First, a garden city of modest houses with ample grounds was transformed by population growth and an infilling of new buildings. Then, the bigger properties consumed the smaller as the rich got richer in the last 200 years of Pompeii’s existence.
These are the conclusions of a joint Anglo-American project set up by Rick Jones of Bradford University to investigate an entire block of buildings in the north-west corner of the city (Insula 1, Region VI). After eight years excavating ‘the House of the Vestals’ (so called to titillate nineteenth century tourists), Jones and colleagues have reconstructed the story of one of Pompeii’s grandest houses over a period of 400 years. It is a story of expansion, luxury and conspicuous consumption as the owners of the house engaged in the power games being played out at the top of Pompeian society. But inequality was rife. While the House of the Vestals housed some of the richest people in town, in small bars, workshops and upstairs rental apartments in the same block lived some of the city’s poorest. And within the grand house, in cramped and dingy service areas, largely shut off from the elegant reception-rooms and porticoes, lived the slaves who served the owners. In the last two centuries of its existence, Pompeii was a city of extremes.
The early house
The House of the Vestals is close to the Herculaneum Gate, where the clearance of Pompeii began in the second half of the eighteenth century. Much of the decoration was systematically stripped (some can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples), and what was left has degraded to almost nothing over the last two centuries. So the House of the Vestals, once among the city’s 30 richest residences, is poorly preserved today. Most tourists would not give it a second glance. But the art historian’s loss is the archaeologist’s gain. The masonry exposed by the disintegration of wall-plaster can be studied to work out a sequence of building phases. And with little in the way of surviving mosaic, floors can be dug up to investigate the earlier history of the house.
In the late third century BC, there were just two modest masonry houses in the block, the precursors of the House of the Vestals and the neighbouring House of the Surgeon (so called for the collection of medical instruments found there in early excavations). Both properties fronted onto the Via Consolare, the main road leading from the Herculaneum Gate to the town centre, and the rest of the block appears to have been undeveloped at this time. There is evidence that farm animals were kept here and cereal crops processed; evidence, that is, that these were urban farms. During the second century, however, the block filled up with small courtyard houses and commercial properties, some now fronting onto the narrow alleyway (Vicolo di Narciso) which formed the other principal boundary of the triangular-shaped block.
The House of the Vestals more than doubled in size (from four or five rooms to nine rooms with an enclosed garden) and now extended the full width of the block. New features were introduced: an atrium (a square court inside the main entrance with a central opening in the roof and a basin in the floor to collect rainwater); and a separate service area, so that slaves, stores and domestic tasks could be kept out of sight. The House of the Vestals became the dominant residence in the block. The owners also controlled some of the other properties. A new courtyard house was built as part of the same construction as the House of the Vestals’ rear extension; presumably it was let out as a source of income. A commercial property with concrete-lined tanks on the Via Consolare frontage – perhaps a seafood bar – was joined by a passageway to the House of the Vestals; the owners must have received a share in the profits.
‘In the second century BC,’ explains Rick Jones, ‘we’re seeing the first signs of social and economic inequality in our neighbourhood. Although the block became heavily built-up with small houses and workplaces, we can see this as part of the expansion of the House of the Vestals. It was unique among its neighbours in having status architecture in the form of an atrium. The service area suggests a larger household of slaves than elsewhere in the block. At the same time, the owners were investing heavily in the urban economy, building and staffing workshops on the busy Via Consolare, and renting out a separate house on the quiet Vicolo di Narciso. We’ve got the beginnings of the complex forms of urban life that characterise the later years of Pompeii’s history.’
Conspicuous consumption
Why now? This was the time of Rome’s greatest conquests. At the end of the third century BC, Rome had had to fight a terrible war against Hannibal to retain control of her Italian land empire. Only then did she achieve unchallenged superpower status. In the second century her armies began the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean, and the wealth of Greece and Asia Minor began to flow into Italy. Her success continued undiminished in the first century, when Syria, the Levant and Egypt were seized. Victory, plunder and tribute enriched the Italian elite a hundred-fold. Great monuments were built. Grand houses expanded and filled up with marble and mosaics. The rich paraded wealth and dispensed it in great handfuls as they competed for popular favour and the honour of elective office.
There was no embarrassment about wealth. If you looked rich, it was a sign you were powerful, and that meant you had influence as a patron. Clients were attracted by wealth. Conspicuous consumption was a way of building up the retinues of leading men, providing them with blocks of voters, canvassers and, if came to it, heavies for a street fight. But as new wealth poured into Italy, status symbols became inflationary. To keep up, leading families had to extend and improve their main residence.
In the early first century BC, Italy was convulsed by civil war, the Italian cities demanding Roman citizenship (in effect, equality of opportunity). Pompeii joined the revolt and in 89 BC was besieged by the Roman general Sulla. The main attack was launched at the Herculaneum Gate. The walls there still bear the scars of stone-shot hurled by Sulla’s artillery. Many buildings close to the wall were badly damaged. In the aftermath, the owners of the House of the Vestals took the opportunity to absorb the two courtyard houses to the north into their own property and to carry out a wholesale remodelling of the entire complex.
The owners now had the space to create an elaborate series of reception rooms surrounding two peristyles (colonnaded courtyards), arranged axially, such that guests admitted to one part of the house might nonetheless be aware of its extent and grandeur. There was also a small private bath-house. The commercial properties fronting the Via Consolare were also rebuilt. As well as an entrance to the stable area of the House of the Vestals, there was a smithy and a food and drink shop, both still linked by passageways to the main house and therefore presumably linked to it economically.
The late house
Less than a hundred years later, the House of the Vestals was transformed again. While mosaic floors were laid throughout the house, and rooms redecorated in the fashionable Third Style of Pompeian wall-painting, fundamental to the new design was the provision of piped water and garden fountains, made possible by the recent construction of an imperial aqueduct to the city. ‘Although the main structural elements of the house were retained,’ explains Rick Jones, ‘the whole building was effectively gutted and reorganised within the same basic limits of its plot. The roof was extensively removed, walls were stripped of plaster, and floors ripped up. The scale of the changes showed that they were part of a single coherently planned scheme. The creation of water-display features inside the house was at the heart of the new design. The piped water-supply was entirely devoted to display: water for domestic use was still provided from underground cisterns.’
No other property in the block received piped aqueduct water. Another mark of growing inequality. No attempt was made to store this expensive commodity; the overflow discharged into the street. More conspicuous consumption.
In place of long vistas through the house, the interior space was now broken up into distinct areas, each with its water feature. The atrium was re-floored in black and white mosaic, the central rainwater basin (impluvium) was refaced in marble and graced with a fountain, and a group of rooms on the north side were knocked into one and floored in white mosaic. The small peristyle just beyond the atrium was redesigned with an elaborate fountain, which spouted from the southern wall to fill a large open pool, the water cascading over the northern lip into a drain leading out to the street. An enlarged service area, with kitchen, toilet, storage and work rooms, plus an upper storey, was built between the small and large peristyles, blocking the view between them, but creating a sense that there were separate areas within the house, some more private than others, such that the status of a visitor could be symbolically expressed by his degree of access, and by what and who he was permitted to see.
Turning left and passing the service area, you approached the most lavishly appointed and intimate part of the house. It was centred around the atrium of the small courtyard house incorporated into the House of the Vestals in the second century BC. There was a private rear entrance on Vicolo di Narciso (presumably for the use only of family and select others). SALVE (‘welcome’) announced the threshold mosaic at the street-front entrance. The atrium was floored in white mosaic with a band of red and a scrolling leaf and tendril design around the edge of the room. This design was mirrored by the mosaic around the fountain, but here there were also interlocking swastika decoration and small panels depicting altars, fruits and flowers. The central pool was lined with marble and had a fountain.
A bath-suite was constructed on the north-east side of the atrium. There was an entrance, hot and warm rooms, a hot plunge pool, a wash room, and, in the middle of the large peristyle, an open-air swimming pool. Around the peristyle were a large enclosed hall and some lavishly decorated rooms with views of the garden, including one with a stunning blue wall-painting and marble veneers on walls and floor, and another with decorative glass roundels set in the floor.
‘The overall effect of the house at this phase,’ says Rick Jones, ‘was a coherently planned scheme of lavish display. In all there were at least four fountains. The cost of the renovation must have been very high, and it was meant to show. It was easily visible to visitors who came inside the house, but even those outside would see the water from the fountains flowing away down the streets.’
After the earthquake
The House of the Vestals lasted like this for half a century. Then, on 5 February AD 62, the earthquake struck and devastated the city. Though the municipal water-supply was quickly restored, that to private houses, in this neighbourhood at least, remained suspended. ‘This had severe implications for the owners of the House of the Vestals, who had based the decoration of their property on the lavish provision of fountains. Consequently, another period of reconstruction and redecoration was undertaken in the house. The owners were clearly concerned with maintaining their house as an active status symbol in the post-earthquake years. It demonstrates that the fierce social competition which characterised the Pompeian elite in the first century AD continued to the very end.’
If water features symbolised wealth, water features without water symbolised decay. The whole house had to be remodelled on the basis of the limited supply provided by collected rainwater. The change was expected to be permanent, for the lead pipes were removed everywhere, even those running under mosaics. The bath-suite was given up. The swimming pool became a paddling pool. Most fountains were replaced by pools of standing water. But tremendous effort was expended to create one functioning fountain in the large peristyle. So important was this that the whole north end of the house was redesigned to provide it. A reception room became a large above-ground cistern, reinforced with an inner wall and strengthened corners. A new upper floor was built and the roof raised around parts of the peristyle to increase the flow of rainwater. Here and elsewhere, walls were repainted in the Pompeian Fourth Style. But the decorators never finished their work. Before they could do so, the House of the Vestals was destroyed by the eruption of 24 August AD 79.
‘The house,’ the excavators conclude, ‘was almost always in a state of development. Innovations in architecture and decoration were embraced and routinely incorporated into this elite property. The changes reflected the way in which the House of the Vestals was used as a vehicle for the display of luxury, to emphasise the status of its occupants, to associate them with the highest strata of society, and to underline the distance between them and the majority of the Pompeian population. The House of the Vestals played an active role in the social and political life of the city. Therefore, new fashions had to be kept up to keep the house in peak working condition.’

Water is partly a utilitarian matter. You need water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. In ancient Pompeii, most people collected water for domestic use from underground cisterns where rainwater was collected, from public wells (under the Republic), or from public fountains fed by the city aqueduct (under the Caesars). Those living in the grand houses also had household cisterns, usually under the floor of the atrium. Water drained off the roof through a central opening (compluvium) into a basin in the floor (impluvium), from which it was channelled into the cistern beneath; often there was a small covered hole in the floor of the atrium through which water could be retrieved by lowering a bucket. These were the only sources of water to the House of the Vestals before the early first century AD. They continued, moreover, to provide water for essential household use until the end.
Pressurised water carried to the house in lead pipes from the city aqueduct was quite another matter. It opened opportunities for new decorative experiments, and fountains and pools came to grace every elite house in the city.
The aqueduct entered the city through the northern curtain wall, near the Vesuvius Gate, where there was a castellum aquae (water tower) which received the water, filtered it, and then channelled it into three pipes for distribution. The castellum aquae was at the highest point in the city. The water flowed in calibrated pressurised lead pipes. Small secondary water towers moderated the pressure which built up on the main north-south slope in the city. Aqueduct water, as well as supplying public baths and fountains, was piped to around one in eight private houses. From the works of Frontinus, a Roman water engineer, and Vitruvius, a Roman architect, we learn that a private water-supply was a privilege. You had to pull strings and you had to pay. The aediles, the elected officials in charge of public services, granted specific amounts of water, drained from the main artery in calibrated pipes, only to leading citizens. There was vigilance against abuse: ‘concerning the right to pipe water to private houses, he [the aedile] must watch carefully that no-one does so without a written authorisation from the emperor, that is, that no-one draws off water that he has not been officially authorised to, and that no-one draws off more than he has been authorised to’ (Frontinus).
The House of the Vestals was substantially rebuilt in the 20s AD to allow pipes to be laid through the complex and at least four fountains to be installed. In the subsequent redecoration, virtually all rooms except for the service area were laid with mosaic floors, and all the major reception rooms decorated with Third Style wall-paintings. The result was a radically new experience of space and ornament.
The former axial structure of the property was abandoned, with its linear route between reception rooms around the atrium-small peristyle complex at the front of the house and the atrium-large peristyle complex at the rear. Instead, a more circuitous route through the property was created, where the journey from front to back became a drama of movement between open areas containing fountains and natural light and dark narrow corridors. Water played the predominant role within the open areas, creating focal points for decorative ensembles, underlining the wealth and status of the owners of the property to visitors. Also, most of the fountains were arranged so that they could be seen through entrances, while the overflow ran conspicuously out into the street. Glimpses of grandeur to impress the passer-by. A complete panorama of mosaics, frescoes, columns and fountains for the honoured guest.
Meantime, the slaves continued to collect water in buckets for household chores.

The politics of running water
Water is partly a utilitarian matter. You need water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. In ancient Pompeii, most people collected water for domestic use from underground cisterns where rainwater was collected, from public wells (under the Republic), or from public fountains fed by the city aqueduct (under the Caesars). Those living in the grand houses also had household cisterns, usually under the floor of the atrium. Water drained off the roof through a central opening (compluvium) into a basin in the floor (impluvium), from which it was channelled into the cistern beneath; often there was a small covered hole in the floor of the atrium through which water could be retrieved by lowering a bucket. These were the only sources of water to the House of the Vestals before the early first century AD. They continued, moreover, to provide water for essential household use until the end.
Pressurised water carried to the house in lead pipes from the city aqueduct was quite another matter. It opened opportunities for new decorative experiments, and fountains and pools came to grace every elite house in the city.
The aqueduct entered the city through the northern curtain wall, near the Vesuvius Gate, where there was a castellum aquae (water tower) which received the water, filtered it, and then channelled it into three pipes for distribution. The castellum aquae was at the highest point in the city. The water flowed in calibrated pressurised lead pipes. Small secondary water towers moderated the pressure which built up on the main north-south slope in the city. Aqueduct water, as well as supplying public baths and fountains, was piped to around one in eight private houses. From the works of Frontinus, a Roman water engineer, and Vitruvius, a Roman architect, we learn that a private water-supply was a privilege. You had to pull strings and you had to pay. The aediles, the elected officials in charge of public services, granted specific amounts of water, drained from the main artery in calibrated pipes, only to leading citizens. There was vigilance against abuse: ‘concerning the right to pipe water to private houses, he [the aedile] must watch carefully that no-one does so without a written authorisation from the emperor, that is, that no-one draws off water that he has not been officially authorised to, and that no-one draws off more than he has been authorised to’ (Frontinus).
The House of the Vestals was substantially rebuilt in the 20s AD to allow pipes to be laid through the complex and at least four fountains to be installed. In the subsequent redecoration, virtually all rooms except for the service area were laid with mosaic floors, and all the major reception rooms decorated with Third Style wall-paintings. The result was a radically new experience of space and ornament.
The former axial structure of the property was abandoned, with its linear route between reception rooms around the atrium-small peristyle complex at the front of the house and the atrium-large peristyle complex at the rear. Instead, a more circuitous route through the property was created, where the journey from front to back became a drama of movement between open areas containing fountains and natural light and dark narrow corridors. Water played the predominant role within the open areas, creating focal points for decorative ensembles, underlining the wealth and status of the owners of the property to visitors. Also, most of the fountains were arranged so that they could be seen through entrances, while the overflow ran conspicuously out into the street. Glimpses of grandeur to impress the passer-by. A complete panorama of mosaics, frescoes, columns and fountains for the honoured guest.
Meantime, the slaves continued to collect water in buckets for household chores.

Stop Press: new Bradford discoveries
Rick Jones brings us right up to date with a brief report on his latest work at Pompeii – leading to very different conclusions about the dating of the street-grid from those of the Reading team reported elsewhere in this issue.

The Pompeii that was destroyed in AD 79 was an old place. Excavations by Italian archaeologists have established that the defences defining the city date back to the fifth or sixth centuries, the same period as the first temples known. What’s much less clear is which domestic buildings were standing in this early period, as they were probably made of ephemeral materials of earth and wood and have been much disturbed by later construction.
Of the houses still standing in the city, the House of the Surgeon has often been claimed as one of the oldest, dated to the fourth century BC. It has a distinctive style of massive limestone masonry known as opus quadratum. Ironically it was the location of the very first excavation below the AD 79 surfaces – by Amedeo Maiuri in 1926. Sadly this wasn’t carried out to modern stratigraphic standards, but Maiuri’s dating of the house to the fourth century BC has carried great authority. The House of the Surgeon lies in the block being studied by the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii and we began excavation there in 2002, including the re-excavation of Maiuri’s trenches. It’s always a curious experience to look again at what others have exposed decades earlier!
Our work has transformed the story of the house. It is now certain that the House of the Surgeon was not built before c. 200 BC. We found a coin dating no earlier then the end of the third century BC in layers cut by the construction trenches for the opus quadratum house. Its original plan was also significantly different from the one that has adorned textbooks of Roman architecture through the twentieth century.
Even more striking is the earlier house we found in 2003, demolished to make room for the construction of the standing house. Provisionally dated to the third century BC, it lay on a quite different alignment to the later house. This meant that this was not just a rebuilding of a house on the same plot, but a reorganisation of the property divisions.
Our discoveries fit with other new work on the layout of the city. A glance at the plan of the city shows that there are several groups of blocks that were apparently planned as sets. This has been recognised in research by a Dutch team led by Herman Geertman. One of that team, Astrid Schoonhoven, has studied in detail the northern part of the city, Regio VI. She concludes that the whole scheme of blocks there was part of a coherent plan. However, her observations are based on the measurements of the planned blocks, and can’t provide dating for this reorganisation of the city.
Our discoveries in the House of the Surgeon now give a date which seems to be consistent also with the results of excavations being carried out by Italian archaeologists Filippo Coarelli and Fabrizio Pesando. A new realisation is emerging that the city we now see in Pompeii was the result of a process of wholesale re-planning which erased earlier properties. It probably took place during the third century BC, even if the new buildings to fill the planned spaces may not have been completed until well into the second century.
It is now well established that the city of AD 79 was a dynamic one, in constant change through the first century AD. We also now know that those changes were taking place within an urban framework that was created by a massive effort of urban planning three centuries earlier.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 4. Click here to subscribe

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