Its homes were adorned with gorgeous mosaic-tile floors and frescoed walls, its gardens festooned with pools, fountains and canals fed by an elaborate hydraulic system. Its olive oil and a fermented fish sauce called garum were coveted exports throughout the vast Roman Empire. But rather than a bastion of haughty nobility, Pompeii was a primarily middle-class city on the day it disappeared under Vesuvius' inexorable fury.
"There were a few wealthy middle-class citizens, but not many aristocrats or nobles in Pompeii," said Connie Rodriguez, professor of classical studies from Loyola University in New Orleans. "Actually, the majority of Pompeii's population probably was slaves. Even the poorer households had slaves."
Founded as a fishing town by the Etruscans in the 10th century B.C., Pompeii by 79 A.D. was a prosperous Roman province filled with small family-run businesses. Its robust economy was built around pottery, agriculture, milling and its bustling port on the Sarno River, near what is now called the Bay of Naples.
The waters provided a plethora of food, including the mackerel and anchovies that went into the garum. Out of the unusually fertile soil -- enriched, unbeknownst to the farmers, by previous volcanoes -- sprang many of the products for which the region is renowned to this day: olives for oil, grapes for wine and all manner of fruits and vegetables (but not tomatoes, which arrived centuries later from the New World).
Obviously, the Pompeiians ate well, although their breakfasts and lunches were generally simple affairs involving bread (flat and very hard), cheese and perhaps leftovers. But even then on the Italian peninsula, dinner, called cena, was a multi-course affair: an egg or oyster appetizer, then meat or fish with veggies (washed down with wine that usually was cut with water) and dessert of dried fruit and honey or baked custard.
At home, and about
Thanks to the temperate Mediterranean climate, the evening meals often unfolded in gardens or courtyards, which were staples at most Pompeii homes. Inside, a typical house was sparsely furnished in order to show off the ubiquitous frescoes and tiled floors. Most abodes had rectangular floor plans, sans closets (clothes were stored in chests).
Virtually every home contained a lararium, a small shrine to the gods held in honor by that family and the spirits of dead ancestors. At the time of Pompeii's destruction, Christianity was bubbling up "out of the same wellspring as other mystery cults of the time, membership only, for gods such as Bacchus and Isis," said Rodriguez, who served as a consultant for the Science Museum exhibit.
Apollo and Venus were the city's patrons; also held in high favor, ironically, was Fortuna, the goddess of luck. There were rituals throughout the year for sundry gods, and the Forum had a temple for the Roman triumvirate of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
Along with other temples, the primary public buildings included a large amphitheater, thermal baths and gymnasiums. The latter included massage tables, a library and spaces for such activities as wrestling, discus-throwing, running and weightlifting. Unlike the Greeks who had been the progenitors of such Olympic sports, the Pompeiians, Rodriguez noted, "at least wore a loin cloth."