Pompeii and Herculaneum were heavily influenced by other cultures, particularly that of Greece. The Greek connection was a result of the establishment of Greek colonies in southern Italy in the 6th and 7th centuries. Rome further absorbed Greek culture as a result of trade with Greece and, ultimately, by conquering it in the second century BC.
Herculaneum derived its name from the Greek god Herakles, known as Hercules to the Romans. According to legend, Hercules passed through Campania on one of his epic journeys, and founded Pompeii. Statues of him have been found in both cities.
Greek was spoken by many people in Pompeii and Herculaneum, as evidenced by the number of inscriptions and the amount of graffiti found in Greek. No Roman was regarded as truly educated unless he spoke Greek.
Greek literature, drama, comedy and philosophy was very influential in the Roman Empire. This is evidenced by the discovery of carbonised papyri containing the writings of the Greek philosopher Philodemus in the Villa della Papiri in Herculaneum.
Egyptian influence on Pompeii and Herculaneum was far less than Greek influence. It mainly manifested itself at the fringes of art and religion.
It should be noted that some Greek influence entered the Roman world via Egypt, since Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.
Pompeian and Herculanean art had many influences – Greek, Etruscan and Egyptian being the main ones.
An example of Greek influence is the famous mosaic found in the House of the Faun. It depicts Alexander the Great fighting King Darius of Persia at the Battle of Issus. It is quite possibly a copy of a Greek painting from the Hellenistic period. (The Hellenistic period is the era that followed the death of Alexander. It came to an end with the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC and of Egypt in 30 BC.)
Also found in the House of the Faun was a fresco depicting animals and plants on the bank of the Nile River. Such scenes have been found elsewhere in Pompeii, as well as depictions of sphinxes and Isis symbols.
The Egyptian influence in Pompeii may have resulted from the influx of Egyptian craftsmen following Rome’s conquest of Egypt at the end of the 1st century BC. It may also have resulted from trade links between the city and Alexandria, Egypt’s port city.
Roman architecture were heavily influenced by its Greek counterpart. High ceilings, wide atriums and perestyles, and large gardens were all Greek in origin. The use of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns was also borrowed from Greece. For example, Doric columns are present in the House of the Tragic Poet, Ionic columns surround the Temple of Apollo and Corinthian columns are in the peristyles of private homes in Pompeii.
Many of these influences arrived in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the end of the 2nd century BC. Many of the great houses were rebuilt at this time, based on Greek designs.
The theatres and palestrae in Pompeii were based on Greek models.
Pompeii’s geometric grid was devised by the Greek architect Hippodamus.
Rome got many of its gods from the Greek pantheon. Those with a direct Greek counterpart include Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Minerva (Athena), Apollo (same name in Greek), Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite).
Foreign cults were also present in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The two main such cults were those of the Greek god Dionysis (the god of wine) and the Egyptian god Isis. Both offered a more personal, demonstrative form of worship.
Those worshipping Dionysis devoted themselves to partying and drinking.
Isis offered happiness, salvation and relief from suffering, so was popular with slaves.