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

terracotta planting pots

Temple groves had gardeners and personnel tending to them, but archaeological evidence for activity on their part is extremely rare anywhere. There is no written reference to temple gardeners in Pompeii, but there are archaeological traces of their work at the temple of Venus. Inter-cutting planting pits indicate that some trees had to be replaced in the same spot from time to time when they failed to flourish, and the negatives of wooden stakes driven into the ground or through buried plant pots reveal that trees or bushes occasionally were propped up when they needed support. Already in the nursery in which the trees for the sanctuary of Venus were raised, gardeners and plant specialists did what they could to ensure that the shoots and saplings would flourish. This is indicated by the fine and dark planting soil in the ceramic pots that had been fertilised with shells, fish vertebrae and the bones of juvenile pigs.

Broken terracotta planting pot

Located on the south-western edge of the city on a high terrace, the temple of Venus dominated the valley below, and it would have been one of the first buildings seen by anyone arriving from this direction. Approaching the sanctuary from this angle, the eye would have been drawn to the temple and the plantings that acted as a backdrop for the building on the north, west and east sides. This idea of a porticus triplex surrounding a sacred grove is attested in Italy around the mid-2nd c. B.C. at the sanctuary of Juno on the rim of a volcanic lake at Gabii near Rome. The Pompeian sanctuary is one of a larger group of impressive terrace sanctuaries in central Italy built between the late 2nd and mid-1st century B.C., such as those at Palestrina, Terracina, Nemi and Tivoli. At some of these sites there is evidence to suggest that the precincts were planted, but, apart from Gabii, nowhere are the archaeological remains as clear and extensive as at the temple of Venus in Pompeii. From the Augustan period, the design of formal plantings surrounded by a porticus triplex in sanctuary architecture crops up repeatedly in other locations throughout Italy and the Mediterranean.

View from the north across

Wall painting from a shop

In the early 1st century A.D., the temple and its porticoes were refurbished making use of marble. At the same time the temple garden was destroyed or intentionally abandoned, the courtyard now being paved with a layer of white mortar. The sanctuary may not have had a grove in this phase, but the remains of lead water pipes, masonry water tanks and the bases of monuments and statues (some connected to a water source) indicate that the courtyard clearly was a focus of religious veneration and social activity. Years later, in A.D. 62, Pompeii was badly hit by an earthquake, and most public and private buildings (including the temple of Venus) were destroyed or ruined. In the following years, the site was cleared for the reconstruction of the sanctuary and building work on the new temple foundations began. The excavations uncovered rare evidence for the work done in this final phase and for the appearance of a Roman construction site, complete with heaps of stone chips and architectural debris from the cutting of foundation blocks and the carving of columns and architectural decoration of white marble and votive monuments of coloured limestone imported from northern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. The temple was to be the biggest and finest yet on that site, however the sanctuary was never finished, nor was its sacred grove replanted, because Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79 before this could happen.

The investigations in the courtyard at the sanctuary of Venus give us important insight into the appropriation of urban space for a major building that was a religious centre and a political expression of the city´s new Roman identity after 80 B.C. In this context, the community´s use of religious space can be seen as a reflection of social and political circumstances in a state of flux. The Roman Venus honoured in her new temple, although she was the patron deity of the colonia and ancestral mother of the Romans, was a divinity with whom also the local Pompeians could identify because they had long revered a local version of Venus. In their veneration of this goddess the indigenous Pompeians and the incoming Roman colonists were united. The new landmark temple and the sacred grove of the city´s tutelary goddess symbolised both the political identity and the divine sanction of the community of Roman Pompeii.

Maureen Carroll
August 2008

We are grateful to the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei for permission to excavate and for continued interest. Financial support for the project was generously provided by the British Academy, the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust and the University of Sheffield. We thank colleagues from the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia and the Anglo-American Project in Pompeii for assistance on various levels. We gratefully acknowledge the work of a team of specialists who have contributed their expertise and time to the project: Hugh Willmott (site supervisor); Michele Forte (site supervisor); Glynis Jones (palaeobotany); Sarah Viner (osteology); Andrew Chamberlain (magnetometry); Oliver Jessop (plans and graphics); Jerneja Kobe (finds drawings) –all University of Sheffield; Robyn Veal (charcoal analysis, University of Sydney), Myles McCallum (ceramic analysis, University of St. Mary´s, Halifax), Giuseppe Montana (marble and limestone analysis, Università di Palermo), Michael Joachimski (marble stable isotopes, Universität Erlangen). Finally, we thank the undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Universities of Sheffield and Nottingham who dug and recorded the site.