Buried beneath volcanic ash from the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was lost for 1500 years before its discovery in the late 16th century (“Pompeii”). Pompeii's sociopolitical landscape of the city changed over the centuries and although it appears to have been a destination for the Roman wealthy, there were also permanent inhabitants of the city that belonged to lower social classes that contributed to city’s economy.
As the Greek empire expanded, it took control of the area surrounding Pompeii and asserted its practices on the town during the 6th century BC (“Pompeii: 27 Centuries” 8). For nearly two centuries, Greek influence dominated in Pompeii as seen by a Doric Greek temple built in the mid-6th century (“Pompeii: 27 Centuries” 8) and evidence that the Greek gods were upheld. Shelly Hales discusses how the Greek gods were represented in her essay “Dionysos at Pompeii”. For the wealthy, Pompeii was a city of luxury and extravagance; it’s only fitting that those who could afford the pleasures of the city held the Greek god Dionysos with high regards. According to Hales, Dionysos’ “imagery as a motif of the pleasures of life” supports the ideas of luxury and indulgence so it’s not surprising that many relics found in wealthy homes are decorated with images of the god (335).
Around 310 BC, Roman forces plundered the area surrounding Pompeii and took political control of the area. Pompeii’s inhabitants now lived in a unique city; one that combined the culture of Ancient Greece with the social, political, and economic landscape of the emerging Roman Empire. One of the biggest changes in the city under Roman order was the widespread use of water (Jones 695). While water was publicly accessible in many Greek cities, the presence of an organized and constant supply of water to the masses in large cities was a “striking feature of the Roman ability to provide an urban infrastructure” (Jones 695).
Jones and Robinson examine the distribution and display of water in the city as a symbol of status by examining the House of Vestals. According to Jones and Robinson, Pompeii contains many Hellenistic mansions that displayed the wealth of its inhabitants through architectural style and interior décor rather than by size of the property (697). Distribution of water changed the way the upper class could display their wealth in Pompeii. While water remained accessible through street fountains, indoor plumbing became a symbol of status in Pompeii around the 1st century BC (Jones 696). At the House of Vestals archeologists uncovered a complete system of indoor water pipes, drains, and cisterns which support the level of luxury upheld in the home (Jones 697). You know you’re well-off when you don’t have to bathe in public!
Water was also used for economic purposes. Because Pompeii was a luxurious destination for the wealthy, lower class inhabitants created an economy that appealed to their wants through commercial flower growing. Wilhelmina Jashemski states that remnants of commercial flower gardens are scattered throughout the Campania area including Pomepii (403) in her essay “The Garden of Hercules at Pompeii: The Discovery of a Commercial Flower Garden”. Near the Garden of Hercules there are “wall paintings at Pompeii [that] picture the procedures of making garlands and perfume” as well as rough plans displaying soil planting patterns, provisions for watering, and perfume bottles (Jashemski 403).
This depiction of daily life in Pompeii shows the interactions of the wealthy with individuals of the lower class.
Just as Pompeii was fitting into the Roman Empire, tragedy struck. Although the city quickly began rebuilding after an earthquake in AD 62, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24, AD 79 set the city’s fate in stone quite literally. An excerpt from the article “Pompeii: 27 Centuries” summarizes the event:
“Vesuivus erupts. Pompeii and nearby villas are buried in ashes and pumice; Herculaneum is engulfed in hot volcanic mud,” (10).
An entire society was completely lost. Pompeii’s rediscovery uncovered the city’s unique combination of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds. In discussing the importance of the site, Barry Burnham calls Pompeii a “working laboratory where new insights are constantly being gleaned” (540). Pompeii is no longer the once-lost city but an interactive doorway into the ancient world.
Burnham, Barry C. “Review of ‘Pompeii: Public and Private Life’ by P. Zanker.” The Classical Review. 50 (2000):540-542. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2013.
Hales, Shelly. “Dionysos at Pompeii.” British School at Athens Studies 15 (2007): 335-341. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2013.
Jashemski, Wilhelmina F. “The Garden of Hercules at Pompeii: The Discovery of a Commercial Flower Garden.” American Journal of Archeology 83 (1979):403-411. JSTOR. Web. 4 March 2013.
Jones, Rick, and Damian Robinson. “Water, Wealth, and Social Status at Pompeii: The House of the Vestals in the First Century.” American Journal of Archeology 109 (2005):695-710. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2013.
“Pompeii: 27 Centuries.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1973-1982) 72(1978):8-13. JSTOR. Web. 4 March 2013.
“Pompeii.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 03 March 2013.