Category Archives: Pompeii
Nadejda Williams, University of West GeorgiaIn a testament to its resiliency, happiness, according to this year’s World Happiness Report, remained remarkably stable around the world, despite a pandemic that upended the lives of billions of people.
As a classicist, I find such discussions of happiness in the midst of personal or societal crisis to be nothing new.
“Hic habitat felicitas” – “Here dwells happiness” – confidently proclaims an inscription found in a Pompeiian bakery nearly 2,000 years after its owner lived and possibly died in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the city in A.D. 79.
What did happiness mean to this Pompeiian baker? And how does considering the Roman view of felicitas help our search for happiness today?
Happiness for me but not for thee
The Romans saw both Felicitas and Fortuna – a related word that means “luck” – as goddesses. Each had temples in Rome, where those seeking the divinities’ favor could place offerings and make vows. Felicitas was also portrayed on Roman coins from the first century B.C. to the fourth century, suggesting its connection to financial prosperity of the state. Coins minted by emperors, furthermore, connect her to themselves. “Felicitas Augusti,” for example, was seen on the golden coin of the emperor Valerian, iconography that suggested he was the happiest man in the empire, favored by the gods.
By claiming felicitas for his own abode and business, therefore, the Pompeiian baker could have been exercising a name-it-claim-it philosophy, hoping for such blessings of happiness for his business and life.
But just beyond this view of money and power as a source of happiness, there was a cruel irony.
Felicitas and Felix were commonly used names for female and male enslaved persons. For instance, Antonius Felix, the governor of Judaea in the first century, was an ex-slave – clearly, his luck turned around – while Felicitas was the name of the enslaved woman famously martyred with Perpetua in A.D. 203.
Romans perceived enslaved people to be proof of their masters’ higher status and the embodiment of their happiness. Viewed in this light, happiness appears as a zero-sum game, intertwined with power, prosperity and domination. Felicitas in the Roman world had a price, and enslaved people paid it to confer happiness on their owners.
Suffice it to say that for the enslaved, wherever happiness dwelled, it was not in the Roman Empire.
Where does happiness really dwell?
In today’s society, can happiness exist only at the expense of someone else? Where does happiness dwell, as rates of depression and other mental illness soar, and work days get longer?
Over the past two decades, American workers have been working more and more hours. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 44% of full-time employees were working over 45 hours a week, while 17% of people were working 60 or more hours weekly.
The result of this overworked culture is that happiness and success really do seem to be a zero-sum equation. There is a cost, often a human one, with work and family playing tug-of-war for time and attention, and with personal happiness the victim either way. This was true long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Studies of happiness seem to become more popular during periods of high societal stress. It is perhaps no coincidence that the longest-running study of happiness, administered by Harvard University, originated during the Great Depression. In 1938, researchers measured physical and mental health of 268 then-sophomores and, for 80 years, tracked these men and some of their descendants.
Their main finding? “Close relationships, more than money or fame … keep people happy throughout their lives.” This includes both a happy marriage and family, and a close community of supportive friends. Importantly, the relationships highlighted in the study are those based on love, care and equality, rather than abuse and exploitation.
Just as the Great Depression motivated Harvard’s study, the current pandemic inspired social scientist Arthur Brooks to launch, in April 2020, a weekly column on happiness titled “How to Build a Life.” In his first article for the series, Brooks loops in research showing faith and meaningful work – in addition to close relationships – can enhance happiness.
Finding happiness in chaos and disorder
Brooks’ advice correlates with those findings in the World 2021 Happiness Report, which noted “a roughly 10% increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the previous day.”
Faith, relationships and meaningful work all contribute to feelings of safety and stability. All of them were victims of the pandemic. The Pompeiian baker, who chose to place his plaque in his place of business, likely would have agreed about the significant connection among happiness, work and faith. And while he was not, as far as historians can tell, living through a pandemic, he was no stranger to societal stress.
It’s possible his choice of décor reflected an undercurrent of anxiety – understandable, given some of the political turmoil in Pompeii and in the empire at large in the last 20 years of the city’s existence. At the time of the final volcanic eruption of A.D. 79, we know that some Pompeiians were still rebuilding and restoring from the earthquake of A.D. 62. The baker’s life must have been filled with reminders of instability and looming disaster. Perhaps the plaque was an attempt to combat these fears.
After all, would truly happy people feel the need to place a sign proclaiming the presence of happiness in their home?
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Or maybe I’m overanalyzing this object, and it was simply a mass-made trinket – a first century version of a “Home Sweet Home” or “Live, Laugh, Love” placard – that the baker or his wife picked up on a whim.
And yet the plaque reminds of an important truth: people in antiquity had dreams of and aspirations for happiness, much like people do today. Vesuvius may have put an end to our baker’s dreams, but the pandemic need not have such a permanent impact on ours. And while the stress of the past year-and-a-half feels may feel overwhelming, there has been no better time to re-evaluate priorities, and remember to put people and relationships first.
Pompeii is famed for plaster-cast bodies, ruins, frescoes and the rare snapshot it provides of a rather typical ancient Roman city. But less famous is its evidence of viticulture.
Wild grapevines probably existed across peninsular Italy since prehistory, but it is likely the Etruscans and colonising Greeks promoted wine-making with domesticated grapes as early as 1000 BCE.
Pompeii, preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, sits within Campania on fertile volcanic soil with a temperate Mediterranean climate and reliable sources of water.
Pliny the Elder, living nearby Pompeii in 77 CE wrote of the “vine-growing hills and noble wine of Campania” and the poet Martial described vats dripping with grapes, and the “ridges Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa”.
The Greeks even referred to Campania as Oenotria – “the land of vines”.
A famous wine region
Over 150 Roman farms have been discovered in the Vesuvian region, and many engaged in viticulture. Some of the most famous ancient wines came from this region, including the honey-sweet and expensive Falernian wine.
Falernian was said to ignite when a flame was applied, suggesting an alcohol content of at least 40% – significantly higher than the 11% you could expect to buy from the bottle shop today.
While the Falernian was believed to be white, most ancient wines were red due to the less laborious production process.
A wide variety of wines could be found on the Roman wine market, flavoured with sea water, resin, spices and herbs like lavender and thyme, or even fermented in a smoke-filled room to impart flavour.
There is even possible evidence for early counterfeit wine. Archaeologists have identified imitation ceramic transport jars produced elsewhere and stamped with fake Pompeian merchant stamps.
Agriculture among an ancient city
Within Pompeii’s city walls, vineyards hid behind taverns and inns as families and bar-keepers grew grapes on a smaller scale for their own tables and wine.
When vines were covered by the volcanic eruption and later decomposed, they left cavities in the debris. By filling these cavities with plaster, archaeologists were able to reveal vineyards over entire city blocks.
Excavations have revealed carbonised grape seeds and even whole preserved grapes caramelised from the volcanic eruption – their high sugar content gives them a glassy appearance easily spotted amongst the soil.
Gardens were everywhere in Pompeii. The archaeologist Wilhelmina Jashemski noticed at least one in each house and, in some larger elite residences, up to three or four. Many included vines to grow grapes for fruit and wine, but also to provide shade over triclinia dining areas.
If you visit the modern town surrounding Pompeii today, you will notice not much has changed in 2,000 years.
The ‘Foro Boario’ vineyard
Opposite Pompeii’s amphitheatre is the Foro Boario. Misnamed because archaeologists originally thought the site was a cattle market, excavations in the 1960s revealed it was once actually an extensive vineyard.
Over 2,000 vines were found, with almost the exact spacing between each vine as recommended by the ancient agricultural writers Pliny and Columella. Each vine was attached to a stake and 58 fruit trees were also planted in the vineyard.
Local workers at the time of excavation even commented that the four depressions found around root cavities were identical to the holes holding water in their own vineyards.
At the back of the vineyard was found a small two-room structure housing a lever wine press and ten dolia – large ceramic fermentation jars buried into the ground to keep temperatures consistently cool.
There are also numerous triclinia for eating and drinking scattered among the vineyard, suggesting the owner did a thriving business opposite the amphitheatre, with gladiatorial patrons coming to relax, eat and drink before and after spectacles.
Resurrecting ancient wine
That such large and valuable pieces of land within the city walls were dedicated to wine-making gives insight to the profitable nature and high esteem viticulture held in Roman communities.
Today, many of these vineyards have been replanted as they were at the time of the eruption, with relatives of ancient grape varieties like the Piedirosso: a fruity and floral grape with light herb and spiced flavours, perhaps related to Pliny’s ancient Columbina variety.
In 1996, the local Campanian winemaker, Mastroberardino, cultivated and processed these grapes using Roman techniques and created the Villa dei Misteri wine: ruby red in colour with a complex taste, including hints of vanilla, cinnamon and notes of spice and cherry.
It can be aged for 30 years or more – just like the 60-year-old Falernian drunk by Julius Caesar at his celebration banquet in 60 BC.
In our series on sexual histories, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Like the anxious men who began excavations at Pompeii in the 18th century and discovered more about the ancient Italians than they had bargained for – such as phallic-shaped lamps – historians of sex are regularly confronted with case studies from the past that challenge their own ethics. Those who worked the streets of Pompeii and served clients in the brothels lived hard lives, yet many of the murals that survive depict the women as erotic and exotic.
Murals from brothels and buildings that served as brothels (such as inns, lunch counters, and taverns) show fair-skinned women, naked (except for the occasional breast band), with stylised hair, in a variety of sexual positions with young, tanned, athletic men. The figures sport on beds that are sometimes ornate and festooned with decorative quilts.
In buildings identified as brothels, the murals may have been intended to arouse clients. They may also have functioned as pictorial menus or even served as instruction manuals for more inexperienced customers. In buildings identified as private residences, the scenes were most likely decorative but also designed, perhaps, for titillation.
Contrary to the idealised images, the brothels themselves provide evidence that the women worked in cells, usually only big enough for a narrow bed. The absence of windows in most attests to the darkness of the cells, as well as limited air flow.
Excavations also suggest that the cells were usually without doors, which implies that the rooms may have been curtained. They have also revealed stone beds. Wooden beds as well as pallets were likely also used, but would have perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
The conditions in which the women worked were of no concern to brothel owners, clients or anyone else for that matter, as most sex workers in ancient Italy were slaves. As the ancient attitude towards slaves was one of indifference at best, and violent disdain at worst, the lives of women were no source of empathy to those outside their class.
The sex workers fulfilled a utilitarian function and nothing else. Confined to the premises by (usually) male pimps who provided them with only their most basic needs, the women were essentially cut off from the outside world. This rendered them vulnerable to the whims of both pimp and client alike.
Women who worked the streets in Pompeii often waited around archways and other standard locations such as graveyards and public baths. In larger towns and cities, where control of the sex trade was harder to manage, some of these women may have worked without pimps. Those who made up this percentage of workers were mostly freed slaves and poor freeborn women.
Stories from graffiti
The preservation of graffiti on the walls of Pompeii’s buildings also provides historians with details of the sex trade. Most of it is extremely graphic. It includes information on specific services and prices, clients’ appraisals of certain women and their abilities (or lack thereof), and some sexual advice.
Some graffiti are straight to the point:
Others are advertisements:
Euplia was here
with two thousand
Or list prices:
Euplia sucks for five dollars*
Often the names of slaves and, by default, sex workers, had Greek origins. The name “Euplia”, for example, comes from a Greek word meaning “fair voyage”. Sex workers’ names sometimes denoted the function or physical features of the individual in question. In this case, Euplia promised her clients a fair voyage.
Graffiti also attests to male sex workers in Pompeii. As with the writings concerning women, this graffiti lists specific services offered and sometimes prices. As freeborn women were not permitted to have intercourse with anyone but their husbands, the clients who accessed male sex workers were almost exclusively men. The sexual mores of ancient Rome, catered for male-to-male sexual encounters if certain protocols were maintained (a citizen could not be penetrated, for example).
The few literary records that suggest there may have been female clients of sex workers are questionable, as they were usually written for satiric or comedic purposes. Still, it would be naïve to discount instances of wealthy, freeborn women accessing male sex workers or household slaves.
Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that male clients did not seek other men with whom they could participate in acts deemed socially unacceptable (essentially acts in which the citizen male would occupy a submissive role).
Society and the sex trade
At the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, Pompeii was a town of modest size, with a population of around 11,000, and a thriving community with sophisticated architecture and infrastructure. Located in Campania, some 23 kilometres southeast of Naples, and near the port of Pozzuoli, it enjoyed robust trade and economy, and had a multicultural demographic.
The prosperity of the town and the continual presence of merchants ensured a strong market for sex. Indeed, the sex trade was integral to the successful functioning of society, particularly marriages.
As marriages, particularly those among the elite classes, were arranged and predominantly for the birth of male heirs, a husband would not seek sexual pleasures from his wife. Rather, out of respect for her, a man would pay for pleasurable sex, especially those acts that were not expected to be performed by a respectable woman.
Indeed, the graffiti attests to five different types of sex for sale: intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, active anal sex, and passive anal sex. Thus the sex trade performed a type of social and moral policing of the institution of marriage, as well as the preservation of an adult male’s reputation and masculinity. As
sex work was not illegal (being predominantly structured around slavery) but adultery was outlawed, this was another reason for paying for sex.
The layers of volcanic materials that covered Pompeii and most of its population to a depth of 25 metres left extensive evidence of the ancient Italians, their lifestyles, and their environments. Ironically, the eruption that trapped the inhabitants in both time and place has bestowed a strange immortality upon them.
These people whisper to us, and their tales are varied, joyous and sad. Their stories are sometimes shocking and even heartbreaking, but, like the lives of the sex workers, worthy of remembrance.
*Five dollars is a rough conversion of the value of ‘five asses’: the currency in the original graffiti.
Tomorrow: the sexualisation of girlhood in 19th century postcards.
The link below is to an article reporting on a high tech cleaning project under way at Pompeii, in Italy.
The link below is to an interesting site that lists examples of graffiti found in Pompeii – well worth a look.