After 20 years of restoration, the lavish and opulent House of the Vettii has been opened up to the public, offering a glimpse into the life of ancient Pompeii’s elite. It was owned by two former slaves, possibly brothers, who amassed a fortune in the lucrative wine trade of this era, before the ill-fated city was buried under volcanic ash with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The Opulence of the Elite: Pompeii Before Vesuvius
“The House of the Vetti is like the history of Pompeii and actually of Roman society within one house. We’re seeing here the last phase of the Pompeian wall painting with incredible details, so you can stand before these images for hours and still discover new details… So, you have this mixture: nature, architecture, art. But it is also a story about the social life of the Pompeiian society and actually the Roman world in this phase of history,” the archaeological park’s director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, waxed eloquently to The Associated Press ahead of the public inauguration.
Tourists, visitors, and history aficionados have been invited to come view the newly renovated home, and marvel at the ancient architecture and elegant frescoes. These frescoes include one featuring a massive phallus, depicting Priapus, the god of fertility and abundance. He has been shown with a large penis balancing on a scale next to a bag filled with money – probably an indication of wealth accumulated by the men.
The home also features a 15cm-high frieze running along the wall of a room, likely the dining room. It features cupids performing multiple activities – making perfume, selling wine, amongst others. There are also divine couples and gods shown, including Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and one of Cronus’ three sons. There is another showing a young Hercules crushing two snakes with his bare hands, reports The Smithsonian .
A view of the Hall of Pentheus, showing frescoes, including a fresco depicting Hercules as a child choking snakes that adorns the ‘triclinium’, or dining room (Parco Archeologico Pompei)
The Erotic Past of Pompeii Viewed at Vettii
The house also features a brothel, evidenced by a small room next to the kitchen which is full of erotic frescoes. This has also been ascertained from a small inscription in Latin, referring to a woman with a Greek name, Eutychus, described as having ‘nice manners’, right next to Priapus at the entrance. This inscription allegedly refers to the small brothel tucked away inside the house. She has additionally been featured adjacent to an image of two Roman coins.
View of the courtyard from a small room by the kitchen, part of a brothel area, indicated by erotic art, shown here a fresco of Priapus. ( Parco Archeologico di Pompei )
Pompeii’s architect director of restoration work, Arianna Spinosa, called the restored home “one of the iconic houses of Pompeii”. The residence “represents the Pompeiian domus par excellence, not only because of the frescoes of exceptional importance, but also because of its layout and architecture.”
Brothers in Arms? Manumitted Slaves and Single Ownership
The house itself includes a garden, with well sculpted statues and a fountain, and was located in the ancient city’s wealthy quarter, first uncovered in excavations in 1894-95.
Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, the former owners of this house are believed to be brothers. But it is also possible they had been owned by the same owner, Aulus Vettius, and so took his name.
“If they were from the same family, the first two names would have been different, and they would have the same surname,” Zuchtriegel tells The Guardian. “It was uncommon to have biological siblings who were slaves and then set free, because family ties were cut with slavery so it’s very unlikely they were brothers. It’s more likely that they were buddies during their time as slaves and then set free.”
In fact, Restitutus (coming from the word restitution) means to give back, and it was not uncommon for former slaves to have such a title or name. The lavish display of wealth came from a place of former slaves trying to show and assert their status in a new society. The references to culture and Greek mythological paintings were likely to assert an arrival into the elite. It was an expression of social mobility that would have been unheard of two centuries earlier.
Part of the central courtyard garden at the restored House of Vettii. ( Parco Archeologico Pompei)
“This is the house which tells the story of Roman society,” concludes Zuchtriegel. “On the one hand you have the artwork, paintings and statues, and on the other you have the social story [of the freed slaves]. The house is one of the relatively few in Pompeii for which we have the names of the owners.”
Over the last two decades, Pompeii, a victim of bureaucratic neglect, has become the prime focus of excavators and historians in Italy and abroad. This has been exacerbated particularly by a society that is searching for a reclamation of its own ‘proud’ history. This too has come with misplaced priorities, as there has been an intense focus on just Pompeii’s elite. Fortunately, the recent past has also broadened horizons with a middle-class home and an enslaved family’s living quarters uncovered in this process.
Top image: View of the courtyard of the House of Vettii, Pompeii. Source: Parco Archeologico de Pompei
By Sahir Pandey