The Gulf of Naples … Without Vesuvius
Coming into the Gulf of Naples is always spectacular. With the islands of Ischia and Procida to our left, and Capri and the peninsula of Sorrento to our right, it feels like we’re making an entrance onto the stage of a natural theater, welcoming us with a warm embrace.
Driven by the wind, our ship makes its way silently into this embrace. The rich merchant is standing on the bow, his hands resting on the wooden parapet and his eyes closed. He is breathing in the smell of land, his land, as the morning sun warms his face.
Like airplanes circling in the air waiting for their turn to land, there are a lot of sailing ships behind us, headed, like us, toward Pozzuoli. Our ship veers left now, up the coast, where we can see a series of bays and inlets; that’s where the port of Pozzuoli is. Instinctively, we turn to our right, looking for Vesuvius. Curiously, however, we don’t see the imposing mass of the volcano. Vesuvius doesn’t yet exist (at least not as we know it today).
Something that is seldom mentioned is that Pompeii and Herculaneum weren’t destroyed by the Vesuvius that we know today, but by a different Vesuvius, which, by exploding and disintegrating, changed its shape. Our Vesuvius came into being after that devastating eruption, growing gradually inside the enclosure of the ruins of the old volcano until it finally reached its current size.
So, during Trajan’s reign, Vesuvius is probably still too small to be seen from the gulf, unlike the view depicted on modern postcards. As our ship sails into the gulf, clear traces of the cataclysm can still be seen everywhere, though the vegetation has already begun to reclaim the lunar landscape created by the volcano.
Naples, too, is very different in Trajan’s time. It’s still a city of modest dimensions, very different from the modern sprawling metropolis. But construction has already begun to invade the coastland all around it. At numerous points, in fact, we can see uninterrupted lines of luxury homes. Among those who owned villas here are Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucullus, Crassus, and Hortensius. And the emperors came here too, from Augustus to Hadrian, with Tiberius, Claudius, and others in between.
This development of the coast is especially evident in the Gulf of Puteoli (Pozzuoli), which we are entering now. We had never seen anything like it before starting this journey through the empire. This part of the Neapolitan coast has been literally coated with cement by the Romans, in line with the classic dictates of runaway waterfront development. And they themselves admitted it: voluptas aedificandi, excess (voluptuous) building, was their way of describing what had happened, especially in Baia. Baia is a resort on the Gulf of Pozzuoli with a high concentration of sumptuous villas, gigantic bath complexes, and public buildings, houses, and hotels. We might call it the Roman Acapulco. This is a place where the Roman nobility and upper classes come for amusement, even in its most extreme forms.
Roman Leisure Is Different from Ours
These villas have their own fish farms and even their own oyster beds (ostrearia). And that’s no coincidence; the tradition of serving oysters as a delicacy was born right here. The person who came up with the idea was a wealthy Roman who lived in the first century BCE, Caius Sergius Orata, the same man who, as ancient sources inform us, invented the system for heating the water in the bath complexes. As his surname indicates—an orata is a sea bream—he was also a fish farmer. By all accounts he was a clever entrepreneur with a nose for business.
Actually, profit seeking is a useful concept for understanding the Romans’ way of thinking. In general, their villas are designed not for leisure as we conceive it but as they conceive it: a place to rest and relax, but one that must also yield lots of sesterces. So if the villa is in the country, it brings its owner profits from crops, wine, olive oil, and so on. If instead the villa is on the coast it brings him profits from its fish farms and oyster beds.
That should come as no surprise. In the Roman world, money is the fuel that propels people to the upper levels of the social hierarchy.
At Last We Arrive
A trireme war galley passes us on the side, silently, with its oars moving in perfect unison. Even at this distance we can hear the rhythm shouted out by the crew chief. (To set the record straight, contrary to how they are portrayed in films, the oarsmen on Roman galleys are not slaves or captives but free men.) The trireme shoots by us and drives forward like a shark, having left its base in the port of Misenum, just beyond Baia.
When you think about it, this area of what is now the region of Campania brings together a lot of the characteristics of the Roman world: luxury, culture, military force, business. There’s Baia, a seaside resort and spa with its villas and amusements. There’s Naples, a city of culture, ideal for intellectuals because it was founded by the Greeks and still has well-rooted Greek language and traditions, with competitions for poets and musicians. There’s Misenum, the base of one of the imperial fleets. There’s Pozzuoli, a commercial city and port.
We’re about to dock. The ship passes an enormously long, strange-looking pier that sticks out over 1,100 feet into the gulf. More than a pier, it looks like a bridge with fifteen or more arches that sink down into the water. No ships are tied up alongside it. In reality, it serves to protect the harbor of Pozzuoli from rough seas: it is slightly curved, to make it more resistant to the force of the wind and tides, and its arches permit the current to pass under it and keep the harbor from filling with sand.
Aside from its practical function the pier also hosts some artistic masterpieces. On top of it are two triumphal arches; the first, closer to the coast, has a group of tritons on the top in gilded bronze, the second is crowned by a quadriga driven by Neptune and pulled by seahorses that glisten in the sun. Finally, atop two columns stand Castor and Pollux, protectors of seamen.
Souvenirs of Antiquity
At last we tie up at the dock. Eutychius jumps down off the deck and stretches out one hand to touch the soil. Then he grabs a handful, brings it up to his mouth, and kisses it.
A souvenir vendor looks at him and smiles. Then he goes back to bargaining with a customer. His “shop” is a little wagon, covered by a square umbrella, with a myriad of objects for tourists. Among them are some outstanding blown-glass cruets. He’s showing one to his customer. We notice that they have pictured on them, in relief, the main buildings, monuments, and structures that can be seen along the coast, from Pozzuoli to Misenum. These cruets are how we’re able to describe today what the coast looked like in the Roman era: in their decorative reliefs you can seen the ostrearia, the baths, the imperial palaces, and the long pier with its triumphal arches and columns.
These extremely delicate cruets are conserved in various museums in New York, Prague, Lisbon, Warsaw, Odemira in Portugal, Ampurias in Spain, and Populonia in Italy. They remind us of those little ceramic pitchers with a landscape painted on the side and the inscription “Greetings from …” that you see in so many souvenir shops in provincial Italian towns.
What other trinkets do tourists buy in the Roman era? Lionel Casson has drawn up a curious list of souvenirs that have emerged from various archaeological digs and ancient documents. So, from Athens, for example, a statuette of the goddess Athena, comparable to the statuettes of Michelangelo’s David that are for sale on the streets of Florence. Wealthy tourists, on the other hand, buy full-size copies of famous statues to adorn their villas, just as we now buy prints of famous paintings or photographs to hang in our bedroom or study.
In Afghanistan, archaeologists have unearthed a glass with a scene from the port of Alexandria—a modest souvenir, comparable to a glass snow globe. Who knows how it ended up so far away.
Today, people who visit shrines buy statuettes of saints and the Blessed Mother, and the same thing happened in the Roman era. In Antioch, in the Near East, one could buy Tyche, the goddess of good fortune, in the form of a bottle as big as your hand. From Egypt one could take home some “holy water” from the Nile for rituals dedicated to the cult of Isis, just as people do today with water from Lourdes.
Then there are typical souvenirs from specific tourist destinations. Today, for example, visitors to Japan might bring home the latest in consumer electronics. In the Roman era, visitors to Alexandria know that they’ll be able to find, at better prices and in greater variety, Chinese silk and Indonesian or Indian spices like pepper, ginger, camphor, and cinnamon. Another typical gift from India is cotton, while perfumes come from the Orient and incense from the Arabian peninsula. In Syria, on the other hand, people buy rugs, embroidery, and precious blown-glass objects.
Naturally, when they get back home they have to deal with the customs agents at the border.
Eutychius is welcomed by his slaves waiting for him on the dock. They’ll take care of the formalities for the goods being transported. He goes through customs like lightning. He knows all the customs agents and is in the habit of bringing them all very nice gifts. That’s what he’s going to do this time too. He goes through with a simple wave of his hand, while the agents are literally frisking a Syrian merchant who can’t stop gesticulating, alternating Greek with his native tongue.
When he arrives home, Eutychius finds his wife comfortably stretched out on a sofa, holding a little puppy. In the Roman era too, rich women have little dogs as pets, as will be seen in the centuries that follow, and they love to have themselves painted holding their dogs in their laps. All of this carries a message: dogs are the symbol of fidelity. Cats, on the other hand, are not often seen around these parts, except in Egypt. (In Europe, the animal that might serve as a substitute for a pet cat is, believe it or not, the weasel.)
After spending a long time in the company of his wife, Eutychius makes a visit to the magnificent baths: he is finally back home. His skin is smooth after his bath and his body is invigorated from the massages. He is light-hearted because he knows he’ll be seeing his friends at dinner after his long absence. He walks down the street, together with his trusty slave who walks behind him, silent as his shadow.
We are struck by the last stretch of road leading up to his domus. Compared to this morning it looks deserted. You can no longer hear the chatter of the passersby or the hustle and bustle of the shops. There are only a handful of people out and about. The shops have been boarded up, their wooden doors shut behind horizontal bars locked into place. They’re painted all different colors—green, brown, blue, depending on the kind of shop—and the colors have been so bleached by the sun they look like the fragments of a faded rainbow. For Eutychius it is a familiar sight; that long line of chipped and peeling shuttered shops makes him think: “I’m home.” But where is everyone?
The shops have all been closed for a while now. Except for the tavern keepers, antique dealers, and barbers, nearly all Roman workers stop working at the hora sexta (in the summer), or at the hora septima (in the winter). At around noon, trumpet blasts resound throughout the Forum (sometimes it’s simply a man who gives a shout) and everything stops: it’s the signal that the working day is over. It’s the equivalent of sirens at a construction site. Deals are concluded, offices don’t accept any more customers, political activity is suspended (at least officially, because it continues at the baths and at afternoon encounters between the various potentates).
When Eutychius disappears behind the door to his house, he rediscovers the warm light and familiar smells that he missed while he was away. We follow him. At the end of the entrance corridor he enters the atrium, its central pool reflecting the blue sky. Deep in thought, he stops to look at it. Reflected in the water, among the petals of the flowers set afloat for this evening’s dinner, two hazel brown eyes pop into view. Eutychius raises his gaze and sees his son, thin as a rail, with chestnut brown hair and a playful look on his face. Behind him, the slave girl who takes care of him smiles, keeping a discreet distance. For much of the day children don’t stay with their mothers but with their nannies. Around his neck the boy is wearing a praetexta, a bulging round container inside of which is an amulet to defend him from diseases. He hugs his father in a long, energetic embrace. Then the boy starts to wriggle; he wants to get down, and once he’s on the ground he runs off to chase a dog that has been peeping out from behind a doorway. The boy is boisterous. Obviously, the slave girl follows him everywhere.
Eutychius walks through the house to make sure that everything is in order for the banquet. We are struck by the colors of the walls, always bright hues that make the rooms come alive, and the mosaics, which are veritable carpets of stone, with well-defined borders, a cornice all around the perimeter and, in the center, geometric motifs or framed squares depicting leisure activities or mythological figures.
Eutychius stops in front of a mosaic to chat with his personal slave about the details for this evening’s dinner. The mosaic shows two ships, one behind the other, with dolphins, fish, and moray eels. Simple though it is (made out of alternating black and white stones) the scene is very evocative because it represents a return from a long voyage. The ship on the right has all its sails unfurled and is still in the open sea, loaded with goods. The one on the left is the same ship on arrival, with its sails rolled up and the sailors running back and forth pulling on the ropes. It is coming into a port with a big lighthouse. Just beyond it, in the water, there is a boat with some oarsmen. Perhaps it’s the tugboat that is pulling the ship into port or perhaps it’s carrying the crew to the dock; it’s hard to tell. What emerges quite clearly, however, is the figure of a man on land thanking the gods for a safe voyage as he places sacrificial food on a little altar. The mosaic was commissioned by Eutychius and it represents his life: always traveling for work, with the blessing of the gods. But it also indicates to its viewers the source of his wealth: commerce. The mosaics in Roman houses often function as advertisements for the prosperity of their owner.
Now we take a look at the furniture. There are no large tables, bookshelves, or bulky credenzas; the furniture tends to remain in the background. The pieces are generally small, essential, so as not to get in the way of the real display of wealth represented by the mosaics on the floor, the frescoes on the walls, or the decorations on the ceiling.
In this room we see a lovely three-legged table with sculptures of feline heads adorning its slender legs. It looks like a delicate spider, motionless, looking out from the corner of the room at the immense mosaic, as though it were its web. A thin glass flower vase creates a splash of color against the black and white stone carpet—a touch of light and class chosen by the mistress of the house.
The other corners of the room are occupied by thin bronze columns that look like the bases of floor lamps without any light bulbs; they are topped by statues of divinities or lighted oil lamps. These are the points of light found in every room of a Roman house.
Now the master of the house is in the peristylium, the lovely interior garden surrounded by a colonnade. There are flower beds everywhere, well cared for, and bushes with intense Mediterranean fragrances.
Together with the slave in charge of the garden, Eutychius checks that the central fountain—which features a bronze fawn in midleap, chased by hunting dogs—has been adjusted as he had ordered: the stream of water must be abundant and create a pleasing sound effect when it falls into the pool. It’s fundamental to the success of the banquet.
Just beyond them, behind a peacock (this one authentic) a little girl is running to and fro. Eutychius’s daughter leaps into her father’s arms.…
The Secrets of the Mistress of the House
We come to a door and out of curiosity we decide to open it, slowly. Not far beyond the door, in the middle of a room with red walls, we discover the domina, sitting down, her hands resting in her lap. Two slave girls are fixing her hair, and spread out on her dressing table are all the objects involved in the operation, even a hot iron, the calamistrum, for making curls. The preparation of the mistress of the house for a banquet is not something to be taken lightly. It is a job that has already been underway for a while now, and that will take several hours. The final result will be a luminous countenance: her lips a sensuous tint of red, her eyes outlined by soft hues, and a tumbling cascade of curls that seems to flow down over her forehead. (As we have already had the chance to discover elsewhere on our journey, these curls are fake.)
The domina is careful not to color her hair red. Along with black and blond, red is widely used during the Roman era, but there is a problem with it: it’s toxic. Roman women know that, but many of them continue to use it until the dye literally burns and ruins their hair. There is a solution: a wig. It’s very much in fashion to wear one; all (wealthy) Roman women do so regularly. Any domina worth the title has a number of wigs at her disposal: blond, black, chestnut brown, red … for all tastes and for all occasions. It’s just like dying your hair a different color every morning.
Little ivory boxes and toiletries are scattered all over the table: tiny spatulas, large pins made of bone, amber jars of colored powders. On another little table a slave girl is gathering what’s left of the beauty mask that was applied the night before. What are beauty masks made of in the Roman era? A recipe reported by Ovid reveals the secret for us. It seems more like a formula for a magic potion than a list of ingredients for a cosmetic product.
• Steep a pound of ervum [similar to lentils] in the liquid from ten eggs. Then mix it all together with a pound of barley (best if the barley comes from the African colonies).
• Let the paste dry and then grind it up, sprinkling in 3½ tablespoons of deer-antler powder.
• Pass it through a sieve; add to the sifted powder 16 ounces of honey, 3½ tablespoons of mixed spelt and resin, and 12 narcissus bulbs peeled and crushed with a mortar.
The result, according to Ovid, is guaranteed. The woman’s skin will be soft, velvety, and smooth “as a mirror.”
This recipe, along with the daily bath, is part of the seduction strategy of Roman women. Before the profusion of bath complexes people washed completely only once a week, and only partially on the other days. Roman soaps or detergents were quite harsh, made of soda, lye, or pumice stone, rigorously pure and never mixed with other substances. (According to Pliny the Elder, soap was invented by the Gauls.) Consequently, the use of oils and unguents to protect their skin is very widespread among wealthy Roman women. And perfumes are used abundantly.
We moderns usually spray perfume behind the ears and on the bosom. A Roman woman, but also her man, sprinkles perfume on her nostrils, hair, and clothes. At this evening’s banquet the hosts and their guests will be stretched out barefoot on the triclinium beds, so it will probably be a good idea for the guests to perfume their feet as well.… For his part, the dominus will see to it that the walls are perfumed, as well as the wings of the white doves that will be released into the banquet hall at some point.
Cooking for a Banquet
We close the door and let the domina enjoy her privacy. We’re distracted by a pleasant smell. We follow its trail, sniffing like hounds, passing through the rooms where slaves are arranging the cushions on the triclinium beds, hanging garlands of flowers, checking the oil lamps. We also get a glimpse of some musicians and dancers who are rehearsing in one of the slave’s rooms.
Room by room, the smell reacquires the full spectrum of its scents, and we’re finally able to figure out what it is: it’s a roast, but the herbs and spices that have been added to it have completely disguised the smell of cooking meat. That’s why we didn’t realize what it was.
That’s one of the big differences between our cooking and the Romans’. There are many, obviously, starting with the cooking equipment. Our gas stove? A masonry counter on which to spread the embers of a wood fire. Our metal pots and pans? Mostly clay pots, but also copper stockpots and kettles. And there’s no hood for ventilation, just some grates high up near the ceiling.
Usually the kitchen is a very small room, and the slaves work elbow to elbow to satisfy the demands of the domus, but this kitchen is remarkably large; Eutychius evidently has a yen for a well-spread table. The cuisine for tonight is Mediterranean, based on olive oil and some condiments unknown to us, such as garum. Cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, ginger, and other spices are commonly used, just as we use pepper, basil, and oregano. Consequently, Roman cooking would taste quite exotic to us, almost Middle Eastern. In addition, the Romans have a tendency to mix opposing tastes, bringing to the dinner tables of the empire the sweet-sour combination that we’re used to tasting in the cuisines of the Far East.
The magirus, the slave-cook, his eyes red from the smoking firewood, is preparing something special. He’s pressing a meat paste into a copper mold similar to the ones we use today for sweet pastry, only it’s in the form of an animal. There’s another one hanging on the wall; it looks like a hare with its legs spread.
We know that Romans love to prepare surprise dishes to amaze their guests. The recipes of Apicius offer some great examples, like liver and meat served in the form of a fish, or “eggs” that actually have cream of wheat on the inside.
The surprises at a Roman banquet are not limited to the menu. The guests are also entertained with dances and performances. In the rooms farthest from the triclinium a clown is putting on his costume, while a group of musicians is taking its place at the far end of the garden, in the part of the colonnade where the acoustics are better.
Everything’s ready; in the triclinium the beds await the arrival of their guests. Silver plates; blown-glass goblets; fine, multicolored, vintage Falernian wine, accompanied by other well-loved wines such as Massicus and Ceacuban, will give the banquet panache and prestige.
Tonight’s menu is wild boar, roast dormouse dressed in honey and poppy seeds, snails, flamingo, peacock, moray eel (very popular), and sea bream, from the fish farm. Today we might turn up our noses if we were served farmed fish instead of wild, but for the Romans farm fish are a guarantee of freshness because they come from the piscinae, the seaside hatcheries at one of the nearby villas. Seafood is always on the menu at banquets. For the Romans it is a treasure, as we can see in the writings of Pliny the Elder: “The sea is the element that costs the most for the human belly, for its preparation, for its dishes, and for its delicacies.”
But there is one dish that will inaugurate the procession of courses that the guests are anxiously waiting to taste: the oysters, also raised here in Baia. Eutychius will have them brought in atop a small mountain of ice, greeted by everyone’s approval. And what a combination of tastes when paired with the spicy garum!
Silverware plays no part at a Roman banquet. As is well known, the Romans eat with their hands (or with small spoons for soups). In fact, the food is served precut. If it does not arrive from the kitchen already in bite-size pieces, it will be prepared at table by a “slave-knife.” Each dinner guest has one assigned to him to tear up the food with skillful movements of the hands.
Eutychius will also present his guests with some small gifts. It’s a Roman tradition at the banquets of the wealthy. These gifts are called xenia (a term that sums up the rules of hospitality in the world of ancient Greece). Generally speaking they are luxury items, either silver spoons or small amber sculptures.
One last detail: during the banquet, incense will be lighted. To be sure, between the perfumes sprayed on bodies and clothes and the walls of the rooms, the sweat, the food odors, the fragrances of the plants and flowers, a banquet is a real test for the olfactory sense. If, to all that, you add incense—whew! Martial once wrote, criticizing a banquet that was light on food and heavy on fragrances, that he had eaten very little but had been well perfumed, to the point that he felt like a dead man (since the dead were customarily sprinkled with incense and perfumes).
Gold, Emeralds, and Dancers from Cadiz
The first guests have arrived. They will be nine in all, the ideal number for a banquet according to Roman custom.
It’s interesting to see how our hosts are dressed. He’s wearing a red tunic and a deep blue toga, with elegant gold embroidery along the border. She, on the other hand, has an emerald green tunic with a lot of gold embroidery, which, from far away, makes the tunic look like a starry sky. An elegant embroidered silk palla is wrapped around her shoulders and she’s about to hand it over to a slave to allow her to display the splendid gold necklace, with pearls and emeralds, that adorns her neck. She’s also wearing gold earrings in the shape of small scales, with big white pearls dangling where the pans would be. She is virtually covered in gold jewelry, as befits a wealthy Roman lady; serpent-shaped bracelets glisten on her arms, while her fingers (except for the middle finger which is left bare for superstitious reasons) are bedecked with emeralds and sapphires and gold rings with seals of marine blue glass paste bearing the effigy of an eagle.
Rings are not only worn around the base of the fingers, but also around the other phalanges. This is a typical caprice of Roman women and helps explain why we sometimes find in museums female rings with very small diameters. It’s likely that many of them were worn by little girls, while others were meant for the toes of matrons. The wife of Eutychius, for example, has a small and very stylish one engraved with the letters EVT VXI, the abbreviation for Eutychius Uxori, literally, “From Eutychius to his wife.”
All the guests have finally arrived and the banquet has begun. We notice a bit of movement behind the scenes. One of the slaves has recited some verses in Greek and is relaxing, sitting on a stool, happy that his performance was a big hit with the guests. The clown has now made his entrance, salting his miming act with salacious one-liners. At the other end of the garden, the master’s personal slave, in his role as entertainment director, is preparing one of the evening’s most intriguing moments. The guests are about to be treated to an exhibition by dancing girls from Cadiz. Their dancing is famous even in the most remote corners of the empire.
The dancers are very beautiful, a real chorus line of antiquity. They have long, flowing black hair, and their tunics are so light and transparent that they leave nothing to the imagination. Looking through the thin veils of their tunics we can see that they all have a colored ribbon around their waist, the ends of which hang down over their hips. We also notice that their bodies are totally hairless, like all Roman women.
At a prearranged signal the orchestra launches into a new style of music that accompanies the dancers’ entrance. From their places in the triclinium, the banqueters see them come into view at the end of the garden, split into two lines, and make their way down the long colonnade that surrounds it, half on the right and half on the left. Their bare feet make no sound, their bodies weaving in and out ethereally, between one column and another. The effect is very evocative; their shadows expand to fill the surface of the frescoed walls in the background and flutter like elegant dark veils. In just a few seconds the dancers appear in front of the triclinium and come to a sudden halt, stone still, with their hands joined above their heads. Two musicians come into view on either side of the scene. Each of them is holding a triangular panpipe. As soon as they purse their lips and begin to blow, the whole scene suddenly springs to life. The dancers move their hands and feet to the rhythm of the music. Watching them, we realize that they’re playing castanets. They’re unlike the ones we’re used to—they look like two drinking glasses or goblets, probably wooden. The two dancers on either end, however, have very different castanets, which look like spoons. They have two in each hand and hold them like chopsticks, knocking them together to keep the beat.
The rhythm is hypnotic. Their dance is strikingly reminiscent of the flamenco. (It’s no coincidence that it comes from the area of Cadiz, which is part of Andalusia.) The dancers transfix the banqueters with their deep black eyes and their swaying, shaking bodies.
But the dance also has other characteristics, as shown in the rare bas-reliefs and mosaics that portray our dancers. They suggest the sinuous movements of belly dancing and poses that seem to indicate a total loss of control, as though the dancers have fallen into an ecstatic trance. One such scene is portrayed in a sculpture from Vaison-la-Romaine. And if we add a very explicit bas-relief unearthed in Aquincum (Budapest), we can recreate the scene of a dance and see that at times clothes can be a useless impediment: the dancer sculpted here has none.
The women have now removed their tunics and are dancing naked. All they’re wearing is the ribbon around their waist, the ends fluttering and undulating like snakes. They make every single part of their bodies move exactly as they want it to, just like a belly dancer. Moving to the beat of the castanets, their bodies surge and roil. The dance couldn’t be more erotic, and it ends as it began, with a crescendo of castanets that comes to a sudden halt, as do the bodies of the dancers, once again with their hands joined overhead and their legs crossed. The only things moving are their diaphragms, contracting spasmodically in search of oxygen.
Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the dancers vanish among the colonnades, accompanied by the applause of the banqueters, who immediately return to their table talk.
Luxury and Licentiousness
We exit the house and leave Eutychius with his guests. In a few moments the comissatio will begin, a toasting contest. The banquet got started sometime between the hora nona and the hora decima (around three o’clock in the afternoon) but it will go on for a long time yet: maybe six or eight hours more.
In the meantime the sun has gone down and the first stars have come out. The side streets are dark and deserted, but there are a lot of lighted lamps along the main streets, above the entrances to inns, full of travelers; the taverns, busily transforming themselves into clandestine gaming dens; and the many brothels that, in this seaport city, are working at full rhythm.
Walking along the streets we can hear the noises and the laughter coming from other banquets, beyond the high walls of the domus, and the furious shouting of a fight in a tavern that makes us quicken our pace.
When we get down to the harbor we notice that Pozzuoli never sleeps. Under the light of thousands of oil lamps stevedores are unloading all kinds of goods. We can say this with certainty because in the twentieth century some fifteen thousand used oil lamps will be uncovered, arranged in perfect order in several storage areas of the Portus Iulius, the big port built near Pozzuoli in the first century BC, now submerged under the sea.
Perhaps those lamps were used mainly for the unloading operations on the immense grain ships that arrived here. Supplying grain to Rome called for round-the-clock activity; that’s why they had to work at night. From here, as we have seen, many ships then continued on to Ostia to unload the grain into the storage warehouses.
Before long we arrive at the shores of Lake Lucrinus, an interior lake alongside the bay of Pozzuoli. A long road, the Via Herculanea, runs between the two like a dam. We lean on one of the parapets to look out at the view. The atmosphere is magnificent, the wind is warm, and there is a full moon up in the sky. This area will continue to be one of the most beautiful parts of the peninsula for centuries to come, thanks to its enchanted atmosphere, although in recent times the building boom has partly suffocated the magic of the place.
In the Roman era the situation was really not all that different, though. As we have said, the whole coast is lined with villas, one next to the other. This part of the Campania region has always been a residential area for the rich—especially the nouveaux riches. In fact, Posillipo, the hilltop suburb of Naples, got its name from the villa of a new entry in the realm of the superrich Publius Vedius Pollio, the son of a family of ex-slaves who built himself a villa so sumptuous (and garish) that it gave its name to the entire hilltop where it was located. He had called it Pausilypon, literally “repose from the troubles,” in honor of the panoramic view.
That is just one example of the villas that can be admired here. Some are so close to the sea that, according to Lionel Casson, “to go fishing all you have to do is drop a line out the window.” Almost all of them overlook the water, with lots of rooms in a line under the porticoes, so that each one enjoys a magnificent view. Some villas have multiple stories of porticoes, one on top of the other.
We continue walking along the road-dam of the Via Herculanea, lulled by the lapping of the waves against the rocks. In the moonlight we catch a glimpse of a ship. It looks like a black shadow on the silvery sea. We can see lighted oil lamps and faces moving back and forth in the lamplight. We can hear voices and the laughter of men and women.… It’s not just a banquet; there’s something more going on.
Indeed, to hear the ancient authors tell it, perversion was rampant behind the walls of a lot of residential villas, especially in and around Baia, just a mile up the coast from Lake Lucrinus. It is a popular bath resort, and the lifestyle of the villa owners (or their renters) is shocking, even to the most open-minded Romans. “In Roman times Baia attracted anyone who was out for a good time, and it earned a reputation as a place of both licit and illicit pleasures,” writes Lionel Casson. “Respectable representatives of the polite society sailed peacefully on Lake Lucrinus during the day; at night they invited onto their boats women of dubious propriety, went skinny dipping and ‘filled the air of the lake with the raucous noise of their singing.’ ”
The same things were described by Varrone, a contemporary of Cicero. But Varrone added other things, for example, that “nubile young women were common property, old men behaved like young boys, and a lot of boys as though they were girls.”
Things must not have changed for generations if, a century later, Seneca echoed Varrone, writing, “Why do I have to see drunks staggering along the beach or be disturbed by the noise of parties held on boats?”
That these coasts are occasions of sin and “contagious” perversion was also the opinion of Martial in Book I of his famous epigrams. Here he describes what happens to a virtuous married woman.
Laevina, so chaste as to rival even the Sabine women of old, and more austere than even her stern husband, chanced, while entrusting herself sometimes to the waters of the Lucrine lake … and while frequently refreshing herself in the baths of Baiae, to fall into flames of love, and, leaving her husband, fled with a young gallant. She arrived a Penelope, she departed a Helen. (Bohn’s Classical Library.)
The God Kairòs, or “Seize the Day!”
For many wealthy Romans, then, Baia is a place of extreme amusements. But this desire for pleasure corresponded to a mentality that was fairly widespread before Christianity and the belief in the afterlife. The dominant idea was that earthly life is the only life and therefore the time to enjoy yourself is now. Not necessarily according to the “customs” of Baia but even just in the pleasures of daily life.
Naturally, there are different philosophical currents, not to mention numerous religious ones, so attitudes toward life are varied. That said, there is a widely shared belief in the concept of carpe diem, life is now, enjoy what life has to offer in the moment that you live it. This attitude is what underlies the whole concept of luxury, from the banquets to the villas on the coast, the idea being to possess and experience the best things that time can offer you in the fleeting moment of your life.
Symbolizing this idea is a divinity who is truly unique. His name is Kairòs. He is a god of Greek origins who represents the fleeting moment. He is a youth with wings on his back and feet, representing the velocity of time; he holds a scale with two pans, one of which is pushed lower by one of his hands, as though to say, “This opportunity is available for a limited time only.” The other hand holds a razor, on which the entire scale rests. The razor represents the possibility that life is subject to sudden change, as sudden as death. He has a striking hairdo: long hair in front while the nape of his neck is shaved. It’s the final statement of this philosophy of life: the fleeting moment must be seized when it approaches, because once it has passed (and you are looking at its back) you can never seize it again.…