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Pompei and Herculaneum Religious Archaeology

Being one of the most fascinating and cataclysmic events in Ancient Rome, The violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius ultimately destroyed a set of unique and culturally significant societies from Rome. With Pompeii and Herculaneum’s unique culture came their widely influenced and varied religion. Religion of which had no one following, one god or one origin.

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Both societies housed many cults and religions, many of which were adopted by citizens after foreign influences, significantly from the Hellenic civilizations.

Pompeii was evidently a wealthy aristocratic city, as demonstrated by the abundance of valuables located along the remains of dead Pompeians. Golden coins, jewelry and lavish houses adorned with frescoes were extracted from Pompeii at the time of finding, as the volcanic debris preserved much of the city. This is not to say that Pompeii also housed many middle and lower class citizens, slaves being an integral part of the city-town. Much of these influences manifested itself in the form of temples, epigraphy and burial practices and are examples of how much and how many forms of religious impact were seen throughout the city.

Seeing how these religions surfaced in Pompeii and Herculaneum can help uncover how these distinct cults and practices impacted the societies. Being one of the most prominent and distinct examples of influence in religion in both societies, the temple of Isis housed a large and devout cult all around the Roman Empire, but very much so in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Being of Egyptian origin, the god Isis was a significant part of both cities, the temple in subject adorned with mosaics of Roman and Egyptian gods, with the god Hermes carved onto the purgatorium.

This demonstrates to us that the Cult of Isis did not in a way, interfere with the practices or other religions, but rather integrated into. Isis herself was represented in large of lower classmen, commoners as well as slaves and women. As such, having a large slave and tradesman population, meant that Isis was a popular cult and goddess towards the people. The courtyard itself contained a multitude of chambers and buildings, one of which led to a cistern that held water from the rive Nile. This shows us not only of their devotion to Isis, but it is also evidence of ritual and cult practice.

As the Temple was kept intact so well, much of the architecture and detail in regards to the walls and columns tells that the city had strong Egyptian influence, as well as showing us how important Isis and Egyptian religious worship was to them. Such importance in that an Egyptian Temple was built in a Roman city, further enhancing the notion that Egypt had large impact onto Pompeii and Herculaneum. Plutarch stated that the Egyptians were indeed of a very pious nature, but they were not the only cult to call Pompeii its home.

The cult of Dionysus, another large following in Pompeii and Herculaneum, was to honor the titular god, Dionysus. Being the god of Wine and festivities, the higher class individuals may have seen the cult as a representation of themselves, demonstrating how it catered to the aristocrats’ own lifestyle, similar to how Isis represented the poor and working class individuals. Dionysus was of Greek mythology, showing us the influence of the Greeks, but it very much resembled Bacchus, the Roman god of similar representation.

Dionysus was somewhat worshipped in the Villa of the Mysteries, in which Romans would accommodate its interior. The Villa was a meeting place and a home to many patrons in Pompeii, lined with ornate and detailed frescoes, largely intact. The frescoes depict a multitude of activities and practices, such as rites of passage, leisurely activities such as dancing and instrument playing, as well as featuring Dionysus himself. This was likely some of the many practices that the cult delved in during the villa.

It is also interesting to note that the exterior of the villa was closed off and although a large part of the city, it is situated in the northwest of the city, away from the general populace and larger landmarks. In addition to that, much of the rituals and events took place at night and in secrecy, specifically the rites of passage. One could assume that although the worship of either Bacchus or Dionysus was prevalent, the practices and activities that were partaken, especially at night were something to be discrete about.

Such a source is useful to us as the Villa’s Dionysus worship is backed by the fact that the Villa and its practices and rituals were placed so far away from other prominent buildings and individuals. Other figures were also incorporated into housing and residences as well, one of them being the Lares. Lares were guardian figures in Roman Mythology and were widely impacted throughout Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many of our references to the Lares are shown in the form of mosaics and statues, particularly around Roman residence.

Lares were seen to be protectors, which explains their use around the city. One such residence, the Villa of the Vettii, houses a particular mosaic of two Lares, assumed to be sacrificing another individual, with a snake under them, representing prosperity. Not only this, but Lare statues were placed all around the house and for many other everyday occasions, such as funerals, banquets and births. Cicerobelieved that “The mose sacred and hallowed place on earth is the home of each and every citizen”, the citizens of Pompeii rightly believing so.

One could deduce that the citizens believed that the Lares were directly related to the city’s well-being and that they demanded sacrifices in order to achieve it. In addition to this, the fact that these deities were so widespread and common throughout both Herculaneum and Pompeii, in addition to much of the rest of Rome, shows its usefulness in identifying that the Lares were seen as a very significant and integral part of everyday life. Another significant religious practice in both societies was the use of tombs and burials.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are scattered with the tombs and burial sites of dead citizens, mostly of aristocratic descent around the gates and leading to the city. The graves collectively formed the Necropolis and are scattered with statues and inscriptions of different gods and followings. This shows us how diverse the religious demographic was in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many tombs also contained valuables along with their owner’s remains. Things such as jewelry and weapons were found during excavation, detailing that these individuals had possibly believed in an afterlife with the items that they were buried with.

It is also interesting to note that Hellenic and Gallic civilizations adopted this practice earlier on, possibly concluding that there could have been Northern and definite Greek influence in Pompeii. It is also a point to make that these tombs were built around the gates of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a place of high traffic. Citizens could then be speculated that they may have treated the idea of death much more positively and more conventionally than how the modern world handles it, the latter in question usually designating graveyards near places of little significance or at least, certainly not of high traffic.

The Necropolis in question of its usefulness is very much a key part in understanding the belief of death, its practices in burial and the afterlife as it was and still is, the resting place of thousands of people, all of them, believing that the Necropolis was a distinguished, significant place of burial and where they wished to be encapsulated, many of them bearing and displaying their Religious affinity in either the form of epigraphy or an idol or shrine near their tomb.