The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii, creating a time capsule from that period and place. The people may be dead, but most of the walls remain, and the art on them reveals much about life in 79 CE.
Some artwork will remind visitors of the similarities between the Roman Empire and today. There’s plenty of graffiti about men running for political office. Sometimes there are just a few supportive words, claiming that a candidate is a good man; sometimes the phrases attack the candidate, associating him with thieves. These, often on the walls of the houses of the wealthy, are like the yard signs one sees today. Occasionally graffiti is accompanied by sketches, rather like today’s political cartoons.
There’s a lot about sex, too, including comments evaluating sex workers. They may remind visitors of the scrawls seen in bathroom stalls. Erotic art, however, was extremely common, and it is important to remember that the attitudes towards sex and the naked body were different in the early Roman Empire than they are today.
Other pieces of artwork are charmingly familiar. At the House of the Tragic Poet is an excellent mosaic of a dog accompanied by the words, “Cave Canem.” These words mean, “Beware of the dog,” just like the stickers and signs put up by current canine owners. There are many other pieces of artwork scattered around the city, showing birds and fruit, which seem to be just for decoration, similar to paintings that many people still hang in their rooms.
Other artwork emphasizes the difference between then and now. Many wall paintings depict important scenes from Greek mythology. At the House of the Tragic Poet, visitors can see the judgment of Paris, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and Achilles losing Briseis. These are all significant stories associated with the Trojan War.
In the Villa of Mysteries, a farm villa at the edge of Pompeii, some wall paintings reveal details of the lives of women. In a few rooms, cut off from the rest of the villa, the only adult males shown are either statues or gods. The paintings on the walls show various female rituals including a text reading, a shared meal, and cleansing. In the last painting a young woman’s hair is being done in the fashion of Roman brides, making it clear that these rooms were used by women preparing themselves for marriage.
The suburban baths are full of erotic art with different scenes; their significance is debated today. Perhaps these pictures advertised prostitution services; perhaps they were just a form of decoration for enjoyment. Some scholars suggest another explanation: the different paintings served as an orientation to help the bather remember where he left his clothes. Perhaps the paintings served all three purposes.
Visitors strolling through Pompeii will notice many gashes in the walls. These were not caused by the eruption that buried the city or even by the ravages of time, but by those collecting the artwork on behalf of their patrons during the first decades after Pompeii’s rediscovery. Both wall paintings and mosaics were chipped out and removed, mostly to enrich the collections of the kings of Naples. Many can be seen in the Naples National Archaeological Museum near Pompeii.
The people of Pompeii did not have movies or television and most could not read. The art on the walls served to entertain and to communicate and was presumably chosen with great deliberation. Their choices speak to visitors today.