Pompeii and Herculaneum: Lessons from the Ruins
An antique roman stone street through ruins of Pompeii,Italy
A General Q&A
By Andrew Wren
Cambridgeshire City Council
It’s been nearly 2,000 years since two Roman cities were destroyed by a volcanic eruption, and archaeologists and researchers are still working to uncover information about Herculaneum and Pompeii – including what the Roman inhabitants ate, how they lived, how they interacted with other cultures, and how they died. Explore the questions below to discover what Civilizations in Contact researchers have uncovered, and follow the links to learn even more.
What is Pompeii? What happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD?
The Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were nestled near the beautiful Bay of Naples in southern Italy and were overlooked by the volcano Mount Vesuvius. Earth tremors were common in the area but were not associated with the threat of an eruption since the volcano had been dormant for hundreds of years. When it came, the eruption did not produce molten lava, but rather a gigantic and more deadly cloud of volcanic ash nearly 19 miles (30 km) high. Pompeii was directly in the ash cloud’s path and was gradually submerged under a heavy rain of ash that made structures collapse under its weight. Nearby Herculaneum was struck by earthquakes but, because of the wind direction, escaped an early fall of ash. Both cities were destroyed and buried when the volcanic cloud eventually collapsed. The collapse caused several fatal pyroclastic surges, which were, in effect, avalanches of superhot ash and gas that rushed down the slopes of Vesuvius. About 13 to 16 feet (4 to 5 m) of volcanic debris covered Pompeii. Herculaneum was even more submerged, with some areas reaching a depth of 75 feet (23 m).
The extreme temperatures of the pyroclastic surges killed any remaining inhabitants of both cities instantly. In Pompeii volcanic ash hardened around corpses, preserving the forms of their bodies and, in some cases, their clothes. In Herculaneum the higher temperature of the surges, which travelled at about 68 mph (109 kph), caused instant ignition, splitting skulls and boiling brains alive. The temperatures there also preserved (through carbonisation) wood and food that did not normally survive in Pompeii.
After the eruption the Roman poet Statius noted, “In the future, when crops grow again and this devastated wilderness blooms once more, will people believe towns, people and estates are all buried beneath the soil?” The cities, however, were never forgotten locally. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of looters’ tunnels dating from after the eruption and into the Middle Ages. In some cases skeletons – possibly looters killed by tunnels collapsing onto them – dating from after the eruption have been found. Looters evidently cleared some houses of their contents, and the valuable marble cladding and bronze statues from buildings in the forum came to adorn local churches and the piazza of a nearby village. Not all of the items were necessarily removed by looters, though – researchers believe residents who escaped the eruption may have come back for items, and an official salvage operation may even have taken place.
How do we know what happened?
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como. / Wikimedia Commons
Archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been cross-referenced with the original letters of a young eyewitness, Pliny the Younger, who wrote accounts later in life to his friend, the historian Tacitus. Click here to read all letters of Pliny the Younger.
You can also view a timeline of the two-day eruption as drawn from Pliny’s account (click image to enlarge):
CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Can we be sure on what date Vesuvius erupted?
A locally struck bronze coin found during excavations at Pompeii / British Museum
The letters of Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus – the only written accounts of the eruption – give the dates as 24 and 25 August 79 AD, but there are various problems with this date.
- Different mediaeval copies of Pliny’s original letters give a number of different dates for the eruption. Roman dates and numerals can easily be miscopied.
- There are a large number of autumnal fruits among the remains that were usually harvested only in September or October. These fruits include grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, sweet chestnuts, carobs and olives.
- Plaster casts show evidence of heavier woollen clothing being worn than would have been customary in the heat of August, particularly indoors.
- Many braziers, which were more likely to be used for heating during the autumn months, have been found indoors.
- A Roman coin has been discovered which specialists date to September 79 AD. It was found at a site where later looters could not have dropped it.
It seems likely that the volcano erupted later than August.
How do we know Pompeii was already an old city by 79 AD?
Boundary walls (4th-3rd century BC) out of Nuceria gate at Pompeii
Visitors to Pompeii often come away with the impression that its ruins are evidence of identical Roman architecture, indistinguishable by date or style. Pompeii, however, was settled long before the Romans arrived. In one excavated house a Roman inhabitant of Pompeii deliberately preserved an ancient column erected on the site by Etruscans who were a major power in Italy during the 6th and 5th century BC before the rise of Rome itself. The hospitable and fertile local climate of Campania encouraged Greek settlement from the 7th century BC – long before the arrival of the Romans – and they lived alongside native inhabitants, speakers of a language called Oscan.
By the 3rd century BC, Pompeii, like other towns in Campania, had been forced into becoming allies of Rome as the city gradually took control of Italy. These allies were allowed to govern themselves, although they had to provide manpower to Roman armies and allow their foreign policy to be controlled by Rome. Pompeii first expanded as a town in this period of prosperity during the 3rd century. In the 2nd century new buildings were erected (baths, gymnasium, temples, a theatre and a lawcourt), and some of the largest private mansions were also built. Pompeii clearly benefited from expanding trade and its participation in Roman conquests across the Mediterranean.
The inhabitants of Pompeii, however, did not enjoy the privileges of Roman citizenship. In 91 BC a group of Italian allies, including Pompeii, rebelled against Roman rule, probably (and ironically) because their demands for citizenship were not being met. The Romans conquered Pompeii, turning it into a colony, settling thousands of Romans there and forcing Roman local government on the city. This conquest began a process of Romanisation that saw Oscan largely displaced by Latin and Pompeii become fully Roman by 79 AD. The rebels of 91 BC achieved one aim, however. Within 10 years of their defeat, the citizens of Pompeii were granted Roman citizenship. Excavations show that 1st century inhabitants of Pompeii respected their city’s past, preserving and continuing to live in buildings that were by then several hundred years old. Vesuvius buried not only buildings that had only recently been built in 79 AD, but also much older architecture – and along with it art and antique artefacts that Romans still valued.
What was Pompeii like on the eve of its destruction in 79 AD?
Amphora Garden Of Hercules in Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
Pompeii covered about 163 acres, and it may have had between 12,000 and 15,000 inhabitants by 79 AD. The fertile countryside produced grain, olives, vegetables (Roman author Pliny the Elder, uncle of Pliny the Younger, commented on Pompeian cabbages and onions) and wine (although according to Pliny its quality varied). Wine was definitely exported to Gaul (modern France), and an amphora (pottery jar) from Pompeii has been found in Stanmore, Middlesex. One of Pompeii’s other exports was garum, a pungent fish sauce that may have tasted like that used in modern Thai cooking.
The city suffered major damage from an earthquake in 62 or 63 AD, and there is evidence of abandoned and repaired buildings as a result. This evidence has been used to suggest that Pompeii was in decline in the years afterwards with an allegedly falling population, abandonment by the rich, and some large houses being converted to commercial or industrial use. It is also claimed that civil unrest after Emperor Nero’s assassination in 68 AD, as well as the subsequent civil wars, may have adversely affected Pompeii. Certainly the earthquake disrupted water supplies. However, there is also much evidence of rebuilding and redecoration in the period between 62 and 79 AD and the discovery of masses of rubbish indicates that the population was still large enough to produce it.
Although Pompeii was a relatively small Roman town, it remained closely linked to Rome’s elite, some of whom maintained luxurious villas as “second homes” in the beautiful countryside. It is possible that Emperor Nero and his wife visited Pompeii in 64 AD.
Society was varied. Among the wealthy elite, the priestess Eumachia stands out as a patron prepared to use her wealth for the public good. Her statue, its stone hair still tinged with a hint of red paint, was erected in one of the temples of the forum. In the nearby town of Herculaneum, out of a population of 5,000, it is thought that about 2,000 were slaves (and their families), 1,500 were freed slaves (and their families), and just 250 were freeborn inhabitants. These estimates may indicate that 79 AD was a period of social mobility, with former slaves becoming wealthier and more important in society. Slaves brought to Pompeii from across the Mediterranean and beyond certainly added to the cultural mix of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
How did Romans look after their personal appearance?
Romans were as concerned about their personal appearance as people in any age. Rich women sometimes spent long hours at the hairdressers. Some were notorious for their cruelty towards their long-suffering slaves. Creams for application to the face could be made from broad beans, lupins mixed with wine or lentils, barley, iris bulbs, honey and powdered deer antler. There were even concoctions for whitening and polishing teeth. However, excavated bodies show evidence of a build up of calculus on teeth, probably because Romans used toothpicks rather than toothbrushes, using materials such soda, ground horn or shell or even pumice. As Cambridge scholar Mary Beard puts it, Pompeians would have had “a decided whiff of halitosis”
What were Roman houses like?
House of Paquius Proculus in Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
Housing varied from vast antique villas to cramped, recently built apartments. The poorest people might have lived in makeshift accommodation wherever they could find it while the truly destitute probably did not survive. Slave accommodation in rich houses may well have been the envy of the free poor.
It was commonplace for the houses of the rich to contain shops that opened out onto the streets. In such dwellings the atrium was a room of some importance. It contained fine mosaics as flooring, expensive wall frescoes, and ornate furniture and fittings. It was likely a public space where the owner met his clients, supporters, or suppliers. Evidence also suggests that these rooms contained storage, were sometimes used for spinning and weaving and often contained a well from which slaves could draw water for the household.
A modern visitor to some of the reconstructed houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum may get the impression that rich Romans lived in large, spacious rooms with minimalist furnishings. This impression is misleading, however, as the inhabitants had a few hours warning of Vesuvius’ eruption and may have hastily arranged for furnishings and valuables to be removed in carts before they left themselves. This may explain why so little evidence of furniture has been excavated, aside from the fact that it may have been destroyed during the eruption.
In parts of Herculaneum the intense heat carbonised wooden furniture, for instance, giving an indication (along with scenes in frescoes) of how people might have used rooms. Tricliniums were generally used for private (and probably formal) dining – family and guests could recline on couches served by their slaves, while children sat on small stools. Cambridge scholar Mary Beard has stated, however, that most food was not consumed in the triclinium but in various locations “on the hoof” across the dwelling.
Downstairs rooms might have been used for members of the family to sleep in (which might mean an extended family under one roof), while upstairs rooms might have housed slaves, lodgers and storage.
Recent evidence has been found in houses of small shrines to domestic gods. There were remains of sacrifices including chicken and pig bones, pinecones, figs, charred cakes, walnuts, eggs, grain and cockerel heads.
How do we know what Romans ate?
A table showing some of he common foods Romans ate / Mandy Barrow, Creative Commons
Films and illustrations in books (usually based on limited evidence from frescoes and satires) often give the impression that all Romans dined at extravagant banquets while reclining on couches and being served exotic dishes, regularly vomiting so that they could consume even more. However, although the diet of Pompeians was able to draw on a range of foods, access to types of food depended on relative wealth. A list of food scratched onto the wall of an atrium in Pompeii shows dull uniform purchases over an eight-day period: bread, oil, leaks, onions, cheese and fish on only one day. A large septic tank excavated in Herculaneum in 2005-06 and known as the Cardo V drain contained carbonised and partly fossilised waste. There was evidence of the consumption of celery, cabbage, beans, lentils, olives, scallops, muscles, cuttlefish, sea urchins, sardines, eels, anchovies, turbot, chicken, sheep and pig. Remains have also been found of seasonings mentioned in the famous cookery book by Apicius: dill, coriander, mint, black peppercorns (imported from India), fruit, nuts, figs, dates, apples, pears and grapes.
How do we know how bakers traded?
Ruins of a bakery in Pompeii show the mills for grinding grain plus one of the brick ovens. / Wikimedia Commons
There are more than 30 identified baking establishments in Pompeii. Some milled their own grain, baked the bread and sold it, while others probably produced loaves from ready-prepared flour. Bread was also sold from temporary street stalls, and it was easy for a Pompeian to purchase it.
A recently excavated bakery combined milling and baking. Shoppers could see into the large room where the dough was mixed and kneaded in large stone bowls and then worked into a shape at a wooden table. The circular loaves were passed through a hatch to the oven. Individual local makers sometimes stamped their work. Some of the carbonised loaves discovered at Herculaneum bear the words “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus”.
A recently discovered list of food purchases on the wall of a Roman house refers to three different kinds of bread: “bread,” “coarse bread,” and “bread for slaves”
How do you know how potters and lamp makers traded in Pompeii?
Pottery from Pompeii and Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons
Pompeians craved light in their largely dark homes. There were thousands of lamps in the city made from pottery or bronze. Some were plain, others ornate; some had single or multiple flames. Some were made to hang, sit on tall stands or rest on the floor or table. They usually burned oil, but recent chemical analysis shows that a mixture of oil and tallow was regularly used in bronze lamps while pure oil was used in unglazed pottery. This may be because the porous clay might have absorbed an unpleasant smell from the tallow. Most of the pottery was produced and sold locally, with one residence, the house of Julius Polybius, containing more than 70 clay lamps and one bronze one.
How diverse was Pompeii and the Roman world?
Statuette of the Indian goddess Lakshmi, excavated from a Pompeian house / Wikimedia Commons
Illustrations in textbooks sometimes depict Romans as uniformly white. This impression is misleading, however. The Roman Empire was ethnically and culturally diverse, and it is known, for example, that Syrian auxiliaries served on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Like so many other Roman cities, slaves were brought to Pompeii from all over the Empire. The city also hosted a Jewish community. Trade links brought goods from China such as silk, and an ivory statuette of the Indian goddess Lakshmi excavated from a Pompeian house in 1938 is further evidence of Pompeii’s wide-ranging contacts. Recently the bones of a monkey have been identified among other bones kept scattered in a storeroom. The origin of this exotic pet is unknown, but it certainly did not come from Italy.
How were Pompeii and Herculaneum excavated?
By Dr. Jane McIntosh
University of Cambridge
Ruins of Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons
In the aftermath of Vesuvius’s eruption, Herculaneum lay buried and inaccessible beneath 23 metres (75 feet) of volcanic debris, but Pompeii was more fortunate. After the stones, pumice and ash had cooled sufficiently, citizens who had escaped crept back to salvage what they could from the ruins of their homes, still visible among the 4- or 5-metre (13- to16-foot) blanket of debris across the city. Looters probably also tried their luck. It was not difficult to tunnel through the debris, and major landmarks were easily identifiable. A systematic operation, probably under official authority, removed the most desirable materials and valued objects from major public buildings such as the Forum, bathhouses, theatres and temples – particularly statues and marble architectural elements.
Thereafter the destroyed towns were consigned to oblivion. Later earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in this tectonically unstable area contributed substantial quantities of material to the layers of soil and debris that accumulate through time over ancient sites. Thus Pompeii, too, became buried and invisible. A chance discovery in 1594 at Pompeii was misidentified as part of a villa; it was more than a century later that the discovery and investigation of the towns began. In 1710 a man digging a well revealed the remains of Herculaneum’s marble-paved theatre; finds from investigations by a local prince sparked the interest of the region’s rulers, the Bourbon kings of Naples and Sicily, and from 1738 major “excavations” were undertaken at Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae and a number of villas in the area. Using pickaxes and often gunpowder, tunnels were dug down to and then through the buildings, with a workforce including convicts. The purpose of this work was solely to recover works of art for the private royal collections, including frescoes hacked from walls and mosaics gouged out of floors. Apparently material not deemed worthy of these collections was destroyed, to prevent it falling into the hands of lesser people. Distinguished visitors, including the pioneering German archaeologist J. J. Winkelmann, protested at the disgraceful waste, and by the 1760s there was some improvement, including rudimentary recording.
Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, who became Queen of Naples in 1808, took a great interest in Pompeii and oversaw the beginning of an ambitious programme of systematic clearance, using a labour force that at times numbered 1,500. She planned excavations to link areas already investigated. She intended to trace the city walls in order to identify gates and the city’s roads that ran through them, and to clear these roads to reveal the location of buildings which could then be systematically investigated by well placed tunnels. Napoleon’s fall in 1815 meant that Caroline was able to fulfill only part of the first objective, but, happily, later Bourbon kings adopted her aims, though they provided scant funding and manpower to execute them. The resulting discoveries included many skeletons whose situation or posture revealed details of their tragic individual stories. These made Pompeii a popular destination for travellers on the Grand Tour, which allowed them to walk along the exposed streets and follow torchbearing guides along tunnels to see the sights. Exciting objects would apparently be discovered by the excavators before the visitors’ very eyes – and no doubt be covered over after the tourists had left, to be “discovered” again and again.
Giuseppe Fiorelli / Wikimedia Commons
In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli was appointed to take over the excavations for the new Italian king, Victor Emmanuel. His careful work transformed the investigations at Pompeii, while the school he founded (Scuola di Pompeii) ensured that his methods were passed on to the rising generation of Italian, and even foreign, archaeologists. His innovations were many. Abandoning the previous system of tunnelling out from cleared roads, he first had the excavation area cleared of the spoil heaps (mounds of excavated soil and debris) left from earlier work, and then dug down to expose the buildings from above. By this means he was able to gain a complete three-dimensional picture of the structures and their features. He used this to make informed decisions about the best way to restore and conserve each building, employing materials in keeping with those that were originally used. He also successfully advocated leaving as much in place as possible: mosaics, frescoes and other attractive architectural features that had formerly been removed were now left to recreate a vivid impression of the Roman town as its inhabitants had known it. He added to this picture by taking account of everything that was found: he recovered not just the treasures of the wealthy but also the everyday tools and possessions of the ordinary citizens, down to the poorest. In this he was well ahead not only of most of his contemporaries but also of many later excavators.
He kept careful and detailed records of his work. Anticipating another standard archaeological practice of more recent times, his records included the three-dimensional location of finds, information which he used in interpreting their significance. His whole investigation was systematically organised, unlike the random and patchy excavations of earlier times. To make this possible, he divided the city into nine “regions” (Regiones), to which he assigned Roman numerals. Within each of these regions, he gave a number to each block of buildings, using the Roman term Insula (apartment block), and finally, identified each entrance by a number. Thus a house, with its single entrance from the street, would have a designation such as I-8-5 (5th house in Insula 8 in block I), the house on Via dell’Abbondanza in which the Indian ivory figure was discovered. This system continues to be used today.
However, Fiorelli is now best remembered for the creation of plaster casts of Pompeii’s unfortunate inhabitants. The technique of creating plaster casts from holes left by decayed objects was already in occasional use by the time of Fiorelli, but it was he who had the radical idea of applying it to people and who perfected the technique. Liquid plaster was poured or pumped into the hole and left to set; the surrounding volcanic material was then removed by excavation, exposing the plaster cast.
During the first day of the eruption, Pompeii had been subjected to a rain of ash, lapilli and white pumice, which had accumulated throughout the afternoon and evening at a rate of 15cm/6 inches per hour. Lithics (larger stones – “volcanic bombs”) were also falling by late afternoon. At this stage some of those who died had been overwhelmed or struck by debris in the streets; some had suffocated from inhaling volcanic ash, while others had been killed by falling buildings or house fires started by overturned lamps and braziers. As they lay, they had soon been covered by the continuous downpour of volcanic debris, which had settled around them, hugging their shape and hardening through time into a rigid crust whose inner surface followed every detail of their bodies, clothing and other associated things. This crust, however, did not exclude air, so in time the soft tissue and other organic materials such as clothing had decayed, leaving only the bones and artefacts of inorganic materials (such as metal jewellery) within a void that still retained the victim’s form. Earlier excavators had dug into these and exposed the bones and objects; it was Fiorelli’s inspiration to use these voids instead as moulds to create plaster casts of the original people. He was excoriated by some of his contemporaries for what could be taken as a blasphemous or disrespectful act – but most were fascinated by the results, and moved by the human suffering with which they were now, quite literally, brought face to face. In contrast, Herculaneum was overwhelmed by the first surge and pyroclastic flow, at around 1 a.m. on the second day of the eruption. The extreme heat (around 400-450 degrees C) not only killed people instantly, but also vapourised their flesh, leaving only skeletons. It also carbonised objects of wood, leather and other organic materials such as food, but because these were immediately sealed by ash, they did not ignite. Thus they have survived in their carbonised form. Pompeii also experienced surges and pyroclastic flows on the second day, but these were less hot (250-300 degrees C). The bodies of those killed by the heat often survived, to be buried by ash and eventually made into casts. Clenched fists bear witness to the heat, which contracted their tendons.
Fiorelli’s casting technique continues to be used, recovering the form not only of people, but also, poignantly, of a dog who could not escape his chain as the ashes fell. Wooden doors, shutters and other architectural elements have also been recovered in this way, and even tree roots, which bear witness to the gardens of Pompeii. Later excavators maintained Fiorelli’s high standards of work for the most part, although poor funding often hampered or undermined these efforts. The substandard restorations executed by Amedeo Maiuri from the 1920s to the 1960s are a prime example.
How different was Herculaneum from Pompeii?
By Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis
University of Cambridge
Torre Annunziata / Wikimedia Commons
Archaeological finds support the claim that, out of the five cities destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius (Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Villa Boscoreale, a hunting reserve), Herculaneum was probably the wealthiest. Pompeii was buried by just 4 meters of mostly volcanic debris, whereas Herculaneum was buried in 20-25 metres of volcanic ash. This resulted in Herculaneum remaining untouched until its discovery in 1709 by Prince D’Elbeuf, who started digging in the area of the theatre. After Pompeii’s discovery, however, no one excavated in Herculaneum for about a century. This was because Pompeii was easier to excavate. Excavations resumed in Herculaneum in the early 20th century, but even today nearly 80 percent of the site remains unexplored. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum is one of the few ancient towns in which the upper floors of the houses were preserved. (Another town in which 3-storey buildings survived – again, because of the eruption of the nearby volcano – is the much earlier town of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, Greece, which dates to 1620 BC.) Today, two modern cities lie on top of the unexcavated part of Herculaneum: Portici and Ercolano: the latter’s previous name (Resina) was changed in 1969 to recall the ancient town.
According to mythology, the monster Cacus, son of Vulcan, stole Hercules’ cattle. When Hercules managed to find the cavern where Cacus had hidden the cattle, Cacus resisted and Hercules killed him. To commemorate his victory, Hercules founded Herculaneum at the same place. The cult of Hercules was the most popular in the town, though Apollo and Venus were also worshipped. The Oscan tribe of southern Italy established the town of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC, but later the Samnites tribe took over the town. The name was probably given by Greek traders. In 89 BC Herculaneum became a Roman municipium, a self-governing town.
When the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius begun, the volcanic material produced mainly affected Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Villa Boscoreale because of the southeast wind that was blowing at the time. Situated on the western side of the volcano, Herculaneum received only minor quantities of ash during the first phase of the eruption, a fact that gave the city’s inhabitants time to leave. Therefore, for a long time it was believed that the people of Herculaneum – numbering just 5,000 compared to the 15,000 inhabitants of Pompeii – had managed to escape the town. However, in 1981 numerous skeletons were discovered near the seashore. So far about 400 skeletons have been unearthed in 12 arched chambers used as boat houses near the shore of Herculaneum. Scientific examination of 80 of these human remains revealed that the structure of these chambers, although providing shelter, did not prevent their deaths, which occurred from fulminant shock, causing the evaporation of their bodies. Their skeletons suffered thermally induced contraction about a second after their death. The temperature of the sudden heat wave was about 480 °C. A recent study states that “exposure to at least 250 °C surges even at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent was sufficient to cause the instant death of all residents, even if they were sheltered within buildings”. Archaeological excavations have shown that a rapid succession of six flows and surges [different layers of hot ash] buried the city’s buildings, but at the same time preserved most of the structures from collapse. Since 1997, the archaeological site of Herculaneum – along with the archaeological sites of Pompeii and a third destroyed city, Torre Annunziata – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Villa of the Papyri
Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons
The most famous excavated villa at Herculaneum is the “Villa of the Papyri”, which took its name from the approximately 1,800 papyri found in the only library surviving intact from antiquity.
The villa was accidently rediscovered in 1738 during the opening of a well, and for several years people tunnelled through the villa to remove works of art. The tunnellers threw away carbonised blocks of earth, thought to be charcoal. Only after the discovery of the library in 1752 was it realised that they were actually discarding the remains of books. Using a computerised technique, the ink was made legible and hundreds of lost works of Greek philosophy – including half of Epicurus’ entire opus, which had been missing for 2,300 years, and some Roman poetry – were retrieved and could be read for the first time. In the past, several attempts to unroll numerous scrolls caused numerous ones to be damaged. An alternative technique, using X-rays, was tried in 2009, but the carbon-based inks that the Roman writers used made the text invisible to the scans. Today, the majority of the scrolls that have been discovered are stored at the National Library in Naples. In the 1990s excavators determined that, during the eruption, slaves working in the villa had been trying to carry crates of books to safety. Meanwhile, other first-time discoveries continue on the site: in 2006 the first complete painted statue ever found, the bust of an Amazon warrior, was unearthed from near the Basilica.
In 1970, Jean Paul Getty, who was the wealthiest person in the world at the time, decided to build a museum in Malibu, California, modeled after the Villa of the Papyri. Due to the J.P. Getty endowment, it soon became the wealthiest private museum in the world. In 2006 the museum spent $275 million to renovate the villa in order to house the antiquities collection alone, while the rest of the collections were kept at the Getty Centre. Soon after that, more than 41 antiquity masterpieces that had been exhibited at the Getty were proven to have been looted and smuggled from Italy and Greece, and were repatriated to their countries of origin. Today, hundreds of antiquities in Getty’s copy of the “Villa dei Papiri” (the Getty Villa) are lacking a clear, legal collecting history, and remain under close investigation by foreign governments.
- Felch, Jason & Ralph Frammolino. 2011. Chasing Aphrodite. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Harris, Robert. 2002. “The unknown treasures of the Villa of the Papyri”. The Telegraph, 26 March.
- Harry, Tim. 2009. Ancient towns: Herculaneum. Andover, Mass: Humanities 360 (online). http://www.humanities360.com/index.php/ancient-towns-herculaneum-47371
- Mastrolorenzo, G., P.P. Petrone, M. Pagano, A. Incoronato, P.J. Baxter, A. Canzanella & L. Fattore. 2001. “Herculaneum Victims of Vesuvius in AD 79”. Nature 410: 769-770.
- Moore, Malcolm. 2007. “Greek ‘treasures’ expected from Herculaneum”. The Telegraph, 24 October.
- Stronk, Jan P. & Oude Geschiedenis. 2011. Review of Mantha Zarmakoupi (ed.), The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: Archaeology, Reception, and Digital Reconstruction. Sozomena: Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts, edited on behalf of the Herculaneum Society, 1. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.58.
- “Pompeii Exhibition: A History of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Numbers”. 2013. The Telegraph, 3 March.
- Wallace-hadrill, Andrew. 2011. Herculaneum: Past and Future. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., with the Packard Humanities Institute, Los Altos, California.
Who Were the Slaves at Pompeii?
By Caroline Stone
Author and researcher
Fresco of slaves in Pompeii / Creative Commons
In the 1st century AD, it is estimated that slaves made up about 30 percent of the population of Italy, with their distribution weighted toward the cities. Other areas of the Roman Empire – and, of course, other periods – had different slave demographics. Herculaneum and Pompeii, being prosperous, would probably have had more than the average number. Pompeii was also an important transit point for merchandise arriving by sea and would therefore have had access to foreign merchandise of all kinds. It is known that slaves were bought and sold in the city, although the location of the slave market is uncertain. Sometimes individual slaves were simply auctioned off with miscellaneous household goods.
Who were the slaves? And where did they come from? Leaving aside the children of slave mothers, abandoned children (a common practice) who were normally enslaved if not left to die, criminals, and, although it was theoretically illegal, debt-slaves – who in Pompeii would have been a slave or offered for sale? Slave dealers were required to provide information as to the ethnic origin of their stock, and we know from Varro’s writings, especially On Agriculture in the previous century, that certain nationalities were preferred to others and perceived as being better at particular jobs, but unfortunately very little direct information has survived.
Traditionally, the bulk of slaves were war-captives, provided by Rome’s constant expansion. In the 1st century AD, however, the Empire entered a phase of consolidation, greatly reducing the supply of slaves. In the years immediately preceding the destruction of Pompeii, Rome’s main military activity had been in Britain and Palestine, apart from the Empire’s own civil war.
The Romans began significant conquest of Britain in 43 AD There was much resistance, and in about 60-61 AD, according to Tacitus, “…the whole island rose in arms under the command of Boudica, a woman of royal descent – for Britanni make no distinction of sex in the appointment of leaders…” Boudica, ruler of the Iceni, a tribe based in what is now roughly Norfolk, attacked and burned the Roman cities of Colchester, St Alban’s and London, killing a substantial part of the Roman population.
Boudica was eventually defeated and, according to some accounts, committed suicide – certainly she did not walk in a Roman triumph – but it is probable that a large number of her co-nationals ended in the slave markets. This is especially true since her physical type – very tall, strong, with long red-gold hair, according to the later historian Cassius Dio – was highly prized. Varro, Caesar’s contemporary, writing in 55 BC about the advantages and disadvantages of conquering Britain remarked, however, of potential British slaves: “I think that you will not expect any of them to be learned in literature or music”.
Uprising continued in Britain – notably by the Ordovices in what is now North Wales in 78 AD It was brutally suppressed by Agricola, Tacitus’ father-in-law, and allegedly the tribe was wiped out, although more probably women and children were reduced to slavery. It would have been quite likely, then, to have found British slaves at Pompeii.
Of even greater significance were the Jewish Wars of 66-73 AD, as Palestine struggled to free itself from Roman colonisation. After the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, according to eyewitness Josephus, 97,000 Jewish captives were enslaved and sold. The figure may be exaggerated, but certainly there would have been Jewish or Palestinian slaves still circulating in the aftermath of the conflict, or already living in Pompeii.
Greek slaves had always been highly prized because of Roman admiration for Greek culture and because of their superior level of education. This meant that having a Greek secretary or tutor for one’s children was a status symbol – indication that one appreciated the finer things of life. By the time of the destruction of Pompeii, they were less easily available than they had been earlier. Roman expansion had already taken in most of the Hellenic world roughly 200 years before, when vast numbers had been imported. However, there were still some.
Epictetus (his name simply means “acquired”), the influential Stoic philosopher, was from Anatolia and was either born a slave or enslaved. He was bought by Nero’s secretary in Rome and, by the time of the destruction of Pompeii, had been freed and was teaching philosophy. Because Herculaneum and Pompeii were prosperous and sophisticated, educated Greeks may well have been offered for sale there.
The Periplus of the Erithraean Sea, probably written in the mid-1st century AD, describes navigation and trading opportunities from the Roman ports in the Eastern Mediterranean as far as India – and even with some mention of what lay beyond. Trade goods mentioned in the Periplus would have been shipped on to Rome, and the book is an immensely important source for what exotic goods were available. Slaves are mentioned several times, although it is not clear whether they originated in Africa or India. A few of the latter may have reached Rome, where they would have been considered a great rarity.
There were black slaves in the Roman Empire – usually called “Ethiopian” even if they did not come from the Horn of Africa – but little is known about them, and they seem to have been present in small numbers. This rarity is probably because, unlike other slave-owning societies, the Romans did not generally engage in the slave trade as an independent activity, but only as a spin-off of war. Since they did not fight in Sub-Saharan Africa, black slaves would have been traded on to them almost incidentally, perhaps with other African products, such as animals for the arena. Apparently, no evidence of black slaves at Pompeii has survived, either in the documents or the art works, so they must have been very rare, and it can be assumed that they were not normally available for sale.
How Literate (or Illiterate) were the People of Pompeii?
By Caroline Stone
How literate – or illiterate – were the people of Pompeii? It depends, of course, on the definition of literate. It has often been claimed that only certain groups of people – the rich, the elite, the religious hierarchy – were literate and the great mass of the population was unable to read or write. In fact, recent studies and new archaeological discoveries suggest that the situation was considerably more complicated. While it is certainly true that only a limited number could have read difficult literary or scientific texts, there is good evidence that basic literacy was much more common.
Graffiti was no doubt prevalent in all Roman towns, but because of the way Pompeii was destroyed, the graffiti are well preserved and provide important clues as to the ability of its inhabitants to read and write. A price list for different types of wine on the wall of bar, a cartoon of clients being served drinks with appropriate captions, endless versions of “Romulus loves Cornelia”, a laundry list, political slogans and advertisements would not have been written by or aimed at a small elite. Some record the deeds of the author, such as Floronius, a soldier of the 7th Legion who described his amatory exploits on a wall of the gladiators’ barracks. This suggests that a fair percentage could read and write at least basic Latin. Many examples include quotes or literary references suggesting that, as in Shakespeare’s London, literary culture was shared up and down the social scale, probably through the theatre, rather than being the exclusive prerogative of a limited class.
Archaeological discoveries elsewhere reinforce the impression that literacy was more widespread than formerly believed. Hundreds of texts written in ink on roughly postcard-sized slips of native wood, such as ash – as opposed to engraved with a stylus on the kind of tablets shown in several famous Pompeian frescoes – have been found at the Vindolanda military base, mostly dating from the period just after the destruction of Pompeii.
The texts cover a wide range of subjects, from Claudia Severa inviting a friend to a birthday celebration to personal messages and orders for food stuffs and other military supplies. Some texts may have been written by scribes, but with many the handwriting makes it clear that the author was not a professional. This suggests that the military was more literate than might have been expected – indeed, material from Egypt from about this date shows that roughly a third of the members of the camel corps could sign their name.
The Roman Empire became increasingly bureaucratic, and there would have been vast quantities of official documents. By and large these have vanished, except in Egypt, which seems to have been particularly keen on paperwork (in both Greek and Latin) and where the climate favoured the survival of papyrus. Great collections of papyri – one numbering some 500,000 fragments are being deciphered. (Anyone who wishes to help, can access http://www.ancientlives.org/ where texts are being worked out letter by letter – a knowledge of Latin or Greek is not required.) Very interesting information is emerging, shedding light on conditions in other parts of the Empire – for example, in the recently published collection of women’s letters from Ancient Egypt (see Bibliography below), or on the question of how the illiterate and semi-literate coped in a highly bureaucratised system.
It is not only in the classical world that literacy is being reassessed. The birchbark documents from Novgorod and other Medieval Russian cities, the approximately 130,000 documents in the Taylor-Schechter collection from the Cairo Genizah now in the University Library at Cambridge and, on a much more modest scale, the slates from villages in 7th-8th-centuries Northern Spain, on which the peasants apparently tried to teach themselves to write, all provide evidence of ordinary people’s struggle to gain the advantages of education.
- J. H. Humphrey, ed., Literacy in the Roman World, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, no. 3 (Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991).
- J. L. Franklin, “Literacy and the Parietal Inscriptions at Pompeii”, in J. J. Humphrey, ed., Literacy in the Roman World, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, no. 3 (Ann Arbor: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1991), pp. 77-98, based on his PhD dissertation, “The Chronology and Sequence of Candidacies for the Municipal Magistracies Attested in the Pompeian Parietal Inscriptions A.D. 71-79”, Duke University, 1975.
- Roger S. Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore, Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt: 300 BC-800 AD (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
- www.schaeken.nl (in English)
Why Do We Find So Many Mosaics from Roman Times?
By Caroline Stone
Alexander & Bucephalus at battle of Issus from mosaic found in House of the Faun at Pompeii
Mosaics are perhaps the most characteristic art form of the Hellenistic and Roman world. Being made of durable materials and laid on floors – rather than walls that are prone to collapse over time – many have survived, from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan to Aldborough in Northern England.
Early mosaics were made with pebbles, and the type that was to become dominant – with figures or formal geometric patterns – seems to have originated within the Greek sphere of influence in the late 5th or early 4th century BC. In the 3rd century BC, a new technique was developed: that of cutting stone, glass or even terracotta into tesserae – small cubes – giving a much wider range of colours and making it possible to imitate the effects of painting. This innovation may have been developed in Egypt, perhaps at Alexandria, but arguments have also been put forward in favour of Sicily.
Mosaics in the classical world were generally on the floor, although there are examples in vaults and niches. It was not until the Christian period that they migrated to the walls and apses of churches. It has been suggested, however, that the small panels, known as emblemata, often only 50cm-1m square, made with tiny tesserae, were originally conceived as wall decorations, before being used as the centrepieces of floor mosaics. They seem to have often been copies of famous paintings, which being fragile have long since vanished. Emblemata were produced by artists rather than artisans and, being very valuable, were transferred from place to place and sometimes stolen, even in antiquity. Their surrounds were often geometric, sometimes with very complex layers of patterning. Occasionally the design was specifically appropriate to the central motif, such as the 1st century BC labyrinth from the House of the Labyrinth featuring a picture of Theseus and the Minotaur in the centre. A very similar labyrinth is to be seen in The House of Neptune at Italica, but there the emblema has been removed – or stolen.
The naturalist Pliny the Elder mentions a particularly beautiful example with “… a dove drinking and casting the shadow of its head on the water, while others sun themselves and preen standing on the edge of a cantharos …”. It was, he says, made at Pergamum (in modern Turkey) by Sosos, the only artist actually named in a literary text, although a number of pieces are signed. It has been debated whether the very fine emblema of doves from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli could actually be the piece in question, removed from its original setting and reused, or perhaps a reproduction. A fine example of this motif comes from The House of the Doves at Pompeii dating to the 1st century AD. And a modern mosaic using the same theme was offered for sale (£1,750) by the British Museum in conjunction with its 2013 Pompeii exhibition, “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”. It was to be a favourite subject in the Christian world because of the symbolism attached to the dove, while the water was seen as the Water of Life.
This emblema was set at the centre of an amusing trompe l’oeil floor described by Pliny:
“[Sosos] laid at Pergamon what is called the asarotos oikos or ‘unswept room’, because on the pavement was represented the debris of a meal, and those things which are normally swept away, as if they had been left there, made of small tessera of many colours.” (Pliny, Natural History)
Like the doves, this was repeatedly copied and in the version now in the Vatican Museum the detritus of a banquet is shown in detail, from fish bones and cherry stones to a small mouse nibbling a walnut.
Trompe l’oeil was applied to geometric motifs, particularly in the late Republican period, and they came into fashion again in the century following the destruction of Pompeii. Striking effects were achieved, often with splendid colours, with 3D meanders or “tumbling block” designs.
Although different areas of the Roman world had different styles and different colour preferences – the enormous range of colours found in North African mosaics, for example, reflects the availability of native marbles – there are motifs, like that of the doves, or certain geometrical patterns, that are found across a wide geographical area. This is partly explained by mosaics being exported, but also by the movement of craftsmen. Signed mosaics at Pompeii show that artists came from abroad, and it is possible to deduce on stylistic grounds that craftsmen from Carthage working at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, while others from Puteoli, near Pompeii, were probably active in Gaul. This opens the question of the extent to which mosaics, especially emblemata, were actually produced at Pompeii. Some undoubtedly would have been – there was plenty of work, especially after the 62 AD earthquake – but the question of the finest work remains unresolved. Besides the movement of mosaics and their makers, it is clear that there were pattern books in existence. A 3rd century BC Egyptian papyrus records the request that a mosaic design be sent from Alexandria to someone in the Fayyum.
The most famous mosaic at Pompeii is undoubtedly the Alexander Mosaic from The House of the Faun, which shows Alexander’s defeat of Darius at the Battle of Issus. It dates from about 100 BC and is believed to be a copy of a 3rd century BC Greek masterpiece, perhaps the one that Pliny the Elder mentions as belonging to Cassander of Macedon: “…a battle of Alexander with Darius, a painting second to none” by Philoxenos of Eretria (northeast of Athens). Much about this enormous mosaic composed of about 1.5 million small tesserae is uncertain, but a plausible theory is that it was made in the East and subsequently moved to Pompeii. Among other things, a number of “mistakes” could then be explained by the cutting and reassembling. The mosaic on display in The House of the Faun today is a modern copy, made at Ravenna in 2003-5 using even more tesserae than the original.
The House of the Faun has yielded others of Pompeii’s most spectacular mosaics, among them the emblema of the fish showing numerous recognizable varieties, with a fight between a lobster and an octopus in the centre. There is also a Nilotic mosaic: Egypt became a fashionable subject in Roman art from the time of the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra and its anexation as a province of the Empire. Nilotic mosaics are found in many places, especially Italy, the most famous example being at Palestrina. The mosaics may be connected with the spreading cult of Isis, but more probably they are simply part of the fashion for Egypt as somewhere exotic and glamorous with crocodiles, hippopotami, lotuses and papyri and a very recognizable landscape. It is hard to believe that the comic pigmies in the black and white Nilotic mosaic in the House of Neptune at Italica (Andalusia), for example, have any religious intention, and it should be remembered that many scenes of the gods had already become literary or mythological rather than active religious icons.
The most well-preserved mosaic in Herculaneum
Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of mosaics all across the Roman world come from private houses, not from public buildings. Public buildings were decorated in different ways since painting and sculpture were considered more prestigious, as pay scales in Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 AD makes clear. The exceptions were bath houses, for which mosaics were particularly suitable.
At Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia, public and private baths are decorated, appropriately, with marine-themed mosaics. A favourite style was the specifically Italian one of black and white rather than polychrome. The black silhouettes floating against a more or less plain white background are not only very dramatic, but avoid the problem of where to stand in order to look at the picture since from most points in a room a pictorial floor mosaic will be the wrong way up.
The same black and white style is seen in such mosaics as the famous Cave Canem – “Beware of the Dog” – door mat, or the skeleton carrying wine jugs, also from the House of the Faun and incidentally showing the extraordinary range of styles that could coexist in one building.
A particularly interesting example of this Italian style is the Square of the Corporations at Ostia. Behind the theatre, a portico runs round three sides of a square, with a series of little rooms, fronted by and paved with rather crude black and white mosaics. It is not known what exactly the rooms were for, perhaps the offices, or information booths for the guilds, shippers and traders mentioned in the associated inscriptions, but the images indicate the activities that were being advertised: elephants for ivory or the games from Sabrata in Libya, shippers from Sardinia, Carthage, Gaul and Kurba (Tunisia). A mosaic with palm trees and an amphora indicated traders from Libya. There are numerous references to the all-important grain shipping, represented by grain measures and the grain ships themselves, sometimes sailing past a lighthouse, which may be the lighthouse at Ostia, or the Pharos of Alexandria, since Egypt was Rome’s major wheat supplier at this date.
Mosaics began to appear in the Britain shortly after the Roman conquest in the 1st century AD, although the majority date from the 4th century. One of the earliest was from the bathhouse of Legio II Augusta at Exeter, about 65 AD, while the earliest ones at Fishbourne, dating from about the time of the destruction of Pompeii, have elaborate black and white geometric patterns of a type popular in Italy at the time. Subsequently, Fishbourne was to become a palace larger in size than Buckingham Palace today. Another early British mosaic from Leadenhall Street in London, again black and white, dates from the 1st century AD, while a later one, found in the 19th century – appropriately on the premises of the East India Company – shows Dionysius riding on a tiger, a very popular motif.
Mosaics continued to develop with different styles evolving across the Empire for several centuries after Pompeii was destroyed, changing in the Byzantine period from predominantly floor decoration to covering for walls and the apses of churches, some of the most spectacular surviving examples being at Ravenna.
What Did Romans NOT Eat?
By Caroline Stone
The people of Pompeii of course had a “Mediterranean Diet”, but it was very different from what is thought of as typical Italian food today. Here are some of the things they would not have had, beginning with breakfast:
It is native to Ethiopia and spread first through the Arabian Peninsula, then the Ottoman Empire, reaching Europe in the 17th century. So, no cappuccino or latte.
Or cornetti in Italian. There are all kinds of stories about their invention, including that the bakers made them in 1683 to celebrate Vienna’s success in driving off the besieging Ottoman Turks (the same story is told of Budapest in 1686), whose symbol was the crescent. In fact there is no solid evidence for croissants before the 19th century.
Nothing can be more Italian than pasta – but the people of Pompeii would not have eaten it. There were thin sheets of fried dough called lagana mentioned by both Horace and the 2nd century Athenaeus, who provides a lot of information on food and dining, but it was clearly nothing like modern lasagne. Dried pasta could not have been made until long-lasting durum wheat reached Europe about 1000 years after the destruction of Pompeii. The earliest clear mention is by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, who mentions it being exported in bulk from Sicily in 1154. The story that Marco Polo brought it back from China is another nice legend, but it is unfortunately untrue.
There is no evidence for anything resembling modern pizza at Pompeii. The first mention is in a document from Gaeta in 997 AD, although it is not clear exactly what was intended. The people at Pompeii may well, however, have eaten focaccia – panis focacius – or bread made on the hearth and flavoured with olive oil, salt, rosemary and, sometimes, sliced onions, as it is still sold, cut into squares, in Rome and elsewhere today.
Although rice was known in the Roman Empire, it was imported from Egypt and perhaps Western Asia and was not grown in Europe for another thousand years. There is no indication that the people of Pompeii ate risotto, or other popular Italian rice dishes, although very surprisingly quantities of rice have been found at a Roman military camp in Germany dated to roughly this period.
Today, tomatoes are so much a part of Italian cooking, but they came from the New World, probably Mexico, and of course were unknown in Pompeii. They are first recorded in 1548, but did not become a popular part of the diet until the 18th century.
Brought from the Andes by the Spaniards in the mid-16th century, potatoes were not generally accepted until the 18th century and have never been immensely popular in Italy. Their high yield dramatically cut the number of famines, which in turn led to a great population expansion throughout Europe. Like durum wheat and maize, the social and political results of their introduction were enormous.
This grain from Central America was to become an important staple, especially in Northern Italy, in the form of maize-flour made into a stiff porridge – polenta. The poor in Pompeii would have eaten a similar dish made of barley.
People at Pompeii ate chickpeas, lupins, lentils and several other kinds of bean, but the ones, such as cannelloni and borlotti, most associated with Italian cooking today come from the New World.
Like most of the squash family, they are native to the Central America, and the type popular in Italian cuisine today appears to be a 19th century hybrid. They would not, therefore, have been eaten at Pompeii, although cucumbers were probably known. There seems to be no direct evidence for them, but Pompeian author and naturalist Pliny the Elder describes what sound like gherkins, and it is said that the Emperor Tiberius on nearby Capri demanded them at every meal.
Both bell peppers and chili peppers – pepperoni – are native to South America (probably originating in Bolivia or Peru) and did not become widespread in Europe until the 17th century.
Most of the citrus family are native to Australasia, South and Southeast Asia and the foothills of the Himalayas, and it was probably from this last area that they spread west to Europe and east to China. The people of Pompeii had lemons – both the trees and the fruit appear in a number of paintings, including in the House of the Fruit Orchard. Citrons were also known, and there are literary references to both. Citrons were the earliest members of the citrus family to reach Europe and seem to have spread around the Mediterranean with the Jewish community, for whom they had ritual significance. Sour “Seville” oranges may also have been known, but sweet oranges only reached Europe with the Arab colonization.
Nothing approaching modern ice cream would have been available at Pompeii, but the Emperor Nero, who died a decade before the destruction of the city, was reputed to have had ice brought from the mountains – the ice trade has been an important business at many periods. It was apparently combined with fruit, perhaps making something a little like a sorbet. It is, therefore, just possible that some of the wealthiest Pompeians might have tried it.
This flavouring comes from the pod of an orchid native to Central America and Mexico and was unknown in Europe until the 16th century.
“Pull me up” or “Cheer me up”. This dessert, which is surely the best-known Italian sweet today, appears to have been invented in 1983. It is a version of the much older – perhaps even 16th century – traditional pudding: zuppa inglese, or “English Soup”. There would have been nothing remotely like it among the nut- and honey-based sweets of Pompeii.
Chocolate comes from Mexico and Central America, where it has been enjoyed for at least 3,000 to 3,500 years, but the first shipment only reached Europe (Seville) in 1585 – another flavour untasted by the people of Pompeii.
How Important was Wheat in Feeding the Roman Empire?
By Caroline Stone
Wheat field / Wikimedia Commons
Wheat was immensely important in the Roman Empire, partly because it was almost the only staple. Barley, which had been important in earlier centuries was going out of fashion, although it still provided food for the poor. It has been suggested that this decline was linked with the use of yeast, which began in late Republican times (in the early 1st century AD) and the transition to leavened bread. Also, many major grains were either not being cultivated around the Mediterranean, or at most were grown sporadically. Others, such as rice and maize were unknown. The Romans at Pompeii, as elsewhere, relied on wheaten bread. Round loaves have survived – 80 in the house of Modestus – divided into eight sections like a modern teacake, and weighing an estimated 500 grams, or a little more. Bread appears in a number of frescoes.
Huge amounts of wheat were needed to feed the Empire. (Provisioning the army was another major logistical problem, but not one immediately relevant to Pompeii.) Italy could not begin to grow enough to provide for Rome, a vast city with a population of perhaps a million. Feeding the city also had an important political dimension: since the Republic, a dole of wheat was given to each adult man who claimed it. When it was not forthcoming, there were serious riots and unrest.
It has been calculated that the dole would have been enough to provide a man with about 3,000-3,500 calories a day, although in practice he would have shared it with his family and, of course, eaten other things. In 2 BC Augustus cut back the number of recipients of the wheat dole to 200,000, which implied importing somewhere in the order of 80,000 tons of wheat per annum for this purpose alone. By the date of the destruction of Pompeii, Rome probably needed close to a quarter of a million tons for its civilian and military population.
The wheat dole, as such, was not distributed in Pompeii, but an interesting frescoe in the House of the Baker shows a well-dressed man, perhaps even wearing a toga, handing something from the piles of loaves around and behind him to two men and a boy standing in front of the counter. It has been argued that on account of the man’s dress – clearly that of a freeman not a slave – this image could record a charitable distribution rather than a simple picture of a baker’s shop,.
Harvests were always at the mercy of the weather, and grain yields were very much lower than today: 6 to 1, or, on the very best land, 10 to 1. This can be seen graphically displayed in the fascinating historical beds in the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge. The task of organising the import of wheat from around the Empire was formidable. Buying and transporting the grain was in the hands of private merchants, although closely monitored by the state.
Under the Republic, the authorities tried to find ways of storing grain to avoid famines – one problem being that the type of wheat grown did not have a long shelf life, except under ideal conditions. But by the middle of the 1st century AD, major efforts were being made to forestall crises, building great public granaries and increasing state control by importing wheat and oil (which was another basic necessity and sometimes added to the dole) from the vast imperial estates in North Africa.
According to Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, writing in the 1st century BC, Sardinia, Sicily and Africa were the main sources of wheat-growing, but this gradually changed. In the Bellum Judaicum, Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus, writing about the time of the destruction of Pompeii, maintained that Africa fed Rome for two-thirds of the year and Egypt for the remaining third. This pattern was to continue with the addition of supplies from the Balkans.
Mosaic in Ostia showing grain ships from Egypt and the Pharos of Alexandria (detail). / Photo by Caroline Stone
The wheat was transported by ship – as described in the following century by the satirist Lucian in Navigium – which was much cheaper and more reliable than by land (although not without problems, as records from the year 62 AD make clear). We have an account of St. Paul’s experiences on a grain ship coming from Egypt late that year, culminating in his shipwreck on Malta, graphically described in the Acts of the Apostles, 27-28.
Puteoli was 20 miles from Pompeii and had an excellent natural harbour where the grain ships had traditionally docked. Indeed, it was where St. Paul eventually landed. Efforts had been made, however, to build a new port for Rome at Portus since the one at Ostia was silting up, but in the same year Tacitus mentions 200 ships from the grain fleet sinking in a storm even in port, resulting in more engineering work over succeeding years. This disaster, as well as a fire at one of the major horrea or granaries, meant that in 62 AD extra grain had to be imported from Moesia, roughly modern Bulgaria and Serbia.
The arrival of the grain fleet was an event of great importance. Some time around the middle of the 1st century AD, Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca described the delight and relief of great crowds on the dock at Puteoli when the grain fleet finally arrived from Alexandria. It is quite possible that among those present at Puteoli that day were people who would die a few years later at Pompeii.
Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) – the name comes from the Latin “to stink” – is an on-going reminder of the volcanic nature of the region. It lies in the Campi Flegrei (“the Burning Fields”), a 13km-wide caldera that is still very rich in volcanic phenomena, especially at Solfatara, a dormant volcano with fumaroles that give off clouds of steam and and sulfurous fumes (hence “stinking”). In the mid-late 20th century, the ground rose by some 3.5 meters, giving rise to fears that Solfatara would erupt for the first time since 1198.
How Did the Romans Make and Use Textiles?
By Caroline Stone
Textile, Late Roman, Egypt, 4th century. The Textile Museum
Because of the circumstances under which Pompeii was destroyed, little has survived in the way of textiles, but fortunately there are written sources, archaeological evidence, the wonderful wall-paintings and comparisons with other cities of the Empire which make it possible to guess what might have been available in the market.
The Romans were extremely fashion conscious and had a wide range of textiles and dye-stuffs, both locally made and imported from all over the Empire. The later 1st century was a particularly good period, with the Pax Augusta greatly benefiting trade – even the route along the Silk Road, from Rome to Northern China, was peaceful for almost 40 years.
Pompeii itself had a flourishing cloth industry. There has been much discussion as to whether it was primarily for local use or whether it was also exported. The number of establishments connected with cloth manufacturing in the city has been estimated at 38, or possibly 43, so there was a substantial output. Certainly, production was on an industrial scale, not simply domestic, for in one workshop the names of the five men (weavers) and two women (spinners) are known from graffiti, while in another, there were seven and eleven, respectively. Wall paintings provide a good deal of information about both techniques and organization.
The cloth actually made in Pompeii seems to have been wool, although it is argued that not enough sheep were kept in the vicinity to allow for export quantities to be produced. It is quite possible that imported wool was also available. Different coloured sheep from different regions gave a range of natural shades: northern Italy was famous for its white wool, Spain for black, Asia Minor for reddish, Puglia for tawny and Cordoba for grey. The Taranto sheep had particularly fine fleece – it was protected by little coats, so that they were known as “jacketed sheep”.
The demand for wool also led to the development of sheep-raising and the accompanying textile industry in Britain, which was to be of great importance again in the Middle Ages, generating much wealth.
Not only the wool was imported, but also fashion. Roman Emperor Augustus, who felt the cold badly, had adopted “barbarian” customs, such as wearing trousers, and foreign materials and garments were also being borrowed from the conquered peoples of northern Europe. Pompeii had an important felt workshop with remarkable paintings, intended as advertising, which show the process in detail. Also, in the mid 1st century, Pompeian naturalist Pliny the Elder mentions felt cloaks – gausapa – as being a fashionable novelty. Another introduction, this time from Gaul, was the Roman answer to the hoody – the shaggy bardocucullus, waterproofed with the oil left in the wool, like modern fishermen’s jumpers.
There are numerous stages in the production of textiles, and surviving implements provide clues to the techniques used. Raising the nap on wool, for example, may have been done with teasels, found everywhere in the hedgerows, as it was in Britain, as well as with metal combs. A pair of shears, used for subsequently trimming the nap of the cloth so that it is even, are almost identical to shears found at Chesterford near Cambridge.
The workshops at Pompeii are evidence of all the different stages of cloth production, from preparing the wool, dyeing, spinning and weaving, laundry, re-dyeing faded items, prêt-a-porter and patching together used clothes for slaves.
Colour was of great importance, and there was a wide range, as the frescoes from Pompeii make very clear. A couple of centuries before, the playwright Plautus listed a number of colours available in one of his comedies, and the poet Ovid, writing early in the 1st century, warned women to wear colours that suited their complexion rather than ones that were simply fashionable or expensive – and offered hints.
Dyeing was normally done at an early stage in the proceedings while the wool was still in the fleece – it has been claimed even when still on the sheep, but this seems unlikely – and the paintings at Pompeii show an amazing range of colours. Some were produced from locally available materials such as madder (red), whortleberry or blueberry (blue/purple), woad (blue), crocus (yellow), elderberry (grey-lavender), oak gall (black) – many of these plants can also be found in the British hedgerows – while other colours came from luxury imported dyes.
In a number of the paintings, the women wear green and even turquoise. These were always particularly difficult shades – lichen was cheap and produced a green, but the colour tended to be uneven and faded quickly. One answer was to dye twice – in yellow and blue – and this is probably the answer to the dress of the girl with the pen and writing tablet, known as “Sappho”.
Pompeii was a prosperous town, so it is likely that crimson (kermes from the scale insect Coccinus) – perhaps the colour worn by the wife of Pompeian baker Terentius Neo – was available from Merida in Spain, while indigo may have come from India. A small Indian ivory statue of the goddess Lakshmi was found in a house next to a major dye-works, so the town clearly had some contact with India, however remote. Indigo was a relatively new arrival – Pliny the Elder mentions its introduction in the reign of Augustus and gives the price as seven denarii a pound. It gave a much richer and more reliable colour than the native European woad.
A fragment of the shroud in which the Emperor Charlemagne was buried in 814. It was made of gold and Tyrian purple from Constantinople.
The most famous of the luxury dyes was Tyrian purple, originally a high status colour – as it was to be again in the Byzantine Empire, where the term for royal was porphyrogenitus: born in the purple – produced from the sea snails, particularly Murex. Pliny the Elder gives a detailed description of the very complicated dyeing process, whereby thousands of sea snails are needed to produce a very small quantity of dye. Another sea snail, buccinum, was used for the dye known as “Phoenician scarlet”.
As always, when luxury goods spiral out of the price range of most purchasers, fakes and imitations appear. Egyptian papyri give recipes for faking expensive dyes, and the people of Pompeii would have had an inexpensive substitute for Tyrian Purple, fished from nearby Puteoli.
In order to prepare the cloth and make it able to absorb the dye better, various mordants were used. Different mordants could also vary the shade obtained. Alum was an important one and there was a considerable trade in it, but another was urine, also used in tanning and as a bleach. This was collected from urinals (in the form of jars) and, slightly before the destruction of Pompeii, the Emperor Vespasian had introduced a tax on it, giving rise to the kind of comments that can be easily imagined. It was because of this that, centuries later, public lavatories in France were known as Vespasiennes.
The other most important textile at Pompeii would have been linen – beautiful and cool, but very hard to dye. Egyptian linen was considered the best quality, and it was imported in large quantities – together with glassware and luxury products from the East – through the nearby port of Puteoli. By this date, however, linen production had spread around the Empire to meet demand, and flax was being grown in northern Italy, the Damascus region of Syria, Cilicia, Spain – which was now producing a top quality product rivalling Egypt – and even Gaul. Pliny the Elder remarks that Gallic women, and perhaps also British, had come to prefer linen to their traditional wool for dresses. At Pompeii, which is hot in the summer, light fabrics would have been essential.
Cotton had long been known in Egypt, but did not come into common use in the Mediterranean until after the time of Alexander the Great. Herodotus, writing some 500 years before the destruction of Pompeii, knew that it came from India, but thought that it grew on trees. It is unlikely that it was woven in Pompeii, although the Romans had numerous mixed fibres: wool/cotton, cotton/linen, and so on. There were also a number of fibres not in common use today, for example nettles (ramie) and poppy, again used in mixtures. At Herculaneum, a fragment of cloth appears to be made of gorse, a material that was still being produced in southern Italy into the 20th century.
Even if it were not being produced in Pompeii, cotton as a fashion textile for social display would certainly have been available in the shops specialising in luxury and imported goods. There, the wealthy ladies of Pompeii might have found check and embroidered cottons from what is now Iraq and from India, which also exported a fine muslin cloth made of mallow fibre. They would also have found patterned linen from Gaul, painted muslins from Egypt, gold-worked or embroidered cloth, a speciality of Asia Minor (as it has continued to be almost to the present – a graffito in the felt workshop of M. Vecilius Verecundus mentions a tunic enriched with gold) and, of course, silk.
Apart from a small quantity of wild silk produced from a native Mediterranean moth described by Pliny the Elder, silk came from China to India, and along the Silk Road. The Pax Augusta – a long period of stability – greatly facilitated trade, and major centres of exchange were set up along the route. Archaeologists at Bagram in Afghanistan found two rooms in a large building containing “exotic things of beauty and worth” from China, India and Western Europe, some of which may have been destined for export to the Roman Empire. Merv was another important emporium, probably the furthest west that Chinese merchants came to sell their products to the Parthians, who acted as middlemen. By the time of the destruction of Pompeii, Damascus (62 AD) and the great Nabataean trade cities of Palmyra and Petra were either part of the Empire or closely linked with it.
The Romans apparently did not like the stiff, heavy Chinese silk – the paintings at Pompeii show a clear preference for light, soft, semi-transparent materials – so it was generally unravelled and rewoven, often mixed with cotton or linen, which of course also had the advantage of making a very expensive fibre go much further. Syria was a major centre of production, while Egypt, which specialised in luxury exports, made a silk-linen mix, often with woven decoration. Some Persian silk reached the Roman world and the Parthians, who were extremely skilful traders, sold back to China the lightweight Western gauzes without revealing that the fibre was originally theirs.
Fashion demanded ever lighter and more luxurious materials, but naturally there were complaints on both moral and economic grounds: the clinging, revealing dresses were considered immodest, “unRoman” – and there were constant concerns that the wealth of the Empire was being drained by India and China to pay for frivolous luxuries. While it is true that large sums – different figures are given, rising to hundreds of million of sestercii – travelled East, it is also true that the Empire had a flourishing export trade in wine, raw materials and manufactured goods such as glass and textiles. Sumptuary laws were periodically introduced to curb expenditure, but judging by the paintings, it seems unlikely that the people of Pompeii were discouraged either by the fear of “looking like prostitutes” or worry about the balance of payments from wearing the finest materials they could afford.
Then there were a couple of really exotic textiles unlikely to have been found in the shops, but which could perhaps have been ordered if anyone really wealthy wanted them. One was byssus, or “sea wool”, a very fine silky cloth, golden coloured, with a high sheen produced from the filaments of certain Mediterranean shellfish, especially the Pinna nobilis. If the Romans had had the option of making luxury clothing out of spiders’ silk (as has happened recently here in Britain – cloth pieces were displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012), they would certainly have done so!
The other cloth was woven from asbestos and known in the Middle Ages as “salamander fur”. Although both Greek historian Strabo and Pliny the Elder noted that the slaves who worked with asbestos developed lung diseases, it continued to be made mostly as a curiosity.
Roman Trade and Empire
How Did Pepper Reach Pompeii?
By Caroline Stone
Black pepper growing at Kerala, India, in November 2012.
The marketplace at Pompeii would have lacked many of the things thought of as intrinsic to Italian cuisine today: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, potatoes, maize, haricot beans, vanilla, chocolate and, of course, coffee. However, one imported product has remained constant: pepper.
Black pepper – Piper nigrum – and the related long pepper – Piper longum, little used today – are native to South and Southeast Asia. Pepper was used as part of the mummification rituals in Egypt from the late 2nd millennium BC. The pepper imported into the Roman Empire came from the Malabar Coast, essentially modern Kerala, where some of the finest quality pepper is still grown today. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greco-Roman travel account probably roughly contemporary with the destruction of Pompeii, describes the trade.
The route by which pepper reached Rome ran from the west coast of India up the Red Sea, where it was transhipped to the Nile, then down to Alexandria and from there to Rome. It almost certainly would not have been carried by the same merchants all the way, but would have changed hands, perhaps at Berenike or one of the other African Red Sea ports. North Arabian graffiti found at Pompeii show that visitors or merchants came there from the Middle East – it is nice to imagine that they were on a business trip to buy wine.
Pepper was considered a luxury, in the sense that it was non-essential. By the time of the destruction of Pompeii, it was nevertheless in very common use for ritual and medical purposes, as well as for flavouring both food and wine. The 4th century cookery book, De re coquinaria, attributed to the 1st-century gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, uses pepper in almost every recipe. This cookery book is undoubtedly aimed at the upper end of the market, but pepper itself was coming to be perceived as a basic ingredient. There are even pepper shakers found at Pompeii that are not very different from those we know today.
Finds at Pompeii reveal black pepper preserved in a box with miscellaneous valuables. The Vindolanda tablets – found near Hadrian’s Wall and from a slightly later date – mention pepper being bought or ordered by soldiers in northern Britain, one of the furthest and most barbarous outposts of the Empire. (The tablets can be viewed at http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/.)
It is almost impossible to calculate equivalent prices across the millennia, but Pompeian author and naturalist Pliny the Elder, writing about 70-77 AD, gives the costs of a pound of pepper (the Roman pound being somewhat lighter than the modern one). Long pepper was 15 denarii a pound, white pepper was 7 denarii and black pepper, 4 denarii. The wages of an ordinary soldier were roughly 1 denarius a day at this time, or 30 denarii a month. In 2013, a soldier in the British army earns about £1,100 per month, and good Wayanad pepper from Kerala costs about £13.50 a pound (long pepper is substantially dearer). Therefore a pound of pepper might represent 1/80th of a soldier’s wages today, while it was 1/7th in 1st century AD Rome. This calculation is very rough, but it gives an idea of the extent to which pepper would have been within the reach of the citizens of Pompeii. (Of course, pepper is not typically bought by the pound, but in much smaller quantities.)
Pliny the Elder complains about the wealth of Rome draining East to pay for luxury goods, especially pepper, spices, incense and silk. There is some truth in this. The dedicated warehouse, the Horrea piperataria, in the Roman Forum is a strong indication that large quantities of pepper and spices were imported. Pompeii’s pepper probably came directly from the nearby docks, but it is likely that that requests by the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall would have been sent out to Rome via one of the British urban centers.
It is hard to estimate how bad the balance of payments really was since complaints on the subject were constant through the centuries. Strabo, writing perhaps 60 years earlier, claims that 120 ships a year carried merchandise back and forth to the East. Pliny gives 50 million sestertii (there were 4 sestertii to the denarius) as the sum spent in this trade, which is in fact not an enormous amount. Pliny also mentions that Crassus, an extremely wealthy man (hence our word “crass”), owned estates valued at 200 million sestertii. For the purpose of comparison, a donkey at Pompeii cost 500 sestertii.
Archaeological work in recent years has produced a great deal of new evidence for the trade in both directions, both from documentation, particularly on ostraka – potsherds used as an inexpensive writing material – and finds of trade goods and containers. For example, vast numbers of amphorae have been excavated on the African coast of the Red Sea, in Arabia and along the coasts of India as far east as Pondicherry (Puducherry), while amphorae – containers used for exporting wine – specifically from Pompeii have been found across Europe and in North Africa. Pompeii was at the center of one of the great wine-producing regions of the Empire. Its wines were appreciated so much locally that they seem to have been kept largely for domestic use; probably the inferior vintages were shipped east beyond the frontiers. Together with other exports, such as cloth, tin, copper and manufactured goods, wine would have gone some way to offsetting the purchases of pepper.
What Can an Egyptian Mummy Tell Us about Roman Influence?
By Dr. Dorothy J. Thompson
Retired Newton Trust Lecturer in Ancient History
Girton College Fellow
Hermione, showing portrait and inscription. / Photo by Girton College
Hermione, the schoolteacher (grammatikê) whose mummy with its fine portrait is now housed in the Lawrence Room, Girton College, University of Cambridge, is exceptional in many respects. Her name and profession were written on her portrait in Greek, which remained the main language of Egypt after its conquest by Alexander (the Great) in 332 BC until the Arab conquest. As a female teacher at an advanced level in the Egyptian countryside, Hermione is unparalleled. Through her portrait, painted on linen, she was memorialized in death as a learned member of her community. Hermione’s mummy was excavated from the cemetery of Hawara in the Egyptian Fayum by William Flinders Petrie in January 1911.
In life, she is likely to have come from Arsinoe, the capital city of the area, in the early period of Roman rule around the mid-1st century AD. Beneath her elaborate wrappings, her skeleton confirms the impression of her portrait. She met her end in her early 20s.
Portrait mummies like Hermione were introduced to Egypt only with the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The practice of portraiture involved on this mummy is well illustrated somewhat later in the frescoes from Pompeii. There, learned women were painted on the walls with writing tablets and pen in hand, and serve as examples of the recognised importance of education and learning in the ancient world. One couple is portrayed with writing equipment: she holds a stylus and open tablet, while her partner has a papyrus in his hand. Elsewhere a woman, her curls constrained in a band, holds her stylus to her lips in her right hand while her left hand grasps a set of wooden tablets bound with a ribbon. Education was valued in Egypt, too, with tax-breaks granted to teachers and learning on display, as in the striking wall paintings of the 4th-century AD Roman villa at Amheida in the Dakhleh oasis. (See http://www.amheida.org/.)
The Lawrence Room at Girton College is the small college museum which houses a fascinating set of different collections: Roman and Anglo-Saxon material from the Girton sites, Mediterranean material including a fine set of Tanagra figurines, some early Mesopotamian eye-idols, items from the Far East, and more.
What Does a Hoard Found in Afghanistan Tell Us about Trade in Pompeii?
By Dr. Jane McIntosh
University of Cambridge
Blind flower girl of Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons
One of the most beautiful and striking objects from Pompeii is an ivory carving of a young woman, found in House 1-8-5 on Via dell’Abbondanza. Both the material from which it was made – elephant ivory – and the style of the carving leave no doubt that this was an import from India. Although the carving now appears as an exquisite statuette, she was originally part of a piece of furniture, probably the leg of a small table. Almost no ivory carvings of this period survive in India itself, so stylistic comparisons are with stone sculptures, particularly those decorating Buddhist stupas. However, a hoard discovered at Begram in Afghanistan includes a large number of ivory carvings. Among these are three female figures that were originally furniture legs, similar to the Pompeii carving. Most of the Begram ivories, however, are decorative panels that had originally been fastened to wooden chairs, settees and stools.
The Begram hoard was found during excavations in an early city in Afghanistan, possibly ancient Kapisha, the summer capital of the Kushans who ruled much of western Central Asia and northern India during the early centuries AD. Sealed in two rooms within a palatial building, the hoard was originally thought to have been the treasure of local rulers, accumulated over centuries and concealed during the city’s sack by the Sassanians in the 3rd century AD. Recent work, however, shows that the material all belongs within a narrow time frame in the later 1st century AD, roughly contemporary with the destruction of Pompeii.
The objects stored in these two rooms were mainly imports, and it is now suggested that they may have been the stock-in-trade of a wealthy merchant, sealed in these two strongrooms during some crisis and never recovered. They provide a remarkable snapshot of international trade at the time of Pompeii’s final days.
Begram was located at the junction of three trade routes: one leading west to the Parthian and Roman Empires, one east to the oasis towns of Central Asia and the Han Chinese Empire, and one south to the kingdoms of India. Begram owed its importance to its strategic position at the confluence of the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers, controlling two passes through the Hindu Kush mountains.
The mountainous region of Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan was also the source of many prized minerals, some of which had already been exploited for around 4,000 years by this time. In the 1st century AD this region traded lapis lazuli (a brilliant blue stone available only from Badakshan in northern Afghanistan), turquoise from the Hindu Kush, and aromatics, spices and medicines from the Himalayas such as costus, spikenard, lycium and malebathrum. Timber from the Himalayas was also exported, mainly to the Parthians and other states in the Gulf.
Tiny lacquer fragments in the northern strongroom (room 13) are all that remain of numerous lacquered wooden bowls and boxes imported from China. Trade links between China and the west had existed since early times and had flourished since the 2nd century BC. Traders transported goods along routes connecting the oasis towns that grew up around the Tarim Basin and other southern Central Asian regions between China and northern India, known collectively as the Silk Road. For considerable periods, Han China was able to establish control over much of the Silk Road, and at the time of Pompeii’s destruction was just entering a new phase of military campaigning to push back the Xiongnu nomads and regain control of Silk Road territory under the enterprising general Ban Chao. China’s best known export was silk, which reached as far as the Roman world; the Han also exported other fine textiles, lacquerware and other luxury goods through the Silk Road towns. They also engaged with their nomad neighbours, trading manufactured goods such as silks for the horses raised by the nomads, or bribing them with luxuries, and even Chinese princess brides, to prevent raids. A series of rich nomad (possibly Scythian) burials at Tillya Tepe, west of Begram towards the Amu Darya river, contained silver mirrors, typical examples of such Chinese luxuries, as well as locally manufactured objects strongly influenced by Chinese artistic subject matter and style.
Camel caravans passing from Begram through the Central Asian oasis towns such as Kashgar, Kucha and Turfan, acquired their orchard and garden produce for onward trade to China. These included grapes, saffron, beans and pomegranates. However, the Central Asian products that were supposedly the most highly valued by the Chinese were the “Heavenly Horses” of Ferghana, a region northeast of Begram. Merchants travelling along the Silk Road carried not only goods but also ideas: Buddhism spread from India to China along this route during the 1st century AD.
Room 13 at Begram also contained a number of chairs and couches decorated with ivory panels, while in the southern strongroom (room 10) a large number of footstools with ivory decoration were stacked along the eastern wall, along with ivory furniture legs. Some pieces were executed in bone, though the majority are of ivory. Stylistically Indian and made from Indian ivory, a few pieces may nevertheless have been made in workshops in Begram rather than imported, since unworked ivory was also discovered in the city. Raw materials such as ivory were major exports from South Asia as well as manufactured goods.
In the 1st century AD, the Indian subcontinent was divided between many principalities. The major players were the Western Shakas in western India; the Satavahanas in the Deccan; the Chera, Chola and Pandhya kingdoms in the south; and in the north the Indo-Parthians (Pahlavas) and Kushans; and there were also numerous smaller kingdoms. At the time of Pompeii’s destruction, the great Indo-Parthian kingdom that had controlled the whole region from the Parthian Empire’s eastern borders to the northern Ganges valley was rapidly losing territory to the expanding empire of the Kushans, originally Central Asian nomads. By 100 AD, the Kushans controlled the northwest and the Ganges valley as well as western Central Asia. It is unclear whether Begram was still ruled by Indo-Parthians in 79 AD or had already fallen to the Kushans.
India exported fine cotton textiles; gemstones including beryl, carnelian, agate and onyx; spices such as pepper; aromatics and drugs; ivory and tortoiseshell; pearls and timber. Goods reached Begram along a route from Taxila in Gandhara (northwest South Asia); apart from the ivories, few Indian imports were found in the Begram storerooms. One exception is a ceramic vessel in the form of a kinnari (mythical bird-woman). Taxila was the meeting point of several routes: a long established road led southeast to the cities of the Ganges Valley, while the Indus river provided a major highway to the ports of the western Indian Ocean.
It was by this route, probably through the port of Barbaricon at the mouth of the Indus, that the greater part of the goods found in the storerooms had reached Begram. These were products of the Roman world, luxury items sought for their prestige value and exoticism since many were made of materials that were available locally, such as glass and bronze. Similarly Roman wine was imported to the region (though no wine amphorae were found in the Begram storerooms) despite the production of wines locally in Arachosia (southern Afghanistan). Roman imports stored at Begram also included materials not found in the region, such as ostrich eggs from North Africa made into rhyta (drinking vessels), coral from the Mediterranean, and vessels of Egyptian porphyry stone.
Bronzes imported from the Roman world to Begram include both tableware and statuary with Classical subjects. Certain subjects were particularly popular: for example, statuettes of the Hellenised Egyptian childgod Harpocrates have been found at both Begram and Taxila. Many of the Roman imports at Begram have counterparts in objects found at Pompeii: these include bronze vessels and statuettes of Heracles.
A series of plaster medallions found at Begram would have been used as moulds for making decorations on metalware that was produced locally. They would also have been used as samples to show potential customers. Some were small scenes in relief while others were partially threedimensional. Examples of such 3-D decoration in the Roman world include a silver dish from a villa at Boscoreale destroyed in the same eruption as Pompeii.
Glassware from Pompeii
South Asia had a flourishing glass industry, producing in particular a great variety of beads that were widely traded. Roman glassware, however, was technologically the most advanced in the world in the 1st century AD, and was in demand as far away as China. Workshops in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt used glass-blowing, invented in this area in the 1st century BC, to mass-produce everyday glass vessels, making glass a commodity available to ordinary households. Glass-blowing was also part of the repertoire of techniques used to create works of incredible sophistication and complexity, such as the four rare and highly prized cameo glass objects found at Pompeii.
Other luxury glassware included vessels in unusual shapes, such as fish; beautiful painted goblets; jars decorated with gold leaf; vases with trailed decoration; and fine coloured glass cups – examples of all of these were found in the Begram storerooms. There were also mosaic (millefiori) bowls. Made with coloured glass rods, mosaic glass had a long history in West Asia and Europe. The painted glass goblets from Begram bore typical scenes from eastern Roman life, including hunting, fishing and the harvesting of dates. One depicted the famous Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria.
Begram is far from being the only eastern site where Roman and other traded goods have been found, but, like Pompeii, it represents a moment caught in time. Both settlements therefore give a snapshot of international trade links that connected a large part of the Old World in the 1st century AD. Distinctive pieces, such as the Indian ivory figure from Pompeii and the Roman glassware at Begram, are visible, indisputable evidence for the trading network. They stand proxy for the huge volume of other traded commodities, such as silks, spices and aromatics, that have left little or no physical trace.