In 79AD Mount Vesuvius near Naples erupted and covered the ancient town of Pompeii and its surrounding countryside in lava and ash.

Although the disaster devastated the city at the time, killing its citizens and burying everything, the buildings and works of art were preserved for centuries under the ash.

Since few paintings have survived from that era, Pompeii is one of the few precious sources for much of what we know about ancient painting and decoration.



Brothels played an important economic role in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The population oscillated between eight and twelve thousand inhabitants and for this population 35 brothels have been counted (this includes the different types of brothel which include those in private houses) but it is interesting to compare this figure with the quantity of bakeries at the time - also 35.

IIn the famous house of the two rich Vettii brothers there is an inscription on a wall in the servant's quarters which reads "Eutichide, greek, of gentle manners, cost 3 assi". The brothers were undoubtedly benefiting in more ways than one from the gentle services of their greek slave. By coincidence, 2 assi was also what a Pompeian expected to pay for a loaf of bread at this time.



Roman artists chose the exotic pygmies to represent the natives as opposed to the lighter skinned Greco-Egyptian dwarves.

The pygmies are often seen near mud huts with thatched roofs. The primitive nature of this type of dwelling denoted that these people were of the less civilized part of the population. The pygmies activities are not of a lofty nature: making offerings to gods etc. but lowlier activities like fighting animals, hunting crocodiles and hippopotami. Degrading the natives like this reinforced the power the Romans held over these people.

Since Homer wrote the Iliad in the 8th century BC, Pygmies have been known to the world, although in the ancient world there was a great confusion around them and a debate about where exactly they came from.

Some writers believed them to be from Ethiopia, others from India. This is in part due to an ancient belief that India and Ethiopia were actually connected and that the Nile had its source in India. Herodotus, however, was not confused and so he stated:

"When they came to these trees [south of the Sahara], they were met by men of stature smaller than common... they came to a city where all the people were of like stature with the escort, and black." Herodotus 2.32

In Roman frescoes and mosaics Pygmies were associated with Egypt and were used to portray the native population of Egypt as they were believed by the Romans to live along the Nile.

Amongst the private residences near Pompeii there are three villas that are particularly noteworthy:Boscoreale and Boscotrecase (north of Pompeii and nearer to the volcano), and Nero’s wife Poppea’s villa on the sea at Torre Annunziata (ancient Oplontis).


The frescoes from Boscoreale, an area about a mile north of Pompeii, are among the most important to be found anywhere in the Roman world.

Boscoreale was notable in antiquity for having numerous aristocratic country villas, as is attested by the region’s name, the “Royal Forest” which implies that Boscoreale was a hunting preserve.

Brick stamps and graffiti point to the fact that the villa was built in the middle of the first century BC. In terms of painting styles much of Boscoreale can be dated to about 40BC and there are very strong links with the painting in Poppea’s villa at Oplontis.

Boscotrecase is the modern name for a small residential area to the south of Naples. The region’s name may imply that there were once three houses of great importance in the area, which was originally wooded. In antiquity Boscotrecase commanded a sweeping view of the Bay of Naples. (Vesuvius can be seen in the photo below with the Bay of Naples in the foreground).

The distinction of the villa at Boscotrecase is that it was the country residence of certain members of the first Roman imperial family - the family of Augustus. The villa belonged to Marcus Agrippa and Julia, the emperor Augustus’s beloved daughter and passed to Agrippa’s three month old son in 11BC on his untimely death.

In the so-called Black Room in the villa, below a painted pediment and on top of elegant painted columns, are two female portraits enclosed in medallions. It is thought that they are portraits of Julia and the emperor Augustus’s wife Livia. There are no other images of imperial subjects known in Roman painting.


Poppea’s Villa, uncovered in 1964, is 6 metres below street level and is a stupendous example of Roman architecture. It is also an example of Second Style Roman painting that has remained in a remarkable state of preservation. The experts date it from the end of the 1st century BC to 79AD and it extends over an area of 4000 square metres. So far 55 rooms have been excavated and the excavations have confirmed an ulterior extension to the villa. At the time of the eruption the villa was not inhabited. This has been confirmed by the absence of buried objects necessary to everyday life, as found at Pompeii.

Of particular interest is the western part where an open-air olympic-sized swimming pool (natatio) measuring 67 x 17 metres has been found, enclosed with a peristyle. Giving on to this area are a series of rooms, interspersed with real gardens, whose inside walls are also decorated with trompe l’oeil gardens.

The first century historian, Sisenna, describes Herculaneum as a small city set on a headland between two inlets which served as harbours. Other ancient historians refer to the excellence of these harbours and to its being an unusually healthy place.

Comparison with Pompeii is interesting but there were important differences. One is that, whereas Pompeii, thanks to its position at the mouth of the river Sarno, became a prosperous local port and market town, Herculaneum developed on more exclusively residential lines. Some local commerce it did of course have. Its harbour, for example, was the natural outlet for the vineyards of the southern slopes of Vesuvius. But one has only to walk through the streets of the excavated quarter to sense the difference in atmosphere: almost exclusively residential, with shops and bars grouped along two of the main streets and very little trace of local industry.

Herculaneums’s role was that of a miniature Brighton, profiting from its salubrious climate and from the proximity of many wealthy villas. With the eruption of Vesuvius Herculaneum was also buried as were dozens of private residences.


By A Varone

L'Erma de Bretschneider, Roma 1994

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By Maxwell L Anderson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1987

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Exhibition by IBM Italia, NYC

L'Erma de Bretschneider, Roma 1992

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By J Ward Perkins & A Claridge

Royal Academy of Arts, 1976

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© Alexandra Walker | The Art of the Fresco, 59-61 Kensington High Street, London W8 5ED | Email