Investigating and Interpreting Sources

Investigating and Interpreting Sources

The vast array of archaeological and historical evidence which survives at both Pompeii and Herculaneum, provides us with a unique and unparalleled insight into the daily life of Roman towns and their citizens at the end of the first century AD.  This evidence provides us with an all-encompassing view of society in which the elite, layman and even slaves have a voice.

Below, you will find useful resources relating to: the economy; social structure; local political life; everyday life; religion; and the influence of Greek and Egyptian cultures.


Pompeii and Herculaneum were market towns and centres for small-scale manufacturing and commerce. The discovery of a large number of shops, taverns and workshops in Pompeii, along with a collection of carbonised wax wooden tablets which record daily business transactions, provide us with a unique insight into the commercial activities of the town. Pompeii was a town which had a bustling commercial life and a thriving economy, much of which was centred around the city’s forum and was dependent upon Campania’s favourable environmental conditions and fertile plain. In contrast, excavations at Herculaneum are yet to reveal the town’s Forum and show very little evidence of manufacture. However, a small number of shops including a bakery and thermopolia have been found scattered throughout the residential areas of the town, suggesting a similar level of bustling commercial life.

Role of the Forum

The forum was the political, religious and commercial heart of Roman towns. As such, the majority of commerce in Pompeii was conducted in the public buildings in and around the forum or in the numerous shops located on the town’s main street the Via dell' Abbondanza (Street of Abundance) and scattered throughout the residential insulae.


Pompeii was a bustling sea port, functioning as a maritime outlet for the many commercial activities of the region of Campania. The cultivation and production of wine and olive oil in particular provided the principal wealth for both Pompeii and Herculaneum, with wine amphorae from Pompeii having been found throughout Italy, Spain, Africa, Germany and England. However, the region was not only known for its wine and oil but also for its flourishing ceramics and textile industries and the production of Garum, a characteristic ingredient in Roman cuisine.









Social Structure

Like the majority of Roman towns, the social structure of Pompeii and Herculaneum was divided into three main categories: freeborn; freedmen; and slaves. There have been numerous estimations into the size of these sites, with approximately 5,000 residing in Herculaneum and 10,000-20,000 in Pompeii.  The majority of these people, around forty percent, were made up of slaves, with the ‘freeborn’ category relating to the minority of people.


Involved in this section were the ‘senatorial elite’, the highest level in the social structure, and then the ‘local elite’.  The senatorial elite were not permanent residents in Pompeii and Herculaneum, rather visiting over the weekend and treating these cities as holiday getaways out of Rome.  They primarily stayed in the large villas on the outskirts of city limits, more on which can be found here. Some of the famous men known to have owned villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum was Cicero and Lucius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

The ‘local elites’ included wealthy landowners, merchants and businessmen that permanently lived in these towns.  These people dominated local government in the region in lived in large villas both inside the towns and on the outskirts. Also included in this section are ordinary males who were born free.  They usually include those working in the market as traders and shopkeepers, artisans, and small scale farmers.

For more on the villas and houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum and information on who occupied them what we can learn from them and what it tells us about the upper echelons in society at Pompeii and Herculaneum, see the list of useful sites below.

Houses of Pompeii

Private Buildings

The Private Houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Public and Private Buildings



Freedmen (libertini) encompasses those members of society who were once slaves but had either bought their freedom or had been released (manumitted) from their owners. Though they had received their freedom, many freedmen decided to stay close to their former owners and continue to work for them. Some members in this social class were educated and held jobs such as scribes, however the majority worked as traders, merchants, blacksmiths and bakers. While some freedmen attained some wealth and power after their manumission, many lived ordinary lives and were seen as second rate citizens by the freeborn society.

For more on the role of freedmen in Pompeii and Herculaneum, please see the list of websites, scholarly articles and reports below.

Pompeii: A Study of Roman Tombs and Freedmen

Freedmen and Slaves in the Light of Legal Documents from the First-Century A.D. Campania

Slaves and Freedmen in Pompeii and Their Social Mobility

For a particularly good site in understanding the 'sub-elite' neighbourhoods in Pompeii and their relationship with elite freeborn residents, see Porta Stabia.



Slavery was a highly important aspect of Roman life, with slaves present in all Roman cities, towns and households.  However, despite their obvious presence in Roman society, they are often neglected within the surviving written record of the ancient world.  The ongoing discoveries at Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Vesuvian towns has provided us with an overwhelming amount of information into the daily lives of these individuals.  The recent discovery of graffiti written by  an unnamed slave has re-written history 'in a major way' as it has questioned Pliny the Younger's initial date of the eruption. Not only does this particular inscription highlight the importance of these cities in the study of ancient slaves, but so too does other recorded graffiti.

The Ancient Graffiti Project is a great source for obtaining these 'unofficial' pieces of writing written by the voiceless masses.  For more on this topic, and the importance of grafitti as a primary source, see this page. The image above shows the plaster cast made of a victim of Mt Vesuvius' eruption in  AD 79.  Due to the surviving shackles places around this individuals' ankles we can conclude that they were a slave. Art work, which was preserved in the eruption, also provides evidence of the life, role and purpose of slaves in these cities.  For more on this, see here, as well as Pompeii in Pictures.   For more on slaves and slavery in these towns, and the different sources used to identify and study this large group of people, please see the links below.

Freedmen and Slaves in the Light of Legal Documents from the First-Century A.D. Campania

Slaves and Freedmen in Pompeii and Their Social Mobility



See the free sample chapter from Mellissa Mance-Samcou's new book: Pompeii & Herculaneum: Student Workbook

"Women in Pompeii and Herculaneum"

This is a sample chapter from:

Mance-Samcou, M. (2019) Pompeii & Herculaneum: Student Workbook.

135 pages, full colour, source based. Questions, source questions, activities and practise essay questions.

Price- $49.99 for a single copy or $32.99 for 3 or more copies.

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Further Resources

For more information on the social structure of these towns, please see the shortlist of academic books and articles, further websites and other research projects.

Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill)

Roman Pompeii: Space and Society (Professor Ray Laurence)

The Organisation of Space in Pompeii (Professor Ray Laurence)

Children and the Urban Environment: Agency in Pompeii (Professor Ray Laurence)

Social Stratification in the Pompeian Domestic Environment

Pompeii: House of the Vettii

Local Political Life


Influence of Greek and Egyptian Cultures

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