10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived

Natasha sheldon - May 16, 2018

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Statue of Nonius Balbus on the cliffside terrace in Herculaneum. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Marcus Nonius Balbus

Marcus Nonius Balbus was Herculaneum’s principle civic benefactor. During his lifetime, he embellished the town with civic monuments and public facilities, earning the gratitude of Herculaneum’s council. They erected statues of Balbus in all of Herculaneum’s major municipal areas and voted to name the basilica Balbus had financed the Basilica Nonius. The basilica’s interior was filled not with statues of the gods or imperial family but Balbus’s family: his parents, his wife and children and Balbus himself. It was an expression of fawning gratitude that may have gone some way to soothing Balbus’s thwarted ambitions.

Marcus Nonius Balbus was not a native citizen of Herculaneum. He originally came from the town of Nuceria, near Pompeii. However, Balbus had his eye on a political career in Rome. He was the first member of the family to hold public office there, and at the time of Julius Caesar’s death, he held the position of tribune. After Caesar’s murder, Balbus proved himself a canny judge of the political situation, choosing to side with the future Emperor, Augustus against Mark Anthony.

Balbus’s support of Augustus earned him a reference in Cassius Dio’s History of Rome and Augustus himself rewarded Balbus with more political positions. According to the honorific descriptions on his statues, Balbus was a praetor and proconsul of Rome. Augustus also appointed him governor of Crete and Cyrene. However, despite growing wealth and the advantages of imperial patronage, Balbus’s Roman political career stalled. Sensing he was doomed to be only a footnote of Roman history, he decided to choose a smaller stage on which to become a key player. So he headed to the Campanian coast and Herculaneum.

In Roman society, the way to political influence was through civic beneficence. Herculaneum was just a small seaside resort, although highly favored by the Roman elite as a summer retreat. It was the perfect place for Balbus to make his mark. Perhaps he believed he could use Herculaneum as a way of showcasing himself back into power. Or maybe he reasoned it was better to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a minnow in the sea. Either way, Balbus began to transform Herculaneum, embellishing it with civic monuments worthy of a much more significant place that a small coastal town.

Besides the basilica, Balbus built the town’s walls and its new suburban baths in the cliffs top terraces overlooking the sea. The Baths were visually stunning. Before reaching the bath suite, visitors passed through an ornate entrance hall and a colonnaded vaulted vestibule, complete with a fountain in the form of a bust of the god Apollo. The Baths contain one feature which shows Balbus believed he had bought Herculaneum with his beneficence: a private entrance connecting the Suburban baths to Balbus’s luxurious, home next door. For Balbus’s house did not have a Bath Suite- suggesting that, while Balbus had nominally made a gift of the Suburban Baths to Herculaneum, he regarded them, and the rest of the town as his own.

Pompeii also had its benefactors- local men who not only won the city’s gratitude but succeeded where Balbus failed and won the favor of Rome.

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Illustration from Fausto and Felice Niccolini, Le case ed I monumenti di Pompeii: disegnati e descritti (Naples, 1854-1896) Google Images. Public Domain

Marcus Holconius Rufus

The Holconii was an old, Pompeian family whose money came not from trade but from land. The family was viticulturists, with vines so notable that Columella notes that one variety, they Holconins vine was named after them. Grape growing and wine made the Holconii wealthy enough to compete for power and influence in Pompeii’s local government. Like Nonius Balbus, they won over the town council and the electorate the traditional way: through Municipal construction. However, no one did quite as well as Marcus Holconius Rufus.

Holconius Rufus enjoyed a long and prominent public life in Pompeii from around 20BC until the Augustan period. Inscriptions on the bases of his statues around the city showed that he enjoyed an unprecedented number of political appointments. He was elected chief magistrate or quinquennalis and was appointed duumvir- one Pompeii’s two City ‘consuls’- no less than five times. At his peak, Pompeii awarded Holconius Rufus his highest monumentalized honor of all: a statue overlooking one of the most prominent parts of the city: the intersection between the Via Stabiana and the Via dell’ Abbondanza- two of Pompeii’s major roads.

Holconius was given all these honors by a city grateful for his Municipal beneficence. In the early Augustan period, Rome finally pardoned Pompeii for its role in the Italic Social Wars. The local elites, previously barred from local politics were back in business. So they began to claw back lost political ground by building. Holconius Rufus was particularly successful. One of his major projects was the renovation of the large theatre. The town council was so grateful for his contribution that they awarded Holconius a permanent seat in the theatre with the best views of the stage- complete with a lavish bronze-lettered inscription.

However, Holconius Rufus was not just courting Pompeii; he was also courting Rome. Around the same time that he was rebuilding the theatre, Holconius also made some alterations to the sanctuary of Apollo. The alterations caused annoyance to some locals when one of the new walls obscured some of their light, obliging Holconius to pay the householders compensation. It seems strange that such a canny local politician would upset potential voters in this way- until you take into account that Augustus was emperor and Apollo was Augustus’s patron deity. Holconius could afford some local upset if he won imperial favor.

Holconius’s tactics worked, and he gained favor from Rome. We know this because he was one of the few members of the local Pompeian elite to have acted as the town’s patron after Pompeii became a Roman colony. The patron was chosen to represent Pompeii’s interests in the capital, so they had to have connections and influence. Past patrons had included Augustus’s nephew, Marcellus. So Holconius had won the ear of someone powerful- maybe the emperor himself. In this respect, Holconius Rufus had succeeded where his near-contemporary Balbus failed.

However, not everyone who went into local politics was from the landed gentry.

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Atrium of the House of Paquius Proculus, showing artificial doorways. Google Images.

Publius Paquius Proculus

It was common in Pompeii to use the walls of houses and shops lining the town’s busy roadways as billboards for advertisements-especially at election time. Signwriters were paid to daub these election notices, which advertised the candidates, showed who supported them and often announced who had won. Many of the notices from the last years of Pompeii still survive and give us valuable information about the types of people running for election- and who succeeded in being elected.

One of the last batches of candidates for political office was Publius Paquius Proculus. “Thalamus, his client elects Publius Paquius Proculus duumvir with judicial power,” announced graffiti from the said Thalamus, painted on the street wall near the entrance of the House of Paquius Proculus. It seems Thalamus was not the only one who supported Proculus for graffiti on the wall of the amphitheater tells us that: “All Pompeians have elected Publius P Proculus duumvir with judicial power, worthy of public office.”

Paquius Proculus had to have money to enter politics. It may have been from trade- but we cannot say for sure. In fact, Paquius Proculus is a lesson in the care needed when recreating the life stories of Pompeian people. He was initially thought to be a baker, because of another of his election notices, daubed on a house in region VII, an area between the Via Stabiana and the forum. The house, which was attached to a bakery, included a portrait of the baker and his wife. Due to the graffiti, early archaeologists assumed the house, and so the picture belonged to Proculus. However, graffiti within the building later identified it and the portrait as actually belonging to a Terentius Neo.

However he made his money, the House of Paquius Proculus on the Via dell’ Abbondanza is generally agreed to be the Proculus residence. It was an impressive residence with an expansive peristyle garden and entertainment suite. However, there was just one problem: its main reception area was rather small- a clear indication that the house hadn’t been built for a politician. For the atrium was the place that important men received their clients- and it had to reflect the importance of the master of the house.

Proculus’s atrium took up the entire width of the front of the house, and it was apparent no other rooms surrounded it. It made the house look small, diminishing Proculus in the eyes of his clients- not good for a leading politician. So, Proculus overcame the problem like every good politician throughout the ages: by lying. He redecorated the atrium and had door-shaped niches inserted into the atrium walls, to create the illusion of more rooms and corridors running off from the atrium. This fakery made his house looks more substantial than it was, allowing it to live up to its owner’s social aspirations.

Roman custom barred women from taking part directly in politics. However, they were not without power and influence, as our next Pompeian shows.

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Statue of Eumachia. Picture Credit: Smuconlaw. Wikimedia Commons under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

Eumachia

Eumachia was a woman who defied social conventions. Not content to sit in the background, as a typical Roman matron was supposed to, she acquired standing within the Pompeian community in her own right. Eumachia’s initial wealth came from her father, Lucius’ Eumachius’s ceramic business. Eumachius’s name has been found stamped on several bricks and roof tiles dated between 50-25BC. He also seems to have manufactured wine amphorae, as archaeologists have found pottery vessels bearing his name have across the empire in the south of France, North Africa, and Spain.

Eumachius seems to have been well respected, as most inscriptions Eumachia set up were careful to identify her as his daughter, rather than naming her husband. For some time during the early imperial period, a match was made between Eumachia and Marcus Numistrius Fronto of the Numistrii. Fronto was a duumvir of Pompeii in 3AD and so a prominent man. However, his name is nowhere to be seen on any of Eumachia’s civic dedications. This absence was probably because Eumachia was by that time a widow. However, it also suggests she was looking for a public role of her own.

Eumachia became a public priestess, the only Civic role open to a woman. She had also started financing her own civic monuments, including the famous Eumachia Building on the edge of the forum. This building was not constructed to enhance Eumachia’s political prospects, for Roman women could not vote nor could they stand for public office. However, Eumachia had a son, Marcus Numistrius Fronto the younger whose own career need to be advanced. “Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, in her own name and that of her son, Marcus Numistrius Fronto, built at her own expense, the chalcidicum, crypt and portico in honor of Augustan concord and piety and also dedicated them,” read the inscription over the building’s portico.

Fronto Junior’s name was prominent. However, there was no doubt who the people of Pompeii had to thank for the building. Eumachia was acting as a patron in her own right- and she was earning gratitude for it. At the back of the Eumachia building, in a central niche, a statue to the Eumachia was set up by the fuller’s guild. Whether this indicates Eumachia was involved in the cloth industry or had merely performed some service for the fuller’s guild, we will never know. However, she was significant enough to them to deserve a very public gesture of thanks.

However, the most significant statement of Eumachia’s standing was her tomb. It is the largest tomb found so far in Pompeii, raised above the street and set back from a terraced area which includes seats for visiting mourners. It was a tomb designed to hold not only Eumachia but also her future descendants. Eumachia was a Roman matron who believed she and she alone had established a legacy for generations to come.

Ex-slaves, like women, were denied a political role in Roman society. However, some became wealthy enough to wield influence in other ways

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Replica of a Roman wax tablet, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Ennycius

The Mammi was one of the most prominent families in Herculaneum society. However, this did not mean they were wealthy. We know this because, at one point, members of the family were forced to take out a loan from the owner of The House of the Black Salon, a fashionable and prominent residence on Herculaneum’s main street, the Decumanus Maximus. The details of the loan were recorded amongst thirty-nine legal documents inscribed on wax tablets found in the house when it was excavated. They also give us the name of the house’s owner: Lucius Venidius Ennychus.

Ennychus was a rich man, for besides having spare cash to lend out, he was able to decorate his residence in the latest fashion. The House of the Black Salon was spacious and elegant. Its bedrooms were tastefully decorated with delicate monochrome patterns while its eponymous grand reception room had a dramatic black finish. However, Ennychus was a freedman and that had its disadvantages. But another part of Ennychus’s story also recorded in the tablets shows how ex-slaves could overcome their origins- with enough money and the right backers.

On the face of it, Ennychus had it all. He was wealthy and he could count influential people such as the Mammi amongst his clients. Yet there was one thing he lacked: Roman citizenship. Under Roman law, ex-slaves could not become citizens. This meant they could not hold office and were technically voiceless within Roman society. However, exceptions could be made under a law called the Lex Aelia Sentia.

Under this law, “when a slave below the age of thirty becomes by manumission a Latin, if he take to himself as wife ……. procures attestation by not less than seven witnesses, ….and begets a son, on the latter attaining the age of a year, he is entitled to apply to the praetor, …. if the magistrate to whom the proof is submitted pronounce the truth of the declaration, that Latin and his wife, …, and their son, …, are declared by the statute to be Roman citizens.’ (Institutes of Gaius 1.28).

The documents in the house tell us that in 61AD, a delegation of civic officials was sent from Herculaneum to Rome to petition the praetor Lucius Servenius Gallus on behalf of Ennychus and his wife. By this time, the couple met the requirements of the Lex Aelia Sentia in every respect, except that their child, who was born in 60 AD, was a daughter, not a son. Never the less, the petition for Ennychus and his wife to be recognized as free Roman citizens was granted- no doubt because of the pedigree’s of Ennychus’s backers- and the influence of his wealth.

Elsewhere in Herculaneum, wealth and envy led to a young girl being the center of a dramatic court case

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Fresco roundel with a portrait of a little girl, from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Picture credit Carole Raddato. CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. Wikimedia Commons

Justa

The House of the Bicentenary in Herculaneum was the home of Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife, Calantonia Themis. It was also the setting for a legal drama that spanned years and was never fully resolved. The central character in this drama was a teenage girl called Justa. Her story reads like a soap opera yet all of it is true. It can be found in the court records of Herculaneum that were buried and preserved in 79AD.

Justa’s mother was called Vitalis, and she was a slave of Petronius Stephanus. In 62AD, Justa was born, and around the same time, Petronius Stephanus allowed Vitalis her freedom. Although it was proper to record manumission formally, in reality, matters were more relaxed and Stephanus, simply presented Vitalis with a paper declaring her free in front of witnesses. Vitalis did not leave the house of her former master. She continued to live in and meanwhile, Justa was brought up ‘like a daughter’ by Stephanus and his wife.

However, after about ten years relations soured. Vitalis and Calatonia began to argue, and Vitalis decided to move out – helped by the fact that by this time she was prosperous in her own right. She wanted to take Justa with her but her former master and mistress wished to keep the little girl. So, Vitalis brought a lawsuit against them. The matter was settled out of court and Justa was finally reunited with her mother- after Vitalis reimbursed her former owners for their upkeep of the child.

There was, however, no happily ever after for Justa and Vitalis. Not long afterward, Vitalis died- leaving Justa, the heir to a considerable fortune. Calatonia who had recently been widowed sensed an opportunity. She filed another lawsuit to recover Justa, claiming that the child had been born before her mother’s manumission, making her a slave. All Calatonia needed was for a court to declare Justa, a slave- and she regained the child and secured a fortune.

The matter was so complex it ended up referred to Rome in 75AD. Witnesses were called and depositions amassed. One of Stephanus’s most trusted freedmen, his bailiff Telesforus testified that Justa was born after Vitalis’s manumission. It was Telesforus who had negotiated Justa’s return to her mother and his close interest in the child suggests she could have been his daughter. In any event, his testimony did little good. The case dragged on into 76AD and beyond as the court continued to consider the evidence. Justa’s status had still not been decided by the time Vesuvius erupted meaning she probably died in a state of limbo.

Meanwhile, in Pompeii, a local merchant of fish sauce was putting his wealth to good use.

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Garum mosaic from the villa of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus. Picture credit: Claus Ableiter. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported . Wikimedia commons.

Aulus Umbricius Scarus

Aulus Umbricius Scarus was no freedman. His trio of names suggests he was a Roman freeborn citizen, a fact that is confirmed by a family tomb epitaph, which confirms he was of the Menenian voting tribe. However, it does seem that Aulus was a new man; one whose fortune was newly made- and in trade to boot. For Aulus Umbricius Scarus was Pompeii’s foremost producer of garum or fish sauce. Over fifty urcei- the small, one-handled containers used for the condiment have been found in Pompeii bearing Scarus’s stamp. It is estimated that around 30% of Campania’s fish sauce came from his factories, which were known to export as far as the south of France.

Scarus made a fortune from his business, as can be seen in his house. Unlike the homes of some of Pompeii’s citizens, there is no doubting whose it belongs to. The house overlooks what was the coastline. Set over three stories, it was extremely luxurious with a colonnaded garden, its own bath suite and no less than three atria. It is the décor in one of these atria that advertises the identity of the owner. The mosaic around the room’s impluvium was adorned with four larger-than-life black and white urcei, each inscribed with Scarus’s name and advertising the excellence of his garum.

Each mosaic urcei boasted of the merits of a particular brand of Scarus’s fish sauce. Two related to lower grade garum while the other two boasted about Scarus’s liquamen- the highest grade of the sauce. “The flower of Scarus’s mackerel garum from the factory of Scarus, “announced the lettering. It may have seemed rather crass to use your home to advertise your business so blatantly- certainly to some of Pompeii’s elite. However, it also made good sense. After all, the atrium was where Scarus would meet his business associates. May as well let the décor do some of the talking for him.

In fact, Scarus’s urcei mosaics showed he was proud of his achievements, whatever the Pompeian elite might think. However, that did not mean that he did not want better for the next generation. While there is no evidence that Scarus himself courted public life, he certainly used his wealth to launch his son’s political career. Sadly, the young Scarus predeceased his father. However, the epitaph on his tomb reveals that while alive, he did his father proud.

“To Aulus Umbricius Scarus, son of Aulus, of the Menenian tribe, duumvir with judicial power.” The plaque begins, “The town councilors voted for him a site for his monument, 2000 sesterces for his funeral and an equestrian statue to be set up in the forum. His father Scarus dedicated this to his son.” Setting up monuments and paying for the funeral did not just honor the dead Scarus junior. It was also a way of courting the wealthy and still living Scarus senior. Aulus Umbricius Scarus may not have had political ambitions of his own. However, the city of Pompeii could still use his cash- newly minted or not.

Our last Pompeian was similarly unashamed of their life in trade.

10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived
Entrance to the tomb of Naevoleia Tyche. Wikimedia Commons

Naevoleia Tyche

Naevoleia Tyche did not inherit a fortune. Nor did she start her life as a free person. However, by the time the end of her life arrived, she had won her freedom and built up a lucrative business which allowed her to build not one but two tombs for herself and her husband, her fellow freedman Caius Munatius Faustus. The first tomb, where Faustus actually lies buried, is located along the street of tombs running away from the Herculaneum gate.

The tombs’ dedication reads as follows: “Naevoleia Tyche, freedwoman of Lucius, for herself and Gaius Munatius Faustus, an augustalis and suburban magistrate, to whom because of his merit the decuriones with the consent of the people voted a bisellium. Naevoleia Tyche built this monument while she was still living, for her freedmen and freedwomen and those of gaius Faustus.”

However, the tomb is much more than just a last resting place- and nor does it solely celebrate Faustus’s achievements. The facade of the tomb is a testimony to Tyche’s success despite her unpromising beginnings- and her sex. It shows a ship in full sail with the prominent figure of a woman at the stern. It can only be assumed that the woman is Tyche herself. This implies that the freedwoman made a fortune in her own right from shipping and trade.

The second tomb, in the necropolis of the Porta Nucera, is much more simple and was commissioned by Faustus. However, Tyche had her husband buried in her own more elaborate construct along the street of tombs. The two tombs show the very different attitudes of Tyche and Faustus to their life’s achievements. For while Faustus seems happy to mark his life quietly, possibly attempting to ape the quiet understatement of aristocratic tombs, Tyche Is advertising her achievements from the grave. She has worked for her freedom and wealth and she does not care who knows it.

 

Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

World History – Pompeii: Graffiti, Signs & Electoral Notices

History Extra – Who Were The Gladiators Of Ancient Rome?

Pompeii: A Study of Roman Tombs and the Freedmen, Per Steffen Hagen, University of Bergen, Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Science and Religion, 2016

Pompeii: A sourcebook, Alsion E Cooley and M G L Cooley, Routledge, 2006

The World of Pompeii, ed. John J Dobbins and Pedar W Foss, Routledge, 2008

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Paul Roberts, The British Museum Press, 2013

The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport, Fik Meijer, Souvenir Press, 2004

On Agriculture, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, A Millar, 1745

BBC – Gladiators: Heroes of the Roman Amphitheatre

Piranesi of Rome – The Founding and History of Pompeii until 79 AD

The Great Course Daily – The Other Side of History: The Ideal Roman Woman

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