make a total of some half a million statues in a human population of a million. There was nothing like that concentration of sculpture in Pompeii. But, nonetheless, life in the Forum here unfolds under the watchful eyes of men in bronze (or marble), emperors alive or dead, imperial princelings and local notables.

The city that never sleeps

In 6 BCE, the emperor Augustus was called upon to adjudicate a tricky case from the Greek city of Cnidus. A couple of residents, Eubulus and Tryphera, had been troubled night after night by a group of local thugs who ‘laid siege’ to their house. Finally, their patience at an end, they told one of their slaves to get rid of them by throwing the contents of a chamber pot on their heads. But things went from bad to worse: for the slave lost his grip on the pot, it fell and killed one of the assailants. The Cnidian authorities were minded to accuse Eubulus and Tryphera of unlawful killing, but the emperor came down on the side of the couple – long-suffering victims, as he saw it, of anti-social behaviour. His judgement was inscribed publicly in a nearby town: hence our knowledge of the affair.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case (and some scholars have suspected that Eubulus and Tryphera might not have been quite as innocent as the emperor found them), it is one of the very few glimpses we get, leaving aside Juvenal’s poetic hyperbole about Rome itself, of how an ‘ordinary’ ancient town might have appeared at night: dark, unpoliced, slightly scary. How like that were the streets of Pompeii when the sun had gone down?

One image of night-time Pompeii would see even the main streets as almost pitch black. Although Romans went to enormous trouble to bring light to their world in the hours of darkness (as the thousands of bronze and pottery oil lamps found in Pompeii demonstrate), the results were patchy at best. Most people had to live their lives by the rhythms of daylight, sunrise to sunset. The inns and bars kept serving into the evening hours, illuminated in part by lamps hanging over their open doorways, their fixings in some cases still visible. In fact, one electoral poster – a satiric piece of ‘anti-propaganda’ or not – offers the support of ‘the late drinkers’ to one particular candidate for public office: ‘All the late drinkers are canvassing for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to be aedile’. But the big houses would have shut their doors and presented a solid, uninviting blank wall to the outside world, punctured only by the occasional tiny window. The shops and workshops would have closed too, secured with the shutters whose slots are still visible in their thresholds, as well as occasionally the impression of the wood itself. Without street lighting, and with uneven pavements, irregular stepping stones and a good deal of filth, pedestrians – equipped only with the light of a portable lantern, and whatever the moon provided – would have ventured about at their peril.


30. Shut up shop? The wide openings of the shops could be closed by heavy wooden shutters. This plaster cast of a set of shutters on the Via dell’Abbondanza shows how the section on the right could operate as a small door to give access when the shop was shut.

But there was life in the streets at night too, and a good deal more noise and hustle and bustle about the town than the gloomy darkness would suggest. In addition to the barking of the dogs and the braying of the donkeys, men might be at work. It is certain, for example, that on some occasions the signwriters putting up the advertisements for the next gladiatorial display in the Amphitheatre, or the electoral posters urging support for this or that candidate for local office, plied their trade by night. One such writer, Aemilius Celer, who posted an advertisement for thirty pairs of gladiators fighting over five days, carefully signed his work: ‘Aemilius Celer wrote this on his own by the light of the moon’. Such solitary activity was probably not the norm. One notice posted high up on a wall, urging support for Caius Julius Polybius in the forthcoming elections, includes a joke from the signwriter to his mate: ‘Lantern carrier, steady the ladder’. Why did they choose to work after dark? Perhaps because they were sometimes putting up notices without permission, where they should not have been (but not always – else why sign their names?). Perhaps it was more convenient to be painting when there were fewer people about to disturb the work, or rock the ladder.

There may well have also been a good deal more traffic trundling down the streets than we would at first imagine. In the same document as the regulations for the upkeep of pavements in Rome were listed are also found the rules for the entry of wheeled traffic into the city of Rome. Although all kinds of exceptions are noted (carts used for building work on temples, to remove rubble from public demolition sites, or those used in connection with important rituals), the basic principle was that wheeled transport was excluded from the city from sunrise until the tenth hour of the day – that is, given that the hours of daylight were divided into twelve, until the late afternoon or early evening. The hours of darkness, in other words, were the time when you were most likely to find carts on the streets of the capital. Indeed, in addition to his complaints about falling objects and muggers, Juvenal has some sharp words about the noise of the night-time traffic.

We cannot be certain if these regulations applied, in exactly these terms, to Pompeii; though it is a fair assumption that they did, more or less. Nor can we be certain how rigorously they would have been enforced. A law is one thing, having the will or the resources to police it, quite another. (And remember that a cart appeared in the Forum frieze in a scene that was clearly not intended to be nighttime ...) Nevertheless, there is a reasonable chance that a good proportion of the wheeled traffic whose management and control we have explored in this chapter would have been out in the street after dark. As well as the howling dogs, the carousing of the ‘late drinkers’, the whistling and joking of the signpainters at their jobs, we have to imagine the sounds of the rumbling carts, the jingling of the bells, the scraping of iron-clad wheels against the kerb or the stepping stones. Literally, a city that never slept – and was never quiet.

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