Friday, July 5, 2013

History mystery: Pompeii The resurrection of a city -3

The third area of public buildings consisted of the amphitheatre and the palaestra, or gymnasium. Providing free entertainment for the public was a passport to popularity and political success. It was probably for this reason that one of Pompeii’s two magistrates. Caius Quinctius Ballbus, a rich landowner, financed its construction in about 80 BC. Here, the Pompeiians would gather to watch entertainments which ranged from performances by clowns and pantomime artists to sports such as fencing and boxing. But what the crowds loved best was blood. A favourite spectacle included gladiatorial combats to the death between criminals and wild beasts. The different types of gladiators were often illustrated in the city. There was the thrax, who was armed with a short sword, shield, and visored helmet, and the retarius, who fought with net and trident.

Champions enjoyed great popularity, and their praises were sung in the ubiquitous graffiti. Of the public baths that have been uncovered, the Stabian baths contained a large palaestra for taking exercise, a swimming-pool, changing rooms, and chambers heated to varying temperatures. Alongside the baths stood the brothel. Hard work sent hand in hand with high living in Pompeii. One of the city’s artisans had the motto ‘to earn is joy’ inscribed in mosaic in his house.  And the vitality of the city’s trade and commerce is reflected in the stalls which sprang up, often at house entrances. A fabrics shop, which an inscription tells us belonged to a man called Verecundus, still has paintings that depict everyday scenes in the life of the workshop: the carders at their benches, the dyers sweating over boiling vats, and the owner proudly displaying the finished pieces of cloth. Several bakeries survive. In one of them, a baker had slid 81 loaves into his oven minutes before the eruption. There is a laundry, which belonged to a certain Stefanus. Inside, a press, pestles, and basins have been found. Jars into which passers-by were encouraged to relieve themselves would have been left outside on the street. For urine was used as a washing agent on account of its alkaline properties. One inn was identified when some jars were discovered with the address to which they had been dispatched: ‘To Pompeii, near the Amphitheatre, to the inn-keeper Euximus.’

 In a typical Pompeiian house, the front door led into a small corridor running between two rooms – one on either side – that were usually used as shops. At the other end, the corridor opened onto a central courtyard, or atrium. The tablinum, or family meeting place, was at the far side of the atrium. In turn, this opened onto the garden. The House of the Faun – so called because of its garden statue of a dancing faun – had a second atrium with rooms leading off it. It also had two gardens surrounded by columns. On the paving stones of one of the colonnades the skeleton of a woman was unearthed, probably overcome by poisonous fumes as she attempted to rescue her most precious jewels. Scattered over the floor are pieces of gold which would have made up the wealth of an average Pompeiian family. For those who had the means, the ultimate status symbol was a villa built outside the town. The Villa of Mysteries stood slightly to the south of Pompeii. It is distinguished by a complete cycle of paintings on the walls which celebrate the mysteries of the cult of the god Dionasus. Here, as elsewhere, the inhabitants of the villa can be seen in their last tortured moments: a group of workmen asphyxiated in the cellars, a couple of women dashed to the ground the debris of the tumbling building, and the porter slumped across the couch in his dark cubbyhole. One of the most striking features of Pompeiian houses is the sumptuousness of their decoration. They abound in marble and bronze sculptures, and precious plates and dishes. The sculptures were inspired by the art of the Greek world, and were to be found gracing the fountains, colonnades, and gardens of the villas. In 1978, the life-sized bronze statue of a young man was found in a house that had belonged to Julius Polybius. In the house of Menander, 118 silver dishes and plates wrapped in pieces of wool and cloth were discovered stored in a large wooden chest, out of the way of the restoration works that were being carried out at the time. Pompeii also had a large amount of mosaic decoration. In its early days this was a form of pavement art. Gradually, it came to be used to decorate walls and its designs became more elaborate. In some cases it took the shapes of animals or men out hunting, sailing, or participating in sports. There was a fashion were set with mosaic, using brightly coloured glass paste and gold leaf. So popular was mosaic as an art form that Pliny the Younger held it responsible for the decline of painting. But of all the decoration to be found in the houses and streets of Pompeii, there is one piece of graffiti that must have the last word: ‘I wonder, oh wall,’ a wag has written, ‘that under the weight of so mush idle chat, you have not yet crumbled.’

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