Pompeii: A Brief Historic Overview
Pompeii was a typical middle sized Italian town, located close to cities of Campania which came under Hellenistic
influence earlier than elsewhere in Italy. Due to this fact, it is much easier to see the Greek influence in
Pompeii than in other Roman towns. One important feature of the society was the obsession with status.
One's social position was pre-determined so while there was economic mobility, an individual could not change their status (for example being born a slave as opposed to being born free).
Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC until 14 AD, helped minimize the rigidity of the social structure by allowing freedmen to hold offices. In addition, the earthquake
of 62 AD helped to disrupt the rigid social structure providing new opportunities for those who might have had a lower social status.
The Roman Home
The way the home was set up is something which is deserving of special attention. As opposed to the modern concept
of one’s home, personal homes in Roman society were very public. One’s home would be a direct indicator of their
“status.” The open nature of homes allowed one to see far into the home if just passing by causing the internal
appearance to be given particular consideration. The interior of the home was organized between general
functional space, and space for socializing. Looking at such homes at the present, it is easy to notice the
transition points between various sections of the home by the changes in decoration. Another notable
difference between the Roman home and the modern home was the fact that a single room could be used for a
variety of activities. One way this was possible was because furniture light and easily moveable so that one
room could easily be utilized for a variety of activities. There were also no cabinets and shelves in most rooms
creating open walls which could be decorated with wall paintings.
The use of space acted as an indicator of the homeowner’s status. The
homeowner might want to have a private conversation in a more interior room of the home and due
to the arrangement of rooms within the home, on the way to the interior room the visitor
would get a good glimpse of the grandeur of that persons home. It was common to find such
interior rooms facing the courtyard which would not only allow the homeowner to show off
their courtyard, but would also force the visitor to first pass through many other
rooms within the home. As for the decorations, they would represent not only what the homeowner wanted visitors
to see or be impressed with but also reflected their own tastes.
The Wall Paintings
Wall painting can be considered the most important art form of Pompeii and the outlying Vesuvian areas. This is true mainly because there exists a wealth of
such paintings well preserved by the volcanic ash that blanketed the area in 79 AD. More importantly, the
evolution of this art form from the second century BC up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, provides us with an historical
window that gives insight to the world in which these paintings were created. In many ways, the House of the Vettii provides a
good example of the kind of painting that one would have encountered in a first century Pompeian upper class mansion. In other ways,
however, the House is a kind of exception to the “rules” of wall painting.
In the Roman world, wall painting was not specifically reserved for the wealthiest of patrons. Nevertheless,
those who could afford it turned to variously specialized workshops to execute the commissioner’s every request.
Almost all the walls of a house were painted, save the walls in areas intended for working or housing for servants.
As well preserved as the paintings have been left, it is still difficult to define the connection between the subject
of a wall painting and the function of the room in which it exists. For the most part, there are general trends
in the kinds of wall paintings one would expect to see in different rooms. For example, private rooms were usually
heavily decorated displaying the latest fashions while more public reception rooms featured more simplistic motifs.
The House of Vettii, unlike most homes of its day, features a painting of Priapus (god of fertility) weighing his enlarged phallus against a bag of money
at its entrance. Passage ways in homes usually featured austere, schematic paintings. Needless to say,
the phallic symbol took on a slightly different meaning in first century Pompeii. Then, the phallus was a symbol of protection
and even good luck; it is easy to understand then, that the painting of Priapus was meant to portray the wealth and
fortune of the brother Vettii.
Pompeian wall painting is generally divided into four different stages, thanks to one August Mau who classified the
styles in 1882. While the House of the Vettii shows characteristics of the first and second styles,
whose hallmarks deal mainly with the placement within methodically divided space of wall, the House is seen as a good example of
third and fourth style wall painting. The inclusion of gods and heroes in the many paintings around the house
(Bacchus, Heracles, Hera, Ixion, etc.) give a characteristically third style flavor in which subjects are mainly
narrative-mythological ones. Unlike the third style, the fourth style was more about flair and decoration than
anything else. Walls’ middle zones were subdivided into panels with paintings and figures in flight separated by
elaborate architectural perspectives. Private patrons, especially particularly
wealthy ones like the Vettii, favored this type of refined wall painting. This heavy emphasis on decoration for
its own sake may be a reason why it has been so difficult to discern a clear connection between painting subject
and room function.
The subjects of wall paintings in Pompeii were usually borrowed from the Greco-Hellenistic world and simply adapted
to the needs of the patron and his architecture. For the most part, there is
no truly original work. But in the House of the Vettii, there is an indication that the artist was not merely
copying a previous piece. A genre scene of cupids and psyches in Oecus 1 of the House is considered particularly
masterful and unique.