When I first travelled to Pompeii as an undergrad, I had read all about it in my art history textbook and thought I had a handle on what to see and where to go (I had been elected official guide by my group of friends who I had dragged there with the pretext that it was near the Amalfi coast). Instead I was completely overwhelmed and admittedly, a little disappointed. Ok…I was a lot disappointed. I had imagined it full of artifacts, art, plaster casts of various things, with, of course, educational signage and helpful personnel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was so struck by how much was not there (based on what I had imagined in my head) that I couldn’t see the many things that were there.
So in this post, I want to take the opportunity for those of you who haven’t been or for those of you who have, but perhaps didn’t have an outstanding guide, no guide at all, or else just one of those generic guidebooks, to try and show you a glimmer of the magnificence of this incomparable site. Because the truth is that to the untrained eye (and under the blazing southern Italian sun), this magnificence can sometimes be a little hidden.
What I have learned now, however, thanks to these last few visits and some research of my own, is that not only are there many, many things of significance to see at Pompeii, but that the best things are not what you would necessarily expect and perhaps a little harder to see. These tend to be the things that really help our understanding and appreciation of the Roman World circa 79 AD and once you realize they’re there, they have the potential to change your entire experience.
So, without further ado, here are just a few of those wonderful details you don’t learn about in your average Art History survey course and that are not necessarily the easiest to see but are definitely easy to appreciate (warning: there will be discussion of toilets and materials that go into toilets so if you’re squeamish…well…get over it):
Water collection in general was always an important part of ancient life. Pompeii did not enjoy the benefit of a natural water supply. For your average citizen, the primary means of collecting water was literally built in to the Pompeian home or domus. A domus almost always included an atrium with an open-roof (compluvium) below which a small sunken pool, called the impluvium, collected rainwater. From there it was channeled into a tank below ground (essentially a private cistern) from which water could be drawn later. While you walk around the city you will notice many compluvia outfitted with decorative features – jugs or animals with dramatically open mouths pointing downward – that are both beautiful and functional as they help direct the water flow from the intentionally sloped roof into the impluvium.
To supplement the citizen’s own water supplies, the city of Pompeii was equipped with an elaborate system of lead pipes from which running water was delivered throughout the city. Let me take a moment here. Running water is still a luxury today in some parts of the world, but waaaaaaaay back in 1st century Pompeii, they had it. That’s just amazing. Moving on.
Perhaps forced to innovate due to the difficulty of digging wells (water table, earth quality, and cost issues), the city developed an elaborate system of lead pipes that collected water from an aqueduct and conducted it down into a communal cisterns that divided the resources amongst the various sectors of the city. We’re not talking just public fountains that were regularly refilled. We’re talking water that flowed right into peoples’ homes, that was controlled by faucets, and that, in some cases (using differing sized pipes to increase pressure) shot out of private family fountains. While the system’s main objective was to supply the public fountains scattered throughout the city (which you can still use to drink from today), pipes ushered this essential resource into businesses, public baths, and the homes of the super wealthy.
The water was controlled using water towers placed intermittently at various heights and the changing width of pipes all of which adjusted the pressure and helped deliver water throughout the city. Once it reached a domus the water would be controlled through a faucet system and, while it did not flow directly into sinks or toilets (don’t worry, we’re getting there), it could then be used and distributed throughout the house. The excess was collected in the impluvium and back into the family’s private cistern. Look carefully when you walk into some of the more luxurious domūs, businesses, or the bathhouses and you can see the original (original!) lead pipes running underground throughout the city.
2. Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene.
Ancient Romans had exceptionally high standards of hygiene. They took baths daily, and this included, women, slaves, and the poor. The wealthiest of the wealthy could afford to have private bathhouses as part of their domus, but everyone else took advantage of public thermal baths that could be found throughout the Roman world, including Pompeii.
Most bathhouses contained two sections (one for women and one for men), though at smaller facilities a single space could be separated by gender based the hours in which women could use the facilities and when men could. The bathhouses themselves are then divided into a series of rooms. First was the locker room or the apodyterium. These “dressing rooms” are often even equipped with cubbyholes for guests to leave their clothing. The second room was the first of three baths, the cold bath, called the frigidarium. This was followed by the warm bath, the tepidarium, and finally the hot bath or the calidarium.
Heat reached these rooms through a series of pipes that brought both hot water and hot air from a nearby furnace. The water flowed into the baths and the air flowed under the floors as well as through open cavities in the walls to keep the rooms continuously hot. When you visit the baths in Pompeii, in particular the newly renovated Stabian baths, notice how below you there are a series of stacked bricks. These piles were used to support the raised floor and create the area below that would be filled with hot air. This ingenious design is essential for the Roman bath system and the Stabian baths in Pompeii just happen to be the earliest known version.
In addition to these series of rooms, the bath could also come equipped with both outdoor and indoor spaces reserved exercise, public latrines (I know you just can’t wait to hear more), as well as gardens and other relaxing areas for socializing. The bathhouses were a vital part not only of the hygienic fabric of the city, but also of the social fabric since most Pompeians spent a few hours there each day.
3. Bathrooms, a.k.a party central
It would seem that along with bathhouses, bathrooms were also important social spaces in ancient Roman society. Yes, that’s right, bathrooms. These were places you went to, not with the intention of leaving as soon as physically possible, but rather where you would meet friends and chat, perhaps make plans for dinner. In the later empire there were as many as 144 public latrines in the city of Rome.
Now the important question was, is it #1 or #2?
Urine was an essential ingredient for the fullers (wool workers) of Pompeii. It was used in the process of cleaning wool, which typically involved slaves working the cloth while wading through human urine. Amazingly, this continues in the Renaissance. In Florence urine was an essential ingredient in dying wool as well as cleaning and thickening it, though they switched from human to animal urine for convenience sake (thank the lord!). In ancient Rome, however, urine was a hot commodity in cities like Pompeii. Urinals were essentially jugs that were regularly collected and sold to the fullers. Latrines on the other hand, were meant to be comfortable places where you could relax for a while. The public latrines in the theater district of Pompeii, for example, had several “seats” lined up along two walls, no doubt much closer together than our modern sensibilities would like, and without any divisions.
Let us once again take a moment to pause before we get too caught up. At this time, toilets were practically unheard of in the rest of the known world. Simply their existence in Pompeii was a luxury and a marvel. So I think we can deal with them having perhaps had a slightly different social use back then. Perhaps even if we were to note that toilets (and keep in mind I mean a wooden seat on a stack of bricks here) found in the homes of Pompeii were often found in the kitchens. The reason was not only the common water source, or ease of use for the chefs (wink), but also that the same provision could then be used for the disposal of other refuse as well.
While there was flowing water, as I mentioned before, this did not make its way to the toilets. Clean-up was made easier however by the sloping ground built in front of the toilet that, when washed with a bucket of water, cleared all waste down the slope into a drain that then flowed out into the street where it was washed away with other water and debris into communal cesspools. Those that did not have a toilet in their domus used pots, which were emptied into large vats kept under staircases and then eventually emptied into the streets. Luckily, the city has a natural incline and running water followed along the slope of the streets and left the city through outlets in the wall near the city gates. Which brings us to our final fun tidbit.
4. The bigger those steps, the better.
Unlike its neighbor, Herculaneum, Pompeii did not have an underground sewer. The debris that washed out of homes washed down the streets that acted as the drainage system. This was particularly troublesome during floods. Even on an average day though, your typical citizen was not likely to want to step down to cross the street. Now take a look at those odd blocks that occasionally cross the streets? These are not ruble from fallen building or placed by accident. These stones were pedestrian cross walks, allowing city goers to avoid the refuse. They were intelligently situated in such a way as to allow carriages to pass through without (too much) damage.
When we think of Pompeii it’s hard to do so without immediately thinking of Mount Vesuvius, the perpetrator of this tragic story. Photos of the site give a sense of the gravity of destruction that occurred. However, much of the damage you see in Pompeii has little to do with the volcano. Some of the visible damage comes from the lack of funds to properly protect the buildings and works of art from weathering and the effects of time. The greatest threat, however, is us. Second in annual tourism only to the coliseum, Pompeii suffers from extreme foot traffic from people like you and me. Especially with the lack of supervision, it is too easy to do damage to the city. Graffiti and name-carving can be seen throughout the site, causing any true lover of cultural heritage to despair. In another 100 years who’s to say what will be left? So while this post is meant to promote tourism (see it before it’s gone), do so respectfully, to make sure that people reading this post a century from now (as a different kind of archaeology) have something to see.
Want to learn more about the eruption itself? Check out this amazing resource that the British museum just put up for their current show on Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.