Discovery of Pompeii slaves’ room sheds light on real Roman life

A nearly perfectly intact room that served as a kind of dormitory for enslaved people has been unearthed by archaeologists at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

The room has three wooden beds, a chamber pot, a wooden chest and several tall Roman jars called amphorae. All of it was covered and preserved in cinerite, a sedimentary rock made mostly of volcanic ash, when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

A chariot shaft was also found in the room, which archaeologists said had served as the humble lodgings of, possibly, a small family who carried out day-to-day work in the villa, including preparing and maintaining the chariot.

The only natural light in the 16-square-metre space came from a small upper window, and there is no evidence of any wall decorations.

Scientists say it provides a “very rare insight into the daily lives of slaves” in the Roman city that was devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2,000 years ago.

A view of the latest finding in Pompeii, Italy. Archeologists, excavating a villa amid the ruins of the 79 A.D. volcanic eruption.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the site, says this find gives much needed — and largely unknown — context for how the city’s rich depended on the labor of others to prosper. “This is a window into the precarious reality of people who seldom appear in historical sources that were written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite, and who as a result risk remaining invisible in the great historical accounts,” he said in a statement.

Several personal objects were found under the beds, including large amphorae, used for storing personal possessions, and ceramic jugs. The three beds, one child-size, were made of rope and wooden planks.

“What is most striking is the cramped and precarious nature of this room, which is something between a dormitory and a storage room,” said Zuchtriegel. “It is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries of my life as an archaeologist, even without the presence of great ‘treasures’. The true treasure here is the human experience – in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society – to which this room is a unique testimony.”

Excavations on the site of the Civita Giuliana villa began in 2017 and several relics have been found, including a ceremonial chariot and a stable containing the remains of three harnessed horses. In May, three frescoes looted from the villa in 2012 were returned to the archaeological park.

Casts were created of the remains of the two Vesuvius victims found in the villa last November. The two men, lying close together, are believed to have escaped the initial phase of the eruption, when the city was blanketed in volcanic ash and pumice, only to then be killed by a further blast the following day.

Experts said the younger man, who was probably between 18 and 25, had several compressed vertebrae, which led them to believe that he was a manual labourer or slave. The older man, aged between 30 and 40, had a stronger bone structure, particularly around his chest, and was wearing a tunic. They were found lying in what would have been a corridor in the villa.

“We can imagine here the servants and slaves who worked in this area and came to sleep here at night. We know it was definitely a life in precarious conditions,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

“Our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeiians has been enriched,” said Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of culture, “particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today.”