Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.
An Unforeseeable Disaster
Just like when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, drowning New Orleans in a deluge, residents of Pompeii had little warning when Mount Vesuvius erupted. On the afternoon of August 24 in the year 79 A.D., the Roman cities of Pompeii and its sister city, Herculaneum, were engulfed in smoke and lava flow. Ever since the ruins were discovered in the mid-eighteenth century, archaeologists have devoted a great deal of energy toward preserving and researching the evidence that these sites hold for their insight into Roman culture and society.
Daily life in these cities rose and fell by the rhythm of the sun. By sunrise, city folk were already going about their business, street vendors selling their wares and shoppers perusing the stalls. The marketplace would have been a flurry of woolen or linen togas and colorful tunics. Men dressed in the simple togas, robes made of a single piece of cloth that hung loosely around the body, which were traditionally white; purple was reserved for upper-class men of distinction. Women wore stolas, long, colorful, sleeveless tunics that hung loosely from the shoulders.
In the afternoon, Romans often frequented the baths for a therapeutic spa. Bathing was a social activity. Archaeologists have discovered four thermae (public baths) in Pompeii and two in Herculaneum. The Stabian Baths in Pompeii are the oldest and largest in all of Rome, probably built in the 4th century B.C.
Men and women bathed in separate rooms of the complex. The ceilings and walls were decorated in tile mosaics, engravings, and artwork. Stone engravings depict cherubs and human figures riding on the backs of ocean creatures. Stucco murals also depict graphic images of men and women engaged in sexual acts.
Food, Wine, and Dining
Pompeiians usually returned indoors by sunset because streets were known to be unsafe at night. They began dinner, their most important meal of the day, at around 4 p.m.
Archaeologists have uncovered petrified seeds and pits, animal bones, fish bones, and shells, and even whole loaves of bread. This, along with artwork from the time, suggests that Pompeiians enjoyed a varied diet: meat, cheese, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and olives. Romans were also famous for a seafood delicacy called garum, a fermented seafood preparation of anchovies, mackerel, and shellfish, which was used as a sauce.
Many homes also featured a central garden, in which fig, olive, and cherry trees were planted. Murals depict these gardens, showing the rich diversity of cultivated fruit trees, vegetable plants, and fowl.
While lifestyles of the rich were decadent, slaves and poor folk subsisted on a diet of porridge and scraps. The slaves who prepared meals for the wealthier residents enjoyed a dinner of porridge in the kitchen while their masters dined lavishly.
Hygiene and Sanitation
Judging by the state of their kitchens and the process in which they prepared meals, Pompeiians followed a poor strategy of hygiene and sanitation. Only the wealthiest of homes had internal plumbing, toilets, and access to water. In houses that did have toilets, they were located in the kitchen. Residents frequented the numerous public fountains and public lavatories. Public fountains often obstructed roadways, suggesting that access to water was more important than ease of transportation.
Even though Pompeiians had a sophisticated aqueduct system, which syphoned fresh water from the nearby Sarno river, the pipes were made out of lead, and there is evidence that lead was used in cookware as well. By eating and drinking out of lead-based pots and pipes, the Romans were unknowingly poisoning themselves. We're inundated with warnings against lead today: only use unleaded gasoline, avoid lead-based paint, etc. But it wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that scientists discovered the toxic qualities of lead.
As mentioned before, evidence from archaeological sites suggests that the Pompeiians led a decadent lifestyle. The amphitheater, a later addition to the city following the Roman conqueror in 80 B.C., hosted performances, as well as athletic events including boxing, chariot racing, and gladiator games. Local gathering spaces, including the forum and the commercial avenues, were hot spots for drinking, gambling, and festivals.
Pompeiians frequented the shops and vendors on the Via dell'Abbondanza ('Street of Abundance'). The deep grooves in the pavement suggest that it was a highly trafficked, popular venue. The street was lined with wine shops, bakeries, and thermopolia (food carts). Archaeologists think that these fast food vendors sold bites-on-the-go, based on the discovery of petrified flatbread that looks a lot like pizza! To return to the comparison with New Orleans, you might imagine the old quarter of Pompeii along the 'Street of Abundance' as similar to the French Quarter, bustling with activity.
We can learn a lot about Roman daily life from the ruins and archeological artifacts in Pompeii and Herculaneum. For example, we know that the men and women wore togas and stolas based on the representations found in statues and paintings. Based on the gardens and wall murals depicting Pompeiian agriculture, we can make an educated guess about their diet and eating habits. Their varied Mediterranean diet featured a delectable fermented seafood sauce called garum.
Sanitation was also important to the Romans, based on the existence of thermae, aqueducts, and sewers. But even with this solid infrastructure, the Pompeiians suffered from poor hygiene. In particular, it has been uncovered that they were using lead pipes to transport their water, unwittingly poisoning themselves.
Maybe it was the wine, food, and entertainment a-plenty that kept their minds off their failing health. Along the Via dell'Abbondanza (Street of Abundance), Pompeiians could find any pleasure they desired.
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