Archaeologists at the Pompeii Archaeological Park stand within the first-floor bedroom in the house of the lararium
Over the summer, excavators at Pompeii made an insightful and critical discovery that highlights the everyday lives of the non-elite of ancient Roman society, a portion of the population that is so rarely able to be studied. In the Region V site of the archeological park, excavators found a “middle-class” dwelling and its furnishings. The rooms recently excavated were part of a larger home that surrounded a decorated courtyard with a lararium – a shrine for the worship of the familial and household gods – at the center. 
This finding of middle-class dwelling is critical, as the vast majority of what we know about Roman domestic life comes from the homes of the super-elite. This is partly because wealthier dwellings were more likely to have been built with larger footprints and out of non-perishable materials, whereas those in lower socio-economic classes tended to live in homes made of more perishable and flammable construction.
A pottery incense burner in the shape of a cradle with polychromatic paintings discovered in the newly excavated middle class house.
Rare are the instances in which middle or lower-class urban domestic spaces are preserved, though remains of some multi-story ‘apartment buildings’ do exist in Rome and its neighboring port city, Ostia. Such circumstances have overall produced an incredibly one-sided narrative of how ancient peoples lived. One could reasonably argue that the modern equivalent would be if human society in two-thousand years was only able to study our contemporary domestic lives through the homes of people like the Kardashians or Bill Gates. 
These new finds showcase the lives of Pompeiian inhabitants who were likely a part of the ambitious “middle class” of the Roman world. “In the Roman Empire there was a significant proportion of the population which fought for their social status and for whom the ‘daily bread’ was anything but taken for granted,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Archaeology Park, in a press statement. “It was a social class that was vulnerable during political crises and famines, but also ambitious to climb the social ladder.” 
This ties in well with the excavated home of this family’s potential position. The central courtyard of this space, uncovered in 2018, is lavishly decorated with sumptuous fresco paintings on the walls depicting idealized landscapes and hunting scenes, not unlike what one might find in some of the richer houses closer to the forum. By contrast, the rooms more recently uncovered show a modest sense of living which has led researchers at the Park to interpret the inhabitants as aspiring to the levels of wealth they put into their lararium.
“We do not know who the inhabitants of the house were,” added Zuchtriegel, “but certainly the culture of otium”—the Roman principle of leisure—“which inspired the wonderful decoration of the courtyard represented for them more a future they dreamed of than a lived reality.
A full map of Pompeii. Blank spaces in the different regions denote unexcavated areas of the city. The house recently uncovered is in Regio V.
Within the rooms, excavators were able to recover pottery of various types (plates, lanterns, vases, and amphorae for storing wine, oils, or sauces) along with glass, incense burners, wax tablets, and more. 
Most impressively, however, is the evidence of furniture that was recovered. When the city was covered in layers and layers of ash and mud, it created an anaerobic (oxygen-less) environment for everything covered by the volcanic materials. As such, when organic materials within the layers of ash eventually carbonized or broke down, they left hollow spaces and impressions of where they once were. Excavators are then able to pour plaster into those spaces and, once uncovered completely, revealing a cast of what was originally there. This is how the famous Pompeii body casts came to be.
An archaeologist at Pompeii holds a terra sigillata plate from the newly excavated middle class house. Such ceramics were commonplace across the entirety of the Roman Empire.
The same technique can be utilized for things like furniture as well. Thus, in these rooms, excavators also found tables, storage chests, cabinets, and beds atop which it was possible to discern impressions of pillows and blankets. Based on the nature of where the finds were overall, excavators can recreate the native of these peoples’ daily lives as well as the snapshot moment of when they decided to flee their home.
As always, Pompeii continues to inspire and contribute ever more to our understanding of life in ancient Roman cities, though it always does well to remember the incredible human toll that had to be paid for the knowledge we have today.
Dani is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Duke University. She has excavated with multiple projects in Italy and predominately researches ancient identities in the northwestern Roman provinces.
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