Ancient house owned by freedmen reopens in Pompeii after 20 years

Nearly two thousand years ago the eruption of Mount Vesuvius tragically engulfed the prosperous city of Pompeii and its inhabitants under volcanic ash. Archaeologists rediscovered the site in the 19th century, but it consequently suffered decades of neglect, flooding, and pillaging. After twenty years of intensive restoration, one of Pompeii’s most lavish homes officially reopened to visitors on Tuesday.

The spectacular House of the Vettii was constructed around the second century BC in the ancient city’s wealthy quarter. It was owned by Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, who made their fortune selling wine after being freed from slavery.

This is the house which tells the story of Roman society,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of Pompeii archaeological park. “On the one hand you have the artwork, paintings and statues, and on the other you have the social story.”

Restitutus and Conviva filled their home with stylish frescoes, sculptures, and a fountain. The paintings often reflected the function of the room, for example a small mythological frieze in what is believed to be the dining room (triclinium) features cupids engaged in productive activities like selling wine. Guests were foremost entertained in the dining room, where the two hosts could impress with artistic references to their successful business.

Other paintings are much more shocking to the modern viewer. Close to the kitchen, there is a tiny room that was thought to have been used as a brothel containing numerous erotic frescos. A fresco at the entrance of the home depicts Priapus, the god of fertility and abundance, weighing his large penis on a scale next to a bag full of money. To the ancient viewer, the penis was an apotropaic symbol that warded off bad luck and encouraged fertility, health, good business, and wealth.

They [the owners] evidently tried to show their new status also through culture and through Greek mythological paintings,” explained Zuchtriegel. “It’s all about saying, ‘We’ve made it and so we are part of the elite of the Roman world.’

During the Roman Empire, it was not uncommon for freedmen (known in Latin as liberti) to be highly educated and achieve considerable levels of wealth and business success. However, the type of Roman citizenship granted to freed slaves barred them from most forms of social mobility. Experts believe Restitutus and Conviva shared the same first name not because they were related but because they had the same master, called Aulus Vettius.

This renovation project is the latest phase in the revamping of Pompeii. It follows last year’s rediscovery of a series of furnished rooms in another Pompeii residence belonging to a middle-class family.

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