In the ancient city of Pompeii, a recent uncovering reveals a disturbing chapter: a bakery where people were held against their will and forced to bake bread. This discovery is considered one of the most appalling instances of slavery in the history of the Roman era.
Forced slavery in Rome
In the southern Italian region of Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed a home with a tiny bakery. The cramped space had small windows, tightly sealed with iron bars, and became visible during excavations in the Regio IX area of the Pompeii archaeological park.
This finding adds to our understanding of the daily lives of Pompeii’s enslaved individuals. Historical records often overlook them, yet they constituted most of the population. Through their strenuous efforts, they not only sustained the city’s economy but also played a vital role in shaping the culture and structure of Roman civilization.
Eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the house
The house was likely undergoing renovations when the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred in AD79, leading to its destruction. Despite this upheaval, the discovery of three victims in one of the bakery’s rooms in recent months suggests that the home still harbored occupants during this tragic event.
Details of the bakery and insight into Roman slavery
On the bakery floor, archaeologists uncovered markings that were once used to organize the movements of enslaved workers and blindfolded animals.
The dwelling had two distinct sections: a residential area adorned with elaborate frescoes and the bakery where enslaved individuals toiled to grind the grain required for bread production. Notably, the bakery was isolated from the outside, with its sole exit leading to the main hall of the house.
In the words of Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the Pompeii archaeological park, “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.”
“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,” Zuchtriegel revealed.
More evidence of Roman slavery
In 2021, archaeologists discovered a room in Civita Giuliana, a suburb of ancient Pompeii, believed to have been occupied by enslaved individuals.
POMPEII: PRISON BAKERY EMERGES
In the floor are indentations to coordinate the movement of donkeys and enslaved workers. pic.twitter.com/32W0WFxZsu
— Pompeii Sites (@pompeii_sites) December 8, 2023
The room contained three wooden beds, a chamber pot, and a wooden chest, providing insight into the living conditions of those who were enslaved. A year earlier, in the same villa, the remains of two individuals were found. They are presumed to be a master and a slave.
In 2021, at the necropolis of Porta Sarno, one of the primary entrances to Pompeii, archaeologists uncovered the partially mummified remains, including hair and bones, of a former enslaved individual who had achieved a higher status. The tomb is thought to date back to the decade just before the city’s devastating event.
Starting on December 15th, an exhibition honoring the enslaved people of Pompeii will commence at the archaeological park.