The House of the Tragic Poet

In The Last Days of Pompeii, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic disaster novel first published in 1834, a pair of lovers, Glaucus and Ione, manage to escape from the doomed city. As the volcanic debris falls, they are led to safety by a blind slave girl who is used to navigating her way around Pompeii in darkness. Tragically – but conveniently for the plot, since she too is in love with Glaucus – the slave girl drowns herself, after stealing a single kiss from her beloved. Glaucus and Ione meanwhile relocate to Athens, where they live happily ever after, as Christian converts.

The appeal of The Last Days, one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century, was partly its colourful romance: the volcano was only one of the lovers’ problems – in the days leading up to the eruption they faced any number of impediments, from a malevolent Egyptian priest to wrongful imprisonment. It was partly too its moral message, pointing up the depravity of the pagan world, from which Glaucus and Ione escaped. But a significant part of its appeal was also the vivid, and carefully researched, archaeological backdrop, from Amphitheatre to baths, Forum to private houses. Bulwer-Lytton had drawn heavily on Sir William Gell’s Pompeiana, the first comprehensive guide to Pompeii in English, and had even dedicated the novel to Gell.

The house of the hero Glaucus himself was based on the House of the Tragic Poet, a small but exquisitely decorated property uncovered in 1824 (Fig. 6). This quickly became famous as an ideal vision of Pompeian domestic life and was described in great detail inPompeiana. A few years later – partly, no doubt, thanks to the extra celebrity bestowed on it by The Last Days – it even provided the model for the ‘Pompeian Court’ at the Crystal Palace, that vast entertainment venue, combining commercial showcase with museum, which opened just outside London, at Sydenham, in 1854. It was a strange afterlife for a house that had been overwhelmed by Vesuvius almost two millennia earlier. The House of the Tragic Poet was more or less faithfully reconstructed within the Palace, and at first intended – appropriately enough, given its domestic image – to act as a tearoom for visitors. In the event plans changed, and the only visitor ever officially to sit down to tea there was Queen Victoria. In France it had a more socially exclusive nineteenth-century imitator. The interior design of the mansion in the rue Montaigne in Paris, where Prince Napoléon and his aristocratic friends enjoyed dressing up in togas and pretending to be Romans, was also based on the House of the Tragic Poet.


Figure 6. The House of the Tragic Poet. Visitors entered this house between two shops (a), down a narrow passageway to the atrium (b), with its porter’s cubby-hole (d). Beyond the tablinum (c) with its mosaic of actors preparing (Plate 17), was the garden (g). Opening onto it was a triclinium (f ) and kitchen (e).

The original remains of this house are to be found in the north-west corner of Pompeii, between the Herculaneum Gate and the Forum – directly across the street from one of the main sets of public baths, and a near neighbour, just two small blocks away, of the vast House of the Faun. Named, when it was excavated, after one of its wall paintings – then believed to depict a tragic poet reciting his work to a group of listeners (now re-identified as the mythical scene in which Admetus and Alcestis listen to the reading of an oracle) – the house was built in its present form towards the end of the first century BCE. The surviving decoration, including a striking series of wall paintings which featured scenes from Greek myth and literature, is somewhat later, the result of a makeover in the decade or so before the eruption. A few years after they were discovered, most of the figured scenes were cut out and taken to the museum in Naples, creating unattractive scars on the walls of the house. What was left in place – the surrounding patterns and the general wall colouring – is now dreadfully faded, despite the fact that it was roofed over in the 1930s to protect it from the elements. The impact is obviously much less breathtaking than when it was first discovered. That said, we can still fairly confidently reconstruct its ancient appearance and organisation, as well as glimpse something of the tremendous impression it made on visitors in the nineteenth century.


31. A reconstruction of the outside of the House of the Tragic Poet. With one of the shops shut, and only a few windows on the upper storey, the appearance is rather forbidding. The overhanging balcony at the side was a more common feature of Pompeian architecture than we would now imagine; made of wood, few have survived.

The façade of the house onto the main street (Ill. 31) is dominated by a pair of shops, in a good position to attract customers from the public baths opposite (in fact there is a strategically placed set of stepping stones across the road at this point). What they sold we do not know. In the one to the left some precious pieces of jewellery were discovered, gold and pearl ear-rings, bracelets, necklaces and finger-rings. But there was not enough to prove, as some archaeologists have suggested, that it was a high-class jewellery outlet (these things might, after all, have been the contents of a jewellery box that was never rescued). There were few windows, and those that there were, small and on the upper storey, well above eye-level. But between the shops was the grand entrance to the house, more than three metres high, fitted (as we can tell from the pivot holes on either side of the threshold) with double doors. Just to the left of this some signpainters had been busy, painting on the door pier a notice of support for Marcus Holconius, who was standing for the office of aedile, and for Caius Gavinius. Presumably this had been done with the owner’s encouragement or, at least, permission; if not, it was extremely cheeky use of someone’s doorpost.


32. At the front entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet, marked here by the round fixings for the door, was this mosaic of a guard dog, and underneath the words CAVE CANEM. The round hole below in the centre is a drainage hole – water conscious as the Pompeians always were.

Here the doors themselves have not survived, but in other houses it has occasionally been possible to make a cast of them by the same technique as has been used for the bodies of the victims – filling with plaster the hole left by their decay. From these we get a stark, and more than slightly forbidding, impression of a great barrier of wood, with metal fittings and studded with bronze, dividing the house from the outside world. There can have been no practical necessity for portals of quite this size, strength and splendour. They were there to make a visual impact on visitors and passers-by: as much a symbolic boast, as a physical barrier.

Not that the doors were always closed, of course. At night, they surely did shut off the house and its activities from the world of the street. In the daytime, they may often have been open, allowing a view into the interior. If that was not the case, then the point of one of the House of the Tragic Poet’s most iconic images would have been lost. For directly on the other side of the threshold, and just past the small drainage hole for overflow water that must sometimes have flowed down the front hall from inside the house, is a memorable image in mosaic of a dog, teeth bared and ready to pounce were he not chained up (Ill. 32). In case you missed the point, he is accompanied by the words CAVE CANEM (‘beware of the dog’). This would only have been visible if the front doors were ajar.

There are other such warning signs in Pompeii, in paint as well as mosaic, not to mention the plaster cast of the real-life dog which died still tethered to his post. One is actually described by Petronius in his novel, the Satyrica, written during the reign of the emperor Nero. Much of the book has been lost or survives only in snatches, but the most famous and best-preserved section is set in a town somewhere near the Bay of Naples and features a dinner party given by an ex-slave called Trimalchio – a man of staggering riches, but of sometimes frankly grotesque taste. When the novel’s narrator and his friends arrive at Trimalchio’s front door, the first thing they see is a notice pinned right next to it: ‘No slave to leave the premises without permission from the master. Penalty 100 lashes’ (a nice touch from one who had once been a slave himself ). Then they come across the porter, flamboyantly dressed in green with a cherry-red belt, who is keeping watch over the doorway while shelling peas into a silver bowl; and, hanging over the threshold, a magpie in a golden cage sings a greeting to the visitors. But the real shock comes next: ‘I almost fell flat on my back and broke a leg,’ explains the narrator, ‘because on the left as we went in, not far from the porter’s cubby-hole, was a huge dog, tethered by a chain ... painted on the wall. And written above him in capital letters it said CAVE CANEM, BEWARE OF THE DOG.’ Just for a minute, he has taken the picture of the dog for the real thing – only the first of many occasions at Trimalchio’s dinner party when the guests will not quite know whether to believe their eyes.

It would be dangerous to take Petronius’ fantastic novel too literally as a guide to daily life in ancient Pompeii. But it does offer a hint here of how we might reconstruct the scene at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet. The door was very likely open for much of the daytime. But the security would not have been left to the mosaic guard dog, however fearsome or lifelike it might have been, or even to the actual dog signalled by the image (like the one which Trimalchio later brings into his dinner party, with predictably disruptive results). Almost certainly a porter, albeit more modestly dressed than Trimalchio’s, would have kept an eye on who was coming and going. In fact a small room just inside the house, under the stairs, with a rough floor, has been tentatively identified as the porter’s cubby-hole.

Visitors who stepped over the threshold found themselves in a corridor, once brightly painted, though precious little colour now survives. A narrow door from each of the shops opens onto this, suggesting that whoever owned the house was closely connected with these two commercial establishments; even if he did not service them himself, he was probably their proprietor and reaped the profits. Or that at least is the modern view. Earlier observers were more puzzled by this layout. In the absence of any obvious fixtures and fittings, despite the wide openings characteristic of shops, Gell wondered if they were not shops at all but quarters for the servants. Bulwer-Lytton trailed a different idea. They were, he suggested, ‘for the reception of visitors who neither by rank nor familiarity were entitled to admission’ into the inside of the house. Bright ideas, but certainly wrong.

At the end of the corridor you came into the house proper, arranged around two open courts (Plate 8). The first, the atrium, was again lavishly decorated – including six large wall paintings of scenes from Greek mythology. At its centre the roof was open to the skies, and underneath the opening a pool collected the rainwater, which drained into a deep well. On the well-head, you can still see the deep grooves made by the ropes which brought the buckets up, full of water from below. A number of mostly rather small rooms, some brightly painted, opened directly onto the atrium, while stairways ran up on either side to whatever lay on the upper floor. Beyond the atrium was a garden, lined on three sides by a shady colonnade (an arrangement known as a ‘peristyle’ – meaning ‘surrounded by columns’), with more rooms, including a kitchen and latrine, opening off it. One of these columns has the name ‘Aninius’ scratched on it twice: the owner of the house, some archaeologists have suggested; but equally well, a friend, relative, bored guest with time on his hands, or the name of someone’s heartthrob lovingly inscribed. The back wall of the peristyle supported a small shrine, and continued the garden theme, being covered with illusionistic paintings (now completely vanished) of trelliswork and foliage (Plate 9). In the very back corner, another door led out into the lane which ran up the side of the house.

We do not know how this particular garden was planted and stocked (though the shell of what was probably the household’s pet tortoise was found there). But new techniques developed long after 1824, such as the analysis of seeds and pollen, or the careful excavation, and plaster-casting, of the root cavities, have allowed archaeologists to reconstruct in vivid detail gardens in other houses. In one, the House of Julius Polybius (where the remains of the pregnant girl were found), the garden – about twice the size of this one – turned out to have been more of an orchard-cum-wilderness than the display of elegant, formal flowerbeds we often imagine. In a space of some 10 by 10 metres there were five large trees, including a fig (to judge from the large number of carbonised figs discovered), an olive and a variety of fruit trees, apple, cherry or pear. Some were so large that they needed stakes to hold up their branches. They were tall too: the imprint of a ladder, eight metres in length, which must have been used for picking the fruit, was detected by the excavators on the ground surface. But, even so, the owners of the house had packed more in. In the shade of the branches, other small trees, shrubs and bushes were growing, and there were eight more trees espaliered (or so the pattern of nail holes hint) to the west wall of the garden. Fragments of terracotta around the roots of these show that they had been started out in large pots, then replanted. Perhaps they were more exotic species needing more careful early tending, such as lemon. Overall it must have been a dark and shady area. It was certainly dark and shady enough to make a comfortable environment for the ferns whose spores were found in large quantities at the garden’s edge.

Other house gardens were much more formal and decorative. Just a few doors away from the House of Julius Polybius, a peristyle garden has recently been uncovered, with carefully arranged geometric flowerbeds, and footpaths running between them. The beds were bordered by fences, made of reed, and were planted with a regular and colourful scheme of cypress bushes and roses, with other ornamental and flowering plants along the edges of the beds (including, to judge from the pollen remains, artemisia and pinks). The boundary wall of the garden was covered with a vine, and there were plenty of ferns along the open drains which caught the rainwater from the roof – not to mention the presence of nettles and sorrel, familiar weeds then as now. The numerous cockle shells also found in the garden have encouraged the charming idea that the occupants of the house might have wandered round the garden while eating cockles; but it might simply have been a convenient place to throw waste shells, garden perambulations or not.

Whatever the style of the garden in the House of the Tragic Poet (apart from the turtle and some fixtures on the columns, suggesting that – on one side at least – it was fenced off, we know nothing), Bulwer Lytton saw the property in terms of a nineteenth-century bachelor’s residence, and therefore suitable for the unmarried Glaucus. He had some doubts, in general, about the refinement of Pompeian wall painting: ‘The purity of the taste of the Pompeians in decoration is questionable,’ he carped. But the fine paintings in this house he reckoned ‘would scarcely disgrace a Rafaele’. Overall, he judged it as ‘a model ... for the house of “a single man in Mayfair”’: not just for its decor, but for also for its entertainment facilities. One of the first scenes of the novel, in fact, features a dinner party hosted by Glaucus, in his dining room off the peristyle: a stereotypically Roman banquet, ‘figs, fresh herbs strewed with snow, anchovies and eggs’, followed by a nice tender, roast kid, swilled down with a good vintage from Chios. The kid had not been his first choice. ‘“I had hoped,” said Glaucus, in a melancholy tone, “to have procured you some oysters from Britain; but the winds that were so cruel to Caesar have forbid us the oysters.”’

In creating this image of a sophisticated, nineteenth-century bachelor pad, Bulwer-Lytton fails to point out to his readers that the kitchen of the House of the Tragic Poet was, like that of the majority of houses, even the grandest, in Pompeii, tiny and could hardly have been adequate for the preparation of a lavish banquet. Nor does he mention that the single latrine in the house was located in – or, at best, you might say, ‘just off’ – the kitchen itself. This was again a typical arrangement, which enabled the latrine to be used for the disposal of kitchen waste, even if it upsets twenty-first-century ideas of hygiene (though perhaps not so shocking to Bulwer-Lytton, as the juxtaposition of lavatory and kitchen was not uncommon in nineteenth-century Britain). He is also silent on the fact that just over the back wall of the garden, which he imagines blooming ‘with the rarest flowers placed in vases of white marble, that were supported on pedestals’, was a cloth-processing workshop, or fullery. Fulling was a messy business, its main ingredient being human urine; hence the emperor Vespasian’s famous tax on urine, which was presumably a levy on the fulling industry. The work was noisy and smelly. In the background to Glaucus’ elegant dinner party there must have been a distinctly nasty odour.

The art of reconstruction

Houses built around an atrium, sometimes with the additional peristyle, make up almost half the housing stock surviving in Pompeii – originally (including a rough estimate about what remains unexcavated) perhaps 500 or so properties out of a total of 1200–1300 ‘habitable units’ in the town. They range from small properties with just four rooms opening onto an atrium to such overblown palaces as the House of the Faun, with its two atria and two peristyles. But their various arrangements are similar enough to be taken broadly as a single type. That is to say, for all their differences in size, wealth and detail, there is a certain predictability to their layout. This is much as we find in modern domestic properties: whatever their idiosyncrasies of design, you expect to walk from the street into a hallway rather than a bathroom; when a house is on two floors, you expect to find the bedrooms on the upper floor.

Bulwer-Lytton emphasised the familiar modernity of the House of the Tragic Poet. Underneath the colourful Roman idiosyncrasies of painting, design and diet, he found a society and an architecture which was not so far away from his own, elite nineteenth-century London. Most modern archaeologists would stress exactly the opposite: the huge gap not only between the appearance of the ruined Pompeian houses now and how they would have appeared to a visitor in the first century CE, but also between the ancient idea of a ‘house and home’ and ours. One of the biggest archaeological projects of recent years at Pompeii has been to try to understand what these houses once looked like and, at a very basic level, what they were for. Almost inevitably this work has tended to concentrate on the larger and more affluent properties, where their usually better state of preservation, as well as the greater range of finds and their more complex design, produce both bigger puzzles and better hope of an answer.

Those who walk into one of the grander Pompeian houses today would be forgiven for imagining that the wealthy inhabitants of first-century CE Pompeii espoused an austere modernist aesthetic, uncluttered, even uncomfortably empty. But, as with the streetscape, what we see (or rather don’t see) now is misleading. For a start, almost all the furniture that there once was has disappeared, much of it without a trace. A lot of the most valuable material, which might well have included precious furnishings, was removed by the Pompeians themselves, whether by those in flight in the days just before the final disaster or by salvagers and looters afterwards. Besides, unlike at the nearby town of Herculaneum, where the different composition of the volcanic material, and the pattern of its flow, preserved all kinds of charred wooden furniture, only small fragments of carbonised wood have survived at Pompeii. All the same, we can still get some idea of what went where, and what it looked like – beyond the occasional marble table that has remained in place.

This is partly from what has been found at Herculaneum, which can hardly be very different from what was once at Pompeii: ranging from tables to beds (Ill. 33), and in one case a wooden screen, which could be opened or closed, stretching right across the back of the atrium. It is partly from the paintings of furniture in the scenes on Pompeian walls. The chair on which the Greek poet Menander sits in the famous picture which gives its name to the House of the Menander cannot be much different from those once used in the house itself (Ill. 44). But it has also sometimes been possible to reconstruct wooden objects from Pompeii by the familiar technique of moulding the impressions they left in the hardened debris. This is how we know, for example, that five cupboards lined one wall of the colonnade in the House of Julius Polybius, containing all kinds of domestic articles, from food in jars (one cupboard was effectively a pantry) to the household glassware, lamps, a bronze seal, some bronze chains and a tooth.


33. This child’s wooden cradle from nearby Herculaneum gives some idea of the furniture than must once have filled the houses of Pompeii – where the volcanic material destroyed most of the wood, leaving only hinges and fittings to help us to reconstruct the cupboards, chairs, and beds, etc.

In other cases we can reconstruct the presence of furniture from yet fainter traces. You can still see, for example, the fixings for shelves on walls – as in one of the rooms off the atrium in the House of the Tragic Poet, which must have been converted into a storeroom after it had been elegantly painted for some grander use. It has also been possible to re-create chests and cupboards from the remaining tell-tale bone hinges and bronze fittings or locks. The truth is that these were often missed or ignored by early excavators; and even when they were collected, the rough-and-ready approach to archaeological record keeping that prevailed until very recently means that it can be hard now to find out exactly where they were found (the same is true for very many ‘minor’, and not so minor, objects). But we have enough evidence to be able to say that the atrium, grand and lofty as it might appear, also doubled as a major storage area.

In the atrium of the House of Venus in a Bikini, a relatively small house, named after a statuette of Venus found there, thirty-two bone hinges were discovered in one corner – all that was left of a large wooden cupboard, fronted with doors. Still surviving were its contents, a range of very ordinary, and mixed, household equipment and other bric-a-brac: bronze jugs and plates, a bronze basin and a cake mould, small glass bottles and jars, a bronze lantern, inkwell and compass, a mirror, a couple of bronze signet rings, some other assorted pieces of jewellery, a coloured marble egg, nine dice and other bits of gaming equipment, some metalwork which has been (rightly or wrongly) identified as leg irons, plus some gold, silver and bronze coins. In another corner, more bone hinges and bronze fittings indicated another cupboard, this time containing a range of rather more prized possessions: the statuette of Venus, a glass swan, a terracotta Cupid, plus some rock-crystal jewellery, a broken horse bit, a couple of strigils (used for ‘scraping down’ after exercise) and various bits and pieces of bone and bronze, including two lamp-stands. Some of this might be the result of a hasty departure by the house’s occupants, and the speedy stashing away of valuables in the hope perhaps of return. But, in general, the impression is of a pair of regular domestic store cupboards, with that mixture familiar from our own cupboards, of household essentials in everyday use, broken bits and pieces which really should have been thrown away, and a couple of valuables put out of harm’s way.

We find much the same in the atria of other houses. One had a cupboard loaded with pottery and glassware, including some food in glass jars (to judge from the fishbones). Another had a couple of chests holding some candelabra, as well as more mundane domestic equipment and clothing (or so a buckle would suggest), while a tall upright cupboard had been used to store the best tableware, in bronze, silver and glass as well as pottery. But it was not just a question of storage. In any house not directly connected to the aqueduct supply, the atrium also usually contained the main well; so we could expect to see the buckets and tackle for drawing water. What is more, the loom weights (used in weaving to keep the vertical strands of thread taut) commonly found in atria or in the rooms opening off them make it almost certain that the atrium was a normal place for the household loom, or looms, to be placed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, since cloth production required a considerable amount of space, which in all but the largest houses you would find only in the atrium or peristyle.

Weaving also needed good lighting, which the atrium could also reliably provide. One of the hardest things to recapture is the combination of gaudy brightness and dingy gloom that characterised Pompeian houses of this type. The vast majority were originally painted in vivid colours, which have in many cases now faded to, literally, pale imitations of what they once were: deep reds to washed-out pinks, bright yellows to creamy pastel. And it was not just a matter of coloured walls. Though the original ceilings rarely survive, where they have been reconstructed (by piecing together the fallen plasterwork found on the floor) they also are sometimes ornately decorated and coloured in rich hues. Columns too would have been decorated. They were regularly painted plain red at least part-way up their shaft, but inside one house, just outside the Herculaneum Gate, some of the columns were completely covered in glittering mosaic – a flamboyant gesture even by Pompeian standards, and one which has given the modern name to the property, ‘The Villa of the Mosaic Columns’. Like the Pompeian street, many a Pompeian house would have been, in our terms, an assault on the visual senses.

That assault was perhaps mitigated by the general darkness. For while the sunlight would have streamed into the atrium through the open roof, and into the peristyle garden, many other rooms had little or no direct access to light – except what they could borrow from those internal sources. There were, it is true, those vast multi-storey houses on the west of the town that made the most of their sea view with huge picture windows, but mostly – as we saw from the street – external windows were few and small. Within these constraints the Pompeians went to some trouble to bring as much light as they could into dark places. Walking round the ruined houses you can still spot small light wells, or holes in walls above doors, designed to shed light inside a room even when the door was closed.

And there were literally thousands of lamps, in pottery or bronze, plain and ornate, with single or multiple flames, hanging, on tall stands, or simply made to rest on the floor or table. In general they ran on oil; though recent chemical analysis has pointed to an unexpected refinement. Oil mixed with tallow was regularly burned in bronze lamps, pure oil in the unglazed pottery. Is that because, being porous, the pottery would quickly have absorbed an unpleasant smell from the tallow? These objects were household staples, most of the pottery versions being produced by local industry (a small but thriving lamp workshop has been found not far from the Amphitheatre). There are now ranks and ranks of them of all sorts in the museum in Naples, including one in bronze in the shape of a sandalled foot (the flame coming out of the big toe), and at least one more like the African head dropped by that unsuccessful pair of refugees whose escape attempt we tracked in the Introduction. In the House of Julius Polybius alone more than seventy pottery lamps were found, and one bronze example. Even so, it is hard to imagine that the side rooms were ever well lit by modern standards, or that by night the whole house was anything other than blanketed in darkness – brightened only by moon and stars, a couple of braziers (which would give heat too), and the rather feeble twinkling of any number of little lamps.

Adjustments to lighting – and to privacy – could also be made with the various doors, shutters and curtains that were once attached to almost every opening. The open-plan atmosphere of most Pompeian houses today is not entirely misleading. As we shall see, part of their design intentionally emphasised the open vistas through the property. But, at the same time, there is hardly a doorway or other opening in these houses that could not also be shut or curtained off if the inhabitants so wished. It is easy to spot, once you have been alerted, the grooves and holes that held the fittings for doors in the rooms round the atrium and peristyle, or the tell-tale traces of the fixtures for – no doubt brightly coloured – curtains, which would have added to the gaudy razzmatazz. Where there were no doors as such, or curtains, we might imagine free-standing screens, like the one preserved at Herculaneum. There might even once have been fences, as in the House of the Tragic Poet, between the columns of what is now an open colonnade. Many of the rooms that now look stark and open could have been made private, cosy nooks. Though privacy would have come at a price: darkness.

So far, so good. But the nagging question remains of what happened where? in one of these Pompeian houses. We have already glimpsed the atrium with its store cupboards, weavers and slaves drawing the water. But suppose we had walked in through the front door, what would we have found going on in other rooms? Or to put it the other way round, where did the people who lived here eat, cook, sleep, or shit? And who were ‘people who lived here ’ and how many?

Some activities are easily enough located – or striking by their absence. Apart from a few private bath suites in the grandest properties, there were, for example, no designated bathrooms or washrooms in these houses. However often people might have rinsed their hands in a fountain or washed their face (or hair) in a bowl of water, bathing as such was a public activity, which took place in the city baths. Even in houses that were directly connected to the aqueduct supply, very little water overall went to sanitary or domestic use. Most of what came through the pipes was used for fountains and garden features – the triumphs of Roman engineering giving the wealthy a chance to demonstrate their control of the elements rather than encouraging them to take a more robust attitude to hygiene.

By contrast lavatories are a common feature of Pompeian houses and easy to spot. One archaeologist, a dedicated toilet specialist, has recently examined 195 of these, a total which does not include those that have collapsed since excavation or those which are apparently still used by visitors ‘caught short’. Almost always only one per house (we must imagine that all kinds of pots, as well as the garden bushes, served the same function), these were commonly found, as in the House of the Tragic Poet, in kitchens. They were partly screened off from the surrounding area, but in this case usually without any sign of a door – an indication, like the multi-seater public latrines found in Pompeii and elsewhere, that Romans did not share our own obsession with total privacy in this sphere of life. The arrangement was simple: a wooden seat over a drain, leading usually to a cesspit. As they remained unconnected to the mains water supply, presumably a bucket or two of water was thrown down the drain every now and then to speed the detritus on its way.

This picture of a rather makeshift (and distinctly smelly) facility is usually completed in the modern imagination with a pot carrying the sponge on a stick with which, we are always told, Romans wiped their bottoms. No doubt sometimes they did. But the evidence for this is flimsier than it is often presented (and does not stretch very far beyond the gruesome anecdote told by the emperor Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, about the German prisoner who killed himself by stuffing the lavatory sponge down his throat rather than face the beasts in the arena). Pompeians may have improvised with any number of materials for this task. One nice suggestion is that in a house converted in the last years of the city into a garum depot, the large leaves of an adjacent fig tree might well have served instead of a sponge. New evidence from a large cesspit at nearby Herculaneum suggests that they may also have used strips of cloth.

It is also easy enough to identify kitchens and dining rooms. Or so it is in the richer houses, at least. Medium-sized and poorer houses were much more likely to have a latrine than any area specially designed for cooking, still less for eating. But with food and food preparation we begin to get the clear sense that in these Pompeian houses function did not match up to rooms as precisely as we might imagine.

You can tell a kitchen from its cooking hearth, with occasionally a fixed water basin too, and even more rarely still a connection to the mains water supply. Normally, as in the House of the Tragic Poet, they were rather poky little affairs (Ill. 34). Certainly some cooking took place in them, and perhaps some food preparation as well (especially if we imagine that the adjacent lavatory doubled for waste disposal). But only a few were big enough to accommodate all the preparations necessary for a large dinner. We must also imagine meat roasting on portable braziers in the peristyle, with peeling, gutting and all the rest going on wherever there was space – just as Trimalchio’s porter was doubling as a pea-sheller by the front door. As for the washing up, one of the main tasks of the modern kitchen, it is a matter of guesswork how and where the dishes, glasses, knives and spoons (they had no forks, which were a medieval invention) were cleaned and dried in a Pompeian house.

Eating and dining also spread all around the house. It is true that unlike kitchens – which are often so unimpressive that they can be entirely missed by modern visitors – dining rooms can be eye-catching and some of the most exquisitely crafted and decorated rooms in the city. The Latin word for dining room, triclinium means literally ‘three couches’, reflecting the common pattern of formal dinners in the Roman world, which involved the participants reclining, three to a couch on three separate couches. In Pompeii,triclinia came in various forms and locations within the house. Some were equipped with movable wooden couches (of which nothing or only faint traces of the fixtures may remain), others were designed with fixed masonry couches. Some were inside, others in garden areas in the semi-open air (so-called ‘summer triclinia’ – on the assumption that they were used for dining on balmy Mediterranean evenings during the summer months).


34. The hearth of a typically poky kitchen in the House of the Vettii. The pots and pans have been placed there for effect – they were not found in this position.

None was more elegant than the partly open-air installation that looked out onto the garden of the House of the Golden Bracelet (Ill. 35). This had just two fixed couches, faced in white marble, on opposite sides of the room. For where, at the end of the room, a third couch might have been fitted to make the characteristic ‘U’-shaped arrangement of the Roman triclinium, there was a striking water feature, or nymphaeum. This was a flight of twelve steps, set in a niche covered in mosaics made out of glass and sea shell, down which a stream of water, brought from the mains supply, cascaded – or, more realistically perhaps, trickled. From the base of the steps, the water was channelled into a bowl that stood between the couches, and then on into another pool and fountain along the garden edge of the room. This is an arrangement found elsewhere in Pompeii, not to mention other, grander, places in the Roman world, and it must have come close to the Roman idea of ‘dining heaven’. For them, it seems, nothing could beat the pleasure of eating against a background of softly splashing water, set off by the twinkling of light catching the mosaic. In the House of the Golden Bracelet, the whole effect might have been enhanced, in the evening darkness, by an array of lamps placed in the line of tiny niches that ran all along the front of the couches (though those would also have provided a convenient place for resting nibbles between mouthfuls).

But not all dining was formal. We have no idea how often dinners would have been eaten in this style. Modern scholars often imply that this was a regular Roman fixture: ‘the main meal of the Roman day, cena or “dinner” was taken in the triclinium in the late afternoon ...’), as you can find stated in many modern handbooks to the ancient world. In fact, as with so much of what we now read about social life in Rome, this is wild over-generalisation based on a few isolated references in Latin writers, of different periods, stitched together as if it was the norm. The truth is that the majority of the inhabitants of Pompeii only rarely, if ever, dined formally on couches; most houses did not have a triclinium. Even for the richest, with not just one but a choice of triclinia at home, it still might have been an unusual event. We certainly should not imagine other meals being taken in this way: whatever the Pompeians ate when they got out of bed in the morning, there is no reason at all to suppose that they ate it reclining on atriclinium.


35. A triclinium to die for. The diners reclined on either side of the water, which flowed down from the niche at the end into the pool between the couches. Imagine the scene in the evening, as the diners could look out from here on to the garden, to the sound of babbling water – and lamps twinkled perhaps in those little holes beneath the couches.

Food must have been consumed in all kinds of other locations about the house. In the smaller houses there would hardly have been much choice: you ate where you could. In larger houses slaves perhaps ate what they managed to pick up on the job, or out of sight in the service quarters; the porter presumably quaffed in his cubby-hole. Other people too maybe grabbed what food was to hand, or sat on a bench in the peristyle, or pulled a chair up to a table in the atrium. That is certainly what the pattern of finds suggests. Even bearing in mind all the likely disturbance before and after the eruption, plates, drinking cups and other standard pieces of tableware are found all through Pompeian houses. The impression is one of people eating ‘on the wing’.

There is then a piquant contradiction built into these rich Pompeian houses. They blazon a culture of leisured dining, with its own special locations, fixtures and equipment. Yet we also find, side by side, a culture that is much closer to that of the modern barbecue or fast-food. To put it another way, despite some rooms designed with a particular function in mind, there was much less differentiation of space and activity in the Pompeian house than in our own – with our clearly demarcated ‘bedrooms’, ‘living rooms’, ‘bathrooms’ and so on. As in many domestic arrangements before the modern era, most of the Pompeian house was multi-purpose.

Upstairs, downstairs

This becomes even more clear if we broach two other related questions. Where did people sleep? And what happened upstairs? The upper floors are one of the most intriguing mysteries when we try to figure out what these houses would have originally looked like, and how they would have been used. We know that many properties had an upper floor. Sometimes this was accessed directly from the street, and in all likelihood consisted in a flat for rental. In Roman law ownership went with the ground, so any separate living units on the upper floor could not have been ‘owner-occupied’. Elsewhere stairs led up directly from inside. That is the case, for example, in the House of the Tragic Poet, though Bulwer-Lytton ducks the issue: his characters don’t go upstairs.

What would they have found there? That question is particularly hard to answer because relatively little of the upper structure survives anywhere in the town (where it appears to be intact, it is often in large part modern restoration). Sometimes objects found in the rooms below have been thought to have come from the quarters above, falling through the floor in the destruction. That is almost certainly the case with the famous wax record tablets of the Pompeian banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, which suggests that in his house part of the loft was being used as an overspill filing cabinet for out-of-date documents. How usual that arrangement was, we are not sure.

The obvious answer, based on our own experience, that the upper floors were designed for sleeping is probably only partially right. The principal occupants of the house would have slept downstairs. We often find the traces of a fitted bed or couch still visible in those small rooms off the atrium or peristyle and others would have had similar, but movable furniture – though even these were not necessarily ‘bedrooms’ in our narrow sense of the word, but rooms where the couch could do duty as both sofa and bed, used by day and night. The upper floor was perhaps more likely to be used by the household slaves for sleeping, if they did not just lie down on the floor in the kitchen, at the master’s door or at the foot of his bed, or sometimes, of course, in it, given the sexual duties that ancient slaves might be expected to perform. Another view would see here more rooms for the ancient equivalent of lodgers, who would have accessed their quarters upstairs from inside the house itself, perhaps not using the grand front door from the main street, but one of the back doors that most houses had. In truth, we are probably dealing with a mixture of all three uses: attic storage, bedrooms, and rooms or apartments to let.

In one relatively small house (the House of the Prince of Naples, named after the local aristocrat who witnessed its excavation in the 1890s), there are no fewer than three staircases leading to rooms on the upper floor. One leads up from the street outside, to – presumably – a separate rented apartment. Another leads up from the atrium to what were at best a few dingy rooms. The most recent archaeologist to study this house thought these were most likely sleeping quarters for a handful of slaves. They could equally well have been attic storerooms. Another stairway went up from the kitchen, to rather brighter accommodation which overlooked the garden. Perhaps this was another rented apartment (but accessed from the kitchen?), or more quarters for domestic slaves, or maybe for the children of the house with their slave carers. This last option would be one solution to another little Pompeian problem: where did the children sleep? Apart from a single wooden cot found at Herculaneum (Ill. 33), we have no evidence at all of any special provision for sleeping infants. They must simply have bedded down with adults, either their parents or much more likely slaves.

The even bigger question that the upper storeys raise is how many people would have lived in one of these houses, and – leaving aside the apartments with their own independent street access – what kind of relationship would they have had to one another. Pompeian houses were not usually occupied by just one married couple, their children and a couple of faithful retainers. Anyone who once studied Latin using the Cambridge Latin Course and its (partly) imaginary Pompeian family should put the idea of Caecilius and Metella, their son Quintus, with slaves Clemens and Grumio, the cook, right out of their minds.

Well-off Romans lived in an extended family. This was not the loose mixture of cohabiting grandparents, aunts, uncles and a variety of cousins which we usually mean by that term (a mixture that is anyway more nostalgic fiction than historical reality). It was rather an extended household – or houseful as one scholar has more aptly put it – consisting of a more or less ‘nuclear family’ and a wide array of dependants and hangers-on. These included not just slaves (and there may have been very many of these in the richest households), but ex-slaves too.

In Rome, unlike the Greek world, domestic slaves were often granted their freedom after long years of service: an act of apparent generosity on the part of the master, which sprang from a mixture of humanitarian fellow-feeling and economic self-interest – for it got rid of the expense of feeding and supporting those no longer fit for much work, while also acting as an incentive to the others to remain obedient and hardworking. The fictional Trimalchio was very much an exception among this class. Most ex-slaves remained in various ways attached and obligated to their old master and his family, running their shops and other commercial enterprises, even still living on the premises – perhaps now with their own wives and children. In fact, the Latin word familia does not mean ‘family’ in our sense, but the wider household including the slaves and ex-slaves.

So adding together the nuclear family of the house owner, the slaves and ex-slaves, and the lodgers, how many people would have been resident in a house like the House of the Tragic Poet? The truth is we can only guess. One idea has been that the number of beds might help the calculation. But even when we find a clear trace of one, we cannot be certain that it was actually used for sleeping, or, if it was, how many people it would have contained. (Recognisably ‘double beds’ are not found at Pompeii or Herculaneum, though many do seem large enough to hold more than one occupant, adult or child.) And the number of people we pack in upstairs or imagine sleeping curled up on the floor is quite imponderable. One recent estimate for the House of the Tragic Poet gives a figure around forty. In my view, this is much too large. It involves housing no fewer than twenty-eight sleepers upstairs, and, if multiplied across the whole city, would give an implausible total of 34,000 inhabitants. Nonetheless, even if you halve it, it offers an image of a relatively crowded lifestyle, a very long way from Bulwer-Lytton’s idea of the sophisticated bachelor pad – and with considerable pressure on that single lavatory.

But reconstructing the houses of Pompeii demands more than filling in the gaps of what has been lost, satisfying as it is to restock those bare atria with their cupboards, looms, screens and curtains, not to mention the odd sleeping slave. There are also bigger issues of what these Pompeian houses were for. To reflect on these, we must look at how the one surviving Roman discussion of domestic architecture presents the purpose of the house and how that can help us understand what remains at Pompeii.

Show houses

An important guide to the social function of the Roman house is Vitruvius’ treatise On Architecture, probably written in the reign of the emperor Augustus. Vitruvius is largely concerned with methods of construction, public monuments and city planning, but in his sixth book he discusses the domus or ‘private house’. It is at once clear that, for him, it was not ‘private’ in the sense that we usually mean. For us, ‘home’ is firmly separated from the world of business or politics; it is where you go in order to escape the constraints and obligations of public life. In Vitruvius’ discussion, by contrast, the domus is treated as part of the public image of its owner, and it provides the backdrop against which he conducts at least some of his public life. Roman history provides telling examples of just that kind of identification between a public figure and his residence: when Cicero is forced into exile, his adversary pointedly demolishes his house (which Cicero rebuilds on his return); shortly before the assassination of Julius Caesar, his wife had a dream in which the gable of their house collapses.

Vitruvius recognises that different areas of the house have different functions. But the distinctions he suggests are unexpected. He does not, for example, suggest that the house be divided into men’s and women’s areas (as it regularly was in classical Athens). Nor does he suggest a division by age: there are no ‘nursery wings’ in Vitruvius’ ideal house plan. Instead he draws a distinction between those ‘common’ parts of the house which visitors may enter uninvited, and the ‘exclusive’ parts into which guests would only venture if they were invited. The ‘common’ parts include atria, vestibules and peristyles; the ‘exclusive ’ parts include cubicula (‘chambers’, despite its old-fashioned ring, is a better translation than the more usual ‘bedrooms’), triclinia (‘dining rooms’) and bath suites. This is almost, but not quite, a distinction between public and private areas. Not quite, because – as other Roman writers make clear – all kinds of public business might be conducted intra cubiculum, from recitations and dining to (in the case of emperors) judicial trials. It was not, like a modern bedroom, a room from which visitors are almost completely excluded, still less was it used principally for sleeping. It was one to which access was restricted by invitation.

He also emphasises a social hierarchy in the design of a house. The Roman elite, those holding public and political office, needed the grand ‘common’ areas of a house. Those lower down the social spectrum could do without a grand vestibule, atrium ortablinum(the name given to the relatively large room often found, as in the House of the Tragic Poet, between atrium and peristyle – and used, we guess, by the master of the house). Of course they could do without them. For they did not have a public civic role, with subordinates, dependants and clients to entertain. Quite the reverse: it was they who frequented the vestibules, atria and tablina of others.

This theorizing of Vitruvius does not exactly match the evidence from Pompeii. For example, atria are not restricted, as he seems to imply, to the grand display houses, but are found in many very small establishments too. And it can often prove hard to pin the names that Vitruvius uses for individual rooms to the remains we find on the ground (although modern plans tend to be littered with his Latin terminology). Vitruvius was offering an ideal of Roman architecture at its highest and most abstract level, and certainly did not have the houses of a small southern Italian town in mind. Nonetheless, his overall view of the public purpose of the domus can help us get a better understanding of at least the more showy houses at Pompeii.

Whether or not the porter actually allowed you access (walking in completely ‘uninvited’ is, I am sure, a more theoretical than real proposition), the interiors of houses were made to be seen. Of course, they were closed up and forbidding by night, and even by day the view towards the heart of the house might sometimes have been blocked by screens, internal doors and curtains. But this does not detract from the underlying logic of their plan: that the open front door should offer a carefully designed vista into the interior space. Peering into the House of the Tragic Poet, for example, your eye was drawn first to the large show room between the atrium and the peristyle (Vitruvius’ tablinum), then through the peristyle directly on to the shrine on the back wall of the garden. Out of vision were the more ‘exclusive ’ areas, such as the large room that was probably a dining room off the peristyle, as well as the service areas and kitchen.

In the House of the Vettii, more imaginative effects were contrived, on a ‘priapic’ theme which has often captured the interest of modern visitors. In the vestibule of this house is one of the most photographed and reproduced images to have been found at Pompeii: a painting of the god Priapus, divine protector of the household, weighing his huge phallus against a bag of money (Ill. 36). There was a more learned point here than might first meet the eye, for as well as showing off a boastful erection, the image also cleverly visualises a pun on the words penis and pendere, ‘to weigh’. But he was not the only such figure in the house. In the ancient visitor’s line of vision this Priapus was most likely linked to another priapic image. Looking ahead from the front door, through the atrium, to the peristyle and garden (there was no tablinum in the House of the Vettii) the eye was drawn to a large marble fountain statue of Priapus, rhyming with the figure in the entranceway – though in this case the joke was that a stream of water spurted out of his erect penis. The implied message of power and prosperity was reinforced by the layout of the atrium itself. On either side large bronze chests – to hold the kind of riches that the Priapus at the doorway is weighing out – were on prominent display. Out of direct vision, were the more ‘exclusive’ zones and the service quarters.


Figure 7. The House of the Vettii. A large peristyle garden dominates the House of the Vettii, and the most lavishly decorated rooms open onto it. Visitors entering the house looked through to this, past the chests that symbolised (and, no doubt, literally contained) the owners’ wealth.

Again taking their cue from Vitruvius, who related the design of the house to the hierarchies of Roman society (and especially to the relations between men of the elite and their various dependants), archaeologists have re-imagined how one characteristic Roman social ritual might have taken place in this Pompeian setting. That ritual is the early morning salutatio, at which ‘clients’ of all sorts would call on their rich patrons, to receive favours or cash in return for their votes, or for providing more symbolic services (escort duty, or simply applause) to enhance the patron’s prestige. From Rome itself, we have plenty of complaints about this from the client’s point of view in the poetry of Juvenal and Martial, who – as relatively well-heeled dependants – predictably enough made the most noise about the indignities they had to suffer in return for a modest handout. ‘You promise me three denarii,’ moans Martial at one point, ‘and tell me to be on duty in your atria, dressed up in my toga. Then I’m supposed to stick by your side, walk in front of your chair, while you go visiting ten widows, plus or minus ...’ In Pompeii, it is easy to imagine how such a social ritual might have taken place within the domus: the clients lined up outside on those stone benches, then – when the house doors were opened first thing in the morning – they made their way through the narrow entrance passage, into the atrium, to wait their turn to speak to their patron proudly sitting in his tablinum, dispensing favours, or not, as the mood took him.

In all likelihood, that image is rather too grand and formal for what would actually have happened in Pompeii. Even if in Rome itself the ritual of morning salutatio was as regular and structured as the poets imply (and I have my doubts about that), it could not possibly have been so in a small town. Besides, we have to remember that in Pompeii the ritual would have taken place in a space which was also the house’s main storage area and may well have included a loom or two as well. Rather than imagining thesalutatiointerrupted by the clattering of the women weaving and the slaves rushing to and from the cupboards, some archaeologists have suggested a kind of temporal zoning. On this model, the atrium was the master’s territory early in the morning, to be taken over by family and slaves only once he had left home for the Forum and other public business. But here again I have my doubts that it all really was so neatly arranged.

We are also in danger of over-simplifying the social dynamics of the relationships involved, whether in Rome or Pompeii. The anxieties and humiliations of those waiting to be admitted to the presence of their patron are one thing. We can all imagine what it must have been like waiting to put one’s case to some bigwig who could choose whether to help you or not (with a job for your son, a loan, or a blind eye to the unpaid rent). There must have been anxieties on the other side too. For, in this world of status and show, patrons needed clients almost as much as clients needed patrons. Imagine the anxiety and humiliation on the other side, for a patron installed in his tablinum waiting for clients – and not a single one shows up.

Nonetheless, these rituals of power, dependence and patronage do help to reveal the logic of the Roman house and its arrangements. These were houses meant for show – and that idea trickled down, albeit in diluted form, even to those properties which consisted of just a few rooms around an atrium.


36. An image of plenty. Just past the front door of the House of the Vettii, the god Priapus greets the visitor – weighing his large phallus against a money bag.

For richer for poorer: not ‘the Pompeian house’

These houses built around an atrium and, often, a peristyle garden have come to stand for the domestic world of Pompeii. They have long caught the popular imagination, partly because of books such as the Last Days of Pompeii, and they are now commonly known in shorthand simply as ‘the Pompeian house’, as if they were the only form of domestic architecture in the city. In fact they are just one amongst many. That itself is significant. The very variety of housing at Pompeii, in size, type and grandeur, points to huge disparities in wealth in the town. This is in marked contrast to the relatively homogeneous housing stock in some ancient Greek cities that have been excavated, where the differences between rich and poor were at least masked by houses that were all more or less of the same size and type. In Pompeii there was a very big gap between the smallest and largest atrium house, but even the smallest would have been beyond the means of many hundreds of the free inhabitants of the city. Ironically a good many slaves, even if consigned to dingy attics, lived in conditions and surroundings that would have been the envy of some of the free poor.

So where did the poor live? That depends a bit on what we mean by ‘poor’ – and how poor. One particularly bleak view is that, if by ‘poverty’ we mean ‘destitution’, then there were very few poor in the ancient world: for the simple reason that destitution was the first step on a fast track to death. The ‘poor’ had to have a reasonably secure means of support simply to survive, whether a trade or craft, or connections with the extended households of the rich. Those with no means did not survive; end of story.

We have already noted the cramped living and sleeping quarters attached to shops and workshops. These probably accounted for as many living units in Pompeii as the atrium house, though they obviously housed far fewer people in total. Below that, the beggar pictured in the scenes of the Forum gives a hint of life on the very margins of destitution. We can only guess where he might have laid his head at night. But given the anxiety of the Roman law codes about those who desecrate large tombs by squatting in them (‘Anyone who so wishes may prosecute a person who lives or makes his dwelling in a tomb’, as later Roman legal opinion had it), the impressive family mausolea along the roads leading out of the town seem very likely candidates. But there were plenty of other options, from the arches of the Amphitheatre to colonnades of temples.

Almost as close to the edge were those who occupied the single rooms squeezed in among the houses and shops, opening onto the street but with no fittings other than a masonry bed (Ill. 37). These are usually identified as prostitutes’ booths, and indeed several of them do have a prominent phallus above the entrance. But they could equally well be the tiny, austere quarters of the poor – the phallus an optimistic symbol of good luck, rather than an advertisement for sexual services. Or, of course, they might be both. For prostitution was in the Roman world, as so often, the last resort of the disadvantaged. It could be the last hope of survival for those without the usual support networks: from the runaway slave to orphan or widow.


37. An overgrown single room dwelling, fitted out with just a masonry bed. A prostitute’s booth? Or the cheapest form of Pompeian bedsit?

Higher up the spectrum of wealth there are other varieties of housing. In the south-east corner of the city there is a distinctive group of what we would call small terraced houses. Narrow single-storey dwellings, with an open central court, but no atrium, these were all built in a row, to the same design, on the same scale (roughly the size of a small atrium house), at the same time towards the end of the third century BCE. Presumably part of a planned development to receive an influx of new people (perhaps those displaced in the war against Hannibal), they were still in use at the time of the eruption, although by that time many had had an atrium and upper floor added.

Different again is the range of rented apartments or flats. We have already seen the clear signs of rented accommodation on the upper floors of atrium houses. There is also vivid evidence for a rather more systematic, large-scale and purpose-built rental market. So, for example, a mixture of substantial flats and atrium apartments occupy the three upper floors of a rather flashy multi-storey building which clings to the slope on the south side of the city, overlooking the river valley. The lower levels of the block were used by one of the privately run commercial bathhouses in the city, now called, after its river view, the Sarno Baths (it is here that the graffiti of the waiting children were discovered). The only such building in the town, its overall style is reminiscent of some of the more expensive blocks of apartments found at Ostia. Many of the rooms are light and airy, with large windows and terraces offering great vistas – quite unlike the inward-looking atrium house. They can hardly have been the accommodation of the really poor. Were these more like Bulwer-Lytton’s bachelor pads?


38. A bath block with a river view: the Sarno Baths. The bathing establishment was on the lower floors. Residential apartments occupied the upper levels.

There were downsides here, however. Although a good number of upper floor apartments in other houses did have lavatories (a wooden seat over a chute in the wall), these – so far as we can tell – did not. And the proximity of the baths could have been an irritant to those who valued peace and quiet. At least, that is the implication of the complaints of the philosopher Seneca who once lived in a similar situation in Rome.


Figure 8. Insula Arriana Polliana. This whole property was divided between an elite residence (unshaded), with atrium and peristyle, accessed by entrance 1, and various smaller units around the edge of the property – shops and apartments – that were available for rent. Stairways gave access to apartments on the upper floor.

I live over some baths. Imagine the assortment of sounds, which make me hate the very power of hearing. When the muscle boys are exercising and pumping the lead weights, when they are working out, or pretending to, I hear their grunt ... Finally imagine the hair-plucker with his strident, shrill voice, never holding it in, except when he’s plucking someone’s armpit and making his client yelp instead.

Seneca could be a bit of a killjoy, but in this case we can sympathise.

In another large property, five minutes’ walk north of the Forum, a lucky find gives us a glimpse of the organisation of the rental market, and the various kinds of properties that were available. Just near a street corner, a notice was once visible (though it has now vanished):

To let from 1 July. In the insula Arriana Polliana, property of Cnaius Alleius Nigidius Maius, commerical/residential units with mezzanines [tabernae cum pergulis suis], quality upper floor apartments [cenacula equestria] and houses [domus]. Agent: Primus, slave of Cnaius Alleius Nigidius Maius.

Three kinds of accommodation were on offer via the owner’s slave agent, each of which we can match up to different parts of the large property on which the notice was painted (Fig. 8).

In the centre of the whole block – the insula Arriana Polliana – is a substantial atrium house, with a peristyle and (at least in its final form) a further garden beyond. This house used to be called, by a misidentification, the House of Pansa, but it must actually have belonged to Cnaius Alleius Nigidius Maius, a member of one of the region’s old families and active in the local government of the town in the 50s and 60s CE, who was looking for tenants for his tabernae, cenacula and domus. Tabernae are usually translated ‘shops’ or ‘workshops’, and that is what we find along the main road, in the units with their characteristic wide-open fronts (numbers 21–3, 2–4); the mezzanine floors, where the shopkeeper and his family would have had their living quarters, have disappeared, but in places the holes for the cross-beams are still visible. Down the side street, numbers 14–16, without the distinctive shop front, may have been purely residential: hence my translation ‘commercial/residential units’.

The upper-floor apartments, cenacula, were accessed through stairways from the street at numbers 18, 19, 6, 8 and 10a. The description equestria refers literally to the Roman elite class of ‘knights’ (or ‘equestrians’), a wealthy group who would expect to live in rather grander circumstances than this. Here the adjective is probably used as a promise (or an expectation) of some social respectability, as in the old phrase ‘gentleman’s outfitter’. The houses (domus) were most likely the ground floor apartments, numbers 7, 9 and 10, unless the atrium house in the centre was also up to rent, Nigidius Maius himself having moved elsewhere.

It is hard to know exactly where on the social spectrum of the town’s population to place the occupants of these various units, though various remarks in Petronius’ Satyrica confirm the relative ranking of prestige implied by the material remains. At one point, in the middle of a marital row, Trimalchio takes a barbed potshot at his wife’s lowly origins: ‘if you’re borne on a mezzanine, you don’t sleep in a house.’ Elsewhere, the social rise of one of Trimalchio’s guests is marked by the fact that he is subletting hiscenaculum(‘from the 1 July’, interestingly the same date as Nigidius Maius’ contracts began) because he has bought a domus. Nor can we be certain about the length of these leases, and so about the security of tenure enjoyed by the tenants. But another rental notice in the town, referring to accommodation in the Estate of Julia Felix, advertises ‘an elegant bath suite for prestige clients, tabernae, mezzanine lodgings [pergulae] and upper-floor apartments [cenacula] on a five year contract’.

What is clear, however, is that the insula Arriana Polliana nicely captures in a single block the varieties of housing available in the city. We can only now pity the poor pergula dwellers, constantly faced with the comparatively palatial expanses of the atrium house next door.

But it was not only the poorer Pompeians who lived in different kinds of accommodation. Not all the wealthier inhabitants of the town lived in the ‘standard’ Pompeian atrium house. There are some houses, for example, which in the last phases of the city’s history – while retaining some of the basic elements that we have already seen – have garden areas so developed and expanded that the whole focus and the character of the property seems completely altered.

A classic case of this is the House of Octavius Quartio (so called after the name on a signet ring found in one of the shops there), which was being renovated at the time of the eruption. As the plan shows (Fig. 9), the house buildings themselves were not particularly spacious, but the focus of attention was on the large garden, and its elaborate decorations and water features (exploiting the mains water supply). Along the garden front of the house stretched a long pergola, covering a narrow course of water, crossed by a bridge and originally lined with statues. At one end was an outdoor dining room, at the other an ornamental ‘shrine’, which once held an image of the goddess Diana or Isis (the surviving paintings here include Diana bathing and a priest of Isis). At a lower level, another narrow waterway stretched some 50 metres down the length of the garden, spanned by bridges and arches, with elaborate fountains at one end and in the middle, and paintings decorating almost all possible surfaces. The garden on either side was planted with walkways of shrubs and trees, as well as more pergolas. The water itself doubled as ornamental pool and fish farm (Ill. 39).

The influence behind many of these features is the architecture of the out-of-town Roman house, or ‘villa’. Characteristic elements of the villa garden were ornamental watercourses, shrines and walkways between flowers and trees. Cicero on one occasion mocked the shamelessly aggrandising titles given to their garden canals by the Roman elite: ‘Nile’ or ‘Euripus’ (after the stretch of water between the island of Euboea and the Greek mainland). But he was, nonetheless, very keen on a Euripus in one of his brother Quintus’ country properties, and at one stage he had it in mind to build himself a shrine to the obscure goddess Amalthea, in imitation of an elegant feature in his friend Atticus’ villa garden. Later the emperor Hadrian was to install a very flashy ‘Canopus’ (another Egyptian waterway), which still survives, in his rural palace at Tivoli. Also the mark of a villa garden was the combination of productivity and ornament that we find in this particular pool/fishpond. For the Roman proprietor, part of the pleasure of his country estate was the way productive farming might be integrated into its decorative scheme: a meeting of agriculture and elegance.


Figure 9. House of Octavius Quartio. A relatively small site, and even so the ornamental garden in this house vastly outstrips the small area of the building itself. The shaded portions are parts of different properties.

This design, then, brings the style of the out-of-town property into the city itself. It is very successful with modern visitors to the site, who love wandering along the waterways and under the pergolas, just as the ancient residents must have done. Some archaeologists, however, have been rather sniffy about it. There is too much, they argue, crammed into too small a space (‘two people cannot walk next to each other under the pergola without running up against a fountain, little bridge, pillar, or post at every turn, or tripping over the statuettes in the grass’). This is a ‘Walt Disney world’, in which an owner with little taste has tried to imitate the leisured country world of his betters, consistently choosing quantity over quality.


39. The view down the long garden of the House of Octavius Quartio. An elegant series of pools and pergolas – in a jewel-like miniature design? Or is this a scheme completely out of scale to the site, a classic case of nouveau riche pretensions going wrong? Archaeologists are divided on the question.

It is right to face the fact that ancient art and design can be decidedly secondrate. And some of the paintings in this house are ‘of modest quality’, to put it politely. Yet it is hard not to suspect that in finding the house ‘tasteless’, we are – albeit unconsciously – sharing the prejudices of many elite Romans, who were ready to scoff at palatial schemes brought down to an ordinary domestic scale. After all, Trimalchio, the ex-slave may have been horribly vulgar. But part of the joke of Petronius’ novel is that he is aping the culture of the aristocratic elite all too well. In laughing at him, we find we are laughing at them (or at ourselves) too.

No one has ever been sniffy in that way about the group of houses on the western edge of the city, built directly over the old city wall in the early years of the Roman colony (after 80 BCE, perhaps by some of the original colonists) – and in their final form dramatically dropping down the slope towards the sea, in up to four or five storeys (Ill. 15). These are now, in many ways, the most impressive properties in all of Pompeii, partly because to walk around them on their different levels, up and down their surviving staircases, gives a feeling of being right inside an ancient house that you rarely get elsewhere.

They are also one of the saddest stories of the modern excavations. Bombed in 1943, they were excavated in the 1960s but have never been properly published and even the unpublished records and notebooks are often skeletal. This means that we have little idea of the history of their development or of some of the details of their internal layout. It is hard in places to work out where the divisions between the houses fall, or how many living units there were in all. They are also not open to the public (although you can get a good view of them from the main entrance to the site at the Marine Gate). The result of all this is that, although they are a fondly remembered highlight of the site for those who have been lucky enough to get permission to visit them, they have not often made much of an impact in guidebooks, general histories of the town or even student courses. They have not affected our view of Pompeian houses as much as they should have done.

The best way of understanding these large, multi-layered properties is to think of them as atrium houses organised along Vitruvius’ principles, but vertically rather than horizontally, and facing the view over the sea rather than turned in on themselves. In the very grandest of these, the House of Fabius Rufus (named after a man whose name appears in several graffiti in the house), you enter from the ground level on the city side, into a relatively modest atrium for an establishment of this size. But instead of moving on through the house to the ‘exclusive’ areas, you move downstairs to two further levels where on the sea side there is a series of lavish entertainment suites with large windows and in places terraces outside. The service areas seem to be in dark quarters, set back into the hillside, with no view and precious little natural light (Ill. 40).


40. The House of Fabius Rufus. This axionometric reconstruction gives an idea of the complexity of this multi-level design. The show rooms look over the sea. The service quarters are tucked behind in the hillside, dark and gloomy as usual.

For the owners and the favoured invited guests, this was a place to enjoy the light, the air and the vista. A graffiti artist, at work on a stairway within the house, got the point. Amidst the scrawlings of one Epaphroditus, who has scratched his name several times, plus his girlfriend (‘Epaphroditus and Thalia’), and just under a lover’s rhyme that was enough of a cliché to be found written up several times across the town (‘I wish I could be a ring on your finger for an hour, no more ...’), someone has inscribed the first three words of the second book of Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things: ‘Suave mari magno’ – ‘Pleasant it is, when on the wide sea ...’ This continues, as our scribbler presumably knew, ‘... the winds stir up the waters, to gaze from dry land at the great troubles of another.’

Pleasant indeed it must have been to gaze out to sea from the House of Fabius Rufus.

Names and addresses

At the doorway of a small house in the south of the city, most of which behind the entrance still remains unexcavated, a small bronze plaque was found. It reads: ‘Lucius Satrius Rufus, imperial secretary (retired)’. If it is, as seems plausible, the name plaque from the door, then it is the only such marker so far known in the city. Here lived a man who was a member of, or at least connected to, one of the oldest families in Pompeii. His exact geneaology is uncertain because ex-slaves and their descendants took the family name of their masters, so a Satrius might be one of this local line of notables, or might trace his ancestry back to one of their slaves. In this case, given the apparent size of the house and the nature of his job, we might suspect the latter. But whichever is the case, it looks as if we are dealing with a local man, who worked in the administration of the imperial palace in Rome, retired to his home city. There he proudly boasted on his doorplate of his employment in the emperor’s service.

We know the names of thousands of people of Pompeii, from the grand families of the Satrii or the Holconii Rufi to the single names or nicknames of those who scrawled, or were scrawled about, on the walls (who were not necessarily, of course, any less grand – graffiti writing not being a habit restricted to the underclass): ‘Hello my Prima wherever you are. From Secundus. Please love me darling’, ‘Ladicula’s a thief’, ‘Atimetus got me pregnant’. We can even occasionally put faces to names, even if some of the formal statues of local notables that still survive do tend to flatter their subjects beyond credibility. Standing on his plinth in the plaza outside the Stabian Baths on the Via dell’Abbondanza, Marcus Holconius Rufus, city bigwig of the Augustan period, was dressed up to look more like a conquering Roman emperor than a small-town official (Ill. 71). More realistic perhaps – or at least funnier – is the caricature of one ‘Rufus’, complete with his Roman nose (Ill. 41).

What has proved particularly tricky is matching houses to names or families, and this becomes an even trickier process if we try to think in terms of the ‘housefuls’ of people and dependants that might have lived together in a single establishment. As we saw earlier, very many of the identifications are not much more than guesswork, based on groupings of election posters which are taken to indicate either that the candidate concerned, or the canvasser, lived close by – or on signet rings and seal stones. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that wherever the poor refugees from the city had the misfortune to drop their signet rings on their dash out of town, that is the place where they have been deemed by archaeologists to have lived.


41. ‘This is Rufus’ – ‘Rufus est’ as the original Latin reads. The subject (or victim) of this caricature is shown with a laurel wreath, pointy chin and magnificent ‘Roman’ nose.

Occasionally the guesses prove right, or at least half right. It was suggested decades ago that the proprietor of a small bar, standing one block south of the Via dell’Abbondanza, was a man called Amarantus – on the basis of an election notice outside in which one ‘Amarantus Pompeianus’ (that is ‘Amarantus the Pompeian’) urges his fellow townspeople to elect his own particular candidate. At the same time, on the basis of a signet ring, it was decided that the small house next door was owned by Quintus Mestrius Maximus.

These properties have recently been re-excavated. This new work has shown that in the last years of the city the two houses were joined and that they were in a very run-down state. The bar counter was ruined, the garden overgrown (pollen analysis produced some tell-tale bracken spores), and the combined property was being used as a warehouse for wine jars (amphorae). The skeleton of the mule which had been used to transport these was found there, along with a (guard) dog by its feet. On two of the wine jars was the name ‘Sextus Pompeius Amarantus’, or just ‘Sextus Pompeius’. The business, such as it was, must indeed have been in the hands of this Amarantus, whose name also crops up in a couple of graffiti found elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Indeed, it may not be too fanciful to imagine that the big-nosed chap (or alternatively the man with the beard) pictured next to a scrawled ‘Hello Amarantus, hello’ is a picture of the man himself (Ill. 42). And Quintus Mestrius Maximus? He might have been his partner, or simply the owner of a lost ring.


42. ‘Hello Amarantus hello’ (or, in the hard to decipher Latin, ‘Amarantho sal(utem) sal(utem)’). Presumably one of these men is meant to be the Amarantus who owned the bar where the graffito was found.

The truth is that we can very occasionally be certain about the identity of the occupants of a house. One example would be the house of Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, whose banking records were found fallen from the attic. A little more often we can be reasonably confident about who they were. Despite the odd nagging doubt, the balance of probability must be that the House of the Vettii was the property of one, or both, of the brothers Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus (though one sceptical archaeologist has recently come up with the idea that they were a couple of dependants, charged with stamping goods in and out of the house). The House of Julius Polybius takes its modern name from a man who appears as both candidate and canvasser on election notices on its façade and inside the house itself. But it is also strongly connected with a Caius Julius Philippus, probably a relation, whose signet ring was found inside one of the house’s cupboards – and not therefore casually dropped – and who is also mentioned in writing inside the house.

But when we know the identity of the occupants, what extra does that tell us? With Amarantus, it gives us nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to put a name to a house. But in other cases, further information we have about the people concerned, or even just the name itself, can point in interesting directions. The fact that one of the Vettii brothers was a member of the local Augustales (part social club, part priesthood, part political office, see pp. 212–13) is a powerful hint that they were themselves ex-slaves, since the Augustales were almost entirely made up of that rank of Roman society. In the case of Julius Philippus and Julius Polybius, whatever the precise relationship between them, their name alone suggests that – however lofty their status in the political elite of Pompeii by the middle of the first century CE – they too may trace their descent to freed slaves; for the name Julius often indicates a slave freed by one of the early emperors whose family name was Julius. These are all nice indications of the permeable boundary between slave and free in Roman society.

79 CE: all change

It is almost inevitable that we know most about the houses in Pompeii and about their occupants as they were in the last years before the eruption. But we can still see something of the redesigns, extensions and change of function that marked their history. Like any town, Pompeii was always on the move. House owners grabbed more space by buying parts of the neighbouring property and knocking a door through. The boundaries of the House of the Menander expanded and contracted, as its owners either bought up or sold off again parts of the next-door houses. The House of the Vettii was formed by joining together, and adapting, two smaller properties. Shops opened up and closed down. What had been residential units were converted to all kinds of other uses: bars, fulleries and workshops. Or vice versa.

There is an obvious temptation to blame any apparent shift downmarket on the effects of the earthquake of 62 CE. In fact, where there is no other evidence, it has always been convenient to date industrial conversions to ‘post-62’. But beware. It is clear that these kinds of change had a much longer history in the town than that. One careful study of three fulleries which are usually assumed to have ‘taken over’ private houses after the earthquake has shown that all three of them co-existed with the residential function of the houses (despite the dreadful smell). At least one of the conversions was definitely to be dated before 62.

Yet, there was an enormous amount of construction work and decorating going on at the time the eruption came, more than seems easily compatible with the usual processes of change and renovation. And there is some evidence, beyond that, for decommissioning and downgrading. To take examples only from houses we have met so far: in the House of the Prince of Naples, what had been a grand entertainment room appears to have been in use for storage; so too in the House of Julius Polybius (where some of the rooms were also empty, and jars of lime were found, suggesting ongoing restoration); in the House of Venus in a Bikini, redecoration had been started and shelved; it was still going on, it seems in the House of Fabius Rufus and the House of the Vestals; in the House of the Menander, the private bath suite was largely out of commission, having collapsed or been dismantled; in the little House of Amarantus building materials were also found, but there was no sign of active work (plans may have been abandoned).

It seems implausible that all this activity had been caused either by the general need for running repairs, or by the earthquake as long ago as 62 (in fact some of the work was clearly repatching the repairs already carried out ‘post-62’). Almost certainly, much of what we see is the response to the damage caused by pre-eruption tremors, over the weeks or months before the final eruption itself. It was not business as usual for householders in Pompeii in the summer of 79 CE. For the optimists among them, it must have been a series of annoying cracks in the paintwork which needed fixing. For the pessimists (and those with the leisure to worry about their future), it must have been a time to reflect on quite what was going to happen next.

It is to the reaction of one family of optimists, living in the House of the Painters at Work, that we turn next.

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