The Bay of Naples has a dual nature in Roman archaeology. On the one hand, it was the richest part of Italy in the late republic (ca. 200–30 B.C.E.), Campania felix (“fortunate countryside”), an area that became rich in agriculture and commerce, an area where the villa culture of the senatorial Roman elite meant that the capital virtually moved there in the spring and fall, and the main conduit for Hellenistic Greek culture entering into Italy. On the other hand, the area preserved by the Vesuvian eruption of 79 C.E. reveals physical aspects of Roman culture which survived nowhere else.

Almost all of the material remains date to after 200 B.C.E. and before the 79 C.E. eruption of Vesuvius. Campania (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Nuceria, and Stabiae) had been Oscan-speaking and Naples had been Greek-speaking allies (socii) of Rome since the conquest in the mid-third century B.C.E. (ca. 295–265 B.C.E.). With the Roman conquest of Greece (201–145 B.C.E.) wealth came flooding into Campania since allies shared in the booty (manubiae) coming from conquest and the wealth accumulated by Campanian merchants working on the new international emporium established on Delos when it became a free port after 166 B.C.E.

Geology, Agriculture, and the Eruption of 79 C.E.

Campania was famous in antiquity for its natural beauty, mild climate, and highly productive soil and sea. The main plain of Campania is framed by the limestone uplift of the mountains of the Sorrento-Amalfi peninsula to the south (ancient Monti Lactari), the Appenines to the northeast, and the mountains at the border with southern Latium (modern Lazio) to the northwest. Tectonic plate fissures produced Vesuvius in the center of the plain and another well-known volcanic region to the north of Naples, the collapsed calderas of the Phlegraean Fields around Puteolis (modern Pozzuoli) and part of the island of Ischia. The volcanic soil of the alluvial plain is famously rich and can produce three or four crops a year. Some of the most famous wines known in antiquity come from the region (e.g., the Caecuban from north of Naples and the Falernian from the foothills to the east). Major crops from around Pompeii were wine, olive oil, and specialty onions.

The volcanic areas of Campania were closely linked in antiquity to beliefs about the location of the entrance to the underworld. In Virgil’s Aeneid the Cumaean sibyl, who lives in a grotto near the Greek colony of Cumae north of Naples, was Aeneas’s guide during his descent to the underworld. In Homer’s Odyssey the Laestrygonian giants, who hurled rocks at Odysseus’s ships (a clear reference to volcanic activity), inhabited the Phlegraean Fields and after their defeat by the Olympian gods were buried there. The giants’ attempts to escape were supposed to have caused the visible volcanic activity, which continues in the twenty-first century.

Vesuvius is a relatively recent volcano (first eruption of the part called Somma, the outer crater, ca. 25,000 B.C.E.). The “Plinian” eruption of 79 C.E. has become definitive for the geological analysis of pyroclastic eruptions (explosive eruptions with cinders, ash, and surges but no lava) because of the famous description by Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus (Ep. 6.16, 6.20). The description is probably based on the notes from the eyewitness account of his uncle Pliny the Elder, who was the “equestrian” (the second social order after the ordo senatorius) fleet commander at Misenum, north of Naples, and who took a ship and attempted to land at Herculaneum to save friends. Floating mats of cinders and contrary wind drove him to nearby Stabiae, where he spent the night in a villa and died the next morning on the beach when the last pyroclastic surge raced down from 10.6 miles (17 km) away across the bay to hit Stabiae. After the eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington, in 1980, an hour-by-hour account was worked out by H. Sigurdsson and colleagues combining the account from the Plinys with stratigraphic observations around Vesuvius (Sigurdsson et al., 1982). A precursor to that eruption occurred on 5 February 62 C.E.; and considerable damage was done in Pompeii. There was another in 64 C.E., when Emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.) was in Naples starting his tour as an “artist” and shortly after he probably visited Pompeii with his wife Poppaea, whose family was from nearby Oplontis. The aqueduct may have been cut in the 62 C.E. earthquake (although the archaeological evidence may indicate only ongoing repairs), and repairs were still under way all over the area in 79 C.E.

The date of the eruption has commonly been assumed to be 24 August, but evidence points to 24 October or 23 November as the more likely date, partly because of a coin clearly dated to after 4 September, found in Pompeii, and the facts that the vintage was sealed and the fruits found in Pompeii and Herculaneum are those of late fall.

The eruption lasted from about noon until about 8:00 A.M. the following day. It sent a column of ash and cinders (lapilli) 4.3 miles (7 km) high, which created a spreading cloud that resembled a Mediterranean pine and rained ash and lapilli at a rate of about 7.9 inches (20 cm) an hour. When the cloud collapsed, the first time around midnight, it created rolling clouds of hot gases and dust moving at 100-plus mph (161 km/hour, pyroclastic surge) followed by fast-moving masses of ash, dust, and lapilli surging down the gullies at lesser speeds but depositing huge masses of volcanic matter (pyroclastic flow).


The character of burial is very different in different places. At Pompeii loose cinders and ash fell, and people died of asphyxiation; when the fourth and fifth pyroclastic surges hit the city about 4:00 A.M. citizens not asphyxiated were traumatized and frozen in position by a subsequent fall of ash, which preserved their fatal contortions. In Herculaneum, which is closer to the volcano, the city was buried by pyroclastic flow, a mudlike mix of hot ash and cinder that moves more slowly than surge and hardens like rock. It carbonizes rather than burns wood. As a result, body cavities were found in Pompeii after the bodies decayed inside packed ash. but wood was rarely found. In Herculaneum body flesh was destroyed by the hot flow, but wood and other fragile materials were excellently preserved. At Stabiae farther away only lapilli fell, so buildings and root cavities were excellently preserved but wood and body cavities were not.

Excavation in the area began seriously only in 1738 at Herculaneum, although chance encounters had occurred in 1595 to 1600 when the pope’s engineer, Domenico Fontana, dug a canal that cut through parts of Pompeii and 1710 to 1716 when the Duc d’Elboeuf extracted sculptures from the bottom of a well shaft that later proved to be from the theater of Pompeii. The excavations started at Herculaneum in 1738, in Pompeii in 1748, and at Stabiae in 1749 under Charles VII of Naples (later Charles III of Spain, r. 1759–1788) and his military engineers, the Spaniard Joachim de Alcubierre and the Swiss Karl Weber; these were conducted largely to extract artworks and sections of frescoes to serve as part of the collection and decoration for the new royal palaces.

Weber was perhaps the first archaeologist to accurately record findspots and to execute remarkably accurate plans in the difficult circumstances of subterranean excavation. Excavations at Herculaneum were conducted in deep, narrow tunnels some 32.8 to 65.6 ft (10–20 m) beneath the surface, following walls, and caused numerous health problems and deaths, eventually including Weber’s, as a result of fumes redolent since the eruption. At Pompeii excavation was conducted in open trenches, which tended to clear whole rooms; and at the villas of Stabiae excavations were conducted in a combination of open trenches and tunnels following the walls before the site was totally backfilled and forgotten after 1783. Most of the finds of this period are housed in the royal museum, now the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Excavations continued at both Herculaneum and Pompeii throughout the nineteenth century, and only in the early twentieth century were the excavations at Herculaneum expanded from tunnels to huge trenches, which exposed whole buildings to the open air. A significant development in the nineteenth century was the technique of filling the body voids in the ash in Pompeii with plaster of Paris, developed by the then superintendent, Giuseppe Fiorelli.

History and Urbanism: Pompeii.

The inland native people of the area were Campanians, Oscans, and Samnites, all of whom apparently were Oscan-speaking variants of one ethnic group that developed different identities in different areas.

Etruscan, Greek, and Oscan settlements of Pompeii to ca. 350 B.C.E.

The early history of the area begins shortly after about 800 B.C.E. with the first arrival of Etruscans at Capua, the main Etruscan city of the area. Greeks, seeking trading posts, arrived at Pithekoussai on Ischia as early as 770 B.C.E.; in ca. 750 B.C.E. they founded nearby Capua on the coast north of Naples and the Phlegraean Fields and in ca. 700–650 B.C.E., the first city of Naples, Parthenope, a rocky promontory and small offshore island. In 532 B.C.E. the Greek city of Dikaiarcheia (later Puteolis) was founded near the Phlegraean Fields on the excellent harbor of the Bay of Baiae. About 475 B.C.E. the much larger city of Naples proper (Neapolis, lit. “New Town”) was laid out on a grid with three or four broad east–west streets and numerous narrow north–south streets framing long, narrow blocks typical of Greek planning, which can be perceived in the street grid of modern Naples in the twenty-first century. Nuceria (modern Nocera) to the east of Pompeii developed into the main Oscan inland center in the region.

Pompeii seems to have been founded in the later seventh century B.C.E., primarily by Etruscans, as a small-scale trading colony. It lies on a low volcanic spur where the Sarnus River meets the sea. It may have superseded nearby Stabiae, whose cemeteries show grave goods from ca. 700 B.C.E., as a trading post because of its better port or its better access to inland centers like Nuceria. A Greek presence made itself felt in Pompeii shortly as is shown by the very early small peripteral Doric temple built in the so-called Triangular Forum on the southern edge of the city, which was highly visible from the Sarno River and port. It was probably dedicated to Athena (Latin Minerva) and Herakles (Latin Hercules), one of the gods of safe arrival and, hence, a protector of seafarers, based on terra-cotta antefixes from a fourth-century renovation. The temple, or sacred area, to Apollo, a Greek cult, lay next to the later Forum and was apparently also sixth century B.C.E. in its first form, judging by votive offerings, although initially it may have been dedicated to Ceres with Apollo worshipped as a secondary divinity from the roof revetment.

The urban development of early Pompeii is a hotly debated topic since analysis of the various street grids suggests that the oldest part of the town, containing the Triangular Forum, the Temple of Apollo, and the later Forum, seems to have been the southeast corner, laid out on a loose grid with small, square city blocks. But sixth-century B.C.E. material seems to follow the whole circuit of the city walls and has been found associated with constructions inside that are associated with the alignment of presumed later streets. Most likely the entirety of what was the later area of the city was enclosed in a wall shortly after the foundation of the “old town,” but the wall was not necessarily a true defensive wall. The three principal streets of the later town (the two east–west streets, modern names Via di Nola and Via dell’Abbondanza, and one north–south street, Via Stabiana) were laid outside the “old town” in the sixth century B.C.E., and the neighborhoods gradually filled in with grids of differing proportions but aligned with these streets. The areas to the north and west of the old city probably began to fill in the “Samnite” period of the later third and second centuries B.C.E., but part of Pompeii, particularly in the southeast corner, remained open vineyards until the time of the eruption. That is probably why the amphitheater and large palaestra (training ground for sports such as wrestling) were built there in the first century B.C.E.: it was still open area within the walls. Much of the area within the walls of the early city therefore probably served as a place of refuge for the rural population in times of siege.

Samnite period, ca. 350–80 B.C.E.

The Etrusco–Greek trading post seems to have come to an abrupt halt for over a century after ca. 470 B.C.E. and may have been abandoned or reduced to a hamlet, possibly as a result of a decline of Etruscan influence after their defeat by Greeks from Cumae and Syracuse at the battle of Cumae in 474 B.C.E. In the later fourth century B.C.E. Oscan-speaking Samnites, originally a nonurban culture, advanced from inland and gradually took over Greek and Etruscan centers throughout Campania. They took over Etruscan Capua in 424 B.C.E. and Greek Cumae in 421 B.C.E. and seem to have established a modest settlement in Pompeii by ca. 350 B.C.E. Only Greek Naples seems to have resisted successfully. In ca. 300–275 B.C.E. Pompeii was surrounded by a defensive wall of Sarno limestone and seems to have developed rapidly in the later third or early second century B.C.E. as an Oscan-speaking Samnite center, as did all the rest of the area with the expansion of Rome into the Greek east and the establishment of the free port at Delos in 166 B.C.E.

Naples continued as a thoroughly Greek city, the only one not “Oscanized,” and was prized by Roman aristocrats as a city where they could indulge in elite aspects of Greek culture such as philosophy, rhetoric, literature, art, drama, music, and cuisine. However, the major city in the area was not Naples but Puteolis, a refounding of Greek Dikaiarcheia in 194 as a Roman colony. It quickly became the major port of Rome, a city full of ships bearing Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and North Africans, and survived as such until the first century C.E., when it was overtaken by Ostia as the major port of Rome.

Archaeologists refer to the period following 80 B.C.E. as “Roman” because of the planting of the Roman colony in that year, but strictly speaking Pompeii had been part of Rome since the final conquest of Etruria and southern Italy, ca. 280–264 B.C.E. It had become an ally with citizenship without the vote (civitas sine suffragio), and therefore all the major growth of the Samnite period occurred while it was within the orbit of Rome. The elite moved and traded freely with Rome.

Rome generally did not impose its culture, laws, or language on conquered allies in the second century; but there was an increasing culture of shared forms, such as the atrium house, a form common from Campania to Etruria. It was common for Campanians who dealt with Rome, even those of the laboring class, to be bilingual or even trilingual (Latin, Greek, and Oscan). The creep of Roman culture was slow but steady until the Social War of ca. 90 B.C.E. Puteolis applied to the Senate in 167 B.C.E. for the “right” to make Latin the principal language of commerce and government. The major change occurred after the Social War (91–89 B.C.E.). Oscan gradually fell out of use and seems to have vanished almost completely by the time of the Vesuvian eruption.

A great deal of building occurred during the burst of prosperity of the second half of the second century B.C.E. Pompeii developed the amenities of a hellenized urban center: theater (the Large Theater), palaestra (the one behind the theater), baths with another palaestra (Stabian Baths), rebuilding the Temple of Apollo, a basilica, and the transformation of the Forum into a proper urban space, paved and surrounded by porticoes and with a temple to Jupiter Maximus axially placed on the north end. The Temple of Apollo appears to have received a donation of artwork from L. Mummius, the general who sacked Carthage in 145 B.C.E. The elite, the municipales (the merchants who also served on the municipal council as decuriones, councillors), built palace-like mansions, which added Greek-like peristyle gardens to their atrium houses. The largest mansion in Pompeii, the House of the Faun, dated ca. 150 B.C.E., has two atria and two Greek-style palatial peristyle courtyards and is larger than any known Hellenistic palace (43,055.6 ft2 [4,000 m2]).

The Roman colony.

The Social War between Rome and its Italian allies (socii) erupted in 91–89 B.C.E. as Italian allies fought, oddly enough, not for independence (except for the nonurban, mountain-dwelling Samnites) but for the vote as full Roman citizens and a larger share of war booty. Most of Campania went pro-Samnite League. Herculaneum fell after a short siege, and Pompeii was besieged by L. Cornelius Sulla, legate (subordinate commander) to the consul Cn. Pompeius Strabo, who razed the small town of Stabiae on 30 April 89 B.C.E. It thereafter quickly became a center of elite sea-view villas. In 80 B.C.E. Sulla, now as dictator after his return from the Mithradatic wars in 82 B.C.E., imposed a colony of approximately 4,000 veterans on Pompeii. One of the three senatorial curators who founded the colony (tresviri coloniae deducendae) was probably his nephew P. Cornelius Sulla. The colony may have put outsiders in privileged positions, but Oscan families seemed largely to have retained their positions.

One of the major events of the next decades was the Spartacus slave revolt of 72–71 B.C.E., which broke out at Capua. The slave army at first hid on the peaks of Vesuvius and escaped to defeat two Roman consular armies before being defeated and executed by M. Licinius Crassus.

It is debated whether some of the buildings of the late Samnite period (the Basilica, the Forum colonnades) were built in the Samnite period or by the colony. The colony clearly built the amphitheater, probably the oldest known permanent Roman amphitheater, supported by two colonists, M. Porcius and Q. Valgus; and the Temple of Jupiter in the Forum was transformed into a Capitolium after the model of the temple in Rome, with a triple dedication to Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno.

A major phenomenon of the first century B.C.E. in the entire Bay of Naples was the explosive development of the elite culture of enormous senatorial seaside villas (villae maritimae). In the spring and fall months of the supposed senatorial holidays the capital virtually moved from Rome to Campania, and in 27 C.E. Emperor Tiberius (r. 14–37 C.E.) moved to his villa on Capri and never returned. The center of this political villa culture was north of Naples at Misenum, Cumae, Baiae, and Puteolis; but the only place where a string of such sea-view villas is preserved in the archaeological record is Stabiae, 2.5 miles (4 km) from Pompeii. Many members of the senatorial order of Rome had secondary villas in the area of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Cicero had one at Pompeii, which he liked because nobody bothered him there.

Augustus and the Imperial period, ca. 30 B.C.E.–70 C.E.

With the end of the civil wars the upper class of Pompeii and Herculaneum threw themselves into a vigorous building campaign of public and private projects as well as private mansions, more or less in sincere imitation of the work of Augustus (r. 29 B.C.E.–14 C.E.) and Livia, who worked to create a classicizing, nontriumphal art that celebrated peace and prosperity. The Capitolium and Temple of Venus were renovated. M. Holconius Rufus, probably the most influential citizen of the period, who had connections to the Augustan court, and his brother, M. Holconius Celer, rebuilt the Large Theater in Marble. North of the Forum a temple to the Fortuna Augusti was funded in 3 C.E. by M. Tullius and built on his property with approval of the city council.

In the following decades the entire east side of the Forum was rebuilt as a series of multifunctional public structures dedicated to the imperial cult. The character of the Forum was considerably transformed. Female patrons were prominent. The colonnades were rebuilt. In the Augustan period on the east side, Mamia, a wealthy woman and priestess (Rome had few professional priests or priestesses; they were usually members of the local elite, as were the senators in Rome), built a temple in a courtyard, also from her own funds and on her own land, to the genius Augusti; another wealthy woman and public priestess, Eumachia, built a large elegant courtyard of uncertain function. Later in the reign of Claudius (r. 41–54 C.E.) on the north end of the east side of the Forum, the Macellum (meat market with round building for fish in the middle and a shrine to the imperial cult) was rebuilt. Between it and the temple of Augustus another courtyard building was built, probably late in the reign of Nero or Vespasian (r. 69–79 C.E.).

These buildings meant that almost all shops (except the Macellum) had been eliminated from the Forum and replaced by four monumental, open courtyard buildings in part dedicated to the spirit of the imperial cult (including the Macellum, which had a shrine to the emperor on one side). Hence, the Forum was transformed into an almost completely ceremonial space and even cut off from horse and cart traffic. The large courtyard buildings dedicated to the imperial cult were also probably multifunctional gathering places for groups such as the augustales (freedman priests who oversaw the worship of Rome and the genius of the emperor) and perhaps for trade guilds such as the fullers.

A significant feature of the elite domestic architecture period was that the city walls of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae went out of use with the arrival of the Augustan Peace, and luxurious townhouse properties with panoramic views, which resemble the great villae maritimae of the previous two generations, were built over the walls on the sea-view side. They tended to be long, narrow plots with a narrow end facing the view with panoramic entertainment rooms, often with views to the sea in front and the mountains to the rear. The most influential patron and politician in the Vesuvian area was probably M. Nonius Balbus of Herculaneum, originally of Nuceria. He built a large mansion on the recently out-of-use city wall of Herculaneum, probably connected the adjacent Suburban Baths built just outside the walls on the beach, and heavily rebuilt several civic buildings.

The last years of Pompeii and Herculaneum after the earthquake of 62 C.E. have received various interpretations. Some of the smaller temples, like that to Isis, were quickly rebuilt, while the Capitolium and Temple of Venus were just beginning repairs at the time of the eruption. Amedeo Maiuri, the longtime superintendent of the Pompeii site from 1924 to 1961, saw a period of decline with great mansions split up into industrial establishments and humble dwellings. Others have also suggested a decline in enthusiasm for the state religion in favor of the more intimate religions of personal salvation, like that of Isis. Other interpretations have seen a shift from the marketing of agricultural products to a more complex mixed industrial–commercial economy in the period, and although some mansions were industrialized, others were restored and expanded. In general, the economy seems to have intensified and developed from limited industry solving local demands to one which could do so better but also develop significant export industries, such as cloth preparation and wine production.

A significant aspect of the first-century C.E. culture was the social fluidity of the elite. A large number of the new wealthy were freedmen, who gained citizenship but could not participate in politics; and they were eager to promote their social status and that of their sons, who could become fully fledged councillors in the town government.

Government and Social Status.

Even before the Roman conquest in the third century B.C.E. Latin and Samnite areas seem to have had very similar types of town governments, where essentially independent town governments consisted of an elected town council and two annual magistrates (in Samnite, meddix, -kes). In later Pompeii the council (Latin ordo decurionem) was elected by voters (the comitium), who were enfranchised largely according to wealth. Magistrates were elected from this group by the comitium in March in “colleges” of two and began serving a one-year term in July. There are numerous election graffiti on shop and house fronts from the last years of the city (62–79 C.E.), 7 percent of which are signed by women. The principal magistrates were the two aediles, who managed religious games and maintained buildings, streets, temples and markets; the duumviri, the equivalent of consuls in Rome, the senior magistrates responsible for courts; and the quinquennales, the equivalent of censors, elected from former duumviri once every five years to review the role of members of the ordo decurionem. Once elected as aediles one was a member for life. Other members could be appointed by the duumviri or co-opted by the comitium. There was a property qualification, but it is not known what it was; there was a minimum age requirement of 25, though exceptions are known; and of course, one had to be male freeborn, not a freedman.

Judging by a much later inscription from Canusium, the council may have numbered about 100. With only two aediles elected per year, a large percentage would have been co-opted by vote of the council. Membership was a much sought-after mark of prestige and must have included most of the prominent local businessmen, including even fullers. Once elected, particularly to a magistracy, one was expected to provide considerable funding to support building projects and games beyond the budget provided by the city. Much less is known of these men than of the senators in Rome, but mainly through inscriptions the careers of some are partly visible.

Two very early prominent members of the colony were the duumviri who let contracts for the small theater (teatrum tectum): C. Quinctius Valgus, a wealthy Sullan partisan known to have endowed two other towns, and M. Porcius, who appears on other monuments. The most influential citizens of the Augustan period were M. Holonius Rufus and his brother M. Holconius Celer. Together they sponsored modifications to the large theater and other projects. Rufus was duumvir at least five times, quinquennalis twice, and the first priest of Augustus. At least two public statues were erected in his honor. Celer was duumvir and quinquennalis by 15 C.E. and succeeded his brother as priest of Augustus (the cult whose building was sponsored by the lady Mamia). Members of the family of the Holconii, or freedmen bearing their name, are prominent until the eruption. An interesting attempt of a freedman to move his family into politics is shown by the inscription which shows that one Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, a freedman of the Popidii, funded the reconstruction of the Temple of Isis after the earthquake of 62 C.E. in the name of his 6-year-old son, Numerius Popidius Celsinus, which resulted in the 6-year-old’s being co-opted into the ordo decurionum.

With the arrival of citizenship to all of Italy in 89 B.C.E. local town councillors had a choice of political career. They could remain in the municipal government or take the risk of running for election to the Senate in Rome as quaestor or tribune. Very few did. M. Nonius Balbus, a major patron of Herculaneum, is the only known senator from the area; and there are apparently no known equestrians (equestres, knights). These men were more or less in their local government the equivalent of senators at Rome, and senators in Rome were in fact town councillors, with the significant exception that the local “municipals” not only operated at a smaller scale but also did not deal with military matters or foreign relations, even with neighboring towns. Those matters were handled exclusively by the Senate in Rome. This “municipal” class mingled freely with the Roman senatorial elite, most of whom had villas in the Bay of Naples; and they cultivated relationships with them. Cicero had several trusted friends among the local elite, one of the closest being M. Marius, who had a villa close to Cicero’s in Pompeii; but Cicero noted also that often he felt that these municipales had a relatively narrow frame of reference, they being interested mainly in business and not larger issues of state or philosophy (Att. 12.14.3).


There is very little physical evidence in Pompeii and Herculaneum of the worship of divinities other than Apollo, Hercules, and Minerva/Athena before the later fourth century B.C.E. The divinities known from the last three centuries B.C.E. are almost all Latin-named or Latinized Greek–named (e.g., Apollo), although Samnite divinities were easily assimilated to Latin ones (e.g., the Samnite goddess of love Mephitis is equivalent to Venus, and she may have had a temple which preceded the temple of Venus of 80 B.C.E.). This attests to the high degree of commonality between Oscan Campanian culture and Roman culture during the so-called Samnite period, long before the Roman colony of 80 B.C.E. This was due partly to the existence of underlying similarities between Latin and Oscan/Samnite culture (the languages are closely related) and partly to Pompeii’s being an ally of Rome after the conquest of ca. 280–264 B.C.E. and therefore substantially within its cultural orbit, even though municipal government was highly independent in all matters other than diplomatic and military affairs.

Traditional religion, public and private.

The main function of traditional Roman religion was the guaranteeing of prosperity and security, and the core of Roman religion was the domestic worship of the household gods, which is vividly attested at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The principal household divinities were the lares, apparently originally rural divinities brought into the house to protect vital prosperity. They were depicted as two young men with short tunics carrying signs of plenty (a patera [a saucer-like vessel used for drinking or in libation rituals], a drinking horn, or a cornucopia). There were also the penates, apparently protectors of the larder (penus). The third and fourth were the genius (divine sprit) of the family line of the paterfamilias (male head of household), often represented together with the lares as a serpent, and Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Most houses had a private shrine to the lares, the lararium, of which there are some 300 in Pompeii. For larger houses some were in the form of a small columnar shrine on a podium, usually in the atrium; for smaller houses they were nearer the kitchen, with some being only a niche or a painting on the wall. Sometimes they closed an axial view in the peristyle garden. Offerings included eggs, pinecones, and fruit, all symbols of fertility; and all significant family events and the regular rhythm of the day included prayers and offerings to the lares and penates.

Pious households would make offerings of wine, spelt, and honeycakes on the Kalends, Nones, and Ides (first, seventh or ninth, thirteenth or fifteenth days) of each month. Parts of every meal were offered to the hearth. The spirit of the paterfamilias was usually worshipped by a special banquet and the sacrifice of a pig on significant days, such as his birthday, his marriage day or when his son assumed the toga virilis (white toga symbolizing manhood). Many households would have small shrines with statuettes of those public divinities which were particularly favored by the household. Venus and Dionysus/Bacchus were by far the most common in Pompeian houses, followed by Hercules, Mercury, and Isis. Many households had an image of a patron deity at the entrance to the house, including apotropaic, ithyphallic Priapus figures. Ancestor worship, or reverence, was standard; and families would go out of the town to the family tombs on various occasions in the year (e.g., ancestors’ natal days and during the festival of the Parentalia in the third week in February) to make offerings of incense, flowers, or wine and share a ritual meal. Many tombs in Pompeii are equipped with precinct parapets and dining couches of masonry (e.g., that of Gnaeus Vibius Saturninus on the Via Dei Sepolcri). The term familia in Latin refers to all the inhabitants of a household, slaves and free; and household worship included the family proper and all its slaves together.

A public cult related to the domestic lares and penates was the lares compitales (lit. “lares of the crossroads,” “compita” or neighborhoods). There are some 30 known shrines and altars of compitalia in Pompeii, some substantial structures with relief sculptures and others only paintings. They were managed by small boards of vicomagistri (neighborhood committees), often only two men, free or freedmen, appointed for a year by the decuriones, who carried out sacrifices at the compita, especially during the festival of the compitalia at the turn of the year. They also functioned as something like a neighborhood watch committee.

The major public cults were meant to guarantee public prosperity and security in exactly the same way as did domestic worship, and public temples were maintained by the town council just as did the Senate in Rome. The priests and priestesses were virtually always members of the social elite (usually the same town councillors) and almost never professionals. Holding a public priesthood was a major mark of status.

No temples have been found in Herculaneum except the two small temples of the Augustan period on the harbor mole, but the major temples in Pompeii were clustered around the southeast corner, the main public zone of the city which contained the Forum and theater. Of the two oldest temples dating to the Etrusco–Greek period of the sixth century B.C.E., the Doric temple overlooking the river and harbor seemed to continue in use, and the sanctuary of Apollo was heavily rebuilt in the later second century B.C.E. and surrounded by a double colonnade. At approximately the same time (ca. 150–120 B.C.E.) the Forum was transformed into a monumental space with two-story colonnades, and a podium temple was built at the north end, presumably dedicated to Jupiter. A basilica and government offices at the south end were built ca. 100–80 B.C.E., although there is some debate as to whether this, like the rebuilding of the Jupiter temple, occurred before or after the Roman colony of 80 B.C.E. There was also a very small temple behind the large theater, once thought to have been dedicated to Jupiter Meilichios but later thought to be dedicated to Aesculapius.

Next to it a very unconventional sanctuary was built to Isis, which, along with one known from Puteolis, is one of the oldest in Italy, dating initially to the late second century B.C.E. and rebuilt after 62 C.E. It consists of a courtyard with an unusually wide, small temple and a fenced subterranean ablution chamber and is behind a general assembly hall (ekklesiasterion). Three extramural temples are known: one to Dionysus at Sant’Abbondio, one to Neptune in the seaside hamlet at Bottaro at the mouth of the Sarno, and one more likely to be identified as Zeus Meilichios. There was probably also an unknown temple to Cybele and almost certainly one to Cybele, unidentified, in Herculaneum.

Changes to public religion under Sulla and Augustus.

Substantial changes to public religion came with the Sullan colony of 80 B.C.E. when the Forum temple was transformed into a Capitolium on the model of Rome’s principal protecting temple, that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Best and Greatest), with three cellas (chambers) dedicated to the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. This was an assertive statement that Pompeii was under Rome’s primary protection. The other great change was the construction of a temple of Venus on a huge platform at the southeast corner of the city. The city itself had been renamed after L. Cornelius Sulla’s favorite divinity, Venus Victrix (“bringer of victory”), as “Colonia Veneria Cornelia”; but the cult became known as Venus Pompeiana. Venus Pompeiana, as a protector of arrivals and seafarers, portrayed in purple robes with a cupid and a rudder, became a favorite image in the city on storefronts and in dining rooms. Being at the southeast corner of the city made it the most prominent temple facing the sea.

Other substantial changes to public religion came in the reign of Augustus. The local elite, including some prominent female patrons, plunged vigorously into building and participating in new cults, in part out of sincere relief and enthusiasm for the end of the two generations of civil strife and in part because their support of the new regime at a local level would enhance their local prestige. Just as the local elite socialized with Roman senators, so also were they eager to develop and publicize the suggestion that they had connections with the new imperial family in Rome.

Augustus supposedly resisted being worshipped as divine, but the way around it during his reign was to dedicate a temple to the Genius or Fortune of Augustus. This approach was familiar and parallel to the custom of the family worshipping the genius of the paterfamilias. One of Augustus’s new official titles was pater patriae (a title, literally “father of the country,” awarded semiofficially earlier by the Senate to heroes of the republic, like Cicero). The temple to Fortuna Augusta north of the Forum, dedicated in 3 C.E. by three-time duumvir, quinquennalis, and augur M. Tullius, contained his statue and those of some of his family members in the cella. He was later honored by a tomb outside the Stabian gate. The date is significant because the previous year Augustus’s grandson, L. Caesar, had died and in the same year his other grandson and principal heir received what was to prove a fatal wound. Augustus attributed the reversal to bitter fortune. The temple was administered by a new college of ministri (servers) who were drawn from slaves and freedman appointed by the ordo decurionem.

The lady and priestess Mamia built what was probably the sanctuary to the genius Augusti; the first priest was M. Holconius Rufus, and the second was his brother, M. Holconius Celer. Eumachia, a wealthy widow, dedicated her huge complex in her name and that of her son, M. Numistrius Fronto, clearly in imitation of the Porticus Livia dedicated in 7 B.C.E. in Rome in the name of Empress Livia and her son Tiberius. It was dedicated to Pietas (devotion or piety) and Concordia Augusta (harmony), who embodied the virtues appropriate to the imperial family.

The last building in the Forum was the one built next to the Macellum, sometimes thought to be a temple to the public lares but more likely to the familia divina of the Flavians. In Pompeii Augustus, Claudius, and Nero all had priests, as did Agrippina, Nero’s mother, and Empress Livia, all chosen from the aristocracy of the city. They were assisted by a new college of wealthy freedmen created Italy-wide by Augustus called augustales, who celebrated the emperor with festivals and banquets and were appointed by the town council. The college of the augustales was also very well attested at Herculaneum, where their headquarters are preserved in an atrium-like building with a raised central roof like a small basilica, built next to the so-called basilica and across the street from an open colonnaded court built in the reign of Claudius. The latter was comparable to the Eumachia building in Pompeii and featured several statues of members of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, but it was paid for by an augustalis, a freedman.

There was one further change, which was dictated from Rome. The cult of the lares compitales was revised by order of the Senate in 7 B.C.E., which dictated that the genius Augusti should also be worshipped together with the lares compitales. Four of the 30 preserved in Pompeii show this change, with Augustus being shown sacrificing together with two freedmen vicomagistri (neighborhood leaders) and sometimes two slave ministri (assistants). In this manner the Augustan reforms brought even the lowest levels of society into socially important roles. They were even allowed to wear the toga praetexta (purple-bordered toga) otherwise reserved for upper-level senators in Rome. In 30 B.C.E. the Senate decreed that offerings of undiluted wine must be made to the emperor at all public and private banquets, thus making the imperial cult part of private worship.

Foreign religions and mystery cults.

There were also considerable changes in private religious practice in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the last two centuries B.C.E., which underline the ease with which new and foreign cults could officially and unofficially be assimilated into Roman culture. One trend, which is debatable, is the apparent rise of religions of personal spirituality or salvation and the decline of public or traditional cults. Votive dedications at sanctuaries virtually ceased by the late first century B.C.E., and the temple of Isis was rapidly rebuilt between 62 and 79 C.E., while the Capitolium and temple of Venus reconstructions (albeit projects at a much larger scale) still lingered at the time of the eruption. On the other hand, at Pompeii a large percentage of the population consisted of displaced persons, and the traditional cults may have had less value for them.

The introduction of foreign cults was a natural result of intensified trade with the eastern Mediterranean after 166 B.C.E. Puteolis was the main conduit, with the Isis cult being established in the late second century and Serapis by 105 B.C.E. Egyptian merchants and craftspeople stationed in Pompeii worshipped Zeus Meilichios (Zeus sweet as honey), a funerary cult from the Peloponnese. The Isis cult was in fact a public cult, but many cults were practiced in private by families or sodalities. Dionysus had no temple or priest but was very popular in private worship. The most famous is the presumably Dionysiac initiation scene in the megalographic (life-sized) frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries, a room which may have been intended to house a female-dominated private worship or may have simply been a sea-view dining room with emotive suggestions of Dionysiac cults. In addition to the usual public and family divinities, many houses had small shrines (sacraria) in the interior or the garden. These were particularly appropriate for cults exclusive to women, such as the worship of the Bon Dea. Some were converted cubicula (private living chambers), and some were purpose-built shrines and suggest that the paterfamilias or materfamilias felt the need for more private worship. The Senate was always suspicious of the private practice of religion since the general belief was that one worshipped for the general good of the community; and in 186 B.C.E. the cult of Dionysus was banned by decree of the Senate, and there were prosecutions.

Evidence for the presence of Christians in Pompeii and Herculaneum is tenuous, although their presence is attested at Puteolis in the New Testament (Acts 28:11–14). If Christians practiced in Pompeii, they probably would have worshipped at a private household sacrarium. Jews are better attested by graffiti in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but there is no evidence that there was enough of a community to support a synagogue. In addition, there was always a substrate of popular religion with no dogma myth: the belief in charms and talismans (like the erect phallus) to ward off evil fortune. And finally, for the educated elite, the boundary between philosophy and religion was porous. The Villa of the Papyri (almost certainly owned by Caesar’s father-in-law, L. Calpurnius Piso Caesonius) was a center of Epicurean philosophy. The dominant decorative theme of most of the great villas and mansions was Epicurean or Dionysian imagery celebrating the good life.



  • Beard, Mary. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Berry, Joanne. The Complete Pompeii. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008.
  • Butterworth, Alex, and Ray Laurence. Pompeii: The Living City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Clarke, John R. Roman Life, 100 b.c. to a.d. 200. New York: Abrams, 2007.
  • Cooley, Alison E, and M. G. L. Cooley. Pompeii: A Sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • D’Arms, John H. Romans on the Bay of Naples: A Social and Cultural Study of the Villas and Their Owners from 150 b.c. to a.d. 400. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.
  • Dobbins, John J., and Pedar W. Foss, eds. The World of Pompeii. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Grant, Michael. Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Penguin, 1971.
  • Laurence, Ray. Roman Pompeii: Space and Society. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Laurence, Ray, and David J. Newsome, eds. Rome, Ostia, and Pompeii: Movement and Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Ling, Roger. Pompeii: History, Life and Afterlife. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2005.
  • Poehler, Eric, Miko Flohr, and Kevin Cole, eds. Pompeii: Art, Industry, and Infrastructure. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011.
  • Sigurdsson, Haraldur, Stanford Cashdollar, and Stephen R. J. Sparks. “The Eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79: Reconstruction from Historical and Volcanological Evidence.” American Journal of Archaeology 86, no. 1 (January 1982): 39–51.
  • Stackelberg, Katharine T. von. The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Zanker, Paul. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Thomas N. Howe