House of Menander

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The House of Menander (Casa del Menandro) is an ancient Roman residential complex in Pompeii that was destroyed in the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius. The elaborate architecture and the rich decorations means the owner must have been a wealthy and influential aristocrat involved in politics, with great taste for art. The oldest part of the house consists of a relatively modest atrium with immediately surrounding rooms built in 250 BCE.

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Overview

The domus was brought back to light between the years 1926 and 1932 CE, the house of Menander is named after the portrait of the Greek dramatist Menander found on one of the walls of the house. With a ground area of 1,830 square meters the result of a long series of changes of from the third century BCE to the time of eruption, it is one of the city's richest houses. Its owner must have been an aristocrat involved in politics. The wall and floor decorations speak volumes about the owner's taste and lifestyle, but they also provide details about the art and skill of the painters and mosaicists active in Pompeii in the years just before the eruption of 79 CE.

The mosaics depicting a nilotic scene refers to the fabulous world of the pygmies, a theme that was especially popular in the Pompeiian figurative repertory. Here, the pygmies appear to be deformed, grotesque, short-legged with prominent buttocks and enlarged heads, and of different ages. They can be seen navigating on small river boats along the Nile, amidst animals and plants, situated not far from the banks of theriver. The theme chosen, expressed with a sense of irony in this case, harks back to a cycle of representations directly inspired by the Egyptian mythology that would be vary popular in Pompeii, especially after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE.

The absence of everyday usage objects, such as used for food and such, and the presence of building material and latest coin dated to 37 CE, implies the house may have been under renovations and may have only limited occupancy at the time of eruption.

Architecture

circa 180 BCE

Atrium and Tablinum
To the east lie the entrance, atrium and tablinum (business part) of the domus. About 100 years of its original construction the domus was modernised; tuff capitals were used for the entrance door and the tablinum. The walls of the atrium were painted in different colour and decorated with painted murals of various animals. The atrium also contains an impluvium, a basin in the middle of the floor to collect the rain water that would drip down from the central opening in the roof. The atrium is surrounded by chambers (possibly bedrooms called ala), of which two are accessible for the viewing.

Immediately to the south lies the tablinum, which connects the atrium to the peristyle courtyard. This is were the pater familias (male head of the household) would have conducted his business. This area usually would contain a table, hence the term tablinum.

circa 180 BCE

Triclinium
The triclinium in the house of Menander is the largest room in the entire residential complex and one of the largest dinning halls in the entire city of ancient Pompeii. The benches were arranged around a marble table on three sides.

circa 180 BCE

Chamber (Ala) D
The richly decorated chamber is located on the northern side of the atrium, facing the impluvium. The room contains frescoes each showing a scene from the Trojan War. On the rear wall of the chamber (ala), Cassandra, daughter of king Priam, is depicted trying to stop the Trojans from bringing the wooden horse in to the city. On the left wall, Cassandra is depicted being dragged away during the fall of Troy by Ajax the Lesser, while she clings to a wooden statue of Athena. On the right wall of the chamber, the death of Laocoon is depicted along with his children, by stangulation by a snake. He also tried to prevent the Trojans from bringing the Trojan Horse in to the city. During excavations an iron hinge and a gold coin were found here.

circa 180 BCE

Chamber
On the right wall, the "punishment of Dirce", from a play writen by tragedian Euripides is depicted.

circa 180 BCE

Northern Oecus
The northern oecus is located north-east of the tablinum and opens up towards the peristyle courtyard.

circa 180 BCE

Bath Complex
In the space to the west, elaborately decorated thermal baths were created, centred around a small 8-columned atrium. The lack of a bath in the caldarium suggests that it could not have been in use at the time of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

circa 180 BCE

Peristyle
The peristyle constructed during the Augustan period, when the domus was substantially modified. The peristyle was built using the space from the demolition of the adjacent residential buildings. The landscaping seen today is a modern installation, in antiquity the peristyle would have had a fountain and a small pool with a statuette of Apollo.

The imposing columns found in the peristyle of the Menander House exemplify the architectural characteristics of the Doric style, a derivative of the Classical Style that originated in ancient Greece. The prevalence of Greek architectural influences in Pompeian structures is to be expected, considering that Greek mariners had long utilized the port as a trading hub prior to the establishment of the city by the Oscans in the sixth century BCE.

Notable Frescos

circa 180 BCE

Mural of Menander
The property gained its name, "The House of Menander," due to the presence of a well-preserved fresco depicting the renowned ancient Greek playwright Menander in a small chamber adjacent to the peristyle. However, there is speculation that the depicted figure may not be Menander himself, but rather the house owner or an individual engrossed in reading works by Menander.

Human Remains

circa 180 BCE

Eighteen victims of the eruption were found in the house: two men and a woman in room 19, ten more in the corridor, two in room 43 (one on a bed) and three more in courtyard (thirty-four together with a skeleton of a dog). From the items found with the bodies (like lamp, pickaxes and shovels) in the corridor, it has been assumed that they may have been looting any treasures after the owners had left the house after the initial eruptions of pumice and were overtaken by the final eruptions, though they had missed the silver treasure.

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