Posts tagged "Pompeii"

Gladiators of Pompeii

Since my last post, several readers have written in to ask where the dice can be seen in Pompeii: The Exhibit. It seems that it may be so easy to get caught up in admiring the amazing gladiatorial armor on display that the dice—right next to the gladiator helmet (shown above)—go unnoticed.

Gladiatorial fights were a popular form of entertainment in Pompeii. The city featured a gladiator training center and barracks as well as an amphitheater where the fights were staged. 

Most gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war, and their trainers would treat them like fine racehorses with plenty of healthy food and exercise. Several bits of graffiti in Pompeii suggest that they were also popular with the ladies. For instance, on a column in the gladiator barracks, someone scratched “Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.”

The gladiator helmet on display in Pompeii: The Exhibit was discovered about 200 years ago in the storeroom in the barracks. It would have belonged to a murmillo or “fish man,” whose helmet resembled the fin of a fish. A murmillo was armed with a sword and shield and commonly battled a thraex or Thracian, who also fought with a sword, but used a smaller shield and wore more armor. There were also several other types of gladiators that battled in various combinations.

Gladiatorial fans in Pompeii could be a rowdy bunch: in AD 59, a riot broke out in the amphitheater between the residents of Pompeii and their rival neighbors, the Nucerians. The historian Tacitus sniffily described the event:

"During an exchange of taunts—characteristic of these disorderly country towns—abuse led to stone throwing, and then swords were drawn." 

The Pompeians ended up running the Nucerians out of town, but were then banned by the Roman senate from holding gladiatorial contents for the next ten years. A fresco from the House of Actius Anicetus, now on display at the Naples Archaeological Museum, depicts the riots.

Fresco depicting the gladiatorial riot in Pompeii

While visitors to Pompeii can still visit the amphitheater where the gladiators fought, the gladiatorial barracks unfortunately collapsed last November

You can help preserve what remains of Pompeii with your ticket purchase for Pompeii: The Exhibit. A portion of your admission price goes towards conservation of the ancient city. 

For more fascinating facts on gladiators, click here


Abracadabra! Magic in Ancient Rome

It’s official! Harry Potter: The Exhibition has now joined the Pompeii exhibit at Discovery Times Square! Ancient Rome also had its share of magicians who kept themselves busy cooking up potions, telling fortunes, and crafting curses. Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79, wrote about the various types of magic that were practiced in ancient Rome:

It is practiced with water, for instance, with balls, by the aid of the air, of the stars, of lamps, basins, hatchets, and numerous other appliances...

Like many Roman writers, Pliny scoffed at magicians and thought they were hucksters, although he still admitted "There is no one who is not afraid of spells."

One of the most stereotypical bits of magic we know today comes from ancient Rome- the phrase abracadabra! It’s likely a version of the Aramaic words abra (to create) and cadabra (“as I say”)— or “create as I say.” According to the 2nd century AD physician Serenus Sammonicus, who was Emperor Caracalla's personal doctor, it was an incantation used to weaken the hold that disease or illness would have over a person. If abracadabra was written as shown above and worn in a container around the neck, it would cure malaria.

J.K. Rowling—a Latin speaker herself!—based the killing curse of the Harry Potter series, Avada Kedrava, on the Roman abracadabra.

Magic in ancient Rome is a huge and complicated subject and there’s plenty of great resources out there if you’d like to learn more. 


The World’s Most Famous Loaf Of Bread!

I’ve noticed lately that when I do interviews about Pompeii: The Exhibit with the press, the one artifact that comes up over and over again is the loaf of carbonized bread (shown above). It apparently was baking in a oven when the super-heated waves of poisonous gas swept down from Vesuvius and across the homes and business of Pompeii. Carbonized and left buried in the oven for more than 1500 years, it’s a remarkable object from the past, both for its “everyday-ness” and the fact that it even survived the centuries.

Because organic materials like fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats are very rarely-if at all preserved in archaeological sites, most of what we know about what people in Pompeii—and ancient Rome in general—ate comes from texts (including ancient cookbooks!) and wall paintings from the period. There’s a great mural in the exhibit, for instance, that shows men at a marketplace, buying and selling livestock and dates. Another fresco, from the House of the Baker, depicts people buying loaves of bread that closely resemble the one we have on display. 

Fresco from the House of the Baker

If you’re inspired to whip up a loaf of Roman bread, try this recipe:

2 envelopes fast rising dry yeast

2½ cups tepid water

1 cup whole wheat flour

½ cup rye flour

unbleached white flour to make up 2 pounds 3 ounces of total flour weight

1 teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

cornmeal for dusting the baking sheet

Put the tepid water in your electric mixing bowl and dissolve the yeast.

Use a paper lunch sack for weighing out the flour. Put the whole wheat and rye flour in the bag first, and then make up the weight with the white flour. Put 4 cups from the bag into the mixer and whip it for 10 minutes. Add the salted water. If you have a heavy mixing machine such as a KitchenAid, allow the dough hook to do the rest of the work. If not, you need to add the remaining flour by hand. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Put the dough on a plastic counter and cover with an inverted steel bowl. Allow to rise once, punch it down, and allow it to rise a second time. Punch down and form into 2 or 3 loaves. I never use bread pans for this, as they will ruin the crust. Place the loaves on baking sheets that have been dusted with cornmeal and allow the loaves to rise until double in bulk.

Bake in a 450º oven about 24 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the loaf is light to the touch. It should make a hollow sound when you thump your finger on the bottom of the loaf.


Vesuvius- What Really Happened

Every Wednesday we feature an interactive chat or contest on the Discovery Times Square Facebook fan page. This week there was a fun discussion about the remarkable eyewitness account we have of the fateful day when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Pliny the Younger was a teenager at the time, and he describes how his uncle Pliny the Elder, a renowned naturalist and author, headed out to save some friends during the eruption:

"My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches…

As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated…

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned…

The eruption of Vesuvius took about 24 hours, and in the morning of the second day of the eruption Pliny the Younger describes how he and his mother fled for safety:

Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’Let us leave the road while we can still see,’I said,’or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.”

Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius is a fascinating read- check out the complete version here.

And check out our Facebook fan page next Wednesday and win two free tickets to the show!


Country Mice in City Clothes?

If you haven’t been checking out our Facebook page for the Pompeii exhibit, we had a lot of fun this week with a caption contest for one of the best-known paintings from Pompeii- one that’s so famous that it doesn’t leave the museum in Naples. (That said, we have some pretty amazing paintings on display at the exhibit as well!)

The painting depicts a baker, Terentius Neo, and his wife. For a long time, scholars believed the painting depicted another fellow from Pompeii, Paquius Proculus (whose house has a really cool mosaic of a guard dog)—but graffiti inside the house eventually revealed that it belonged to Terentius. 

This page makes some interesting observations about the couple: despite the fact that they are posing with reading (papyrus) and writing (stylus and wax tablet) materials, the physical appearance of Terentius (“high cheekbones, full lips, large dark eyes, and swarthy complexion”) suggests that he comes from Samnite stock (a southern tribe conquered by the Romans), while the look on his wife’s face shows “her embarrassment at having to pose for such a long time surrounded by such unfamiliar objects.”

Evidently, whomever painted the portrait had a bit of catty fun in depicting the humble country folk posing with the trappings of the educated Roman elite. Meow!

And the caption that won our reader free tickets to the exhibit? “Wife: I thought you said you were going to fix that volcano? Husband: I thought I did…”


Tour The House Of The Golden Bracelet

When you enter Pompeii: The Exhibit, the first thing that strikes you is the beautiful fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet, alive with colorful plants and birds. The next striking item? An incredible fountain from the same house, painstakingly decorated with sea shells, glass tiles and semi-precious stones. And in the body cast room, the cast of a toddler found in the House of the Golden Bracelet is startling in its detail: after almost 2000 years, the face appears peaceful, with even the eyebrows and long eyelashes still visible. 

So what exactly was the House of the Golden Bracelet? It got its name from an enormous (more than 1 pound!) solid gold bracelet found on the arm of a woman who perished there. It’s also known as the House of the Wedding of Alexander, from a fresco depicting the scene (which is also on display at Discovery Times Square). For a tour of the grand, three-level house, which still stands in Pompeii, click here


The Pompeii Of The Americas

If you’re fascinated by the way that the eruption of Vesuvius preserved Pompeii as if frozen in time, you’ll want to check out Joya de Cerén, which is frequently called “The Pompeii of Mesoamerica.”

A small farming community in what is now El Salvador, Joya de Cerén was buried in ash around AD 590 following the eruption of the Ilopongo volcano. Ironically—and just like Pompeii—Joya de Cerén was established near the volcano due to the fertile soil that had developed from earlier eruptions. 

Unlike Pompeii, it appears that an earthquake shortly before the eruption caused Joya de Cerén’s residents to flee. While there are no casts of bodies, there are plenty of casts of other items, including entire fields of corn!

Read more about Joya de Cerén here


The Wealthy Pompeii “Suburbs”

Fresco detail from Stabiae

When we talk about Pompeii, we’re usually referring not only to the city itself, but also smaller, wealthier neighboring sites such as Herculaneum, Oplontis, Boscoreale, and Stabiae. Pliny the Elder, who died at Stabiae during the eruption of Vesuvius, describes it as a posh Roman resort with large villas overlooking the sea. Archaeologists have been excavating some of these exquisite villas, including the Villa San Marco, which was first discovered in the second half of the 18th century. This amazing house, which features frescoes very similar to those discovered in Pompeii, was almost 120,000 square feet in size and had its own private baths (including the requisite hot, warm, and cold pools). Another villa in Stabiae, the Villa of the Shepherd (Villa del Pastore), tops out at a colossal 200,000+ square feet, but archaeologists believe this may have been a health spa instead of a private residence. Find out more about the digs at Stabiae here


It’s Friday! Celebrate Pompeiian Style

Cupids pouring wine, from a fresco at the House of the Vettii at Pompeii. via

One of the great ironies of Vesuvius is that the rich soil generated by thousands of years of eruptions made the area surrounding the active volcano a great place to grow crops. The citizens of Pompeii certainly took advantage of that fact, and were especially known for the great wine they made from the grapes they grew on Vesuvius’ slopes. Archaeologists have found containers for Pompeiian wine as far away as France and Spain!

Pliny the Elder , who died in the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius, had a lot to say about wine. Like modern wine aficionados, he put a lot of stock into the role that terroir—the local geography and climate—plays in the characteristics of wine, and describes the 91 varieties of grapes that wine can be made from, as well as how it could be used to treat all sorts of medical and physical ailments, including sprains.

He’s also famous for coining the term “In vino veritas" ("In wine, there’s truth"), and notes with embarrassment some questionable habits the Romans had for drinking massive amounts of wine, including quaffing a bit of poison beforehand to encourage the consumption of of wine as an antidote, as well as sitting in a super-hot bath, then quickly drinking “large vessels of wine,” only to vomit them up and repeat the process in order to get drunk as quickly as possible.

Want to taste the stuff for yourself? Villa dei Misteri (or Villa of the Mysteries, named after one of the most famous houses in Pompeii) has been made since 2001. It’s pressed from varieties of grapes that scholars believe are similar to those grown some 2,000 years ago in the region, which are now grown in a vineyard near Pompeii’s Forum Boarium.  Just behave yourself, per Pliny’s instructions!

For more on Roman vintages, click here.