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Exploring the Ancient Past

The House of Menander

By Natasha Sheldon

The House of Menander demonstrates the close proximity between the Roman elite and the means by which they made their money.

The House of Menander dominates most of the insula I.10 in the southern quarter of Pompeii. It was a high status townhouse, combining visible wealth with an exact implementation of the social language of the elite through its décor and architecture.

 

Its location near the edge of Pompeii and evidence of agricultural activity on the premises shows that the owner’s business interests were not kept separate from his home.

 

History of the House.

 

The house began life in the third century BC as a basic atrium house. In the second century BC, the back hortus or garden was replaced by a newly fashionable Hellenized feature, the central peristyle.

 

By the first century AD, the house was at its peak. A seal in the servant’s quarters suggests it was owned by Quintus Poppaeus, a relative of the Empress Poppaea. A bath house was added, as well as an entertainment suite and a stable yard and servant’s quarters to the south east of the house.

 

At the time of the eruption of 79AD, the house was being redecorated. Its valuable silverware was packed away and only a skeleton staff was in residence to oversee the work.

 

Architecture and Layout.

 

Whoever the owner actually was or had been, they had made good use of the architecture of the house as an expression of wealth and status. Features usually found in public architecture were used to mark entrances and key views. The entrance of the house was framed with tufa Corinthian columns and engaged columns were added at the entrance of the tablinium.

 

These features, usually found in temples or public basilicas were deliberately placed at key points on the visual axis. Casual passersby in the street, as well as clients waiting in the atrium would be left in no doubt as to the importance of the owner.

 

The peristyle garden was the visual nexus of the house, a link between the public and private. It ended the public fauces-atrium-tablinium axis and marked the beginning of the private areas, surrounded as it was by dining and reception rooms open to the master’s guests.

 

But even in these private zones used visual displays to emphasize the standing of the owner.  For diners in the summer triclinium, the focal point of the view was the ancestral shrine, framed once again by columns.   By highlighting the shrine in this way, the master of the house was reminding his guests of his long and illustrious pedigree. For even friends needed reminding of their place within the social hierarchy.

 

Decor.

 

The decor of the house was of superior execution. The main areas of the house were decorated in the latest, fourth style frescos. The themes of this decoration varied across the house. In the atrium were scenes from the Nile while in the wing to the east, various episodes from the Trojan War were portrayed. In the garden rooms, the theme was poetical and theatrical, in keeping with the function of entertaining. One of the poets portrayed, Menander, was used to name the house by its modern excavators.

 

The Economic Function.

 

The house was close to the rural areas surrounding Pompeii and seems to have acted as an agricultural unit as well as an elite townhouse. The stable yard was found to have evidence of carts and agricultural tools, probably used at the owner's farm, where no doubt vines and olives were grown for profit.

 

This may seem unusual but it was not incompatible with the house’s function as an elite residence. The Roman businessman liked to be situated in the hub of economic activity; it was not an advantage to be spatially removed from your interests.

 

 The atrium and tablinium within the house acted as the owner’s office. There was no reason why manual activities could not occur on the property, as long as they were away from the public zones. The stable yard was peripheral and had a separate entrance onto the street. It in no way diminished the standing of the rest of the house.

 

The Importance of Location.

 

The location of the house also emphasizes the importance of business to the owner. The area was surrounded by fullers, carpenters and weavers. Despite being on the periphery of town, well away from the forum, the area was a hive of industry and trade.

 

This was because by 79AD, space around the forum, the center of business in Pompeii was at a premium. This prompted a movement outwards towards the city limits where space was readily available. The owner of the House of Menander in all probability maximized on this movement of trade. His house already dominated its insula spatially. It is likely he also rented out local properties that he had acquired to his clients.

 

This meant his house was a statement of success. It was in a prosperous business area of the city. This and its physical design declared its importance and that of its owner.

 

Sources.

 

Dobbins, J and Foss, P (2008) 'The World of Pompeii'. London: Routledge.

Ling, R (1983) ‘The Insula of Menander at Pompeii: Interim Report’. The Antiquaries Journal 63:34-57.

Raper, R A, (1977) ‘The Analysis of Urban Structure’ in D Clarke (ed) Spatial Architecture. London: Academic Press.

Wallace-Hadrill, A (1994) Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (New Jersey: Princeton University Press.