The House of the Vettii in Historic Context

Background Relating to the House

The House of the Vettii is a relatively typical example of a home built during the Roman Period, and was located in one of the calmer parts of Pompeii. The house was owned by two relatives, Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva. Most historic works mention that they were both freedman of some sort. Mau notes that from an inscription it can be concluded that Conviva was part of the Brotherhood of Augustus. Clarke specifically notes, in reference to Conviva's augustalis state, that his name appears as such, on a tablet found in the House of Caecilius Iucundus.[18] Part of achieving such a status, as Clarke notes, was due to Conviva's large donation to a public works project. This information would indicate that the extravagance of the Vettii home was not only motivated by their interests in demonstrating their status, but also because they were in fact, genuinely wealthy. [2]

The House of the Vettii provides a detailed look into the transition that the city of Pompeii was undergoing in the mid-first century A.D. After a large earthquake in A.D. 62, recorded by Suetonis in his Life of Nero, many of the older elite families moved out of Pompeii to other towns. This wealth vacuum led to the rise of the "nouveau-riche", often wealthy freedmen pursuing power and stature [7].The Vettii brothers were a prime example of this new class that arrived in Pompeii with the earthquake rubble. The very fact that these two brothers were able to rise from the status of slaves to wealthy merchants speaks to the social mobility within their society. It is theorized that the Vettii brothers made their fortune as wine merchants and were then able to essentially purchase the elite status of freeborn aristocrats. [8] Along with the rise of the wealthy freedmen in Pompeii, a notable decline in moral standards was could be observed. This is evidenced by the graphic and sexual nature of the artwork that dominated the post-earthquake decorations. The House of the Vettii contains several such graphic paintings and sculptures. Many of these works also point to the double standard women were held to within this society; many paintings depict scenes of women as sexual objects being exploited, and even raped, by men and gods. At the same time, nude males and phallic symbols were held up as symbols of fertility and protection for the household. Graffiti found on the Vettii's house also indicates that prostitution was quite a common, and inexpensive, service in Pompeii at this time. [9] Also present in these house are paintings that express the desire of the nouveau rich to show off their new social position by depicting various mythological and cult images for their guests. The layout and orientation of this particular house also demonstrates the semi-public nature of Roman houses. While private rooms, such as the women's gynaeceum and the servant quarters, were present in the construction, several of the large entertaining rooms also served as places to conduct business.

Unique Features of the House

There are numerous ways which the house has added a variety of researchers in strengthening their academic assumptions. As Archer points out, some of the paintings in the house help provide incite on the transition between the Third and Fourth styles in paintings.

The house has also helped in presenting evidence for the influence of ancient Roman mural paintings on 14th century Christian murals. At one point in the article, Benton compares a specific work in the house, "The Punishment of Pentheus," with a Christian holy image. Many of the main features present in the Vettii work had been carried over to the more modern art.[4]

One more tangential feature of the house is its ability to assist in general discoveries about the society of Pompeii. In the early 1970s it was discovered that an area of Pompeii once contained a large vineyard. The project was geared to discovering what vegetation might have existed before Vesuvius erupted. After some digging a discovery was made that the cavities left in the soil by long decayed plant roots belonged to vines. Previously, there had been little concrete evidence of the presence of vineyards in ancient Rome. Once scientists knew about the existence of vineyards they were increasingly curious about the methods ancient Romans used to control the plants. The only sources that they could turn to are from ancient writings from individuals such as Pliny, who gives six methods. The House of the Vettii became a useful source in proving that Pompeians were aware of such methods. Of the many wall paintings featured in the house, one is of Cupids collecting grapes that were grown using one of the methods suggested, specifically on trees.[3]