Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero

Amphora with Inscription Reading [SE]CUNDO POPPAEAE


This type of amphora was used to transport fish products from modern-day Portugal, indicating that the inhabitants of Villa A imported food from a considerable distance.

The inscription in red paint refers to a man named Secundus, a slave of a female member of the gens Poppaea, a powerful family in the area around Pompeii. Perhaps Secundus was the vilicus, or estate manager, who received the shipment. Some scholars have supposed, on the basis of this inscription, that Villa A belonged to the emperor Nero’s second wife, Poppaea Sabina, the most famous member of that family. The inscription was covered with a protective coating after excavation, which makes it now difficult to read.



Oil lamp

The Romans used oil lamps to illuminate interior spaces and so archaeologists frequently find them in the remains of villas and houses. These lamps were filled with olive or other vegetable oil through the hole in the center of the discus. They were lit on a wick that protruded from the hole at the end of the nozzle. At the opposite end of the lamp from the nozzle is the handle. The main decoration might be located on the discus or the handle (or both). On this lamp, a wreath, probably of myrtle, decorates the discus. The triangular handle shows a bust of Jupiter and an eagle with wings spread, standing on a thunderbolt. The eagle, thunderbolt, and myrtle are symbols associated with Jupiter.

Roman lamps were made in a variety of sizes and shapes and ranged from simple to intricately decorated. They could be made from pottery, as here, or from bronze, like the examples from Oplontis B included in this exhibition.


Incense Burner (Thymiaterion)

Incense burner

The thymiaterion was used in religious rituals. Incense, in the form of small pellets, was placed in the basin. While it burned, the aromatic smoke escaped through the holes in the basin and lid and rose upward toward the gods, creating a link between human and divine. The incense burner could be used with or without a lid, depending on how long the ritual was meant to last—using the lid would slow it down. The interior surface is sooted, showing that this religious implement was used in antiquity, probably by the inhabitants of Villa A during household ceremonies, in which all members of the household, free and slave alike, could have taken part.


Service Courtyard (Room 32)

The service courtyard

Amphora, lamps, and incense burner

Peristyle 32, often called the service courtyard, was an important, central space in Villa A. It was adjacent to the household shrine (lararium) at which everyone who lived in the villa would have worshipped. In the center of the open-air courtyard was a small garden with a fountain and a large chestnut tree. This space must have been a relatively pleasant place for slaves to work, though they were never entirely free from the demands of their owners. Small rooms surrounded the courtyard on the second story, and tools for agricultural labor and gardening were found in the center. These details suggest that it was an area where slaves lived and spent a good deal of their time as they worked.

The pattern painted on the walls and columns of this courtyard has been nicknamed “zebra stripes” by modern scholars, but the black and white design seems instead to imitate costly marble slabs. The same pattern was painted on the walls of several corridors throughout the villa. People could easily move from one zone of the villa to another by following the passageways marked by this pattern, even if they were unfamiliar with the overall plan. It might have served as a visual code to indicate which spaces could be entered by anyone, including slaves, without express invitation. Though this faux marble pattern was attractive, it did not invite close contemplation as did the more intricate wall paintings in the villa. Rather, it encouraged people to move along and not to linger.

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