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A larger-than-life funerary statue of a Pompeian matron taken from atop a tomb

A larger-than-life funerary statue of a Pompeian matron taken from atop a tomb on a thoroughfare outside the walls of Pompeii.

Pompeii: Death Warns Pompeians to Live
Part Two

By Joseph Andrew Smith, Ph.D.

Mementos of death appear everywhere in and around Pompeii. One might think the residents of that vital town on the Bay of Naples were extraordinarily fixated on death, living as they were in a region whose natural wonders were so foreboding and ominous that few could doubt the legend of an entrance to the underworld somewhere nearby. When history’s most famous natural disaster struck in August of 79 CE, it gave final proof—it might be argued—that the Pompeians had lived too familiarly with the threat of an imminent doom. And yet those Pompeians, who inadvertently left behind so much evidence of their awareness of the precarious nature of their lives and their vigorous respect for death and all it claimed, seem fairly representative of the wider culture of the empire.

One would see it manifested ubiquitously in Pompeii. Reverence for tutelary ancestral gods was at the core of their home lives and it so thoroughly imbued their culture that the very architecture of their houses made prominent accommodation for pious display of the genial spirits of the household. Every home’s foremost receiving room, the atrium, contained a lararium or a small shine for worship and presentation of the family Lar. Familial lares, when represented in figurines, cut striking figures of nimble-footed sprites whose energy promised a projection of the household into the future. Along with these lares would be other small statues or tokens of deceased ancestors, showing that “the departed” were expected to stay near and protect the household.

Far more striking would have been the prominent display of waxen death masks, imagines, in the atria of Pompeii’s foremost families. We can appreciate how imagines might have looked through sculpted marble busts left behind in Pompeian houses. These give an indication of how “real” (to an exaggerated degree) dead ancestors would have been portrayed in the atrium. One of the most well-known residents of Pompeii, the financier Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, already dead for a generation at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption, has had his fame secured down to our own day, thanks to the marble bust his family kept on proud display in his home. When one sees this representation of Caecilius, one thinks first on its fantastic preservation, but as one studies the face in stone, it becomes hard not to think of the wax mold pressed down on the dead man’s face soon after his death. The imago captured the likeness of a man not as he lived but as he would be in death. Such a representation would undoubtedly have had a sobering effect on the surviving members in a family, encouraging an earnest engagement with the world outside the home worthy of the dead man’s reputation and values.

In Roman practice, these waxen death masks would have been taken out of the household to accompany funeral processions; the ritual conducting of a deceased family member from the home to the final resting place outside the town’s walls would have been attended by a train of ancestors (that is, masks worn or carried by living family members) with whom the departed would be taking up permanent residence. Outside the walls of the town, the monumenta or funeral monuments of Pompeii’s foremost citizens would have lined the major roads as advertisements of a family’s prominence, influence, and benefaction. These shrines could offer the traveler a place to sit and rest. But, in return, the traveler would be expected to take in the monument. In so many ways this culture used the necessary evil of death as a method highlighting the vitality of a family, its promise to replicate the benefactions of its forebears, and its competitive drive to sustain a connection to the town. Before even setting foot in Pompeii, a visitor approaching the city could learn from the dead which families were striving to make their names live longest.

Indeed, the names of dead Pompeians endured through funereal inscription in a state of preservation far beyond what the denizens of that town could or would have hoped for. What good is it, after all, to have ancestors looking over a dead city void of living family members?

There is another, ultimate monumentum that the Pompeians left for us, the one that had no place in their ordinary daily commemoration of death—that is, the installation of their own bodies impressed into the layers of volcanic ash and mud which buried the city. These poignantly prompt us to reflect on the meaning of their lives in absolute terms. These bones and body casts are anonymous. And they serve to make us think about the lives of Pompeians beyond the trappings of their family connections. They prompt us to think about the vitality of Pompeii in a way exactly opposite to what their own monuments were intended to accomplish: we see the image of the dead of Pompeii and we are immediately struck by their loss of the prosperous future toward which all their reminders of death were compelling them to strive.

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.

Busts of three Pompeians, two men and a woman.
These busts of three Pompeians, two men and a woman, give an idea of the look of imagines (ancestral portrait masks). look of imagines (ancestral portrait masks) that would have been on display in the atria of prominent Pompeian houses. The deep lines and exaggerated fleshiness of the faces (termed verism by art historians) evoke not only the “life-like” look of departed relatives, but the otherworldliness of ancestral spirits permanently watching a family through the imagines.