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Pompeii discovery sheds light on life under slavery

August 20, 2023

Italy's Culture Ministry said details discovered in an excavated bedroom show conditions under which enslaved people had to live in Pompeii.

A slave room providing a glimpse into the reality of life for people living as slaves some 2,000 years ago
The furnishings of the room in Villa Civita Giuliana indicate that there may have been a hierarchy within the servants' quartersImage: Parco Archeologico di Pompei/dpa/picture alliance

The discovery of a small room in an ancient Roman villa near Pompeii has shed light on what life was like for those living under slavery.

The bedroom was found at the Villa Civita Giuliana which lies a few hundred meters north of the walls of Pompeii which was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago.

What was discovered?

Archaeologists on Sunday said that two beds — only one of which has a mattress —along with two small cupboards and a number of ceramic containers and pots were discovered in the room which is thought to have been used by slaves.

The difference in the beds suggests there may have been a hierarchy in the servants' quarters, excavators said.

"These details once again underline the conditions of precarity and poor hygiene in which the lower echelons of society lived during that time," Italy's culture ministry said in a statement.

German museum director of Pompeii, Gabriel Zuchtriegel said in a post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that the discovery was in a way "more important & revealing of ancient life than a beautiful statue."

A snapshot in time

Ash from Vesuvius encased furniture and fabric, which when filled with plaster revealed the shapes and textures of long gone material, including a blanket on one of the beds.

The furnishings of a room assigned to slaves have been found in the Roman villa of Civita Giuliana
The pyroclastic cloud covered materials such as furniture and fabrics and encased items which when eventually filled with plaster, revealed the original formsImage: ABACA/picture alliance

An inspection of the pots and ceramics has pointed to the difficult circumstances and unsanitary conditions people had to live under.

According to the report the occupants of the room shared their quarters with at least three rodents, one of which was found in a crate under a bed, looking as though it was trying to escape when it too died like the inhabitants of Pompeii.

While no traces of grates, locks, or chains were found Zuchtriegel said: "It seems that control was primarily exerted through the internal organization of servitude, rather than physical barriers and restraints."

Excavations at the site were carried out in 1907-1908, and then again from 2017, when police realised the site was being targeted by illegal diggers.

The site has since seen a flurry of archaeological activity largely thanks to a recently concluded 105-million-euro ($115.58 million) EU-funded project.

Pompeii, which was rediscovered in the 18th century, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy and repeatedly uncovers sensational finds.

Fresco suggests Pompeiians already ate a precursor to pizza

kb/jcg (Reuters, dpa)