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This fresco of a winged female figure evokes the taste for lush, rich color so characteristic of Pompeian home decor. Blending realism and fantasy, the painter has combined elements of Roman social status (in the adornments of golden jewelry and the purple-striped sash with the mythology of a garlanded, vine covered goddess.


Pompeii: City of Risk and Prosperity
Part One

By Joseph Andrew Smith, Ph.D.

Pompeii was a bustling seaport town in August of 79 CE. The residents of Pompeii would have thought of that year as the tenth in Emperor Vespasian’s rule (or the year of his ninth consulship); more likely they would have been thinking of themselves as living at the start of a new era.

For in late June, Vespasian, after having guided the empire from a disastrous series of civil wars into a decade of firm yet prosperous rule, had died peacefully. He left his title, Caesar, with all the mighty imperial powers of authority associated with it, to his elder son, Titus. This new Caesar was not yet 40 years old, but his position was secured by his popularity with the army and the people of Rome.

The smooth transition of power within the Flavian family would have been welcome news to Pompeians that summer and surely would have been a sign for the steady continuance of policies appealing to the sensibilities of the merchant class. The people of Pompeii had fared well even under the reign of Nero (whose wife, Poppaea Sabina, had family connections in the immediate area), had seen little detrimental imperial policy change under Vespasian, and were now looking forward to continued prosperity under Titus.

Pompeii’s population that summer would have numbered about 12,000 residents: not too big—a mere fraction of Rome’s population of approximately one million—but big enough to make it a dominant port south of Rome. Just north on the Bay of Naples was Misenum, home (since the time of Augustus a century earlier) to the naval fleet of the western Mediterranean. Nearer still were resort communities thick with the get-away rustic villas of Rome-weary aristocrats. During the dog days which brought stifling heat to Rome, the region’s seaboard population would have been swelling with annual vacationers.

But Pompeii itself was hardly a resort town. From its modest beginnings as a cluster of houses around a forum for holding local farmers’ markets, Pompeii had grown as a Greek colony in the fashion of the planned communities of Hippodamus with thoroughfare roads lattice-worked across the town, forming neighborhoods (or insulae) into blocks. Pompeii grew into a merchant center whose densely packed townhouses (villae urbanae) doubled as both domiciles and workshops. From their shops Pompeians busied themselves with the readying of high-demand luxury goods for trade.

Its location in Campania was perfect for such business: as Pompeii was located right on the bay, moving goods up and down the Italian seaboard would have been safe and convenient for the town’s merchants. Land travel would have been relatively easy as well, given the proximity of Pompeii to the major north-south artery, the via Appia or Appian Way. But it was Pompeii’s proximity to Vesuvius that was the true secret of its prosperity. The mountain contributed generously (with some hidden costs) to the resources of the town’s trade: the region’s soil provided a signature red clay to Pompeians who were expert in molding sturdy amphorae (large two-handled storage vessels shaped as long tubes that could easily be stacked, leaned, or lashed together in large bundles). Into these storage vessels Pompeians would stock the bounty of rich, volcanic soil: olives grew abundantly in the region, as did grapes harvested from vineyards right on the volcano’s slope, which became worldrenowned Campanian wines. Equally sought after by cultured Romans throughout the empire was Pompeii’s cooking sauce, garum Pompeianum. This garum, the product of fermented mackerel, was akin to Worcestershire Sauce or that essential Thai flavoring, nam pla. The production of this table condiment had become a boom industry in town, and the strong smell of drying fish emanating from the workshops might have struck the Pompeian nose as the pungent odor of lucre.

Yet another distinctively rich smell in the summer air of Pompeii would have been the steam emanating from the fullers’ shops, whose bleaching process depended upon the liquid ammonia of boiling urine. Daily collections from the public urinals (posted abundantly at the street corners of the town) were dumped into fullers’ vats, heated, and steamed onto wool hung up above the vats.

Even the patron goddess of the town, Venus, was a reflection of a Pompeian love of profits. Only 150 years earlier, the emeriti (discharged veterans) of the Roman army whom the dictator Sulla had settled in Pompeii, had established Venus, Sulla’s patron goddess, as the town’s guiding star. The goddess appears throughout Pompeii, in her welcome guises as Fortune and Abundance. Venus Pompeiana was eventually joined by the favored goddess of the eastern empire Isis, the Egyptian queen of seas. Her presence in town (with a temple just south of the forum) gives evidence of a cosmopolitan commingling of religions and cultures.

The summer of 79 CE was, in short, the best of times for that busy town.

Joseph Andrew Smith, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University and curator of the exhibition, A Day in Pompeii, at the San Diego Natural History Museum February 15 through June 15. Part Two of his article about Pompeii will appear in the next issue of Field Notes.


This detail of the life-sized fresco of the winged female shows us golden jewelry that could be worn as fashionably today as it actually was worn by upper class women in Pompeii. These precious objects were often among the prized possessions seized by Pompeian women in their hurried flight from the city as we know from the content of purses found near the corpses of women who didn't meet with such good fortune.

SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, February 2008

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