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Roman slaves in ancient Pompeii would have fetched water from public
water fountains such as the fountain of Mercury. Mt. Vesuvius erupted in
79 A.D., burying Pompeii in volcanic ash and rock. Today, this "city frozen in time" is a World Heritage Site.
Her name was Amica, and her name and
footprint are embedded in a terra cotta tile belonging to an ancient
Roman temple. The signed tile is a rare find because Amica was a Roman
slave, and her footprint survives. For the most part, the slaves of the
well-preserved city of Pompeii still remain largely "invisible" in
history, according to the University of Delaware's Lauren Hackworth
Petersen, an associate professor of art history at UD, is exploring
new approaches, drawing on literature, law, art and other material
evidence, to bring the lives of Pompeii's slaves out of the shadows. The
research is part of a forthcoming book she is co-authoring with Sandra
Joshel, professor of history at the University of Washington.
During the inaugural lecture of the UD Department of History's Graduate Student Lecture Series
on Sept. 11, Petersen spoke of countless hours spent in Pompeii walking
on the stone streets and narrow sidewalks "in the scorching sun of
summer, in the rain and howling wind of winter," imagining where the
city's slaves may have traveled as they carried out their daily work.
Who were these slaves? Roman slaveholders got them from many places.
Some were Greeks, some were Africans, some were bred in the country
specifically for the role, according to Petersen.
Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 79 A.D. in a searing avalanche of hot
air, volcanic ash and rock. The city's population has been estimated at
20,000 people near the time of its destruction. Although no one knows
exactly how many slaves were in the city, the typical Roman household
may have had five to seven slaves, Petersen said, with larger houses
such as the impressive House of the Menander, nearly the size of a city
block, having many more.
Using a map of Pompeii showing detailed plots of the ancient streets
and structures, Petersen pointed out the main doors to houses, which
would have been the focus of doorwatchers inside, and the side doors and
other "spaces of backdoor culture" through which a household's slaves
most likely passed.
Slaves might snatch precious time out of their owner's (and various
slave supervisors') sight fetching water at a public fountain, slipping
into a tavern, bakery or cookshop, resting on a masonry bench in the
shade of a house a few streets away, lingering in a garden on the south
side of the city. In doing so, "a slave could become more anonymous and
invisible on highly frequented streets," Petersen said.
Those narrow, two-way stone streets would have been noisy and
odoriferous, filled with donkey carts, human sewage and animal feces,
with slaves carrying the wealthy elite above the mob on litters.
Surprisingly, Petersen said, slaves were not immediately identifiable
by their dress. The simple tunic was the clothing of choice worn by
slaves and their owners alike. Only the toga was reserved for Roman
citizens; however, many did not wear it, Petersen said, because the long
length of material was cumbersome and difficult to keep clean.
Urine, used as a cleansing agent due to its high ammonia content, was
collected in jars and taken to the fulleries where clothing was
laundered. Slaves working in the fulleries would stand in small tubs
filled with urine, water and dirty clothes stomping on them to clean the
Where slaves are more visible in Roman history is in literature and
the law, Petersen said, because slaves were viewed as property, and if
they were damaged by an erratic donkey cart or a falling pot flung from
an upstairs window, for example, financial retribution would need to be
made by the perpetrator.
Although some slaves escaped, extensive means of recovering fugitives
led to the recapture of many. Petersen said the gruesome remains of a
slave shackled in irons, unable to flee Mt. Vesuvius' eruption, were
found in a slave prison when the city was excavated centuries later.
Petersen calls the reconstructive work at Pompeii a starting point for thinking of places in context.
"We are learning to see what we have been trained to unsee," Petersen
said. "We are looking at the world through a slave's eyes and not only
through the eyes of the elite citizens who controlled the streets."
Petersen has been a professor at UD since 2000. She specializes in
ancient Roman art and architecture and has also done extensive research
in Greek and Etruscan art and assisted with the excavations at the
Etruscan/Roman habitation site at Cetamura del Chianti, Italy.
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