When thinking of Pompeii, we often think about the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupting and destroying the city. The incident which occurred on August 24, 79 CE is one of the most horrific natural disasters in Roman history. It’s even more fascinating to know the 2,000 people, who lived in Pompeii, were killed by asphyxiation from the ashes and gases that rained down on them. Their bodies became frozen in time after being covered by calcified layers of ash and lava. As a result, the atrocity has been depicted in pop culture through many adaptations. For example, in 2013 the band Bastille had a song called Pompeii and in 2014 Paul W. S. Anderson directed the film Pompeii. Both focus on the city and the volcano eruption, but nothing is said about the people apart from their demise. Who were the ancient people of Pompeii? Tragically all that’s left of who they were is within the artwork. The art left behind gives insight on who they were and what their religion, customs, and pleasures were. Despite that horrific day, Pompeii was once a major Roman civilization.
Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748 and during that rediscovery, an abundance of frescoes were found along with frozen bodies. The frescoes were mostly found in public settings like the city walls, villas, and brothels. They comprised portraits and murals of wealthy aristocrats, religious customs, and erotica. According to the website Pompeii Tours, “For public rooms, many of the frescoes were used to decorate. The style of fresco developed over time in Pompeii, starting from 150 BC all the way until its end in 79 AD. There were four major styles worth noting; Incrustation, Architectural, Ornamental, and Illusionist.” Regardless, frescoes for the people served as a decoration and expression of Pompeii’s customs in public villas. Moreover, four different styles adapted from ancient Roman wall paintings were used to construct the frescoes. In brothels, the same techniques and style were applied, but their artistic décor had another approach, especially within the private rooms. Pompeii Tours acknowledged, “The Brothels of Pompeii are home to the most famous frescoes of Pompeii. These paintings were used for both decoration as well as essentially displaying a menu.” So, frescoes in brothels were geared more toward an adult audience advertising what was offered. However, unlike a public room inside a villa, a private room inside a brothel was small consisting of a stone bed and explicit artwork on the wall.
Two important frescoes in Pompeii depicting the people and their civilization are Portrait of Terentius Neo and a life size unnamed fresco in The Villa of Mysteries. Firstly, the Portrait of Terentius Neo, also known as portrait of Paquius Proculus, reveals Terentius Neo and his unnamed wife. The painting is a Roman fresco created in the 1st century AD, and it was found in the House of Terentius Neo. The interesting thing about Neo is how he’s holding a papyrus scroll and his wife holds a stylus and writing tablet. The writing utensils are proof Neo and his wife were literate citizens in Pompeii. From History of Information, the writers claim the portrait of Neo “is one of several surviving Roman portraits depicting the symbols of literacy.” Although they were middle-class based on the toga Neo’s wearing, historians find it intriguing that they chose to be painted with writing utensils. Evidently, this fresco is proof literacy was common within Pompeii for middle- and upper-class people.
Secondly, inside the Villa of Mysteries, there is a room that has a panel expanding over three walls. . Each wall consists of a different mural fresco depicting a religious ritual honoring Bacchic, who is Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. Archeologists believe the murals are “an initiation ritual into the mystery cult of Dionysus.” There’s a total of seven murals and they come together in a single narrative. However, despite them being joined in one story the Pompeii Site claims there are multiple interpretations of the story. For example, one interpretation is the depiction of a religious ceremony and another of a bride being initiated into the Bacchain Mysteries.
To be more specific, one mural reveals a group of women, two matrons and a servant, with a young child. They’re partaking in “the reading of the rituals of the bridal mysteries.” Meanwhile, the third fresco shows another group of people and animals in a triclinium, a formal Roman dining room. They’re participating “the stages of initiation of the cult.” Then, in the fifth mural, after the initiation, a woman is seen carrying a staff and wearing a cap. She’s kneeling before a priestess while being whipped by a winged female figure. In addition, the mural has mythical characters like someone dancing, who could be a Maenad or Thyaid, and a gowned individual holding a thyrsus, which is a symbol of Bacchic. The story behind this mural depicts a religious ritual and wedding, and those attending are wealthy relatives and slaves.
Frescoes are the key to understanding the ancient people of Pompeii and their culture. Yes, frescos were a popular piece of artwork and artifacts surviving the eruption. However, they serve as storytelling for us today. Through the artwork, we can relive and relearn about the people of Pompeii. Who would’ve known Pompeii was a hierarchy system valuing literacy? Or who knew frescoes served as menus in a brothel? Or that a fresco could expand onto three walls? Pompeii was once a major civilization that was tragically buried, but it’s up to us to unbury the remaining artifacts.
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