A recent find that brought ancient Pompeii to life
Mount Vesuvius obliterated the city of ancient Pompeii in 79 AD, yet life in the great archaeological site 14 miles Southeast of Naples still amazes us. It may sound like an oxymoron, but even though the Roman colony dedicated to the goddess Venus was destroyed in a fiery cataclysm, it remains a living gift that keeps on giving.
Discoveries of emotional impact are still being found at Pompeii. They offer unparalleled insight into details of the residents’ public and private lives.
Recently, a large four-wheeled ceremonial chariot was unearthed at a large villa, a “Domus” situated in Civita Giuliana just outside the walls of the famous site. The latest excavations began after “tombaroli”, or looters, dug tunnels that reached the depth of five metres in search of antiquities they could sell illegally.
When we picture ancient Romans moving from place to place, we imagine them riding in a horse-drawn chariot, the most common form of transportation. They were known to be extremely mobile people.
“In the past, we have uncovered many vehicles, but nothing like this. The Civita Giuliana chariot is unique,” notes Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. He refers to it as a “pilentum”, what ancient sources describe as a ceremonial chariot, a vehicle used only by the Roman elite and solely for ceremonial events.
The polychrome carriage (0.90 x 1.40 m) emerged almost intact in its astounding elegance and complexity. “The extraordinary find provides that extra element of knowledge about the history of the Civita Giuliana house,” he says. The chariot was found inside a bi-level porch opening onto the outside courtyard not far from the stable. There, in 2018, archaeologists had unearthed petrified remains of three horses: one lying down on its right side, one on its left, and a third that was saddled and harnessed, presumably ready to go at a moment’s notice when Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2000 years ago.
But was the owner of the villa a high-ranking military officer? Last November, in the same house, archaeologists found the bodies of what are thought to be a wealthy man and his slave. They were fleeing the catastrophe as well.
And about the chariot, again: is it richly embellished?
It has lively decorations on both sides with sheets of bronze and red wooden panels. At the back, there are various stories engraved onto bronze and tin medallions depicting erotic scenes of a man and a woman making love. This constitutes the leitmotif of the relief decorations.
Ancient Roman poets Virgil and Claudian described a “pilentum” as a splendid four-wheeled carriage furnished with soft cushions that meant to convey the bride. And it was almost exclusively reserved for upper-class weddings.
“It was also used for carrying the bride to her new household,” says Osanna. Any “pilentum”, in fact, could be painted in blue or red, as in the case of the Pompeian discovery.
Sometimes, it could be used by Roman matrons during sacred processions or even by priestesses.
Eric Poehler, a Pompeii scholar from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says he was “astounded”. “Many of the vehicles I’d written about before are your standard station wagon for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car.”
The upper body of the light vehicle features “amorini” or “erotes”, winged gods of love engaged in various activities. The lower portion features a crowned female herm, a sculpture with a head above a plain, shapeless bronze column — a herm was a protector of travellers, merchants and orators.
This type of chariot, so remarkable for its rich erotic imagery, symbolised a close, deep bond between bride and groom. Eros, meaning both love and desire, was a central element in Ancient Roman marriage, a positive force that unites man and wife to form the household.
Also, ancient Roman society had a relaxed attitude towards sexuality. Several thousand erotic frescoes, mosaics, highly explicit graffiti, inscriptions and love poems were found throughout Pompeii during the centuries. They are inside the remains of buildings, homes, theatres, thermae or Roman Baths, temples and bakeries. For example, the house of the wounded Adonis displays paintings based on unfulfilled love, a recurring theme in Roman art and literature. The Domus Vettiorum, a home that belonged to two wealthy merchant brothers, Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, was under the protection of Priapus — the grotesque god of fertility is depicted on the walls. At the entrance of the home, a painted notice says that a certain Eutychus — a prostitute and slave — is available for a brass coin of one dupondius; she carries out her trade in an adjacent room. With one dupondius you could buy four loaves of bread.
Pompeii became a Roman colony in 80 BC. Its architecture attained full maturity during the reigns of Emperor Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) and Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD).
On August 24, 79 AD, the volcano’s molten rock, along with explosive gases, killed some 2,000 people, including the inhabitants of nearby Herculaneum. The thermal shock ‘cooked’ their bodies that were caught in their final horrifying moments.
People who managed to escape could rebuild a home along the southern Italian coast, resettling in the communities of Naples, Cumae, and Puteoli. In the aftermath of the destruction, layers of pyroclastic material helped to preserve the buildings, their mosaics and frescoes from acid rain.
The metropolis was rediscovered in the 16th century but systematic excavations began in 1748 under King Charles III of Bourbon. Archaeological investigation and excavations continue up to the present. The site spreads over 66 hectares divided into neighbourhoods and blocks. Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, said Pompeii “continues to amaze us with its discoveries and it will do so for many years, with 20 hectares still to be dug up.”
Pliny the Younger, a writer, lawyer and magistrate of Ancient Rome, provided a first-hand account of the eruption through letters he wrote to the Roman historian Tacitus years later. He was 18 when the tragedy occurred and the warning was raised by his mother. He survived but his uncle, Pliny the Elder, did not — he was a naturalist and an author of the encyclopaedic Natural History. He died while attempting to rescue stranded victims. “Suddenly, flames and a strong smell of sulphur, giving warning of yet more flames to come, forced the others to flee. My uncle stood up with the support of two slaves, and then he suddenly collapsed and died, because, I imagine, he was suffocated when the dense fumes choked him,” wrote Pliny the Younger. “His body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed, looking more like a man asleep than dead.”
Last January, Italian researchers strengthened the case that a cranium found near Pompeii ,100 years ago, really does belong to Pliny the Elder.