Friday, February 21, 2014

Pompeii 79 AD - Part IV

The Death of the Cities

A moonless night falls on the Forum of Pompeii, now empty after most visitors have left. [Photo by Author]
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD certainly had a quite extraordinary eyewitness. Pliny the Younger, then only 18 years old, described the tragedy unfolding from his villa in Misenum, on the opposite side of the bay of Naples, in two letters that he wrote to his friend and famous historian Cornelius Tacitus. 
At that time, Pliny's uncle (also called Pliny the Elder) was stationed in Misenum as the admiral of the Roman fleet, and could witness from that vantage point all the stages of the eruption.
We will borrow from his narrative to recall the final hours of Pompeii. 

August 24th, 79 AD – 1:00 pm

On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance […]It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it[1]

Around 1 pm, the pressure that had for centuries accumulated inside the Caldera of Mount Vesuvius finally burst out, causing the rock cap that for centuries had kept it contained inside the mountain to explode. The initial explosion produced a column of ash and pumice rising as high as 25 Km into the atmosphere, which started pouring on Pompeii to the Southeast in the form of a heavy ashfall. In this stage, the sky remained clear on Herculaneum, that was spared the ash and pumice rain as long as it remained upwind.
The pumice started very soon to accumulate in Pompeii, reaching in a span of hours a considerable thickness that started to threaten buildings and constructions under its weight. In this stage many people might have decided to leave the city, perhaps trying to reach the hills or the sea.  Mixed with the light pumice were however larger fragments of lava and molten rock that the explosion had ejected miles aways from the main crater. These fragments started falling with the strength of projectiles, piercing through the roofs of buildings and causing large fires to break out.  

Many of the buildings of the Forum were severely damaged or set on fire by volcanic bombs and lapilli. The continuous tremors would have caused cracks to open in the streets, that added to the danger of falling rocks and pumice. Many people remained trapped under building collapses or were killed by tiles and other heavy ornaments that fell from the roofs during the earthquake. [Photo by Author]
August 24th, 79 AD – 4:00 pm

As Pliny started receiving terrified reports of citizens trapped in their villas at the foot of the mountain, with no way of escape except by sea, his responsibilities as admiral of the Roman fleet took over his scientific curiosity:

He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated. 
He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them. Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. [1]

Pliny made route to Stabiae, a wealthy resort to the South of Pompeii, where his friend Pomponianus had his villa. Pliny the Younger recounts that his uncle greeted Pomponianus, cheering and encouraging him; he then had a bath and dined, thinking that by his own conduct he could calm his friend’s fears. 

After the Eruption, Mount Vesuvius lost over half of its original elevation. Before the eruption, the slopes of Mount Vesuvius were entirely covered with vineyards. [Photo by Author] 
August 24th, 79 AD – 10:00 pm

As the night fell, “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points” on Mount Vesuvius. In the meanwhile, the falling ash and pumice had piled up already to a considerable height, almost filling the courtyard of the house where Pliny was sleeping.

By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.
They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.” [1]

August 24th, 79 AD – Midnight

While Pliny was sleeping unaware of the terrible fate that doomed on the city, the great cloud of ash and pumice that had risen as high as 30 Km into the atmosphere, collapsed spectacularly causing massive pyroclastic surges that headed straight to Herculaneum. The surges instantly killed everyone on their path, including those who had taken shelter in the boathouses and on the beach and burying Herculaneum under 23 meters of volcanic material. Miraculously, a second surge headed to Pompeii stopped a few meters outside of the Herculaneum gate, thus sparing the city and those who had found refuge within its walls.

August 25th, 79 AD – 6:00 am

That day, the Sun would not rise on Pompeii and the other cities on the Southern Coast of the Bay of Naples. As Pliny recounts “Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp”. As the elder scientist went on to investigate the possibility of an escape by sea, poisonous gases released by the eruption caused him to fall to the ground, where his body was later found untouched by the rescuers.

Then the flames and smell of sulfur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.[1]

At that point, many of the buildings in Pompeii that had not collapsed under the weight of the thick ash and pumice were on fire or shaking because of the continuous tremors.

A number of bodies were found in Pompeii inside the Macellum, a building that served as the main covered marketplace of the City, where goods were traded and sold. As these were some of the only few bodies found around the Forum, it is unclear whether they had been killed by the pyroclastic surge or by the building collapse. [Photo by Author]
August 25th, 79 AD – 8:00 am

A short couple of hours after dawn, the Mountain exploded with terrifying power, causing massive surges to cover the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae and Oplontis that had until then been spared by the pyroclastic flows. Travelling at over 100 miles per hour, this last pyroclastic surge left no escape to those who had fled to the hills or had decided to stay inside their houses in Pompeii. The conflagration also caused a small tsunami to hit the Bay of Naples, as testified by the retreat of the sea that Pliny himself witnessed at Misenum.

The surge then crossed the Bay of Naples as a fiery cloud, reaching to Misenum where Pliny the Younger was witnessing in horror the final stages of the eruption. This last passage of Pliny is worth quoting in its entirety:

A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. ‘Let us leave the road while we can still see,'I said,'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind. ‘We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it. [1]

After the eruption subsided, what was left was a devastated and almost lunar landscape. The cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis, together with countless villages on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, had been completely destroyed and buried under as much as 23 meters of volcanic ash. In Pompeii, ash and pumice had piled up as high as 5 meters, covering almost every building but the largest public structures. Where Mount Vesuvius once stood, was now a huge crater created by the collapse of the magma chamber. Thousands had been killed in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and many more had been left without a house or shelter.     

This man was found crouching in a corner near the fullery of Stephanus, he might have been desperately trying to cover his mouth as the asphyxiating gases released by the eruption had already filled the streets. [Photo by Author]
A dog, still wearing a collar and tied to its chain, was also among the victims of the final surge that invested Pompeii. [Photo by Author]
A number of people had taken shelter in a garden near one of the gates in the walls of Pompeii, perhaps waiting for someone to come to their rescue. They were probably sleeping when the surge caught them unaware. [Photo by Author]
Among the bodies found in the Garden of the Fugitives, as it came to be known after it was discovered in the '60s, was that of a well built man holding the hand of a woman in one last, eternal embrace. [Photo by Author]
A rescue was organized, and the Emperor himself appointed two ex-consuls to coordinate the relief effort. But the destruction was just too great. Life resumed along the coast of the Bay of Naples, as many towns were reconstructed and the extensive damage caused by the eruption in Naples and other cities as far as 50 miles from Mount Vesuvius was restored.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, however, would lay forgotten for almost 1,500 years, until workers digging for an aqueduct in Pompeii unearthed some walls and frescoes. It was not until the Borbonic excavations of the 18th and 19th Century that a relevant portion of Pompeii could see the light again, and even then it took many years before excavators could positively confirm that the ruins they had been painstakingly uncovering were indeed those of Pompeii.

Here is a very beautiful animation from the Melbourne Museum of the last hours of Pompeii: 

[1] "The Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD," EyeWitness to History, (1999). 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pompeii 79 AD - Part III

The Necropoleis and Walls of Pompeii

The large Necropolis outside of Porta Ercolano contains hundreds of tombs and is the largest of those unearthed in Pompeii. Along the Avenue of Tombs opened the entranceways to wealthy suburban villas flanked by stores and taverns catering to the many travellers who entered Pompeii from the South. [Photo by Author]
The avenue that from Porta Ercolano leads to the Villa of the Mysteries may be rightfully called a veritable Avenue of Tombs [Via dei Sepolcri]. On both sides outside the gate, the consular road is flanked by tombs and funerary monuments, as it was customary outside of Roman cities (Roman law did not allow the burial of the dead within the city walls, therefore cemeteries had to be built outside, with the largest and richest tombs located in prominent position along the main ways leading in and out of town).  The Via dei Sepolcri is perhaps the most famous of the cemeteries that are found outside the walls of Pompeii. The necropolis of Porta Nola, Porta Nocera and Porta Vesuvio are also notable for their carefully arranged funerary monuments. The tombs are an authentic “Who was Who?” of ancient Pompeii.  Here is found the tomb of Naevoleia Tyche and his husband, Caius Munatius Faustus, a priest of the deified Emperor Augustus (Augustalis), who had likely made his fortune through commerce as suggested by the beautiful bas-relief of a trading vessel that decorates the side of the monument. Here are also the tombs of Umbricius Scaurus, who organized gladiatorial games in the amphitheater; Marcus Porcius, who dedicated the Odeion (Theatrum Tectum) and the amphitheater (Spectacula); and the priestess Mammia, to whom an inscription attributes the dedication of the temple of Augustus in the Forum. Outside Porta Nocera we can find the tomb of the Priestess Eumachia, undoubtedly one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Pompeii, who dedicated the building named after her in the Forum, in addition to several statues of the Emperors Tiberius and Augustus. An interesting inscription not far from her tomb, on what must have been a major highway leading into town, sheds an interesting light into some very ancient Italian malpractices. The inscription was commissioned by a certain, Titus Suedius Clemens, a tribune, and reads “EX AUCTORITATE IMP CAESARIS VESPASIANI AVG LOCA PVBLICA, A PRIVATIS POSSESSA T SVEDIUS CLEMENS TRIBVNVS CAVSIS COGNITIS ET MENSVRIS FACTIS REI PUBLICAE POMPEIANORVM RESTITVIT”, meaning “By virtue of authority conferred upon him by the Emperor Vespasian Caesar Augustus, Titus Suedius Clemens, tribune, having investigated the facts and taken measurements, restored to the citizens of Pompeii public places illegally appropriated by private persons”.  Already in 79 AD Italy private abuse was quite widespread if it took the authority of the Emperor to restore public ownership of communal land.

The avenue of tombs was lined with the sepluchers of Pompeii's notables and famous. This now dilapidated tomb once belonged to the magistrate Umbricius Scaurus, and still retained much of the original stuccoed decoration portraying hunting games and gladiator fights at the time of its discovery in the 19th Century. [Photo by Author]
Some of the tombs were of truly monumental proportions and often contained the remains of entire families across many generations. [Photo by Author]
Many of the tombs were richly ornamented with stuccoes and paintings. Some also contained benches for the rest of travellers and wayfarers. [Photo by Author]
Given its proximity to Mount Vesuvius, the Necropolis of Porta Ercolano suffered the full intensity of the pyroclastic flows ejected by the volcano. [Photo by Author]
One of the most ornamented tomb stones is that belonging to Naevoleia Tyche, undoubtedly one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Pompeii. [Photo by Author]
Not less interesting, outside of Porta Vesuvio, is the Tomb of Vestorius Priscus. The man, who died at the age of 22, held the office of Aedile, which was a minor city magistrate in charge of the construction and maintenance of public buildings. Among the several painted scenes that decorate the tomb, three are particularly notable. The first one shows the deceased, Vestorius Priscus, in his office of magistrate facing an audience. The second shows a remarkable still life of silver vessels, carefully laid on a table. These include beautiful inlaid cups, plates, saucers and spoons. It is the third scene, however, which is perhaps the most interesting: it shows a pair of fighting gladiators, wearing the weapons of the thraex and the hoplomachus. The winner is standing, while his opponent lies to the ground still holding to his shield. Quite interestingly, both gladiators seem to be wearing a very fine tunic made of a translucent material similar to silk. The fresco is thought to memorialize a munus offered by Vestorius Priscus in the amphitheater of Pompeii when he was an Aedile. 

One approaches the tomb of Vestorius Priscus through the Vesuvius Gate. This vaulted structure right next to the gate once served as the main water distribution terminal for the acqueduct that served the city of Pompeii [Castellum Acquae]. Lead or terracotta pipes carried fresh water to fountains, baths and private houses throughout the city. [Photo by Author]

Inside the tomb of Vestorius Priscus are beautiful scenes depicting a gladiator fight between a Thraex (to the left) and and Oplomachus (to the the right). The scene is particularly interesting for the vivid depiction of the armor and weapons of the two gladiators, as well as for the very strange silk tunic that both seem to be wearing. [Photo by Author]
This set of silverware, so remarkably similar to roman silverware of the Ist Century AD found in Museums throughout the world, and especially to the famous treasure of Boscoreale, signalled the wealth and prestige of the deceased, and wouldn't have disfigured even on a modern table. [Photo by Author]

The Walls of Pompeii are perhaps its most overlooked monument. The walls are over 3 Km in length, pierced by 7 gates and protected by towers, of which the Tower of Mercury is perhaps the most famous. The walls bear all the signs of a protracted siege by the troops of Sulla during the Roman civil war. The walls, whose construction probably dates to the Samnitic period, are built of large volcanic tufa blocks, and were later elevated with the addition of towers when Pompeii became a Roman colony. The surviving towers were as much as 3-Storeys high, with arched windows for artillery. Several graffiti and quarry marks can still be found on many of the stones that compose the walls. 

The tower of Mercury is the most famous of the several towers that once guarded the walls of Pompeii. It is 3 storeys high and connected to a high tufa wall dating to the early Republican period and which also suffered a siege by Sulla during the Roman civil war. [Photo by Author)
Porta Marina, at night. Of all the gates of Pompeii, this was the closest to the sea. The port of the city may still lie buried a short distance from here, even if its exact location has so far escaped archaeologists. Recent excavations have uncovered large thermal structures (so called Terme Suburbane), a temple of Venus, residential areas and a villa that supposedly belonged to the Imperial family. [Photo by Author] 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pompeii 79 AD - Part II

The Houses of Pompeii

The houses of Pompeii are an excellent mirror of Roman society. As any modern city, Pompeii had its good and its bad neighborhoods too. Houses range therefore from wealthy mansions encompassing porticoes (peristylium) and gardens to more modest flats inside large apartment buildings (insulae), often right above rows of stores or taverns. The houses of Pompeii were clearly influenced by the austere samnite style, yet it is surprising to find that many of the wealthier Pompeian houses were already old, sometimes by as much as two or three hundred years at the time of the eruption that finally buried them. This is especially true for the houses that were decorated in the so called “first Pompeian Style”, that is a purely geometric decoration that often mimics marble or some other expensive stone. This austere geometric décor was probably considered a reflection of the severitas (severity) and gravitas (gravity) of the owners, both quintessential Roman virtues that, largely forgotten in the latest years of the Roman Republic, would again be championed by Augustus himself during the years of his Principate (27 BC – 14 AD).  

A view of some of the residential areas of Pompeii along the Avenue of Theaters, against the background of Mount Vesuvius. [Photo by Author]
The grandiose House of the Faun must have already looked like a museum even to a Roman visitor of the I Century AD.  It occupies a whole block in the most prestigious part of town, right north of the Forum, and is built on a scale that, perhaps deliberately, echoes that of Hellenistic palaces. Here the massive stone façade crowned by elegant Corinthian capitals gives way to a purely geometrical decoration in the finest first Pompeian style. The guests would have been greeted by a dancing Faun on a fountain, right in the atrium of the house. And the floor mosaics were exquisite too. Here is found what is perhaps the finest surviving mosaic from the ancient world, the so called “Alexander Mosaic”. Measuring almost 6 meters by 3, it consists of well over 2 million tiny tesserae, and depicts, in a grandiose composition, the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius at Issus (or, according to other sources, Gaugamela). The mosaic is likely a copy from a now lost Hellenistic painting commissioned at the Court of Macedon in the III Century BC, yet the copy is of such fine quality that one can hardly regret the loss of the original. All the other mosaics found in the house of the Faun, all of the most excellent quality, fill almost an entire room of the National Museum of Naples, together with the absolute masterpiece, the Alexander Mosaic itself. It creates an even greater impression to think that all these mosaics were already over two hundred years old at the time of the eruption and must have been already regarded as pricey antiques. The ancients had their own antiquity too, after all.  Beyond the atrium, the house had a large peristylium, with what was perhaps intended as a miniature theatre for private performances. In spite of the remarkable wealth and luxury of the house of the Faun, its owner remains unknown, but a Samnite general has been suggested as its first tenant.  

The Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii is believed to be a copy of a (now lost) 4th Century BC hellenistic original by the painter Philoxenes of Eretria. The clash of the Macedonian and the Persian armies is depected with astonishing realism and attention to detail. This mosaic, which was already two hundred years old at the time of the eruption that buried it in 79 AD, is a testimony to the exquisite taste of the fashionable owners of this grand Pompeian mansion. [Photo by Author]
The portrait of Darius contemplating the route of his army while desperately commanding his charioteer to flee the battle is among the most dramatic of the whole battle scene. [Photo by Author]
The portrait of Alexander the Great, wearing the Gorgon breastplate on his horse Bucephalus and focusing his gaze on a fleeing Darius is believed to be one of the most faithful portraits of the great conqueror. [Photo by Author]
A beautiful false architecture in the finest first Pompeian style decorates the entranceway into the House of the Faun. Right inside the Atrium, the guests would have been greeted by the bronze statue of a dancing Faun. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Ceii, in the Southern part of the city, is similarly austere and certainly commanded great status and prestige. Its exterior façade is in the purest first style, with severe square capitals framing the doorway (it is interesting, though, that not even the walls of this venerable and austere mansions were spared from ancient graffiti and electoral posters painted in red ochre). The interior of this house, however, takes us amidst the more recent second Pompeian style, with the austere geometric decoration giving way to beautiful painted landscapes and the great hunting scene for which this house is most famous. The small and intimate atrium of this house, with its plastered columns painted in a delicate yellow tone, makes this house one of the finest in Pompeii.

The severe exterior of the House of the Ceii signalled the prestige of its owners. Not even its imposing facade was however spared from graffiti and electoral posters. [Photo by Author]
The Atrium of the House of the Ceii is remarkably preserved, with beautiful plastered columns and a fine impluvium. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Ceii is most famous for the beautiful hunting scenes that decorate the Viridarium, in the backyard of the House. The scene, set against an exotic background, may have been inspired by hunting games in the Amphitheater (Venationes), with a lion chasing a bull and other animals in the upper band. [Photo by Author]
To the side of the great hunting fresco, a rarefied nilotic lanscape with temples and fantastic architectures must have given the garden a distinct exotic feel. [Photo by Author]
The House of Menander is only a short walk from this last one, right across the street, but belonging to a much wealthier neighbor. The paintings of the atrium are unfortunately very ruined, but the rooms around the peristylium and the beautiful inner courtyard are a real surprise. Here is a beautiful painting of the poet Menander (hence the name of the house), together with other mythological frescoes of Anteon devoured by hounds and a remarkable lararium. The house also has beautiful mosaics, such us a very fine Nilotic scene with pygmies. But the real hidden gem is a small private bathroom, still complete with its frescoes, stuccoed ceilings and mosaic floors. This little room feels so private and secluded that one would be tempted to knock at the door before entering.

The House of Menander owes its name to a famous fresco of the poet Menander that decorates a recess of the Peristilium of the house. [Photo by Author]
The Peristilium of the House of Menander is among the finest and best preserved in Pompeii. Even the plants and the vegetal ornamentation have been carefully reconstructed after remains of wood and pollen recovered after the archaeological excavations. [Photo by Author]
This small bathroom, with its fine frescoes, mosaic floors and stuccoed decoration is one of the most intimate and private rooms of this large, stately mansion. [Photo by Author] 
The House of the Chaste Lovers, along the Via dell’Abbondanza, is a true sneak peek into the everyday life of an ordinary Roman household.  The rather unassuming exterior gives way to a sprawling mansion, which also contains stores facing the main road and a baker’s shop. The house, that had been clearly restored and freshly repainted after the devastating earthquake of 64 AD, is a wonder in the third Pompeian style. The painted architectures are almost baroque, with columns too narrow to hold anything but all shining in painted gold and gems. Amid the fantastic architecture, on a striking Pompeian red background, are bands of little Cupids riding chariots driven by goats and deer – as if mocking a chariot race. In the dining room is the famous painting of the (not so chaste) lovers, together with other scenes of banquet, all of exquisite workmanship. From the peristylium one transitions into the productive quarters of the house, where it is still possible to find the flour mills and the baker’s oven. Perhaps the first pizza was baked in an oven not much different than this, and certainly it wouldn’t disfigure not even in a modern bakery or pizzeria in Naples. Yet, even there one is continually reminded this is no ordinary museum, as the poor skeletons of at least 5 donkeys and mules still lie on the floor a short distance from the oven, clearly locked there by the owner thinking he would one day come back. He didn’t, of course. Perhaps not impressive as human remains, but countless animals died in Pompeii too, sometimes with their masters, and their bones are just another memorial to that fiery catastrophe that spared no living creature.  Another frightening particular: a hole was dug into one of the walls of the house, it is not known whether by the owners trapped inside, in a desperate attempt to escape, by a rescue party, or even by looters in ancient times.

A testament to the countless forgotten victims of the Vesuvius, animals too were not spared by the violence of the eruption and the death and oblivion that followed. [Photo by Author]
The fine Peristilium of the House of the Chaste Lovers is one of the most remarkably preserved in Pompeii and one of the few where the original roof has been found almost intact. [Photo by Author] 
All the rooms facing the Peristilium were finely decorated in the second and third Pompeian style. [Photo by Author]
These wonderful and almost surreal gilded architectures are among the finest examples of the third Pompeian style and still retain all the original freshness of their colors. [Photo by Author]
One of the most remarkable frescoes shows a narrow band of racing charioteers. The charioteers are in fact little Cupids riding on chariots drawn by goats. [Photo by Author]
Two not so chaste lovers...the large hole that can be seen in the wall was likely pierced by the owners of the house in a desperate attempt to escape as the ashes had already piled up to the point of reaching to the second floor of the house. [Photo by Author]
Some of the rooms inside the House of the Chaste Lovers are still under excavation and filled with ash and pumice from the eruption. [Photo by Author]
A banquet scene shows all the lavish luxury of 1st Century AD Pompeii. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Labyrinth is rarely open and even more seldom visited. Yet it is interesting for its use of perspective in the depiction of fantastic and almost life-size architectures. Clearly, the Romans already mastered some form of perspective, as it is evident from the beautiful landscapes and fantastic architectures. Yet their theory of perspective was sometimes still far from perfect: In a celebrated fresco from the House of the Labyrinth two pigeons are perched on a curtain facing a colonnade garden. The columns, however, far from following a rigorous perspective, overlap each other in a way that is entirely confusing, but nevertheless interesting. This house is however mostly famous for a very fine mosaic emblem depicting Theseus slaying the Minotaur inside a labyrinth. The little mosaic is a true masterpiece as it depicts Theseus holding the Minotaur by the horns and surrounded by the bones of its previous victims and some more frightened virgins and youths holding to each other in horror.

The strange use of perspective in this fresco from the House of the Labyrinth is almost confusing to the eye. [Photo by Author]
Beautiful frescoes decorated the Triclinium of the House of the Labyrinth, which was originally embellished by a miniaturistic colonade that would have looked like a continuation of the brightly painted architectures on the walls. [Photo by Author]
This famous mosaic emblem of Theseus and the Minotaur is set inside a labyrinth decorating one of the rooms of the house. [Photo by Author]
 The House of the “Amorini Dorati” [Golden Cupids] is another stately mansion in the northern part of town. As usual, the paintings are of excellent quality and almost look like tiny portraits hanging from the walls. Here, however, they are set against a yellow background that contrasts with the traditional Pompeian red. The little portraits encased in the walls are of no lesser quality, as are the beautiful geometric mosaic floors. The garden contains a remarkable lararium, dedicated to the traditional household gods, as well as another lararium, more crudely decorated, dedicated to the Egyptian gods and containing a depiction of the God Anubis, himself dressed in Roman fashion.  A little fragment of everyday life two thousand years ago: a broken obsidian mirror, still encased in one of the walls of the tablinum facing the peristyle. 

Beautiful frescoes and mosaics decorate the Triclinium of the House of the Golden Cupids. This stately reception hall must have certainly witnessed several lavish banquets in the style so often depicted in Pompeian frescoes. [Photo by Author]
The garden of the House of the Golden Cupids is sorrounded by a doric Peristilium and also contains a fountain. As in many other houses in Pompeii, the plants and flowers in the garden have been reconstucted after the remains of the original carbonized flora. [Photo by Author]
The Lararium was an altar dedicated to the family Gods. This one is particularly remarkable for the depiction of Egyptian Gods and various ornaments and magical instruments pertaining to the cult of Isis. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Golden Cupids is famous for the miniaturistic and very delicate portraits encased into its walls. [Photo by Author] 
An obsidian mirror was certainly an object of luxury in 1st Century AD Pompeii. Its broken fragments once reflected the fury of Vesuvius. [Photo by Author] 
The Villa of the Mysteries, a short distance outside of Porta Nocera and the Avenue of Tombs, is one of several villas whose entrances opened along the Avenue of Tombs, together with a numbers of stores and shops that must have once greeted visitors coming into town. The Villa of the Mysteries is most famous for its beautiful Pompeian red and its cycle of near life-size frescoes depicting scenes inspired by the Dionysian mysteries.  Even though several interpretations have been proposed for the frescoes, the most likely it that they depict a theatrical enactment of the Dionysian mysteries. One large, seated figure is clearly understood to be Bacchus, the God of wine and ecstasy. To the left of him there is the figure of a Sylen with a theatrical mask. But the most enigmatic is perhaps the winged figure to the right, which seems to be trying to hide her face as the veil is lifted from her. The whole scene is extremely delicate, in the finest second Pompeian style, and contains almost naturalistic portraits, for instance of a woman contemplating her own image in the mirror, or a little girl reading a poem while servants carry silverware and vessels of fruit. Even the other rooms of the house and the atrium are no less impressive, with their first and second style decoration. The villa also contains some servants’ quarters and an equally interesting pars rustica, that is the productive part common to most suburban villas and containing large jars for storage of oil and wine.

The beautifully painted architectures in the Villa of the Mysteries show a remarkable mastery of the use of color and perspective. Even if painted on a flat wall, these architectures possess an almost tridimensional appearence. [Photo by Author]

The cycle of frescoes that decorate the Triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries is among the finest examples of Roman hellenistic painting. While the meaning of the overall scene remains unclear, the fresco certainly refers to the performance of some ritual related to the Dyonisian Mysteries. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Tragic Poet, a short distance from the Forum, is most famous for its threshold mosaic depicting the famous “CAVE CANEM” – beware of the dog -. Perhaps it is the same dog whose cast, still contracted in agony and tied to its chain, is arguably the most photographed in the Granaries of the Forum that now serve as a storeroom for material found during the excavations. The house is particularly notable for its small stuccoed lararium and the beautiful mythological paintings that, against a yellow background, still decorate the tablinum

The House of the Tragic Poet possesses a small but beautiful garden sorrounded by a peristilium, which also contains a very fine stuccoed lararium. [Photo by Author]
The frescoes decorating the Tablinum, against a striking yellow background, depict mythological scenes and episoded from the Omeric Poems. [Photo by Author]
This remarkable mosaic emblem, now in the National Museum in Naples, was originally found on the floor of the Tablinum in the house of the Tragic Poem. It depicts some actors and musicians getting ready and dressed for a theatrical performance. [Photo by Author]
The very fine house that belonged to M. Lucretius Fronto is organized around a beautiful atrium that once contained also a second storey. The walls are painted in a wonderful third style, in black, red and yellow, in which fantastic, stylized and near miniaturistic architectures frame small canvasses of the finest quality. The paintings in the Tablinum are exceptional for their freshness and the maturity of their trait, certainly the work of a great painter. Even the cubicles hold painting of Narcissus and scenes from the war of Troy – so beautiful that one is left to wonder whether they were actually painted on canvas by some great master before being encased into the wall. Even the little garden (viridarium) in the backyard contains beautiful paintings of wild beast and animals. There are lions, leopards, deer, bears, donkeys and wild boars, all painted with almost life-like quality by someone who had undoubtedly seen all this animals, perhaps during some hunting display in the amphitheater, and possessed a perfect knowledge of their appearance and anatomy. Certainly it would have been difficult to see all these animals together in their natural environment, even in ancient times.

The House of M. Lucretius Fronto boasts some of the finest frescoes of any house in Pompeii, amid a wonderful third style decoration. [Photo by Author]
The third style reaches its climax in the Tablinum of the house, with its almost art-decò ornamentations and fantastic architectures. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Scientists, albeit now very ruined, must have been a very wealthy mansion, at least judging from its extension and location very close to the house of the Faun. As many of the oldest and most prestigious houses in Pompeii, it also had an imposing stone façade, but the interior gives way to a much more luxurious space where, after passing the atrium, one finds himself in the garden in front of a beautiful mosaic fountain made of tiny blue glass tesserae, fine marble and sea shells.

The beautiful mosaic fountain inside the House of the Scientists. [Photo by Author]
If one passes the atrium of The House of Apollo, where every trace of decoration has long disappeared, one enters into a beautiful secluded garden (viridarium) containing a little construction, like a shed, that would be perfect for an alcove or a romantic escape. On the outside, is a fine wall mosaic of Achilles on Skyros, while inside, amidst the fantastic architecture decoration, which is itself a triumph of painted marbles and golden columns, one finds Apollo himself and the muses, almost hiding from unwanted sights behind the fake architectures.

A rare mosaic outside of the House of Apollo depicts the mythological episode of Achilles on Skyros. [Photo by Author]
The most famous fresco inside the house of Apollo shows the God himself peacefully resting among gilded architectures and ornate furniture. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Old Hunt has interesting hunting friezes against a rather unusual light blue background. Aside from the winged Victories that decorate the walls, some small lunettes depict hunters chasing a bear and a lion slaying a bull while being himself chased by a hunting Cupid holding a dog on leash. The other rooms show a more standard architectural decoration, with large canvasses, albeit very ruined, against a more traditional red and yellow background. Another ruined fresco from the viridarium shows a hunting party with various wild animals that seem to include a bear and a deer.

The House of the Old Hunt retains much of its original decoration, and is notable for the very fine and delicate blue of its walls. [Photo by Author]
The Peristilium of the House is reasonably preserved and still holds much of the original plastering and color. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Vettii, once the most visited in Pompeii, but now regrettably closed as part of a 12-year long restoration, once offered some of the finest wall paintings and landscaped gardens in Pompeii. Now, all that can be seen from the fenced entranceway is the famous painting of Priapus weighting his gigantic phallus against a scale. Such explicit sexual imagery, which abounds in Pompeii, has suggested that prostitution was widespread in the Vesuvian town. However, the very fine execution of the fresco and the prestige of the mansion make it unlikely that the house or even part of it could have served as a brothel. Much more likely, explicit sexual imagery, even in elegant and refined mansions, was considered a good charm by a society that was certainly much more open and libertine than ours (even though one cannot exclude that prostitution was practiced even inside some very wealthy mansions, perhaps only for the private pleasure of their affluent owners or their close friends).

The entrance corridor leading into the House of the Vettii, now unfortunately inaccessible. Depictions like this one, showing the God Priapus, were not unusual even in the most elegant and refined mansions. [Photo by Author]
The Great Lupanar is one of the “must-see” during any visit to Pompeii, mostly for its very explicit erotic paintings that show, with great richness of detail, the specific “services” offered in each room of this brothel. At the time of the first excavations, much of the erotic and the more sexually explicit art of Pompeii were deemed too scandalous for public display. The “secret cabinet” in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, now a major attraction, offers some good examples of the sexual customs of the ancient Romans.

The frescoes in the Great Lupanar (this one in the National Museum of Naples) certainly leave very little to the imagination of the kind of activities that were practiced inside its walls. [Photo by Author]
The House of the Diadumenoi is another stately mansion in the first style, unusually built on a high podium facing the street. The house is not particularly notable for its paintings or decoration, which are poorly preserved, but for its magnificent Atrium surrounded by sixteen doric columns. The house likely belonged to Marcus Epidius Sabinus or Marcus Epidius Rufus, who are otherwise know through electoral posters scattered around the City.

The House of the Diadumenoi boasts possibly the most elegant Atrium of any house in Pompeii. Even though not much of the wall decoration has survived, the austere magnificence of this house is a testament to the wealth and political ambitions of its owners. [Photo by Author]