Daily Life in Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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.

The ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were tragically destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. In this lesson, discover how archaeologists make sense of the Roman way of life from evidence found at the sites, and explore the daily life of an ancient Pompeiian.

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.

Natural Rhythms

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.

Roman toga and tunic

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.

Stone engraving in the Stabian Baths

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.

Garden painting (30-35 AD) from Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet

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.

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