Vote, vote, vote

The younger Aulus Umbricius Scaurus had done as well in the local politics of Pompeii as anyone might reasonably hope. He had been elected by his fellow citizens to serve for a year as one of the pair of duoviri, the ‘two men’ who were the most senior officials in the town. Although his tombstone does not mention it, he must earlier have been elected to the other annual office of ‘aedile’ (aedilis). For that junior position not only gave a man almost automatic entry to the local town council (the ordo of decurions) for life, but also allowed him to stand for the higher office. No one, in other words, could be duumvir (the correct singular form of duoviri) without having been an aedile first. Only one position in the town was more prestigious than that of the regularduoviri. Every five years the duoviri had the extra task of enrolling the new members of the council and updating the list of local citizens, a responsibility reflected in the special title duoviri quinquennales. These men were the really big figures in the town. One, whom we shall meet later in this chapter, had been duumvir five times, including two stints as quinquennalis. Successful as he was, Umbricius Scaurus had not reached those heights.

The flavour of these annual Pompeian elections is vividly captured in the election posters, more than 2500 of them, painted in clear letters, red or black. These cover the outer walls of some houses, one overlapping the other, as the notices for each new year’s campaign were painted over those of the last. They cluster, unsurprisingly, on the main thoroughfares of the town, where they were likely to be spotted by the most people. But they are also to be found on tomb façades, even occasionally on the inside of large properties – such as the House of Julius Polybius, where there is a notice inside (as well as on the façade) urging support for Caius Julius Polybius to become duumvir.

The notices conform to a fairly standard pattern. They give the name of the candidate and the position he seeks, aedile or duumvir (or they may even give the names of two candidates, who presumably had done a deal to run together as a team). They often, but not always, identify his supporters, and perhaps some reason for supporting him. ‘Please elect Popidius Secundus as aedile, an excellent young man’ or ‘Africanus and Victor are canvassing for Marcus Cerrenius to be aedile’ is the typical format. Occasionally, they even make a direct appeal to some potential voter: ‘Please elect Lucius Popidius Ampliatus, the son of Lucius, as aedile – that means you Trebius and Soterichus’.

From time to time they give the names of the signwriters too, for it seems that the painting of these notices was an expert job. Altogether we have the names of almost thirty of these skilled propagandists, who no doubt sold their services for a fee. They were not full-time workers, of course. One member of a signwriting team identifies himself by his dayjob, as a fuller (‘Mustius, the fuller, did the whitewashing’). These men sometimes seem to have had a local ‘patch’. Aemilius Celer, for example, whom we spotted (p. 79) painting up an advertisement for a gladiatorial display ‘on his own by the light of the moon’, is found signing election notices, clustered in an area in the north of the city close to where he himself lived (to judge from another sign reading ‘Aemilius Celer lives here’). On one notice, urging support for Lucius Statius Receptus as duumvir, he signed off as ‘Aemilius Celer, his neighbour, wrote this’ and – obviously fearing that a rival group might turn up with a pot of paint or a handful of lime – he added this warning: ‘If you meanly blot this out, I hope you catch something nasty’. How any of these men chose the bit of wall on which to display their slogans we can only guess. But it must usually have been with the tacit agreement, at least, of the owner of the property concerned. If not, the risk was that those carefully painted words would have been painted over by the next day.

Formulaic though the notices are, however, they do give all kinds of insights into the political life of Pompeii. The names of the supporters can tell their own occasionally curious story. Some appear to be simple personal recommendations, even if they were, likely as not, done at the gentle prompting of the candidate himself. A few appeal to Titus Suedius Clemens, the agent of the emperor Vespasian (pp. 48–9), who at one stage used his imperial position to influence (or meddle in) the town’s local government. They pointedly declare their candidate ‘backed by Suedius Clemens’. Others claim to speak for groups of the town’s citizens. The fullers, for example, the millers, the chicken-keepers, the grape-pickers, the mat-makers, the ointment-sellers, the fishermen, and the Isis-worshippers are all found parading their support for a particular candidate. A few of these groups are more enigmatic. Who are the ‘Campanienses’ who canvas for Marcus Epidius Sabinus to be aedile? Or the ‘Salinienses’ supporting Marcus Cerrinius?

Here we are almost certainly getting a glimpse into the infrastructure of Pompeian voting organisation. The usual Roman method of conducting elections was to divide the total electorate into sub-groups. Each of these groups would vote amongst themselves to record a single group choice, and the winning candidate was the one who won the support of the majority of the groups. This is a system often compared unfavourably, for its complexity, to the simple mass-meeting show-of-hands adopted by the ancient Athenian democracy, but it is in fact much like the electoral system used by most modern states. In all likelihood the Campanienses and Salinienses, together with the Forenses and Urbulanenses found in other notices, refer to four voting groups, based on particular districts of the town, named perhaps after different city gates (we have already seen (p. 20) that what we call the Herculaneum Gate was for the ancient inhabitants the Porta Salis or Saliniensis). There would have been voting districts in the surrounding countryside too.

On the day of the election, we must imagine that the local citizens would have turned up in the Forum, divided into their different districts, returned their district vote and then acclaimed as winning candidates those who had secured the votes of the majority of the districts. Exactly how they voted is not so clear, but almost certainly by some form of secret ballot. One ingenious recent suggestion is that the main purpose of the closing devices, still visible at the entranceways to the Forum, was to keep out those not qualified to vote on election days.

All these voters were men. Leaving aside the occasional monarchy which produced a queen or two, there was no city or state in the Greek or Roman world that gave women any formal political power. Nowhere did women have the vote. But one of the surprising facts about the electoral notices known in Pompeii is that more than fifty of them name a woman, or a group of women, as the candidate’s backers. Does this demonstrate an active interest from women in a political process from which they were excluded? In some cases, yes – even if it was not always a narrowly political engagement that was at stake. Taedia Secunda, for example, who put her name to Lucius Popidius Secundus’ attempt to win the office of aedile, was, as the electoral notice explicitly states, the man’s grandmother. On many other occasions family or personal loyalty must have been the reason for the women’s support. Nonetheless, the simple fact that it was felt worthwhile to parade their backing is another indication of the visibility of women in public life at Pompeii.

But sometimes there might have been more to these slogans than at first meets the eye. Several women’s names are found on the outside wall of a bar on the Via dell’Abbondanza lending their support to different candidates: they were Asellina, Aegle, Zmyrina and Maria. It is a fair guess that these were the women who worked as the barmaids inside (the single names, two of them, Aegle and Zmyrina, decidedly Greek in origin, suggest that they were slaves). Maybe they had their favourite candidates and commissioned the local signwriters to display these preferences. Or maybe there is a joke, or a bit of negative propaganda, going on here. Some street-corner satirist, or political opponent, has arranged the usual kind of election notices – but inserted the local barmaids’ names as the supporters.

Whoever the sponsors behind these posters actually were, Caius Julius Polybius and his friends were certainly not pleased. For in the notice in which Zmyrina declares her support for ‘C. I. P.’ (Julius Polybius was a man so familiar that he could be abbreviated down to his initials) someone has come along later and carried out exactly the kind of defacement that Aemilius Celer had in mind when he threatened anyone who blotted out his handiwork with ‘catching something nasty’. Or at least they have partly done so. For here just Zmyrina’s name has been obliterated under a layer of lime, the rest left legible, as if the eager candidate was concerned only to remove that dangerous hint of unsuitable support.

The parade of unsuitable support seems, in fact, to have been the way negative propaganda was delivered on more than one occasion in Pompeian elections. None of the posters we have found so far list the failings of a particular candidate, or try to dissuade the electorate from casting their votes that way. But we do find some very odd supporters indeed. It may be that the poster which has ‘the late drinkers’ endorsing Marcus Cerrinius Vatia’s campaign to become aedile was a friendly joke – a notice commissioned perhaps after one of their late-night drinking sessions. But it is hard to imagine that the support of ‘the pickpockets’, or ‘the runaway slaves’ or ‘the idlers’ was meant to be anything other than encouragement to vote against.

What reasons do the supporters give for voting for their chosen candidates? If they are specified at all, these are mostly as formulaic as the notices themselves. The favourite word, occurring time and time again, is dignus – meaning ‘worthy’ or ‘suitable for office’. A more loaded term in Latin than in English, this has important connotations of public esteem and honour (it was, for example, to protect his dignitas that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE and embarked on civil war against his rival, Pompey). But there is still very little in any of these posters that even hints at what action might win or justify such esteem, or make a successful aedile or duumvir. One graffito – not apparently an election notice, though it has long since disappeared – praised Marcus Casellius Marcellus as ‘a good aedile and a great games-giver’. The few attempts to give some concrete reason for electoral support add up to little more than ‘he brings good bread’ (which may refer either to Caius Julius Polybius’ qualities as a bakery owner or to some plans for a distribution of free bread) and ‘he won’t squander the city’s money’ (which may hint at Bruttius Balbus’ economic prudence in local finances – or, more likely, at his willingness to be generous with his own cash in the public interest).

It is possible, of course, that all kinds of debates about city policy and politics went on amongst the electorate – over dinner, in the Forum or in the bars – that never made a mark on the standardised wording of these posters. Pompeii may have been an intensely political culture. But it is equally likely that for the men in the city, just as for the women, it was family connections, personal loyalty and friendship that were most at issue in choosing a candidate. Taedia Secunda is the only one to make a particular family relationship clear, but a number of the supporters identify themselves as the ‘client’ or ‘neighbour’ of the candidate concerned. This is still ‘politics’, of course, but with a very different flavour. Certainly, the role of the posters was more declaratory than persuasive. That is to say, they were intended to demonstrate support, rather than attempting to change the voters’ minds with argument – a process which (on the reasonable assumption that Caius Julius Polybius did live in the house named after him) reaches its logical conclusion in the endorsement of a candidate inside his own house.

No poster has yet been found endorsing the election of young Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, either as aedile as duumvir. This is not too surprising because he probably held office a couple of decades before the eruption, even before the earthquake of 62. True, there are some election notices that survive from earlier periods in the town’s history. A few even go back slightly before the formal establishment of the colony in 80 BCE and almost a dozen are written in Oscan. But the vast majority are, as you would expect, from the last years of the city’s life, and later than the damage caused by the earthquake and the redecoration that it prompted. For this period, there are several candidates who appear in well over a hundred different notices. And this density of evidence has encouraged historians to try to draw even more detailed conclusions about Pompeian politics than what can be extracted from the wording itself.

Some of the most intricate pieces of research have tried to establish, first, a relative order to the electoral campaigns represented – and then, if possible, to work out a complete chronology of the Pompeian elections in its last decade or so. Who stood for what office in what year? The method that lies behind this is effectively an ‘archaeology’ of the painted surface of the walls, and it is helped by the fact that electoral notices were not washed off or otherwise removed once the particular campaign was finished, but simply covered over the next year with new versions for the new candidates. If you start with the topmost layer of painting, you find that the election notices for some candidates both survive in very large numbers and never appear to be painted over by others. It is logical to suppose that these were the candidates for office in the last elections that took place in 79 CE (probably in the spring, to take up office in July). If so, then the candidates for the post of aedile in the last year of the city’s life were Marcus Sabellius Modestus, who seems to have been running with Cnaeus Helvius Sabinus, against Lucius Popidius Secundus and Caius Cuspius Pansa. The candidates for the office of duumvir were, on the same line of reasoning, Caius Gavius Rufus and Marcus Holconius Priscus.

Peeling back through the layers of posters, the next task is to determine which overlie which – and so which are later than others. From this it should be possible in theory to build up a chronology of candidates. This operation is much trickier than merely identifying the very latest candidates. As the walls decay and the paintings fade, it is not always easy to establish the precise relationship between different notices, not to mention the fact that co-ordinating the evidence from different parts of the city is very complicated indeed. There is no single list of candidates even for the 70s CE that has convinced everyone. That said, one thing is universally agreed: that there were many more candidates for election to aedile than to duumvir. In fact, on one reconstruction, between 71 and 79, there were only ever two men each year standing for the duovirate: only as many candidates as there were places, in other words.

If that were the case (and it certainly was in some years), then the purpose of the posters could not have been to persuade the voters to choose one candidate over another. At first sight, it also gives a gloomy impression of Pompeian democracy. That is to say, despite the appearance of a lively democratic culture, no choice was offered to the electorate in filling their major elected office. On reflection, things seem rather different. For since it was the rule in Pompeii (as in Roman towns in general) that no one could become duumvir without first having been aedile, and since only two aediles were elected each year, competition for the higher office would by definition be almost non-existent.

There was sometimes strong competition to become aedile: Cnaeus Helvius Sabinus, a candidate of 79, had made at least one previous and unsuccessful attempt to be elected, as we can tell from what must be earlier notices. There need only have been competition to become duumvir if more than two of those eligible were keen to hold the office in the same year – perhaps because they were particularly keen to be elected to the more prestigious post of duumvir quinquennalis, or because they wanted to hold the office more than once. In fact, unless every ex-aedile was available to be elected duumvir (and a few at least would have died in the intervening years, or moved away, or changed their minds about public office), then some men would have had to becomeduumvir more than once, simply in order to fill the slots. In other words, the competitive gateway to public office and prominence in Pompeii was the office of aedile.

The crucial fact to remember, however, in thinking about political life in Pompeii is that the number of electors was small. Suppose we return to the rough estimates of total population that I suggested in the last chapter: 12,000 in the town, 24,000 in the surrounding countryside. If we follow one very rough-and-ready rule of thumb commonly used in calculations like this, we can reckon that approximately half of those people would have been slaves. And of the remainder more than half must have been women and children, not entitled to vote. This means that in the town itself the electorate would have been something in the region of 2500, in the countryside round about, perhaps 5000. In other words, the voters resident in Pompeii itself were roughly the same in number as the pupils in a large British comprehensive school or US high school. The grand total, including those resident in the surrounding area, was less than half the student population of an average British university.

These comparisons give a useful sense of proportion. There has been much talk in recent discussions of Pompeian elections of the role of ‘electoral agents’ or of various means of ‘marshalling support’, and I myself have referred to ‘propagandists’ and more than once to an electoral ‘campaign’. But all these expressions suggest a process on much too grand a scale and much too formally organised. Of course, all kinds of ideological controversies might have divided the Pompeian population, especially in that period when the colonists were imposed on the town after the Social War and we have hints of various kinds of internal tension. But it is hard to resist the likely conclusion (as the election posters themselves suggest) that in the final years of the city’s life most elections were conducted as an extension of family, friendship and other personal relationships. It is often asked how in a community like Pompeii, with no sign of any official way of proving one’s identity or right to vote, participation in the elections was policed. How, for example, did they stop slaves or foreigners turning up and usurping political rights? The answer is very simple. By the time the few thousand voters had arrived at the Forum, been let through the barrier and divided into their various voting districts, any interloper would have been easily spotted. These were people who knew each other.

The burdens of office?

Size is not the only factor in understanding the political culture of Pompeii. There is also the question of the degree of autonomy the town enjoyed and the type of decisions that fell to the local community. In Pompeii, the male citizens came together to elect their aediles and duoviri. The assembly of citizens had no other functions than that (any wider powers they once held in the pre-Roman period had been lost when the town became a Roman colony). Indirectly, though, since the aediles were drafted into the local council or ordo, the assembly also elected the council – or, as we shall soon see, the majority of it. But what did these elected officials do? What powers did they or the ordo have? Why might the electorate’s choice matter? As a Roman town from the early first century BCE, Pompeii had no big decisions of peace and war or national policy to make. Those were made in the capital. But it was Roman practice to leave local communities to govern their own local affairs. So what exactly was at stake?

We have some evidence for this from the town itself. Surviving texts inscribed on tombstones, public buildings, or the bases of statues, but also Lucius Caecilius Jucundus’ wax tablets and other less formal documents, record or refer to the actions and decisions of the local officials and the council. We have already seen the ordo deciding to bring the Pompeian system of weights and measures into line with Roman standards, and aediles assigning or confirming traders’ sales pitches. We have also seen in the tablets of Jucundus that local taxes were raised, and that the town itself owned property which was rented out by the council and the elected officials, even if the day-to-day management was in the hands of a ‘public slave’. The titles of the two main Pompeian offices also give a clear indication of the nature of some of the duties involved. The ‘duoviri with judicial power’ presumably handled matters of law. The aediles, to judge at least from the duties of the aediles in the city of Rome itself, would have been particularly concerned with the fabric of the city, buildings and roads. In fact, they are occasionally referred to not as aediles, but as ‘duoviri in charge of streets and of sacred and public buildings’.


69. What went on in the Covered Theatre? This nineteenth-century fantasy of music and dance is a very bad guide to the kind of performances that were presented. But it does give some idea of how the now open-air theatre would have appeared when its roof was in place.

Other activities are revealed in other texts. It is clear that the town council had the authority to decree that statues be erected to local notables or members of the imperial family. In other cases it might grant the land for such marks of honour: a private citizen could take the initiative and pay for a statue himself, but he would still need the ordo’s permission to set it up in public. The council likewise could assign money to pay for a public funeral for prominent members of the community, as well as a prestigious burial place. In the case of public buildings, the council would set the budget, then the duoviri would find the contractors and be responsible for approving the job at the end. This is the procedure referred to in an inscription set up at the entrance to the Covered Theatre (or ‘Odeon’), which was built in the early years of the colony (Ill. 69): ‘Caius Quinctius Valgus, son of Caius, and Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, duoviri, by decision of the councillors, awarded the contract for building the Covered Theatre and likewise approved the work’. This was a tradition which went back before the Roman takeover of the city. As we have seen, the Oscan inscription on the sundial in one of the main town baths records that one of the town officials in the second century BCE, Maras Atinius, son of Maras (a good Oscan name), had set it up ‘with the money raised from fines’.

The particular emphasis here on honorific statues, funerals and building work is perhaps misleading. It has a lot to do with the fact that much of the evidence we have comes from statue bases, tombstones and inscriptions on public buildings. But the underlying theme of donation, benefaction, and both public and private generosity is an important one. For it is clear that, whatever else they did, the elected officials were expected, even required, to give generously to the local community out of their own funds. The same pair of duoviri who saw to the construction of the Covered Theatre also built the Amphitheatre at their own expense ‘and gave it to the colonists in perpetuity’.

On a more modest scale, though still a very substantial series of benefactions, the gifts made to the city by Aulus Clodius Flaccus in the early first century CE on each of the three occasions he was duumvir were recorded in detail on his tomb. The first time, he presented the games in honour of Apollo in the Forum – with a procession, bulls and bullfighters, boxers, musical shows and cabaret, including a well-known performer, Pylades, who is singled out by name. (This is another striking use for the Forum and – given those bulls – another reason for making sure that its entrances and exits could be secured.) The second time he held the office, as quinquennial duumvir, he presented more games in the Forum with much the same line-up, minus the music; and on the next day he showed ‘athletes’, gladiators and wild beasts (boars and bears) in the Amphitheatre, some paid for by himself alone, some with his colleague. The third time was either a less lavish display, or it was described more reticently on the tomb: ‘with his colleague he gave games with a first-rate troupe and extra music’.

Games and spectacles, it seems, were the norm for this type of benefaction. Cnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius put on a large gladiatorial display when he was quinquennial duumvir in the 50s, ‘at no expense to the public purse’, as one of the painted advertisements underlines. But building work might be substituted. A series of inscriptions in the Amphitheatre record the fact that various magistrates built sections of stone seating (probably to replace the original wooden versions), ‘instead of games and lights, by decision of the councillors’. This implies that the ordo allowed them to spend the required money on upgrading the facilities, rather than on a show itself and on whatever ‘lights’ meant. Were some displays perhaps held at night, with the special lighting?

There was also a direct transfer of cash from duumvir or aedile to the public funds. Aulus Clodius Flaccus notes that ‘for his [first] duumvirate, he gave 10,000 sesterces to the public account’. This was probably the fee that we know of elsewhere in the Roman empire usually paid by local officeholders and new members of the ordo. Taken altogether, these fees represented a significant part of any town’s budget. Flaccus’ heirs emphasised this particular payment no doubt, because they wanted to make clear that he had paid more than the going rate.

The underlying philosophy of local officeholding in the Roman world was quite different from our own. We expect local councillors to be compensated for the expenses they incur in the course of representing their community. The Romans expected men to pay for the privilege of being a member of the ordo or one of the elected officials: status came at a price. To put it another way, when the Pompeian voters were choosing between the different candidates for office, they were choosing between competing benefactors.

There is one document never found in the excavations that would have allowed us to fill in the details of the town’s government, the duties of its officials and the regulations for its council. As a Roman colony, Pompeii would have had a formal constitution or charter (in Latin, lex), most likely inscribed on bronze and publicly displayed in a temple or other civic building. This has never come to light – perhaps it was rescued (or stolen) by salvage parties just after the eruption. In its absence, scholars have tried to fill in the picture of Pompeii’s constitution from other such documents which have survived. The basic justification for doing this is that Roman legal provisions were for the most part applied even-handedly across the Roman world. What was laid down for a colony in, for example, Spain probably went for Pompeii too.

There is a good deal of truth in this argument (even though we tend to attribute far too much uniform consistency to the Romans in law as in much else). The surviving constitutions in some respects certainly match the practices we have seen in other sorts of evidence at Pompeii. One formal requirement in a Spanish charter is that the duoviri and aediles should present games, partly from their own money. In the legalese of the lex, it runs:

Whoever shall be duoviri, except for those who shall be first appointed after this statute, they during their term of office are to organise a show or dramatic spectacle for Jupiter, Juno, Minerva and the gods and goddesses, during four days, for the greater part of the day, as far as shall be possible according to the decision of the council, and each one of them is to spend on that spectacle and on that show not less than 2000 sesterces from his own money, and it is to be lawful to take and spend out of public money up to 2000 sesterces for each duumvir, and it is to be lawful for them to do so without personal liability ...

This is a typical piece of careful Roman drafting: note how they lay down explicitly that the shows should last ‘for the greater part of the day’ (there was to be no getting away with just a morning’s worth). It is almost certain, to judge from the tombstone of Aulus Clodius Flaccus, that some very similar clause was included in the Pompeian constitution too.

The surviving constitutions remind us also of the kinds of issues that the Pompeian version must have covered. These range from particular questions of legal practice and procedures (what cases could be heard locally, or under what circumstances might they be referred to courts in Rome itself?) to arrangements for the timetabling of meetings of the ordo or rules on where councillors should live (the same Spanish constitution specifies a five-year residence requirement in the town or within a mile of it). But it is much harder to know exactly how closely any of the details would be reflected in the lost Pompeian document.

Another clause from the Spanish version lays out precisely what attendants each of the officials should have, and how much they should be paid. It is in the same formal legal style:

Whoever shall be duoviri, there is to be the right and power for those duoviri, for each one of them, to have two lictors, one servant, two scribes, two messengers, a clerk, a crier, a haruspex, a flute-player ... And the fee for them, for each one of them, who shall serve the duoviri, is to be so much: for each scribe 1200 sesterces, for each servant 700sesterces, for each lictor 600 sesterces, for each messenger 400 sesterces, for each clerk 300 sesterces, for each haruspex 500 sesterces, for a crier 300 sesterces.

This is not only carefully drafted. Note how the wording makes it absolutely clear that this is the staff which each duumvir will have (though, less carefully, the pay for the flute-player seems to have been omitted). It also offers a vivid glimpse into the role of a local official and how he might carry it out. The haruspex and flute-player hint at the religious duties of the duumvir (a haruspex would examine the entrails of sacrificed animals for signs from the gods (Chapter 9)). The scribes – by far the best paid – and the clerk imply that a good deal of writing was involved in the job, though the crier makes it clear that there were oral as well as written ways of transmitting information. The mention of lictors, attendants who in Rome itself carried the bundles of rods and an axe, the fasces, that were the symbol of official Roman authority, suggests that the duoviri were surrounded by a certain degree of pomp and ceremonial.

The question is, can we assume that the Pompeian duoviri enjoyed the services of the same or similar staff. They are certainly not prominent in the written evidence from the town – hardly extending beyond the single ‘public slave’ doing the city’s business in the Jucundus tablets, and a group of four ‘clerks’ who sign their names on an inn wall. This does not prove that they did not exist. As the old archaeological cliché goes, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. All the same, it is hard not to suspect on the basis of what survives that the Pompeian duoviri worked with a more skeleton staff than some of their equivalents elsewhere. Certainly, if this was his entourage, the salary bill alone would have eaten up almost 75 per cent of what Aulus Clodius Flaccus paid when he entered office as duumvir.


70. A sketch reconstructing the interior of the Basilica in the Forum, an imposing building for a small town. The columns provided a convenient place for local graffiti artists to leave their messages.

But there is a more significant point here. For we must always remember that many of the confident claims of modern scholars about how local government worked in Pompeii are drawn not from the evidence found in, or about, the town itself, but from documents that refer to other – albeit similar – communities. Of course it may well be true, as it is so often stated, that the ordo at Pompeii was made up of a hundred members; or that the duoviri and aediles wore the toga praetexta (the toga with a purple border worn by senators in Rome itself). It is, however, a conjecture, based on what is known in other similar towns.

Perhaps the most intriguing gap in our knowledge of the way the city was run lies in the simple, day-to-day practicalities of Pompeian political life. What, for example, went on in a meeting of the ordo of decurions? How did a duumvir or aedile spend his day? Even simpler, where did formal political business take place? It is a reasonable assumption that most of it was conducted in the Forum, but exactly where we do not know. The three buildings at the southern end of the piazza are usually thought to be connected with the local government and are marked on many modern maps of the town as ‘council chamber’, ‘government office’ and ‘archive’ (Fig. 14). But the only evidence for this is their location, the fact that they have no other obvious purpose, and that the council and other officials surely need a meeting place somewhere. Hardly an overwhelming argument: in Rome itself, the senate often met in a temple – why not here too?

Legal cases may well have been conducted in the large and grandly decorated building in the Forum known as the Basilica (Ill. 70). The duumvir would perhaps have directed proceedings, and made his judgement from the raised platform at the far end – though the fact that there is a base for a statue right in front of the platform, blocking the view, makes that reconstruction rather less likely than it might seem at first sight. In any case, to think of this as a permanently designated courtroom, and only as a courtroom, would be to exaggerate the time spent on legal business in the town. Legal geniuses the Romans may have been, but the chances are that in Pompeii, as elsewhere in the ancient world, most disputes were settled, and most crimes punished, outside the full mechanisms of the law. Even the duoviri might have operated relatively informally, as we saw in the paintings of the Forum, where some kind of dispute was apparently being settled under the colonnade (Ill. 28).

The one thing we know for certain about the Basilica is that lots of people stood around there with plenty of time on their hands: for it has provided one of the richest stocks of graffiti anywhere in the city, hundreds and hundreds of them. Almost none of these have any obvious legal flavour (although the scrawled maxim ‘A tiny problem becomes a vast one if you ignore it’ might appeal to a tidy legal brain). Most are the kind of street-talk we have seen before, including a memorable couplet wishing on some unfortunate person called Chius even worse piles than he already has (‘so that they burn more than they’ve burned before’). There is one graffito, however, which may refer to the duoviri and their staff, albeit under the cover of a crude pun. It reads: ‘If you bugger the accensus, you burn your prick’. Accensus in Latin can mean ‘fire’. So at first sight, this is more of the usual earthy style of humour (‘If you bugger the fire, etc. ...’). But there is another sense of the word accensus, found in the Roman city constitutions: it means the ‘servant’ of the duumvir or aedile. Is this a different sort of joke then – about meddling with the duumvir’s assistants?

Maybe there is a hint here about how we should picture Pompeian public life: less formal and, at the same time, less familiar than the image we so often draw from a combination of upmarket Latin literature, nineteenth-century paintings and novels, and sword-and-sandals movies. We cannot hope to be able to reconstruct with any accuracy a meeting of the Pompeian ordo. We do not know where, or how often, it met, or how many members it had, or what particular topics it would have discussed. (Did it normally ‘fix’ the elections to the duovirate, by prearranging which ex-aediles would stand? Did it discuss the management problems of the city’s farm, or Lucius Caecilius Jucundus’ arrears of his rent?) But it is very unlikely that it was ever full of starchy figures in togas, standing to orate in grave and earnest style, as if rulers of the world (that is probably a misleading image even for the senate at Rome itself). It was probably much more down to earth, much less pompous – even in our terms, I suspect, a little seedy.

The same goes for the business of the duoviri and aediles. True, there must have been some elements of pomp and grandeur in holding these offices. That is certainly the image implied by the tombstone of Aulus Clodius Flaccus, and by the references in other city charters to lictors and fancy togas. But it is hard not to suspect that the day-to-day reality was altogether less grand, more improvised and more rough and ready. It is easy enough to invent, as scholars often have, an impressive-sounding schedule for these local bigwigs: rise and receive clients at the morning salutatio, leave home for the Forum, handle financial affairs, sign contracts, deal with law cases, network at the baths, entertain over dinner ... There is some evidence for almost all of these activities (and, interestingly, the times of day noted on the signed documents from Puteoli (p. 182) do show a clear preference for financial business in the early to mid-morning). But how regular and systematic such a schedule was, and how far we can work out what most of these activities actually entailed, is another matter. How busy these officials were, how many hours a day they spent on their official duties, what expertise they could draw on in managing the city’s affairs, how they conducted legal business when many of them could have had little or no legal training are just some of the curious puzzles, for us, of life in Pompeii.

The face of success

We know a good deal more about the men who held office in Pompeii than we do about the day-to-day practicalities of local government. Even in those earlier periods where the electoral posters are lost (and with them the names of the candidates standing for office), we can still work out in many cases who the elected duoviri and aediles were, and even in which year they held office. It is a delicate business of piecing together a list from the names and dates found, for example, in Jucundus’ tablets, from inscriptions commemorating those who sponsored building works or gladiatorial shows, and the names and offices blazoned on tombstones.

The end result is that for some decades we know the names of over half the local officeholders; during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (partly because there was so much building work going on in Pompeii), that figure rises to at least three quarters. Some of these remain just names. Others we can get to know much more intimately: we can see something of their individual achievements and aspirations, and of how they chose to be remembered. Just occasionally we can put a face to a name.

These officeholders conformed to a certain type. Not everyone in Pompeii would have been eligible to stand for election, not even all the free citizens. Assuming that it was organised like other towns in the Roman world, those who put themselves forward to become an aedile or a duumvir were formally required to be male, adult, of free-citizen birth, respectable and rich. This means, for example, that no ex-slave could hold public office at this level. A slave granted his freedom by a Roman citizen became a citizen himself and could vote in elections, a strategy of incorporation almost without parallel among other slave-owning societies. But it was only in the next generation – for their sons were under no such restriction – that the family of an ex-slave could begin to play a completely free part in local government. It also means that the poor were not merely discouraged from standing for office by its various obligations (for how could they have afforded the entrance fee and the required benefactions?). They were also formally prevented from doing so by a minimum property qualification: in other towns, 100,000 sesterces’ worth was a common minimum. There were also rules which excluded a variety of unsuitable professions, such as actors, and laid down the minimum age for office. At Pompeii, no one under twenty-five, or perhaps thirty, was allowed to be an aedile.

There was still room, however, for plenty of variety among the officeholders at Pompeii: from those who must only just have reached the property qualification to men of very considerable means; from the local landed aristocracy to the newly rich. Aulus Umbricius Scaurus’ family, as we have seen, had recently made their money out of garum. Caius Julius Polybius has a name which hints that his family was descended from a slave in the emperor’s household. Others, like Marcus Holconius Rufus, whom we shall shortly meet face to face, belonged to a family prominent in Pompeii for generations and whose wealth derived mostly from its land.

Generations of scholars have looked for a pattern in these variations. Can we, for example, spot periods when the nouveaux riches become more prominent? After the earthquake, perhaps? Despite an enormous amount of work (and ingenuity) the only safe conclusion is an unsurprising one. Some old families were prominent in the town’s hierarchy from the early first century BCE until the eruption. Throughout this period members of newer families often gained public office, making up around 50 per cent of aediles and duoviri, but they seem rarely to have gained a permanent foothold in the elite. A mixed society, in other words, but one where old money always counted.

Just occasionally we find an interloper, when one of the duoviri came from outside the local community. This may have broken the rules for local residence, but in these cases that would hardly have been a worry – for the officeholder concerned was the emperor himself or an imperial prince. Caligula was twice duumvir of Pompeii, once in 34 CE in the reign of Tiberius (when, for what it’s worth, he must also have been considerably below the minimum age required for the office), and once as emperor six years later. In fact, when Caligula was assassinated in January 41 CE, he was halfway through his term of office as duumvir quinquennalis at Pompeii. There seems to have been no illusion that he would have undertaken any practical duties of the duumvirate, for on each occasion we find an additional ‘prefect with judicial power’ in office – acting, as is explicitly stated in one inscription, on the emperor’s behalf. This office of ‘prefect’ proved a useful stand-by on other occasions too. Experienced men obviously deemed ‘a safe pair of hands’ were appointed as praefecti following the riot in the Amphitheatre and after the earthquake of 62 to take the lead in the emergency.

How exactly would Caligula’s duumvirate have been arranged? And where would the initiative have come from: the imperial palace or Pompeii itself? One theory is that by inserting an emperor or prince into the local government, even in an honorary capacity, the central authorities in Rome were attempting to gain some control of affairs in the town. It was, in other words, a punishment or a rescue bid after some crisis in the town’s management. Hard as it is to imagine the mad Caligula ever being more of a help than a hindrance, maybe even a nominal imperial presence would make scrutiny and central government intervention easier. But more likely an imperial name among the duoviri would be considered an honour for the town, and the initiative would have come from the Pompeian side. Caligula’s agreement to accept the office would have been the result of careful negotiation between Pompeii and palace officials – not unlike, I imagine, the delicate protocols that lie behind securing the visit of a British ‘minor royal’ to a school fete.

Honour was also at stake in some extraordinary appointments to the town council. One young lad, Numerius Popidius Celsinus, was given membership of the ordo ‘without payment’ at the age of only six, because he had rebuilt the temple of Isis at his own expense. Or so the inscription says – presumably his father, an ex-slave, rebuilt it in his son’s name and so eased the boy’s path into the local elite. Another precocious councillor was a young member of that long-established elite family whose burial ground has been discovered at Scafati. Decimus Lucretius Justus was nominated to the council without charge when he was only eight years old; he died at thirteen. Almost certainly these ‘honorary members’ did not have full rights within the ordo. Documents from elsewhere in the Roman world suggest that there may well have been different ranks of councillors, some who would not have had the right to speak in discussion. All the same, a handful of pre-teens makes a startling addition to our picture of the ordo.

Aediles, duoviri and councillors were the very top notch of Pompeian society, in wealth, influence and power. They formed the local ruling class – or the ‘decurial class’ as they are often now called (from ‘decurion’, meaning councillor). Even so, these local bigwigs fell far behind the rich powerbrokers of the capital itself. A property qualification of 100,000 sesterces (if that is what it was at Pompeii) is substantial enough. From the reign of Augustus on, it took ten times that amount, 1,000,000 sesterces, to qualify to be a senator at Rome, the very top rank of the Roman social hierarchy. In fact, many Roman senators did have their origins in the country towns of Italy. But there is not a single senator whom we know for certain came from Pompeii or a Pompeian family; they might have owned attractive seaside villas in the neighbourhood, but it was not their ancestral home.

This is not to say that the citizens of Pompeii were without influence and connections with the world of the capital itself. After they had gained Roman citizenship in the Social War and before the one-man rule established under the first emperor Augustus (31 BCE–14 CE) effectively stamped out democratic voting in the capital, Pompeians were eligible to vote at Rome, both at elections and in making laws – if they could be bothered to travel there, that is. They were mostly enrolled in the same voting group (the ‘Menenian tribe’), whose name they still included in their formal titles (‘Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, son of Aulus, of the Menenian tribe’ (p. 186), long after voting had died out. But some of them had closer links to the centre of Roman power, as we can see if we look at the career of just one leading Pompeian. He is Marcus Holconius Rufus: five times duumvir, and twice quinquennial, who lived in the reign of the emperor Augustus. Hardly a typical councillor, he was a member of an old family known for their wine production (the ‘Horconian’ or ‘Holconian’ vine is mentioned by Pliny as a local speciality). He probably counts as the most powerful Pompeian we know, and one who made a major impact on his city.

Now in the museum at Naples, the life-size marble statue of Marcus Holconius Rufus once stood at the crossroads of the Via dell’Abbondanza, in its widest part (almost a little piazza) outside the Stabian Baths, next to a large arch which spanned the road and may have carried statues of other members of his family (Ill. 71). This is not far from the Forum, where most of the other images of local worthies and imperial grandees stood, erected by a grateful (or carefully calculating) city council – the emperor and his relations occupying the most prominent positions in the piazza, the locals arranged round about so as not to upstage the imperial family. But Holconius Rufus would have stood out by being slightly separate from all the rest, and it is probably this location that accounts for the statue’s survival. The Roman salvage operations after the eruption seem to have made a bee-line for the statues in the Forum, leaving very few to be found by modern archaeologists. The salvagers missed Holconius Rufus, who was standing away from the main group, a little way down the street.


71. Marcus Holconius Rufus, one of Pompeii’s most successful citizens – shown here in his statue from outside the Stabian Baths. He looks grand enough to be an emperor. In fact this head probably was recut from a portrait head of the emperor Caligula.

The statue is a proudly military figure, dressed in an elaborate cuirass and a cloak, his right hand originally holding a spear. When he was rediscovered in the 1850s, clear signs of paint were still visible: the cloak had once been red, the tunic under the breastplate white with a yellow border, the shoes black. It is a splendid piece. The only jarring element is the head, which looks somewhat too small to fit. Indeed, it does not fit. The head, as we have it, is a replacement, perhaps for the original damaged in the earthquake of 62 (or that is one guess). Careful examination shows that it was not originally made for our statue at all. Another portrait head has been recut with the features of Holconius Rufus and inserted into the neck.

So whose portrait suffered the indignity of removal and reworking, in this ancient version of identity theft? One ingenious idea is that the replacement head had belonged to a statue of the emperor Caligula, and had been surplus to requirements after his assassination in 41. Not only was the city very likely to have commissioned a statue of Caligula, given his two periods as duumvir, but archaeologists who have closely examined the reworked head think they can detect some telltale traces of Caligula’s distinctive hairstyle surviving the otherwise complete makeover. To us, the idea of recycling the head of a disgraced emperor to play the part of Holconius Rufus seems faintly ridiculous, but this practice of ‘changing heads’ is in fact surprisingly common among the portrait statues of the Roman world.

Underneath the statue, still visible on the pedestal outside the Stabian Baths, is an inscription detailing the main offices he held. There we can see his repeated holdings of the Pompeian duovirate. But headlined is one called ‘military tribune by popular demand’. ‘Military tribune’ was a well-established post in the Roman army for young men of officer class. But ‘by popular demand’? This seems to refer not to any truly military office, but to an honorary position awarded by the emperor Augustus on the recommendation of local communities, hence the ‘popular demand’. It brought with it the formal Roman rank of a ‘knight’ (the next rank down from senator) – gratifying to the recipient no doubt, and useful in other respects for the emperor himself. As the Roman biographer Suetonius writes of this general initiative in his Life of Augustus, ‘his aim was to maintain a proper supply of men of respectable standing’, and loyalty too, he might have added.

The honour almost certainly involved some contact with the emperor himself, or with those close to him. For the inscription records that Holconius Rufus was also ‘patron of the colony’, a semi-official role which might involve intervening on the town’s behalf with the powers that be at Rome (the patron might be expected, for example, to help arrange for a prince or emperor to hold a local duumvirate). Finally, he was ‘Priest of Augustus’ in the town. Even before the first emperor had died, he held a panoply of religious honours almost as if he were a god – coordinated here in Pompeii by the loyal Holconius Rufus.

Looking back to the statue, we can now see the point of the military garb. There is no reason to suppose that Holconius Rufus had ever been in the army. The elaborate cuirass is a visual reminder of his prestigious, but entirely noncombatant, military tribunate. For those viewers who knew the monuments of the city of Rome itself, however, there was also a nice – even if slightly over-the-top – reference to one of Augustus’ most lavish new buildings, the so-called Forum of Augustus. This vast development in the middle of Rome, packed with statues, artworks and gleaming coloured marbles, was focused on a temple of ‘Mars the Avenger’ – a reminder, if such was needed, that Mars the god of war had brought vengeance on those who had assassinated Augustus’ uncle, and adoptive father, Julius Caesar. The original statue of the god in the Forum of Augustus has not survived. But, from various versions and replicas of it, we can be certain that the designs on Holconius Rufus’ cuirass were copies of those on the cuirass of Mars himself. Our Pompeian bigwig, in other words, was here dressed in the image of one of Augustus’ divine protectors.


Figure 16. Plan of the Large Theatre and its surroundings. The Large Theatre was restored and enlarged by Marcus Holconius Rufus according to the policies of Augustan regime. The male elite sat in the front, carefully cut off from the ordinary people behind. Adjacent to this building are both the Covered Theatre, and the palaestra used by gladiators in the last years of the city (Ill. 94), and above the Triangular Forum with the old Temple of Minerva and Hercules.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Augustus is reflected in some of the building work sponsored by Holconius Rufus, as duumvir. During his third period of office, we know that he did some renovation in the temple of Apollo – building upwards. For a surviving inscription states that he and his colleague paid 3000 sesterces to the owner of the adjoining property (who had presumably objected) in recompense for blocking of his light with the new wall. But later, along with Marcus Holconius Celer (either brother or son), he funded a much bigger and more costly improvement scheme in the old Large Theatre, originally built in the second century BCE (Fig. 16). Inscriptions again, probably originally placed over the building’s main entrances, record that the Holconii built ‘at their own expense, the covered gallery, the boxes and auditorium’.

This list does not quite capture, for us, the impact of the changes. Not only was the number of seats increased, but the refurbished covered gallery effectively became the divider between the new seats on the upper levels (explicitly earmarked for the poor, slaves, maybe women), with their own frankly shabby entrance staircase leading up from outside the building, and the upmarket seats below, which were occupied by the elite male citizens. This was a renovation, in other words, which accorded exactly to the policy of the emperor Augustus, to make sure that spectators in the theatre were carefully segregrated by rank – a segregation not achieved, as in the world of the modern theatre, by the price of the seats, but by law. It is no coincidence that as well as further inscriptions honouring Holconius Rufus in the theatre, there is also one honouring the emperor Augustus.

This is a good example of how the wishes of the emperor, and changes in policy at the centre of the Roman world, were transmitted to places like Pompeii through intermediaries such as Holconius Rufus – with a foot, as it were, in both camps. It also offers a nice hint about how family success might be achieved down the generations. At least, if Holconius Rufus hoped that his own and Celer’s costly benefactions in the theatre might help to guarantee the prestige of the Holconii into the future, he would not have been disappointed. One of those men aiming to become duumvir in the last elections the town would ever see was Marcus Holconius Priscus, very likely his grandson or great-grandson.

Beyond the male elite?

It is easy to get the impression from the election posters, the records of benefactions and the lists of duoviri and aediles, that it was only the male elite that counted in Pompeii. In some senses that is formally true: no one without the required wealth could hold one of those main offices, nor could any ex-slave however rich, nor any woman no matter how capable or ambitious she was, or how aristocratic her birth. Yet there are plenty of hints that other more or less official groups of citizens, from lower down the formal social pecking order, could and did make an impact in the public world of Pompeii. And there is clear evidence of the impact of leading women at the very heart of the town.

To return for a moment to the family burial ground recently found outside Pompeii at Scafati. The most distinguished of the family members commemorated (probably called Decimus Lucretius Valens, though the name does not actually survive) was, like Marcus Holconius Rufus, a Roman knight; he had been granted that status by the emperor Tiberius. He had been the local sponsor of very generous gladiatorial games, and – as we would by now expect – ‘in return for this generosity’, as the text of the inscription puts it, the local council had decreed him a statue on horseback at public expense, as well as a funeral (though the word itself has been lost), a burial place and a eulogy.

So far, no surprises. But the inscription goes on to record other votes of honour. The Augustales (and possibly some other group – for frustratingly the next word hardly survives) voted him statuae pedestres, full-length standing statues, as did the attendants of theAugustales, along with the nates and scabiliari. The forenses, whom we have met before, voted him ‘shields’ (that is, his portrait on shields). The nates and scabiliari are more of a puzzle. The best guess is that the scabiliari were the ‘clapper beaters’ in the theatre, assuming that the word is connected with the Latin scabellum, meaning a large foot-operated castanet, often used in pantomime (p. 256). If so, the nates might have been the cushion sellers, cushions being a desirable commodity if you were to sit for hours on the hard stone seats. But that is largely a deduction from the one attested meaning of the Latin word natis/nates that we have: namely, ‘buttocks’.

But whoever exactly these different groups were, it is clear that there were numerous organisations in the town, in addition to the local council, who might not only have an interest in honouring a leading citizen, but also the institutional structure to make (and to follow through) a decision to do so, not to mention the cash to pay for it. As well as those mentioned on Lucretius Valens’ memorial, a couple of very fragmentary painted lists, one firmly dated to the 40s BCE, record ‘presidents’ and ‘attendants’ – a mixture of slaves, ex-slaves and freeborn men – in charge of some sort of local association in the city, probably based around the crossroads and the shrines often found there. We also find reference elsewhere to the ‘Fortunate Augustan Suburban Country District’, which not only had its own officials but also acted as a benefactor, paying for some of the seating in the theatre. Some scholars have assumed that this was mainly a rural voting district, which had developed extra social and institutional functions. But the fact that it seems to have been reorganised in 7 BCE has suggested to others a slightly different role. For this was exactly the same year as the emperor Augustus reorganised the local neighbourhood associations in Rome, turning them partly into loyalty organisations focused on the emperor himself. Was there influence or initiative from Rome lying behind this ‘Fortunate Augustan Suburban Country District’? Certainly, as we shall see in Chapter 9, the religious worship of the Roman emperor in Pompeii involved organised groups of relatively humble city residents.

Predictably enough, once we get below the level of the ordo the evidence is much thinner and it is even harder to pin down exactly what these groups did or how they were constituted, or just how ‘official’ they were. We can guess, for example, that there was some difference in status between the ‘cushion-sellers’ (if that is what they were) and the forenses. But what exactly? Some were even on the margins of legality. Tacitus explains that one of the Roman government’s responses to the riot in the Amphitheatre was to disband ‘the illegal clubs’. Which were these?

Murky as these groups are, however, the important point is not just that there were organisations in the town which involved those who would have been excluded from the ordo itself. It is also that they seem to have operated on similar principles to those of the local elite, and with sometimes similar rewards. Benefaction, for example, played an important role at this level too – whether statues or theatre renovation. Pompeii was a culture of giving, at all levels. Public office of any sort entailed public generosity.

Probably the most important of these groups were the Augustales, one of those associations that voted to honour Decimus Lucretius Valens, and which may almost have amounted to an ordo for ex-slaves. The evidence for this group in Pompeii itself is very fragmentary: we have plenty of evidence for its individual members, but little for what the Augustales as a whole did. Again our picture must depend on piecing together what we know from other towns in Italy. Their name makes it fairly clear they were involved with the religious worship of Augustus and later emperors, but they were not a specialised ‘priesthood’ in any narrow sense. For the most part, we find them engaged in sponsoring banquets and buildings, and even – like the ordo itself – paying an entrance fee to get into the group.

The large tomb monuments of some of those commemorated as Augustales in the cemeteries outside Pompeii suggest that they were individuals of wealth and power in the town. One in particular, the memorial to Caius Calventius Quietus (almost certainly an ex-slave), boasts that ‘on account of his generosity’ he had been awarded, ‘by the decision of the council and the agreement of the people’, a bisellium – a special, and specially honorific, seat in the theatre that was awarded to the city’s leading men (Ill. 72). What the Marcus Holconius Rufuses of the Pompeian world said about the likes of Caius Calventius Quietus we cannot now know. But in death at least there is nothing to distinguish him from the members of the oldest landed families. Fiercely hierarchical society though it was, the routes to prestige at Pompeii, even for those outside the decurial class, were more varied than they might seem at first glance.


72. This tomb of an ex-slave, erected as was usual alongside one of the roads leading out of the city, boasts of the civic honours won by Caius Calventius Quietus. In death it can be hard to distinguish the monuments of the old Pompeian aristocrats from those of the new rich.

But the biggest surprise in this male hierarchical world is to be found in the Forum itself. The largest building in the area, standing at the south-east corner, was erected in the reign of Augustus (Fig. 14, Ill. 73). Its function has long been a cause of controversy, like so many of the Forum buildings: market, slave market, multi-purpose hall? But its inspiration is clear. We have already seen that two of the statues on its façade were copied from the Forum of Augustus. The carved marble door frames, decorated with scrolls of acanthus, reflect the contemporary style of the capital, and are very close to those on another celebrated Augustan monument, the Altar of Peace. Some art historians have compared its conception to a huge portico erected in Rome by Augustus’ wife, the empress Livia.


73. The Building of Eumachia as it is shown on this detailed nineteenth-century model of the excavations, displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. The Via dell’ Abbondanza runs along the right, the large open courtyard of Eumachia’s foundation is in the centre, the Forum colonnade is at the bottom.

That is a good comparison in more ways than one. For this building, known as the Building of Eumachia, was also sponsored by a woman. Inscriptions over the two entrances declared that Eumachia, who was a priestess in the town, daughter of one leading family and married into another, built it ‘in her own name and that of her son ... at her own expense’. Her statue stood at one end of the building (Ill. 74), paid for by the fullers (hence the fantasy that the whole building might be a cloth-workers’ hall). We know almost nothing about Eumachia, and can only guess at all the different circumstances that might lie behind her building of this monument, and the different degrees of active involvement she might have had in the planning and design. Most likely she was attempting to advance the career of her son. But one thing is certain: the finished product is stamped with her own name almost as firmly as the theatre is stamped with that of Holconius. Eumachia here represents a similar conduit for the culture of the capital to make its way to Pompeii. And Eumachia was not the only such female benefactor. An inscription found in the Forum makes it clear that another of the major buildings there was the work of another priestess, one Mamia.


74. The statue of Eumachia from the building which she founded in the Forum. It is instructive for us to remember that this modestly clad figure could finance one of the largest buildings in the town.

We should not, for this reason, overestimate the degree of power held by women in this town. To be a priestess, public office though that was, was not the same as being duumvir. Even large-scale benefaction was a long way from formal power. That said, Eumachia is another example of the varied routes to public prominence the town offered. She is another ‘face of success’.

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