Politics, cult and identity. Exploring the sacred grove of Venus in Roman Pompeii

Although a variety of written and pictorial sources attest to the existence of Roman temple groves in many places, they seldom have been investigated archaeologically. Only a very few are known from their physical remains, even in the fertile region around Vesuvius. Early excavators frequently were concerned primarily with uncovering walls and remains of buildings, not with investigating apparently empty and open spaces. But it is precisely open areas, especially around temples, where we should expect to find the preserved remains of gardens and groves buried in the subsoil.


The Pompeian sanctuary of Venus was first excavated around 1900, when the structural features of the site were cleared of ancient pumice and ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The focus of these and subsequent sporadic excavations was to reveal the architectural remains of the temple and the colonnades around it. No effort was made in the past to explore the sub-soil in the courtyard in search of evidence for a sacred grove.

The sacred grove surrounding the temple of the chief god or goddess of a Roman town could function almost asMaureen holding pot an abbreviated symbol for that town itself. The largest Roman temple in Pompeii, dedicated to the tutelary divinity of the city, could hardly have failed to possess a garden or grove, and, therefore, a research project was designed by the University of Sheffield to retrieve evidence for the date, layout and landscaping of this major sanctuary. Work began in 1998 and was completed in 2007.

Our investigations in the courtyard have contributed significantly to our knowledge of the use of urban space in Pompeii, the architectural development of the city, and the role of the sacred grove in cult practice. Unambiguous evidence for plantings was retrieved in all campaigns, clearly showing that the landscaping of the courtyard as a sacred grove was contemporaneous with the building of the temple and its surrounding porticoes. A preliminary report (Nemus Et Templum. Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, Pub.pdf) on the excavations of the temple grove was delivered in Rome in February 2007 at a conference on recent archaeological discoveries in Pompeii; this report has just appeared in print. The comprehensive publication of the results of all seasons of fieldwork and a discussion of all occupation phases is forthcoming. In the meantime, however, the following presents a brief synopsis of the results pertaining to that first and earliest phase of the Roman sanctuary.

Location of sanctuaryOur excavations indicate that vast deposits of soil and building debris were transported to the steeply sloping site to create a large level terrace for the first Roman sanctuary of Venus. Stratigraphy, context and artefactual evidence allow us to place this activity within a relatively precise framework. Pompeii became the Roman colony of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum in 80 B.C., nine years after it had been besieged and taken by the Roman general and dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Lead sling-shot was certainly used in this attack, and, along with stone balls fired by Sulla´s artillery, it is found in several areas inside the northern wall of the city where the siege was most fierce. Lead sling-shot was also found at the temple of Venus mixed in with the deposits of building rubble used to create the sanctuary terrace. This places the commencement of construction in the period after 89 and suggests that the rubble deposited for the terrace came from buildings that were damaged or destroyed in the Roman attack and subsequently demolished. The Roman sanctuary of Venus was open on the south with a view to the valley below, and the construction of a sanctuary with this design would have necessitated the removal of the old Samnite city wall on this side of the site. The decommissioning of the city walls took place after the Roman victory, and possibly only after the defeat of Spartacus in the Servile War (73-71 B.C.), so that the construction of the terrace sanctuary could not have occurred before that time. Finally, the ceramics retrieved from the temple terrace deposits confirm a post-colonial date for the structure, suggesting a date for the creation of the terrace shortly before or around the mid-1st century B.C. The tufa-built temple of the protectress of Roman Pompeii was inserted into the existing urban fabric of Pompeii around 50 B.C., and it became the principal sanctuary of the Roman city.

The sanctuary of venus

Clear and certain evidence was retrieved for the landscaping of the open courtyard between the temple and its surrounding porticoes in the 1st century B.C. This sacred grove of Venus was very much an `architectural´ grove in which alternating types of trees and bushes –possibly laurels, myrtles and roses- were planted in terracotta containers parallel to the water channel in front of the columns of the colonnades on three sides of the courtyard, the trees echoing the rhythms of the columns of the porticoes and visually highlighting the temple. It is fairly clear that the plantings at the temple of Venus constituted what Latin texts refer to as a nemus, a grove created or manipulated by man and furnished with sacred buildings and images.