The Villas and Houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum

The ruins which once stood as grand villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum have been invaluable to the study of ancient civilisations. Let’s see how much they have told us already…

Villa of the Mysteries

The houses and villas of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum are extremely important in allowing us to understand how the ancient civilisation lived, along with what type of architecture influenced the people of the city in the early first and second century. What makes Pompeii such a significant site is that nowhere else in the world is there a preserved area where remnants of ancient daily life have been left exactly where they were placed over 2000 years ago. From studying Pompeii we know that houses were used for a different purpose back then, acting as more of a meeting place for house owners to greet their business clients. Because of this, less emphasis was placed on the bedrooms of the house, which typically didn’t have any windows and was used solely as a place to sleep.

In Pompeii and Herculaneum, we see that at one point in time, they were heavily influenced by the Hellenic period of Greece, with rooms filled with shrines dedicated to the gods and goddesses. A typical house of a wealthy owner featured a relatively typical structure, rainwater came in through a rectangular hole in the ceiling and fell into a pool called an impluvium. Houses of the upper class were labelled as a Domus and featured an atrium, bedrooms and kitchens to one side, and a garden, which they called hortus, located at the back of the house. Lots of frescoes would have been painted on the walls of the house, and there were also agricultural areas attached to the main property where farming could be done.

  • Villa of the Mysteries

    This is an extremely important villa because it houses one of the most famous frescos in all of Ancient Rome. The villa itself dates to the 2nd century BC and was built just outside the gates of Pompeii. The entire area spanned 40,000 square feet and had 60 rooms from bedrooms to kitchens and servants’ quarters. At the time of the eruption, it was already 200 years old, however, it had previously been remodelled after a major earthquake from a luxurious villa into a working albeit grand farmhouse that had its own grape press.

    The room in which the villa gains both its name and fame houses a fresco that stretches over 17 metres long, a discovery that was made in 1909. The Mysteries of Dionysus is said to depict an initiation into the cult of the God of Wine; however, some arguments are made that the scene is in fact preparation for a wedding that is taking place. Either way, the vivid red colouring of the fresco has led people to nickname the area a ‘red room’, however, studies show that the room could have been a dining area. It took modern archaeologists 20 years to fully excavate as they had to continually stop and implement conservation methods to counteract the damage that previous excavators and exposure to elements had caused. As the ceiling of the room was exposed, wet rain and the sun have faded the paint and over the years there have been many efforts for preservation made. Currently, along with other methods, there are lasers which gently clean the frescoes.

  • Villa of Papyri Herculaneum

    This villa is one of the most exciting in Herculaneum, as it has a rich history. It belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father in law to Julius Caesar. It was built in the 1st century and features sculptures of intellects and philosophers. It was discovered by excavators in 1750, but it wasn’t till two years later that a room full of scrolls was found at the villa. The house gets its name from the 1800 cylinders filled with papyrus that had been coiled up for centuries. It was a priest at the Vatican who finally figured out how to unroll the papyri without breaking them, and from this, it was discovered that most of the writings were from the 1st-century philosopher Philodemus. The villa is so large that there’s a lot more which still needs to be excavated however archaeologists are more focused on conservation efforts to preserve what’s already been found.

  • House of the Faun

    House of the Faun

    Built during the ruling of the Samnite people, this house dates to the 3rd century BC and was excavated in 1830. It is one of the most visited houses in Pompeii and named for the statue of a faun that was found in front of the house. The house also has a mosaic in the atrium with the words ‘Have’ on the floor, meaning welcome. The house is also well known for a famous mosaic in it depicting the fight between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia in the Battle of Issus in 333BC. As one of the most illustrious houses in Pompeii, many of the sculptures found in the house are now stored at the National Archaeological Museum where they are being preserved from the harsh outside elements.

  • Samnite House

    The Samnite House is one of the oldest residential buildings found in Herculaneum. In fact, at the time of the eruption in 79AD, the house was already around 300 years old. In this house, a wooden partition that acted as a door was found, as well as a marble table. The trend in Herculaneum followed that of Rome’s as the mosaic were black and white as opposed to the coloured tiles of Pompeii. The name of the house comes from the people who founded the town, the Samnites, who were great rivals of Ancient Rome. They opposed the fact that Rome ruled over Southern Italy and the area of Herculaneum was once under the Samnite’s rule.

  • House of Neptune and Amphitrite

    This house is named for a mosaic in the courtyard of the house where an artificial grotto was found with a fountain inside. Around the fountain were vibrantly colourful mosaics of Neptune; God of the sea and his wife Amphitrite. This house is also special because it connects to an adjoining shop that is the best preserved in all of Herculaneum and Pompeii. When it was excavated, the shop, which we know sold wine, was discovered with jars of chickpeas and beans in them. While this shop was connected to the main house, the owner of the house probably didn’t actually operate this store, but rather rented it out to a middle-class merchant.

Related article: Places to visit near Pompeii

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