Perhaps no other ancient city captures our imagination quite like Pompeii. The storyline is familiar: a thriving city on the Bay of Naples- a mecca of high culture and a playground of the rich- suddenly and violently engulfed by the smoldering ash, debris, and lava of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today, after painstaking study and scholarship, we have a comprehensive understanding of the life in that “City disinterred” and its streets and roofless halls.
History of Pompeii
The Greeks first colonized the Bay of Naples and the various cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum that studded its sun-kissed coast in 600 BC. Centuries later, when the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC, Pompeii and its environs were citadels of Greek culture according to LACMA,
The Romans were seduced by the city’s past and the all-things Greek that infused daily life, including decorative and luxury arts such as paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics.
In addition, Pompeii became a refuge from the rigors of city life as wealthy Romans including Emperor Augustus were bedazzled by the scenic beauty and the temperate Mediterranean climate.
Given the temperate climate and the stunning views of the Bay of Naples, it is not a surprise that the gardens take a center stage in the design and architecture of the villas of Pompeii according to Landscape Architecture Magazine.
However, there is another important influence at play in the prevalence of these luxurious and elaborately planned gardens: they were a nod to the cultural heritage of Pompeii since outdoor spaces were considered a haven of learning and knowledge in Greece as published in the British School at Rome.
The mosaics of ancient Rome became a highly developed art form and were usually made from numerous small stone, glass, and shell tiles called tesserae. In “Plato’s Academy”, the venerable Greek philosopher is seated in the middle, somewhat forlorn in his appearance and gazing at a globe. He is surrounded by six wizened and bearded men, some engaged in conversation, no doubt.
According to Matthew Bowser, the author of “The Golden Age of Rome: Augustus’ Program to Better the Roman Empire”, to many in ancient Rome, the fifth century BC was considered the apogee of Greek supremacy in the arts that in fact five hundred years later Emperor Augustus aimed to reignite the glory of that Golden Age.
Another manifestation of Greek influence on Roman art and culture in Pompeii was in statuary. Excavations have revealed the plethora of bronze and marble sculptures that adorned gardens and indoor spaces of many villas and homes, often paying homage to the Greeks myths and famous philosophers according to Archaeology.
As word spread of Pompeii’s patronage of the arts, many artists from Rome and Greece migrated to the Bay of Naples in search of commissions and rewards.
The marble statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, that was discovered in one of the villas in Pompeii is a remarkably preserved specimen of sculpture.
Measuring nearly seven feet and believed to have been made in the first century AD, this rendering of Aphrodite, or Venus as she was called in Rome, dramatically captures the skill of the Roman artisans in reproducing Greek art.
The Ghosts of Greece
If we were to rather unartfully rephrase old adages, it can be said that in Pompeii, do as the Greeks do, or that in so far as the doomed residents of cities of the Bay of Naples were concerned, imitation of Greece was the sincerest form of flattery.
So much so that if one were to look carefully amongst the haunting ruins of Pompeii, the ghosts of Greece can be seen lingering in plain sight.