An ornate house – containing a fresco of a huge phallus – that belonged to two men freed from slavery in the ancient city of Pompeii has reopened to the public.
The House of Vettii was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 before being rediscovered in a largely preserved state during excavations at the end of the 19th century.
The house, believed to have been built in the 2nd century BC, has reopened after years of complex restoration work.
Located in the wealthy quarter of the ancient city, the Vettii’s vast house belonged to Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, who became wealthy selling wine after being freed from slavery.
Past theories have suggested the pair were brothers, but it’s more likely that they met while enslaved and had the same master, whose name was Aulus Vettius, according to Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the archaeological park of Pompeii.
“If they were from the same family, the first two names would have been different and they would have the same last name,” he said. “It was rare to have biological siblings who were slaves and then freed, as family ties were severed with slavery, so it’s highly unlikely they were brothers. They’re more likely to have been friends during their period of slavery, then that they were freed.
Restitutus, meaning “to return,” was a typical name given to a freed slave, Zuchtriegel said.
It was not uncommon for people freed from slavery to prosper in ancient Pompeii, and the Vettii’s house was filled with elegant frescoes by the two wine merchants, who also extended the house to include a garden with statues and a fountain.
Among the most striking frescoes is one at the entrance to the house: this depicts Priapus, the god of fertility and abundance, with a large penis balanced on a scale next to a a bag filled with money, supposed to have symbolized the wealth accumulated by Men.
Inside the house is a 15cm high frieze that runs along the wall of a room that would have been a dining room, which features loves engaged in activities such as making perfume or selling wine. It also depicts divine couples and gods, including Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.
A small room near the kitchen, which contains erotic frescoes, is said to have been used as a brothel. Next to Priapus at the entrance is a small Latin inscription that refers to a woman with a Greek name, described as having “beautiful manners”, alongside a picture of two Roman coins. It is believed that the inscription referred to the small brothel in the house.
Aulus Vettius Restitutus also joined the high-ranking Augustales, a college of priests who were in charge of a form of emperor worship.
Zuchtriegel said the abundance of treasures contained in the House of the Vettii is “absolutely astonishing” and if he were a visitor to Pompeii and had the opportunity to see just one house in the archaeological park, it would be this one.
“It is the house that tells the story of Roman society,” he said. “On the one hand you have the works of art, the paintings and the statues, and on the other you have the social history [of the freed slaves]. The house is one of the few in Pompeii for which we have the names of the owners.”