It was a narrow room with no exterior views, featuring small windows with iron bars for light. Notches on the floor coordinated the movement of the animals, forced to walk for hours with blindfolds.
The facility was unearthed in Regio IX, insula 10, as part of ongoing excavations in a broader project to secure and preserve the fronts surrounding the still unexplored area of the ancient city of Pompeii.
Research has revealed a house undergoing renovation, subdivided into a residential area adorned with refined fourth-style frescoes and a productive room dedicated to bread production.
Despite the ongoing renovation, three victims had already been found in one of the bakery rooms in recent months, confirming that the dwelling was far from uninhabited.
A photograph/testimony depicts the harsh work to which men, women, and animals were subjected in ancient millbread factories. Fortunately, we have an exceptional source in the writer Apuleius, who lived in the 2nd century AD. In his Metamorphoses IX 11-13, he recounts the experience of the protagonist Lucius, transformed into a donkey and sold to a miller, drawing on direct knowledge of similar contexts.
The new discoveries also provide a better understanding of the practical functioning of the production plant, which, although unused at the time of the eruption, offers timely confirmation of the disconcerting picture painted by Apuleius.
The production area revealed lacks doors and communication with the outside; the only exit leads to the atrium. Not even the stable has a driveway, as is common in other cases. In other words, it is a space where the presence of servile individuals whose freedom of movement the owner felt the need to restrict must be imagined, notes director Gabriel Zuchtriegel.
It is the most shocking aspect of ancient slavery, one that lacked trust and promises of manumission, where one was reduced to brute violence, a impression fully confirmed by the closure of the few windows with iron bars.
The millstone area, located in the southern part of the central room, adjoins the stable, characterized by the presence of a long trough.
Around the millstones, a series of semicircular recesses are identified in the volcanic basalt slabs. Given the material’s high resistance, what might initially appear as “tracks” are likely carvings made specifically to prevent draft animals from slipping on the floor and at the same time trace a path, forming a “circular groove” (curva canalis), as described by Apuleius.
Iconographic and literary sources, particularly the reliefs from the tomb of Eurysaces in Rome, suggest that a millstone was typically operated by a pair consisting of a donkey and a slave.
The latter, in addition to pushing the grindstone, had the task of encouraging the animal and monitoring the grinding process, adding grain and removing flour.
The wear on the different grooves can be attributed to the endless, repetitive revolutions according to the pattern traced on the floor. More than a groove, one might think of it as the gearing of a clock mechanism, designed to synchronize the movement around the four millstones concentrated in this area.
The resurfaced environment, with its testimony to the harsh daily life, completes the narrative presented in the exhibition “The Other Pompeii: Common Lives in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” which will open on December 15th in the Large Palestra of Pompeii. It is dedicated to the myriad of individuals often forgotten in historical chronicles, such as slaves, who constituted the majority of the population and whose work was a significant contribution to the economy, as well as the culture and social fabric of Roman civilization.
After all, adds the director, it is spaces like these that also help us understand why some felt the need to change that world and why in the same years a member of a small religious group called Paul, later sanctified, wrote that it was better for all to be servants, douloi meaning slaves, but not of an earthly master, but of a celestial one.”
Parco Archeologico di Pompei | Gennaro Iovino, Alessandra Marchello, Ausilia Trapani, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, La disciplina dell’odiosa baracca: la casa con il panificio di Rustio Vero a Pompei (IX 10,1)
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