A prison-bakery discovered in Pompeii where slaves were exploited | Culture

An image of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii, on December 8.
An image of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii, on December 8.POMPEI ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK (via REUTERS)

The latest discovery in Pompeii shows the cruelest side of Ancient Roman society. Archaeologists excavating at the site have found a disconcerting sight that attests to the horrendous conditions in which slaves lived two millennia ago: a bakery-prison, a narrow and unhealthy space where enslaved people lived poorly and worked to the point of exhaustion. next to a herd of donkeys.

The tiny windows that have been found in the room, pierced by iron bars, let in little light and did not open to the outside, but rather to another room in the house. Inside, enslaved men and women and animals lived, slept, and ground grain to make bread together.

The donkeys had to walk in a circle for hours, both day and night, blindfolded, to move the millstone, accompanied by a person who, in addition to pushing the grindstone, had to goad the animal and supervise the grinding process. grinding, adding grain and taking out the flour when needed. The notches that were made to prevent the beasts from slipping and that, at the same time, traced a kind of circular route are still preserved in the pavement.

The management of the Pompeii archaeological park has explained that the brutality of working conditions in the mills of antiquity was already documented in the work The golden donkeyalso known as the Metamorphosis by the writer Apuleius, who lived in the 2nd century AD In this Latin novel, the popular author narrates the adventures of Lucius, transformed into a donkey and sold to a miller, and describes in horrible detail the deplorable conditions in which the slaves of the mills, “evidently based on direct knowledge of similar contexts,” as a statement points out.

Detail of the interior of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii.
Detail of the interior of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii. POMPEI ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK (via REUTERS)

Apuleius outlines the terrible existence of the slaves: “With their skin all marked with dark bruises, their backs bruised by blows, over which a ragged cloth rather than covering, cast a shadow; some only wore a piece of thin cloth around their private parts, and all of them were dressed in such a way that through those rags everything could be seen, their foreheads were marked with letters, their heads were shaved in the middle. and their feet were chained, and they were disfigured by paleness and with their eyelids consumed by the misty darkness of that dark and smoky environment and for this reason they saw very poorly. And he continues: “Like boxers who fight all spattered with dust, they were disgustingly covered in the white of that floury dust.”

The writer also details the state of the animals: “What decrepit mules, what exhausted nags! Standing around the manger, with their heads buried in piles of crushed straw, their necks bent with the putrefaction of the sores, their soft nostrils wrinkled with incessant coughing, their chests ulcerated by the continuous rubbing against the rope belt, their ribs exposed almost to the bone by the endless blows, the hooves stretched excessively by running without rest, and all the leather damaged by a crust of dirt.

In Pompeii they point out that the new discovery allows us to better understand the practical functioning of the mill, which, although it was disused at the time of the eruption, “provides timely confirmation of the disconcerting picture painted by Apuleius.”

The discovery, like the most recent ones, contributes to offering an interdisciplinary reading of the ancient city and the complex stratification of Pompeian society, where the majority of citizens belonged to the lower classes. “This is a space in which you have to imagine the presence of people of servile status whose freedom of movement the owner restricted. It is the most shocking face of ancient slavery, the one that lacks relationships of trust and promises of emancipation, where people were reduced to the most brutal violence, an impression that is fully confirmed by the closing of the few windows with bars. of iron,” says the director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park Gabriel Zuchtriegel, in a scientific article. And he reflects: “At the end of the day, it is spaces like this that also help to understand why there were those who considered it necessary to change that world and why in the same years a member of a small religious group called Paul, later sanctified, wrote that it is better that we all be servants, douloi which means slaves, but not of an earthly master, but of a heavenly one.”

Another image of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii.
Another image of the prison-bakery found in Pompeii. POMPEI ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK (via REUTERS)

The bakery emerged during the excavation of a larger dwelling that has already brought some surprises for archaeologists, including a fresco that appears to show a dough that looks remarkably similar to a modern-day pizza. The bakery is behind the wall with the fresco.

In another room of the house, which contained the lararium, a type of domestic altar, excavations uncovered a series of political inscriptions, the ancient equivalent of today’s manifestos and election posters. The texts invited Aulus Rustius Verus to vote, candidate for aedile, a position in Ancient Rome that controlled, among other things, public works. Scientists believe that the house probably belonged to a supporter of the candidate, possibly one of his freedmen.

Excavations suggest that the house was in the middle of renovation when Vesuvius erupted, and that the bakery was probably not in service at the time. Although the bodies of three victims of the eruption of Vesuvius have appeared in one of the rooms of the facility, confirming that, despite the ongoing renovation, the house was not uninhabited.

Since excavations began in the 18th century, Pompeii, buried by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD under tons of lapilli, ash and rock, which helped preserve it, has continued to provide valuable data on life and customs. of its former inhabitants.

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