Profit margins

Just along the street from the House of Fabius Rufus, in that row of grand mansions with views over the sea, stood a house occupied in the last years of the city by Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a man who had made his money in the fish sauce (garum) business. He was, in fact, the biggest garum dealer in town. To judge from the painted labels on garum jars found in the area, he and his associates and subsidiaries controlled almost a third of the local supply of this staple of Roman food preparation. The house itself is a vast sprawling affair, made by knocking together at least two earlier, separate properties. It is now in a sadly dilapidated state, partly as the result of the bombing in 1943, which hit this part of town very badly. But in its final form it clearly had not just two, but three atria, as well as one or more peristyles (one with an ornamental fishpond), plus a bath suite on a lower floor.

We know that it was owned by Umbricius Scaurus because the mosaic decoration on the floor of the third atrium once featured at each of its four corners a jar for fish sauce (Ill. 57). Now removed for safe-keeping, these were made out of white tesserae on a black background, and each one carried an inscription referring to different varieties of fish sauce sold by Umbricius Scaurus: ‘Scaurus’ best garum, mackerel-based, from Scaurus’ manufactory’, ‘Best fish sauce’, ‘Scaurus’ best garum, mackerel-based’, ‘Fish sauce, grade one, from Scaurus’ manufactory’. Unless we are to imagine that some satisfied customer chose to decorate his atrium floor with versions of his favourite sauce jars, then this must be the house of Scaurus himself. Here interior decoration was a form of self-advertisement and product promotion.


57. In the atrium of the House of Umbricius Scaurus, four jars of fish sauce in mosaic proclaim the family’s source of wealth. Here the jar proclaims ‘Best fish sauce’ – in Latin ‘Liqua(minis) flos’, literally ‘Flower of liquamen’. Liquamen was a variety of the (to us) better known garum.

Umbricius Scaurus was not the only resident of Pompeii explicitly to celebrate his business success on the floor of his house. At one of the main street entrances of another huge property, the visitor was greeted by a slogan picked out in mosaic: ‘Welcome, profit!’ The sheer size of this house is enough to suggest that the wish had been amply fulfilled. But elsewhere such words must have been more an expression of vain hope. On the atrium floor of a tiny house, we can still see the catchphrase ‘Profit is pleasure’. There is little sign here that this went beyond wishful thinking.

The Roman economy

Historians have argued for generations about the economic life of the Roman empire, about its trades and industries, its financial institutions, credit systems and profit margins. On the one hand, are those who see the ancient economy in very modern terms. The Roman empire was effectively a vast single market. There were fortunes to be made from the demand for goods and services, which also drove up productivity and stimulated trade to levels never seen before. A favourite illustration of this comes – unlikely as it may seem – from deep in the Greenland ice-cap, where it is still possible to find the residue of the pollution from Roman metal-working, not equalled again until the Industrial Revolution. Underwater archaeology tells much the same story. Many more shipwrecks have been discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean, from between the second century BCE and the second century CE, than from any period until the sixteenth century. This is not an indication of the poor quality of either boat-building or seamanship in the Roman period, but of the high volume of sea-borne traffic.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that Roman economic life was utterly different from our own, in fact decidedly ‘primitive’. Wealth combined with social prestige remained rooted in the land and the main aim of any community was to feed itself, not to exploit its resources for profit or investment. Long-distance transport of goods was risky by sea (witness all those shipwrecks) and prohibitively expensive by land. Trade was only a very thin icing on the economic cake, small-scale and not particularly respectable. Inscriptions on mosaic floors may celebrate healthy profit margins, but there are few Roman authors, elite class that they are, with a good word to say for trade or traders. By and large, trade was vulgar and traders untrustworthy. In fact, from the end of the third century BCE, the highest echelons of Roman society, senators and their sons, were expressly forbidden from owning ‘ocean-going ships’, defined as those that would hold 300 amphorae or more.

Besides, Rome developed none of the financial institutions needed to support a sophisticated economy. There was limited ‘banking’, as we shall see, in Pompeii. It is not even clear if there were such things as credit notes, or if you wheeled around a load of coins in a wheelbarrow to make large purchases, such as houses. And, while Roman metal-working may have polluted Greenland, there is very little trace of the kind of technological innovation that went hand in hand with the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution. The biggest invention of the Roman period was probably the water-mill, and that – so this side of the argument goes –is not saying very much. But why bother with new technologies, when you have vast quantities of slave power to stoke the fires, man the levers or turn the wheels?

Country life and country produce

Most historians now come down judiciously somewhere between these two extremes. And Pompeii itself has features of both the ‘primitive’ and the ‘modern’ model of the economy. It is almost certain that the basis of most wealth in the city was the land in the surrounding area, and that the families which owned the largest houses there would also have had other properties and substantial holdings in the region round about. ‘Pompeii’ as an economic and political unit would have consisted of the urban centre plus its hinterland. The area beyond the city itself probably covered some 200 square kilometres – or, at least, that is a good, if slightly generous, guess, since we have no hard evidence at all where the boundaries lay between what counted as Pompeian land and that of neighbouring towns. It has not been very thoroughly explored by archaeologists, most of their interest being concentrated on the town. In fact, locating villas, farmsteads and other rural settlements under several metres of volcanic debris has been chancy.

Altogether the remains of almost 150 properties have been discovered in the hinterland of the city, but our knowledge of what kind of establishments they were or who owned them is very hazy, for only rarely have they been systematically excavated. Some were certainly pleasure villas for the rich, even those from as far away as Rome: it was not only Cicero who had his ‘Pompeian place’. Some were working farms. Others were a combination of the two. Almost certainly there is a bias, in what we have discovered, towards more substantial remains, rather than the huts and sheds of the poorer peasant farmers. If, as some archaeologists have half suspected, there were the ancient equivalent of shanty towns or squatter settlements of poor labourers in the countryside outside the walls, we have found no trace of them.

There is one case where we can pin down a country property of a leading Pompeian family. In the 1990s, excavation at Scafati, a few kilometres east of Pompeii, turned up a family burial ground, with eight memorials to various Lucretii Valentes in the first century CE, most of the men carrying exactly the same name, Decimus Lucretius Valens. They ranged from tiny children, like the toddler who died when he was just two years old, to a distinguished young man, who had been buried elsewhere at public expense, but was given a memorial plaque here alongside the rest of his relations, where he was celebrated for sponsoring, together with his father, a gladiatorial show consisting of thirty-five pairs of fighters. That was about as generous as a Pompeian benefactor could be.

In Pompeii itself this family has been associated with a group of houses at the far end of the Via dell’Abbondanza, near the Amphitheatre, including the House of Marine Venus, with its sprawling goddess on the garden wall. In fact, some graffiti in one of these properties refer not only to a Decimus Lucretius Valens, but also to a couple of the more distinctively named women known from the burial ground, Iusta and Valentina – clinching the association between the family and the house. But why the group of family memorials in this particular out-of-town location? Presumably because the the Lucretii Valentes had a country house here, in all likelihood the very one that has been partly uncovered, just adjacent to the burial ground.

The Lucretii Valentes, like most of the local Pompeian aristocracy, owed their wealth to the products of their land, even if they did not work it themselves. Some of their holdings would have been farmed by tenants. Some they would have controlled more directly. Often, as in the Villa of the Mysteries and in the house at Scafati no doubt, prestige entertaining rooms for the owner and his family were combined with a working agricultural establishment, operated by a farm manager, using hired labourers and slaves. Vivid evidence for the use of a slave workforce on these farms comes from a distinctive type of metal contraption, almost certainly stocks, or leg irons (one big enough to shackle fourteen people) found at a number of out-of-town properties. In the Villa of the Mosaic Columns just outside the walls, human leg-bones were unearthed still held in iron chains. The idea of slaves and prisoners meeting a horrible end because they were unable to break free of their bonds is a powerful myth of disaster stories, from the destruction of Pompeii to the film Titanic, and many early guidebooks to the buried city point to several (quite fictitious) instances of this horror. In this case, the story seems to be confirmed by photographs of the bones as they were discovered, still fused to the metal – though whether the slave concerned was a farm worker or a domestic we have no idea.

Part of this country territory around Pompeii was certainly used for the grazing of sheep, which would have provided both milk and wool. Indeed Seneca hints that some of this husbandry might have been on a relatively large scale, when he claims that a flock of no fewer than 600 perished in the earthquake of 62 CE. For the rest, we should imagine an agricultural landscape of very fertile volcanic soil supporting cereals, grapes and olives. These were the staples of ancient Mediterranean life, essential for basic subsistence and light (from olive oil), and most of them were consumed locally. Exactly how much of the available land was given over to which crop is a tricky question. Roman writers tend to stress the vines and wines of the region, and excavated farms often preserve clear traces of wine production, in the shape of vats and presses. But this may overestimate the importance of vines. The literary emphasis may partly be a reflection of the fact that elite Romans were generally more interested in the varieties of grape than in the varieties of grain, and the archaeological prominence may partly be due to the fact that the paraphernalia of wine-making are so instantly recognisable.


58. A reconstruction of the Villa Regina small-holding near Pompeii. It was an unpretentious property surrounded by vineyards. In the central courtyard, the dolia, or storage jars, set in the ground are visible.

One smallholding that has recently been thoroughly excavated, the Villa Regina (known from the modern place name) near Boscoreale, to the north of Pompeii, shows how diverse the cultivation may have been even when a vineyard dominated (Ill. 58). First discovered in the 1970s, this is a relatively humble house with just ten rooms on its ground floor, set around a courtyard. It is a long way from the grand style of the country properties of the wealthy. Most of those rooms were connected with farm work, only two had painted decoration. Presumably the property was owned by a farmer of modest means, though one who, like many in the city, was busy with renovations at the time of the eruption. The lintel of one doorway had had to be propped up, foundations were being underpinned, pavements had been removed, and the kitchen and painted dining room were not in use.

Much of the surviving agricultural equipment was connected with wine-making, including a press and eighteen huge storage jars, or dolia, set in the ground, enough to hold 10,000 litres of wine. Unless Roman domestic life was lived through a drunken haze, such a large quantity must have been for more than home consumption. Even so it would have needed less than 2 hectares of vineyard to produce (a small villa nearby had seventy-two wine dolia to hold the produce of its, obviously much larger, estate). Part of this vineyard has been excavated, the root cavities filled with plaster and the remains of seeds and pollen analysed. What has emerged are not only the traces of vines trained on poles, but other plants being grown in between and alongside them – olives, apricots, peaches, almonds, walnuts and figs, to name just a few of the more than eighty species that have been identified.

The physical remains of the house also point to a range of cultivation extending beyond vines. There is what appears to be a threshing floor, suggesting that cereal crops were also being grown, and a hay store, for animal bedding and feed. The animals on the farm certainly included whatever mules, donkeys or horses drew the large cart whose iron wheels and fittings have been found. Pigs were kept too, for meat, as the plaster cast of a splendid young porker found in one of the rooms under repair shows. It must have fled here during the eruption from its pen or sty elsewhere. In the vineyard itself, excavators unearthed the skull of a guard dog.

Wine production on this scale was for the local market rather than for the export trade, perhaps delivered to customers in the town in the kind of transporter pictured on the walls of one inn in Pompeii: a vast leather wine skin on a cart, from which the contents were decanted directly into wine jars (Ill. 59). From what we know of the prices of wine on sale in the town (written up, as they sometimes were, for customers in bars) and from the usual mark-up that Roman writers suggest between the point of final sale and the farmgate price, this 10,000 litres of wine might have brought in between 5000 and 7500 sesterces for the proprietor of this farm. But when all the production and equipment costs have been taken into account (in Pompeii, a single mule could set you back more than 500 sesterces), the actual profit would have been much less, even if more cash came in from selling some of the other fruit, crops or animals found there. This was not breadline living. It is usually reckoned that 500 sesterces would have kept a family of four at absolute minimum subsistence, alive but hungry, for a year; while the basic annual pay of a legionary soldier was 900 sesterces. But it was not lavish either. It was enough, presumably, to support, feed, clothe and shelter a household – slaves included – of somewhere between five and ten, with some cash to spare for the occasional little luxury, such as smartening up a few rooms with a coat of decorative paint.

Could the hinterland of Pompeii, thanks to farms like this and other larger estates, have supported the population of the area, in basic staples, without the need for mass imports? This has been the subject of intense modern debate and little agreement. Part of the problem is that we can only guess at some of the figures that would be vital for any accurate calculation: not only the total size of population, but also the kind of yield the Romans would have extracted from this land, and the levels of consumption we should expect (is a quarter-litre of wine per day for every man, woman and child in the right order of magnitude or not?).


59. Wine was brought to local traders and innkeepers in large wineskins drawn on carts. In this nineteenth-century drawing of a now very faded painting from a Pompeian bar, the men are about to decant it into jars, or amphorae.

To try out one line of speculation: suppose we assume that the city in 79 CE was home to roughly 12,000 people, and some 24,000 more lived in the surrounding country (a shot in the dark, based partly on the later population figures). It would then be a reasonable guess, given the fertility of this soil and the climate, that if 120–130 square kilometres out of the 200 were sown with grain, that would have provided the necessary quantities to feed this total of 36,000. And it is almost certain that you could produce enough wine for everyone to have a quarter of a litre per day in less than 2 square kilometres of vineyard. As for olive oil, if we reckon that each person would have consumed (or burnt) 10 litres a year, that could have been produced in less than 4 square kilometres of olive groves all told. Not that we should imagine continuous fields of a single crop, as these calculations might imply. The planting at the Villa Regina, with olives and fruit trees amidst the vines, shows just how mixed this ancient farming could be.

Of course, change any one of these rough estimates – increase the population by 50 per cent, for example, or decrease the amount of available land – and the overall picture can change dramatically. Even on these optimistic calculations, there will also have been years of shortage, drought or crop failure which would have left the Pompeians looking elsewhere for their staples. All the same, it looks very much as if they would usually have had enough to be exporting their surplus, and that is borne out by other evidence. Ancient writers certainly associated the area round Vesuvius with well-known varieties of grape, one even known as Pompeiana. This celebrity suggests that the wines reached well beyond the local area. In fact, Pliny’s sniffy remarks about the inferiority of some of the Pompeian plonk may suggest not that it was merely a rustic brew made for local consumption only, but, as one historian has recently proposed, that they were over-stretching production to meet a larger market (‘the old story of the sacrifice of quality to quantity’). Nor was it just the wine from Pompeii that had gained a reputation outside the area. Columella, a first-century writer on agriculture, particularly recommended the Pompeian onion, and Pliny described in some detail the Pompeian cabbage, warning those who might try to grow it that it cannot survive cold weather.

Archaeology, both on land and under water, can occasionally help us trace the produce of Pompeii around the Mediterranean and beyond – the pottery wine jars at least, which are virtually indestructible after 2000 years, even if not the cabbages. As early as the beginning of the first century BCE, probably before the foundation of the colony at Pompeii, wine was going from the Bay of Naples to southern France. So much is clear from one cargo boat that did not make it, but was wrecked off Anthéor, not far from Cannes. This was carrying wine jars with stoppers stamped, in Oscan script (hence the dating of the wreck), with a very rare name: Lassius. The only other Lassii we know in the Roman world are from Pompeii and nearby Surrentum (Sorrento), including a Pompeian priestess of the goddess Ceres, Lassia, whose tombstone has been discovered outside the city walls. The chances are that this wine was from Pompeii or thereabouts.

Other cargoes made it safely to their destination. These included Pompeian wine jars that ended up in Carthage in North Africa. Some of these were stamped with the name L. Eumachius. Whether he was the producer of the wine or merely the maker of the jars (the stamp could indicate either), he was very likely the father of another Pompeian priestess, Eumachia, who is best known for sponsoring one of the large public buildings in the Forum which now takes her name, the Building of Eumachia. Other Pompeian wine jars, some stamped by the same Eumachius, have turned up in France and Spain, as well as in other parts of Italy. One has even been found in Stanmore in Middlesex. But before we leap to the appealing conclusion that there was a brisk market for Pompeian wine in Roman Britain, we should remember that one solitary amphora does not necessarily indicate a major trade route. In any case, these jars were too good and sturdy for single use, and they were often reused over years, if not decades. The jar found at Stanmore might have originally been made in Pompeii, but not necessarily its final contents.

There was plenty of trade in the other direction too. If Pompeii could in theory have supplied its needs entirely from the surrounding territory, it certainly did not choose to do so – or, at least, not by its later years. The pottery jars for wine and other foodstuffs tell a clear story of imports on a relatively large scale. Many of these came from not so distant parts of Italy. Richer Pompeians, for example, enjoyed Falernian wine, one of the classiest premier crus of the Roman world, produced some 80 kilometres to the north of the city. But there were imports from further afield too. In the House of the Menander some seventy amphorae and other jars were discovered, many still bearing indications of their contents and place of origin. True, there were some very local products: a couple bore Eumachius’ stamp, another couple had contained wine from Surrentum and one, much smaller, local honey. But some had brought olive oil or fish sauce from Spain, others were from Crete, and at least one came from Rhodes and was billed as containingpassum, a special variety of sweet wine made out of raisins, rather than fresh grapes. Roughly the same picture emerges from the store of amphorae, some full, some empty, in the run-down House of Amarantus. Probably a mixture of first-, second-, or third-hand containers, they included a substantial number that had originated in Crete (thirty, apparently full, which must have been a recent shipment), a couple from Greece, and one – a rare specimen – from the city of Gaza which, in a poignant contrast to its present state, was to become one of the most celebrated and profitable centres of wine production in the early Middle Ages.

The import business dealt in more than the contents of amphorae and other jars, whether wine, olive oil or garum. We have seen how microscopic analysis has brought to light the remains of exotic herbs and spices (see p. 37). But other sorts of relatively indestructible materials, such as fancy Egyptian glassware and coloured marble, are even easier to trace. Ordinary ceramic tableware could also come from well outside the local area. In fact, one packing case containing some ninety new Gallic bowls and almost forty pottery lamps was found intact, presumably having arrived in the town too close to the eruption ever to have been unpacked. In this case, if archaeologists are right to say that the lamps were made not in Gaul, but in northern Italy, we must imagine that some kind of ‘middleman’ had been involved, packaging up a mixed consignment.

All in all, there can hardly be any doubt that, wherever exactly it was, and however small by comparison with the great trading centres of Puteoli or Rome, Pompeii’s port must have been a thriving, international and multilingual little place.

City trades

Agriculture was not only an activity for the countryside outside the city. Current estimates are that within the city walls as much as 10 per cent of the land, even in the years leading up to the eruption, was in agricultural use; in earlier periods it would have been even more. Some of this was the home to animals, an underestimated part of the Pompeian population, largely because earlier generations of archaeologists tended to overlook animal bones. But even they did not miss the skeletons of two cows which were in the House of the Faun when the eruption came, and we shall be looking at another yet more dramatic discovery later in this chapter. There was plenty of cultivation too. We have already glimpsed a small ‘kitchen garden’ in the House of Julius Polybius, with a fig tree, and olive, lemon and other fruit trees. There were other cases of city cultivation on a much larger, more commercial scale.

On one piece of open ground near the Amphitheatre, once thought to be the burial ground for dead gladiators, or alternatively a cattle market, careful excavations in the 1960s revealed a closely planted vineyard (Fig. 13), with olive and other trees growing among the vines, and possibly vegetables too (or so it has been deduced from the discovery of a single carbonised bean). The vineyard covered about half a hectare, and the wine – several thousand litres of it – was not only produced on the spot (as the wine press and largedolia show), but was also retailed from a bar facing onto the Via dell’Abbondanza or served to customers dining at one of the two outdoor triclinia built at the edge of the property. And there were many other, smaller vineyards, orchards and vegetable gardens (stocked with those famous cabbages and onions, perhaps), all identified from the traces of root cavities, carbonised seeds, pollen and carefully laid-out beds and irrigation systems. In one garden, with a particularly elaborate watering arrangement, it seems as if flowers were being grown commercially – maybe, it has been argued from the quantity of glass jars and phials in the adjacent house, for the production of perfume. Some very recent work has found evidence of ‘nurseries’ which probably supplied the local gardeners with their herbaceous plants.


Figure 13. Plan of an excavated vineyard. Painstaking modern excavation has revealed the planting of this commercial vineyard (plus dining establishments) within the walls of the town. It was well positioned for different types of trade. On the north it faced onto the Via dell’Abbondanza; to the south, it would have been convenient for customers from the Amphitheatre.

It should be no surprise, then, that so many pieces of agricultural equipment have been found in the city’s houses: forks, hoes, spades, rakes and so on. Some of these were no doubt used by those who lived in the town but went out, day by day, to work on fields outside the walls. But others would have been for use on city-centre plots of land.

The overall impression, however, of a walk through Pompeii was not of a world of peaceful gardening or other pastoral pursuits. This was a bustling, commercial, market town. True, land and agriculture almost certainly remained the most significant basis of wealth throughout the city’s history. Pompeii was not, as some modern fantasies have suggested, an ancient equivalent of Renaissance Florence, where economic success was built on manufacturing industries and political power was vested in the guilds which controlled those industries and in the financial wheeler-dealers who invested in them. The fullers and textile workers of ancient Pompeii were no driving force of economic power. The ‘banker’ Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, whose business we shall shortly be exploring, was no Cosimo de’ Medici. That said, Pompeii provided a whole range of services, from laundry to lamp-making, and acted as a centre of exchange for a community of probably more than 30,000 people, country dwellers included.

This meant an infrastructure for buying and selling. The local council took care to regulate the standard of weights and measures used by traders. The official gauge had already been set up in the Forum in the second century BCE, following Oscan standards of measurement (Ill. 60). These standards were adjusted, as an inscription on it declares, at the end of the first century, to bring it into line with the Roman system – a change which, whatever the council’s rulings, may have been as patchy, contested and politically loaded as the British change at the end of the last century from imperial measures (pounds and ounces) to metric (kilos and grams).

But the involvement of local government in the commercial life of the city went further than this. We have already seen the aediles assigning sales pitches to traders (p. 71). They may also have regulated the dates of markets. A very messy graffito on the outside of a large shop (‘Lees of garum for sale, by the jar’) lists a seven-day cycle of markets, based on days of the week much like our own: ‘Saturn’s day at Pompeii and Nuceria, Sun’s day at Atella and Nola, Moon’s day at Cumae ... etc.’ This may reflect an official and regular commercial calendar, rather than just a one-off, one-week timetable. That, at least, is what most archaeologists have assumed, glossing over the fact that another graffito appears to put Cumae’s market day on Sun’s day and Pompeii’s on Mercury’s day. Either way, this seems evidence for some degree of official planning and attempted coordination.

It is likely too that the local council had control over the city’s major communal, commercial buildings. These have been harder to identify than you might imagine. In fact, the question of what many of the large buildings that surrounded the Forum were actually used for is, despite many confident claims, one of the biggest puzzles of Pompeian archaeology. According to the currently favoured guesses, the long narrow building in the north-west corner of the Forum (half of which is modern reconstruction after the AlliedBlitzkrieg) is some kind of market, perhaps for cereals. Opposite, at the north-east corner, stood the meat and fish market. For the first of these identifications there is no evidence whatsoever, apart from the fact that the official weight gauge is nearby. The second may be correct. But it depends on taking very seriously the fish scales found in the central area and playing down the possibly religious elements and the painted decoration which seems rather too elegant for a market (Ill. 61). Some archaeologists have preferred to see it as a shrine or temple – or (in the case of William Gell) a shrine-cum-restaurant.


60. Cheats beware. An official gauge of measurements was established in the Forum. Originally it followed the old Oscan standard, but as the inscription on it declares, it was adjusted to conform to Roman standards in the first century BCE.

Whatever the official involvement in local commerce, particularly striking is the sheer variety of trades and businesses carried on in the town. Today, just wandering through the streets, it is easy to spot the sturdy stone mills and the large bread ovens used by the bakers, or the vats and troughs used by the fullers in their textile processing. Meanwhile the cabinets of the Naples Museum are full of the tools and instruments of all kinds of crafts found in the excavation: from heavy-duty hatchets and saws, through scales to balances, plumb-bobs and pliers, to fine-tuned doctors’ equipment (some of it, like the gynaecological speculum (Ill. 7), uncannily modern).


Figure 14. Plan of the Forum. The civic centre of Pompeii, but to this day the title and function of many buildings around the Forum remain unclear.

These can sometimes be neatly matched up with surviving trade or shop signs. One rough-and-ready plaque, for example, once attached to the outside of a workshop, seems to advertise the skills of ‘Diogenes the builder’ with images of his tools (plumb-bob, trowel, chisel, mallet), plus a phallus thrown in for good luck. They even occasionally turn up on tombstones, celebrating the dead man’s craft. One Nicostratus Popidius, a surveyor, blazoned his instruments – measuring rods, stakes and the distinctive groma, or cross, used for laying out straight lines – on the memorial he commissioned for himself, his partner and their children. He had made his livelihood in one of the most characteristic of Roman professions, laying out plots of land, establishing boundaries between properties, advising on land disputes. This is just the kind of man who would have been in demand when Vespasian’s agent Titus Suedius Clemens turned up in the town to investigate the problem of the state-owned land that had been illegally occupied by private owners.


61. In the nineteenth century, the paintings of the macellum were among the most admired in the whole town. This part of the decoration particularly captured the visitors’ imagination, as the woman was identified as a female painter holding a palette. In fact she was carrying an offering dish, as used in sacrifices.

Paintings and sculptures can bring these mute instruments of craft to life, or at least show them in use. We have already seen plenty of buying and selling going on (from bread to shoes) in the paintings of life in the Forum. Another celebrated series of tiny painted friezes from one of the entertainment rooms in the House of the Vettii shows some charming cupids (or kitsch, for those who would detect nouveau riche taste here) engaged in all kinds manufacturing activities. Some are busy at wine-making, others at fulling and perfumery. Some appear to be employed in the garland-making business (another commercial use for flowers). Others are producing jewellery and large bronze vessels in what seems to be a metal-working shop (Plate 20). This is an activity also vividly depicted on a marble plaque, which may once have been a shop sign, albeit a rather more elegant one than usual. It shows bronze- or coppersmiths at work – or so it would seem from the finished products on display in the background – focusing on three stages of the production process. On the left a man is weighing out the raw material on a large balance (and refusing to be distracted by junior, who is demanding attention behind). In the middle, one of the men is about to hammer the metal on an anvil, while another keeps it in place with a pair of tongs. On the right, a fourth craftsman is putting the final details on a large bowl. And you could want for no better illustration than this of the ubiquity of dogs in Pompeii. Although it looks disconcertingly like a platypus as it is rendered here, the creature crouched on a shelf above the head of the last worker can only be a guard-dog.


62. This sculpture nicely evokes the atmosphere of a metal workers’ shop. In addition to the men at work, the scene is completed by a young child and a watching dog. Behind the finished products are on display.

Plenty of written material, whether in graffiti or more formal notices and memorials, adds to the picture, or reminds us of occupations that have not left behind such distinctive traces. If you count up all those mentioned in this way (not including such well-known trades as potter or metal-worker not explicitly mentioned in writing), you get to more than fifty ways of making a living in Pompeii: from weaver to gem-cutter, from architect to pastry cook, from a barber to an ex-slave woman called Nigella, who is described on her tomb as a ‘public pig-keeper’ (porcaria publica). Apart from her, women are not mentioned in very great numbers, though they are found in sometimes unexpected contexts. One, named Faustilla, was what we would call a small-time pawnbroker. Three graffiti survive where her clients have written down what they borrowed, the interest they paid (running roughly at the rate of 3 per cent per month), and in two cases what they left as surety – a couple of cloaks and a pair of ear-rings.

It is much trickier to match up these trades to the remains on the site. It is only in a very few types of activity, such as baking or fulling, that permanent installations often allow us to locate a business with certainty. For most of the small commercial units lining the streets, without their furniture, fittings and equipment, there is only occasionally enough that is distinctive remaining to help us work out what was once made or sold inside. A graffito (‘Tannery of Xulmus’) has helped us identify a tannery, and reasonable guesswork has pinpointed the mat-weaver and cobbler. In any case, all kinds of trades would have been plied from what look like ordinary houses. Faustilla would hardly have needed an office. The home base of the painters can be identified only from the cupboard full of paints. And it would have taken only the addition of a couple more looms and slave girls to an atrium to turn weaving for domestic consumption into a commercial enterprise.

That said, there are even more curious gaps in our knowledge. To judge from the profusion of metal implements found all over the town, and the images on the marble plaque and in the paintings at the House of the Vettii, metal-working must have been big business in ancient Pompeii. But all kinds of puzzles remain. We have little idea how they got hold of the raw materials. And so far, apart from a handful of tentatively identified, small-scale workshops and retail outlets (one of which turned up the only known surviving example of a surveyor’s groma from the ancient world), only one substantial forge has been discovered, outside the Vesuvius Gate. Perhaps, given the fire risks, this was largely an out-of-town trade. The same must be true of the pottery industry. For only two small potters’ premises have been found within the walls, and one of those was a specialist lamp-maker.

For the rest of this chapter, we shall turn to explore just three examples of the commercial life of Pompeii where it is possible to match up the trade with the place – and, almost, with the face of the person concerned: a baker, a banker and a garum maker.

A baker

Between the House of the Painters at Work and the main thoroughfare of the Via dell’Abbondanza stood a large bakery that has only recently been completely uncovered. Bakers were a common sight on the streets of Pompeii. More than thirty baking establishments are known in the city. Some undertook the whole process of production: they milled the grain, baked the bread and sold it. Others, to judge from the absence of milling equipment, produced loaves from ready-prepared flour. Though there are some curious clusters (in one road just to the north-east of the Forum there were seven bakeries in just over 100 metres), they were found all over the city, so that no Pompeian was ever far from a bread supply. Besides, bread could also be sold in temporary street stalls and, no doubt, by home delivery on a donkey or mule (Ill. 25, 64).

This bakery on the Via dell’Abbondanza combined milling and baking – and, maybe, other entertainment functions (Fig. 15). It was a two-storey property, with a balcony across part of the frontage above the street. Unusually for Pompeii, considerable parts of the flooring of the upper level have been found and preserved just as it had collapsed into the rooms below – a triumph of archaeological conservation it is true, but a feature that makes it harder for any casual observer to work out the layout and appearance of the place as a whole. At the corner of the property was one of the many street or crossroads shrines we find in the city: a rough-and-ready altar perched on the pavement, with a painting of a religious sacrifice plastered on its outside wall above.

One door from the main street led into the bakery itself, the other (next to the altar) into a reasonably sized two-roomed shop. On the ground floor these appear to be entirely separate units, but the placing of the stairways to the upper floor suggests that the whole property interconnected above. It was all presumably under a single proprietor, even if we must imagine something other than bread being on sale in the shop (for, in that case, they would surely have made a direct connection between the retail unit and the place next door where the bread was made). There was also a side entrance leading into a stable from the alleyway that ran up from the Via dell’Abbondanza, between this complex and the large House of Caius Julius Polybius. This was the alleyway where, as we saw in Chapter 2, the cesspits collecting the latrine waste had been dug up and cleaned out just before the eruption, the piles of refuse still on the ground beside them.

Entering the bakery by the main door, you went into a large vestibule, from which one of several wooden staircases climbed to the upstairs rooms. To judge from the graffiti on the left-hand wall, consisting mostly of numerals, it was here that some of the trade was carried out – checking out consignments of bread, or perhaps even selling it to customers. Any caller would certainly have been able to see and hear the baking at work, for the main oven – rather like a big wood-burning pizza oven in modern Italy – stood just a few metres further in (Ill. 63). On the left was the large room where the dough was prepared. A window had been inserted to bring some light from the outside onto the mixers and kneaders who mixed up the dough in large stone bowls or worked it into shape at a wooden table (the wood does not survive, but the masonry supports which carried it do). It must have been hot work, in a dingy environment. But there had been some attempt to brighten it up: on one wall there was a painting of a naked Venus, admiring herself in a mirror. It is hard not to think of a pin-up in a modern factory.


Figure 15. The Bakery of the Chaste Lovers. A commercial bakery doubling as a catering business. At least the dining room (triclinium) here is so large that it almost certainly was used by people other than the baker and his family. At the time of the eruption two rooms on the premises were in use as stables.


63. The large bread oven from the Bakery of the Chaste Lovers. Somewhat dilapidated, it still shows the cracks caused by the earthquake of 62 and the tremors that no doubt preceded the eruption.

When the dough was ready and shaped into loaves, they passed it through a little hatch at the end of the room directly to the area in front of the oven. Occasionally, the individual maker might even have stamped his work. Several carbonised loaves have been found in Herculaneum, for example, imprinted with the words ‘Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus’ – and very likely some or most of the workers in our bakery would have been slaves too. From the other side of the hatch, the bread would have been loaded onto trays, baked, then removed for storage or sale.

This particular oven had seen better days. One large crack in its structure had been patched up and plastered over some time before the eruption – no doubt after the big earthquake of 62 CE. But further cracks had since appeared, probably thanks to the quakes and tremors in the days and weeks running up to the eruption, and repair work was underway throughout the property. The oven was probably still operating, though on a reduced scale. Sadly, there was no dramatic discovery here like the one made at another bakery in the mid nineteenth century. Eighty-one loaves were discovered still firmly shut in the oven, almost 2000 years overcooked. These are round in shape, and divided into eight sections, just as we sometimes see them in paintings (Ill. 64).

In the back part of this main room stood the flour mills. There were originally four of these, making this one of the larger bread-making establishments in the town. Pompeian mills followed the same standard plan, and were constructed out of stone quarried in northern Italy, near the modern town of Orvieto (a striking example of a specialised import, when presumably the local stone would have done an adequate, if not so good, job). It was a simple system in two parts (Ill. 65). Grain was poured into the upper, hollow stone, which was turned (using wooden struts and handles) against the fixed solid lower block – so as to grind the grain, which fell out as flour into the tray beneath. But at the time of the eruption in this bakery, only one of the mills was in working order with both its elements intact and in place. One of the upper pieces of the other mills had been smashed, and two were being used to hold the lime for the repairs and renovations that were going on.


64. A bread stall – or perhaps a free handout financed by some local bigwig. This nineteenth-century copy of the original painting gives a good idea of the kind of wooden furniture and fittings that would originally have been found in shops or outside stalls. Often now it is only the nails, here very visible in the planks of the counter, that survive.


65. A flour mill. It would have been fitted with wooden struts (inserted into the square hole) – to enable the millstone to be turned by slave or mule labour.

How were the mills turned? By men or animals? Both are possible, but in this case we can be certain that the process was powered by mules, donkeys or small horses. The remains of two of these animals were actually discovered in the kneading room, where they must finally have been overwhelmed in an attempt to get out. Their stable had been, it seems, one of the rooms that opened into the milling area – a once much grander affair, with decent wall paintings, but later converted into an animal stall, complete with a manger. But these were not the only animals on the property. Five others were more securely penned up in another stable which opened onto the side alley. When first discovered, these were firmly identified – by traditional methods of bone classification – as four donkeys and a mule, of different ages ranging from four years to nine. More up-to-date analysis of the animals’ DNA has shown, however, that two were either horses or mules (bred from a female horse and male donkey) and three either donkeys or hinnies (the offspring of a male horse and female donkey). Animal recognition across the centuries is obviously harder than an amateur might imagine.

The skeletons of these animals in the second stable still remain exactly where they were found (Ill. 66), and one day when this property is finally opened to the public they will make a ghoulish display. But they have offered all kinds of glimpses into the life of the bakery and the world of Pompeii more generally. For a start, this number of animals makes it fairly certain that the reduced scale of the operations in the bakery was intended to be only temporary. You would not, after all, have hung on to seven of them, with all the expense of their upkeep, if you were permanently downsizing to a single mill. It also suggests that they were being used both for grinding the grain and for delivering the finished bread. And, unless the absence of any sign of a cart is to be explained by the fact that it had been used by the human occupants in their own escape bid, then they carried out these deliveries laden with baskets or panniers.

But more than this, the careful excavation of the stable has produced the first good evidence we have about the living conditions of the four- rather than two-legged residents of the town. The floor was hard, made out of a mixture of rubble and cement. Some light and air came in from a window looking onto the alley. A wooden manger ran down the long side, and there had been a drinking trough, though this seems to have collapsed before the eruption. The position of two of them suggests that they were tethered to the manger, though one was certainly untethered, or had broken free, for it seems to have been trying to escape through the alleyway door. They were living on a diet of oats and broad beans, which were stored in a loft above the stable. In other words, nothing was much different from how it would be today.

This bakery has sprung one further surprise. For the most part its other rooms are of modest size and decoration, and they presumably housed the baker, his family and slaves, upstairs and down. There was a small internal garden, which also functioned as a light well in what must otherwise have been a fairly dingy atmosphere – and where the slightly mangled remains of an ancient Roman fly were discovered (its exact species is still a matter of debate). And on the kitchen hearth the remains of a last meal were found: a bird of some sort and part of a wild boar had been left cooking. But the real surprise is the oversized and richly decorated dining room, with a large window looking onto the garden. Though out of commission at the time of the eruption (to judge from the pile of lime found there), it was painted with a series of alternating red and black panels, featuring at the centre of each of the three main walls a scene of drinking and banqueting, and couples reclining in each other’s arms (Plate 10). Compared with some Pompeian scenes of riotous sex, these seem rather decorous expressions of passion, and they have given the place its modern name: House of the Chaste Lovers.


66. This victim of the eruption reminds us how important animals were in the various trades of the town – driving machinery and delivering goods. They must also have contributed considerably to the dirt in the streets.

Why such a large triclinium in this modest bakery? Possibly, it was the baker’s one extravagance. But more likely it was another way in which he made money. Though not a restaurant in the modern sense of the word, this was probably a place where people paid to eat – with food either cooked in the kitchen adjacent or brought in from outside. It was not exactly glamorous surroundings. You would have reached the dining room either via the stable or by going past the bread oven and flour mills. But the room’s decor was elegant enough, and it could certainly have accommodated more people than could easily be squeezed into the average living quarters of the poor. It was probably not the only such arrangement in the town. In another house, a similarly oversized dining room is found together with a suspiciously large number of graffiti celebrating the fullers. Could this be, as some archaeologists have guessed, the place that the fullers hired for their communal evenings out?

When not in the midst of repairs, our baker was producing bread on a relatively large scale, and supplementing his income with a catering trade. Who he was, we do not know. We can, however, put a name to the next Pompeian tradesman we shall investigate: the ‘banker’ Lucius Caecilius Jucundus.

A banker

One of the most extraordinary discoveries in the history of the excavations of Pompeii was made in July 1875: 153 documents which had been stored away in a wooden box in the upper storey of the house now known as the House of Caecilius Jucundus. The main text in each case had originally been scratched into a wax coating over a wooden tablet, about 10 by 12 centimetres (often joined together to form a three-page document, with a summary in ink occasionally written directly onto the wood on the outer faces). The wax, needless to say, has disappeared, but the text remains legible, or partly so, because the metal writing tool or stylus had actually gone through the coating to mark the wood underneath.

All but one of the documents record financial transactions involving Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, between 27 CE and January 62 CE, just before the earthquake. The exception, the earliest text dated to 15 CE, involves a man called Lucius Caecilius Felix, who is probably Jucundus’ father or uncle. Most of the documents are to do with auctions that Jucundus has conducted: receipts in which the sellers of the goods concerned formally declare that Jucundus has paid what was due (i.e. the money raised by the sale, minus his own commission and other costs). Sixteen documents, however, deal with various contracts that Jucundus has with the local town council. We now tend to call Jucundus a ‘banker’, but the modern sense of that term hardly captures Jucundus’ role. He was a characteristically Roman combination of auctioneer, middleman and moneylender. He was, in fact, as the tablets make clear, profiting from both sides of the auction process – not only charging commission to the sellers, but also lending money at interest to the buyers to enable them to finance their purchases.

For the history of the Pompeian economy, these documents are a goldmine. They allow us to take a first-hand look at one Pompeian’s financial dealings – at what was being bought and sold, when and for how much. Besides, as the documents were witnessed by up to ten witnesses, they offer the most comprehensive register of Pompeian people that we have. Yet some words of warning are in order too. We do not know why the documents had been kept, what proportion of Jucundus’ business dealings between 27 and 62 they represented, or why these had been selected for keeping. Why for example the single document relating to Felix? Had it simply been kept for sentimental reasons as a memento of Jucundus’ predecessor? Why do the auction records cluster in the years 54–8, when the man had been in business since 27? And why do they stop in 62? Did he die in the earthquake as some modern scholars have wondered? Or were the more recent documents stored somewhere more convenient, not stashed away in the attic? One thing is certain. We do not have a complete picture of Jucundus’ activities for any period. What we have is only a selection of his filing cabinet, perhaps at random, or at least made on principles we cannot now reconstruct.


67. The tablets of Jucundus were originally fixed together in several leaves, the writing on the wax inside protected by the outer faces. This made them relatively easy to keep safe as a record of the transactions.

That said, it is wonderfully vivid material. The one document relating to Caecilius Felix concerns final payment for a mule auctioned by Felix for 520 sesterces – and it is the key piece of evidence for the price of such animals in Pompeii. Here both seller and buyer were ex-slaves, and the buyer’s proceeds were not handed over to him by Felix himself, but by one of his slaves. Everything was sealed and dated, following the standard Roman system of calling the year after the two consuls in office at Rome itself:

The sum of 520 sesterces for a mule sold to Marcus Pomponius Nico, previously slave of Marcus: money which Marcus Cerrinius Euphrates is said to have received according to the terms of the contract with Lucius Caecilius Felix. The aforementioned sum Marcus Cerrinius Euphrates, previously slave of Marcus, declared that he had received, paid down, from Philadelphus, slave of Caecilius Felix. (Sealed).

Transacted at Pompeii, on the fifth day before the kalends of June [28 May], in the consulship of Drusus Caesar and Gaius Norbanus Flaccus [15 CE]

The auction records of Jucundus himself do not always specify exactly what had been bought and sold. In most cases they refer simply to ‘the auction of’, with the name of the seller. But we do find him on a couple of occasions referring to the sale of slaves. In December 56 CE, a woman called Umbricia Antiochis received 6252 sesterces after the sale of her slave Trophimus. This particular slave was obviously a valuable commodity, raising more than four times as much as another slave who was sold for just over 1500sesterces a couple of years earlier. To see this as roughly three times the cost of that mule is an unsettling reminder of the ‘commodification’ of human beings that lay at the heart of Roman slavery, for all the expectations of eventual freedom that a Roman slave might have. Jucundus is also known to have sold some ‘boxwood’ (a wood commonly used for writing tablets – but not these, which are of pine) for almost 2000 sesterces, and a quantity of linen, the property of one ‘Ptolemy, son of Masyllus, of Alexandria’; this is another nice example of an import from overseas and of a foreign trader, though sadly the price raised does not survive.

In general, Jucundus is neither dealing in very large amounts of money nor operating at the very bottom of the range. The largest sum raised at any of his recorded auctions is 38,079 sesterces. Whatever the objects of this sale were (it appears simply as ‘the auction of Marcus Lucretius Lerus’), they went for more than five times the likely annual turnover of the smallholding we looked at earlier in this chapter. Yet across the archive as a whole there were only three payments over 20,000 sesterces, just as there were only three under 1000. The median amount is around 4500 sesterces. Jucundus’ commission seems to have varied. In two of the tablets it is stated to be 2 per cent. In most cases we can only guess from the final figure paid over to the seller what the likely commission had been – and that is sometimes as much as 7 per cent. Whether Jucundus would have become well off on this depends entirely on how many auctions he conducted, and for what value of goods.

But the auctions were not his sole source of income. The other set of sixteen documents concerns his business contracts with the town administration itself. As was usual in the Roman world, the local taxes of the city of Pompeii were farmed out for private contractors to collect (taking a profit themselves, of course). For part of his career, at least, Jucundus was involved in collecting at least two taxes: a market tax, probably levied on stallholders; and a grazing tax, probably levied on those who made use of publicly owned pasture land. Among his documents we find several receipts for these: 2520 sesterces per year for the market tax, 2765 for the grazing tax (sometimes paid in two instalments). He also rented, and presumably worked or sublet, properties that were in public ownership. One was a farm, at an annual rental of 6000 sesterces. This rent seems to have been at the limit of what Jucundus could afford – at least if cashflow, rather than inefficiency, was the cause of him being in arrears from time to time. The other was a fullery (fullonica), for which he had to find 1652 sesterces per year.

It is striking to see here again the economic role of the local government, not merely raising taxes but also owning property in the town and surrounding countryside, which was then rented out for profit. An ‘ancestral farm’, as the documents describe it, is perhaps not surprising. But quite how the city came to own a fullery is a mystery. So much of a mystery, in fact, that some historians have suspected that fullonica here does not mean ‘fullery’, but a ‘tax on fulling’. This was, in other words, another of Jucundus’ tax-collecting businesses, not evidence of his further diversification into the textile and laundry trade. Who knows? But whatever the details of these and other properties (Jucundus can hardly have been the city’s only tenant), the tablets do give us a clue about the organisation of these affairs from the city’s side. The documents show that this day-to-day management of the public assets of the town was not in the hands of an elected official from the city’s elite, but of a public slave – or as the documents sometimes officially entitle him, a ‘slave of the colonists of the colonia Veneria Cornelia’. Two of these are mentioned in Jucundus’ tablets: the first was called Secundus, who received the farm rental in 53 CE; he was presumably replaced by Privatus, who received all the later payments.

Together, the buyers and sellers, the servants and officials, and (most numerous of all) the witnesses listed give us the names of some 400 residents of Pompeii around the middle of the first century CE. These range from the public slaves to Cnaius Alleius Nigidius Maius, one of the leading members of the local political elite and owner of the large property for rent we explored in Chapter 3, who turns up as a witness to one of Jucundus’ auction documents. Even a quick glance at the archive shows the concern with status that underpinned social and business relations all over the Roman world. When they appear in the documents, the slaves are clearly referred to as slaves, with the name of their owners specified; likewise the ex-slaves. Not so obvious at first sight is the ordering of the lists of witnesses. But careful recent analysis has shown without much doubt that on each occasion the witnesses’ names were recorded in order of their social prestige. In the one list in which Nigidius Maius occurs, for example, he takes first place. On two occasions, those nice calibrations of order were disputed, or at least had to be revised. In two lists, the writer had taken the trouble to rub out (or more correctly scrape out) a name and change the hierarchy.

Nonetheless, for all their emphasis on rank, the tablets suggest a mixed society of buying and selling, borrowing and lending, at Pompeii. Bottom of the list though they may have been, ex-slaves were acting as witnesses to the same transactions as members of the oldest, and most elite, families in the town. Women were in evidence too. They did not act as witnesses. But out of the 115 other names preserved on the tablets, fourteen are women’s. They are all sellers at auction (one the seller of the slave, Trophimus). This is not a large proportion of course, but it still suggests that women were more ‘visible’ in the commercial life of the early Roman empire than some of the gloomier modern accounts of their role and standing would have us believe.

Of Caecilius Jucundus himself we know relatively little apart from what is in the documents. The usual assumption (and it is not much more than that) is that he was the descendant of a slave family, though freeborn himself. We do not know where his auctions took place, or whether he operated from an ‘office’ separate from his house. That house, however, can tell us a little more. It was large and richly painted, which are the clearest signs that his business was profitable. The decoration included a large wild-animal hunt on the garden wall, long faded beyond recognition; a painting of a couple making love, now in the Secret Cabinet of the Naples Museum, but once in the colonnade of the peristyle (a touching or slightly vulgar display, depending on your point of view); an implausibly benign guard dog rendered in mosaic by the front door; and those famous marble relief panels which appear to depict the earthquake of 62 (Ill. 5).

It is just possible too that we have a portrait of him. In the atrium of the house, two squared pillars (or herms) were found, of a type commonly used in the Roman world to support marble or bronze portrait heads. In the case of male portraits, genitals would be attached half way down the herm, making what is, to be honest, a rather odd ensemble. On one of these pillars genitals and bronze head survived – a highly individualised portrait of a man, with thinning hair and a prominent wart on his left cheek (Ill. 68). Both pillars carry exactly the same inscription: ‘Felix, ex-slave, set this up to the our Lucius’. What the exact relationship was between this Felix and Lucius and the Lucius Caecilius Felix and Lucius Caecilius Jucundus of the tablets we do not know. The Felix on the herm might be the banker, or he might be an ex-slave of the family with the same name. The Lucius Caecilius Jucundus of the tablets might have nothing to do with this statue at all. But, although archaeologists sometimes insist on grounds of style that the portrait must be earlier than the middle of the first century CE, it is not completely inconceivable that this down-to-earth-looking character is none other than our auctioneer, middle-man and moneylender.

The tablets of Caecilius Jucundus are not the only such written records to be found in the town. In 1959 just outside Pompeii, another large cache of documents from the first century CE were discovered. They detailed all kinds of legal and business transactions at the port of Puteoli – contracts, loans, IOUs and guarantees – involving a Puteolan family of ‘bankers’, the Sulpicii. How the tablets ended up near Pompeii, some 40 kilometres away from Puteoli across the Bay of Naples, we can only guess.

One particularly intriguing find from Pompeii itself is a couple of wax tablets discovered stashed away with some silverware in the furnace of a set of baths. These record a loan from one woman, Dicidia Margaris, to another, Poppaea Note, an ex-slave. As guarantee of her loan Poppaea Note handed over two of her own slaves, ‘Simplex and Petrinus or whatever names they go under’. If she did not repay the loan by 1 November following, then Dicidia Margaris was allowed to sell the slaves to recover the money ‘on the ides [13th] of December ... in the Forum at Pompeii in broad daylight’. Careful arrangements were stipulated in case the slaves were to raise more or less than the sum owed. Again, it is striking to see a business arrangement between two women (though in this case Dicidia Margaris is represented by her male guardian). It is striking also to see slaves parcelled up, as it were, and handed over as living surety. But more curious is the date of the document. These arrangements were dated 61 CE, but the tablets were obviously still thought important enough to be hidden away for safekeeping along with the family silver, eighteen years later. Why? Was there perhaps still some on-going dispute about the repayment of the loan, or the sale of the slaves – and one of the women thought they might still need the written agreement?

Inevitably, this raises the question of the levels and uses of literacy in Pompeii. It is very easy to get the impression that the city was a highly literate, even cultured place. More than 10,000 pieces of writing, most in Latin, but some in Greek or Oscan, and at least one in Hebrew, have been recorded there. Election posters, graffiti and all kinds of notices – price lists, advertisements for gladiatorial games, shop signs – cover the walls. Much of the graffiti is of a familiar kind, from pleas for help (‘A bronze jar has gone from this shop. Reward of 65 sesterces for anyone returning it’) to laddish boasts (‘Here I fucked loads of girls’). But some of it conveys a more highbrow impression. We find, for example, over fifty quotations or adaptations from well-known classics of Latin literature, including lines of Virgil, Propertius, Ovid, Lucretius and Seneca, not to mention a snatch of Homer’s Iliad (in Greek). There are also many other snatches of poetry, either original compositions from some Pompeian versifier or part of a more popular repertoire.


68. Found in the House of Caecilius Jucundus, this bronze portrait may be the banker himself or perhaps, more likely, one of his extended family or ancestors. Either way, it is a vivid image of a middle-aged Pompeian, warts and all.

Modern students of Latin who have been puzzled by that strange genre of Roman love poetry, which imagines the lover locked outside his girlfriend’s house, addressing his words of anguish to the closed door, will be amused to find just such a poem in Pompeii, actually written up in a doorway:

Would I might hold around your neck my arms entwined

And place kisses on your lovely lips ... etc.

Critics have judged it a rather feeble poetic effort, probably a compilation of various misremembered lines of verse into a not entirely satisfactory whole. They have, moreover, found it hard to decide whether to take literally (or as further evidence of a botched job) the fact that the poem appears to be written by a woman to a woman.

The recent fashion among historians and archaeologists has been to pour a good measure of cold water on the idea that, appealing and evocative though this material is, it demonstrates widespread literacy and high cultural aspirations among the populace in Pompeii. The snippets from the great works of literature make a strong impression at first sight. But if you look at them more closely you find that they tend to cluster suspiciously around the beginnings of works, or their most famous one-liners. So, for example, twenty-six of the thirty-six quotations from Virgil’s Aeneid are the first words of either the first or second book of the poem (and four more are the first words of the seventh or eighth books). This looks more like a familiarity with famous sayings than evidence of serious literary knowledge. The ability to scrawl on the walls ‘Arma virumque cano ...’, (‘Arms and the man, I sing ...’, Aeneid, I, I) no more indicates close acquaintance with the text of Virgil than ‘To be or not to be’ indicates close acquaintance with Shakespeare.

There have also been doubts raised about quite how far below the elite the ability to read and write extended. It may be convenient to imagine that crude graffiti about sexual exploits were the work of the poorer and less cultured members of Pompeian society. But, in fact, there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that the upper echelons of the town were beyond boasting about their conquests (and, for what it’s worth, one of the quotations from the Aeneid was actually found in the brothel). It has also been pointed out that many of the graffiti were not street writing at all, but were found on the inside walls of houses – rich houses at that, and not always very high up the wall. They were not written then by the average streetwalker, but by the members of wealthy families, and sometimes (to judge from the height) by the children.

These are all important warnings against taking the literate veneer of Pompeii too much at face value. Yet to argue, as is now often done, that the ability to read and write did not extend much beyond the members of the town council, the rest of the male elite and a few trades- or craftsmen is not necessarily correct. The key here is not the graffiti, even though they are so appealing. Many of those may indeed have been scratched by wealthy kids. Nor is it in the election notices, which few people may have read or taken notice of. The key rather is the kind of documents we find in the dossier of Jucundus, or the carefully preserved loan agreement between Poppaea Note and Dicidia Margaris or the labels on the wine amphorae, recording where the stuff had come from and where it was to be delivered. From these it is clear that for many people well below the level of the wealthy inhabitants reading and writing must have been integral to the way they organised their lives, and to their ability to do their jobs and earn their living.

The garum maker

It is from the labels painted on various shapes and sizes of pottery containers, as well as from the mosaics in his atrium, that we can trace the garum business of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus and his family. Fish sauce was a staple of Roman cuisine and could be used as a condiment with almost everything. On the best, most optimistic interpretation, it may have been something similar to modern Far-Eastern sauces made from fermented fish (nuoc-mam from Vietnam, or nam-pla from Thailand). Alternatively it might have been a truly stinking concoction of rotten, salted seafood. The Romans seem to have shared our ambivalence about the product. In one squib, the first-century satirist Martial enjoys a laugh at a man called (ironically enough) Flaccus, who managed to get an erection even after his girlfriend had eaten six portions of garum. Elsewhere the same poet refers, apparently seriously, to the same substance as ‘noble’ or ‘lordly’. In general, there are plenty of ancient references to its pungent smell, like it or not.

The process of manufacture mixed together pieces of seafood with salt and left it in a vat for a couple of months to ferment in the sun (in the kosher version (pp. 23–4), the maker presumably took particular care about exactly which pieces of seafood went into the mixture). Various different varieties of sauce were the result. The clear liquid that came to the top after the fermentation was the garum – though we do not know how that differed from the other term, liquamen, which is used. What was left in the bottom of the vats was allec, or sediment or lees, which could also be used in cooking. A brine known as muria was another side product. This main part of the manufacturing must have been carried out at Pompeii, for Pliny claims that the town was well known for itsgarum. But there is no sign of the equipment needed in the town itself. It was presumably done in large salt pans outside the city, near the coast. The garum shop within the city was concerned with distribution rather than production. The sauce was stored in bulk in six largedolia, then decanted – for sale at the front of the shop – into amphorae and other smaller vessels. Traces of allec, in the form of anchovy bones, have survived in the dolia.

Umbricius Scaurus and his family certainly marketed, and probably made, all the various forms of fish sauce, carefully distinguished by the labels of the jars. These boasted of their top quality products with the usual hyperbole of a sales pitch: not just ‘best fish sauce’ (liquaminis flos), but ‘premium best fish sauce’ (liquaminis flos optimus) or ‘absolutely the best fish sauce’ (liquaminis floris flos); they also made a point of their pure-mackerel versions of garum, which were the most highly regarded by connoisseurs of this stuff. But the labels also give us a hint of the structure of trade and business connections that this family had. For some state clearly that the product was ‘from the manufactory of Scaurus’. Others refer, for example, to ‘the manufactory of Aulus Umbricius Abascantus’ or ‘the manufactory of Aulus Umbricius Agathopus’. These names suggest that the men in question had been slaves of Umbricius Scaurus and were now running workshops or other garum outlets that were still partly dependent on their old master. Other labels show that the Umbricii Scauri had other strings to their bow. One implies that they were also importing garum from Spain (the Roman world’s biggest mass producer of fish sauce) for resale in Pompeii.

What is extraordinary about this garum business is the scale of the profit involved. The vast majority of the many trades and shops in Pompeii were small-scale and for most of those involved the profits would have been similarly modest, enough to survive and a little bit more. The amount of cash found with the corpses, or left (as it were) in the till, confirms this. It rarely goes above 1000 sesterces. But the size of the house and the quantity of his products surviving suggest that a small fortune was at stake. So far as we can tell, this family was not active or prominent in Pompeii before the first century CE. By the middle of the first century, Aulus Umbricius Scaurus had become rich on garum and his son of the same name had reached one of the highest offices in the local government of the town, as one of the two annual duoviri. He died early, before his father, and is commemorated in a memorial outside the Herculaneum Gate:

In memory of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, son of Aulus, of the Menenian tribe, duumvir with judicial power. The town council voted the land for this monument and 2000 sesterces for his funeral and a statue on horseback to be put up in the Forum. His father Scaurus erected this to his son.

This is not quite the lavish funding that they made available for the funeral of Marcus Obellius Firmus (pp. 3–4) at about the same time. But these are still grand honours being given to one of the most prominent men in the town. We should note, though, that if we did not have other evidence about the commercial activities of this family, we would never have guessed from the tombstone that the Umbricii Scauri were nouveaux riches, who had made their fortune out of rotten fish.

This is one of the reasons why it is so hard to get to the bottom of the Roman economy and who, or what, made it tick.

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