“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
Each post in the “another thing” series so far has been devoted to an item for its inherent interest, as the introduction above promises. Up to now, we have rarely chosen objects of great fame, the artefacts shown in textbooks on archaeology and art or in guidebooks or travel websites, focusing instead on the kind of thing one might not have known about before a visit, but one might see, notice and appreciate while touring a site or museum and that our experts might show you because of the revealing and informative insights it offers on the site or period in question. Today’s “thing” is an exception to some extent: you may have seen it before – it is often reproduced and has a pride place in much literature on Pompeii or Roman art.
Evidently, it’s a fresco. We’ll come back to its content shortly; for now a summary should suffice: it shows a view of a city, centred on an amphitheatre, with much fighting going on both inside and around that structure. Its context is a wall by the peristyle (interior garden) of House 1.3.23. The house is sometimes called “House of Actius Anicetus”, but that appears to be a misnomer based on a graffiti found on its walls: that Anicetus certainly existed, and apparently was a very popular pantomime actor from Pompeii, but the house was almost certainly not his.
The amphitheatre scene was part of a larger arrangement, probably with a central image depicting a freedman (a liberated slave) who may have been an ex-gladiator and – more speculatively – the owner of the building and thus the person who chose for this image to be placed in a relatively prominent position in a semi-private part of the building (the interiors of Roman houses were certainly private, but the owners family, friends and clients would have access to various spaces, including the peristyle, on occasion, and the decorative scheme would most likely be aimed at such viewers to some extent=. Like all of Pompeii, the building and its decoration were destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Thus, it cannot have been painted after AD 79, and as we shall see it cannot be any earlier than AD 59.
Why? Because, somewhat unusually for Pompeian frescos, it depicts a historical scene. Not a major historical event, like the famous Alexander Mosaic depicting the 333BC Battle of Issus and probably copying a famous painting, but one of much more local significance. It depicts a riot that took place in the context of gladiatorial games at Pompeii in AD 59, during the reign of the infamous emperor Nero, involving inhabitants of Pompeii itself and nearby Nuceria. Normally, such small-town occurrences don’t make it into the historical record, but we are lucky to know of it more or less by coincidence, as the historian Tacitus reported it:
About 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. With the unruly spirit of townsfolk, they began with abusive language of each other; then they took up stones and at last weapons, the advantage resting with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited. And so there were brought to Rome a number of the people of Nuceria, with their bodies mutilated by wounds, and many lamented the deaths of children or of parents. The emperor entrusted the trial of the case to the Senate, and the Senate to the consuls, and then again the matter being referred back to the Senators, the inhabitants of Pompeii were forbidden to have any such public gathering for ten years, and all associations they had formed in defiance of the laws were dissolved. Livineius and the others who had excited the disturbance, were punished with exile. (Tacitus, Annals, XIV, 17, quoted from the Perseus Project)
It is clear that this is what is shown. The fresco depicts a rather unusual Roman amphitheatre, accessed from the outside via its top ranks by a double stairway resting on arcades: the most similar example known is indeed the amphitheatre of Pompeii, just a few hundred metres (or yards) from House 1.3.23. All kinds of detail are shown in the not-quite-bird’s-eye and not-quite-perspective view the artist has chosen: the amphitheatre itself with its textile awnings protecting the audience from the sun, a series of trees and market stalls in front, the city walls with two towers behind and the palaestra (a building devoted to athletic or gladiatorial training) on the right. People fighting each other or tossing missiles at one another are seen in the arena and in the spaces surrounding it.
What cannot be stressed enough is how unusual it is to have a visual image of such a “local history” incident. Local history is commonly referred to in Greek and Roman life, directly through inscriptions that record events or legal measures reacting to them or resulting from them. More indirectly, but at least as commonly, there is allusion, most frequently through mythology, especially in the visual arts, where characters, symbols or incidents were referred to through symbols that would be readily identifiable to the informed viewer without necessarily being explicit.
The event of the AD 59 riot in itself is perhaps not all that interesting, although it’s nice to know about it. It is grounded in typical inter-city rivalry, as usually based on deep local context going back some time. As nearby towns, Pompeii and Nuceria would always have been in some kind of relationship (and in neighbourhoods, love and hate are equal currencies). We know that during the Italian “Social War” of the 80s BC, Pompeii rebelled against Rome along with many Italians, pushing for greater rights, whereas Nuceria did not. As a result, Pompeii was – after that war was lost – forced to accept a settlement of Roman veterans, something that happened to Nuceria over a century later, perhaps inflaming old issues. It is impossible now to tell what specific cause triggered an outbreak of physical and deadly squabbling in AD 59, or even who was on which side for what kind of reason, but it is clear that it happened.
Much more interestingly, we should query why such an event was chosen to be shown on the wall of a private home within a decade or two of it happening. Considering that Pompeii was punished for the riot, why would the owners have wanted to be reminded, and to remind others, of the circumstances? There is no clear answer we can give. It would appear a safe bet that the AD 59 riot was a fresh memory within the 20 years that the city continued to exist and held emotional and/or political (as in local politics) meaning to the people of Pompeii. The existence of the fresco may suggest that such memory was not simply shameful, or perhaps not shameful at all. Considering that the only record, the one by Tacitus quoted above, indicates that the visiting Nucerians suffered more in the event, perhaps it was of case of reminding Pompeians how “we showed them”, much like modern soccer riots may be remembered by fans. We do know that loyalties of that type existed in ancient Rome, and later in Constantinople. It is also possible that the owner of the house, and thus patron of the fresco, was somehow involved or connected – the missing image of the hypothetical gladiator could be relevant to this.
It is unusual to have such a direct representation of local history. As a portrait of Pompeii, it is problematic in many regards. Most viewers note that the perspective is flawed, but that’s irrelevant: perspective imagery was not a norm in Roman art of the era and its principles were not fully understood and moreover were not aimed for. The image actually manages to show more action in more places than a proper perspective could, rather like modern comic art can. We also cannot assume that it portrays the event accurately. We have no idea of detail, but riots do not usually take place in the form of individualised dual-like fighting. Much more likely, the artist, of limited skill, used stencil-like standard imagery for the purpose of showing the riot. The figures are also out of scale, but that’s standard at the time. Most interestingly perhaps, the arcaded stairway to the amphitheatre (one of the oldest in Italy) is shown correctly in its strongest characteristic, namely the arches, but their number has been more than doubled, from 6 to 11. Detailed realism was clearly not required.
Our conclusion – if we need one – has to be a vague one. The amphitheatre fresco is important for showing a local event, and also for showing the limitations of mid-quality Roman art of its time. At the same time, it illustrates a unique local event and thus throws a light on the fact that such were commemorated, without clarifying how or why. The best thing you can do is to go and look at it for yourself. You can do so on our “Cruising the Amalfi Coast” tour, where you will see it on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. On the same cruise, you can visit Pompeii and many other places of equal interest and fascination.