Art & Architecture of Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we'll explore evidence from Pompeii and Herculaneum's art and architecture that sheds light on Roman culture. We'll pay particular attention to public and private spaces, as well as the ways Greek and Egyptian art influenced the Romans.

Ancient Ruins of the Past and Future

We may bury time capsules to share information with the future, but the ruins of our cities will also speak volumes to them about our way of life. From architecture and art to politics and technology - when the archaeologists of the future excavate the ruins of New York City two thousand years from now, what might they expect to find? Skyscrapers of steel and glass. Museums full of artwork. Lots of malls. All of these artifacts we leave behind will teach those future excavators about what was important to us.

Flash back to 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius, a dominant volcano, unexpectedly erupted and captured the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in a layer of thick lava. When the ruins were discovered in the mid-18th century, archaeologists found evidence to support an interpretation of Roman life, architecture, art, and society at the height of the Empire.

Let's take a look at what remains of ancient Roman society.

Public Spaces

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum had large, central public spaces called fora (singular forum). These structures resemble the city squares you might find in any modern city, like New York's Washington Square Park, but Roman fora were rectangular in shape.

Forum of Pompeii, as illustrated by William Gell

The central space within the Forum was called the Comitium (open-air courtyard). It was flanked by a colonnade (columns lining the venue lengthwise from north to south), appointed with elegant statues of Greek and Roman Gods intermingled with those of great rulers.

The Forum was an all-purpose space for judicial, religious, and social occasions. It served as a political pulpit, a ceremonial space, and a marketplace all-in-one. Government buildings surrounded the Forum: a court of law, bank, and prison.

Almost as important as the Forum, the Basilica was also flanked by colonnades, built in a Hellenistic (traditional Greek) style. The main difference between the Forum and Basilica was that the latter had a roof. Originally the city marketplace, the Basilica was later converted into a court of law.

On the other side of the city, the Pompeiians built a great Amphitheater, the oldest in all of Italy. With seating for 240,000 spectators, it surpasses the length of a football stadium. In its day, it was a popular venue for gladiator fights, gambling, hunting, and other games.

Photograph of the ruins of the Pompeiian Amphitheater


The Temple of Jupiter was the most important in all of Pompeii because of its special location, lodged at the north end of the Forum. Pompeii's 10 temples are a hodgepodge of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman deities: Apollo (Greek), Isis (Egyptian), and Jupiter (Roman), to name just a few. Although no temples have yet to be found in Herculaneum, judging by its name, the city was probably named after the Greek demi-god Herakles (Hercules, to the Romans).

The Cult of Dionysus (later to transform into Bacchus under Roman occupation) also played a significant role in both cities. Romans praised the God of wine, grape harvest, and intoxication during festivities and orgies.

The Cult of Isis, Egyptian mother goddess, attracted those who were superstitious about the afterlife. Other relics devoted to Anubis (God of mummification and the afterlife) and Sarapis (God of abundance and resurrection) show the Egyptian influence on Roman culture.

Private Spaces

Social prestige in Pompeii and Herculaneum had a lot to do with the kind of home in which you lived. Those who would have been features in the Lives of the Rich & Famous lived in villas, which were opulent garden palaces. Most everyone else lived in basic homes, or else above shops.

The atrium style was dominant among the homes of ancient Rome. Guests entered from the vestibulum (vestibule, or entryway) into a central living space (also called an atrium). The only light came in from the peristyle, a central open-air courtyard. Otherwise, there were no windows on the exterior walls. The bedrooms and other anterior rooms set off from the atrium were adorned with bright and intricate murals or tile mosaics to compensate for the lack of windows.

Mosaic depicting Alexander the Great

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