Daily Life in Pompeii

On 24 August 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted explosively, burying Pompeii under a crust of volcanic ash. For the next seventeen centuries, the city would remain lost, forgotten and preserved, sealed in a time capsule. Since excavations began in 1748, Pompeii was gradually revealed – street by street, building by building, room by room – providing an unparalleled record of life in the Roman Empire.

Explore this site to find out more about how the people of Pompeii lived and their culture and society. From social bathing to religious practices, businesses to public entertainment, the themes (listed in the menu) will provide the background to the objects you will see in A Day in Pompeii.

Fight club: the importance of the amphitheatre

Aside from the daily bathing ritual, the spectacles of the amphitheatre were the most popular form of entertainment in Pompeii. Pompeii’s amphitheatre was built sometime after 80 BC, making it the oldest known example of its kind in the Roman world. The contests Pompeians enjoyed were ultra-violent even by today’s standards, ranging from gladiator versus gladiator combat to fights that pitted men against various dangerous animals.

The theatre Source: © Museum Victoria
The theatre
Source: © Museum Victoria

Spectacles took place in the arena of the amphitheatre and often lasted two or three days. They were highly publicised and well attended, not only by the citizens of Pompeii but also by people from neighbouring towns, and sometimes became just as rowdy as modern sporting events. In 59 AD a riot broke out in the amphitheatre between Pompeian fans and the people of nearby Nuceria, and as a result the amphitheatre was closed for ten years – a hefty penalty for the crime. The riot is celebrated in a graffito found on the facade of the House of the Dioscuri, which portrays a triumphant gladiator carrying a palm of victory and saying, "Campanians, you perished with the Nucerians in our victory." (The region surrounding Mount Vesuvius was called Campania). Other Pompeian graffiti have been found depicting gladiatorial contests and listing the victories of favourite gladiators. These gladiators were often foreign slaves, and both men and women idolised them; one graffito reads: "Celadus the Thracian makes all the girls sigh."

Theatrical performances were another, gentler form of popular entertainment. Pompeii’s theatre was an old one, built in the second century BC in the Greek style and then enlarged and modernised in the Augustan period to make it more like a Roman theatre. Comedies and rustic farces were performed there, as well as mimed re-enactments of mythological scenes. The dramas of ancient Greece must also have been popular, judging from the wall paintings depicting the famous Greek playwright Menander. A small roofed odeum, or concert hall, was built next to the theatre in about 75 BC to provide an additional venue for musical entertainment.



High fashion and heavenly adornment, Roman-style

Pompeii was a hub of trade and travel, and its wealthier residents were knowledgeable about all the latest fashion and beauty trends from Rome and beyond. The standard garment for women throughout the Roman Empire was the stola, a long pleated dress that was draped around the body and pinned together with brooches (fibulae). The style of this garment was traditional and didn’t vary much, which made make-up and hairstyling even more important as a way to express a woman’s beauty and individuality.

The Roman beauty ideal was a white face, bright red lips and very dark eyes. To achieve this look, women used foundation creams and face powder made from white lead or powdered chalk and animal fat. Lipstick was made from ochre or molluscs, and eyeliner from soot or antimony powder. Fashionable women washed in water perfumed with cinnamon and balsam, and often used ass’s milk on the skin to prevent wrinkles. Other oil-based scents were derived from spices and herbs like cardamom, saffron, lavender, rose and orange, and were stored in small, tightly-stoppered glass bottles. Mirrors made from highly polished bronze or silver were, of course, essential items in the wealthy woman’s beauty kit.

The blond hair of Celtic women (usually slaves) was particularly prized for making wigs, but when this was not available, many women dyed their hair blonde and used hairnets of fine gold thread and hairpins of bone to hold their often elaborate hairstyles in place. Fashions in hairdressing changed rapidly, much as they do today. In Pompeii’s early years, women favoured simple chignons or buns at the back of the head, or plaits tied back in a band, but in the last years of Pompeii built-up hairstyles became popular. These were very complex and often required several slaves working at the same time, manipulating hairpieces and false curls to produce a towering head of hair.



A moveable feast: Pompeian kitchens and dining

In today’s houses, the kitchen tends to be a central feature, often used for eating and gathering with friends as well as cooking. In contrast, Roman kitchens were small, poorly lit rooms, usually tucked away at the back of the house. In most of the kitchens excavated at Pompeii, the only permanent feature left is a masonry hearth with a tiled top and arched recesses at the bottom for storing fuel. Cooking was done on this open hearth, with pots set on iron tripods over burning charcoal or wood. Some houses also boasted a small oven, much like a modern woodfired pizza oven, at the corner of the bench, with a vent near the stove for the smoke to escape. The only other furnishings in the Pompeian kitchen were a basin to hold water for cooking and washing up, and sometimes supports for tables to prepare the food.

Roman kitchen implements were simple, but practical and functional. Texts of the time use the word cacabus to mean pans in general, while the fretale or sartago seems to have been a bronze or iron frying pan. The pultarius was a saucepan, and the testa or clibanus a small portable oven for roasting or baking bread. Iron choppers, knives, cleavers and spoons, as well as strainers, ladles and mortars, were used to prepare the food, which was served on a large circular platter called a discus. Portable hearths of bronze or ceramic could be used in apartments or for a summer meal in the garden, and a craticula was a special grid used for barbecues.

Roman cuisine was also decidedly simple: food of all sorts was usually boiled, smoked, fried or baked and either seasoned with fish sauce (garum) or wine reduced to a thick syrup (defrutum) and thickened with starch (amulum).

Lunch (prandium), taken at midday, was a light meal consisting of meat or fish and fruit with perhaps some wine. Guests were not usually invited to prandium. During the hot Pompeian summer, this was followed by a siesta (meridiatio). The afternoon was the time for bathing, and after the baths (which might take several hours), the Pompeians ate their main meal (cena). As in any modern town, it was always possible to eat out at an inn (taberna). The menu (tabula lusoria) was displayed outside to entice passersby, and in one well-preserved instance, offered an impressive choice of chicken, fish and ham.

Garden painting

Material: Painted plaster

Location: House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

This large fresco covered the entire back wall of an outdoor dining room, creating the illusion of a lush garden populated with birds. The central niche may have framed a fountain. Pompeii’s climate favoured outdoor living and people sometimes dined in their gardens. A covered path along the garden’s perimeter allowed people to walk in the shade during the heat of the day. An abundant supply of water, fed by a complex system of aqueducts, gave rise to garden fountains, pools and canals. These enabled many types of plants to thrive — flowers, shrubs, fruit and nut trees, and vines.

SAP No: 59467

Garden painting Source: © William Starling, Alabamba, USA
Garden painting
Source: © William Starling, Alabamba, USA
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Header illustration: Mount Vesuvius, © Museum Victoria