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House of the Centenary

A wall painting in the House of the Centenary features the earliest known representation of Vesuvius

The House of the Centenary (Italian Casa del Centenario, also known as the House of the Centenarian) was the house of a wealthy resident of Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The house was discovered in 1879,[1] and was given its modern name to mark the 18th centenary of the disaster.[2] Built in the mid-2nd century BC,[3] it is among the largest houses in the city, with private baths, a nymphaeum,[4] a fish pond (piscina),[5] and two atria.[6] The Centenary underwent a remodeling around 15 AD, at which time the bath complex and swimming pool were added. In the last years before the eruption, several rooms had been extensively redecorated with a number of paintings.[7]

Although the identity of the house's owner eludes certainty, arguments have been made for either Aulus Rustius Verus or Tiberius Claudius Verus, both local politicians.[8]

Among the varied paintings preserved in the House of the Centenary is the earliest known depiction of Vesuvius,[9] as well as explicit erotic scenes in a room that may have been designed as a private "sex club".[10]


  • Site and features 1
  • Art 2
    • Mythological painting 2.1
      • Bacchus and Vesuvius 2.1.1
    • Theatre allusions 2.2
    • Erotic scenes 2.3
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4

Site and features

For the purposes of archaeological and historical study, Pompeii is divided into nine regions, each of which contains numbered blocks (insulae). Within a block, doorways are numbered in clockwise or counter-clockwise order;[11] the Centenary is numbered IX.8.3–6.[12] It belongs to the luxurious "tufa" period of Pompeiian architecture, characterized by the use of fine-grained gray volcanic tufa that was quarried around Nuceria.[13]

Of the two atria, the grander one leads to the most highly decorated rooms. The smaller atrium might have been for private family and service access.[14] The triclinium or dining room was situated so that the guest of honor could view the enclosed garden.[15] The dining room itself was decorated with vertical stalks entwined with tendrils on which birds perch, with leaf-adorned candelabra in the panels between.[16] The house had its own bakery, located in a cellar under the service quarters on the west side.[17]

Erotic painting on the wall of the "sex club", with damage revealing brickwork under the painted panels

A graffito in the latrine uses the rare word cacaturit[18] ("wants to shit") found also once in the Epigrams of Martial.[19] Another records a slave's bid for freedom: "Officiosus escaped on November 6 of the consulate of Drusus Caesar and M. Junius Silanus" (15 AD).[20]

It has been suggested that one secluded room (numbered 43), which was decorated with explicit scenes of female-male intercourse, functioned as a private "sex club." Guests would have entered the smaller, more private atrium, then passed down a corridor and through a triclinium and antechamber to reach it.[21] A few similar rooms in Pompeiian houses suggest that the intention was to create the ambience of a brothel in a home, for parties at which participants played the roles of prostitute or client, or for which actual prostitutes were hired to entertain guests.[22] A small opening oddly positioned in the wall may have been an aperture for voyeurism.[23] Other scholars categorize Room 43 simply as a bedroom (cubiculum), which often featured erotic imagery,[24] and find it unnecessary to conclude that sexual entertainment was offered to guests there.[25]


Painting of a fountain, from the nymphaeum

The House of the Centenary is known for its large and diverse collection of paintings in the Third and Fourth Pompeiian styles. The garden nymphaeum is a particularly rich example of combining painting with architectural elements to create the ambience of a country villa.[26] A body of water filled with a variety of fish and marine animals was "dramatically" painted on the parapet that encircled the four walls of the nymphaeum; several species are represented accurately enough to identify.[27] The lower part of the wall is painted to look like a balustrade with ivy growing on it, with birds and lizards below. Fountains with sphinx bases are painted within garden scenes to the sides, and the wall around the entrance depicts game parks; in the foreground is a real fountain, with a faux finish to look like rare marble, from which the water would have run down tiers into a basin.[28] Below the steps and above the garden pool, there was a painting of a river god crowned with reeds, no longer visible.[29] The composition has been characterized as a "grotesque potpourri", an assemblage of elements desirable because they represent the country villa lifestyle.[30] Here and in similarly decorated spaces in Pompeii, the owner is concerned with displaying size and quantity and not a harmonious whole.[31]

The room to the north of the peristyle featured delicate ivy and stylized flowering vines as decoration.[32] Ducks and lotus leaves also appear together as decorative motifs.[33] Grapes and viticulture appear throughout the house, as in a scene of cupids gathering grapes.[34] The hunting paintings are by the Pompeiian painter Lucius.[35]

Mythological painting

Mythological subjects include Theseus as victor over the Minotaur, Hermaphroditus and Silenus,[36] Hercules and Telephus, and of Orestes and Pylades before Thoas.[37] Another room features Selene and Endymion, a Venus Piscatrix ("Venus the Fisherwoman"), and "floating nymphs."[38]

Floating maenad

Bacchus and Vesuvius

A painting in the house's lararium, a shrine to the household gods the Lares, depicts Vesuvius as it may have looked before the eruption,[39] with a single vineyard-covered peak instead of the double-peak profile of today. Although some scholars reject the single-peak hypothesis,[40] the painting is generally regarded as the earliest known representation of the volcano,[41] even if it should not be taken as a record of what Vesuvius actually looked like.[42]

Literary sources also describe Vesuvius as covered in grape vines before the eruption. Plutarch says that vines had grown on it in the 1st century BC, when Spartacus and his fellow slaves had taken refuge there and cut them down to make rope ladders.[43] The description by the poet Martial evokes the painting, which shows vines on the slopes in quincunx arrangement:

Here Vesuvius is shaded green with vines; here the noble grape had exuded its juices in vats: these are the ridges which Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa.[44]

The unusual depiction of Bacchus gives him a body composed of grapes,[45] which may represent either the Aminaea variety grown in the area or the eponymous Pompeianum.[46] He carries a thyrsus and has a panther at his feet.[47] In the foreground is a crested and bearded serpent that embodies the Agathodaemon or Genius.[48]

Theatre allusions

Scene from Iphigenia in Tauris

Some of the mythological paintings, including one of Medea, are thought to represent scenes from the theatre. The painting of Hercules may be a scene from the Hercules Furens of either Seneca[49] or Euripides; the other figures would thus be Amphitryon, Megara, and Lycus.[50] A scene from Iphigenia in Tauris shows Pylades, Orestes, and Iphigenia.

Another theatrical reference is found in a graffito scrawled on the wall between the tepidarium (a bath maintained at a pleasantly warm temperature) and the caldarium (an environment more like a steam bath). Reading histrionica Actica,[51] "Actica the pantomime,"[52] the phrase has been interpreted as a record of fan infatuation, and perhaps an indication that the house hosted performances by theatre troupes.[53]

Erotic scenes

Pompeiian bedrooms were not infrequently decorated with scenes referring to lovemaking, sometimes explicitly human, and sometimes allusive and mythological.

Painting illustrating the uncommon "reverse upright Venus" position

One bedroom at the Centenary features a pair of scenes referring to love affairs between a mortal and a divinity: Selene and Endymion, and Cassandra with a laurel branch symbolizing her rejection of Apollo as a lover and his revenge.[54] The "sex club" has both: it is decorated with a painting of Hercules surrounded by amorini, as well two "pornographic" scenes (symplegma) similar to those found in brothels.[55] Roman "pornography" (literally "depiction of prostitutes") focuses on human figures in everyday settings, often with detailed and realistic bedding.[56]

Both pornographic images in Room 43 show a female-male couple with the woman on top, one facing the man, and the other in the less common "reverse upright Venus" position, facing away from the man. In the former image, both figures are nude, except that the woman's breasts are covered with a strapless "bra" (strophium); even in the most explicit depictions of sex acts in Roman art, the woman is often wearing the strophium.[57] The rarer "reverse upright Venus" position is more often found in scenes set in Nilotic Egypt.[58]


  1. ^ Massimiliano David, "A Chronology of the Excavations in Pompeii," in Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini (Getty, 2002, originally published in Italian 1997), p. 219.
  2. ^ August Mau, Pompeii: Its Life and Art, translated by Francis W. Kelsey (Macmillan, 1907), p. 348; Roger Ling, "A Stranger in Town: Finding the Way in an Ancient City," Greece & Rome 37 (1990), p. 204.
  3. ^ Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, "The Vesuvian Sites before A.D. 79: The Archaeological, Literary, and Epigraphical Evidence," in The Natural History of Pompeii (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 7; Jean Pierre Adam, Roman Building: Materials and Techniques (Routledge, 1999), p. 143.
  4. ^ James L. Franklin, Jr., Pompeis Difficile Est: Studies in the Political Life of Imperial Pompeii (University of Michigan Press, 2001), p. 147.
  5. ^ James Higginbotham, Piscinae: Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 22, 269.
  6. ^ Michele George, "Repopulating the Roman House," in The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 307; Adam, Roman Building, p. 618.
  7. ^ John R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 (University of California Press, 1998, 2001), p. 161.
  8. ^ Mau, Pompeii: Its Life and Art, p. 559, was a proponent of Claudius Verus, citing CIL IV.5229. Matteo Della Corte argued for Rusticus Verus, as discussed by Franklin, Pompeis Difficile Est, p. 134. Franklin finds Rusticus more likely than Claudius.
  9. ^ Annamaria Ciarallo, Gardens of Pompeii («L'Erma» di Bretschneider, 2001), p. 22; Haraldur Sigurdsson, "Mount Vesuvius before the Disaster," in The Natural History of Pompeii, p. 31.
  10. ^ Thomas A.J. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel (University of Michigan Press, 2004), pp. 164–165. The room is most often taken to be one of the bedrooms (cubicula), which are sometimes decorated with erotic art in private Roman houses.
  11. ^ Ling, "A Stranger in Town," p. 204.
  12. ^ Kathryn Gutzwiller, "Seeing Thought: Timomachus' Medea and Ecphrastic Epigram," American Journal of Philology 125 (2004), p. 376 (= Schmidt 13).
  13. ^ Jashemski, "The Vesuvian Sites before A.D. 79," p. 7.
  14. ^ George, "Repopulating the Roman House," p. 307; Adam, Roman Building, p. 618.
  15. ^ See a plan of the house with the view as construed by John R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration (University of California Press, 1991), p. 18.
  16. ^ Roger Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge University Press, 1991, 2006), p. 82.
  17. ^ James L. Franklin, Pompeii: The Casa del Marinario and Its History («L'Erma» di Bretschneider, 1990), p. 42.
  18. ^ CIL 4.5242.
  19. ^ Martial, 11.77: "In privies Vacerra consumes the hours; the whole day does she sit; Vacerra wants to dine, she does not want to shit (In omnibus Vacerra quod conclavibus / consumit horas et die toto sedet, / cenaturit Vacerra, non cacaturit); Craig Williams, A Martial Reader: Selections from the Epigrams (Bolchazy-Carducci, 2011), p. 124.
  20. ^ CIL IV.5214; Antonio Varone, "Voices of the Ancients: A Stroll through Public and Private Pompeii," in Rediscovering Pompeii («L'Erma» di Bretschneider, 1990), p. 33.
  21. ^ McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution, pp. 164–165; discussion of his theory of "sex clubs" in general at Pompeii, pp. 157–166, including literary evidence. McGinn finds the House of the Centenary along with the House of the Vettii to offer the best examples of potential sex-club facilities. See also Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, p. 161ff.
  22. ^ McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution, p. 158–159. Some houses had suites that may have functioned as actual brothels; these, however, were like an attached shop (taberna) that might be leased out for business. They lacked interior access to the house, and had only an entrance to the street to admit paying clients indiscriminately.
  23. ^ John Pollini, "The Warren Cup: Homoerotic Love and Symposial Rhetoric in Silver," Art Bulletin 81.1 (1999), pp. 39–40. Pollini describes the room as a "private brothel".
  24. ^ Nigel Spivey and Michael Squire, Panorama of the Classical World (Thames & Hudson, 2004), p. 56; William E. Dunstan, Ancient Rome (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), p. 262.
  25. ^ Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, p. 169.
  26. ^ Christine Kondoleon, Domestic and Divine: Roman Mosaics in the House of Dionysos (Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 321.
  27. ^ David S. Reese, "Marine Invertebrates, Freshwater Shells, and Land Snails: Evidence from Specimens, Mosaics, Wall Paintings, Sculpture, Jewelry, and Roman Authors," in The Natural History of Pompeii, pp. 275, 281–282, 284, 290, 302, 305, 309, 310; Liliane Bodson and David Orr, "Amphibians and Reptiles: Evidence from Wall Paintings, Mosaics, Sculpture, Skeletal Remains, and Ancient Authors," in The Natural History of Pompeii, pp. 330, 333, 338, 340, 342.
  28. ^ Paul Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider (Harvard University Press, 1998, originally published 1995 in German), p. 189.
  29. ^ Wilhemina F. Jashemski, Frederick G. Meyer, and Massimo Ricciardi, "Plants: Evidence from Wall Paintings, Mosaics, Sculpture, Plant Remains, Graffiti, Inscriptions, and Ancient Authors," in The Natural History of Pompeii, p. 91.
  30. ^ Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, p. 189.
  31. ^ Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, pp. 189–190.
  32. ^ Jashemski, Meyer, and Ricciardi, "Plants," in The Natural History of Pompeii, p. 113.
  33. ^ Jashemski, Meyer, and Ricciardi, "Plants," in The Natural History of Pompeii, p. 131.
  34. ^ Jashemski, Meyer, and Ricciardi, "Plants," in The Natural History of Pompeii, p. 172.
  35. ^ Lawrence Richardson, A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters of Ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 149.
  36. ^ Richardson, A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters, p. 104.
  37. ^ James Zetzel, "Plato with Pillows: Cicero on the Uses of Greek Culture," in Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome: Studies in Honour of T.P. Wiseman (University of Exeter Press, 2003), p. 118.
  38. ^ Lawrence, A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters, p. 168.
  39. ^ Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, "Recently Excavated Gardens and Cultivated Land of the Villas at Boscoreale and Oplontis," in Ancient Roman Villa Gardens (Dumbarton Oaks, 1987), p. 33.
  40. ^ Ernesto De Carolis and Giovanni Patricelli, Vesuvius, A.D. 79: The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (Getty Publications, 2003), p. 42.
  41. ^ Annamaria Ciarallo, Gardens of Pompeii («L'Erma» di Bretschneider, 2001), p. 22.
  42. ^ De Carolis and Patricelli, Vesuvius, A.D. 79, p. 45.
  43. ^ Plutarch, Life of Crassus 9.2, as cited by David Sider, The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Heculaneum (Getty Publications, 2005), p. 12. Vergil also mentions the vines on the slopes of Vesuvius at Georgics 2.221–224, as cited by Colin Wells, The Roman Empire (Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 182.
  44. ^ Martial 4.44.1–3: Hic est pampineis viridis modo Vesbius umbris, / presserat hic madidos nobilis uua lacus: / haec iuga quam Nysae colles plus Bacchus amavit; Jashemski, "Recently Excavated Gardens," p. 33.
  45. ^ De Carolis and Patricelli, Vesuvius, A.D. 79, p. 43; Jashemski, "Recently Excavated Gardens," p. 33.
  46. ^ Originally known as Murgentina; Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City (St. Martin's Press, 2005), p. 242.
  47. ^ Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Blackwell, 1996, originally published 1951 in French), p. 74.
  48. ^ Colin Amery and Brian Curran, The Lost World of Pompeii (Getty Publications, 2002), p. 68.
  49. ^ Michael Elliot Rutenberg, Oedipus of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Bolchazy-Carducci, 1998), p. 28; Éric Csapo, "Mise en scène théâtrale, scène de théâtre artisanale: les mosaïques de Ménandre à Mytilène, leur contexte social et leur tradition iconographique," in De la scène aux gradins: théâtre et représentations dramatiques après Alexandre le Grand (Presses universitaires du Miral, 1997), pp. 169, 178.
  50. ^ Ling, Roman Painting, p. 159.
  51. ^ CIL 4.5233; John H. Starks, Jr., "Pantomime Actresses in Latin Inscriptions," New Directions in Ancient Pantomime (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 130–131.
  52. ^ The phrase has been read in various ways; Actica may not be a proper name as such, but an adjectival name of the troupe. As the feminine form of histrio (originally actor, but by this time pantomime), histrionica is a hapax legomenon; Slater, "Pantomime Actresses," p. 131.
  53. ^ Slater, "Pantomime Actresses," p. 132.
  54. ^ Verity Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 373.
  55. ^ Lawrence, A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters, p. 143.
  56. ^ McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World, p.112ff.
  57. ^ Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking, p. 73. Fuller description by Clarke, p. 161ff.
  58. ^ Paul G.P. Meyboom and Miguel John Versluys, "The Meaning of Dwarfs in Nilotic Scenes," in Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World. Proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Leiden, May 11–14, 2005 (Brill, 2007), p. 188.

Further reading

  • Lawrence Richardson, Pompeii: An Architectural History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 126–127.
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