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Ancient Pompeii's society and social structure

As has already been mentioned Pompeian society was a mixture of cultures with a Samnitic root to which Greek and Roman cultures had been grafted. In a simplistic fashion this varied provenance can be said to have given Pompeian society its principal attributes: provincial, hard working, open to external cultures, entrepreneurial.

It is an interesting detail that recent analysis of the human bones found in Pompeii by Dr. Estelle Lazer tell us a fair amount about the population of the time. Studying the bones of Pompeian society we can learn much about Ancient Roman society and the individual's lifestyle and health: The surprise is that the life expectancy and proportion of obese people is similar to that found in modern society:

  • Average height was pretty much as it is today in modern Naples: 1.67m for men and 1.54m for women.
  • 10% of society was showing symptoms of obesity
  • A minority of women were suffering from a superficial hormonal disfunction and HFI (slight thickening of the frontal bone of the skull which some physicians believe is actually present in approx 12% of the modern population)
  • Lifespan was longer than previously expected: the age range of the bone sample was similar to one you would expect today.
  • The incidence of age-related diseases was similar to that of today.

Pompeian society was split in number of ways, rather than hazard a pure list we attempt to give a picture of how these groups might have intersected to create Pompeii's social structure:

Social Groups in Pompeii male : female slave : libertus : plebeian : noble local civilian : foreigner (merchants)
Rich : poor Both Roman men and Roman women had a right to personal wealth All classes of Roman citizen could aspire to wealth, slaves included. Merchants as well as locals could be rich or poor
Trade groups and guilds Most trades were open to both sexes. Some trades were exclusive to men, eg politics. Trade groups and guilds were likely for plebeians or freed slaves. The nobility would have their "clientes" run their businesses. Foreigners could take local residence and patronage of a local nobleman. Likely arrived via maritime trade routes.
Religion Both male and females could follow the traditional religions. The head of the family (pater familias) was responsible for family rites (ancestors). Some public religions might have a greater male or female focus, particularly the "mystery" religions of Eastern provenance such as Dionisiac religion so famous for the painting in the villa of the mysteries. All (subject to sex/pertinence for the given religion.) All
Other (eg games supporters, or "late night drinkers") All All All

Whilst elections were open to all citizens, city/municipal/political roles were in reality difficult to achieve and required access to a great deal of private wealth. As such they implied belonging to or being heavily sponsored by the elite.

There are a number of examples of how this multicultural assemblage reflected itself in the development of the city:

  • religious beliefs were widespread and included eastern religions imported via the trade routes from very early on.
  • Architecture including the palaestra, baths and theatre
  • Established trade with a broad variety or regions across the Mediterranean, ranging from Gaul to the eastern Hellenic Mediterranean and Egypt.

Roman domination and Sullas colonisation in 80BC set the print of Pompeiis final social structure: the definition of a written constitution together with a clear system of rule and political career path for magistrates (the Roman "cursus honorum") which largely reflected that of Rome itself and would rarely require the Roman senates involvement except in extreme cases. The top of the social ladder was therefore the equivalent of Romes two consuls: the "Duovirs". As in other Roman cities this provided a clear path accessible to (almost) all citizens who could therefore aspire to climb the social ladder. Petronius Trimalchio would be the extreme example of this social mobility.

Of course things are never a clear black and white: there were a number of classes of people not permitted to participate in such elections, for example actors, dancers, prostitutes and gladiators. And even other lower class citizens might find it prohibitive since a degree of personal wealth was required which implied that in reality political tenure was generally for the rich.

Society was not only split into rich and poor or upper class and lower class, but also in more articulated sub groups, such as groups of supporters at the games, crafts and guilds like the fullers, bakers or muleteers (see below) or indeed by religious belief.

An example: Nowadays we can visit Pompeii and see how the house of Gaius Julius Polibius has been restored and made part of a hi-tech tour (holograms and all!). He was a libertus a freed slave His bakeries had made him rich and he was very active in society. At the time of the eruption he was candidate for political office. In a touching example of the public and private spheres of a single family, excavation of his house in the town centre brought a room to light within which the skeletons of 13 people were found. Two of them holding hands, another aged 16 or 17 was pregnant. DNA analysis has shown them all to belong to the same family.

We know of Gaius bid for office thanks to graffiti such as

"The muleteers urge the election of Gaius Julius Polybius as duovir"

Or

"I ask you to elect Gaius Julius Polybius aedile. He gets good bread."

The two graffiti above, short as they are, give many clues to the well developed structure of Pompeian society:

  • They tell us about Polybius the nouveau riche baker who had aspired to being elected aedile and duovir (presumably at different times),
  • the fact that they are written at all suggests that the broader population actively participated and made a difference in such elections,
  • they tell us that there was obviously an open choice of breads (and opinion as to what was a good or bad bread): from this we might deduce that other trades were also equally well developed.
  • and last but not least that there were recognised social groups with which people could readily associate (or dissociate) themselves, in this case the group being "the muleteers".

One of Pompeiis wonders is the numerous and varied examples of written records which lay witness to its extremely fluid yet highly structured society.

  • Graffiti
    • We have numerous graffiti on walls with messages of different natures, some are testimony of everyday life others are closer to political and electoral manifestos such as the examples above.
  • Commemorative plaques which give a clear testimony of the patronage activity from the broadest cross-section of society: even freed slaves could aspire and actually leave a lasting mark on their city.
    • We find these on monuments
    • On gravestones
  • Wax tablets
    • An amazing example is a series of over 150 wax tablets belonging to Lucius Caecilius Secundus - a banker. Sufficient in number to give a statistical feel of the type and spread of business a middleman such as himself might have been involved in. They were found buried as a result of the earthquake which had hit the city in the year 62. These tablets contain good details of bank book-keeping and accounts/receipts of some financial transactions undertaken. Even more interestingly in terms of understanding Pompeian social structure, Lucundus was himself the son of a banker-libertus (freedman). These records show us that whilst a number of minor transactions were handled/signed by other freedmen and slaves who evidently worked for him, Lucundus was evidently also doing bigger business with a number of the city's upper class elite.

 

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"ancient pompeii" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments