Category Archives: Pompeii

Pompeii 2: Rivalries among associations and a riot at Pompeii

As I discuss at some length in my new book on Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, members of associations could feel a real sense of belonging in the group, and at times this sense of identity could express itself in rivalries with other groups.  Christians and Judeans were not the only ones involved in rivalries or tensions with other groups within society.   In fact, alongside areas of cooperation, competition was an inherent aspect of life within cities in the Roman empire, and associations sometimes took part in this.

Among the more interesting examples of rivalries between different associations (or collegia) is a riot that took place in Pompeii in the first century (59 CE).   This is one of those rare cases when we have more than one source regarding a violent incident involving associations, one of them being a painting from Pompeii.

One of the sources is the historian Tacitus, who relates an incident in which the tensions between different associations from two different cities (Nuceria and Pompeii) escalated into a mini-battle in the amphitheater at Pompeii.  Here is Tacitus’ description:

About this time there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show . . . During an exchange of taunts — characteristic of these disorderly country towns — abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best.  Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital.  Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair.  The senate passed it to the consuls.  When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years.  Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled (Annals 14.17; trans. by Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome [London: Penguin Books, 1973], 321-22).

Tacitus’ account shows us that rival associations from the two different cities played an instrumental role in the conflict.  So both civic and group identity played an important role here.  Such rivalries would not always lead to violent conflict, however.

The second piece of evidence is a painting that can now be seen in the National Museum of Naples.  In the painting is pictured people fighting in and around the amphitheater. Why exactly someone would have this painting commissioned is not completely clear.  Were they proud of the incident since their fellow Pompeiians had gained the upper hand in the rivalry?  Did they know some members of the associations involved?  Or is the painting reaffirming the action of the authorities in quelling and preventing such civic disturbances?  Was it made to celebrate the re-opening of the amphitheater after the imperial prohibition was lifted?

Riot at Pompeii

From the Casa della Rissa nell’Anfiteatro, or house of Actius Anicetus (inventory no. 112222).  Inscriptions depicted on the walls of the palaestra (to the right of the amphitheatre) proclaim: “Good fortune to D. Lucretius” (in Latin) and “Good fortune to Satrius Valens, Augustus Nero” (in Greek).  Photo by Phil.  Full Italian description in Bragantini and Sampaolo, La Pittura Pompeiana, p.512-13.

Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item)

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum a few weeks back in connection with the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Rome (where I presented a paper from my upcoming book).  The populations of both of these ancient towns were wiped out by the volcanic eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, and no subsequent building was done over the ruins.  So these are among the best preserved ancient cities to see.  One major result of the trip is that I now have about 1000 new photos relating to artifacts from the Roman era.  Among these are many photos of mosaics and paintings or frescoes from Pompeii (and some from Herculaneum).  So I’ll have a series of posts on some of these paintings (also drawing on some information found in Irene Bragantini and Valeria Sampaolo, La pittura pompeiana Naples: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, 2009).

The majority of paintings from Pompeii are now removed from Pompeii and preserved in the National Archeological Museum of Naples (Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli).  However, some are still in their original find-spots (in situ).  One of the most incredible wall-paintings from antiquity can still be found within a rather large home on the outskirts of the original town of Pompeii.

Mysteries of Dionysos

This home is known as Villa Item or Villa of the Mysteries, due to the paintings that decorated one of its banqueting halls.  This banqueting hall may also have been used in connection with initiations in the mysteries of Dionysos (Bacchus).  I have discussed the mysteries and Dionysos’ mysteries specifically on one of my websites, so I would suggest you read that first.  Right now I’d like to supplement my earlier discussion of the mysteries by supplying photos of the paintings which seem to depict stages in the initiation process and related mythological scenes.

The paintings seem to depict both the devotees of Dionysos in various stages of participation in initiation rites and mythological scenes which intersect with the progress of initiation itself.  The exact interpretation of these paintings is, of course, debated, but I will give a basic description with some consultation of M.P. Nilsson (The Dionysiac Mysteries of the Hellenistics and Roman Age [Lund: Gleerup, 1957], 66-78) and Walter Burkert (Ancient Mystery Cults [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987], 95-96).

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Scene 1 Villa of the Mysteries

Scene 1 – Preparations (north wall, on your left as you enter):

A naked boy reads from a papyrus scroll as two women of the house listen and a third woman carries a dish towards the next scene.

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Scene 2 – Preparations and segue to mythical or revelation scenes (north wall, on your left as you enter):

A seated woman (with back facing us) uncovers a tray with her left hand while receiving liquid into a dish with her right hand, perhaps cleaning her hands (Burkert) or making an offering to the god (Nilsson).  To her right is a mythical scene depicting a silenos playing the lyre, a boy playing a flute, and a girl suckling a goat.  Further to the right, a partially clothed woman runs in fear (perhaps running from the flogging scene on the opposite side).

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Scene 3 – Mythical scene with Silenos, Dionysos, and threatening winged female figure (east wall, straight ahead as you enter):

This may be a depiction of the revelation of the god Dionysos to the initiate.  A drunken and scantily clad god Dionysos, accompanied by Ariadne, is seated in the centre as a Silenos shows something (or offers a drink) to a boy (satyr?) while another boy holds up a theatrical mask.  To the right, a partially clothed woman lifts a veil to reveal the contents of a basket, likely the phallic symbol associated with initiation into the mysteries of DIonysos.  A threatening mythical figure appears on the far right (see next photo).

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Scene 4 – Flagellation and dancing woman (east and south walls):

A winged, mythical figure winds up to flog a woman (initiate-to-be?) with a rod or wand (thyrsos).  The woman lays her head in the lap of another woman for protection from the threatening figure.  To the right, a woman (same initiate who was previously flogged?) dances naked while playing finger-cymbals over her head and another woman holds a reed or wand (thyrsos), a symbol of the god Dionysos.

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Scene 5 – Seated woman being adorned by cupids