Those who didn’t get pummeled by pumice stones died from the noxious gas clouds that erupted from the volcano. Or they suffered from both when surges of gas and debris spilled down the slopes of Mount Vesuvius as fast as 450 miles per hour, spreading disaster all the way to the Bay of Naples. Six pyroclastic surges over the course of two days in AD 79 didn’t just knock down the walls of lavish country homes—their impact flipped walls end over end. When the smoke cleared, nearly 30 feet of compressed ash covered the landscape around a spent Mount Vesuvius. Buried under it all were some of the most opulent Roman luxury villas in the region, including an estate called Oplontis.

Before the Blast

Back in Rome, no one would have bragged about owning the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis; the stodgy neighbors wouldn’t have approved of such lavish indulgence. But out in the country, vacation homes like the Villa of Poppaea could hold 100 rooms and sprawl across the area of three football fields. Away from the pressures of conservative Roman society, the villa owners could flaunt their wealth to their ostentatious friends and political cronies.

Marble—imported at great expense from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa—tiled the mosaic floors and formed statues of deities that stood near an enormous swimming pool. Plentiful wine and produce from the villa grounds, along with seafood from fish tanks probably installed at the water’s edge, fed visitors. Between meals, residents and guests could recline and contemplate the ornate mythological scenes painted on the walls.

Clockwise from top: A garden at the Oplontis villa; pragmatic paintings of “zebra” stripes that demarcated permissible routes for slaves throughout the villa; marble sculptures found during an early archaeological dig at the edge of the estate’s enormous pool; one of many elaborate paintings on the villa walls.

But around the corner from such intricate paintings, utilitarian “zebra” stripes patterned some walls. The stripes formed a sort of trail map that guided slaves toward paths where they could pass unseen while serving wealthy Romans in the villa. “The elites couldn’t have wonderful banquets with food just appearing out of the sky,” says Elaine Gazda, a professor of classical art and archaeology who spent several years conducting research at the ancient site of Oplontis. “The cooks in the kitchen, farmers, servers, entertainers—the people who helped the elites have their life of luxury and leisure—should get some credit here.”

Gazda helped piece together some jumbled fragments of a grand reception room painting that had been unearthed, stored, and recently rediscovered at the site. “It was like working on a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing,” she says. She’s expertly examined skilled paintings like those for research and display, but Gazda also includes mundane designs like the zebra stripes in her account of Oplontis, to gain and share a more complete understanding of the villa’s residents.

Slaves left few relics, and virtually no written records exist of their lives. Unlike the detailed wall paintings emblazoning most of the villa, the simple stripes in the slave quarters didn’t invite contemplation. Instead, the pattern encouraged viewers to move along; the design deterred servants from lingering.

It’s a familiar phenomenon, Gazda says—then and now. Rome’s “one percent” entertained guests at summer villas while the less fortunate slaved away on property they could never own.

Ancient jars lie stacked and ready for filling and shipment in the wine-bottling operation next to the villa. Pitch coated the inner surface of the jars as a leak-proof sealant, and some jars still held their original corks. Stacking filled containers upside down would have kept their corks wet and seals tight. L. Fergola (courtesy of the Oplontis Project)

Next door to the Villa of Poppaea, violent volcanic debris preserved industrious labor of a different sort. An adjacent building housed 1,200 large ceramic jars that lay stacked and ready to fill with wine for export. Merchants and slaves worked to bottle and ship huge volumes of wine—the equivalent of 40,000 of today’s wine bottles per load. The profits of this commercial enterprise, held in an ornate strongbox, may have helped to finance the extravagance of the villa.

Completely Leveled

Even the extraordinary privilege of villa owners couldn’t save them from the coming catastrophe.

Modern ruins of the wine-bottling enterprise next to the villa held a tangled heap of skeletons: victims of the volcano, probably slaves and wealthy villa residents alike, who seem to have died awaiting rescue by sea. One of them, a young pregnant woman buried with the skeleton of her fetus, hoped to escape with as much portable wealth as she could fit onto her body—bracelets, earrings, pendants, and other expensive jewelry. She died gripping a huge amount of money; just one of the 101 gold coins she carried could have financed almost a year of comfortable living.

They lived together and died together, the elite villa owners and their slaves, but they lived and died apart, too. Although 54 skeletons were exhumed from the rubble, some of them—unencumbered by gold, and so probably slaves—remain to this day in a far corner of the room at Oplontis, disintegrating in the modern air.

An Exhibit de Luxe

A trip to ancient Italy can start with a visit to LSA’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Elaine Gazda, in cooperation with the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii and the Oplontis Project at the University of Texas, has curated an exhibition featuring artifacts from the luxury villa and commercial site at Oplontis—the largest exhibit in the museum’s nearly 90-year history. Included among more than 200 objects on display are marble sculptures from the villa garden, some of the most valuable pieces of jewelry ever found in the Vesuvian region, a scale reproduction of a villa room, and an inlaid storage chest that held profits from the ancient winery on the estate. During scheduled times, visitors can explore a virtual 3D model of the entire Oplontis villa with an Oculus Rift headset.

Artifacts of luxury and leisure unearthed at Oplontis and currently displayed in the Kelsey Museum exhibition include gold earrings found among the skeletal remains of villa residents (left) and an elaborately inlaid strongbox that’s equipped with a complex combination-lock mechanism (right). Left: L. Fergola (courtesy of the Oplontis Project). Right: Courtesy of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Following the show at the Kelsey, which runs through May 15, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of the Rockies in Montana and the Smith College Museum of Art in Massachusetts.

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