June 22, 2024

A bakery where enslaved people were imprisoned and exploited to produce bread has been discovered in the ruins of Pompeii in what has been described as the most shocking example of slavery in the ancient Roman city.

The cramped bakery with small windows barred with iron was part of a home that emerged during excavations in the Regio IX area of the Pompeii archaeological park in southern Italy.

The discovery provides more evidence on the daily life of Pompeii’s enslaved people, often forgotten about by historical sources but who made up most of the population and whose hard labour propped up the city’s economy as well as the culture and fabric of Roman civilisation.

The home is believed to have been undergoing renovations when it was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. But the remains of three victims were found in one of the bakery’s rooms in recent months, indicating the home still had occupants.

The site seen from above
The site seen from above. Photograph: Pompeii archaeological park

Markings used to coordinate the movement of enslaved workers and blind-folded animals were found on the bakery’s floor. The home was divided into a residential part adorned with lavish frescoes, and the bakery, where enslaved people were forced to grind the grain needed to produce bread. The bakery was cut off from the outside world, with the only exit leading to the main hall of the house.

“It is, in other words, a space in which we have to imagine the presence of people of servile status whose freedom of movement the owner felt the need to restrict,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of Pompeii archaeological park. “It is the most shocking side of ancient slavery, the one devoid of both trusting relationships and promises of manumission, where we were reduced to brute violence, an impression that is entirely confirmed by the securing of the few windows with iron bars.”

In 2021, a room that had been lived in by enslaved people containing three wooden beds, a chamber pot and a wooden chest was found in what had been a sprawling villa in Civita Giuliana, a suburb of ancient Pompeii. The remains of two victims, believed to have been a master and a person he enslaved, were found in the same villa a year earlier.

The partly mummified remains, including hair and bones, of a former enslaved person who had risen through the ranks were found in a tomb at the necropolis of Porta Sarno, one of the main gates into Pompeii, in 2021. The tomb is believed to date from the decade before the city was wiped out.

An exhibition dedicated to the enslaved people of Pompeii will begin at the archaeological park on 15 December.

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