Pompeii was a small, comparatively insignificant town with never more than 20,000 inhabitants. However, its burial in 79 AD by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius preserved its structure and it is now one of the most intact examples of an ancient city, offering a complete record of the social, domestic and cultural life of its citizens. Apart from its main public buildings, Pompeii was a town of narrow streets with each house, or each back-to-back group of houses, filling a block (insula). The architecture spans several centuries and the buildings exemplify the evolution of domestic architecture from the Italic model of the 4th-3rd centuries BC to that of 1st century AD Imperial Rome.


The form of the Pompeian domus or townhouse is derived from Greek and Hellenistic designs and  varies greatly in size and elaboration, from two or three rooms to large buildings with many rooms arranged around courtyards. The houses were entered from a narrow street facade which was plain and windowless, or was let out as shops. They display two main design aspects: a feeling for inwardness and a regular composition. There are a number of characteristics, which developed over time, that are common to most of the preserved houses.

The characteristic Italic single storey family domus is represented by the House of the Surgeon. It conforms to a standard rectangular plan, organised around a central atrium, or interior court, which held the shrine of the house gods. The atrium is covered by a roof that has an opening (compluvium) in the centre, below which a water pool (impluvium) received the rainwater from the gutters of the compluvium. The tablinum, the main living room where the family dined and received guests, occupies the side opposite the entrance. Beyond the tablinum is the garden which lacks the elaborate porticoes and colonnades of the Hellenistic house. The rooms are grouped axially and symmetrically around the vestibule, atrium and rear court. This axis of alternately light and dark spaces is flanked by symmetrically arranged domestic rooms. The cartibulum, or table for the utensils used in serving meals, was placed in front of the tablinum.

From the 2nd century BC onwards, the colonnaded peristyle, derived from the wealthy houses of the Hellenistic cities, was assimilated in the primitive Pompeian domus. It was added onto the central axis beyond the tablinum, but rather than being paved in the Greek manner, it was planned as a colourful garden in the depth of the house. The tablinum ceased to be the general living room and was occupied by the family archives. Its former place was taken by the triclinium, one of the rooms opening off the peristyle. Further elaborations, alterations and additions replaced the Italic simplicity with a greater sense of luxury, however, the houses retained the basic elements of the Italic atrium house.

The characteristic dwellings of the fully developed style are generally planned on a narrow rectangular site, extending a long way back from the road and are represented by the House of Pansa a large family mansion which occupied a whole city block. The rooms are grouped around two main quadrilateral spaces: the atrium at the front which served for formal occasions as well as normal domestic use; and the peristyle at the rear, which was for more private occasions, with the tablinum between them.

The peristyle, with sixteen marble Ionic columns supporting the inner margins of the roof and forming an arcade, was in the form of a garden (virdarium) with flower beds, statuary, fountains and water basins. Bedrooms (cubiculae); dining rooms (triclinia), so called from the three couches provided against the walls and marked by their larger size; and reception rooms surrounded the peristyle. The lararium, or domestic sanctuary, in the form of a small temple is incorporated in the atrium, in an adjoining chamber, or in the peristyle. The living rooms are arranged around the atria. Most rooms faced inwards, lit  through tall doorways which were screened either by curtains or by doors with metal grilles. An open living room or tablinum was curtained off between the atrium and the peristyle, and was flanked on one side by a passageway. Furthest from the entrance, but with convenient access from the side street, were a kitchen and pantry.

The total effect on entering from the street was of a long shaded vista slashed across with sunlight. The whole layout was well designed, spacious and appropriate for the climate.


The rooms of the typical Pompeian house provided large areas for decoration; and mosaics, marble slabs, stucco and painted decoration covered a large area of the walls, ceilings and floors. The houses of all classes were decorated, because most rooms were extremely small and dark. Pompeian art merges a taste for nature with the introduction of landscape and gardens into the plans and decoration of the houses, and a sense of the control of space by means of architectural construction. These tendencies fused to produce a style of mural painting that cannot be separated from the architecture that supports and inspires it. The mural paintings expanded the space by illusionistic means, a tradition inherited from the Greeks, creating the impression of larger or more sumptuously decorated interiors.

The blank walls were covered with architectural fantatsies disposed in three horizontal bands: dado, central zone and frieze. Within this simulated depth were placed large mythological subjects, friezes of miniature figures, landscapes, and plain open sky. Ceiling beams were also painted, gilded, or inlaid with ivory and the floors were paved in stone or fine mosaic.

Pompeian mural painting has been divided into four styles based on stylistic variations each having its own specific characteristics. All four styles remained in use concurrently with specific styles chosen for specific rooms.
The First Style, known as the 'incrusted' or Samnite style, dates from 150BC to 80BC and imitates the expensive marble panelling of important Greek and Roman mansions. The central field is occupied by small pictures or groups of flying figures.
The Second Style appeared about 90-70BC. Its new feature was the introduction of an architectural framework within which or around which the figure scenes and landscape compositions were organised. The total effect was to create the illusion of spatial penetration, achieved through architectural composition on two or more planes. In some cases the illusion created by the architectural framework was carried further with the wall seeming to vanish within the painted frame, and the opening created filled with further architectural vistas.
In the Third Style (1-62AD),  the ornament takes on a distinctly decorative quality. The  surfaces are divided by little columns, by slender pillars covered with floral motifs, or by candelabra. Monochrome backgrounds in black, green and other colours replaced the more colourful backgrounds of the previous styles.
The Fourth Style from 63AD is characterised as Baroque because of its opulent and theatrical quality. The figures are accompanied by bizarre architectural effects, the colouring is less delicate, and the ornamental details coarser.
Each of these styles can be defined by the architectural function of the wall it decorates. In the First and Third the function of the wall is accentuated by the decoration, whereas in the Second and to some extent the Fourth, the decoration tends to make the wall disappear in order to make it open onto artificially composed exteriors. The main function was to enhance the quality of uniform walls in a way that made the somewhat dim ambience of the rooms dissolve into natural panoramas. However, the Pompeians exceeded this purely functional purpose, and their decorative treatments are `among the most charming of the sophisticated styles of history' (R Furneaux Jordan).


R Furneaux Jordan:  A Concise History of Western Architecture.

Sear, Frank: Roman Architecture.

Henic Martin: A Handbook of Roman Art

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