Public Life in Pompeii


Shops and bars

  • There were far more shops and bars in Pompeii than were needed for the city's population, as many outsiders came from abroad or further inland to trade in Pompeii.
  • In shops, the living quarters were often above the shop and wooden stairs could reach them.
  • All shops and workshops would have been operated by slaves and managed by freedmen.
  • Food shops had large stone counters with pots in them for storing food, and meat and poulty were hung in the entrance.
  • Bars (thermopolia) sold hot drinks and sometimes food ~ there were no seats in bars, and there were often no more than tiny rooms opening on to the street.
  • Customers often scribbled on the walls as they drank. One the walls of one bar there is a dialogue between a weaver called Successus and another man named Severus, who are figthing over Iris, a slave woman.
  • The Inn of Asellina is the most complete example of a bar found in Pompeii, and the existence of small dishes within the bar suggest that hot snacks were sold there.
  • Dolia were large ceramic pots cemented into the counters of thermopolia, which were used to hold wine. The number of dolia told the customers how many different qualities of wine were available.
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Bakeries, and the Basilica

  • There were around 30 bakeries in Pompeii at the time of the eruption.
  • Only 20 of these had shops from which to sell the bread, so the rest would have supplied the bread wholesale with deliverymen taking the bread to shops, stalls, and inns in the town.


  • The basilica was a central building with a central nave, with aisles separated by rows of columns with a recess or apse at one end.
  • It was a large space for assemblies and meetings, particularly law courts and businessmen.
  • The basilica in Pompeii was built around 120-100BC, probably from an earlier version of itself, and had five main doors/
  • The roof was supported by 10 metre high brick columns, and the walls were decorated in the first style.
  • Statues of Emperors and local officials would have been inside.
  • The basilica was one of the tallest buildings in Pompeii, and appears to have been damaged in the earthquake of 62 AD.
  • Herculaneum's basilica is still buried but we know that it was damaged by an earthquake in the late 1st century BC, and welathy proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus paid for the repairs. The town repaid him by naming it Basilica Noniana and placing statues of his family inside.
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Eumachia's Building

  • Eumachia was a businesswoman in her own right, and she had this, the largest building in Pompeii, built in the forum in the 1st century AD at her own expense.
  • She was the daughter of Lucius Eumachius, a wealthy freedman known for the making bricks and wine ~ his stamp has been found on products as far as Gaul, and North Africa.
  • The inscriptions on the front and back of the building state that Eumachia was a public priestess who had dedicated the building to pietas and Concordia Augusta.
  • Niches in the front area of the building would have contained statues of Aeneas and Romulus, traditional Roman heroes.
  • Its central area is colonaded, and has rectangular elevations and the remains of masonry inside. The corridor surrounding this area had various walkways leading out onto the street.
  • A large apse at the back of the building housed a statue of Concordia Augusta, and she is holding a cornucopia. The head of this statue does not survive, but the features were probably similar to that of Empress Livia. Behind this apse was a further niche with a statue of Eumachia, dedicated by the guild of Fullers.
  • The use of the building is unknown ~ the stone with ring in the centre of the building could be evidence that it was used as a slave market, but this is only conjecture. Other suggestions are that it was used for festivals, stalls for cloth trading, or a records repository.
  • The building is not well-preserved and appears to have been badly damaged in the earthquake, and was in the process of being repaired at the time of the eruption.
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  • Theatres were semi-circular, and had dedicated seating for wealthy and important citizens. Civic funds were available but mostly magistrates paid for events themselves.
  • Pompeii's theatre was built in the 2nd century BC. A second tier was added to it by Marcus Artorius Primus on behalf of the wealthy Holconii family in the 1st century BC, as well as better seating and seats for the orchestra.
  • This is recorded by an inscription. In return for their generosity, a dedicated seat to Marcus Holconius Rufus was marked with bronze lettering, but we don't know if this was posthumous or not.
  • Great works of literature could be performed but the masses preferred less refined plays so magistrates generally paid for musicals, comedies, and farces.
  • When Pompeii became a Roman colony in 80 BC, a small odeon was added next to the theatre.
  • Herculaneum's theatre could seat 2500 people, half of its population.
  • Ostia's theatre was in front of the Piazza of Corporations. It was modest, but had been built and improved on by successive Emperors rather than local citizens. It could seat 3000 spectators, despite the population of Ostia reaching over 100,000 at its peak.
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  • The arena was the central part of an amphitheatre, and the word came from the Latin harena, meaning 'sand'. It was elliptical in shape.
  • Seating was divided as in the theatres, into ima cavea (seating at the front, for the rich), media cavea (middle seating), and summa cavea (seating at the back). These were divided into cunei by flights of stairs.
  • In Pompeii, access to the ima cavea was via steps from the vaults below, called vomitoria, and access to the rest of the seating was from the amphitheatre's external stairacase. There was a retractable roof called a velarium which protected the ima cavea from the weather.
  • Pompeii's amphitheatre is the earliest-known stone amphitheatre anywhere in the Roman world, and could hold 20,000 spectators, double the population of the town.
  • It was built by Gaius Quintus Valgus and Marcus Porcius, two duoviri quinquennales, at their own expense, and for the honour of the colony ~ an inscription on the building attests this.
  • There is a small gate halfway along the western side of the arena wall, through which corpses would be dragged by a hook, and stored in a small room just behind the gate.
  • The amphitheatre was next to the palaestra in the east of Pompeii, near the city walls.
  • Types of gladiator included the Thraeces, who wore distinctive helmets, the Galli, who fought with lances and small Gallic shields, and the Essedari, who were chariot-fighters.
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Amphitheatre Riots

  • A wall painting from the House of Actius Anicetus in Pompeii depicts the riots that broke out at Pompeii's amphitheatre in 59 AD, in which many spectators from neighbouring Nuceria were killed or injured.
  • Tacitus' Annals also mention this incident ~ "A trifling incident led to a dreadful massacre".
  • He calls Pompeii a "country town", and notes that Emperor Nero delegated the trial of this case to the Senate itself.
  • He states that the patron of those particular games, Livineius Regulus, was punished with exile, and that Nero banned Pompeii from hosting any similar show for ten years.
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  • By law, cemeteries were outside cities, with some individuals buried inside as exceptions ~ Nuceria Gate at Pompeii is an example, and is dominated by freedmen and their families.
  • Herculaneum's cemetery was more mixed and the decurial class were buried by the gates.
  • High status individuals received money to build their tombs, and a prestigious location close to the gates. The most important tombs were built as semi-circular stone benches in a lion's leg shape, often with a shrine, called exedra or schola.
  • Pompeii has two such tombs ~ Aulus Veius, who was a duumvir and quinquennales, and the tomb of Mamia, a public Priestess who paid for the Temple of Vespasian in the forum.
  • In between those tombs was the tomb of Marcus Porcius, an original colonist who served as a duumvir, and helped pay for the construction of the amphitheatre. He also issued contracts for the Temple of Apollo and the odeon, so it is no surprise that he got an important tomb.
  • The tomb of Gaius Vestorius Priscus is at the Vesuvian Gates and depicts gladiatorial games. He became an aedile at age 22 but died before he was able to leave a mark on the town, but he was awarded the funerary grant of 2000 sesterces. His mother paid for the tomb.
  • The tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus is at Nola Gate. He was an aedile and a duumvir, and was further along in his career than Priscus ~ he was awarded 5000 sesterces for his tomb, but his is less imposing than that of Priscus, suggesting Priscus' family thought more highly of him.
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Tombs 2

  • Eumachia's tomb is the largest in Pompeii. It is at Nuceria Gate. She was not voted a public funeral, but this may have been out of fashion by her death.
  • Her tomb is a 14 metre long exedra, and is 13 metres deep, only accessible through a gate.
  • It has a frieze of Amazons on the front and says it was built by Eumachia herself, showing she could afford to pay for it, but no inscriptions of her life or work are included.
  • By the mid 1st century the tomb was being used by Maius' family ~ whether these were connected to Eumachia is uncertain. They left no descendants. Perhaps Maius inherited the Eumachia estate or bought the tomb, as this often happened in Ostia.
  • Gaius Munatius Faustius issued his own tomb at Nuceria Gate, which says that it was for him and his wife Naevolia Tyche, and that he was a member of the collegia of Augustales ~ a collegia of Emperor worshippers which allowed freedmen like him to be priests.
  • When he died, his wife had a second memorial issued at Herculaneum Gate, saying they were freed slaves, that the tomb was also for their freed slaves, and that her husband was given a bisellium (double seat) at the theatre for his work. It shows she was not ashamed of their background and wanted to talk about her and her husband's achievements.
  • The new tomb has important sculptures either side of it, and a marble, altar-like structure at the top. There is a small bust of Naevolia Tyche, and relief sculptures of the bisellium, and a ship, which may show how Faustius got his wealth, and one possibly of the Augustales.
  • The tomb is made of tufa and decorated with pyramid merlons, acanthus, and flowers.
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Government and Social Structure

  • Roman society was mainly made up of free citizens (plebeians), dominated by aristocratic families called patricii. Over time, wealthy freedmen (former slaves), became indistinguishable from some patricii. 
  • The most prestigious political position in Rome was to be a member of the Senate. Just below the Senators were the equestrians. Very few Pompeiians reached the status of equestrian ~ Marcus Holconius Rufus was an exception.
  • Roman citizens had the right to vote and had freedom from summary imprisonment. Citizenship was usually displayed through the tria nomina (three part name) ~ praenomen, nomen, and cognomen.
  • Slaves had very little rights. Peregrini were free provincials, who had their own rights but had to give these up to become citizens.
  • Aediles were junior magistrates, who could later become decurions (town councillors), and from there duoviri (higher magistrates). 
  • Programmata (slogans) have been found written on the walls of Pompeii, showing support for candidates. Lucius Ceius Secundus had some programmata on the walls of his house ~ they show he held a number of positions including duumvir and quinquennalis. 
  • Freed slaves often took their former master's name to form their tria nomina. 
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