Ancient Roman ‘Feng Shui’ Revealed in Pompeii

Archaeologists recreate stately home in Pompeii destroyed by Vesuvius and see, using virtual reality, how its owner used art, lighting and architecture to impress visitors and enhance his prestige

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Satyr and Maenad, in the House of the Greek Epigrams
Satyr and Maenad, in the House of the Greek EpigramsCredit: Marisa Ranieri Panetta
Ariel David
Ariel David

Home design is often about establishing a certain atmosphere. Surely, when you are generously dispensing favors to supplicating plebians, you need to create a completely different mood compared to a decadent little orgy with your closest friends.

Archaeologists at a Swedish university have come up with an ingenious method to apply digital technologies to the study of how the ancient Romans used architecture and eye-catching details to design their homes and send messages that enhanced their prestige.

For a study published Thursday in the journal Antiquity, PhD candidate Danilo Marco Campanaro and Prof. Giacomo Landeschi of Lund University created a 3D model of a lavish Pompeii home destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.

The researchers then used eye-tracking technology to keep tabs on volunteers as they toured the house in virtual reality, and experimented with different conditions to understand what caught the attention of visitors.

The House of Greek EpigramsCredit: Mentnafunangann
Virtual-reality visit to PompeiiCredit: Danilo Campanaro & Giacomo Landeschi, Antiquity Publications Ltd.

In the House of Greek Epigrams

Understanding the nuances of Roman home design is challenging when looking only at existing ruins because of the damage suffered by structures even at a well-preserved site like Pompeii, Landeschi says. Hence the aspiration to digitally reconstruct a Roman domus in all its former glory.

For their study, the archaeologists modeled the “House of the Greek Epigrams,” a spectacularly frescoed home thus nicknamed because one its rooms features paintings of scenes from ancient myths accompanied by brief poems in Greek.

The choice fell on this building for a few reasons, Campanaro explains. It is part of a broader project by Lund University to map an entire neighborhood of Pompeii using drones and laser scanners, so the digital data for this particular house were already available.

Additionally, the House of the Epigrams, fully excavated in the mid-1870s, contained an unusual wealth of domestic artifacts. Around 160 objects were unearthed there, including a complete set of silverware, a Pan flute, jewelry, as well as bronze and clay lamps, all of which add an additional layer of accuracy to the reconstruction, Campanaro says.

Virtual manse in PompeiiCredit: Lund University, YouTube

By the way, we are not sure to whom the house belonged to, although a signet ring found there carries the sigil of one Lucius Valerius Flaccus. This may link the house to the Valerii, a powerful Roman patrician family, although there is no way of knowing whether the person who lost the ring was the actual owner, Campanaro cautions. In any case, the house must have belonged to someone of high social status and means.

To virtually reconstruct the House of the Epigrams, the archaeologists collated the digital data from the university project with reports from the 19th century excavation (when the site was in much better condition) as well as with information on Roman architecture from other sites and from the texts of Vitruvius and other ancient authors. The model of the two-storied domus, which covered some 650 square meters in area, was then imported into the Unity engine, commonly used for popular games like Pokemon Go, so it could be explored in virtual reality.

Heron and cobra, fresco in the House of the Greek EpigramCredit: Stefano Bolognini

Roman in the streets, Greek in the sheets

Campanaro and Landeschi are cagey about the results of their study, which will be the topic of a future paper, but they did share some initial conclusions with Haaretz. They can say that the house conveyed messages about the status of its owner and family, but in different ways to different people. The general public was only allowed to access the outer parts of the house, where there were certain visual stimuli, while honored guests were allowed inside and saw other things.

Regarding the general public in the outer regions of the home, it was all about projecting power and respect for Roman traditions and rituals. Their glance would immediately be drawn to the Lararia, niches that housed the images of the Lares, the family’s guardian deities.

To more intimate visitors, the house signaled the owner’s sophistication, opulence and knowledge of Greek culture. This is well illustrated by a giant fresco decorating the back of the peristyle, the building’s inner courtyard. Visible from the entrance, this fresco initially appeared to visitors as a classic naturalistic scene showing a bull amongst vegetation, Landeschi says.

But as visitors got closer they could spot more details, such as a leopard attacking the bull and a satyr, a figure connected to the cult of the wine god Dionysus.

Every morning, the owner of the house received the supplications of his clientes, free citizens who were nevertheless dependent on their patron’s good will, in the atrium, the main hall located in the front of the house. To them, the giant fresco in the back of the building would have been a sign of austeritas, the Roman virtue of sobriety, Campanaro says.

Only the owner’s closest friends, presumably his social peers, would have been able to get closer and marvel at the more elaborate imagery contained in the fresco, he says.

3-D model of the House of the Greek epigrams, imported in UnityCredit: Danilo Campanaro & Giacomo Landeschi, Antiquity Publications Ltd.
Gaze and fixation is shown with respect to the surrounding space. Maximum fixation is shown by radius sizeCredit: Danilo Campanaro & Giacomo Landeschi, Antiquity Publications Ltd.

This also illustrates the well-known tension between Roman and Greek culture. After conquering the Greek peninsula in the second century B.C.E., many Romans embraced the art, philosophy and customs of the occupied lands, even as critics saw this as a nefarious and corrupting influence on Roman mores and virtues. Or, as the poet Horace put it: “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” - “Greece, once conquered, in turn conquered its uncivilized conqueror.”

So it would make sense for the owner of the house to display a more Roman façade to the public, while showing off his extravagant and sophisticated Greek side only to his closest companions. This was also probably the function of the house’s namesake, the small room off the internal courtyard that paired Greek epigrams with mythological scenes such as depictions of Dionysian cults or a wrestling match between the gods Eros and Pan.

The visual impact of art on visitors was also a function of lighting conditions, the archaeologists suggest. For example, in some rooms erotic frescoes were apparently located so that natural or artificial light would hit them at the more appropriate time of day, while leaving them in the shadows at other times, Campanaro explains.

The archaeologists plan to continue experimenting on their digital model of the house, but say that their work already shows that virtual reality, paired with eye-tracking and other digital technologies, can offer new insights for researchers studying how ancient people perceived their living space.

“VR is often used to improve the visitor experience at a museum or an archaeological site,” Landeschi says. “This is a very noble goal, but we wanted to show that together with other technologies it can be used as a research tool rather than just an educational tool.”

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