Day to Day Life in Ancient Pompeii

The ancient ruins of Pompeii offer a snapshot into Roman life, but is that all we get? A snapshot? Surely these remains of an ancient civilisation can tell us more.

Pompeii Fresco

When people consider the Roman lifestyle, many assume that the rich lived a life of luxury and the poor lived one of drudgery. But this is a rather simple assumption which has left historians unsatisfied. Archaeologists have therefore continued to work on the site of Pompeii eager to unearth more about this ancient city. Whilst some things have confirmed our views of ancient Rome, such as the layout and contents of the town, which Pompeii seems to have abided by with its forum at one end and an amphitheatre at the other, some things have raised further questions around how the people of Pompeii lived.

To gain an understanding of these questions, archaeologists, historians and other scholars have had to go back to the beginning, to the suburb of Oplontis where Pompeii was first unearthed. It was here that the first skeletons of the city were found. Naturally, these remains are very moving, as, after all, the destruction of Pompeii was a human tragedy which now glares us in the face. At the same time, however, it is hard not to be curious as to what these bones can tell us. They were littered in a cellar, which must have seemed like a sensible place to flee to at the time, with the cellar being underground, but unfortunately for the victims, there was still decent access to the road, allowing for the ash, smoke and general destruction to invade the underground room. On inspection of the victims, archaeologists have found some interesting insight into the citizens of Pompeii. The bones have been split into two classes of citizens. On one side of the cellar, the bones are accompanied with possessions such as coins and jewels, whilst on the other, the victims possess nothing other than themselves, with the bones being all that is left of their existence. How can this divide be explained? And what more can these skeletons tell us?

The most likely theory that’s been settled on is that these bones show a strong distinction of wealth. Unlike other bones found in the ruins of Pompeii, these cellar bones are not jumbled up or covered in plaster, meaning whole skeletons have been accurately preserved, distinguishing one person from another. They remain uncontaminated and intact, in the same place they fell. This has been incredibly useful for forensic scientists who have been able to analyse the bones in detail.

What they found is an interesting look into the social divide of Pompeii. The bones which were found with possessions in the form of money and jewellery have a green tinge to them. This means their owners were either wearing or were buried with, metal objects that have reacted with the soil turning their bones green. This indicates wealth and high rank within society, which can be supported by their good health. Sound teeth and bone structure tell us that these people were both wealthy and healthy when they lived, and when they died. In contrast, the bones found without any possessions seemed worn and disfigured, with no such green tinge to them, implying these people were most likely very poor in comparison to their cellmates. Some of the leg bones also reveal tiny holes and swelling which shows an infection of the skin and bone. A possible reason for this could be a cut, which, without the right care and medication could get infected and fester. This was possibly made worse by the poor hygiene standards of the public baths. Whilst considered a clean and enjoyable activity at the time, the baths would have been a breeding ground for germs and bacteria. With zero circulation, people would have been washing in the same steamy water as everyone else, allowing germs to pass easily from one to the next. A simple leg cut would need only to take a trip to the baths to become suddenly very infected and painful.

Food in Ancient Pompeii

Food in Pompeii found in wall painting

What the cellar victims do have in common however is their nutrition. As might be expected the wealthier citizens were well fed and looked after. What some historians didn’t expect is that the poorer citizens would also show no sign of malnutrition, meaning they not only had enough food but that it was similar to that of the upper class. Reasons for this have been appointed to the 30 bakeries found in Pompeii, and the 81 carbonised loaves, cooked and ready to be sold, left perfectly preserved in one of the town’s many ovens. This suggests that rich and poor alike would have fed on the same bread, explaining their similarities in nutrition.

However, more recent excavations have also shown that the social divide in Pompeii wasn’t as simple as rich and poor, but that there was most likely a middle class who were neither ridiculously wealthy nor desperately poor. This once again comes from a study of their diet, which has been made possible by the perfectly preserved human waste found in a sewer 15 feet under the nearby town of Herculaneum. Over 700 bags of waste were collected and systematically analysed to tell us what the ordinary people of Pompeii might have been eating. Evidence of fish bones, chicken, fruit and nuts were found, demonstrating that even normal everyday people ate well. This shows that the social system of Pompeii wasn’t as simple as first thought, but a lot more complex, with many tiers of class and wealth seen throughout the city.

These excavations have provided us with a much clearer and more accurate view of the ancient Roman world than we could ever have imagined. It reminds us that our theories of history are simply that, theories. Without the historical evidence available we can only make assumptions about the past, and to improve our knowledge we must remain open-minded and give our ancestors more credit. They probably achieved so much more than we know, even if our customs and cultures have changed.

The day to day life of Pompeii was made up by a multitude of individuals, who, like today, cannot be so easily grouped into categories such as class, their story is much more complex and interesting than that.

Related article: Who were the people of Pompeii?

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