Monday, May 13, 2024

Servi poenae: Were Roman emperors free to determine the fate of those condemned to the arena?

by Mary Harrsch © 2024

On November 24, 2024, once again we will be regaled with scenes of Roman spectacle as Gladiator II makes it way to cinemas around the world. Hollywood productions, like this, portraying emperors using a seemingly spontaneous thumb gesture to seal a gladiator's fate in response to an amphitheater packed with howling spectators baying for blood or clementia, has reinforced the widely-held assumption that Rome's princeps could wield his power of granting life or death with little or no other input. But, Aglaia McClintock, Associate Professor at the University of Sanno in Benevento, Italy points out this could not be further from the reality of governing a Roman world defined by complex laws in which the fate of individuals often involved consideration of their position within the social hierarchy and the circumstances leading to their participation in the spectacle.

A Murmillo Gladiator Fights a Barbary Lion in the colosseum in Rome during a condemnation of beasts. Oil painting by Studio artist of Firmin Didot courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Collectionsbalsorano.

"The arena was a microcosm populated by people of every class and condition: professionals, citizens, freedmen, slaves, imperial slaves and obviously convicts who before the criminal verdict could have been either slaves or citizens. Even for ancient authors it was not always easy to determine the legal status of individuals who fought as gladiators, harenarii and bestiarii...Many individuals worked or performed in the arena voluntarily retaining their citizenship, others were slaves of the emperor, of the impresario, or of private individuals involved in the games. Others still had been sold to the ludus (understood here as a centre for recruiting and training) or to a lanista from a dominus as a punishment or just on a whim. Sources speak of owners who threw their slaves in the arena so they could brag of their servants’ abilities or attractiveness. Finally, many (both citizens and slaves) were in the amphitheatre as convicted criminals, sent there by the public authority. The emperors had to face the confusion that could arise and make clear that although the arena was considered a polluted place where blood was shed, the voluntary workers retained their freedom and citizenship." Aglaia McClintock, Servi poenae: What Did it Mean to be 'Condemned to Slavery'

 Roman gladiator helmet from Herculaneum 1st century CE. Photographed by Mary Harrsch.

Of those who were slaves, some may have been prisoners of war, found guilty of a capital offense, or simply victims of a slave owner's capriciousness. To minimize the latter group, emperors as far back as Augustus issued rescripts limiting the arbitrariness of a slave owner's punitive powers. The lex Petronia, thought to be issued between 19 CE and 61 CE is one example.

"...placed in the Julio-Claudian age [it] forbade owners to send their slaves ad bestias on a whim, sanctioning not only the sellers but also buyers who did not comply, but granting the application of the penalty if the owner’s request to the magistrate was substantiated." Aglaia McClintock, Servi poenae: What Did it Mean to be 'Condemned to Slavery'
However, subsequent imperial rescripts made it clear that a dominus continued to have the right to send slaves directly to the arena without state approval if they had been caught red-handed committing a crime.

Statuette of a Samnite-equipped gladiator photographed at Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence antiques by Wikimedia Commons contributor Michel Wal

As prisoners of war, some participants in the games could no longer claim any social status since it was essentially dissolved at the time of their capture. Their ultimate fate depended on several factors. High-ranking officers or nobility from the defeated enemy were often held for ransom. If Rome needed skilled labor, however, POWs with valuable skills like carpentry or metalworking were often enslaved and put to work for the state either in military service or on public works projects. But, during times of total war or vengeance against a particular enemy, POWs that were not brutally executed were forced to fight to the death in gladiatorial games.

Overall, Roman society viewed POWs as property of the Roman state, not people. The Roman general credited with the victory in which they were captured determined whether the individuals were held for ransom, executed, or designated to be sold into slavery. The appropriate quaestor responsible for managing finances and logistics within a province or military campaign would organize an auction to sell the POWs and deliver the proceeds to the Roman treasury. Until their sale, POWs did not "belong" to either the victorious general or the emperor but were regarded as spoils of war.
During the Roman Republic, victorious generals, especially those with strong political influence, often had considerable autonomy in deciding how much to reward their troops from the spoils of war (booty). This included deciding on the payment of donatives, which were cash bonuses distributed to soldiers. The Senate might intervene if they felt a general was distributing excessive donatives that could strain the treasury or weaken their own authority.

Ornate Roman gladiator helmet from the gladiator barracks in Pompeii with relief including an eagle and Priapus photographed by Mary Harrsch.

During the Imperial Period, however, the Senate's power gradually diminished. Emperors, holding ultimate military authority, controlled the treasury and authorized the distribution of donatives, partially or fully funded by the sale of POWs, at their discretion. Emperors who valued the Senate's support, though, might seek their approval (or at least avoid their disapproval) for major donatives.
If few captives were taken on campaign so any donatives would have had to have been either paid directly by the commanding general (Julius Caesar was actually criticized by his opponents for doing this during the late Republic) or funds in the imperial treasury, the emperor usually had the final say over these types of ddistributions These decisions were further complicated by political tension or instability and whether or not either generals or emperor needed to restore the loyalty of their troops or solidify their own political power. If the treasury was depleted, there was more pressure to sell captives to slave traders for ready cash rather than divert them to auxiliary units or send them to state-owned mining operations. If these men appeared in the arena, by that time they had become the property of possibly elite slave owners, so, considering the ancestral traditions of Mos Maiorum, granting their freedom or ordering their death would need to be negotiated with their current owners.
But with audiences as large as 20,000 to 50,000 spectators, emperors overseeing a spectacle needed to be able to display their clementia or be seen fulfilling justice as pater patriae of the Roman people.
"...during the first principate, the punitive power of the princeps and the dominus coexisted on slaves. In this respect the leges libitinariae from Campania in force in Pozzuoli and Cuma are remarkable evidence of this situation. They are datable to Augustan age or slightly later, and are so called from the name of the goddess Libitina who in the ancient Roman world oversaw everything that had to do with death... The opposition between coexisting punitive powers manifested itself during the ludi, when the princeps, on his own initiative or to meet the favour of the audience, wished to free a slave who was in the arena because he had been sent there on a whim or as a punishment by a private dominus. The owner’s power, including the possibility to free his slaves even after he had condemned them to die, could potentially undermine the stature of the princeps. " - Aglaia McClintock, Servi poenae: What Did it Mean to be 'Condemned to Slavery'

Ornate shin guard depicting Silenus and a stork battling a serpent found in the gladiator barracks of Pompeii photographed by Mary Harrsch

This was further complicated by the fact that public executions took place during religious festivals. Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, a poena in a technical sense, was therefore closely tied to the imperial ideology of dramatic displays of the punishments for those who opposed the imperial order. The blood sacrifice is thought by scholars to symbolize the highest expression of "Romanitas" in every province of the empire.
It is not surprising that Augustus, despite his repeated protestations that he was merely a priinceps, first among equals, moved to demonstrate his ultimate power in such public venues as the games by placing the fate of slaves, especially those condemned to the arena, firmly in his control.
"Augustus issued regulation to control manumissions occurred in similar conditions with the lex Aelia Sentia20 (4 CE): slaves who had been put in chains by their masters as a punishment, who had been branded with a hot iron, who had been found guilty as a result of torture, or who had been destined to fight in the arena with a sword or against wild beasts, did not become Roman citizens if set free by their master or someone else, but acquired only a condition compared to that of the peregrini dediticii." - Aglaia McClintock, Servi poenae: What Did it Mean to be 'Condemned to Slavery'

Crest of a murmillo's helmet found in the gladiator barracks of Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carlo Raso

By the third century, emperor Antoninus Pius issued a number of rescripts defining the power of private owners and those of the ruling princeps over slaves sentenced to death in the arena. He intentionally distinguished these convicts from the servi Caesaris (who enjoyed special rights and participated in the administration of the res publica) and created a new and specific legal category of persons making them a slave of the punishment not of the emperor or prior dominus
"The condemned to the worst kind of torments lose their citizenship and freedom and this happens immediately; therefore this new “condition” (hic casus) precedes their death, sometimes for a long time, as happens in the case of the persons condemned to the beasts. Often they are kept alive after the condemnation, so that they can be tortured to provide information against others." - D. 48.19.29 (Gaius, Lex Julia et Papia, book 1):
"On one hand he wanted to limit the owner’s power of life and death over slaves, on the other he wanted to gain full control of the power to punish and to set free individuals living in the empire, whether they be citizens, foreigners or slaves. Only the Emperor could have the last word on the servi poenae. And even if imperial rhetoric despised criminals it is noteworthy that the emperor had an economic interest for convicts which he exploited in mines and in the arena...In the age of the Antonines, jurists created a form of subjugation that did not even ideally aim to progress toward the status of the free. They excluded once and for all from the legal system those who had been found guilty in a formal trial. Free persons were branded on their faces, were deprived of freedom and citizenship, lost their property (which was seized by the imperial treasury), and their marriages were dissolved. They could not manumit their slaves, nor could they make a will or be written into one, or receive anything through intestate succession. Slaves lost the hope of being freed by a master, since the condemnation made them masterless. At least formally, all servi poenae were masterless because as convicts they could not hope to regain freedom (except if their sentence were overturned and they were restored to their previous condition). This is the great difference with regular slavery. Slavery inflicted during the republic meant becoming slave of a private individual, slavery inflicted from the reign of Antoninus Pius onwards meant becoming a criminal convict, a death row inmate waiting to die." - - Aglaia McClintock, Servi poenae: What Did it Mean to be 'Condemned to Slavery'

Provocator helmet from the Pompeii gladiator barracks courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carlo Raso

I know many of us had wished the general of Ridley Scott's original "Gladiator", had not died at the end of the film. But, in the portrayed time period after the reign of Antoninus Pius, Maxiumus, as one of the servi poenae, would have been doomed to a life without citizenship or legal rights, and probably would have been executed anyway since he would still have been viewed ultimately as a regicide despite the provocations he endured.

McClintock, Aglaia. (2023). Servi poenae: What Did It Mean to Be ‘Condemned to Slavery’?. 10.1515/9783110987195-007. The Position of Roman Slaves: Social Realities and Legal Differences.
Note: Aglaia McClintock is associate professor of Roman Law at the University of Sannio. She is Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University.
D. 49.14.12 (Callistratus, Judicial Examinations, book 6)
D. 48.19.29 (Gaius, Lex Julia et Papia, book 1)
Kathleen M. Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments,” Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990): 44–73, 72.
Kyle, Spectacles of Death (n. 12): 77, 103 n. 6.
Cf. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (n. 14): 78.
Cf. Hopkins, Death and Renewal (n. 10): 10;
Michael B. Hornum, Nemesis, the Roman State and the Games (Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill, 1993): 7

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Monday, April 15, 2024

House of the Vettii, Room of the Cupids (or Cherubs): Under the influence of Augustan propaganda?

Continuing my digital enhancement of the images of artwork in the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, I have reached room q (Mau's floorplan) aka the Room of the Cupids or Cherubs, the largest entertainment space on the ground floor of the residence. Although frescos featuring male cupids and female psyches engaged in various tasks in horizontal registers within the space are beautifully preserved, many of the panel paintings did not survive, with the exception of floating figures of gods and heroes and a small painting of Silenus and Hermaphroditus viewable upon exiting the room. So, we have no idea if the missing panels reflected the more tragic nature of the paintings in the northeast exedra p, small triclinium t, or cubiculae and alae around the atrium. 

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023. Wall painting of Silenus and Hermaphroditus on west side of doorway room q (Mau Plan) courtesy of Giuseppe Ciaramella

We do know, however, that this space, with its location deep within the house was most likely the private entertainment space for family and most honored invited guests. As in the House of the Tragic Poet, the elite nature of this space is reflected in the overall color scheme of a black socle with red middle zone observed by art historian Bettina Bergmann in her study, The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Bergmann also noted beginning with the Third Style, panel paintings in more public entertainment spaces received the monumental epic scenes, while "small idyllic moments" decorated the more intimate rooms. This type of panel painting would certainly have blended better thematically with the cherubic nature of the other predominant artwork.

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower centre of east wall room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

The more intimate decor of this entertainment space contrasts sharply with the more publicly located and epically embellished exedra p with its faux marble socle, that had become stylish, first in Rome then subsequently in the provinces, after the construction of Nero's  monumental Domus Aurea, to eloquently express an occupant's public self-image. 

"During the past decades [since the days of Augustus] the Pompeian magisterial élite had renewed itself by incorporating families which formerly had no access to the city council; moreover/ the upper echelon's domestic display of the material paraphernalia of power was now emulated by broader sections of the population than ever before...The occasional introduction of real marble in Roman élite houses in the 1st c. B.C. had met with fierce criticism because of its association with Hellenistic royal palaces and the concomitant pretensions to power it seemed to embody. Though favouring the use of marble in the public domain, Augustus carefully avoided associations with the problematic phenomenon in the private sphere: he had the walls of his palace decorated in a reshaped Second Style which shied away from the ostentatious marble imitations typical of the preceding wall-decoration. Nero's conspicuous application of marble incrustation can be regarded as a conscious revival of Hellenistic royal tradition" - Rolf A. Tybot, University of Leiden, Roman wall-painting and social significance, Journal of Roman archaeology, Volume 14. 

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Looking east through doorway into exedra “p” (Mau plan)
with faux marble socle courtesy of Johannes Eber

But, although the more public exedra p may have reflected the recent influence of Nero in its decor and pretension to power, the Room of the Cupids still bears evidence of the earlier influence of Augustus and avoidance of direct reference to the control power brings. The more subtle messages of room q have therefore proven more challenging to interpret, especially due to the assumed social status of the last occupants of the space as freedmen.

Beth Severy-Hoven, Professor of the Classical Mediterranean and Middle East at Macalester College observed, "Previous scholars have approached the House of the Vettii and other art commissioned by freedmen with the status of ex-slaves in mind. Lauren Hackworth Petersen has argued well, however, that they tend to draw heavily on impressions of the concerns and predicaments of wealthy freedmen gleaned from the way they are mocked for comic effect by elite writers such as Juvenal, Martial and Petronius..."

"...We must remember that the freed were part of a subculture largely lost to us but in which, as Joshel and Petersen have shown, labour was a source of pride and identity, rather than shame, as it was among the elite." 

"A theoretical apparatus imported from outside the field of classics is one way to evade [Petronius'] Trimalchio vision. [Laura] Mulvey's work [on the male gaze in twentieth-century cinema] from 1975 provides tools for decoding an image's expression of power relations. These methods are both visual – in terms of costuming, body position, focalisation, the way characters view others inside the frame and how that encourages an external viewer to look – and narrative – in terms of who acts, who is acted upon and who is punished. "

"...consider persistently whether or not it matters if the owners of the house were freeborn or freed. A significant body of recent scholarship, including the work of Maud Gleason, Erik Gunderson, Anthony Corbeill and Amy Richlin, has analysed the literary production and artistic commissions of elite Roman men for the ways they define and defend their privileged status as men or attack the legitimacy of rivals based on questionable masculinity. Freedmen and other men had just as much, if not more motivation to assert their status as men and masters for themselves, for their peers, for their fellow citizens and for their own slaves and ex-slaves. In the end, the fact that this house may have been owned by former slaves only serves as a useful prompt to consider the question whether or not gender alone encodes social hierarchies in its mythological paintings." - Beth Severy-Hoven, Master Narratives and the Wall Painting of the House of the Vetti, 2012.

In the case of the Room of the Cupids, though, I think the political environment in which the artwork was selected needs to be considered as well. Cupid, the Roman equivalent of Eros was originally portrayed in ancient Greek art as a youth or even an adult. In the earliest accounts, like Hesiod's Theogony (8th/7th century BCE), Eros appears as a primordial god, existing alongside fundamental forces like Chaos and Gaia.  There's no mention of his age or appearance. Later portrayals, particularly in lyric poetry of the Archaic Period (around 7th-6th centuries BCE), depict Eros as a handsome young man. This image emphasizes his beauty and allure.  Cupid's image as a winged cherubic child wielding a bow and arrows became prominent in Roman art much later, from the time of Augustus (1st century BCE) onwards.

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower center of east wall, detail of part of painted panel with cupids in a chariot race room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Detail East wall southeast corner cupids as flower dealers, picking and selling flowers and making garlands room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 East wall southeast corner cupids as flower dealers, picking and selling flowers and making garlands (2) room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 East wall southeast corner cupids as flower dealers, picking and selling flowers and making garlands room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 east wall southeast corner painting of cupids as flower dealers, picking and selling flowers and making garlands room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Miriam Colomer

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower east wall at south end, detail of cupids making perfumed oil (2) room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower east wall at south end, detail of cupids making perfumed oil room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower east wall at south end, part of painted panel of cupids making perfumed oil room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower center of east wall, detail of part of painted panel  - the winning cupid in chariot race room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Lower centre of east wall, detail of part of painted panel with cupids in a chariot race (2) room q (Mau plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

I suspected decorative elements incorporating child-like cupids may have been the result of Augustus' manipulative attempt to further reinforce his acclaim as Pater Patriae by the Roman Senate. 

To see if this may have been the case, I asked Google's Gemini AI query tool about this and it responded with:

"It's possible that the popularity of child-like cupids during Augustus' reign was partially influenced by his desire to solidify his image as Pater Patriae (Father of the Country). Here's why:

"Augustan Propaganda:  Augustus was a master of propaganda. He used art, literature, and architecture to carefully curate his public image.  The widespread depiction of cupids as playful children could have been part of this strategy.

"Symbolism of Renewal and Rebirth:  Cupid, as the son of Venus, the goddess of love, was associated with fertility, renewal, and the continuation of the Roman lineage.  By promoting the child-like cupid imagery, Augustus might have been subtly suggesting the promise of a new golden age under his rule.

"Connection to Aeneas:  The Romans [especially the Julians] believed their lineage traced back to the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Venus.  By emphasizing his connection to Venus through the imagery of her son Cupid, Augustus could have been strengthening his claim to rightful leadership and continuity with Rome's founding myth.

"Shifting Cupid Depiction:  While adult Eros existed in Greek art, the child-like Cupid became prominent around the 1st century BCE, coinciding with Augustus' reign. This timing suggests a potential link between his propaganda efforts and the artistic trend.

"The rise of child-like cupids in Roman art during Augustus' reign was likely a confluence of factors.  While his desire to bolster his image as Pater Patriae might have played a part, it's important to consider the broader artistic and cultural context as well."

I also wondered if Augustus' morality laws may have influenced the development of depictions of child-like cupids. Gemini indicated the social climate during the rise of Augustus and his emphasis on traditional family values might have indirectly created a social climate that favored more idealized and innocent portrayals of love.  This could have influenced artists to depict Cupid as a playful child rather than a more overtly seductive figure.

I was actually thinking more about Augustus' laws promoting childbirth, particularly among the aristocracy, though.

Gemini observed, "Augustus' laws promoting childbirth, particularly among the aristocracy, might have had a more direct influence on the popularity of child-like cupids in Roman art compared to his morality laws. Here's why:

"Alignment with Goals:  Securing Legitimacy:  Augustus' primary concern was securing a stable succession and ensuring the continuation of his lineage.  Encouraging childbirth, especially within the aristocracy, would create a pool of potential heirs and solidify his dynasty.

"Image of Renewal:  The depiction of Cupid as a child inherently symbolized procreation, new beginnings, and the continuation of a lineage.  This symbolism directly aligned with Augustus' goals of promoting childbirth and renewal within Roman society.

"Propaganda and Public Image:  Augustus was a master of using art for propaganda.  By promoting the image of child-like cupids throughout Roman art, he could have subtly reinforced the importance of childbirth and family continuity, particularly within the aristocracy.

"Visual Reinforcement:  The widespread presence of child-like cupids in artwork could have served as a constant visual reminder of Augustus' policies and the societal value placed on procreation.  This would have resonated with the aristocracy, who were expected to comply with these laws.

"Overall, while Augustus' morality laws might not have had a direct link to the child-like Cupid imagery, his laws promoting childbirth within the aristocracy likely had a more significant influence.  The playful and innocent image of Cupid could have served as a visual reminder of his agenda and encouraged the aristocracy to comply with his policies."

Considering the Vettii's freedmen status, though, I wondered if the introduction of child-like cupid motifs especially in scenes of labor in the homes of freedman refer to their former lives as workers before their "renewal" as Roman citizens following manumission.

Gemini agreed:

"That's an interesting and thought-provoking interpretation! The presence of child-like cupid motifs in scenes of labor within the homes of freedmen could indeed hold a symbolic connection to their past lives and newfound freedom. 

"Past as Workers: The scenes of labor in the homes of freedmen could serve as a visual reminder of their previous lives as workers.  The inclusion of child-like cupids, associated with playfulness and innocence, could create a sense of contrast.

"Symbol of Renewal:  Cupids, especially in the context of labor, could represent a transformation.  Their child-like form might symbolize the "rebirth" of the freedman as a Roman citizen, free from the constraints of their former lives allowing them to pursue different aspirations.

"By considering the concept of child-like cupids symbolizing both past lives and newfound freedom, we gain a richer appreciation of the potential meaning behind these artistic choices. The presence of cupids in labor scenes within freedmen's homes could be a complex interplay of acknowledging their past, celebrating their present freedom, and perhaps even hinting at aspirations for a future that transcends manual labor."

Thinking about the depictions of cupids in other residences, I remembered The House of the Stags in Herculaneum also has a number of paintings featuring male cupids (with bird-like wings)  engaged in various tasks. However, female psyches (with butterfly-style wings)  are not included like they are in the Room of the Cupids (Cherubs) in the House of the Vettii. I thought about the marriage restrictions placed upon male freedmen  and considered the exclusion of wives from imperial or senatorial classes meant many freedmen's consorts may have been liberti as well so would have been engaged in commercial activities at some point before they, too, were freed. This would account for the absence of female laborers in the paintings from the House of the Stags, thought to be an aristocratic residence.

Roman fresco depicting Cupids at work in shoe factory, House of the Stags, Herculaneum, 1st century CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The distinctive inclusion of both male and female representation in room q is further expressed in the panel painting of Silenus and Hermaphroditus. But rather than a message of moral behavior, I considered if Silenus, recognized as the wise tutor of Dionysus, may represent the constraints of traditional Roman social hierarchy, embodied by Rome's first emperor, Augustus, on both male and female individuals who were once enslaved but now enjoying the freedom granted to them by manumission.

Gemini pointed out that Silenus could indeed symbolize several aspects of 1st century CE Roman society.

"Duality of Freedom: Silenus, though Dionysus' companion and teacher, was also known for his indulgence in wine and his association with satyrs, creatures of wild impulse.  He could represent the potential pitfalls of newfound freedom for freedmen.

"Constraint vs. Excess:  The juxtaposition of Silenus with the playful cupids could symbolize the tension between the constraints of traditional Roman society (embodied by Silenus) and the potential for excess and transgression associated with newfound freedom (represented by the cupids).

"Augustus and Social Hierarchy:  While a direct link between Silenus and Augustus is debatable, the freedmen owners might have seen parallels between the strict social order Augustus established and the limitations Silenus, despite his closeness to Dionysus, might represent."

Gemini did caution me Silenus is a complex figure.  He can be seen as a wise teacher, a jolly drunkard, or a symbol of untamed nature.  Attributing a singular meaning to him in this context can be tricky. Furthermore, his pursuit of Hermaphroditus could be a more generic representation of the dangers of unrestrained desire, potentially a cautionary tale for the freedmen regardless of the social hierarchy.

"By considering Silenus as a potential symbol of constraints within a freedmen's home, we gain a richer understanding of the complex themes explored in the Room of the Cupids.  The artwork invites viewers to contemplate the challenges and opportunities that came with newfound freedom in Roman society,  alongside the ever-present realities of desire and its potential consequences. It's important to remember that interpretations can vary, and the freedmen who owned the house might have had their own unique perspective shaped by their experiences."

The reason I viewed  "constraint" as a significant message of the painting was  the fact that Silenus is behind and grasping the wrist of Hermaphroditus in what appears to be a threatening manner. The wealthy, even in the provinces, viewed the protestations of Augustus as "only" the first citizen with skepticism.

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023. Detail of Silenus grasping the wrist of
Hermaphroditus room q (Mau Plan) courtesy of Giuseppe Ciaramella

Taking this aspect of the painting into consideration, Gemini agreed this detail could point to power imbalance and social hierarchy.

"Forceful Advance:  Silenus' posture and actions highlight a power imbalance between him and Hermaphroditus.  This can be seen as a metaphor for the limitations freedmen faced despite their formal freedom.  The Roman elite, even in the provinces, might have still viewed them as subordinate.

"Skepticism of Freedom:  Your point about the skepticism surrounding Augustus' reforms regarding freedmen is very insightful.  The scene with Silenus could be interpreted as a reflection of this skepticism.  Even with manumission, freedmen might not have enjoyed complete social or economic freedom.

"Internal Conflict:  In addition to external constraints, Silenus might also represent the internal struggles freedmen faced.  Their newfound freedom might have been accompanied by feelings of uncertainty or a sense of being caught between their past and present social identities.

"Loss of Innocence:  The playful cupids throughout the room establish a sense of innocence and lightheartedness.  The Silenus and Hermaphroditus scene, with its potential violence, could symbolize the loss of this innocence associated with newfound freedom and the harsh realities of social dynamics.

"The interplay between the playful cupids and the potentially dark scene of Silenus and Hermaphroditus creates a complex message.  While the cupids might celebrate freedom, the Silenus scene could be a reminder of the limitations and challenges that still existed for freedmen in Roman society."

Beth Severy-Hoven points out another classicist, David Fredrick, also finds  an expression of power tied up with the pleasure and privilege of looking, and identifies it as a major theme in images that include the concealing or revealing of bodies [and aspirations?] using drapery, veils or disguises.


Severy-Hoven, B. (2012), Master Narratives and the Wall Painting of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Gender & History, 24: 540-580.

Mau, August, "Pompeii Its Life and Art", Chapter XL, pp. 315-333; The MacMillan Company, London, 1899.

B. Bergmann, "The Roman house as memory theater: the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii," ArtB 76 (L994) 225-56; see esp. 23I-32 and 233 fig. 13. 

A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeíi and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994)

Tybout, Rolf A. (2001) Roman wall-painting and social significance, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Volume 14.

Mouritsen, Henrik. The Freedman in the Roman World. Cambridge, UK ; Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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Sunday, March 31, 2024

Why did archaeologists working in Pompeii designate rooms in some Roman houses as "gynaeceum"?

I've been working on images from rooms designated as a "gynaeceum" (women's quarters) in the House of the Vettii. Since Roman women were not sequestered like Greek women in the ancient world, I've wondered what archaeological attributes would prompt Roman scholars to designate such areas in a Roman architectural context.

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Triclinium “t”, detail of painted figure in medallion at the south end of the east wall (Mau plan) courtesy of Klaus Heese

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Looking towards east wall of black triclinium “t” (Mau plan) courtesy of Giuseppe Ciaramella

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Detail from north wall of small courtyard peristyle garden “s” (Mau Plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 North wall of small courtyard peristyle garden “s” (Mau Plan) courtesy of Johannes Eber

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Small courtyard “s” Detail (2) from upper center of north wall (Mau plan) courtesy of Klaus Heese

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Small peristyle garden “s”, detail from center of south red panel in west wall at north end (Mau plan) courtesy of Klaus Heese

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 1895 watercolor by Luigi Bazzani Looking north across the small courtyard garden “s” with portico (Mau plan)

From what I have learned, Roman archaeologists attempt to identify areas used primarily by women based on several clues:
Innermost part of the house: The women's quarters were often located away from the public areas of the house, like the atrium and peristyle. This would be the most private section of the villa.

Room Features:
Smaller rooms: These might be bedrooms for the mistress of the house, her daughters, and female servants.
Evidence of domestic activities: Archaeologists might find artifacts related to spinning, weaving, or childcare, like spindle whorls, loom weights, or toys.
Presence of personal items: Jewelry, cosmetics containers, or hairpins could indicate feminine use of the space.
Decorative elements: Frescoes or mosaics depicting mythological scenes featuring goddesses or family life could be clues.
Size and wealth of the villa: Larger, wealthier villas might have had more dedicated spaces for women's activities.
Comparison to other villas: Archaeologists would compare the layout and finds to similar villas to see if patterns emerge.
The rooms, designated on Mau's floorplan as "s", "t", and "u" are nestled more deeply in the residence so location may be one of the factors considered in the "gynaeceum" designation.

August Mau's 1907 floor plan of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii

I have not translated the portions of the Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia relating the types of artifacts found in this space when the house was originally excavated from 1894-1895 but German classicist E. Hartmann, in his paper, "Women in Antiquity", says:
"Despite the many methodological difficulties which artefact distribution analysis in Pompeii presents, the finds indicate a flexible use of rooms rather than separate women’s quarters. There is not only evidence for the coexistence of diverse activities within the house and its single rooms, but also for the concentrated storage of various domestic items..."
Luren McCardel in her article, Women on the Wall: The Roles and Impact of Women on Hadrian’s Wall, appears to agree with Hartmann stating:
"There is no archaeological evidence to suggest that the standard Roman domus had separate women’s quarters, and we can only speculate as to whether such spaces may have existed on the upper levels of the praetorium, perhaps functioning as nurseries or other necessary domestic spaces.
"Roman houses were generally organized so as to emphasize the visibility of the domina as she managed household affairs and carried out other domestic responsibilities. She would be the first sight a visitor might greet upon entering the atrium, where she might be seen spinning, a task associated with moral purity and one which allowed her to keep an eye on the running of her household. Visibility was the most important theme in classical Roman houses; in addition to the materfamilias being observable in the atrium, the paterfamilias had his own highly visible location in the home, the tablinum, an office or reception space in which he could often be seen working. Prominent houses were characterized by openness, with doors left open to allow passersby to witness the man of the house in his position of power, and his wife in her role of domestic management. In general, however, the spaces of a Roman house were not structurally reflective of men’s and women’s roles; rather, spatial dispositions were achieved through the organization of time, with activities carefully moderated to protect women from the sight of male strangers when necessary. Most rooms (excepting the tablinum) could change their purpose according to need or time of day." - Lauren McCardel, Women on the Wall: The Roles and Impact of Women on Hadrian’s Wall.

As for the imagery, the rooms, like many of the other rooms in the House of the Vettii, feature Dionysiac imagery, including floating maenads, which to 21st century eyes appear to impart a softer, more feminine motif.

House of the Vettii VI 15,1 Pompeii 2023 Triclinium “t”, detail of painted figure in medallion at the north end of the east wall (Mau plan) courtesy of Klaus Heese

But art historian at the University of Bristol, Shelley Hales cautions:
"Few studies of Dionysiac iconography care to reflect on the god's unsavoury sides and the behavioural extremes between which Dionysos and his followers oscillated. In commenting on images of dancing maenads, we overlook their blood-soaked, god-inspired rages. The different sides of the maenad, however, might less easily be separated in ancient imaginations." Shelley Hales, "Diionysos at Pompeii."
Room "t" also features a painting of a drunken Hercules preparing to rape Auge - not exactly a pleasant theme for a space primarily occupied by women, in my opinion.

Hercules preparing to rape Auge from south wall of small triclinium "t" in area designated as a gynaeceum by late 19th century excavators

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