The Influence of Greek and Egyptian cultures in Art, Architecture and Religion in the Ancient Roman City of Pompeii

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The Influence of Greek and Egyptian cultures in Art, Architecture and Religion in the Ancient Roman City of Pompeii.

The ancient Romans were greatly influenced by their predecessors the Egyptians and Greeks, particularly in their art, architecture and religion. This influence came from their many trade routes throughout the known world, particularly to these areas. Pompeii, being a Roman seaport was perhaps more influenced by these two cultures than many other Roman cities. Because of these trade embargos, Pompeii, from its construction to destruction was heavily influenced by the Egyptians and Greeks. The Greeks, being highly admired by the Romans, heavily influenced their art, architecture and religion. Many aspects of the Greek culture can be seen in that of the Romans as the Romans took many of their ideas and perfected or ‘tweaked’ them until they reflected the Romans true values and ideas. There was a strong influence of the Egyptian culture because of the recent conquering of Egypt by the Romans. The Romans were curious to know more about this foreign culture and its people. The Egyptians were particularly influential in their religion as it allowed people a passage into the afterlife and offered people a new and more powerful goddess to worship. It was also very influential in art as its Egyptian styled artworks were considered to be the ‘Flavour of the month’1. They were particularly interested in their exotic animals which were used by the Romans in gladiatorial games, for hunting and in some cases, as pets.

The religion of Pompeii was heavily influenced by both the Greeks and the Egyptians. The Greek gods and goddesses were adopted by the Romans who changed their names. In Pompeii temples were built for Ares/Apollo and Herakles/Hercules. These two gods were worshipped in pre-roman times and even during the Roman’s control of the city. The worship of these two gods continued until 79AD. Perhaps the largest and most famous temple in Pompeii is the Doric style temple, found in the Triangular Forum. This temple is believed to be dedicated to the god Herakles and the goddess Minerva. This temple dates back to the 6th century BC. Apollo was also given an important temple in the mid 6th century BC. But the temple seen on site today is a later temple, built in the second century BC. This temple was rededicated in the time of the early Roman colony. Demeter/Ceres was especially honoured in this agricultural community and was very popular in Campania. In Pompeii there was known to be a public priestess of Ceres. Hermes/Mercury and his mother Maia were also worshipped at Pompeii and also had a temple built in their honour. During the first century AD cults worshipping foreign gods were very popular both with the rich and poor. The most popular cults in Pompeii during the first century AD were the cult of Dionysos/Bacchus and the cult of Isis and the cult of Sabazius. These cults also gained followers from all classes and levels of society, from the poorest farmer to the richest families’ in Pompeii. Some of the reasons that these cults are so popular is that it offered a promise of life after death and because it also offered a closer and more emotional bond with their gods.

The cult of Dionysos had been worshipped in Pompeii since the period of Samnite occupation and a Dionysian temple dating back to the late 3rd to 2nd century BC was discovered outside the town in 1947. This temple was found 700m south of the amphitheatre. This cult offered its devotees and worshippers a ‘’state of ecstasy that came from intoxication by the god.’’2 One of the many messages of the cult was that ‘’the natural passions had to be acknowledged as having a rightful place for a human society to be stable and balanced.’’3  

The cult of Isis was also extremely popular in Pompeii, particularly with women and the elite. This cult and its temple were first established in the second century BC and were established in the theatre district of Pompeii. The temple standing in Pompeii today dates back to 80 BC. The finding of Isis’s husband Osiris became a symbol throughout the cult of renewal and was also linked to the rising or renewal of the sun each morning and the world’s continual renewal through the seasons. Two festivals also occurred, the November Festival/ the Festival of Finding Osiris or the Inventio Osiridris commemorated Osiris’ death and Isis’ sorrowful quest to find his body. The second festival known as Navigium Isidis or the Ship launching festival was held in March and commemorated the dedication that Isis showed to her husband. The temple of Isis was different to many other temples in Pompeii as it was open everyday and rituals of the temple included blessings and the purification with Nile water, ritual meals and the initiations of worshippers.

The final major foreign cult was the cult of Sabazius who was a Thracian (Northern Greek) and Phrygia (Asia Minor) god of vegetation. Although no actual public temple has been found in Pompeii a garden dedicated to the worship of Sabazius was in region 2 of Pompeii. Most of the information associated with this cults many rituals comes from the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria. He wrote that the cult ‘’offered its devotees initiation into mysteries.’’4 There were dancing processions of men and women who were garlanded with herbs. The head priest would then hit each of the initiates with a serpent. He also wrote that the initiations were held at night and that in order to symbolise death they were covered in mud and then ‘rose’ to resurrection through the chanting of a special text. Joined in a symbolic marriage to Sabazius the initiates then celebrated with a religious banquet that allowed them to anticipate the joys that would be theirs in the afterlife. 

These cults along with the Greek gods were very popular and influential in Pompeii for a number of reasons. Demeter/Ceres was particularly important as the region of Campania was very fertile. The farmers and villagers particularly worshipped her as their livelihood relied on her happiness through continual worship and sacrifice. She was also worshipped because of the fertile lands of the region. The inhabitants of this region worshipped her so as to continue the fertility of the land and to ensure that this fertility continued. Their survival in this region depended on this goddess’s happiness. Isis was also particularly influential to the women of Pompeii in particular. The women saw Isis as an independent and powerful goddess, perfectly capable of looking after herself. She offered independence, freedom and a passage into the afterlife and was very different and exotic compared to the Greek goddesses worshipped in Pompeii at the time5. Sabazius was also influential as the people of Campania were connected to the land through their farming and agriculture. This worship helped them to gain a greater understanding and connection with their land and its surroundings and also allowed them to be closer to Sabazius. Finally, Dionysos may have been worshipped because he allowed his worshippers to have some freedom through the acting out of their desires. He allowed them to be uncontrolled for a short period of time through their rituals such as intoxication through the consumption of alcohol.

Pompeii was also heavily influenced by Greeks in their architecture. Many styles and types of buildings were adopted by the Romans and were sometimes improved or altered to suit their taste or choice. The Greeks had influenced Pompeii since the 6th century BC. A Greek architect known as Hippodamus laid out the design if Pompeii and based his design on the Greek city of Piraeus. The street layout is very Greek in design as like many Greek cities it is very neat, patterned and ordered. Pompeii contained two Greek buildings, the Odeon and the Theatre. These were found in every Greek city and provided its people with many different shows, quite different to those witnessed at the Roman amphitheatres or colosseums. The Pompeian baths also included another Greek inspired room, the paelestra where the visitors to the baths could exercise and workout. The Romans also employed Greek columns in the 3 great architectural orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

The Doric style was associated with the culture of mainland Greece and was plain and sober in its style but could sometimes be very big and heavy. This style of column had fluted plains down its shafts and could rest directly on a level without any base. At the top of the column there was a swelling convex, known as a capital in the shape of a square. This capital would take the weight of the structure located directly above the column. Many buildings, both public and private employed the Doric columns such as the north portico of the House of the Silver Stag, the house of the Tragic Poet, House of the Silver Wedding and part of the portico of Pompeii’s forum had Doric columns on the lower levels of the building.  The Ionic styled column came from the Ionian culture of Athens, the Greek island and the coast of Asia Minor. This style of column features more elaborate decorative details and was lighter and more ornate than the Doric style. These columns sit on a highly ornamented base; the flutings are fine and deep and the column is surmounted by a capital that curls over on each side, in an almost scroll like way known as volutes. It also contained highly ornamented bands, especially found around the base.  Ionic columns are found in the upper storey of the portico of the forum of Pompeii and on the colonnade surrounding the temple of Apollo. The final style of Greek column found in Pompeii is the Corinthian column. This column was developed from the Hellenistic architecture and has a small connection to Corinth. This style was first found in Arcadia, Athens and Asia Minor. It was fluted like the ionic and its columns were topped by a capital which is like a bunch of vegetation, particularly the acanthus leaves and was sometimes curled like volutes. This style is also very elaborately carved and is very finely worked. The Corinthian columns are found in the Temple of Fortuna Augusta, the Temple of Apollo, peristyle gardens in private homes. Another building which employs these styles of Greek columns is the Basilica. It contains a portico which is surrounded by four Ionic columns on its south west corner of the forum. The body of the building is also divided by twenty eight fluted Ionic columns, eleven metres high. The side walls were punctuated by ionic half columns. These courtyards were also adopted from the Greeks as many private Greek homes had this open aired courtyard/room in which the family could relax.  

Finally, Pompeian art such as mosaics, frescos and statues were also heavily influenced by the Greek and Egyptians. Although the Romans did not copy the Greeks and Egyptians artistic style directly, they copied many famous scenes images from each respecting countries culture, religion, history and everyday life.  The many statues that were thought to be located in Pompeii before the eruption in AD79 were influenced by the Greeks style of statues. The Romans, however, perfected this style and made it appear more life like, but kept to the major theme of Greek statuary. The Roman statues focussed on the portrayal of the heroes of Greek mythology such as Hercules and various Gods and Goddesses such as Apollo and his sister Diana/Artemis. The statue of Apollo and Diana can be found at the sanctuary of Apollo (located inside the temple).These statues were made of bronze and showed Apollo and Diana in their archer god guises. There were also many Greek and Egyptian inspired mosaics and frescos found throughout Pompeii, both in public and private homes. Although these mosaics were popular throughout Rome many were imported from Greece itself as the actual production was very time consuming and expensive. In Pompeii the finest mosaics were first prefabricated in Greece before being sent to Pompeii. When they arrived at the city the local tilers would embed them into the floors. Many of these mosaics, particularly those found in Pompeii were placed into the floors of the house itself. The theatre displayed many paintings which were of a Greek style, they also displayed many performances and events which were not shown or played at the theatre or were very different from the actual performances.

One very famous mosaic is found in the House of the Fawn and depicts the battle of Alexander and Darius. Although this is only a replica of the original which is said to be found at Vergina in Greece, Pliny described it as being ‘’In great detail and depth.’’6 It was constructed with two thousand miniscule pieces of tile known as tesserae. Many mosaics and frescos found in Pompeii did not portray or show the everyday life of the city, instead it showed many Greek past times and the admiration and interest that the Romans had with the Greek culture itself. Some of the earliest Greek mosaics found in Pompeii date back to the 6th century BC. These mosaics are known as pebble mosaics and were not only designed to decorate the floor, but to also protect it from rubbish and food. Unfortunately, many of these mosaics and some later ones were often soiled or dirtied by dirty shoes or feet and by rubbish and food. The mosaics that were in particular danger of this happening were those found under tables and entrances. Mosaics were also used in the gardens of the private houses to create grottos. These grottos were usually decorated with shells and marine and sea inspired frescos and mosaics. Many leisure activities of the Greeks were also another popular theme found in the mosaics of Pompeii. Some examples of these included cock fighting, images of men playing games, theatre performances and sporting activities e.g. wrestling. The Egyptians also inspired many great Pompeian artworks. The House of the Large Fountain boasts Egyptian design such as its bird designs on mosaics. In another of Pompeii’s rich houses there is a mosaic showing an image of the Nile which includes exotic animals such as hippos, crocodile and ducks. Many other Egyptian inspired artworks also include exotic animals, particularly the lion, hippo, cobra, ibis, pygmies and crocodile. Unlike the Greeks however, many Egyptian mosaics do not portray everyday life, only their exotic animals, their gods, mythological tales and legends and fish. Most Egyptian decorations and artworks were also seen at the temple of Isis. Many of its decorations depict the foreignness of its goddess. Many paintings depicted Egyptian gods such as Anubis, Bes, Osiris, Harpocrates and Isis, the Egyptian landscapes including its many exotic creatures as well as tablets inscribed with genuine hieroglyphics.

In conclusion, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians were very influential in the planning, culture and everyday life in Pompeii. This was clearly seen in their contributions and influences in the areas of art, architecture and religion. Each culture was also particularly influential in its own specific areas. This was shown in the Greeks overall influence, from their gods to their mosaics and Egyptians with the cult of Isis and the mosaics depicting life on the Nile. This essay shows that not only did these two cultures highly influence the citizens lives at Pompeii, but they also influenced their actions, thoughts and ideas about their region and their time.


2 Pompeii and Herculaneum: Interpreting the evidence, Brian Brennan and Estelle Lazer, Ancient History Seminars, 2005, page 85

3 Pompeii and Herculaneum: Interpreting the evidence, Brian Brennan and Estelle Lazer, Ancient History Seminars, 2005, page 85

4 Pompeii and Herculaneum: Interpreting the evidence, Brian Brennan and Estelle Lazer, Ancient History Seminars, 2005, page 94




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