Introduction to the Theater District of the City of Pompeii
Compiled from writings by Jane Vadnal
THE CITY OF POMPEII
The Roman city of Pompeii is famous for its dramatic fate. Around noon on August 24, A.D. 79, the city and its inhabitants were engulfed by a cloud of volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The city lay buried and forgotten until it was found by accident in the mid 1700s. The discoveries at Pompeii have fascinated people since then. Not only has it added immeasurably to our understanding of early Roman society, but its art and its story have been an inspiration to countless writers, musicians, and visual artists. Now a new tool, virtual reality, is being used to help comprehend and appreciate this ancient city.
Pompeii was built on a volcanic ridge overlooking the mouth of the Sarno River and the Bay of Naples. This location was excellent for both defense and trade. It was founded before the sixth century B.C. and was ruled by a series of peoples: the native Oscans, the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Samnites. The Romans conquered Pompeii around 89 B.C., but the city retained ties to Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean. It was rather small with a population recently estimated at between 8,000 and 15,000 people. It was located in a fertile agricultural area where grains and other crops were grown. The area also contained luxurious homes of many of the Roman elite, who were attracted by the fine climate and scenery and by the allure of living in a fashionable area.
This exhibition recreates one of the older areas of Pompeii, which contains the large outdoor theater, the Temple of Isis, and the Triangular Forum, illustrating a range of activities: religion, entertainment and commercial transactions. Since this is the oldest part of the city, the architecture reflects a range of periods, from the ruins of the Doric temple on the Triangular Forum, which was built in the sixth century B.C., to the Temple of Isis, which was completed just a few years before the city's destruction.
If Mount Vesuvius had not erupted, the city of Pompeii would probably never be mentioned in most histories of the Roman empire. Pompeii was relatively small, with only between 8.000 and 15,000 inhabitants. It was probably founded by the native Oscans in the sixth century BC, and was under the influence of the Greeks, then the Etruscans, then the Samnites. Like many cities in the Naples region, it was conquered by the Romans around 80 BC and settled down peaceably to Roman rule. After that, the only notable events were an earthquake which severely damaged the city in AD 62, and a brawl at a gladiator show which got out of hand in AD 59, killing several inhabitants of the nearby town of Nuceria. The emperor Nero decreed that there would be no gladiator shows in Pompeii for ten years, but later rescinded the order, much to the delight of the inhabitants.
Pompeii was blessed with a fine climate and a splendid view out over the Bay of Naples, though many other Roman cities were just as pleasantly sited. It was surrounded by fertile countryside where grain was grown. A local wine was also made, but contemporaries alleged that it produced a nasty hangover. Some textiles and perfumes were manufactured in Pompeii, but it was most noted for the export of garum, a jelly made from dried fish intestines. Though there were many aristocratic country houses in the countryside around it, its inhabitants were not particularly illustrious. Its most famous native was Poppeae Sabina, one of Nero's wives. He supposedly kicked her to death for complaining when he came home late from the gladiator shows. However, both Pompeii's fame and its fate were sealed when, around noon on August 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered Pompeii with about 12 feet of volcanic ash.. Though there had been preliminary earth tremors, many of the inhabitants had gone about their business as usual. At least 2,000 people were trapped within the city and were suffocated by the poisonous fumes and the falling ash.
Throughout the ages, any cities have been destroyed by natural or man-made calamities. But Pompeii is unique because it was perfectly preserved with all the minutia of daily life-food on the tables and in the ovens, tools dropped beside the unfinished statues in the sculptor's yard, and toys scattered around some of the gardens. Since its accidental rediscovery in the mid 1700's, Pompeii has fascinated scholars and lay people alike. Not only does it add a great deal to our knowledge about Roman art and society, but its poignant remains entice us to imagine what life in Pompeii must have been like. The city has been portrayed in paintings, plays, novels, scholarly tomes, movies, operas and television shows. Now yet another medium is being used to visualize Pompeii. The Virtual Pompeii project uses the new computer technique, virtual reality, to simulate the Triangular Forum area of Pompeii, which includes the Temple of Isis and the Grand Theater.
Virtual Reality makes it possible for the viewer to seem to move in three dimensional space. To understand how virtual reality works, imagine holding a book at arm's length with its cover towards you. It appears rectangular. Now imagine turning it so that you are looking directly at its spine. It still appears as a rectangle, but now as a tall, thin one. Finally imagine holding the bottom of the cover of the book right up to your nose and looking upwards. Now the shape of the book is a trapezoid, with a wide bottom and a narrower top. The actual dimensions of the book were always the same, but its shape changed radically depending on where it was and how our eyes interpreted it. In a Virtual world, the computer knows the dimensions of every object and the exact position of the viewer. It changes the shapes of the objects with every movement the viewer makes, so as to simulate what the eye would see while moving through the space.
Of course, Virtual Pompeii cannot
be exactly like the real Pompeii. The technology has not yet been perfected
enough to show as much detail as we would like. In addition, some artifacts
from this area of Pompeii no longer exist- they were destroyed by the eruption,
looted in antiquity, or lost through the carelessness of the early excavators.
In addition, the Triangular Forum area was excavated over two hundred years
ago - the weather and comings and goings of innumerable tourists have taken
their toll. It is necessary to weave together known facts with scholarly
assumptions from many fields to present what we think it must have been
like to be in Pompeii on the morning of August 24, A.D. 79.
TEMPLE OF ISIS
We usually think of Isis as an Egyptian goddess, but she was also worshipped by the Greeks after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. When the Romans conquered both Egypt and Greece itself, the worship of Isis spread throughout the Roman Empire. She was venerated as a loving mother goddess who promoted fertility, oversaw the changing of the seasons, and healed the sick. She was also the patron of sailors. There were temples dedicated to Isis and her brother/husband Osiris throughout the Greco-Roman world. These temples were the sites of elaborate daily and annual rituals and were administered by an educated priesthood skilled in music and medicine. Isis worship was especially popular with women and with the new elite who gained wealth and prominence as the Roman empire expanded.
The Temple of Isis in Pompeii was small but ornate. It was destroyed in an earthquake in A.D. 62 but was rebuilt shortly after that. The renovation was financed by a freed slave in the name of his young son. There may have been political motivations for this since freed slaves were not allowed to hold public office, and the son who was appointed as a member of the city council was only six years old. The Temple has a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architectural features. This is not surprising since Roman architecture of this period was very ornate, often used bright colors, and borrowed and mixed styles from many eras. There were many statues in the Temple of Isis and the portico walls were covered with elaborate murals. To the left of the temple was a small roofless structure containing a tank that may have held the sacred water from the Nile, which was very important in many Isis ceremonies. In the rear of the sanctuary was a room containing a marble table where sacred meals were probably served.
Oh holy and blessed Lady the perpetual comfort of humankind who by thy bounty and grace nourishs the whole world and bears a great compassion to the troubles of the miserable as a loving mother would -Lucius Apuleius
The cult of Isis arose in southern Egypt more than 5000 years ago. The Egyptians believed that Isis wed her brother Osiris while they were both still in the womb of their mother, Nut, the sky goddess. After they were born, Osiris ruled Egypt as the perfect just ruler and Isis was his loving and compassionate queen. However, Osiris was slain by another brother Seth, Lord of the Desert and of Foreigners, and pieces of his dismembered body were scattered throughout the Nile Delta. Isis escaped into the swamps of Egypt with her son Horus. With the help of her loyal companion, the dog-headed god Anubis, she gathered up the pieces of Osiris' body and by her compassion resurrected him. But she could not bring him into the world of the living, instead Osiris rules over the Kingdom of the Dead. Isis remained in the living world as the "Great Lady-Mistress of the Two Lands of Egypt, Mistress of Shelter, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life". She was seen as the goddess who ruled the changing of the seasons, the healing of the human body, and the annual ebb and flow of the Nile. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., he and his successors the Ptolomies continued to support the cult of Isis, though in time, the different gods in the Isis gods were merged with Greek gods-for example, Osiris became Osirus-Serapis-Pluto, and Horus became Horus-Harpocrates-Apollo.
When the Romans conquered Egypt in the first century B.C., they in turn venerated Isis. Like other argraian peoples, the early Roman had reacted to the complexity of life by seeing hosts of different kinds of gods ruling different things. There were separate gods for different places, different aspects of nature, different stages and conditions of life, and different times of year. There were also state gods that all citizens were expected to worship as a patriotic duty. Later, when Rome started to conquer more and mor of her neighbors, foreign gods were also teolerated. But as more and more gods were added, and as Roman society got farther and farther away from its agrarian roots, there was a movement towards seeing the separate gods as different aspects of the same deity and of seeking more compassionate deities. The worship of Isis was part of this trend. She became immensely popular- first with women and freed slaves, but later with the upper classes of society as well. The priests of Isis became more powerful as well. These priests were aescetics- according to ancient sources they bathed in cold water twice each day and twice each night, shaved their entire bodies once every threee days.
In Pompeii, the temple of Isis probably
began about 80 BC. It was destroyed by the earthquake of 62 AD, but was
rebuilt through the financial contributions of a freed slave in the name
of his six year old son (see the inscription over the door to the street).
The temple was administered by disciplined and educated priests who were
renowned for their knowledge of medicine.
STREET OF THE TEMPLE OF ISIS
Because Pompeii was an old city, many of its streets were narrow and crooked. Unlike newer Roman towns with their many broad avenues, Pompeii had a complex web of winding streets and irregularly shaped blocks. The Street of the Temple of Isis is typical of many of the streets of Pompeii. Most were lined with small shops and private homes. They were packed together-indeed, many were parts of the same structures. It was customary for even the most grand urban houses to have shops let into their street fronts. Some of these shops sold produce from the owners' country estates, others were leased to small merchants. Thus, rich and poor often lived close together, and residential, commercial, and industrial functions were mingled.
The buildings were constructed of limestone, volcanic stone, or brick. In many cases their outer surfaces were coated with stucco which was often covered by graffiti. Some of these graffiti were the sort of messages now found in newspapers such as election posters, announcements of theater or gladiator shows, and lost and found notices. Others were casual scribbling expressing opinions about love, life, and gladiator shows. The windows were small, high, and often covered with bars to deter thieves. The roofs were covered with terracotta tiles.
Streets were paved with large blocks
of lava. There were usually raised sidewalks on either side with surfaces
covered by a mixture of brick chips and mortar. A public water fountain
was in front of the entrance to the Triangular Forum, one of many similar
fountains throughout the city. Though there was an elaborate drainage system
in many parts of Pompeii, it did not extend to this older section of town
and waste water ran down the streets. Stepping stones at the street corners
allowed pedestrians to step over the water without getting their clothes
dirty. Gaps left between these stepping stones let the wheels of carts
The Triangular Forum is located atop a cliff of volcanic rock high above the Bay of Naples. It is a large open area with a colonnade on two sides and a spectacular view out over the bay on the third. A large Doric temple was built in the sixth century B.C. when the city was under the influence of the Greeks. It may have been dedicated to Hercules, though there is evidence that Apollo, Minerva, and Diana were worshipped there also. The temple must have been visible far out at sea. A low wall paralleling one of the colonnades also dates from this early period and might have marked the boundary of the sacred enclosure. At the time of the eruption, the Doric temple lay in ruins; no one knows why the Romans did not either demolish or restore it.
The Triangular Forum is not Pompeii's
main plaza. There was a larger forum to the west where public and economic
business was transacted. Nonetheless, the Triangular Forum was one of the
major open spaces in the city. Like many features in Roman cities, it was
used for a number of different purposes. Vendors from the countryside probably
sold their wares here on market days and it was a splendid place for viewing
the processions winding toward the nearby Grand Theater. This forum was
also used for recreation. There was a large circular seat with a sundial
facing the bay and an elegant marble fountain. Public fountains were very
popular with the Romans, both for practical and for aesthetic reasons.
You were likely to be able to hear a fountain splashing throughout many
Roman cities. The rulers of the city also used spaces like the Triangular
Forum to deliver subtle political messages. There was a statue of the patron
of the colony, the Emperor Augustus' nephew and heir apparent,Marcus Claudius
Marcellus. The statue probably looked out toward the island of Capri where
Augustus had a large villa.Augustus and the emperors who succeeded him
were adroit at using art as propaganda to unite the Empire and consolidate
their own power.
The people of Pompeii adored the theater. Many pictures of theaters and of scenes from plays were painted on the walls inside houses, sculptures of theatrical masks stood in gardens, and there were graffiti praising actors on walls throughout the city. The focus of this interest was the Grand Theater. This large horseshoe-shaped structure was built into a natural hollow. It was probably constructed around 200 B.C. in the Greek style, but was rebuilt again and again. It had a broad wooden stage with room beneath for a large curtain and perhaps for machinery to create special effects. The rear of the stage, like most stages in antiquity, represented a palace, and was elaborately decorated with paintings, statues, and columns. It seated over 5,000 spectators. Since the population of Pompeii was only between 8,000 and 15,000, many theater goers must have come from the surrounding towns and countryside. The seats were divided into three levels. City magistrates sat on bronze or wooden stools on the four wide marble ledges in the lowest section while ordinary citizens sat on stone benches in the upper two sections. Some benches had narrow intervals marked off and numbered- perhaps these seats were reserved for some civic group. Wooden masts in the highest level held a large awning that could cover the entire theater.
Some scholars argue that Roman theater was dead by the first century A.D. since no plays of literary merit had been written for many decades and since the acting style was broad and melodramatic. On the other hand, theater was very popular at this time and many different types of performances were produced. There were revivals of Greek plays and of later Roman comic playwrights and spectacles with lavish costumes and special effects were often produced. Mime shows and farces were also very popular. Like our vaudeville, mime shows consisted of a series of short acts: musicians, dancers, acrobats, and animal acts interspersed with comic skits. The humor was slapstick, bawdy, and often referred to contemporary people and politics.
Actius, beloved of the people, come back soon. Fare thee well. -Graffiti from Pompeii
This message addressing a popular actor testifies to the popularity of the theater in Pompeii. The theater appealed to the Roman's love of color, spectacle, and melodrama. They were also very gregarious and fond of group activities. The popularity of the theater is attested to by the fact that there were many murals showing stages and scenes from plays, and the theatrical mask was a popular motif for painting and sculpture. Theater was ubiquitous in Pompeii. A large open air theater was near the center of town. It had seating for approximately 5,000 people, a large audience for a town whose population has recently been estimated at between 8,000 and 12,000. A smaller, covered theater for more intimate concerts was built nearby, and there were probably street musicians and performances in private homes as well.
The stage was so popular that repair of the large theater was financed by politicians seeking public office. The theater was probably around 300 years old at the time of the eruption and had been renovated at least four times. There was an ornate, colorful stage, which, like most Roman theaters, was meant to depict the front of a Greek palace (It is ironic that during the Renaissance, Roman stages were used as the pattern for the homes of the wealthy- the same architectural form went from being a palace to being a stage and back to being a palace). There was a large curtain which masked the whole stage as well as smaller curtains which covered only part of the stage. Magistrates and other important people sat on bronze or wooden stools at the front of the theater, ordinary theater goers sat on stone benches higher up in the theater. There were some seats that were marked off and numbered- these were only 16 inches wide. The theater could be covered with a large awning called a vellum.
The theater offered many different types of entertainment. Revivals of Greek plays required elaborate staging using masks and traditional costumes. Revivals of Roman comedies were also popular, though very few new ones were being written in the first century AD. There were also lavish spectacles featuring ornate costumes and dramatic special effects. In the next century Apuleius reported a hill made of wood with real animals grazing on it. The Romans also had a type of show called pantomime, which differed from our pantomime in that they were plays in which all the parts were danced by one performer called an archmime, while others spoke or sang the words. There were also short skits called mimes, featuring melodramatic plots, broad and often bawdy humor, and caricatures of many professions and of many types of people, such as misers, braggarts, and fools. There mimes were often interspersed with acts of various sorts- acrobats, animal acts, musicians and jugglers were popular. There were even what amounted to strip-teases.
Carpiceci, A.C. Pompeii 2000 Years Ago. Contains many reconstructions of
Connolly, Peter. Pompeii. This informative book examines in detail the
buildings and activities in a single city block of Pompeii,
Etienne, Robert. Pompeii: The Day A City Died. An extremely good
Mau, Augustus. Pompeii: Its Life
and Art. An older work, but still
Ward-Perkins, John and Claridge, Amanda, Pompeii AD79. The exhibition
catalogue from an exhibition of objects from Pompeii.
Apuleius, Lucius. The Golden Ass.
This bawdy and hilarious work by a Roman author contains a
section on the worship of Isis.
Bierber, Margarete, The History of the Greek and Roman Theater,.
Describes Roman plays, acting, and theater buildings.
Brilliant, Richard. Pompeii,:The
Treasure of Rediscovery.
The continuing story of how Pompeii was discovered and
excavated, and how society reacted to these rediscoveries.
Jashemski,Wilhelmina. The Gardens
This fine study explores the Romans' love of gardens.
Kleiner, Diana E. E., Roman Sculpture
Maiuri. Amedeo, Roman Painting. This
classic book on Roman
painting contains many pictures from Pompeii.
Sebesta, Judith Lynn and Bonfante,
The World of Roman Costume. Contains articles on such topics
as Roman textiles, Roman bridal
costumes, and how to make your own Roman costumes
Witt, R. E., Isis in the Graeco-Roman
world. A comprehensive study on
the worship of Isis