Social Structure and Politics
Like most Roman towns Pompeii and Herculaneum were divided into three classes: Slaves, Freedmen (former slaves) and Freeborn (never been slaves).
The top of the social hierarchy was the Senatorial Elite. This class did not necessarily live in Pompeii and Herculaneum; rather they visited the towns for holidays away from Rome. This class lived in Villa’s on the outskirts of town and had enormous influence due to their wealth and stature. Famous Roman’s such as Cicero owned villas in Pompeii while Lucius Piso, Caesar’s father-in-law owned the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum. Sometimes the Senatorial Elite became patrons of towns and would pay for many public buildings in the town. This is evident in Marcus Nonius Balbus who funded a second public bath in Herculaneum and received many statues in his honour.
The next class was the Local Elite who wealthy landowners and merchants in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This class was involved in local politics and also lived in Villas on the outskirts of town.
Further down the hierarchy was Freedmen who were previous slaves who had bought back their freedom or had been released by their masters. The Freedmen could not vote, although, their children could. Some Freedmen became wealthy business owners but many took on the unsavoury work such as in the fulleries.
Women were not a specific class in Pompeii and Herculaneum, though, their rights and status as a part of society were somewhere between Slaves and Freedmen. They had no vote or office but could inherit and own property. A woman could be influential if she was wealthy such as in the case of Julia Felix who owned one of the largest estates in Pompeii.
Finally, Slaves were at the bottom of the Social Pyramid. Not much is known about their daily lives but they made up 40 percent of the population in Pompeii. Bradley writes in Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum that slaves did most of the hard labour and domestic duties in Pompeii and Herculaneum meaning they made up the “economic backbone” of both cities. Slaves were considered a part of most Roman families, although, they could be traded, sold and bought at will by their masters. Shackles found in both cities suggests that at least some of them were chained.
Another important social relationship in Roman society was the Patron and Client relationship. This involved a powerful patron who would support a client in business and politics and invited them to the occasional dinner party (Chandler, Talpin, Bingham: The Osborne Internet Linked Encyclopaedia of the Roman World: 2001). In return the client would vote for the Patron who could have many clients. This relationship was called amicus meaning “equal friend”.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were Roman colonies so both cities had to follow the laws of the Roman senate. The imperial government, however, only interfered in matters of imperial security such as the Cult of Bacchus and the Gladiator Riots. The cities were ordered under a democracy; it was divided into wards (VICI) which became voting districts (Chandler, Talpin, Bingham: The Osborne Internet Linked Encyclopaedia of the Roman World: 2001).
Graffiti around Pompeii shows that the town was enthusiastic about elections. Cicero stated that it was harder to get a seat on Pompeii’s council than on the Roman Senate. Graffiti such as “I beg you to elect Marcus Epidius Sabinus senior magistrate with judicial power, a most worthy young man” often advertised candidates as honourable and “worthy” (Bradley: Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum: 2013). The shows that the citizens of Pompeii wished their leaders to be respectable and noble (Cartwright: Pompeii: Graffiti, Signs and Electoral Notices: 2012). Some women were able to influence political elections by scratching graffiti on walls in favour of political candidates.
The social structure and political life of Pompeii and Herculaneum were closely linked with each other. A person's social standing determined how politics affected them and a person’s involvement in politics was determined by their position in the social hierarchy.
Economy in Pompeii and Herculaneum
Pompeii had larger trade activity then Herculaneum due to the main commercial road “Via Dell Abbondanza” which ran through it from the ocean and onto inland Campania. Pompeii was only a few days away from Rome by cart and had nearby port accessibility which according to Strabo “accommodates a traffic in both imports and exports” meaning it had a perfect location for trade (Zamarti: Pompeii and Herculaneum: 2005). Herculaneum was a quieter resort city for retired soldiers whereas Pompeii was a holiday city with a bustling economy. Pompeii had around 600 shops, inns and workshops. Most produce was sold in shops out the front of houses, in the markets or in pop-up stalls by street vendors (Hurley, Medcalf, Murray, Rolph: Antiquity 2: Interpreting the Past: 2008).
For both towns the sale of agricultural and fishing products made up the main merchant activity. Gracco, T states in Pompeii Ruins that the fishing industry dealt mainly in crustaceans, molluscs, fish and garum (fish sauce) for which Pompeii was renowned. Pliny the Elder’s account of Garum explains that it was made from fish entrails and in Pompeii it came “to be highly valued.” The poignant smell of the sauce suggests it was produced outside the city. Oil and wine were the most lucrative agricultural products, however, the rich could only undertake this enterprise because the wait between the first crop and the olive and grape presses were very costly. Archaeologist Wilhelmina Jashemski located a large commercial vineyard near the amphitheatre in Pompeii with approximately 2014 plants (Bradley: Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum: 2013). The size of this vineyard shows the booming wine trade in Pompeii before the Vesuvian eruption.
Another business which Pompeii dealt greatly in was prostitution. The sex trade was considered a normal and acceptable part of life in Rome. Nine brothels have been locates in Pompeii but none so far in Herculaneum. Thomas McGuinn, an archaeologist who studied brothels in Pompeii, suggests the prostitution was not limited to brothels but took place all over the city as an essential part of daily life. Evidence that points to this is the 23 of April, which was a recognised holiday for sex workers. Prostitutes were mainly foreigners and lower class citizens and had to be registered with the city magistrates (aediles) to work.
In Herculaneum, Sara Bisel’s analysis of bodies found in the boat houses shows high levels of Omega 3 and healthy teeth suggesting that the people of Herculaneum ate large quantities of sea food. The economy of Herculaneum would have mainly focused on seafood so the town could provide enough food for itself. A salt pan near Herculaneum also made up a small part of the salt trade (Bradley: Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum: 2013).
The economies of Pompeii and Herculaneum varied in size but the both dealt in fish and agricultural produce, for which Pompeii was famed for due to the fertility of the soil which was a result of Mount Vesuvius.