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Pompeii: House of the Vettii

by Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker
View of the Forum with Mount Vesuvius in the distance, Pompeii (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
View of the Forum with Mount Vesuvius in the distance, Pompeii (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The ancient city may be quiet now, its life ended by a fantastic cataclysm nearly two thousand years ago, but the remains of houses, decorations, and the objects of daily life whisper to us about the lives of the ancient people who inhabited Pompeii before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Domestic spaces, in particular, offer a rich resource for examining ancient lives that, in some cases, ended abruptly. Pompeii was thriving up until the moment of its destruction and in studying its life interrupted, we arrive at important insights about what it was like to live in the Roman Mediterranean.
Fourth style wall paintings (from a room off the peristyle), House of the Vettii, Pompeii
Fourth style wall paintings (from a room off the peristyle), House of the Vettii, Pompeii, photo: Lady Erin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Overview

The House of the Vettii or Casa dei Vettii (VI xv,1) is a Roman townhouse (domus) located within the ruined ancient city of Pompeii, Italy. A volcanic eruption destroyed Pompeii in the year 79 C.E., thus preserving extraordinary archaeological remains of the Roman town as it was at the time of its cataclysmic destruction. Those remains constitute a nearly unparalleled resource for the study of the Roman world.

Domus architecture

Beginning with the Renaissance interest in all things classical, architectural historians and archaeologists have been debating the form and function of ancient Roman houses for several hundred years. The interest in the domestic architectural form was fueled further by the re-discovery, in the middle of the eighteenth century, of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other sites destroyed by Vesuvius.
Plan of Pompeii, with location of the House of the Vettii in red (by: MaxViol, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Plan of Pompeii, with location of the House of the Vettii in red (by: MaxViol, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A house is, of course, a dwelling—but it is also a stage on which the rituals of daily life and social hierarchy would be performed. During the time of the Roman republic (fifth through first centuries B.C.E.), ranking aristocratic families (patricians) used domestic display as a way to reinforce social position and as a way to advance their own fortunes, as well as those of their dependents and clients (clientes), within the community. Since Republican society operated on the basis of this patron-client relationship, the domus played a key part in the reinforcement of social hierarchy as the patron (patronus) would receive his clients (clientes) in the atrium of his domus each business day. While visiting with the patron, each client would get an eyeful of the patron’s household wealth, thus applying implicit pressure on the patron to ensure that his house was tasteful and fashionable.
The patron-client system revolved around asymmetrical social relationships whereby lower ranking clients were bound to their patrons by the qualities of trust (fides) and dutifulness (pietas). Governed by ancestral custom (mos maiorum), clients would seek support and favors from the patron; in turn the patron provided protection, support, and benefaction, collectively known as patrocinium. This system had changed somewhat by the time of the brothers Vettii and it is unclear to what extent the patron-client system factored in their lives or in their own domestic sphere.
In his treatise on Roman architecture, the first century B.C.E. author Vitruvius outlines the key elements, proportions, and aesthetics of the Roman house, creating what has been treated as a canonical recommendation for domestic architecture of the period. The Vitruvian canon (or standard) proposes a range of plans, suggesting strongly that the organization of interior space was important in Roman architectural theory (De Architectura 6.3.3-6). Although the plan of the Roman domus does reflect the canonical aspects described by Vitruvius, we also see enormous variation with modifications and remodeling undertaken over time.
Standard plan of an ancient Roman Domus
Standard plan of an ancient Roman Domus
The standard house (domus) plan has several key architectural elements. Generally entered from the street via a narrow doorway (fauces), the large centralized reception hall (atrium) is flanked by wings (alae) and often bounded by bedrooms (cubicula). The office of the head of household (paterfamilias), known as the tablinum, links the public part of the house (pars urbana) to the private part of the house (pars rustica). This latter area often focuses on an open, colonnaded courtyard (peristylium) and serves as the center of family life, with the kitchen (culina), dining room(s) (triclinium or oecus), and often a small garden (hortus). Many houses also had a second level that may have contained additional sleeping spaces and perhaps storage.

Excavation and Identification

The House of the Vettii was excavated between late 1894 and early 1896. The artifacts that were recovered allowed for the identification of the house’s putative owners, Aulus Vettius Conviva and his brother, Aulus Vettius Restitutus. Both men have been identified as former slaves or freedmen (liberti). The Vettii had risen to some prominence; Conviva was an augustalis—the top civic office for which a freedman would be eligible. In the construction and decoration of their house the brothers display a mind-set not uncommon among the newly-rich. Two strongboxes (arca—essentially lockable boxes for storing valuables), concrete signs of wealth, were placed prominently in the large atrium so that visitors would be sure to notice them.
Left: Strongbox, House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Dr Sophie Hay); right: Priapus fresco (detail), House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Left: Strongbox, House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Dr Sophie Hay); right: Priapus fresco (detail), House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The strongboxes, paired with a painting of the god Priapus in the vestibule, serve to underscore the wealth of the brothers Vettii. This painting, which shows Priapus weighing his own phallus against a bag of money, may represent the socio-economic ambitions of the Vettii and perhaps indicates that those ambitions were different from those of high-ranking citizen families. This is interesting when we consider that achieving the status of augustalis likely indicates that Conviva made a large donation to a public works project in Pompeii.
Plan, House of the Vettii, Late Republican-Early Imperial domus, destroyed 79 C.E.
Plan, House of the Vettii, Late Republican-Early Imperial domus, destroyed 79 C.E.

The plan of the house

The House of the Vettii covers an area of approximately 1,100 square meters. The construction of the house and its decorations belong to the final period of Pompeii’s occupation and therefore provides important evidence of the aesthetics of the city on the eve of its destruction.
The house  was built atop the remains of an earlier house that survives, in part, in the form of the wings (alae) and a doorway. The plan of the House of the Vettii has two large central halls (atria) and, significantly, lacks an office space (tablinum). Entry to the house was gained from the east by way of a vestibule that granted admission to the larger atrium. The stone-lined basin for collecting rainwater (impluvium) lies at the center of the atrium. This larger atrium communicates directly with the peristyle (an open courtyard surrounded by fluted Doric columns) by means of a set of folding doors. The smaller atrium was the focus of the service portion of the house, while the peristyle and its well-appointed rooms was meant for entertainment and dining.
View through the atrium to the peristyle, photo: Peter Stewart (CC BY-NC 2.0)
View through atrium to the peristyle, photo: Peter Stewart (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Wall paintings

The decorative schema of the House of the Vettii provides important evidence for trends in domestic decoration in the final years of Pompeii’s occupation. Since Pompeii suffered a major earthquake in 62 C.E. that caused significant destruction, the chronology of the wall paintings and other decorations in the House of the Vettii has been a topic of debate since the house’s discovery.
Frescoes in the atrium, House of the Vettii, Pompeii
Frescoes in the atrium, House of the Vettii, Pompeii, photo: Irene Norman, (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Most art historians point to the house’s decorative schema as being representative of a key transitional phase, between the Third and Fourth styles of Pompeian wall painting. Some scholars consider it among the finest examples of the Fourth Style at Pompeii. Paul Zanker sees the Fourth Style wall paintings as being imitations of higher art forms, reckoning that the chosen pictures aim to turn the rooms into picture galleries (pinacothecae).
The atrium is richly decorated, as are the rooms opening onto the peristyle. Two of these were in the course of being painted at the time of destruction, while the other three are richly appointed with Fourth Style wall painting. The largest of these, a dining room, is decorated in panels of red and black with an exceptionally fine motif of erotes or putti (mythological winged gods associated with love) engaged in various occupations (image below). The central panel pictures that were likely set into the walls do not survive. Overall the scheme of wall painting in the house of the Vettii suggests an attempt at forward-looking interior decoration on the part of the owners.
Putti fresco (detail), House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Nora Garibotti)
Putti fresco (detail), House of the Vettii, Pompeii (photo: Nora Garibotti)
Overall the evidence furnished by the House of the Vettii offers key insights into domestic architecture and interior decoration in the last days of the city of Pompeii. The house itself is architecturally significant not only because of its size but also because of the indications it gives of important changes that were underway in the design of Roman houses during the third quarter of the first century C.E.
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Archer, W. C. 1990. “The paintings in the alae of the Casa dei Vettii and the definition of the Fourth Pompeian style.” American Journal of Archaeology 94.1:95-123.
Bergmann, B. 1994. “The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.” The Art Bulletin 76.2:225-256.
Clarke, J. R. 1991. The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250: ritual, space, and decoration. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ling, R. 1991. Roman Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richardson, Jr. L. 1988. Pompeii: An Architectural History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Sewell, J. 2010. The formation of Roman urbanism, 338-200 B.C.: between contemporary foreign influence and Roman tradition. (Journal of Roman archaeology Supplementary series; 79). Portsmouth RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology.
Sogliano, A. 1898. “La Casa dei Vetti in Pompei.” Monumenti Antichi 8:234-387.
Trevelyan, R. 1976. The Shadow of Vesuvius: Pompeii AD 79. London: The Folio Society.
Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1988. “The Social Structure of the Roman House.” Papers of the British School at Rome 56:43–97.
Wallace-Hadrill, A. 1996. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Zanker, P. 1998. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Trans. D. L. Schneider. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Essay by Dr. Jeffrey A. Becker

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    "This painting, which shows Priapus weighing his own phallus against a bag of money, may represent the socio-economic ambitions of the Vettii and perhaps indicates that those ambitions were different from those of high-ranking citizen families."

    What do we think those ambitions might have been then? Vast procreation perhaps?
    (9 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
      Although Priapus was regarded as a sort of fertility god, he seems not to have been a god for human fertility. According to the myth he was cursed with impotency from birth and could not sustain an erection long enough to make use of it. We don't know exactly how the Romans at the time regarded Priapus, but he was definitely a protector and good luck symbol. To have him portrayed with money could suggest that the brothers were not afraid to show that "money and good fortune made us what we are", at the same time as showing clearly what Priapus needed to protect for them. A patrician would have regarded showing concern for riches as vulgar.
      (8 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user Reepicheep
    I wonder if the Romans sold and bought houses like we do today. If so, what would be some of the qualities that they would look for while buying houses, if houses were built almost all the same?
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Jenny
      We know from preserved wax tablets found in Pompeii that real estate - buying, selling, and speculating on property - was a thriving market in the first century AD. Vitruvius' ideal Roman house is a construction - in reality Roman houses varied considerably in size and structure (for example, the House of the Vettii lacks a tablinum, and the House of the Faun is the size of an entire city block). The variation in the size and shape of gardens in Pompeii is huge, and houses with larger or interesting gardens, e.g. with water features (Houses of the Small and Large Fountains) were particularly prestigious. Location and the direction the house faced would also have been important in a society without electric lighting!
      (8 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user ezra messer
    What where the houses made from besides wood and stone? did they use plaster?
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user gmendez
    in the house of vettii, of course, how many people lived there and did they have any slaves. since the owners were freed slaves, did they want any slaves, or did they get slaves. if they did, how many? :)
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ssachs
    I have read that Rome had a remarkable sanitation system but I am not sure when that occurred. Is this too early, first century, for Pompeii to have had the same?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user stroshell
    WHY was so many wars been going on there.
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Gloria Blanchard
    I have read it elsewhere that Merchants would advertise their wares with pictures of their goods. (The illiterate could find their fish monger or sandal maker by searching for the fish or sandal picture on the lintel or post of the shop. They could order a dish by pointing at the picture. Also I'm thinking again in Pompeii , mosaics were found that "named" a merchants ship cargo, fish, olive oil ect.)

    Soooo, this is just speculation, and having readthe next section "Dionystac frieze in Villa of Mysteries", and here " Priapus weighing his own phallus against a bag of money".

    Could it be that Romans, at least here, were not only commissioning frescos to show there social merit, but also painting a more detailed occupation mural inside their domus? Sort of a giant business card? Maybe as a list of services or accomplishments like a visual resume? What do you think?
    (3 votes)
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  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Bianca
    Does anyone have any information about the wall painting where Hercules strangles the snakes?
    (2 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user sydneyecs
    can I ever build a roman house and/or machine?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Stephen Barrett
    Why does the standard domus plan place the cubiculum, a sleeping area, adjacent to the atrium, a public space for guests and business? Wouldn't they belong more in the domestic sphere adjacent to the peristyle?
    (1 vote)
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