History gets written by the victors, says the old adage. And unfortunately, the adage feels true. Much of history comes from the perspective of those in power. But a new discovery in Pompeii offers a rare glimpse at non-“elite” lives. A well-preserved room found at Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa located to the north of Pompeii, offers archeologists new perspectives into the daily lives of the slaves who populated the city at the time of its destruction. This new Pompeii room opens the door to an increased understanding of ancient life.
This is a window into the precarious reality of people who seldom appear in historical sources that were written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite, and who as a result risk remaining invisible in the great historical accounts. It is a case in which archaeology helps us to discover a part of the ancient world which we would otherwise know little about, but which is nonetheless extremely important.
What is most striking is the cramped and precarious nature of this room, which was something between a dormitory and a storage room of just 16 sqm, which we can now reconstruct thanks to the exceptional state of preservation created by the eruption of AD 79. It is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries during my life as an archaeologist, even without the presence of great ‘treasures’ – the true treasure here is the human experience, in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society, to which this room is a unique testimony.
The video below showcases this finding. While the dialogue is in Italian, YouTube offers auto-translate in English.
The remarkable state of the room offers an incredible level of detail to modern observers. Though the room dates back nearly 2,000 years, it has a lot to offer. Researchers can create plaster casts of beds and other perishable items. Many of these items left “their imprint in the cinerite that covered the ancient structures.” Using these methods, scientists can see fine details in the room. They can even observe leather and rope elements that decorated the beds. Seeing these details really takes us back in time.
Additionally, the beds and belongings in the new Pompeii room allow researchers to speculate about their one-time inhabitants. It seems that the room functioned as a dormitory that housed people of different ages, possibly a family. Researchers can also see that the room was used as a personal space for its occupants. However, the room also served as a storage space. This offers further insight into what life was like for those living at the time.
Discovered in 2017, Civita Giuliana continues to yield fascinating findings. Though curated histories may not always tell the full story of ancient life, physical evidence fills in the gaps. As researchers continue to excavate this and other sites, our vision of the past becomes fuller. We hope to see more of these kinds of discoveries in the future.