Museum  February 23, 2021  Christopher Siwicki

Pompeii Exhibit in Rome’s Colosseum Asks Important Questions

Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki.

Bust of Tiberius. Colosseum, Rome.

As Rome again emerges from lockdown and the city’s archaeological sites and museums reopen, a new exhibition is on show at the Colosseum. Rome’s famous amphitheater is host to Pompei 79 d.C. Una Storia Romana (curated by Mario Torelli), which explores the relationship between the capital of the Roman empire and the ancient town of Pompeii.

Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki. 

Bust of Caecilius. Colosseum, Rome.

The exhibition poses the question of how to compare the two most famous archaeological sites in Italy, Rome and Pompeii. In some ways, the differences are glaring: Rome was a vast metropolis with a population of approximately a million people, while Pompeii was a provincial town with an estimated twelve to fifteen thousand inhabitants. Yet, by examining cultural and artistic trends, the exhibition highlights a remarkable number of connections and similarities between the sites.

The exhibition’s narrative follows a series of key events, some of which work better with the overall theme than others. An emphasis on the Italian Social War of 91-87 BC makes complete sense, as it was after this that Pompeii became a colony of Rome, thereby dramatically transforming its relationship to the capital. It also underscores the fact that before this date Pompeii was a Samnite not a Roman settlement, with distinct institutions and language (Oscan not Latin). However, it is less obvious why the earthquake at Pompeii in AD 62 is given similar attention. This event was certainly important to Pompeii and the surrounding area, as it led to a massive program of rebuilding but its relevance to the city of Rome could be explained further.

Throughout the exhibition, other topics are similarly lacking. To illustrate Pompeii’s trade network, the exhibition reconstructs a cross-section of an ancient ship packed with amphorae. These terracotta storage vessels were used to transport wine produced in the fertile soil around the bay of Naples to other parts of the Roman Empire and constituted a central part of the local economy. The display is well done, but more could be said about the movement of goods between Pompeii, Rome, and the wider world. The potential scope of this topic is even indicated by the presence of a small ivory statuette of an Indian deity, which had traveled thousands of miles to somehow end up in a Pompeian house.

Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki.

Ship with amphorae. Colosseum, Rome.

As usual in exhibitions about Pompeii, the colorful fresco paintings are among the standout objects. Particularly beautiful is a panel from the 'House of Meleager’, which depicts a veiled woman emerging from the door of an elaborate building. Details of the scene such as columns, doorframe, and steps are rendered in stucco, which gives the picture a three-dimensional quality.

Two rarely seen frescos of processions can also be found on display. One shows a group of men in ceremonial robes leading a ram to be sacrificed. The other depicts four men hefting a model with representations of figures engaged in woodworking and is known as the procession of the carpenters.

fresco from pompeii featured in 2021 colosseum exhibition
Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki.

Pompeian Fresco. Colosseum, Rome.

Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki. Pompeian Fresco of sacrificial procession. Colosseum, Rome.
Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki.

Pompeian Fresco of sacrificial procession. Colosseum, Rome.

Pompeian Fresco of the procession of the carpenters. Colosseum, Rome.
Courtesy of Christopher Siwicki.

Pompeian Fresco of the procession of the carpenters. Colosseum, Rome.

There is something about ancient bronze statuary that commands attention. Perhaps it is the material itself, the quality of the artistry, or its rarity. In the exhibition, there are three exceptional bronze pieces. The first is a bust of the goddess Diana (Artemis) in the act of firing a bow. While her hands and bow are lost, the black and white glass eyes are still in place. Discovered in the precinct of the temple of Apollo in Pompeii (where a replica can now be found), the statue dates to the second century BC and is evidence of artistic influences from the Greek world.

On display also is a bronze bust of Tiberius, Rome’s second emperor. The portrait shows him as a youth before his ascension to power and it illustrates the omnipresence of the imperial family in towns across the Empire. The third bronze bust, of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, could scarcely contrast further from the idealized, youthful image of Tiberius. With a wrinkled brow, crow’s feet, and a distinctive wart on his left cheek, Caecilius is depicted in the naturalistic, veristic manner.

Pompei 79 d.C. Una Storia Romana asks an interesting and ambitious question, but it never quite goes far enough in exploring the relationship and comparisons between Rome and Pompeii. That said, the objects on display are superb and, given the difficulties of the last year, it is fantastic that such a show is now on.

41.8899435, 12.4943371

Pompei 79 dC Una Storia Romana
Start Date:
February 9, 2021
End Date:
May 9, 2021
About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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