Pompeii & Herculaneum: Economy, Politics & Social Structure

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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

Let's explore the rich abundance along ancient Rome's Italian Riviera. In this lesson, we will learn about the commercial, industrial, social, and political life in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Ancient Rome's Seaside Resort Towns

When Mount Vesuvius unexpectedly erupted in 79 A.D., the lava encased the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. From the architectural and archaeological evidence found in Italy's Campania region, historians have been able to reconstruct a picture of what these cities were like during the height of the Roman Empire.

In its heyday, the Bay of Naples was home to affluent tradesmen and politicians and sites of fertile agricultural and industrial production. Looking at the artifacts and visiting the ruins is one thing, but we can also gain a sense of the living history of Pompeii and Herculaneum by imagining a modern-day equivalent.

Imagine yourself vacationing in New England in the sultry summer months. You might compare Pompeii, the rich and active seaport town, to ritzy Newport, Rhode Island. In contrast, Herculaneum was low key. With less trade and industry than its sister city, the town was closer to a seaside resort with a prominent fishing industry. Nantucket?

Now, let's travel back in time to ancient Rome's seaside resorts!

Welcome to the Street of Abundance

Imagine walking down Pompeii's main drag, called the Via dell'Abbondanza (Street of Abundance). As a whole, the city had over 600 shops where residents could purchase produce, meat, bread, wine, and housewares. Artisans also operated private shops where Pompeiians could purchase goods ranging from masonry and carpentry to pottery and metalwork. Markets (the ancient Roman equivalent of a posh farmer's market) popped up in open spaces across the city.

Industry and Agriculture

Ancient Rome thrived off the grape, grain, olive, and wool industries. From these raw materials they produced wine, bread, olive oil, and textiles.

The many grape and olive vineyards in and around Pompeii and Herculaneum testify to the fact that wine was the major source of income in ancient Campania. They either pressed grapes in wooden torculariums or by hand (or feet). Wine and oil were stored in amphorae, two-handled, wide-mouthed clay vessels. In his Natural History, Pliny suggested a ten-year fermentation period and warned of the next-day hangover.

Olive oil was used for cooking and as the base ingredient in perfume. It was also sometimes used for lighting and as a massage oil. It was a less prodigious product than wine because it required more skill to produce.

Another key industry way in the production of garum, a fermented sauce made from fish. Like salsa in a Latin diet and gravy in southern cuisine, garum was used to flavor the otherwise bland diet of grains, meats, and vegetables. To produce it, a mixture of tuna, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies was left to ferment for up to three months.

Evidence from carbonized loaves indicates that bread was a staple food. Bakers had the job of processing flour. They used mills made from lava stone, but because they didn't use yeast, the loaves were dense and thick.

All clothing was made from wool. Once processed and spun, the yarn was sent to local laundries (fullonicae) for washing and dying. The workers, called fulleries, used a mixture of dirt, natural minerals, and urine (for ammonia) to process the raw yarn. Then, they would dye fabrics with saffron (yellow) and berries (purple).

Economic and Commercial Life

The economy in Pompeii and Herculaneum wasn't so much a matter of making a living. Many residents lived in the lap of luxury.

Import, Export, and Trade

Despite the city's fertile industries, Pompeii actually imported more goods than it exported. Pompeii, an abundant sea port, welcomed traders from across the Mediterranean with wine, pottery, olive oil, and foodstuffs. They also exported metalwork, wine, olive oil, and garum.

chart of Roman coins
roman coins

Ancient Romans most often carried copper pieces (like pennies, pictured here at the bottom left). Larger denominations came in bronze (sestertii), silver (denarii) and gold (aurei).

Social Hierarchies

The social structure in ancient Rome was highly segregated between the upper class (royals, politicians, military, and the wealthy) and the lower class (poor citizens and slaves).

Senators served in political office under the Emperor. They inherited their position based on their family's name, wealth, and notoriety. Military men, called equestrians, literally men who ride horses, also served the Emperor. But unlike the politicians, the Equestrians rose in their ranks based on merit and wealth, not inheritance.

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