In Pompeii, many buildings had decorated walls covered with frescoes or mosaics.
What makes frescoes (mural paintings) unique is that they are painted on freshly laid or wet lime plaster: ‘fresco’ means ‘fresh.’
The paint will mix with the plaster and become much more durable.
On the other hand, artisans created mosaics from small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials.
They artfully arranged them to form a complex picture.
Roman myths, religion, sports, war campaigns, and sex were all depicted in Pompeii frescoes and mosaics.
Pompeii’s most famous buildings, such as the peristyle of the House of the Vettii and the Villa of Mysteries, contain examples of these art forms (Villa dei Misteri).
Two freedmen owned the House of the Vettii, famous for preserving almost all its wall frescoes.
The Villa of Mysteries is famous for one of its rooms, which depicts a woman being initiated into Dionysus’ particular cult.
The House of the Mysteries was named after the extensive series of ornate frescoes in the residential section of the building and is located just outside of Pompeii.
The vivid red throughout the fresco is a prominent example of the cinnabar used throughout the city and is often considered Pompeii’s masterpiece.
The wall paintings are widely assumed to portray an initiation into an ancient Roman mystery cult, possibly that of Dionysus (or his Roman equivalent, Bacchus).
One of the back wall frescoes depicts the god in the lap of his mortal consort Ariadne, while the rest appear to depict a young woman going through the initiation phase into the cult.
The Cult of Bacchus was a controversial topic in Ancient Roman society.
The Roman god oversaw wine, revelry, and drama.
Although these were all important aspects of Roman life, the cult developed a reputation for strange rituals and frenetic gatherings that challenged Roman society’s strict regime.
Contemporary Roman historian Livy gives a scandalous account of their rituals and practices in A History Of Rome.
Though his views are admittedly exaggerated, they provide an intriguing insight into how the cult was perceived.
The vibrant colors represent the cult’s dynamic and vibrant energy.
At the same time, the life-sized depictions of the subjects have been noted to give the scene a sense of community, implicating the viewer in the initiation ritual.
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Alexander the Great mosaic in The House of the Faun
The House of the Faun was the largest and most impressive villa discovered during the excavation of Pompeii.
So it’s unsurprising that a memorial to one of the ancient empire’s most iconic leaders, Alexander the Great, is housed here.
The Romans strongly appreciated Greek themes, history, and art, and this mosaic provides an excellent example of how they frequently repurposed Greek culture within a Roman context.
The intricate mosaic depicts Alexander and his army defeating the Persian King Darius in the Battle of Issus in 333 BC.
Alexander remembered as one of history’s most iconic names, conquered several nations, instilling Greek culture in them, something the Roman Empire admired and attempted to emulate on a large scale.
It is also worth noting that Alexander’s breastplate bears the head of the Greek gorgon Medusa, which is widely regarded as a protective spell against evil.
Riot at The House of Actius Anicetus’ Amphitheatre Fresco
Gladiator games were not limited to the Colosseum. However, it is unquestionably the best place to go if you want to follow in the footsteps of the Gladiators.
The Pompeii Arena is the oldest surviving amphitheater from Ancient Rome (built around 70 BC) and has some fascinating stories.
A fresco discovered in The House of Actius Anicetus depicts one of these stories.
It depicts a riot in 59CE between the people of Pompeii and the citizens of Nuceria.
Like football games today, Gladiatorial games frequently inflamed town rivalries in Ancient Rome.
In this case, the riot resulted in maiming, bloodshed, death and a 10-year ban on holding games in Pompeii’s amphitheater.
Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, provided an event account.
“Around the same time, a trifling beginning led to frightful bloodshed between the inhabitants of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show exhibited by Livineius Regulus, who had been, as I have related, expelled from the Senate,” he writes in The Annals.
With the unruly spirit of townsfolk, they began with abusive language with each other.
They took up stones and at last weapons, the advantage resting with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited”.
While there is some debate over whether or not the owner of this house was an ex-gladiator, it is certainly interesting that an event that earned Pompeii its fair share of senate reproaches is depicted so proudly on the walls of this villa.
Cupids in the Vettii’s House
Regarding the artwork, the House of the Vettii is one of Pompeii’s most important villas.
The fresco above is from the villa’s Triclinium, or dining room, and depicts Cupids performing tasks such as perfume making and working as goldsmiths, bakers, and oil merchants.
Cupid presided over passion as the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, the Roman god of war.
So this series of frescoes may represent being enthusiastic about one’s work.
It’s also worth noting that many of these trades are related to the senses, contributing to his symbolic nature as a god of love and desire.
The House of the Vettii belonged to two freed brothers who bought their way out of slavery. So it’s easy to see why they’d place such a premium on whistling while working!
Hercules as a Child in the Vettii House
This Hercules fresco is located in the House of the Vettii, in what archaeologists believe was a dining or guest room.
It depicts a famous scene from the hero’s childhood.
Hercules, the center of several religious cults, was widely worshiped throughout Pompeii and was regarded as the region’s protector.
They even hailed him as the founder of the neighboring town Herculaneum and the destroyer of the town, Mount Vesuvius.
According to legend, Hercules’ mother, Queen Alcmene, was duped into sleeping with Jupiter one night when he pretended to be her husband.
When she gave birth to two sons, his mortal parents soon discovered that one, Iphicles, was her husband’s (King Amphitryon) son, and the other, Hercules, was the son of the god Jupiter.
Juno, Jupiter’s wife, was furious at her husband’s betrayal. However, Jupiter was a difficult target because he was King of the Gods.
Instead, Juno took her rage out on the young Hercules, sending two snakes to kill him in his crib.
On the other hand, the demigod child had the strength of ten men and quickly dispatched them both.
According to legend, when Hercules reached adulthood, Juno cursed him with madness, causing him to murder his wife and child.
He performed the 12 labors in atonement, and the rest is, if not history, legend!
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Featured Image: Darkrome.com